Monday, February 21, 2011

First Thing I See When I Saw It Land, A Cat Jumped Out And He Formed A Band!

It's almost four years to the day since Simon Pegg and Nick Frost's last movie together, the world's first (and so far only) West Country action-cop-buddy-movie Hot Fuzz, opened to rave reviews. It remains one of yer actual Keith Telly Topping's favourite films and one that he's virtually worn a hole in the DVD of, he's watched it so many times. Before that, of course, the pair had starred in the cult-classic TV comedy Spaced and the funniest zombie movie ever made, Shaun of the Dead. Friends since they were teenagers, Pegg and Frost have a wonderfully easy-going and relaxed pithy charm when they're on-screen together which manages to translate into performances that audiences seem to really enjoy. Partly, I think, because we all imagine that as soon as they're off-screen, they'll be back in Simon's trailer eating pizza, drunking fizzy and watching some Doctor Who DVDs. Skill. In the time since Hot Fuzz, Pegg has become the spokesperson for the thinking-nerd's generation, playing Scotty in the Star Trek reboot, appearing with Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible III and has made a bunch of movies which have propelled him to the verge of the Hollywood A-list (from the excellent Burke and Hare to the really very bad indeed Run Fatboy Run). Frost, meanwhile, via solid turns in The Boat That Rocked and Money has proved that he can also cut it outside the double act, although the pair will shortly be appearing together again voicing the Thompson Twins in Steven Spielberg's forthcoming Tintin movie. Which, brings us to Greg Mottola's Paul, their latest joint venture.

If Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz were very British deconstructions of broadly American cinematic styles (the zombie movie and the action thriller), then Paul is an Anglo-British take on an entirely American genre - alien encounter and abduction conceits. It begins, however, with one foot in the pair's past, like a Transatlantic variant of Spaced. The story opens in 1947, with a dog scratching at the door of a lonely isolated farmstead, where the Wyoming sky is covered in eerie lights. When his owner, a young girl, lets the dog, named Paul, out of the house it is promptly crushed by a crash-landing alien spaceship. Off-screen we learn that the girl - Tara - subsequently pulls an injured alien, whom she names Paul, from the wreckage and that it is taken away by the government and held prisoner for the next sixty years. During which time Paul (voiced by Seth Rogan) tells the government just about everything he knows (leaving out the revelations that he can disappear if he holds his breath and resurrect the dead if he thinks about it really hard), and alters popular culture in all sorts of ways, like giving Spielberg loads of ideas for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and having a hand in creating The X-Files! Having discovered that US the government believe they've got all they can from him and now intend to cut open his brain and harvest his stem cells, Paul has eventually decided to escape from Area 51. Meanwhile, two British SF and comic fans, Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) have travelled to America for the huge ComicCon in San Diego. Clive is a wannabe SF author, Graeme an illustrator. They're an amiable pair not unlike the characters usually played by Pegg and Frost. It's their first time in the US and they feel like they've finally arrived somewhere that feels like 'home.' After having a great time at the convention, they decide to rent a campervan and do a road trip visiting all the sites of major extra-terrestrial importance across the American Mid-West. On the way to their second site, Nevada's Black Mailbox, they stop off at a café, where two hillbilly redneck scum assume they're geeks - which they are - and girlymen - which they're very definitely not! - and confront them. As Graeme and Clive hurriedly leave, they accidentally reverse into the rednecks' SUV, leaving a dent. Not wanting to become extras in Deliverance, they drive off. Further down the road, Graeme and Clive see a car in their rear-view mirror speeding after them and, believing it to be the rednecks, they have no intention of stopping. Eventually, the car overtakes them and, as it does, it crashes off the road, coming to a halt in a field. The two men investigate and discover that the vehicle appears to be empty. Clive begin phoning the emergency services but hears a voice telling him not to. They turn around, and a small grey alien comes into the light, smoking a cigar, and introduces himself as Paul. Clive faints (and pees his own pants at the same time, which is some trick if you can manage it). Paul explains to Graeme that he is on the run from the government and needs their help. Graeme agrees to let him come. When Clive wakes up, he is not happy about the idea. A series of misadventures follow as the trio are chased across country by a number of secretive government agents - each, seemingly, with their own agenda. Along the way, they are forced to take with them a Christian girl, Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig) who, until Paul shows her his memories and knowledge, believes that there are no such things as aliens. When he shatters her faith in Christianity, she suddenly becomes eager to 'sin,' which she was never allowed to do before by her repressive Bible-bashing father, who is also in hot pursuit of them. Ruth initially doesn't trust Paul, but to prove himself trustworthy, he heals her eye, as she has been blind in it since the age of four. She also begins to fall for Graeme. Paul decides to return to the girl whose dog he crashed his ship into, now an old woman, Tara Walton (Blythe Danner). Her life had been ruined by no one believing her story but she is grateful to see Paul and know that all of the things she thought she saw that night were, indeed, true. Then, the CIA agents and Ruth's father all turn up simultaneously, and a massive fire-fight ensues, during which Paul and his friends are able to escape. Paul reveals that his people are ready to pick him up, and he is heading to a - suspiciously familiar - rendezvous site. When they get there, they set off some fireworks as a signal and wait. Eventually, eerie orange lights hover over the surrounding trees. However, it is a black helicopter, with 'The Big Guy' (an excellent, cameo performance by Sigourney Weaver) on board. As she and three troops to shoot Paul, the last surviving CIA agent, Lorenzo Zoil (Jason Bateman), who turns out to have been working for Paul, bursts out of the trees and takes out the men, but is himself shot in the shoulder. Tara knocks out The Big Guy, but Ruth's father appears with a shotgun and shoots Graeme dead. Paul uses one of his alien abilities to heal Graeme, and The Big Guy wakes up, but is immediately crushed by a landing alien rescue ship. Paul leaves and takes Tara with him. The final scene, set two years later, has Clive and Graeme, now successful authors of a hit SF novel, Paul, back at Comic-Con before an enthusiastic audience. And Ruth is with them.

As a great admirer not only of Pegg and Frost's work but also Mottola's surprisingly lovely 2009 movie Adventureland, I was expecting good things from this. And I got them. Eventually. Though not, necessarily, in the places that I'd expected to. Reviews have been mixed, most acknowledging the film's obvious warmth and enthusiasm for its subject matter. However, the Independent's view was that 'from time to time, clever ideas rear their heads - like the idea that Paul has been the brains behind all SF and UFO initiatives for the last thirty years, including Close Encounters and The X-Files - but they soon return to the film's default setting of laddish japes and a conviction that the word "cocksucker" will always get a laugh.' Which, to be fair, it does so what that effing knobcheese is wittering on about, I have no idea. The film's main faults, actually, are in the bits where Pegg and Frost have tried to get too into the characterisation. Where it works, though, is because it doesn't take itself, or its subject matter too seriously.

The glorious evocation of an Englishman's first time in the US is one of the highlights. It brought back a lot of memories for this blogger of his first time in Los Angeles a decade and a half ago (ironically, to attend a multi-media convention not wholly dissimilar to ComicCon, albeit much smaller). Simon and Nick, by all accounts, had a real road-trip during which they collected ideas for the script (their first as co-authors). It's really tempting to wonder if they did have a run-in with two hick chancers in some out of the way Nevada diner. Nick said: 'You look at it on a map and think, "All right, we can probably do that in three or four days." Then after a day's driving for ten or eleven hours, you've only gone three hundred miles and you've got to travel two thousand miles.' The film's occasional sentimentality and some of the slapstick sequences that go one just a shade too long are more than compensated for by some staggering cinematography which show off some of the more out of the way US locations.

It's also a dialogue lovers dream. 'What if we wake up and find him inserting a probe into our anus?' asks an anxious Clive. 'Well, apparently they don't do that,' Graeme assures his friend. After Clive had fainted, Graeme incredulously assumes that Paul made him faint. 'It's not like I set my phaser to faint,' replies a pissed-off Paul. 'You've got a phaser?' asks Graeme, innocently. Ultimately, Paul comes over as a bit like an SF fan's version of something like The Blues Brothers. It's a road-trip with movie in-jokes by the dozen, Star Trek locations are visited and subtle (and not so subtle) references casually dropped. It's also a buddy movie, and a really rather decent one at that. Despite it's flaws, it's saved by the immense goodwill the two main characters generate towards subjects that they obviously love. Like Mottola's previous movie, there's an essential warmth and heart at the core of Paul that some over-indulgences can't wreck. Also like Adventureland, Paul has a great soundtrack (The Only Ones, ELO, Marvin Gaye, Max Romeo, The B-52s). And, if for no other reasons than it's the only movie yer Keith Telly Topping can remember to feature Billy Lee Riley & His Little Green Men's 1957 masterpiece 'Flying Saucer Rock n Roll', Paul is worth five quid of your hard earned dosh.

The latest Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day, of course, simply has to be Billy Lee Riley & His Little Green Men and 'Flying Saucer Rock n Roll'.