THE TRIP TO GREECE (2020)

May 21, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Now is either the absolute best time to release this movie, or it’s the worst. During a pandemic with directives to stay home, you would be excused for classifying a cinematic travel trip by funny buddies as either a harsh prank or a welcome fantasy. Director Michael Winterbottom is back for his fourth film in the franchise featuring wise-cracking pals Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. The first three were: THE TRIP (2010), THE TRIP TO ITALY (2014), and THE TRIP TO SPAIN (2017), and each were edited into feature films from their respective BBC Television series.

The players remain the same, as does the formula. Only the location provides a change-up. Beginning in Turkey near the historical site of Troy, complete with the photo op at the Trojan Horse monument, Coogan and Brydon are on a 6 day assignment to cover (mostly) the 10 year journey of Odysseus in Homer’s “The Odyssey.” The symmetry is noted in the film as this marks the tenth year since they first began traveling together.

The men make their way to Stagira (now Macedonia), the birthplace of Aristotle, as well as Hydra, Athens, Delphi, and Ithaca. Of course, at each destination, the boys stop for a ridiculously upscale gourmet meal at a world class restaurant that features a breathtaking view. It’s during these savory meals, and in the car during the trip, and well, just about any other time, Coogan and Brydon continue their never-ending game of one-upsmanship. Impersonations, punchlines, and spirited verbal sparring are all done with the hope of making the other person laugh, or admit defeat. While the Michael Caine impersonation never makes an appearance, we do get dueling Mick Jaggers and Dustin Hoffmans, as well as moments for Werner Herzog, Ray Winstone, and Barry Gibb/Bee Gees (with “Grease” and “Staying Alive”).

Stunning scenery and historic locations provide ammo for some of the banter between the two comics, including whether Alexander the Great was an original gangster. However, there is also an underlying message here. The two argue over who should wear the respective masks of comedy and tragedy while they are on the hallowed grounds of an ancient Greek Theatre, and Coogan makes the point that “Originality is overrated. Everything is derivative.” This commentary applies not just to their own “Trip” franchise, but also to many other elements of society.

Perhaps there are a few too many aerial shots of their Range Rover traveling down a road, but the back country is so beautiful, we can’t complain. The same goes for those restaurants. Sure it’s torture to watch as they enjoy delicious food, but the scenery is unique to their locale. As we wonder when, or even if, we will ever be able to travel the globe again, perhaps the best lesson here is to value our time with friends and loved ones. A personal crisis is used for this series finale, though it also leaves us with the proclamation that that these trips have been “Mostly fun and games.” So, “already enjoy.”

Available on Digital Platforms and VOD May 22, 2020

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GREED (2020)

March 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Greed for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” Those words were part of the iconic speech from Gordon Gekko (an Oscar winning role for Michael Douglas) in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film WALL STREET. Here we are 3 decades later, and there may not be a more tarnished word, attitude, or approach than ‘greed’, and filmmaker Michael Winterbottom re-teams with his “The Trip” collaborator Steve Coogan to deliver satire on today’s ultra-rich.

The always entertaining Mr. Coogan stars as Sir Richard McReadie, also known in the media by numerous other names like: Greedy McReadie, McGreedy, The King of High Street, and The Monet of Money (a label he seemingly applied to himself). Sir Richard is apparently modeled after fashion mogul Sir Philip Green (owner of Top Shop), and with his fake tan and blinding white teeth caps, makes a pretty easy target for Winterbottom’s bashing of the too-rich.

A loose structure to the film is provided by the contrast of the coordination and excess going into planning McReadie’s upcoming 60th birthday toga bash on the Greek isle of Mykonos, and the official inquiry by Parliament into his questionable business practices. Scenes from the committee hearings are interspersed throughout the film, along with some flashbacks to young McReadie (played by Jamie Blackley) honing his negotiation skills. There is also McReadie’s hired biographer Nick (played by David Mitchell), a spineless freelancer thrilled to have the job, despite his initial obliviousness to what McReadie is all about. Although Nick does uncover some of the cruel labor practices, the character seems to be a way for Winterbottom to poke at journalists simultaneously to his scalding the rich. Celebrities for hire also take shot to the bow.

Isla Fisher plays Samantha, McReadie’s ex-wife, whose Monaco residence helps hide the family/ex-family fortune. The relationship between these two is not just creepy on the balance sheet, but plays out in ways apparently acceptable to the lifestyles of the wealthy. Asa Butterfield plays their overlooked and underappreciate son Finn, and the always fabulous Shirley Henderson plays Irish mother Margaret in such a way that we wish more of the movie was about her. McReadie’s daughter Lily (Sophia Cookson) is pretty funny as she films her Reality TV show in the midst of her father’s party preparation … which includes Bulgarian workers building a replica of a Roman amphitheater to act as the site of a GLADIATOR reenactment – replete with a live lion (not a tiger)!

Sarah Solemani and Dinita Gohil play two of McReadie’s key assistants, and provide us a glimpse of how real people struggle to work amidst such waste and ego and unrealistic expectations. McReadie kinda quotes Shakespeare, but we feel certain he’s not a well-read man. Instead his talents are in bending a system and forcing others to acquiesce to his demands. The tabletop shell game he mastered as a parlor trick is really just a miniaturized version of his business empire … trading one highly-leveraged enterprise for the next, while cashing in on the process.

Winterbottom’s approach is often confusing and sometimes drifts towards mockumentary for flashbacks and interviews. It’s an uneven comedy that works at times, and doesn’t at others – not uncommon for satire. Coogan makes McReadie always fun (in a disturbing way) to watch, though the film never clicks better than the Keith Richards moment near the end. The anger-based acidic comedy satirizes what’s happening in the real world, and tries to further expose how the mega-rich take advantage of the rest of us. Some well executed bits make this one worth watching, but really offers little in the form of insight or solutions. Instead it’s just infuriating … at least in the parts where we aren’t laughing. We certainly don’t laugh over the closing credits as real world statistics are provided regarding inequality and third world labor.

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THE WEDDING GUEST (2019)

February 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. I pity the poor soul who, based on the film’s title, buys a ticket assuming it must be a light-hearted romantic-comedy starring Katherine Heigl. While we do watch a slow-building romance, this is much more of a road trip through parts of the world we don’t usually see on screen. Writer-Director Michael Winterbottom (A MIGHTY HEART, THE KILLER INSIDE ME, THE TRIP) has had a solid career with movies that tend to be quite watchable, though not particularly memorable. Chalk up another.

The film opens in a subdued manner with a man (Dev Patel) meticulously packing a suitcase, boarding a plane, landing in Pakistan and renting a car. These are all things any of us might do if headed to a wedding. Only this mysterious man of few words also buys 2 guns, plastic ties and duct tape. Either this is going to be a honeymoon unlike any other, or he’s on a different mission altogether. We don’t have to wait long, as the night before the wedding, Patel sneaks past the armed security guard and into the family compound so that he can kidnap Samira (Radhika Apte), the bride-to-be.

Mr. Patel plays a British Muslim man with various names and identities, and a supply of passports. He was hired by a shifty rich guy (Jim Sarbh) who loves Samira to prevent her from going through with the arranged marriage. The meet up gets delayed as the kidnapping and fallout make national news. The story evolves into a predictable and familiar road trip, but with a delightfully different setting and backdrop than what we are accustomed to. A train to Delhi plays a role with Samira and her kidnapper on the lam – working to remain anonymous.

The film does offer up some twists and turns for us, but after an intriguing first 15 minutes, we pretty much know where things are headed. Fortunately the camera work of Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (HELL OR HIGH WATER) keeps our attention, as does the back and forth between Dev Patel and Radhika Apte, two excellent performers. So yes, the film is one we can enjoy watching, though it will likely never come up in conversation.

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THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES (2015, doc)

December 17, 2015

emperors new clothes Greetings again from the darkness. I’m not one of those who subscribe to the belief that documentary films should present all sides to the story in a “just the facts, ma’am” style. In fact, I respect a filmmaker who is so passionate about a topic that he/she enthusiastically attempts to overwhelm the viewer with “proof” that their opinion is the definitive truth and no further debate is needed. Here, renowned director Michael Winterbottom (The Trip, 2010) supports comedian/actor/activist Russell Brand in his agenda to educate the masses on the evil of big banks and rich people, and the need for re-distribution of wealth.

Now that agenda may seem a bit odd coming from an admitted rich guy, but in fact, Brand’s professional success lends some credibility to his argument … or at least it’s a different approach than having a group of people living in poverty talk about how they got screwed by “the man”.

To say that Brand dumbs-down his explanation is certainly an understatement. To emphasize this, there are a couple of segments where he utilizes elementary level students to differentiate between rich and poor – what’s fair and what’s not. Concentrating mostly on the British economy, while also noting the similarities to the United States 2008 crash, Brand makes the argument that the turning point was approximately 35 years ago as Margaret Thatcher assumed power and Free Market Capitalism took over. It’s a bizarre point coming from a native of a country whose Monarchs (not known for their “fairness”) date back for centuries. However, this is an example of the keep-it-simple approach in getting the masses to join his quest.

Borrowing a page from Michael Moore’s long-successful script, Brand presents the big banks and the super rich as the villains of society. It’s a common theme and one that’s pretty easy to agree with … the banks were bailed out, and then proceeded to pay their upper management huge bonuses. The viable argument is, why don’t they pay “us” back? Brand attempts to follow Moore’s lead again (while referencing Joseph Campbell) by walking into the banks and asking to see the CEO’s. These attempts fall flat, and leave us with Brand wise-cracking while bystanders try to figure out if it’s all a prank.

The most effective sequences involve Brand walking the streets of Grays London where he was raised. His discussions with the locals are real, and infinitely more enlightening than his storming into bank lobbies. The statistics don’t lie – the rich are getting richer, while the rest of society struggles. George Carlin said it best … the poor are needed to keep the middle class motivated to work so the rich can benefit. Brand also rails against legal tax evasion via offshore accounts – especially in Grand Cayman. He lobbies for those accounts to be taxed and the money returned to the country of origin.

Most of Brand’s mission is preaching the importance of fairness, and the claim is made that by definition, capitalism is the inequality of power. Whether you agree with him or not, Brand is to be respected for using his celebrity status for a cause much more important than the best table in a restaurant, or courtside seats to a game.  His simple-is-best approach carries right through to the end where he does offer up his list of recommendations to create a more fair system.  If his simple and sometimes funny approach allows more people to enter into discussions, then his cause is worthwhile, even if his recommendations are a bit lacking in substance and depth.

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THE KILLER INSIDE ME (2010)

July 18, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film is based upon the work of crime novelist Jim Thompson, who is quite famous as a writer and whose works have often been translated to film. This time oft-creepy director Michael Winterbottom is in charge and comes pretty close to creating a masterpiece. Unfortunately, the bits that fall short, very nearly ruin the film.

Psychological crime thrillers can be the most fascinating genre (see Inception), but only when the lead psycho is relatable in some sense and the story is complete. Here, Casey Affleck gives an outstanding performance as the dude you don’t want your daughter to date. There is a deep darkness hidden behind his aw-shucks facade of innocence and cutesy west Texas drawl.

The violence is expected, yet still shocking, when it first rears its head on poor Jessica Alba. We feel the first punch. What happens in this first encounter catches us off-guard and leaves us wanting to know more background on Affleck’s character. Instead, we are really only spectators in his plan of violence that seems to have no real goal. Think Natural Born Killers. Heck, even Ted Bundy had a real plan!

The creepiness factor is upped a bit since most everyone associated with the crimes seems to suspect Affleck’s character, but no one knows what to do or how to stop him. Kate Hudson, Elias Koteas and Simon Baker (miscast) give it a go. Personally I wanted more of the Koteas character as well as Ned Beatty, who plays a powerful developer against whom Affleck holds a grudge.

Bill Pullman is tossed in near the end to help wrap things up, but mostly the ending is as unsatisfying as the rest of the story. It is uncomfortable to watch Affleck’s character, so devoid of morals and empty of soul, but it feels wasted on a small town deputy sheriff with no vision. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing … but it makes for a much weaker film.