Crix go for Fox pic's shtick

TORONTO — My strongest reaction to anything I saw at the Toronto Film Festival this year was laughing harder at a movie than I have in quite a few years at the sublimely ridiculous “Borat Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (if you recall the full subtitle of “Dr. Strangelove,” you’ll eventually memorize this one as well).

In the interests of full disclosure, I must report that a friend and I were helplessly crying with laughter through several sequences, and after a couple — a dinner party scene and a nude hotel fight scene that makes the male wrestling match in Ken Russell’s “Women in Love” look like “Romper Room” pattycakes — we couldn’t even stop until well after the episodes had ended.

I didn’t expect this reaction for several reasons: It never happens (the last time I responded remotely in this ballpark were to certain scenes in “Bad Santa”); I’ve found Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show” amusing only in limited doses; and Larry Charles’ sole previous feature film, the Bob Dylan extravaganza “Masked and Anonymous,” was pretty terrible. “Borat” rarely flags or misfires at all, its outrageousness miraculously sustained all the way through.

The film came into the festival with the cloud of alleged anti-Semitism hanging over it and leaves with the president of Kazakhstan in such a tizzy that he’s going to raise his concerns with President Bush when they meet shortly; this sort of controversy will simply feed the publicity machine, as usual. For my part, I am lost in admiration as to how Cohen has developed the discipline never to crack up or break character when his pranks pay off so enormously. All I can do is strongly recommend seeing the film with a big audience when it opens in November — and big they should be.

On a less singular note, there seems to be a mini-trend afoot of European films skillfully applying some of the lessons and expertise of Old Hollywood in ways that New Hollywood seems almost entirely incapable of today and would do well to relearn. I’m thinking specifically of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s outstanding German drama “The Lives of Others,” about the insidiously thorough surveillance of East German citizens by the Stasi intelligence agency; Paul Verhoeven’s WWII drama “Black Book,” his return to Dutch filmmaking after 15 years in Hollywood; and Patrice Leconte’s French buddy comedy “My Best Friend.”

With upward of 270 feature films on offer, I managed to miss the Leconte, but my colleague Robert Koehler and several others assured me that this tale of a successful man forced by a wager to produce a best friend when he has none is an immensely satisfying piece in the vein of Preston Sturges and other classical-era practitioners of inventive character writing and romantic comedy. The fear is that some studio will buy it in order to remake it and in the process formularize the freshness right out of it.

“The Lives of Others,” which looks destined to enjoy great success in the U.S., benefits from being a fresh take on life behind the Iron Curtain, one that couldn’t have been made (or at least wasn’t) before the Wall came down.

Now that the files have been opened and former East Germans have been free for 16 years to speak about things, you’d think there would be dozens of great stories to be told. But this is one of the first of its kind to have made it in a significant way to screens worldwide, and it is told in a manner that puts character first, with lots of ironies and twists that shorten the breath. Its gray atmosphere and tamped down melodrama make it a lovely companion piece to John Le Carre stories of the Cold War era, except that it was written directly for the screen by a first-time feature filmmaker with an exemplary sense of balance.

For years during and after WWII, Hollywood made well-written films that put strong characters out in front of the big historical events of the time in an entertaining way. These days, whenever an American filmmaker gets the wherewithal to make a major war film, it seems required to carry the extra baggage of significance, some sort of message about the meaning of things.

Verhoeven has never been that sort of filmmaker, so it’s little surprise that “Black Book” is an unusually sexy and politically incorrect take on the Dutch resistance, Jews and Nazis in the waning days of the war in Europe. It also moves like an express train as it charts illicit liaisons, romantic deceptions, personal betrayals, moral compromises and expedient choices indulged in by the sorts of characters more normally portrayed in black-and-white terms.

Although constructed as an adventure of survival about a Jewish woman who keeps helping the resistance despite falling in love with a so-called good German officer, the film’s format doesn’t prevent Verhoeven from playing his usual frisky tricks. It is, as the aforementioned Sturges once formulated things, a “deep-dish” movie, one that embraces its melodrama and far-fetched coincidences and unlikely contrivances rather than becoming embarrassed about them. I would have happily watched it for four or five hours.

Still, I have to wonder if American audiences are ready for the casual way Verhoeven addresses sex and moral relevance when the subject is Jews and Nazis. It’s not for him to take the solemn approach viewers have come to expect as de rigueur for the territory; there’s one interlude that, while almost casually tossed off, is a sexual near-equivalent of the Sharon Stone interrogation scene in “Basic Instinct,” and the Nazi officer comes to suspect his mistress is Jewish when he realizes she’s not a natural blonde, no matter how thoroughly she’s tried to disguise it (only Verhoeven could come up with that one). Despite the tragedy and pain involved, I can’t think of a WWII movie that’s been this much fun to watch since possibly the 1960s.

Hollywood could relearn some lessons worth knowing from its own legacy by watching some of these new European films.

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