Man Up (2015) Simon Pegg and Lake Bell – A Very British Rom-Com (Review)

Written by Tess Masters (The Love Punch, My Family) and directed by In-betweeners maestro Ben Palmer Man Up is a rom-com of a very British sort, where the filmmakers go back to the make-believe England created so brilliantly by Richard Curtis

Man Up Simon Pegg Lake Bell.

Written by Tess Masters (The Love Punch, My Family) and directed by In-betweeners maestro Ben Palmer Man Up is a rom-com of a very British sort, where the filmmakers go back to the make-believe England created so brilliantly  by Richard Curtis in films like Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Despite perhaps a tad too many homages to previous Pegg films, like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the film does deliver some genuinely brilliant comedic moments.

Rory Kinnear manages to almost steal the film as the creepy, stalker-y former class mate of Bell’s character and Olivia Williams (Sixth Sense, Dollhouse) gives a great cameo performance as the soon-to-be ex of Pegg’s character. There are a number of familiar faces in the film as supporting characters. Sharon Horgan, Ken Stott and Harriet Walker are among the quality performers in the film.

The plot, where a mid 30s singleton female, Nancy (Bell) who is a bit of a wallflower manages to meet Jack (Pegg) a 40 year-old man who was meant to meet a 24 year-old girl on a blind date. As meetings go, this one clicks due to a Hannibal Lector quote from Jack, which Nancy was quoting earlier at the start of the film.

Man Up works for a number of reasons. Firstly, both Bell and Pegg are playing a version of Simon Pegg that exists on screen.  This makes their becoming a couple almost inevitable.  These two people are essentially the same person, their humor and their mind-sets are the same.

The two meet, the result of mistaken identity, at the train station. Jack thinks that Nancy is Jessica, a 24 year-old triathlete, who his mate Tom set up as a blind date. Nancy inadvertently stands in the right spot holding the book Jack expects to see, a DIY book on living.

Despite the need to reach a bit for suspension of disbelief, the film’s set pieces convince.  The “Duran Duran” “Reflex” scene is magic. The couple, arguing on the dance floor, pause dramatically as the opening bars of the song begins. Each takes the position of the “dance” that goes with the song, eyes perfectly straight and focussed. They then begin the dance and continue the disagreement.

Later, in the same club, but at the bar, the drinking scene also resonates with a comic interchange that is perfectly executed.  Flaming cocktails have never been so funny.

The bowling scene, which happens earlier than the dance scene, allows both characters to get increasingly raunchy, uninhibited and fun as they consume more alcohol while playing the game. Bell is cute, funny and sexy as hell as she postures and plays.

Rory Kinnear enters the scene as a clerk at the food stand at the “novelty bowling alley” who has obviously had a thing for Nancy since school.

The film follows the two on their journey to true love and the ending, while silly,  is memorable and damned funny, and will make the viewer tear up a little. The “homages” were a little obtrusive and in some cases that bit too obvious.

For example, when Nancy races Jack back to the classy wine bar/restaurant there is a scene lifted right from the second of the cornetto trilogies, Hot Fuzz.  This is not the only reference to other films in the trilogy, but the whole thing is saved by Bell’s character “strategically puking.” Other instances are not.

Other scenes, which look brilliant, also stretch the realm of believability. The crowd of drunken teens racing the streets of English suburbia in the middle of the night would surely result in police action, but, despite the fact that no one,apparently, notices what looks to be a drunken riot, the scene does work, just.

Man Up succeeds by having two main characters who are quirky, likable, slightly naive and  who love all the right things, for example Silence of the Lambs and “Duran Duran.”  The role of Jack is one that Pegg could play in his sleep, a slight variation on a character he created initially in Spaced. Bell plays the female version of the Pegg character beautifully and this is what makes the film work so well.

Romantically and comedically the film entertains.  (How can any film not be funny when it includes the Bl**job Paradox.) Kinnear helps the proceeds with his creepy/funny classmate  and the rude (“F**k the past!”), yet cheesy ending still works and it sums up the film’s appeal in the final moments before the end credits roll.

Man Up is a four out of five stars, there really were a bit too many “homages” in the film and this did cost the movie a full star. It is airing on Netflix at the moment. Head over and get your Simon Pegg fix and fall in love with Lake Bell, but not before admiring what Kinnear brings to the film.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – Tom Cruise as Older Ethan Hunt?

It is permissible to hate Tom Cruise a little. Especially when one is a scant four years older than the action star who is still in his “Peter Pan” years at 53. Cruise, in Mission Impossible:Rogue Nation may be a little bit older as Ethan Hunt, but no less limber or attractive to the opposite sex.

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt

It is permissible to hate  Tom Cruise a little.  Especially when one is a scant four years older than the action star who is still in his “Peter Pan” years at 53. Cruise, in Mission Impossible:Rogue Nation may be a little bit older as Ethan Hunt, but he is no less limber or attractive to the opposite sex.

Cinema goers will not have seen the featurette’s that accompany the DVD release(s) where fans can see Cruise going through the paces and doing his own stunts and not being crippled for days at the mid century mark, but they can rest easy in the knowledge that the over 50 action star does an awful lot of his own work. Or they can purchase the Blu-Ray and if they are older gaze in awe at his years younger lean look.

As easy as it is to be envious of the top notch shape the star is in, or his seemingly indefatigable enthusiasm and energy for the work he does, it is just as pain free to admire the man who has risen again and again to unimaginable heights.  In the Mission Impossible franchise alone, Cruise has almost reinvented what amounts to an American icon.

There have been no less than five of the big screen versions of a 1960s (The show ran from 1966 to 1973.) cult classic spy thriller television show that allowed Peter Graves (the real life brother of Gunsmoke‘s Jame Arness) the chance to weekly do the impossible. With Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Greg Norris, and other notable names like Leslie Ann Warren and Sid Haig, the show was a fan favorite.

The move to make the transition to the big screen and replace “Mr Phelps” with Ethan Hunt was a smooth one, although Graves as Phelps dies in the first seconds of the first in the franchise, and Tom Cruise then became the new “face ” of the IMF.

Thus endeth the short history lesson of Cruise becoming Hunt.

Each visit to the Mission Impossible verse is slightly different although the “template” is pretty much the same, each film is a mission that should fail. These good guys do not have that word in their vocabulary so by the skin of their teeth, the IMF succeed. Cruise as producer manages to keep each new installment in the franchise  fresh by swapping out directors.

The list of helmsmen for the film’s many iterations are impressive, Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J.  Abrams, Brad Bird and the last, Christopher McQuarrie all come with impeccable pedigrees.  It could  almost be a “who’s who” of talented directors who bring much to the table and each have left their own stamp on the finished product. The cast had Ving Rhames on board from film one, joined later by Simon Pegg  as Benji (Mission Impossible III) and Jeremy Renner came on board for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

Increasingly, Cruise’s Hunt and Pegg’s Dunn have become a double act/team. In many ways it feels as though the Brit entertainer, with so many hats, has taught Cruise a different sort of comedy. While this may seem like the case, in reality it is more a dream team  of performers who each compliment the other when on screen and interacting as a duo.

Hunt has always been portrayed as a capable go-getter who is far removed from a mundane Agent Normal  “everyman” with great toys.  Cruise points out that his character is not a superhero as much as someone who just will not give up. Hunt disregards the impossible and so does his team.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, has its fair share of “comedic” moments. Many of these are interwoven into the action scenes so that one can chuckle nervously while watching the action through spread fingers across the face.  This is the allure of the franchise, Cruise can do subtle action comedy well.

(Anyone who doubts this should watch Edge of Tomorrow, immediately.)

This latest in the franchise has a femme fatale to die for, almost literally, in the shape of one Brit/Swede star who has a passing resemblance to Hollywood legend Ingrid Bergman. Rebecca Ferguson is killer as the tough-as-nails double agent who helps Hunt, kicks bad guy butt with panache and still looks great with wet and bedraggled hair.  That “almost” cut glass accent does not impede any action that this powerful woman need employ.

Perhaps the best thing in the entire film is its elusive villain, Sean Harris. This Bethnal Green lad could have been born to play baddies. From his nightmare inducing character in Creep (2004) to his crack-fueled drug and gun dealer Stretch in Harry Brown (2009) and even his less terrifying scientist in the 2013 film Prometheus, Harris gives every character he inhabits a living truth that is either terrifying, disturbing or annoying. Whatever his roles are, we believe them completely. 

It is Harris as puppet master who makes Hunt look so good. On a sidenote, this third outing as Benji Dunn for Simon Pegg marks an increase of his capabilities as an agent.

The plot, like the music, is a blend of twists and turns that take the viewer on a great roller coaster ride. Car chases that amaze and create a sense of envy (After all, who has not dreamed of driving a muscle car down a long row of steps?) as well as choreographed fight scenes that look spectacular.

Apart from the action and excitement the driving force of the film is that  Ethan has had IMF disbanded by the snotty head of the CIA , Alan Hunley.

Clearly Alec Baldwin (that nice guy that any girl would love to take home to mother in Beetlejuice) can play smarmy douchebags in his sleep, which in no way is a reflection on his personal life, by the way… Baldwin manages to emote pettiness and jealousy from his every pore in the film, while kudos could be in order, one feels that the actor could have “phoned this one in.” Baldwin is just that good at being a douche…

The story jumps from place to place at break neck speed, fans of the franchise get what they want (there is even the obligatory face-mask scene) and everything works well. Hunt may be a bit “klutzier” than usual, but it works as does that marvelous plane stunt with the “wrong door” gag.

Having missed this in the cinemas all that can be said is that it loses little on the smaller “home screen” and that it would have been nice to have more Ving Rhames. McQuarrie as director does a brilliant job, the cinematography is as breathtaking as the stunts and the acting, spot on.

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt may be that bit older, but it appears that the actor either has a painting in his closet a’la Dorian Gray or his membership with the church that Katie Holmes scarpered from has made some sort of deal…with someone….

If this film does not appear in your stocking from Father Christmas this year, rush down and grab it or stream it. This is 5 star escapist entertainment of the finest sort. Fun to watch with a fizzy drink in one fist while shoving some popcorn into your open mouth with the other. Enjoy.

Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014): Simply Sublime

Still from trailer for Hector and the Search for Happiness

Despite having worked as a “film critic” and being a member of the Nevada Film Critics Society, I am not jaded enough to find the 2014 film Hector and the Search for Happiness anything other than simply sublime. Reading various reviews and finding that the film opened to mixed and negative reviews surprises and disappoints. Simon Pegg is truly wonderful as are his co-stars in the film and Rosamund Pike works brilliantly in this far removed from Gone Girl role.

Helmed by award winning English director Peter Chelsom (Serendipity, Shall We Dance) from a script adapted from the French book of the same name by François Lelord, the film follows the journey of Hector, a psychiatrist who is fed up with his relationship, his job and his life. He undertakes a trip to discover just what happiness is and how to get it.

In many ways the movie is like an exotic travelogue. Pegg’s character visits Singapore, Africa and America in his journey. Like a modern day Phileas Fogg, just without the balloon, Passepartout or indeed the wager that gets the whole thing started, Hector travels to several different countries meeting new people and old friends in his search.

Hector and the Search for Happiness also has a bit of an Alan Whicker or Michael Palin (the old Monty Python member who traded in his comedy chops for travel documentaries) feel, where the main figure learns of other cultures and how they see the world. Even before finding out that the film is based on a French novel, one can tell by the structure of the film and its plot that this could very easily have been a film from that country.

The use of cardboard cutouts in the plane scene, the flashbacks to childhood and the feeling of the film is one of arthouse chic. This combined with the simplicity of its message must have put off the more serious minded critics who reviewed the movie at the cinema.

Leaving such pretentious prattling behind and looking at the cast, the film delivers brilliantly. Stellan Skarsgård drops his Norwegian accent, and leaves the world of the Avengers behind, to become Edward; a richer than rich businessman who insists that one can buy happiness. Jean Reno leaves his badge and assassins tools at home to play an African drug lord who trusts no one but loves his wife completely.

Christopher Plummer uses his dulcet tones to narrate and play the small cameo of a professor who uses a machine that looks like an old fashioned hair dryer to track emotions in the human brain. Toni Collette plays Hector’s former flame with perfection.

The end of the film moved me to schmaltzy tears as Pegg discovers a few home truths. (I’ll not say what they are, no spoilers here.) His journey may not be life shattering over all, although at one point it looks as though Hector may not survive, but it is interesting enough to keep the viewer watching.

*On a side note, I did notice that just as in real life, all airport terminals do indeed look the same no matter where they are.*

Sure, some of the signposts are a bit stereo-graphical in nature but that does not spoil the message of the film or take away our delight when Hector finishes his search. Despite what other reviewers have said about this particular offering my verdict is a full 5 stars. Any film that can make me cry in Burger King in front of strangers, without the darkness of a cinema to hide my blushes, gets full marks. Hector and the Search for Happiness is streaming on US Netflix now. Watch this one and enjoy, unless you are too sophisticated for it.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2008) Real Life, But Not

Poster for How to Lose Friends and Alienate PeopleThis, sort of, biopic about Brit journo Toby Young is entertaining fodder. Never mind that it took me around seven years to finally watch this film, there were reasons…Okay? Essentially, like most amusing features based upon humorous memoirs, the film is about real life, but not really. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is pretty much fictional from the first frame. Where Toby, renamed Sidney, for the film worked in New York for Vanity Fair magazine, Pegg’s journalist works for Jeff Bridges, in the guise of Clayton Harding owner of Sharps a celebrity focused glossy.

It is fun, at the start of the film to see Thandie Newton, as herself, interacting with Pegg’s character, probably a payback for appearing together the previous year in Run Fatboy Run! and what’s wrong with that?

The romantic interest in the film is played by, alternatively, Megan Fox, who had not yet insulted her Transformer’s producer Michael Bay and Kirsten Dunst who had just finished her Spider-Man run as Mary Jane. There are a number of respectable names in the film. Gillian Anderson, whose character may, or may not be a cougar who tempts Young into dancing with the devil so to speak.

Everyone in the film looks ridiculously young, no pun intended. Pegg looks like he has regressed age-wise from the superior television comedy Spaced and Fox looks very different as well, having not gone that final step with plastic surgery that “refined” her face, and body even further. Sadly, there is no cure for “toe-thumbs.”

Jeff Bridges could have been Shemped at the start of the film as he talks to Pegg’s character looking away from the camera. In fact, the Oscar winning star could have phoned his role in as it did not require an enormous amount of effort on his part. The same could be said of Dunst.

Danny Huston, however, excelled as the sleazy and oily king of the paps who heads up the “show and tell” portion of the magazine. I will admit a soft spot for Huston whom I fell in love with initially in 40 Days of Night and then later in The Warrior’s Way and American Horror Story.

The beginning of the film offers such familiar British acting worthies as Chris O’Down, James Cordon and Fenella Woolgar as well as the more famous English stars in tiny cameos, Daniel Craig, Kate Winslet; and Australian star Toni Collette.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is amusing and at one point it borrows from the second of the Cornetto trilogies, Hot Fuzz, where they do a riff on the “Can I have your autograph” gag. Compared with other Pegg offerings, this film is much better than, say, Burke and Hare but not quite on par with any of the Cornetto trilogy films.

On Netflix at the moment, along with A Fantastic Fear of Everything and while the biopic is definitely worth a look, the latter film can be missed without too much guilt. 3.5 out of 5 stars for this older funny film.

1 June 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

‘Kill Me Three Times’ Simon Pegg Black Comedy on Demand

Simon Pegg as Charlie Wolfe Directed by Kriv Stenders (“Red Dog”, “Boxing Day”) and written by James McFarland (in what appears to be his maiden effort as screenwriter) this black comedy and film noir spoof, with its limited theatrical and video on demand release is quite amusing and gives Simon Pegg fans a chance to see him with a Poncho Villa mustache and dark hair. Starring Pegg, Alice Braga (“Predators,” “I am Legend”), Luke Hemsworth, brother of Chris aka Thor, Callan Mulvey, Sullivan Stapleton, Bryan Brown (“FX,” “Cocktail”) and, an apparently pregnant, Teresa Palmer, the movie moves at a frantic clip and does try a little too hard to entertain.

That said, it is still entertaining, with Alice Braga playing against type as victim and Pegg playing what must be the world’s most incompetent assassin. The story begins with what must be the worst voice over Pegg has ever done. It is not the “Shaun of the Dead” star’s fault, however, it is McFarland’s dialogue. Stiff and clumsy, the opening words of the dying “hit man” are an instant turn off.

If one sticks with the film and ignores the awkward beginning, the movie does pay off. The plot has Braga as Alice Taylor, wife of hotelier Jack (Mulvey). Her hubby is an extremely jealous type and a bit too ready with his fists. Somewhat understandably, Alice has run to the arms of petrol station owner Hemsworth who plays hunky Dylan Smith. Smith may be what Mrs. Taylor prefers, but in the overall scheme of things, he is a muscle bound chap with a diminished brainpan.

The interweaved plot thread has 250,000 Australian dollars going from one person to another. A dentist with a terrible gambling problem, whose wife Lucy (Palmer) sets up her brother Jack’s wife in an insurance scam. Pegg is the other interwoven piece of this plot line and his hired assassin is either too drunk to operate his weapons properly or is the worst shot in the history of killers for hire.

The musical score is reminiscent of Robert Rodriguez’s grindhouse offering “Planet Terror” a kind of 70s noir with twanging guitars and synthesizers. Although there is a sort of Tarantino feel in some places, it is Planet Terror that this film’s soundtrack takes it cues from.

Pegg’s character seems to have been written by McFarland as a sort of homage to many of his prior roles. There is even a direct nod and wink to Sgt. Angel from “Hot Fuzz,” “look at his arse.” Charlie Wolfe (Pegg) is a construct of Simon’s other roles, from “Spaced” to “The World’s End.”

This is a problem, along with the stilted dialogue and the accent Wolfe spouts. Since the character is driving an American car, it seems that he may be a “yank,” or at the very least a tourist, but there are those dead give-a-way British pronunciations that mess things up.

Bryan Brown makes an impressive local baddie and although it’s been a long time since “FX” and “Cocktail” the Australian actor still has those impressive acting chops. Teresa Palmer looks enough like Elizabeth Montgomery that if a biopic were ever done, she would fit the lead like a glove.

Speaking of Palmer, she looks to be impressively pregnant and despite Stenders’ best attempts, it is very noticeable. The actress has come a long way since her debut in the J Horror sequel “Grudge 2.”

All the characters in the film almost appear to be stereotypes of Australian types. While this does not detract from the movie itself, it would be interesting to see what the country thought of this decision. Colloquial opinions aside, these “types” work very well for the movie’s plot.

The film feels a little like a noir-ish updating of the 1963 film “Comedy of Terrors” with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff. Both films feature a character that deals in death and both feature another character that refuses to die.

The cinematography is crisp and clear and the scenery is spectacular. Being a hopeless fan of Australian cinema, I liked the film. Pegg’s character is not a nice chap, and despite the inept nature of his hit man and his genuine delight at the turn of events, he still comes over as likeable.

Releasing the film with a limited theatrical run, coinciding with a video on demand option seems to have been a wise move. The film is, perhaps, a bit too eclectic for the main stream and while Simon Pegg fans may like the movie, it may have a hard time finding an audience.

Still worth a look, or two, and overall the blackly comic noir spoof is enjoyable and despite some plot holes here and there, worth the time spent watching it. A solid 3 out of 5 stars.

22 April 2015

Michael Knox-Smith