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Tag Archives: Simon Pegg
With its trailer blaring Eminem and hyper-cutting explosions, falls, car crashes and punches, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (hereafter M:I IV, because, come on) felt like an implicit promise to the viewer: Come out to the theater, we’ll spend a little time, have a few laughs. What’s interesting about Brad Bird’s live-action debut — coming as it does in the 4th installment of a 15-year-old franchise that’s cherry-picked great, or at the very least intriguing, directing talent from the past 5 decades — is the seeming modesty of it all. At no point do our heroes (Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner) wind up assaulting a hollowed-out volcano full of jumpsuit-clad minions; the final battle between Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and under-written bad guy Hendricks (Michael Nykvist) occurs not in a gleaming white room with shark tanks and lasers but instead a parking garage.
It’s hard to say what part of that is from the post-Bond spy action school of thought; historically, 9/11 is a real tragedy, but on a cultural level, it’s not untrue or unkind to suggest that Osama Bin Laden killed Blofeld more thoroughly than James Bond ever could. At the same time, so much of M:I IV is taken from that Bond-era playbook — like, for example, the “Let me provoke a war between the superpowers” plot, which creates an air of Cold War-era menace that has a bracing nip of nostalgic joy to it.
In “Paul,” the new alien-slacker-road-trip comedy from Greg Mottola (“Superbad,” “Adventureland“), Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play Graeme and Clive, two British sci-fi nerds on an RV tour of the American West. Starting at San Diego’s Comic-Con with planned stops at fabled sites like Roswell, N.M., their plans go awry when they pick up a hitchhiker, Paul, a space alien who crashed back in ’47 and has been under the care of the U.S. government ever since. Paul looks like the traditional alien-mythology “small gray” (big head, spindly body) and talks like … Seth Rogen. As Rogen’s nasal, knowing voice issues pop references from a high-tech CGI creation (“It’s not like I set my phaser to ‘faint!’” he exclaims after his mere presence makes Clive pass out), you keep waiting for him to stop making jokes and start creating character moments or any sense of Paul as anything other than a very expensive sock puppet. And that never quite happens. Pegg and Frost’s script feels a little lazy, here and elsewhere, and that takes a lot of the potential fun out of the film before it even starts.
In fact, almost every joke here wheezes like a fat person going up a flight of stairs, and can be heard coming from about as far away. Frost and Pegg have written together before — “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” as well as the excellent Brit-com “Spaced” — and while those projects all had real characters inside their snap-crackle-pop-culture references, something about “Paul” feels underbaked, like a project the two had half-formed in their heads and blurted out in studio meetings after their first successes when asked if they had anything else in the works. It’s C-minus work from people who normally deliver A-level efforts.
And yet there are some comedy ideas in “Paul” that score, like when Kristen Wiig‘s holy-roller trailer park manager, Ruth, gets a mind-meld with Paul that instantly secularizes her: Once a space alien has poured the secrets of the cosmos into your head like it was a Big Gulp cup, it’s hard to hang on to your Old Testament belief that the Earth is “4,000 years old.” As Wig snaps free from her old life –”I plan on doing a lot of fornicating,” she notes — she’s given a lot of room to be funny, which she takes advantage of. But Pegg and Frost don’t get nearly as interesting — their relationship feels recycled from their earlier projects — and Wiig’s inventive journey isn’t enough to bump the comedic inertia of the film out of its doldrums.
“Paul” also feels like a movie made of other movies — shots out of Spielberg, quotes from “Star Wars” and “Alien,” scenery borrowed from “Close Encounters.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing — part of the fun of a project like this is having it play with familiar pop-culture moments to knock a bit of the dust off them — but when that’s all the film does, it’s a facade with no foundation. The cast looks impressive on paper — supporting players include Jane Lynch, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio — but again, they’re underused. (Bateman in particular is saddled with a gag that epitomizes the laziness of the enterprise, all buildup for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it payoff.)
Paul himself is technically impressive: He looks fake only when leaping or running, in the way that most CGI creations don’t match real gravity especially well; too bad it distracts from a great time-zone joke. And Pegg and Frost’s charm is still real, even if their sparkling, early-career bro-mance now feels more like a dinged-up, late-stage bro-lationship. Mottola keeps things moving swiftly — he has to, or else the ramshackle construction of the film would implode — all the way to the inevitable climax, which feels less like characters standing at a point of resolution than it does a group of actors waiting around for someone to yell, ‘Cut!’ “Paul” has flashes of wit, and it’s peppered throughout with hints of the better film it could have been, but the laughs in it mostly make you wish it had more laughs to offer. It’s a comedic close encounter, but it’s not quite close enough.
Two days before the start of South by Southwest on March 11, the stars of one of the Austin, Texas, festival’s big-ticket premieres met the press … out in front of an RV at the Little A’Le’ Inn in Rachel, Nev., right next to the fabled top-secret airbase Area 51, to talk about space aliens, science fiction and their new film, “Paul.” Co-starring in their third film together, after “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have a natural, easy interplay — one that sparked as I asked them to state which was better, “Star Trek” or “Star Wars“?
With Pegg’s work as “Scotty” in the recent relaunch of “Star Trek,” it was a loaded question. Frost spoke first, nodding to his co-star. “I’m sorry, this is not your film specifically, but I’m going to say ‘Star Wars,’ just because of how it made me feel (as) a child.” So, I asked Pegg, does anything hurt like the betrayal of a friend? “No; that’s actually funny. I think, for me, weirdly, old ‘Star Wars’ pips old ‘Star Trek,’ but new ‘Star Trek’ trounces new ‘Star Wars.’ If there was any debate there, then it wouldn’t seem like I was being partial. There’s no debate. The prequels are dreadful, and the new ‘Star Trek’ is amazing. Even though I’m in it, I’m unbiased.”
Pegg and Frost clearly love science fiction. I asked them what kind of picture they got of America from watching science fiction growing up in England. Frost spoke up: “Aliens are happening constantly. It’s like (“Star Wars” capital planet) Coruscant here. The skies are full.” Pegg added, “It’s like there’s traffic up there. No, it always happens in backwoods places, obviously. We get to see a lot of what’s purportedly between the cities in America. That’s why we did a road trip before we did ‘Paul,’ because we wanted to see what it’s like between airports. You do feel, when you’re out here in these huge expanses, anything could happen.”
And according to co-star and co-writer Pegg, that was the plan in “Paul” — to take sci-fi clichés on the road: “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a film like, say, ‘Little Miss Sunshine‘ or ‘Fandango’ or ‘Sugarland Express’ where one of the characters was Gollum?’ Imagine if Gollum was in ‘Little Miss Sunshine.’ We always see these characters — these amazing creations — in the context of their own universe. Gollum’s in Middle Earth, we see all those ‘Star Wars’ creations in the ‘Star Wars’ universe. You never juxtapose that weirdness with mundane ordinariness. We thought it’d be amazing to see something as advanced as Gollum … sitting in an RV.”
A big part of “Paul” is the title alien, a computer-generated creation voiced by Seth Rogen, who hitches a ride with Pegg and Frost’s sci-fi nerds on their road trip. I asked the two if while they were writing the film, they ever held back with worries about if the effects to create Paul would and could work, or if they instead just went for it, sure the effects crew could figure it out. Simon Pegg recognized the challenges of pixel-crafted characters: “Yeah, we did want to write the best story possible, but we wanted it to look real. Our problem with CG characters is they have no weight to them.” But, as Nick Frost pointed out, making Paul look real wasn’t just tricky: “(It was) very nerve-wracking as well. We finished the picture 18 months ago, two years ago. We’ve had to wait that long to figure out whether or not it worked. With a creature and a character like this, if Paul is rubbish, you’re finished straightaway. That was very worrying.” As Pegg noted, “We sat down in a restaurant two years ago and said, ‘This is what we want: We want a totally believable character who seems to be there, who can speak conversationally with the live actors. We want it to feel like he’s totally integrated, has presence and weight.’ Then we wrote the film expecting them to meet that challenge, and they did.”
And director Greg Mottola, for one, is happy with the results — even with some complaints. “The thing I said to my agents after this film was if the letters ‘C,’ ‘G,’ and ‘I’ appear again in that order, I’m passing. No, that’s not true. It was very hard, it was very scary. I did not know how scared I should be. Simon and Nick were incredibly bold. They gave Paul a lot of the funny lines, and they play straight man to someone who wasn’t there in parts of the movie. There’s not that many semi-naturalistic comedy performances of CG characters to compare to — unless you could say Jar Jar (Binks), and that wasn’t intentionally funny. I did animation as a kid, stop-motion animation with a Super-8 camera. This is quite a bit different than that, and it was truly satisfying at the end of it. It just took a long time to get there. I’d like to do it again.”
Finally, considering how much of Pegg and Frost’s career has consumed and re-purposed pop culture, I asked them about the scientific phenomenon where radio waves transmit out at the speed of light, so an alien civilization, say, 30 light-years away would just now be getting television from 1981. Which of our old TV shows, I asked Frost and Pegg, did they think alien watchers would enjoy the most? Frost went back to the ’70s: “‘Starsky and Hutch.’ For me, it could bring about peace across the universe. It could restore the balance of the Force.” If the aliens show up with sideburns, driving Gran Torino muscle cars? “If their ships are lined with great big white stripes down the side, we know what they’ve been watching.” Pegg named a more graceful program for what he thought the aliens might like best: “I would say ‘Gentle Ben.’ It would be nice for them.” Frost smiled at the happy thought: “Seeing different species live together in perfect harmony. …” So, I offered, when the alien bears show up in muscle cars, we’ll be prepared? Pegg laughed: “That’d be amazing!”
Comic-Con took place in San Diego last weekend, an event that started as a celebration of the four-color printed world of comics and became, over the years, the nerd equivalent of Sundance or Cannes — crowded with TV and film sneak previews, full of promotional events, all with an eye towards chasing the dork dollar. I didn’t go to Comic-Con this year, but, to quote Office Space, I wouldn’t say I was missing it, Bob; Comic-Con may, like Sundance and Cannes, offer pop-culture watchers a jump on the year, but at the same time, I don’t recall ever seeing anyone dressed as Ghost Rider at Cannes.
But looking past even my snooty mockery of Comic-Con’s excesses above, nerd culture, or geek culture, or whatever else you might call it, is actually similar to any other type of culture; when it’s bad, it’s horrid, but when it’s good, it can be very, very good. The only thing I can imagine that would be worse than the Fantastic Four films is to be trapped in a conversation with someone who actually thought they were good; at the same time I’m still amazed and impressed how The Dark Knight is essentially a mega-million dollar re-make and re-invention of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. With that in mind, allow me to recommend Spaced, the new American DVD re-issue of the 1999-2001 British television series directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and co-written by stars Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, which I coincidentally sped through while not at Comic-Con this weekend. Yes, Spaced has clever in-jokes and cultural callbacks aplenty; it also has real heart and charm, backing the whiz-bang wit with warmth and wisdom.
Spaced revolves in part about two of the oldest sitcom standbys — the roommate ruse (see Three’s Company) and the ‘will-they-or-won’t-they?’ relationship (see Cheers, Moonlighting, Friends, Scrubs and, for that matter, almost every other sitcom) — and deftly gets past them as soon as it can. Tim (Pegg) and Daisy (Stevenson) are mid-20s Londoners looking for new accommodations due to their respective breakups, and find a nice, lovely-seeming reasonable place where the landlord is looking for ‘a professional couple.’ They pose as a couple, even though they are — of course — not interested in each other at all. And as Tim and Daisy move in, we get introduced to their friends and neighbors, and the plots take off in many different — and brilliant — directions, all nearly perfectly executed. Tim gets fired from his comics shop job for screaming at customers who have the gall to request Phantom Menace merchandise. Daisy has to take a job at a hateful restaurant, Neo Nachos, and her work environment turns into a goony riff on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, including casting Tim Sampson, son of Cuckoo’s Nest’s Will Sampson, in a minor role.
And yet, if in-jokes and references were all Spaced offered, then the show would be clever and shiny and hollow; it’s much more than that. Pegg and Stevenson are natural presences, funny and focused and actually capable of making funny moments emotionally engaging, or sympathetic moments comedic. Wright’s direction may be inspired and showy (there are more camera angles in an episode of Spaced than in a season of most American sitcoms), but he also knows how to make you care about the characters, and how to tell a story with crisp, engaging style. Spaced also proves yet again the British model of making television is far superior to the American money-mill methods and madness we get stuck with. Spaced’s two seasons comprise 14 episodes, about 2/3 of one American 22-episode sitcom season; get in, get out, get on with it.
This DVD set, making the show available in America on disc for the first time, features new commentary from Wright, Pegg and Stevenson alongside prominent fans of the show like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Bill Hader, Matt Stone, Patton Oswalt and Diablo Cody. (Although, listening to the commentary tracks, I can’t help but think that while Tarantino, Smith, Hader and Oswalt all have something to say as big fans of Spaced, Cody’s remarks sound like she’s talking as a big fan of … herself. I know Cody’s fifteen minutes are coming to a close soon, but they’re passing like the last minutes on the last day of school in 8th grade with the sun shining through the windows and the sound of the ice cream truck going by wafting on the breeze. …)
But more important than the famous guests chiming in, the Spaced commentaries let you listen to the people behind the show talk about looking back on who they were in their mid-20s, and how they’ve changed, and how they’re still the same. Yes, girlfriends and boyfriends have become wives and husbands; at the same time, The Phantom Menace is still a load of crap. Spaced is as clever and cool a piece of TV you could ask for, but don’t be surprised if it leaves you unexpectedly touched by its central relationships and characters. Spaced gives you characters in superhero t-shirts and horn-rim glasses and then, carefully and craftily, shows you the hearts and minds behind those trappings. Some of the British-isms on the show are a bit dense — I don’t know what a ‘Jaffa Cake’ is, and I know there are references to Brit-coms gone by that sailed over my head — but I didn’t have to translate how Spaced felt, or how it made me laugh, or how sad I was to finish the last episode.