(On Cable TV, December 2018) Let’s be clear: There’s nothing in Cuban Fury that’s all that original, but it’s still a nicely handled romantic comedy with a substantial dancing component. Nick Frost stars in a role that’ generally less comic and more romantic than many in his filmography, and it generally works. Rashida Jones is fine as the object of his affection (with a deliciously slimy Chris O’Dowd completing the triangle), although Ian McShane and Kayvan Novak are highlights as (respectively) a cranky dance instructor and a flamboyantly gay dancer. The plot is as by-the-number as they come, what with past trauma, romantic interest, training montages and to-thine-self-be-true message complete with a triumphant ending. Still, the protagonist is endearing, the entire film is fun and it fits squarely in the kind of gentle British comedy that we’ve grown accustomed to. Cuban Fury may not be challenging, innovative or meaningful, but it doesn’t have to be.
(In French, On TV, October 2015) I’m always fascinated by the oddball pockets of pop-culture history, and The Boat the Rocked revolves around something I didn’t know about—the pirate radio stations that broadcast rock music from the seas surrounding Great Britain in the late sixties and early seventies. Writer/director Richard Curtis fashions an ensemble comedy from various anecdotes and music of the era, never sticking too close to reality (thus introducing anachronisms that even colonials will be able to spot) but delivering a moderately entertaining film with an unexpectedly spectacular conclusion. The film begins as a young man makes his way to such a seaborne pirate station, meeting its various eccentric DJs and getting a close look at the government’s efforts to shut down the pirates. Numerous amusing moments follow. The cast is filled with known names goofing off, from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unabashedly American DJ to owner Bill Nighy to Nick Frost as a sex-obsessed cad. Rock Music is at the heart of the film, so you can expect a great soundtrack. (Fortunately, the French version of the film retains the original music, which compensates somewhat for the loss of the original actors’ voices.) The Boat That Rocked does take a turn for the unexpectedly dramatic toward the end, providing a big-scale conclusion to a film that seemed happy without such spectacle until then. It mostly manages to hit its target, but there is a gnawing sense that the film isn’t as good as it could have been given its subject matter and capable actors. The sprawling ensemble cast gets difficult to distinguish aside from the name actors, and the episodic one-anecdote-after-another nature of the film doesn’t help it feel more coherent. This being said, I’ll note that I saw a French-language dub of the American version of the film (“Pirate Radio”), which reportedly runs twenty minutes shorter than the original British version – I’m not sure that more material would help the film (which already feels sprawling), but it does feel as if something is missing. Still, The Boat the Rocked is more than worth a look, especially if you’re in the mood for a music-heavy comedy.
(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.