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

The Boxtrolls: American Attempt at British Humor (Review/Trailer)

The Boxtrolls: American Attempt at British Humor (Review/Trailer)

Going in to see The Boxtrolls, it is quite easy to get excited about the pedigree brought to the film by certain performers who are voicing main characters, but the film does not work, it is an American attempt at British Humor that just does not make it. The film loses its way very quickly at the beginning and never recovers from its directionless meandering. At the start of the movie screening attended by this reviewer a number of the audience were laughing or chuckling at events on screen. However, after the initial 15 minutes of the film’s open passed, the amusement dried up and younger members of the audience lost interest in whatever was happening in the stop-motion film.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006) Dysfunctional Family Fun

Cover of "Little Miss Sunshine [Blu-ray]&...
Cover of Little Miss Sunshine [Blu-ray]
Written by Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and directed by not one but two directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (these directors have been a ‘double-act’ for years, mainly in the realm of music videos and documentaries) Little Miss Sunshine is a ‘feel good film’ that entertains and amuses.

The film marks a couple of firsts. It was Michael Arndt’s first penned feature film and directorial team Dayton and Faris’s first full length feature film. Little Miss Sunshine had budget of 8 million dollars and was filmed in just 30 days on location in Arizona and Southern California.

It opened to rave reviews and to date has garnered a net profit of over 100 millions dollars. The film won two Oscars; Alan Arkin for best supporting actor and Michael Arndt for best original screenplay. The film went on to be nominated for a total of fifty-four times and garnered an additional fifty-two awards.

For an ‘Independent’ film, the cast list is impressive, Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear, Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, and Abigail Breslin. It is overall an ensemble film, but it does revolve around Olive (Breslin) and her interactions with the family. She is the centre piece of the story and the other actors and events circulate around her.

The story is about the Hoover family. Richard (Kinnear) is the head of the family and he is peddling a “personal success” book and holding seminars to try and drum up interest in the book. He is a positive thinker who seems to be a cross between John Wayne – “Never apologise, it’s a sign of weakness” he says to Olive at one point in the film – and J.P. Morgan.

Sheryl (Collette) is the long suffering wife and mother, who tries to make the tight family budget fit their everyday needs and tries to keep the family happy. She is almost the polar opposite of Richard and she is the peace maker of the family.

Grandpa Edwin (Arkin) is the patriarchal head of the family, but in his mind only. He is old and he is busy trying all the things that are bad for you before he dies. He is full of advice, while the family are travelling he tells his grandson Dwayne (Dano) that  he should be ‘fucking’ all the women, not just those cute cheerleader type.[sic] He has helped Olive (Breslin) rehearse for her pageant competition by teaching her a ‘dance’ routine.

Picture of Abigail Breslin, American actress. ...

Olive dreams of competing in the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant and she gets her chance when the winner comes down with an illness. Dwayne hates his entire family and is refusing to speak to anyone, he writes his responses and statements down. He dreams of joining the ROTC for the Air Force and becoming a pilot.

Enter into the family mix Sheryl’s brother Frank (Carrell), he has just tried to kill himself and is suffering from depression since his male lover left him for another man.

When Olive finds out that she can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, the family decide to take her there. Thus begins the road trip that will tear the family apart and then bring them together again. On the way out to the pageant Grandpa Edwin dies and the family have to steal his body from the hospital, because they don’t have the money to pay the bill and they don’t have time to bury him.

When Olive finally gets to the pageant the family are at breaking point.  when it’s Olive’s turn to participate in the talent portion of the pageant she tell the emcee that she’s dedicating her performance to her Grandpa as he taught it to her. When the emcee asks Olive where her grandpa is, she says, “Oh he’s in the car.”

Rick James‘s Super Freak starts playing and Olive comes out and begins her performance, which to the pageant’s organiser horror is a variation on a strippers act. When the organiser demands that dad Richard remove her from the stage, he decides instead to join Olive on the stage and dance with her. In a show of solidarity the entire family join Olive and dance together on the stage.

This film from start to finish made me laugh, made me cry and made me care for the characters in the film. At the beginning of the film, you can’t help but dislike Richard with his ‘gotta win’ philosophy, but by the end of the film you love him.

You actually wind up loving the whole dysfunctional family. By the end they are less dysfunctional and have learned so much about themselves that you know they will continue to grow and support each other.

The film is about dreams and failure and the acceptance of both. If I am feeling low, I watch Little Miss Sunshine and even though I choke up at the end, I feel immediately better.