Saturday, 31 July 2010

Hot Fuzz

12. Hot Fuzz (2007)
Dir: Edgar Wright

The spoof is one of the hardest movie genres to pull off successfully. In recent years the most commercially successful spoofs have been the barrage of utter shit unleashed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, mean-spirited little films that string together bad taste, lowest-common-denominator gags and sneer at the movies they are mocking. In order to successfully spoof something, however, the spoof itself must be of a decent enough quality to earn the right to mock. The movies I mentioned above, a seemingly neverending string of dreck with titles like 'Date Movie' (2006) , 'Epic Movie' (2007), 'Disaster Movie' (2008), etc., come nowhere near earning this right and are generally considered to be below contempt, cyncial moneymakers aimed at 16 year old boys who still think farts and the fact that some people are gay are the funniest things in the world.

There are better spoofs to be found in the movies that inspired these recent abominations, like the works of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker ('Airplane' (1980), 'The Naked Gun' (1988)) or Mel Brooks ('Blazing Saddles' (1974), 'Young Frankenstein' (1974)) but even some of these critically respected films have not aged brilliantly and feature more than their fair share of questionable taste gags (David Zucker ultimately went on to direct a couple of the dire 'Scary Movie' films).

My favourite of the films listed above is 'Young Frankenstein' because it shows enormous affection for its source material and Mel Brooks has, despite groaners by the barrow-load, made a film that plays like a proper movie and not just a very long sketch. All this is important in understanding what puts Edgar Wright's 'Hot Fuzz', and its predecessor 'Shaun of the Dead' (2004), head and shoulders above most other spoofs you'd care to mention. Wright and his writing partner, Simon Pegg (also star of both movies), have crafted immaculate spoofs of the horror and the action genre but at no point do they sneer or deride the films that inspired them. What drives 'Shaun of the Dead' and 'Hot Fuzz' is a real affection, love and awe for the films they parody. Wright and Pegg are obviously huge fans of the movies they spoof and that is why they are able to capture their characteristics so impeccably. Both films are as much homage (perhaps even more so) as they are spoofs.

Crucially, Wright and Pegg have also pulled out all the stops in order to make high quality, entertaining films that do not just rely on corny gag after corny gag for their appeal. Strong stories are apparent in both films, as well as real heart. No matter how much anyone might love 'Airplane' or 'Blazing Saddles', few would ever say that they felt any emotional connection with the characters or cared what happened to them at the end (a luxury that allows 'Blazing Saddles' to end with an outrageous, fourth-wall-busting deus ex machina). That's fair enough, as that was never the point of these films, but Wright and Pegg have taken the spoof to new heights by introducing emotional involvement and character development into films that still burst at the seams with brilliant jokes as well.

While 'Shaun of the Dead' remains the most popular of the two films (thanks largely to the enormous cult following the Horror genre inspires) and would certainly merit inclusion on this list, I have chosen to focus entirely on 'Hot Fuzz', the main reason being that I think it totally blows its predecessor out of the water. There are many references to 'Shaun of the Dead' sprinkled throughout 'Hot Fuzz' from the obvious (a replaying of the famous fence-jumping scene) to the blink-and-you'll-miss-it (a copy of the 'Shaun of the Dead' dvd is visible in a supermarket bargain bin during the film), but the most obvious connection is the casting of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in lead roles that are the antithesis of the roles they played in the previous film. Pegg's hopeless, irresponsible Shaun is replaced by the serious, methodical young police officer Nicholas Angel while Nick Frost's dreadful, vulgar slob Ed becomes the sweet-natured, childlike Danny Butterman (although he does share Ed's rate of alcohol consumption).

The plot follows Nicholas Angel's unwanted transfer from London to rural Gloucestershire and the small village of Sandford, where he encounters a series of oddball locals who appear friendly but are also prone to the small breaches of the law that Angel cannot abide. These small breaches escalate into something more sinister when a series of grisly murders begin to occur but Angel has a hard time convincing anyone, least of all his fellow officers, that the slaughters are more than unfortunate accidents. As the plot unfolds, Wright and Pegg keep a tight hold of the reins so that by the time of the revelations about the killer's identity 'Hot Fuzz' manages to have its cake and eat it by playing up both the ridiculous and series side of the plot simultaneously, culminating in an utterly electrifying action-packed climax which references scores of action films.

I have never been a big fan of the action genre as such but, unlike the previously mentioned spoof films which assume some knowledge of their source material from the audience, it is quite possible to enjoy both 'Shaun of the Dead' or 'Hot Fuzz' without any knowledge of what's being parodied at all. It isn't just action films that are alluded to either. Right of the bat there are references to all sorts of classic movies from 'The Shining' to 'Chinatown', not to mention a few little nods to 'The Simpsons'. But 'Hot Fuzz' also references and spoofs itself (a brilliant trick also used in 'Shaun of the Dead'), recycling dialogue from earlier in the film in totally different contexts later on. This nifty technique, coupled with the enormous number of references and little jokes you can easily miss, makes 'Hot Fuzz' one of the most rewatchable films I can think of. The other reason for this, of course, is that it is just very, very funny.

The quality of Wright and Pegg's script is borne out in the amazing cast they have put together. British viewers in particular will have a great time spotting the well-known faces in this virtual who's-who of UK comedy. I won't spoil the fun by listing all the famous people who crop up throughtout 'Hot Fuzz' but I must make special mention of two hilarious performance: Jim Broadbent as Inspector Frank Butterman (Danny's dad and Angel's boss) and a gloriously diabolical Timothy Dalton as supermarket owner Simon Skinner. The film also boasts a fantastic soundtrack featuring the likes of The Kinks, XTC, Supergrass and T. Rex to name just a few.

Finally, the great news for fans of 'Shaun of the Dead' and 'Hot Fuzz' is that they are actually the first two films in what will ultimately form a trilogy. Known as the Blood and Ice Cream trilogy (or, in my opinion more brilliantly, the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy), the three films will be linked by the appearance of a different flavoured cornetto in each one, its colour symbolically linked to the film's theme. 'Shaun of the Dead' featured a blood red Strawberry Cornetto, 'Hot Fuzz' a Classico Cornetto (it's blue wrapper matching the blue police uniforms) and the final part, currently titled 'The World's End' and in development as I write, will feature an environmentally green Mint Cornetto to go with its apocalyptic sci-fi theme. If 'The World's End' manages to live up to its predecessors, the Blood and Ice Cream series will undoubtedly enter the canon of all-time greatest trilogies.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Awful Truth

11. The Awful Truth (1937)
Dir: Leo McCarey

The 'Screwball Comedy' was a hugely popular movie genre of the 30s and 40s, based around the premise of warring couples who spend much of the film's runtime apparently despising each other only to inevitably reconcile in time for the final fadeout. Since much of the humour of Screwball was derived from the then incongruous notion of a strong woman holding her own in a male dominated world, the genre has inevitably died out or at least morphed into something dreadful, i.e. the production line battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedies Hollywood churns out in droves, relying on the basest of stock gender stereotypes. This is not to say that the original Screwball films were hugely progressive in terms of sexual politics. Despite bringing a barrage of strong women to the screen, the humour would often veer towards the sexist and it was mandatory that the woman be in the arms of the man by the movie's end, restoring order to the world because now they were together the forceful manipulations could stop and traditional wedded bliss could commence.

What the original Screwball comedies did have in spades, which today's mainstream romantic comedies generally lack, was wit and charm. The former, in particular, allowed the same scenario to be wheeled out again and again but with different rapid-fire dialogue keeping it fresh and funny. Laughter was always prioritised over the in-your-face sexiness or mawkish messages that would later come to dominate. There are several examples of Screwball comedy that are often sited as the greatest of the genre: 'It Happened One Night' (1934), 'His Girl Friday' (1940), 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940) or 'Bringing Up Baby' (1938). However, for me the greatest and all-out funniest of the lot is undoubtedly Leo McCarey's 'The Awful Truth', a comparatively lesser known film that is nevertheless extremely well-loved by its devoted following.

The production code, which imposed a restrictive set of moral values on Hollywood movies of this era, actually made these films more fun because the infidelities and indecencies that were so integral to their plots had to be subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) implied with tasteful little verbal winks to camera. This reinterpreted what could have seemed like some pretty nasty premises as disarmingly sweet parlour games. My favourite example of this is the set-up of 'The Awful Truth', in which an obviously philandering Cary Grant returns home from a phony trip to Florida (complete with fake sunbed tan and a basket of oranges) to find his wife, Irene Dunne, arriving home with her dashing piano teacher. Neither infidelity is made explicit but it's clear what is being alluded to as Grant and Dunne trade innuendos and witticisms. This results in a mutual agreement to get a divorce, which sets the plot in motion as they have 90s days to rediscover their love for each other before the divorce becomes final.

Despite their respective cheating, Grant and Dunne immediately establish themselves as utterly charming characters and the fact that they are clearly as bad as each other allows us to not only enjoy the humiliation and suffering that both are about to endure but also ensures that we root for them to get back together by the end of the film. Cleverly structured, 'The Awful Truth' spends the first part of the film charting Grant's gleeful sabotage of Dunne's rebound engagement to Oklahoma born mummy's boy Ralph Bellamy, after which was get to relish Dunne turning the tables on Grant to throw a spanner in the works of his new engagement. Now, at this point I acknowledge that my inadequate plot summary has probably made 'The Awful Truth' sound like a horrendously cliched piece of trash by the standards of any era. But the devil's in the details and 'The Awful Truth's' many, many set pieces must be seen to be believed.

Often old comedies of the 30s are funny in a sort of quaint way in which you find yourself more charmed than amused. Not so with 'The Awful Truth', which is genuinely very, very funny. It'd spoil the fun to mention too much here but in particular I'd recommend looking out for a scene involving a dog that likes to play hide-and-seek and also the aforementioned opening sequence in which Cary Grant's delivery of every line is exquisite. Grant is superb throughout the film, pitching his performance just left of centre so that the perfect dialogue sounds completely unexpected. However, it is Irene Dunne as Grant's wife Lucy who gives the best performance and one of my favourite performances by an actress ever. Whether she's squirming her way through an ill-advised romance or triumphantly wreaking havoc in her husband's relationship, Dunne is utterly captivating, hilarious and sexy. There's a scene towards the end of the film in which Dunne arrives unexpectedly at a party being thrown by Grant's potential in-laws which stands as one of the greatest and funniest scenes in film history and sets the seal on this gorgeous performance.

Inevitably, 'The Awful Truth' has lost a little of its bite in a society where divorce and infidelity are commonplace topics in films of all genres. The once quite racy final sequence (complete with its surreal, symbolic closing image) will seem utterly tame to anyone with no knowledge of the film's social context but by this stage it'll matter little. The important thing is that in losing its bite the film has lost none of its funny and its infinite rewatchability coupled with a short running time and those mesmerizing lead performances make 'The Awful Truth' a movie to return to again and again and always leave with a smile on your face.