SXSW 2011: Paul

If you never knew how big of geeks Simon Pegg and Nick Frost were in real life, you will after watching their new film, “Paul,” because it’s bursting at the seams with geeky sci-fi references – particularly the oeuvre of Steven Spielberg, which plays a big role in informing the world of the film. But while there are a lot of winks and nods directed at fanboys, “Paul” is a much broader and more accessible comedy than the duo’s other movies. That pretty much ensures it will perform better at the box office, but despite a steady stream of laughs throughout, the film too often relies on easy and crass jokes, and quite frankly, it’s beneath everyone involved.

Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) are the best of friends – a pair of British sci-fi geeks who have travelled to America to attend San Diego Comic-Con and then take a cross-country road trip across the U.S. Heartland on a tour of UFO hotspots. But when they witness a car crash on the highway and stop to make sure everyone is okay, they’re surprised to see a green alien named Paul (Seth Rogen) emerge from the shadows. Though they’re hesitant to trust him at first, Paul – who’s been marooned on Earth for over 60 years – wins the pair’s trust and help in getting back home. Along the way, they accidentally kidnap a Bible-thumper named Ruth (Kristen Wiig) who reluctantly joins their cause, all while being pursued by a dogged FBI agent (Jason Bateman) ordered to capture Paul for government testing.

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There’s a host of other characters that play a part in the adventure – including Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio as a couple of bumbling agents assigned to Bateman, John Carroll Lynch as Ruth’s overprotective father, and Blythe Danner as the little girl who pulled Paul from the UFO wreckage 66 years earlier – but the heart and humor of the movie comes almost exclusively from its three stars. Pegg and Frost pick up right where they left off in “Hot Fuzz” with a natural onscreen chemistry that feeds off their real-life friendship, while Rogen really shines in the title role. This is a buddy movie not just about Graeme and Clive, but the bond that they form with the alien hitchhiker as well, so Paul’s relationship with them has to be completely believable (from the photo-real CGI to his human-like mannerisms) for it to work, and Rogen plays a big part in its success.

Where the movie falters, however, is in how poorly it utilizes the rest of its talented cast, because Graeme, Clive and Paul are so fully realized that everyone else appears one-dimensional in comparison. Kristen Wiig is particularly annoying as Graeme’s love interest, who experiences a drastic personality change shortly after meeting Paul when she abruptly gives up religion and starts swearing like a sailor. It’s meant to be funny, but it gets old really quick, and that’s the biggest problem with “Paul.” The script is needlessly lazy at times, and the only reason some of the jokes even work is because Pegg and Frost have such a great rapport. Fans of their previous work will definitely enjoy seeing the duo reunited once again, but while “Paul” is a solid action comedy featuring a standout performance from Seth Rogen, it’s a film that will make you wonder how much better it might have been with frequent collaborator Edgar Wright in charge.

  

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A Roundtable Chat with actress Lesley Manville (“Another Year”)

A classic case of an “overnight success” who’s been working successfully for decades, Lesley Manville was just starting to be able to bask in the glow of a job extremely well done during the junket for “Another Year” last month. A few weeks later, the already simmering Oscar speculation around her performance in the latest film from maverick English director Mike Leigh got an early boost: she won the Best Actress award from the influential National Board of Review alongside a number of nominations elsewhere.

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Lesley Manville began her career on the stage and British television, making her film debut with a minor role in Mike Newell’s 1985 melodrama, “Dance With a Stranger.” In 1988, she appeared in Mike Leigh’s worldwide breakthrough comedy, “High Hopes,” the first of six films so far with the director known for his uniquely collaborative approach. Notable roles in Leigh’s historically-based “Vera Drake” and “Topsy-Turvy” followed, along with numerous less well known films and television shows. It’s possible that she’s best known to the mass U.S. audience as Mrs. Cratchit from Robert Zemickis’ motion-capture “A Christmas Carol.”

In “Another Year,” Manville portrays Mary, a lonely and progressively more depressed alcoholic whose visits to the home of a contented therapist coworker (Ruth Sheen) and her husband (Jim Broadbent), become increasingly painful. It’s a powerful and all too real-seeming portrayal that has hit Manville’s career with enormous force.

Even without a huge number of awards, I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot of Manville from now on. During the post roundtable chatter, I half jokingly suggested that she should work on her American accent, and she reminded me that she had just recently finished doing the very American play by John Guare, “Six Degrees of Separation.”

Things got a bit interesting late in this group interview, when one of the other writers present asked a question which Manville, perhaps stung by some past public discussion of her short-lived late 1980s marriage to Gary Oldman, deemed overly personal. With a little luck, Lesley Manville will have to deal with more prying from less from the press in years ahead.

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Saturday trailer #2: “Paul”

Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, an overly relaxed ET voiced by Seth Rogen and director Greg Mottola mix it up in an international trailer with slightly disappointing picture quality in every embeddable version I can find. You might want to check out the version available over at UK Yahoo, but if you’re feeling lazy today like me, this will probably do. This trailer also offers glimpses of characters played by Jason Bateman and, yes, Kristin Wiig who doesn’t appear to be at all annoying here.

I think I agree with Monika Bartyzel that really doesn’t look to be quite in the same ballpark as previous Pegg & Frost outings. Actually, to be honest, it doesn’t even look close to that good in this particular trailer. Considering that Edgar Wright isn’t involved, maybe that’s not too surprising. On the other hand, screenwriters Frost and Pegg and Greg Mottola don’t have some skills of his own and Mottola’s last film, “Adventureland,” had a trailer that many thought sold it short. Let’s hope there’s more going on here than meets the eye in this trailer.

  

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Today on Film Geek’s Corner: Edgar Wright salutes “Danger: Diabolik”

With the passing of the great producer Dino De Laurentiis earlier this week, it’s probably an apt time to run this installment of “Trailers from Hell.” For all his robust crassness, De Laurentiis usually aligned himself with the most distinctive directors around. Below, distinctive director Edgar Wright — most recently of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” — discusses a very silly film by another acclaimed distinctive geek auteur, Mario Bavo.

Personally, I find Bava’s films a little bit hard to watch straight through. On the level of narrative, they’re kind of a mess and I can’t live on visuals alone. On the other hand, what visuals. After the flip, I’ll present the regular trailer sans commentary, and also that Beastie Boys video Edgar Wright alluded to.

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Weekend box office: “The Expendables” kills with men; “Eat Pray Love” shines for women; the world defeats “Scott Pilgrim”

The ExpendablesI doubt he follows box office grosses, but like one of the books by right-leaning humorist/pundit P.J. O’Rourke, this weekend most certainly could have been entitled Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut. To be specific, Jason Statham is still two years shy of his 40th birthday, but he’s an infant compared to most of the cast of writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone‘s “The Expendables.”

The action flick, about mercenaries hired ostensibly to overthrow a repressive Latin American regime, relied on the very sound box office logic that if one or two super-macho action stars could lead to reasonably dependable ticket sales even when well past their physical peak, eight very grown-up action stars (counting two superstar cameos) was more or less a sure thing. More or less as predicted by everyone, the bloody R-rated actioner earned just over an estimated $35 million for Lions Gate. So says the mighty Box Office Mojo weekend chart.

Also, while Julia Roberts is substantially younger than Stallone, the early forties are not young in actress years. Her many female fans, and the fans of the popular memoir, “Eat Pray Love,” embraced that maturity to the tune of an estimated $23.7 million for Sony. The studio spent a perhaps excessive $60 million on the flick, though the film clearly needed a star like Roberts to open like this, so her reported $10 million salary was probably worth it for the studio.

Sony had a decent weekend overall, with last weekend’s #1 film, “The Other Guys” suffering an average drop of just under 50% and earning an estimated $18 million in third place. Warner’s very leggy “Inception” held firm with an estimated $11.37 million getting into fourth place in its fifth week.

Then we have “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” The Pilgrim reception is inducing nasty flashbacks of past would be “viral” successes with its estimated $10.525 million. The film may well do better over the long run as it’s already a huge cult success, if you think about it, and the international numbers could always be different. Being “big in Japan” has certainly saved a lot of bands, why not Mr. Pilgrim?

However, it cost a not-tiny $60 million (including various credits and rebates for the Toronto-based films, says Anthony D’Allesandro) and was pretty much the talk of the Internet film geek sites for most of the summer. It also reportedly has done very well with the people who’ve actually seen it, both anecdotally and, according to Anthony D’Allesandro, according to Cinemascore. It should have done a lot better.

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Behold the power of the Internet…to make fans bored with a movie before it comes out, while still leaving non-fans out in the cold.  More about this in a post to come later in the week, after the “actuals” come out. I will say I thought “Scott Pilgrim” would beat “Kick-Ass” as it theoretically should appeal to a wider audience, except that the superhero jet-black comedy actually made about $19 million on its below-expectations opening. As the man said, no one knows anything.

Meanwhile in limited release, the second highest per-screen average went to a decent opening for the intriguing Aussie crime thriller “Animal Kingdom” and “Get Low.” The folksy melodrama — which didn’t make me or anyone else in the audience I saw it with laugh much but some insist on calling a comedy drama — continues to get reasonably high at the box office despite my poor review and my delayed write-up of the press conference with charming stars/acting legends Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek, which I promise you’ll be seeing before much longer. I truly don’t see the appeal, but Oscar hopes are growing for this one. More on limited releases, as usual, at Indiewire.

  

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