(On Cable TV, June 2017) You’d think that a comedy movie bringing together the members of Monty Python, Simon Pegg, Kate Beckinsale (still an assured sex symbol at a respectable age) and a high-concept comic premise would lead to a minimal amount of laughter. But if you think that, then you haven’t yet seen Absolutely Anything, which is recognizably trying to be funny without actually being funny. The big premise has aliens assigning omnipotence to a human and seeing what choices he makes with it, with the fate of the human race in the balance. As an idea, it’s limitless … which explains the disappointment. It takes a while for the film to come up with things to do within that premise, and whatever throwaway gags are put on the screen seem almost too restrained compared to the possibilities. (The film also cheats by presenting a “start over again!” mechanism and using it at least three times) Simon Pegg does what he can with a classic underachiever character, but there is a limit to what he can do given the relentless mediocrity of the script. Good performances by supporting actors can’t help, and some of the alien material featuring the voices of Monty Python members often feel like undercooked inside jokes. Absolutely Anything makes the fatal mistake of feeling dull, which is just about the one unforgivable thing that a comedy in which anything is possible can make.
(Video on Demand, December 2016) I’ve been more upbeat than most Trekkers about the modern Star Trek reboot series, but even I have to admit that Star Trek: Beyond truly feels like the truest follow-up to the classic series so far. Structured as a standalone adventure in deep space, this third outing wisely focuses on smaller stakes, characters as developed in the first two movies, a bit of fan-service and an upbeat attitude that makes for a refreshing evolution from the first two films. In other words, it is pure classic Trek, done with today’s attitudes and special effects technology. The result may feel a bit restrained after the galaxy-spanning intrigue of In Darkness, but it’s also satisfying with fewer afterthoughts than in previous films. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban and Simon Pegg (who also co-wrote the film) continue to be exceptionally good at incarnating the newest versions of their Trek characters, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Motorcycle usage aside, there’s one borderline-excessive “Sabotage” scene that harkens back to the first film, but it actually works well and is decently funny in itself. Still, the best aspect of the film has to be the look inside the Yorktown space station, a vertiginous showcase of SF dreams brought to life, visual effects and variable-gravity scene-blocking. It’s as memorable as anything is the series so far, and exactly the kind of showcase sequence to expect from a big-budget Trek film. I’m certainly ready for a fourth instalment.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) Chronologically-challenged crime comedies have been a sub-genre for almost two decades since Pulp Fiction popularized the form, and even the best examples of the genre still seem to labour under the shadow of Tarantino. But as with every sub-genre, it does have its specific pleasures to offer to fans. Australian effort Kill Me Three Times doesn’t re-invent anything, but it does play the game competently enough, and offers as a bonus Simon Pegg in an unusually villainous role. Much of the story is your genre-standard mix of vengeance, corrupt cops, murderous couples, coveted bags of money and characters left for dead. The story reboots three times, and the result doesn’t aim much higher than being a competent genre exercise. As such, your evaluation of Kill Me Three Times will hinge on your overall tolerance for such crime comedies and improbable plot twists. Fans will appreciate the result, what with its unusual Australian scenery and go-for-broke forward narrative rhythm: Director Kriv Stenders keeps things moving even when he’s rewinding to tells his story from another point of view. Simon Pegg clearly has fun playing the black-clad imperturbable assassin, while Alice Braga makes for a sympathetic damsel-in-distress. Otherwise, Kill Me Three Times fills up an unassuming evening of sunny Australian noir comedy. It could have been much, much worse.
(On Cable TV, October 2015) Comedies about unlikable protagonists are a tricky act to keep up: There’s a limit to the amount of bad behavior that audiences will tolerate before tuning out, and at times it looks as if How to Lose Friends & Alienate People isn’t afraid to test this limit. Reportedly based on the true story of Englishman Toby Young working for American magazines, this film features Simon Pegg playing one of his most unlikable character: a fame-obsessed smarter-than-thou obnoxious shmuck, gifted with the ability to annoy people almost instantly. He’s surprised when the fights he picks come back to haunt him, while the audience rolls their eyes. Much of the film seems aimless, jumping from one set-piece to another without much connective tissue. When How to Lose Friends & Alienate People does remember that it is a romantic comedy, it’s almost too late to care. Similarly, the film goes from a prickly but interesting comedy to a far more conventional romantic vehicle as it goes along, although it is far from being the only such movie to suffer that fate. I suspect that Toby Young’s autobiography is far more interesting, and that the film fell victim to the adaptation-standardization process. There are, fortunately, a few intermittent bright spots here and there, particularly in taking a look at celebrity journalist and the New York magazine scene. Pre-fame Megan Fox shows up as an object of desire, while Kirsten Dunst shows up for an undemanding role as the hero’s true love. Still, there’s a sense of missed opportunities, of pointless unpleasantness here that prevent How to Lose Friends & Alienate People from leaving a better impression. At least Pegg gets to play a real cad for once, and doesn’t screw it up.
(In French, on Blu-Ray, June 2015) It’s really not productive to start nit-picking about the anachronistic introduction of dinosaurs into the Ice Age universe in Dawn of the Dinosaurs: In an animated comedy series featuring talking ice-age animals that are already anachronistically mixed, there’s a double or triple degree of unreality that is useless to contest. We might rather enjoy how the series suddenly develops colors, uses its newly-found new world for ever-more-expansive action sequences and even introduces a memorable character (Simon Pegg’s turn as the deliriously tough “Buck”). Plus: extra earworm points for reviving “Walk the Dinosaur”. I still dislike the aesthetics of the series, its low-wit comedy, the over-developed action sequences and the broad obvious character arcs. But it is recognizably an Ice Age film, with the expected highlights going to Scrat (here temporarily paired off with Scratte, until the inevitable return to his true nutty love.) It’s almost instantly forgettable as “another instalment in the series”, although the dinosaurs do help make it more visually distinctive than the second film in the series.
(Video on Demand, January 2014) Given the quasi-classic status that Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz enjoy in my own personal ranking, I was waiting for The World’s End with loaded expectations: As the concluding entry in the so-called Cornetto trilogy, would it be as funny, as tightly-written, as visually innovative and as purely enjoyable as its two predecessors? Well, while it may not be as hilarious as Shaun of the Dead, nor as satisfying as Hot Fuzz, The World’s End definitely holds its own as a great piece of genre moviemaking. A boozy nostalgic comedy that eventually evolves into something far more outrageous (with a daring ending that crams another film’s worth of content in the last five minutes), The World’s End is perhaps most impressive for the interplay between structure and surface, as written signs comment upon the action, as the story is outlined in-text as a flashback before re-occurring during the film, or for the various (sometimes less-than-pleasant) questions raised by the ending. There is a lot of depth here, and some of it may not be entirely apparent at a first viewing. Still, The World’s End is no mere puzzle box: it works well on a surface level, whether it’s the actors reunited for the occasion (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost interchanging their hero/cad roles, obviously, but also Martin Freeman, the lovely Rosamund Pike, and a glorified cameo by Pierce Brosnan), the impressive fight choreography, the ironic dialogue and Wright’s usual attempt to push film grammar in new directions. While a first viewing leaves a bit unsettled, The World’s End steadily grows in stature as you reflect on it –another characteristic it shares with its predecessors. Mission accomplished for Wright/Pegg/Frost, then, as the wait begins for their next films.
(In theatres, March 2011) The mainstreaming of geek culture over the past decade has meant as many mainstream products aimed at the geek demographics than geek attitudes adopted into the mainstream. So that’s how we end up with Paul, a broadly-accessible comedy about two geeks encountering an alien while road-tripping through the US. Working without director Edgar Wright, comedy duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost pair up with Greg Mottola to deliver a comedy that’s surprisingly less geeky than either Shaun of the Dead or even Hot Fuzz. Given the change in director, it’s no surprise if the cinematic grammar of the film is far more sedate, more conventional and not quite as bitingly funny: As one would expect, it’s closer to Mottola’s Adventureland than Wright’s Scott Pilgrim. But this different kind of atmosphere reflects the different nature of the plot: Featuring a charming and foul-mouthed gray alien, Paul works as an amiable road trip film, featuring two spacey heroes and one down-to-Earth alien who may be more human than the humans. Sometimes, though, the film missteps: some of the violence is surprising, the profanity and media references can be tiresome and the two lead actors are far too old to play such socially retarded characters: A comparison with the similarly-themed Fanboys shows that what’s charming at age 18 can feel just a bit sad at 40. Yet it’s hard to remain disappointed for long at a film that generally works as it should: if it’s not quite as funny, insightful or surprising as it could be, it’s still a generally good time at the movies, and a welcome comedic counterpoint to the slew of other alien-invasion films we’re seeing at the moment.
(In theaters, May 2008) The problem with “likable loser” movies is the balance to find between the likability and the loserness. Simon Pegg is gifted enough to put the audience on his side as the titular Fatboy, but the script doesn’t give him much to play on: Throughout Run Fatboy Run, saner members of the audience will wonder how and why his ex-girlfriend (Thandie Newton, who has seldom looked better) almost married him. And that’s before the screenwriter cheats and actively sabotages her relationship with her new beau. To be fair, however, the entire third act of Run Fatboy Run is a huge unbelievable cheat, destroying a character at the benefit of another, and pulling the type of Hollywood finish that doesn’t do much more than remind us that things never happen like that in real life. As with so many romantic comedies, the fun of the film isn’t in the main story as in the secondary characters, the subplots and the details. Alas, some of the material is so interesting as to overwhelm the rest: I was captivated by India de Beaufort’s presence, and wished more of the film would have been centered around her, or Dylan Moran’s more-interesting sidekick. While Run Fatboy Run itself isn’t particularly bad or irritating, it’s curiously uninvolving and never earns its conclusion as much as it tries to manipulate it more blatantly than most.
(On DVD, May 2009) There isn’t much to say about the DVD edition of the film: It’s still an average comedy, and the DVD commentary doesn’t do much to give us insight in the film-making process. On the other hand, India de Beaufort is featured in a number of deleted scenes, so it’s not as if revisiting the film on DVD was a complete waste of time.