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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Pegg’

I’ve always had a sort of soft spot for the Mission: Impossible movies, partly because I like the TV show but mainly because when the first film came along I was at a bit of a low ebb and generally not feeling very good about myself – Brian de Palma’s movie made me forget all that, really cheered me up, and somehow set the tone for a summer which ultimately turned out to be much better than I could have expected. As a result it may be that I am prone to grant subsequent installments an easier ride than I would usually in the case of vacuous studio cash cows possibly coming around the block once too often.

Which brings us to Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, possibly the most punctuation-intensive title for a sequel since the last Tomb Raider movie. If you think that sounds more like a computer game than a movie, then – hmm, your Jedi powers stand you in good stead.

It all kicks off with junior Impossibles Simon Pegg (Mission Specialities: Geekiness and Comic Relief) and Paula Patton (Mission Specialities: Decorativeness and Ticking Diversity Boxes) busting Tom Cruise (Mission Specialities: [deleted on the advice of our lawyers after a close reading of the libel laws]) out of a Russian nick (since the last movie Pegg has passed the exam letting him participate in the main plot). Cruise is in there for a reason, but we needn’t worry too much about that.

Cruise and his new team are required to infiltrate the Kremlin (parts of which appear to have been sneakily disguised as Prague Castle – oh, those Russians!) in search of information as to the identity of a nutty boffin intent on starting a nuclear war in the name of progress. (The whole film operates on this kind of level, in case you were wondering.) But the boffin is onto them, blows up the Kremlin (but not Prague Castle, thankfully) and pins it on Tom and the gang. Caught up along with them is honorary Impossible on secondment from HQ Jeremy Renner (Mission Specialities: Worrying and Having A Mysterious Past).

With the superpowers bracing themselves for war (not that anyone outside the team seems particularly exercised by this) and Tom and the Impossibles disowned and hunted by their own government (though not very hard on the evidence we’re presented with – there’s a Russian cop who keeps popping up, though), stopping the boffin from setting off the nukes is going to be a challenge. But, as Sir Tony observed a couple of sequels ago, it’s not called Mission: Difficult

Ghost Protocol proudly introduces itself as A Tom Cruise Production, and if productions take after their producers in the same way that pets take after their owners, it should come as no surprise to anyone that this movie is utterly bonkers. Not necessarily in a bad way, but you should sever all links with reality before taking your seat. The first couple of M:I movies, at least, were moderately implausible action thrillers with a techno bent – but somewhere along the line a border has been sneakily crossed and by any reasonable definition this movie is really very silly SF. Spider-Man-style adhesive gauntlets, magnetic levitation kits, laser saws, and holographic wallpaper – they’re all here.

To accommodate all the gadgets the script isn’t really very much more than a succession of massively implausible set-pieces – you may well have seen the one with Cruise hanging off the side of a hotel in Dubai, but there are a number of others of broadly the same character. Alarm bells may be starting to ring, but do not be too hasty – crucially, Pixar alumnus Bird knows how to put together a polished and intricate spectacle, and the movie’s money sequences all hold together with every impression of effortlessness. It all still boils down to the Impossibles hurling themselves down ventilator shafts, dangling out of windows, and pretending to be people they’re not (not so much business with masks this time round, however), but it’s done with the greatest of style and energy.

Unfortunately, although this is obviously not the kind of film in which the participants are gunning for acting awards, what it really needs in order to wholly satisfy as a piece of breathless entertainment is a protagonist who can really invest it with some warmth and humanity. And what it has is Tom Cruise. General perceptions of Cruise, whether accurate or not, long ago reached the point where they colour every film he makes – and shall we just say that this doesn’t synergise well with his playing an obsessive, slightly ludicrous figure, as he does here? It’s not even as though he gives much of a performance, anyway – he’s a clenched, impassive lump at the centre of the film (clearly a lump with a good personal trainer, of course), hardly showing any emotion for most of it. As a result, scenes (and a whole subplot) dealing with Cruise’s emotional life and history just seem a bit superfluous – it also feels as if they may be there just to explain how this film connects to Mission: Impossible 3, and I for one wasn’t that bothered about that.

Nevertheless, the rest of the team do sterling work in propping Cruise and the movie up. Jeremy Renner is, as usual, rock-solidly reliable in support. Simon Pegg’s increased visibility reflects the rise of his star in recent years – although it seemed to me he was almost doing a bit too much in the way of comic relief in an attempt to personalise the movie. Paula Patton also carries out her duties commendably (I’m not saying this is a film with somewhat unreconstructed attitudes, and will leave you to discover for yourself which of the four leads is the one required to do a scene in their underthings).

The last two Mission: Impossibles whipped by enjoyably enough without leaving much of an impression on me. It’s early days with regard to Ghost Protocol, but I enjoyed it at the time – a slick, silly, very professionally assembled piece of blockbuster product, with lots of nice bits (not least the unusual sound of Lalo Schifrin’s immortal theme played on the sitar). I’ve no idea whether this series has anything left in the tank – I suspect that will rather depend on Tom Cruise’s career trajectory – but Brad Bird’s achievements, at least, are rather impressive, and I’ll be interested to see what he does next.

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The rise of Simon Pegg to genuine movie stardom has been a source of vicarious (not to mention slightly ridiculous) pleasure to me. I mean, I’ve met Pegg once, about eight years ago, and we spoke for five minutes at the absolute most. But he’s a thoroughly nice bloke (or at least he was prior to making Shaun of the Dead) and it’s been nice to see him get on, both as the lead performer in his own films and the comic relief in blockbusters (some hard-core Trekkies may disagree).

 

Currently enjoying a high-profile release in the UK is Pegg’s new film, Paul, directed by Greg Mottola. In it, Pegg and regular sparring partner Nick Frost play Graeme and Paul, a couple of British SF and UFO fans on a visit to the San Diego comic-con followed by a tour of places in the south-west USA like Area 51 and Roswell. The trip takes an unexpected turn when they witness a road accident, the driver involved being – well, the titular Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Paul is also visiting the US, but from rather further afield: he’s an alien who’s been stranded on Earth since 1947 and is on the run from the government who’ve been holding him prisoner ever since. Paul recruits Graeme and Clive to give him a lift to a spot where his ride home will shortly be arriving – can they get him there while avoiding the relentless Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman), a bona fide Man in Black?

Hmmm. Having gone to a number of SF conventions in my time, and fairly recently returned from my own road trip through the south-west US, I felt a definite affinity for Paul right from the start. However, even this did not disguise the fact that, compared to Shaun or Hot Fuzz (which are surely going to be most people’s points of reference), this movie is a little bit disappointing.

It’s by no means a total failure – I laughed a lot, and I feel obliged to mention that many people at the same screening as me were laughing considerably more than me. But there are long stretches where the laughs-per-minute ratio drops fairly drastically, and some of those were born as much of recognition as genuine amusement. It’s a very likeable film, just not hilarious.

One assumes this is partly due to the absence of Edgar Wright, director and co-writer of Shaun and Fuzz, who was off making Scott Pilgrim at the time. In his place, Mottola does a very decent job as a director, but the script – co-written by Pegg and Frost – is just a touch shapeless, lacking in structural rigour, focus and wit. The comedy’s a little too broad and repetitive, and the scenes attempting to evoke genuine pathos feel forced and intrusive. Even the plethora of nudge-wink references to other films don’t raise the smiles they should – some of them are a little obvious and heavy-handed, and at least one of them is painfully cheesy. (The central idea that SF fans are also likely to be Flying Saucer people is also… well, while it’s central to the script, it ain’t necessarily so, and Simon Pegg knows as much.)

One element of the script which actively annoyed me was a subplot about a character named Ruth (played by Kristen Wiig) who gets picked up along the way. Ruth is initially an uptight creationist, but meeting Paul causes her to lose her faith and become (essentially) a foul-mouthed thrill-seeking hedonist. Nothing wrong with that idea in principle, but to begin with Ruth’s written as a one-dimensional caricature, a militant atheist’s idea of what a Christian fundamentalist is like. And then she turns into a Christian fundamentalist’s idea of what an atheist is like. At no point does she ring true as an actual person. I don’t have a problem with people pointing out the (extremely numerous) flaws in Biblical creationism as a world-view (I’ll happily do so myself at the drop of a hat), but Paul‘s treatment of this is basically to take a few cheap shots at an easy target.

As well as co-writing the script, Nick Frost also finds himself promoted to, effectively, joint lead in this film. Frost’s ability to steal scenes from much more experienced performers, often with not much more than a line or two, is formidable, but he’s much less effective when it comes to carrying large sections of the film himself, as he does here. This also means that Simon Pegg, a genuinely gifted actor as well as a great comic, has fewer chances to shine. To choose a metaphor they’d appreciate, Pegg and Frost are like Han and Chewbacca: a great double-act, but one of them’s much better at long dialogue scenes than the other.

I’m being quite critical of Paul, but the fact remains that I enjoyed watching it and by no means felt I’d wasted my time or money. Pegg is always very watchable, Seth Rogen delivers a great vocal performance as the title character, and Jason Bateman plays it commendably straight as the man on our heroes’ trail. (Sue from Glee turns up in a slightly alarming wig, too.) Compared to most comedies, Paul is smart and warm and – above all – funny, and it’s only in comparison with Pegg and Frost’s previous work that it falls a little short of expectations.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 15th 2004: 

Hello again everyone, and you see before you the writings of a relieved man. It’s always a risky proposition to go to the cinema expecting that the evening’s film will be a marvel, a triumph, a joy to behold, because then even if it turns out to be only ‘not that bad after all’, it’ll still on some level be a disappointment. That goes double when you feel a personal loyalty, however slight or unwarranted, towards someone involved with the project. And when said project is a British comedy film, a genre with a frankly dodgy track record of late, well, you’re not exactly doing yourself any favours…

The source of all this angst is Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, a rom-zom-com (romantic comedy with zombies in it) co-written by Wright and Simon Pegg. I bumped into Pegg (he said nonchalantly) last summer just as filming was about to get under way and asked him how the film was coming on. Now I’m going to sound biased and soppy here but he really was quite extraordinarily friendly and genuine towards a total stranger. Ever since then I’ve been looking forward to the movie and desperately hoping I could write nice things about it…

And I can! Given all of the above, you would be right to question my objectivity, but this is a great, witty, pacy film – a hilarious comedy that also manages to be an astonishingly grim horror film. It’s the story of Shaun (Pegg) a coming-up-to-thirty guy whose life has never quite clicked into gear, mainly due to his own laziness. Wanting him to make something of his life is his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), while holding him back is his slovenly flatmate Ed (Nick Frost). As the film opens, Liz finally tires of her relationship with Shaun solely taking place in their local pub, and goaded on by her flatmates (Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis) insists that things change.

Shaun being Shaun, he mucks it up and she chucks him. Will he be able to win her back? Will he be able to resolve his relationships with his mother and stepfather (Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy)? Will his life finally get into gear? And will the sudden collapse of society as a zombie apocalypse gets underway have any impact on all these things?

Pegg and Wright are probably best known for Channel 4’s hyper-hip and knowing sitcom Spaced, and a lot of reviewers are basically describing this as Spaced: The Movie. Well, there’s something to be said for that, as nearly all the Spaced gang are present and correct here: in addition to Pegg, Frost, and Wright, Jessica Stevenson has a small but crucial role, and Julia Deakin has a timy cameo. But for all that, the style is very different – Shaun has none of Spaced‘s genre spoofs or knowing film references (with the exception of a brief but gleefully vicious sideswipe at 28 Days Later). Wright’s direction is fluid and intelligent without being overexcitable, and he handles the build-up well.

By this I mean that Shaun seems to start off as a fairly generic British relationship comedy – with the startling anomaly that nearly all the jokes are actually funny – about the troubled personal lives of twentysomething people. But gradually, other elements start to appear – odd news reports play in the background and are ignored by all the characters, and extras begin behaving very oddly indeed, until finally the film tips over into true horror territory and the dead begin to prey upon the living in earnest.

The balancing act between humour and horror is elegantly achieved, with only a few scenes uncertain in tone. It’s such a gradual shift that when the film suddenly reaches a very dark place and principal characters start meeting very sticky ends indeed – depicted, by the way, entirely straight – it’s a genuine shock and it all seems much more harrowing as a result. These moments have more genuine emotion than most proper horror films can muster. This is partly due to a cast almost entirely made up of performers best known for playing comedy – in retrospect, a brilliant ploy. Seeing an anonymous American leading man graphically eviscerated and devoured on screen is no more than one would expect – but when it happens to a performer one subconsciously associates with cuddly comedy dramas or quirky sitcoms, it feels like such a deviation from the norm that it is genuinely appalling and horrific.

And in a funny way Shaun of the Dead is much closer in tone to George Romero’s original Dead trilogy than a certain big-budget remake reviewed in these pages only a fortnight ago. This is partly because Shaun‘s zombies are shambling, easily-underestimated semi-competents, rather than snarling athletes, but mainly because the film uses them as a metaphor for the drone-like existence many people in this country lead all the time (it’s quite hard to tell the dead apart from the living at first, and later on Shaun and his friends settle upon the local pub as their sanctuary as the crisis deepens, only to discover all the zombies are instinctively going there too). There’s also a Romero-ish quality to the desperate bickering within the group as the dead close in around them, and an outright (if subtle) steal in the suggestion that contamination from a space probe is actually responsible for the zombie phenomenon.

Smartly written, played, and directed, and making an impressive success of both the genres it attempts, Shaun of the Dead is a treat that will renew the faith in cinema of anyone unlucky enough to see Sex Lives of the Potato Men. The undead subject matter may put you off – but I beg you not to be dissuaded. This film may have cult classic written all over it, but it deserves a much wider audience, and much wider success, than that. Highly recommended.

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