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CULTURE Mike Davies reviews the week's new cinema releases.

Byline: Mike Davies ..HDLN: CINEMA: A most arresting comedy

HOT FUZZ

CERT 15 113 MINS

****

A third variation might be pushing the formula too far, but their second transference of Hollywood genre cliches to rural England has paid dividends for the Shaun of the Dead team of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and writer-director Edgar Wright.

After their first deadpan comic homage took the zombie movie staples and relocated them to suburban London, filtered through a British ironic sensibility, the follow-up turns their attention to the buddy cop action blockbuster from the Jerry Bruckheimer school of filmmaking. Lethal Weapon meets Heartbeat.

It opens in London but quickly shifts location to a rural Gloucestershire village (actually Wells, Somerset), part Miss Marple, part League of Gentlemen, as top Met bobby Nicholas Angel (Pegg) finds himself dumped by his girlfriend because he's so obsessed with his job and promoted and transferred (by cameoing Steve Coogan, Martin Freeman and Bill Nighy) because his arrest record is making everyone else look bad.

A humourless fish out of water, Angel makes an instant impression as soon as he arrives, arresting a bunch of underage drinkers and a drunken driver only to find out things are done a bit different in Sandford, the most crime-free village in the British Isles.

His boss, Inspector Butterman (Jim Broadbent) reckons turning a blind eye to the licensing laws keeps trouble off the streets while the drunk turns out to be his bumpkin son Danny (Frost), Angel's well-meaning, bumbling, action-movie-fanatic new partner.

Having become an overnight figure of ridicule among his fellow colleagues, especially cynical CID officers Wainwright (Paddy Considine) and Cartwright (Rafe Spall) who dub the duo Crockett and Tubby, Nicholas is understandably frustrated that instead of leading dawn drug raids he's now consigned to Neighbourhood Watch meetings and tracking down an escaped swan.

But, hang on.

When a philandering amdram ham and his leading lady lover are found decapitated in their car following a dire musical performance of Romeo & Juliet, while everyone else is quick to write it off as an accident, Angel's trained senses are less convinced.

Might there be murder afoot in the sleepy shire? And might the increasing number of gruesome "accidents" have something to do with smarmy supermarket manager Skinner (Timothy Dalton in moustache twirling form) and his prescient puns about the deaths? Awash with a who's who of British film veterans that include Billie Whitelaw, Anne Reid, Edward Woodward and Stuart Wilson, alongside contemporary comic names such as Bill Bailey, Lucy Punch and Olivia Colman, it makes no bones about referencing its inspirations, quite literally quoting from Bad Boys II and Point Break while more subtly nodding the hat to more slow-burn British thrillers like The Wicker Man and a touch of the Dennis Wheatleys.

A deliberately slow build-up (albeit with slambang edits) allows plenty of opportunity for sly understated humour, not least several sharp jabs at police bureaucracy, and credible character and chemistry development between Pegg and Frost. All to a knowing 1960s and 70s soundtrack from The Sweet, The Troggs, Adam Ant, Move, T Rex and, naturally, The Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society.

Then Wright takes his foot off the brake and it erupts into classic over-the-top Hollywoodisms with huge explosions, slo mo and a tooled up of showdown shoot out finale where Heat meets Gunfight at the OK Corrall. In Somerfields.

The ending's a little dragged out perhaps, but peppered with wickedly funny wordplay ("Judge Judy and executioner" to name but one of the best), hilarious verbal and sight gags, a couple of very grisly moments and some gleefully straight-faced scenery chewing, the force is strong in this one. Totally PC!

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP

CERT 15 105 MINS

***

Although Charlie Kauffman may have written the Oscar-winning screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it's often overlooked that he shared the award with Versailles-born director Michel Gondry with whom he originated the story.

Now Gondry has taken the plunge to make his feature debut as screenwriter and while not as lyrical as the Jim Carrey/Kate Winslet surreal romcom, it's a no less mind-boggling metaphysical excursion into the psyche. Returing home from Mexico after his father's death, Stephane Miroux (Gael Garcia Bernal) moves in with his mother (Miou- Miou) in her Paris apartment and hosts his own a nightly talk show, Stephane TV. Well, sort of. You see, Stephane's a shy, introverted type who has problems interacting with life, so he tends to retreat into his subconscious, living in a fantasy world of his own making where he's a confident go-getter.

Reality for Stephane is profoundly different.

The job his mother got him as a graphic designer at a calendarmaking firm turns out to involve little more than photocopying, the office staffed with colourful but equally resolutely bored nine-to-fivers. And although life perked up when he met new neighbour Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her friend Zoe (Emma de Caunes), a combination of their mistaken assumptions and his nervous embarrassment and tongue tied shyness, has meant he left them thinking he was a furniture mover and didn't tell them he lived next door.

To complicate matters further, Stephanie fancies him but he's initially more attracted to Zoe (his fantasy best seller is titled I Am Just Your Neighbour and a Liar: By the Way, Do You Have Zoe's Number?).

However, realising she's out of his league and discovering Stephanie also has an active imagination (she's made a boat out of fabric) and is interested in his dreams, they begin to develop a relationship. But while love seems to be blooming and Stephane's Great Disasters of Our Time calendar has become a huge seller, his insecurities and anxieties threaten to destroy any happiness when he begins to imagine she's being unfaithful.

The story's simple enough, but Gondry's imagination (a time machine that allows you travel back one second) and visual sensibility turn it into a surreal head trip as reality and dreams become increasingly inverted.

Pretty much everything in Stephane's sleeping fantasy world is made from cardboard and cellophane, rendered in a stop motion animation that suggests Bagpuss as directed by Salvador Dali.

Appropriately enough, there's a strong child-centric quality to the film's tone and imagery, significantly so in the fear of adult concerns (electric razors, real sex) and a retreat into toys and playful, indeed often infantile, behaviour.

You don't have to be a Freudian psychologist to note that much of Stephane's dream world is a surreal symbolic mirror of his everyday reality, those that inhabit it and aspects of both their real counterparts and of Stephane himself.

Unfortunately, while undeniably clever, it also keeps emotional engagement at arms length, especially when it becomes increasingly for the viewer, let alone Stephane, to distinguish which is which.

A little more discipline in the writing wouldn't have gone amiss, but with its brilliant sense of texture it looks amazing. Bernal is charm incarnate, weaving both absurdist humour and touching pathos to great effect while, as whacked-out coworker Guy, Alain Chabat provides tremendous comic relief.

With a confounding ending veined with the regret and pain of having to put aside childish things in order to grow up, you'll leave bewildered, baffled and bewitched, but certainly not bored.

BECAUSE I SAID SO

CERT 12A 101 MINS

**

Poor old Michael Lehmann. His directing career started off so well with the brilliant high school black comedy Heathers and social satire follow up Meet The Applegates, but then he made the universally panned turkey Hudson Hawk and he seems to have never recovered.

Subsequent films Airheads, The Truth About Cats And Dogs and 40 Days and 40 Nights have managed some fitfully sporadic humour at best, but were unmemorable and have quickly sunk without trace.

The same fate seems in store with this over-egged motherdaughter comedy with Diane Keaton as Daphne Wilder, the single, overprotective mother of three daughters who just can't stop interfering in their lives.

With the elder pair, shrink Maggie (Lauren Graham) and indiscernibly employed Mae (Piper Perabo), married off, she's worried that, after several failed relationships, caterer Milly (Mandy Moore acting increasingly like a young Sally Field) won't ever find Mr Right and will end up becoming just like her.

So she places an online personal ad on her unknowing behalf, screening a montage of (often racially offensive) potential suitors.

They're losers to a man and, in one case, transsexual, until along comes Jason (Tom Everett Scott), a smooth talking architect who ticks all of Daphne's the right boxes. Arrangements to facilitate a fortuitous meeting are arranged.

However, guitar player at the bar where the interviews are being held, Johnny (Gabriel Macht) got talking to Daphne and, although she rejected him as a prospect, his curiosity is piqued sufficiently for him to approach Milly off his own bat.

Naturally, oblivious to mom's machinations, she winds up dating them both while Daphne attempts to steer her away from the one and into the arms of the other.

Now, not that Jason's not a decent guy but in this sort of movie who's going to get the girl, the cool, slightly controlling and self-preening bland guy or the homely, sensitive, supportive romantic with the cute young son?

As modest romcoms go, it could play out amiably enough, but neither Lehmann nor the screenwriters have confidence in their slight material or Moore's undeniable charm.

So instead, Keaton is encouraged to overact the ditziness and melodrama to an insufferable degree, mistaking flapping hysteria for comedy, surfing internet porno sites and engaging in awkward chats about orgasms with Milly and, oh dear, twice having a cake in her face.

When Daphne develops laryngitis in the third act and can't speak, you can almost hear the audience's sigh of relief.

And as if the tired sitcom slapstick wasn't enough, the film piles on the romcom cliches with a trowel, including the obligatory shopping and singing scenes and an overdone use of bemused reaction shots from Daphne's Golden Labrador.

And let's not mention the scene of it humping a wicker basket, ok. Broad, sentimental and unsubtle, it does raise one interesting conundrum when Daphne falls for Johnny's widowed father, which, if romance takes its natural movie course, would make Milly's likely hubbie also her stepbrother.

It's symptomatic of the film's frothy shallowness that it never even bothers to mention the issue.

The soundtrack's peppered with "mama" songs. However, not the one that you may feel most pertinent after watching; Mama Told Me Not Come.

"Keaton is encouraged to overact the ditziness and melodrama to an insufferable degree, mistaking flapping hysteria for comedy, surfing internet porno sites and engaging in awkward chats about orgasms with Milly and, oh dear, twice having a cake in her face

Mike Davies

CAPTION(S):

Simon Pegg stars in Hot Fuzz, described as Lethal Weapon meets Heartbeat; Gael Garc a Bernal as Stephane in director Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep; Mandy Moore and Diane Keaton star in Because I Said So
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 15, 2007
Words:1824
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