I have a confession to make. There’s this thing that happens to people who review movies on any kind of quasi-professional circuit. A kind of numbing of the enthusiasm gland by proxy of the inability to overlook a film’s shortcomings. The more movies one takes in, the more unavoidable it is to not diagnose lazy writing, poor story structure, bland acting, choppy VFX… The collection of pratfalls these XXL “turn your brain off” tentpole films tend to suffer. When you see 200 movies a year, the bar to dazzle becomes impossibly high. What works for general audiences who catch a movie every few months often feels flat and stale for the critic – just another coat of crisp digital paint lazily slathered on poorly recycled narrative – because we’ve already seen this exact story twice this year. Read More
Beyond darkness. Beyond logic. Beyond hope. The latest Star Trek film zooms beyond at hyper speed, rarely pausing to strike a Thinker’s pose. (Though it would rather like you to think it does.) Whereas Auguste Rodin’s bronze baby heralds contemplation, Star Trek Beyond plows through any fleeting semblance of intelligence like a horde of metal space bees engaged in kamikaze. Failing to ruminate on why audiences ought to care one iota about its disposable, busied antics. Hurrying from one expense-sheet-filling green-screen scuttlebutt to the next. Over-relying on character relationships that are age old but still skin-deep. Just another blockbuster puffy with CG steroids that’s lacking a brain, passing off sentimentality as heart and blahly going where we’ve all certainly been before. Read More
For the sake of honesty, I’ll report this: I loved 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol too much. So much so that it earned a slot in my top ten that year. To this day, it’s my favorite of the series and an improbably rewatchable event film. Even with a somewhat spotted past (Mission Impossible 2 is fun though objectively not the greatest film accomplishment), the Mission Impossible franchise is one of my sleeper hit favorites, with the last two entries – the aforementioned addition from Brad Bird and J.J. Abrams‘ Phillip Seymour Hoffman-starring threequel – delivering some of the series’ absolute best material. When it was announced that Christopher McQuarrie (director of Jack Reacher, screenwriter of Batman & Robin) had mounted the directorial stool for the fifth iteration of Ethan Hunt’s impossible missions, my anticipation shuttered and cautiously withdrew. Read More
As innocent a project as Hector and The Search for Happiness is, no one asked for a British spiritual remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Daydreams and bottlenecked ambitions find both characters in a tidy world of their own design that, like fireflies trapped too long in mason jars, have run out of oxygen and run on the humdrum fumes of expectation. Both of these uplifting films see a worker bee break free of their employment imprisonment to “find themselves” in a globetrotting journey around the world. Popping in to foreign landscapes and cultures, Hector, like Walter, discovers that what he was looking for was always right in front of his face. It’s about as stale as such a concept sounds.
Hector and the Search for Happiness begins presumptuously with Hector’s loving but equally routine-oriented girlfriend Clara, Rosamund Pike, cinching up his tie for his cushy psychiatry job. Brandishing the metaphorical noose, he’s ready to hear the suburban sob stories of his well-to-do clients. It’s ironic because his position is one of a guide out of the forest of psychological duress and yet he has a bushel of his own issues, GET IT?!
His client’s increasingly “first world problems” drive him increasingly nutty, until during one fated session, Hector bursts. He berates a crestfallen housewife, painting her sunburnt suburban lifestyle for the city dwellers paradise he believes it to be. You have no idea what pain is, he shouts. Happiness comes from within, he bombards. So why is he so goddamn empty?
Reeling from the monotony of life and unsure of his clinical effectiveness, Hector seeks to discover what exactly it is that everyone else has that he doesn’t, so installs a reversible hat on his shag of thinning ginger hair and purchases a one-way, business class ticket to China to uncover the recipe for “happiness”. Onboard, Hector acquaints himself Edward, played by Stellan Skarsgård, a filthy rich businessman who seems to have his own little secret to happiness who takes the unassuming Hector under his wing as the first of many “spiritual guides”. And so begins Hector’s titular search that’ll take him onward to a shanty village in Africa and the left coast of America before plopping him right back in London he came from.
The biggest ball in Hector’s court is star Simon Pegg, without whom the picture would be nothing shy of utter failure. With Pegg’s bumbling magnetism giving a knee up to the whole shebang, we at least have a hapless character that we don’t mind rooting for, even if the larger picture carrying him is clumsy and miles from groundbreaking.
Known for his wry, farcically humor, Pegg tries on a more somber cloth here and it isn’t necessarily ill-fitting. In fact, much of the power of the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End) came from the earnest emotionality of the Pegg-Frost dynamic. So while Pegg doesn’t suffer under the weight of a more dramatic script, he does seem a bit naked without an arsenal of comic beats.
Some have gone to the lengths of throwing the label “racist” at Hector and his titular search but it’s one I don’t believe fits. Racially insensitive, sure. Poor diversity casting, absolutely. Racist? not really. Sure, everyone of importance whom Hector encounters around the world happens to be white – the exception being his black warlord captors and the Asian prostitute he nearly falls for. And while such might contribute to certain worldview stereotypes, it suits a picture which genuinely attempts to take nationality into account. If it’s racist to depict foreign cultures as foreign then sure, Hector might fit the buck. As it stands, it’s just a little white-washed.
Because in the end, a perceived culture of racism doesn’t really have much bearing on the overall quality of the film. What really takes Hector and Pegg down a peg is it’s complete lack of anything new to say. It’s a film about accepting your lot in life, about celebrating the routine rather than raging against it. It’s a photocopy of a film from just last year. It’s a film about being, well, ordinary. So in the end, who can really be all that surprised that a film about how being ordinary is ok is only ordinary.
The Boxtrolls, Laika Studios‘ third outing, sees more of the fledgling studio’s highly-demanding, signature stop motion animation come to life onscreen, flush with smart, though not game changing, camerawork and charming characters aplenty. Directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi with a script adapted from Alan Snow‘s “Here Be Monsters”, The Boxtrolls follows a orphaned boy growing up with in underground society of steampunk, gadget-friendly trolls, unfairly maligned by society overhead.
Isaac Hempstead Wright (Game of Thrones) is Eggs, so named because the box that clothes his is an old eggs box. This is SOP in Boxtroll world. A squat-faced troll with a high heel on his box is called “Shoe”. Oil Can has an oil can on his box as Fish’s box, you guessed it, has a doodle of a fish skeleton. Blink and you’ll miss the troll named “Fragile.” Adopted by this society of cardboard-wearing, nonsense-talking troglodytes, Eggs joins his brethren trolls on missions to hunt down useful garbage from the city streets above but must be careful to avoid the vigilant net of Archibald Snatcher. For years the city has commissioned Snatcher to hunt down and capture all the Boxtrolls, assuming an incident in which a baby went missing was on their three-fingered hands.
Those first handful of minutes spent with Eggs, Fish and Shoe are without words and are nonetheless quietly moving. Similar almost to Wall-E, the absence of language doesn’t alienate us from these characters so much as let us get to know them from an emotional perspective. They goobly gook their way through things, like mute children. Without all the chatty chatty, we become fast friends with these ruckus-causing nocturnal hermits through their actions and their innocence.
As Snatcher, Sir Ben Kingsley – in nearly unrecognizable voice work – chews through scenery like it’s bubble gum. He pontificates evilly, obsessed with the one thing in the world that he cannot have: power… or is it cheese? It’s confusing because in the world of The Boxtrolls, they go hand in hand. The city leaders, The Men in White Hats, sit around and consume imported cheeses like they’ve just finished a stint on Survivor. Rather than sign the proposition for a new children’s hospital, they dine on a foreign Gruyere or a odorous bleu. The jabbing political undertones laid throughout are as subtly hysterical as Snatcher’s sole mission to access the revered tasting room, even though he is dangerously allergic to cheese.
Strange, singular character motivations like that work so well for Boxtrolls that we almost forget to care about how this story has been told a thousand times before. Snatcher is the perfect movie baddie just as his philosophical sidekick Mr. Trout (Nick Frost) is the perfectly muddy moral compass. Frost’s bumbling yet well-meaning character is responsible for an unmatched percentage of the laughs. Even with sparse screen time, he whips the comedy into shape like the folks in Paranorman never could.
Missing though in The Boxtrolls is the dark palette that had defined previous Laika efforts Paranorman and Coraline and with it much of the really next level visual flourishes. In Paranorman, the sky turns to breathtaking streaks of neon purple and afterlife green. In Coraline‘s third act, the claymation world comes to piece in bits and strips and it makes for absolutely stunning work. In Boxtrolls, the environs stagnate and fail to provide a sense of artistic progress. Further, there’s really only three or four settings for the entire film. In their sandbox, they play beautifully. I just wish there was more to the sandbox.
But that’s because this time around, Laika has moved the focus onto the characters, who look better realized than ever before. They’re much less choppy, almost to the point of appearing to be the work of CGI. Surprisingly in this case, with more precision comes more charm. And though The Boxtrolls is an unequivocal step up from the visually stunning but emotionally lacking Paranorman, it unfortunately doesn’t come close to the crazy heights of Coraline. Perhaps I have an unfair appraisal of Coraline (the first time I saw it, I pulled an unprecedented move and immediately watched it again) but you need a ladder to heaven to achieve such animated perfection. Though still in the shadow of that artistic behemoth, Boxtrolls is one of the finest animated films of the past few years.
You might know him as the schlubby, stoner, best friend burnout from Shaun of the Dead or the hoodwinked, adolescent dunce of a cop in Hot Fuzz but you don’t know the real Nick Frost. Sensitive, kind and sharp as a katana, Nick dreamed up an unlikely passion project in Cuban Fury, a workplace/sports comedy orbiting around the world of salsa dancing. As the film’s hero and salsa dancing extraordinaire, Nick may not be the first person you’d think of with a name like Cuban Fury but, according to him, that’s the point. It’s all about going against expectations. After all, there’s something inherently funny about watching a man of his stature throw his body around like a 120 pound Latina woman.
Nick and I sat down to discuss the process of making the film, working with best friends Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, what they might all do next, cameos, writing, Ant-Man, and the big Fox pilot he’s filming this month.
The press notes claim that the roots of the film came from a drunken email you wrote pitching the idea of you doing a dancing movie. But when did that idea come to you and made you think it would make a great movie?
Nick Frost: I think I had that idea about three years ago, but it could have been five fucking years. I think after doing Shaun of the Dead and then Hot Fuzz and Paul, the genre specific, fanboy films, which I’m very proud of and that is me, I always kinda wanted to do a dance film where I was a dancer. If you want to do something completely different and out of left field of you as a performer, doing a dance film is it for me. So I harbored that idea and my gut instinct was that it was a good idea. Because it was a good idea, every time that it knocked on my consciousness, I would say, “Fuck off” cuz it’s a good idea. I’d drive it away with a pitchfork or a flaming torch back into my subconscious. I got back from a party at like 2am and sat there and was a bit belligerent and was like, “I’m gonna do it,” and just pitched. I wrote what I imagined the film would be in a big long email and pressed send. I woke up the next day and didn’t remember but had this weird unease that one might have if you’d french-kissed an aunt. “What have I done?” So I put my computer up and saw a message in my inbox, essentially saying, “This is a great idea. Let’s have a meeting.”
So you came up with the idea but you did not want to write the screenplay. Why was that?
NF: I couldn’t be bothered, to be honest. The thing about writing a screenplay is that you are taken out of circulation in terms of acting. Paul took so long to write. It was bitty and piece-mealy. As much as I did like writing Paul, and I’ve written two since, I found my love for it again but the thought of sitting in a room on my own writing a screenplay held noi joy for me at all. So we found John Brown who wrote the thing and we sat down and I gave him a little bible of what the story should be and my character and potential other characters and that was it. John just went and did it, he was amazing. I don’t want to overestimate my part in that, it was not much at all. John went off and delivered a great first draft and we’d give it notes or not, because it was so nice. I’m not sure I could have been like this as a younger person but if you’re getting people like John Brown in, you let him write it. You don’t fiddle with it. He’s a craftsman, a skilled writer. You have to trust these people or shut up and write it yourself.
Do you see yourself writing another screenplay in the future sometime soon or are you kind of turned off from the writing process?
NF: I just finished. I guess you never really “finish” but I’ve finished the first draft about a thing called Cockney Lump, which is about a British wrestler being induced into the hall of fame.
Are you gonna play the part?
NF: Yeah. So that’s something I’ve been working on with Studio Canal for a year or so now. There’s a nice script now. I was in Boston over Thanksgiving this year and last year and I was shooting a film with Vince Vaughn and James Marsden and I have eight days off from shooting. I don’t know anyone in Boston. I’m in a hotel like this with a bar downstairs. What I didn’t want to be doing is everyday at lunchtime going out for something to eat and a drink. What kind of life is that? You’ve got eight days off in Boston. I set up alarm at 6am and I got up and wrote for ten hours every day. I just sat there and wrote. It woke up in me the love of doing that. Since that point, I’ve kind of finished a children’s book that I was doing and I’ve written a short film that I’m gonna direct later on in the year. Just kind of got it going again.
This being a dance movie of sorts, obviously you had to cut some dope moves on the rug. How much dance rehearsal did that demand of you? I’m gonna go ahead and assume you didn’t pull the front flip off the car?
NF: I did not pull the front flip, but that’s not technically dancing. I would say that 98% of all the dancing in the film is me. I trained for six or seven hours a day for seven months before we shot a roll of film.
So are you really comfortable as a salsa dancer now?
NF: We shot that before World’s End to be honest. I had a week between wrapping that and starting World’s End and I’ve done bits and pieces here and there too. If you’re doing it seven hours a day everyday, you’re an expert for that point. But it’s like language, the longer you don’t use it, the rustier you get at it. In terms of specifics, I’m kind of pretty bad at this point. But the fiery heart of beating Latino culture is kind of there for every.
It’s just the technical aspects that fade away.
NF: Yeah, I think I’d be better than most but I couldn’t do the dances I was doing.
So you’re not gonna go do Dancing with the Stars next?
NF: I wouldn’t want to to be honest.
I wouldn’t want to see you there.
NF: On a Saturday night my mother-in-law and father-in-law will come over and my baby loves it and the whole family will just sit there and eat a curry and watch Dancing with the Stars. I think it would spoil if it had my fat, horrible fucking face gunning over an American smooth.
Talking about The World’s End, that’s the last film that you’re doing in the Cornetto trilogy with Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. I know that you guys had this idea forever of doing the three satire, action, genre movies and now that you’ve finished that out, I hate the idea of you not collaborating again. I’m sure that you do as well since you guys are such a fantastic team. Have you tossed around ideas of when you’re gonna work together next and what it might be on?
NF: Yes, we had a great idea on the plane, as we often do. Flying from Wellington to somewhere else or Sydney to here. I’m not gonna tell you what it is, but it’s a good idea. The fact is, Simon has Mission Impossible and he’s gonna do that this year. Edgar is doing Ant-Man. I’m doing a Fox pilot with Justin Long. If that gets picked up, I’ll be out of the game for a little bit. We could of made a decision just to make a film a year that go down in terms of quality because you’re just pumping shit out because you need to feed an audience’s expectations or you can sit on an idea for four years. If we only make a film every five or six years but it’s something that people really dig, I think that’s probably better than people going off you because you do too much.
Would the next thing that you guys work together on be a sort of thematic sequel to this or would it be a whole new direction?
NF: I think it’ll be completely different.
I’m so curious. I would have to see what you guys do next. Speaking of Simon, you guys have this great onscreen chemistry but in real life, you’re also dear friends.
NF: (Shows tattoo with SP (for Simon Pegg) and EW (Edgar Wright).
Well that is just fantastic. Anytime when you’re doing a movie, you other one cameos. Is that an unspoken agreement or is that a pact. Like, “If I’m in the movie, Simon is showing up.”
NF: This just seemed kinda right for it. It took us a while to shoot that you know because we did a bunch of different versions of it. There was a version where he slowed down and said to me, “What are you doing here? Who are all these people?” And you could see the crew. I think in the edit we looked at it so many different way and the best way was the fact that he quickly drifts through frame.
It seems like you’ve got a lot on your platter coming up. What are you most excited for?
NF: Well working with Justin Long. I’ve been a fan of his and we’ve known each other for a bit. I got sent this pilot script and it was great. This is something completely different for me. I’ve never done anything like this before.
So what’s the character?
NF: His name is Robert and he’s a high-functioning alcoholic who happens to be a powerful lawyer.
NF: He does something quite bad and is assigned a sober companion for 90 days.
Played by Justin Long?
NF: Yeah. And this is the story.
So are you still in the development stage?
NF: Well we’re shooting the pilot at the end of the month. It’s part of the pilot season machine and then we’ll find out in May if it gets picked up.
I’m assuming that that’s also more on the comedic side?
NF: Yes it is, absolutely but when the main character is a struggling alcoholic, you can’t ignore the fact that that destroys life and affects people around him. That will be given the screen time it deserves and not just do a wacky, balls-to-the-wall “here comes the drunk guy again.” I think it’ll work if both are.
Will you be playing a Brit?
NF: Oh yeah, I’m English.
Yeah, I’ve never seen you do an American accent.
NF: “Hey man, you want a hamburger” (in an “American” accent).
It just wouldn’t feel right.
NF: There are a million America actors if you want to give it to an American actor. This is probably a limitation in me as a performer but I kind of have that weird belligerent streak of “I’m an English actor!” I think if something is set now, there’s no reason in the world why they couldn’t be English. I get if it was set in 1860 but it’s now.
Have you ever thought about going straight drama, for example Chris O’Dowd, who you co-starred with in this, just did Calvary which was very dark and grim.
NF: Absolutely. I never was trained as a comedian. I’m not a comedian, I’m just someone who has always been a funny dick and now I just get to do that as a job. In terms of people and human beings, you can be both and that’s where a lot of truth is. The crossroads between tragedy and comedy. I call it putting the fun back into funeral. A lot of the funniest times I’ve had in my life are at funerals and after funerals. One minute, you’re crying because your grandmother has died and the next minute, a group of relatives are drinking Jamesons and howling at her memory. That’s real and that’s a really real place to be.
Obviously your collaborator who you’ve worked with quite a bit, Edgar is going off to Ant-Man. There was some talks that Simon might be in a leading role there. Did they ever approach the two of you?
NF: No, it was all bullshit. We knew that it was just Edgar’s thing. When we were doing press tours for The World’s End, the joke that the three of us would share is whenever someone would ask Edgar about Ant-Man, I would take the question. “I’ll take this Edgar. I’m really pleased to be playing Hank Pym.” It would really make him laugh. But it’s Edgar’s project really. Scott Pilgrim wasn’t a lesser film because me and Simon weren’t the vegan police.
Maybe it was…
NF: That film was fantastic without us in it and the same with Ant-Man, it’ll be fantastic without us in it.
Would you do maybe a high-budget, tentpole, Marvel-type situation? Could you ever see that in your future?
NF: Who would that be, if I’m just being pragmatic about it.
Well maybe not necessarily in the starring role.
NF: Well yeah, absolutely and I would love to do it. It would be a lot of fun. But in terms of playing a lead in something like that, who would it be? The Rhino?
Paul Giamatti’s already got that one.
NF: I think I need to be aware of my limitations as a human being and Hollywood’s expectation of what they’re willing to spend $150 dollars on.