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

watch the trailer:


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.

watch the trailer:


STAN & OLLIE (2019)

January 5, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Any list of the all-time great comedic teams would surely include Laurel and Hardy at or near the top. Influenced by pioneers such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and The Marx Brothers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (the rotund one) rose to the top of the comedy world through their films and shorts produced by Hal Roach Studios during 1926-1941. In later years, we recognize the Laurel and Hardy influence in hugely popular acts such as Abbott & Costello and The Three Stooges. Director Jon S Baird (FILTH, 2013) and writer Joe Pope (PHILOMENA, 2013) deliver a warm tribute to the comedy giants by giving us a peek on stage and off.

The film kicks off in 1937 when the duo are the height of their popularity, and a wonderful extended opening take allows us to follow them as they make their way across the studio lot and onto the set of their latest film, WAY OUT WEST. Before filming the scene, they have a little dust up with studio owner Hal Roach (Danny Huston) over the money they are being paid per their contract. Stan thinks they deserve more, while Oliver, racked with debt from a stream of broken marriages, prefers to not rock the boat.

It’s this early scene that acts as a precursor to the challenges we witness in the business partnership side of the duo. Imagine if the work of you and your business partner were on display for the world to judge. And how does friendship fit in? The film flashes forward to 1953 when the popularity of the comedic duo has faded. They find themselves on a United Kingdom tour arranged by smarmy booking agent Bernard Delfont (played well by Rufus Jones). The purpose of the tour is to convince a film producer to back their Robin Hood parody idea. The early gigs are very small music venues and the crowds are even smaller. But these are true pros, and soon Stan and Ollie hustle up their own growing audiences, and by the time their wives join them on the tour, they are filling the best venues.

As Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) make their appearance, we soon find ourselves with two comedy teams to watch. The chemistry between the ladies is so terrific, they could be the featured players in their own movie. Lucille is a strong and quiet former script girl who is quite protective of her Ollie, while the outspoken Ida is a former Russian dancer who, in her own way, is also protective of the gentlemen performers.

The suppressed resentment over the (much) earlier Roach negotiations finally boils over in a heart-wrenching scene. The grudges and feelings of betrayal are voiced – alongside Ollie’s physical ailments. As they air their grievances, it cuts to the quick. Not long after, Ollie’s heart condition finds the two mimicking their “hospital” skit in real life … it’s a show of ultimate friendship that can only be built through decades of working closely together.

John C Reilly plays Oliver Hardy (the American) and Steve Coogan is Stan Laurel (the Brit). Both are extraordinary in capturing the look and movements of the comic geniuses. Mr. Reilly and Mr. Coogan are such strong actors, that it’s difficult to decide which segments are best. Is it the reenactments of some of Laurel and Hardy’s iconic skits, or is the off-stage moments when they are dealing with the human side of these entertainment giants? Reilly benefits from excellent make-up and prosthetics (that chin!) and Coogan has the hair and determination needed for his role.

Director Baird’s film is sweet and sad and funny. Stan and Ollie deserve this warm tribute, and it’s a reminder of all the stress and hard work that performers put in so that the show looks “easy”. This is what’s meant by honing the craft … even if it’s “another fine mess” accompanied by the trademark “Dance of the Cuckoos” music. Let’s hope the film attracts some youngsters who might gain an appreciation for the good ol’ days of Classical Hollywood.

watch the trailer:


THE DINNER (2017)

May 4, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Oscar nominated writer/director Oren Moverman (The Messenger, 2009) takes the source novel from Herman Koch and turns it into a checklist of items and people to detest. Rather than a cynical look at humanity, we endure a shrill commentary on white privilege, entitlement, misguided parenting, social media for millennials, and mental illness. If somehow the world and local news doesn’t feature quite enough ugliness for you, then Mr. Moverman’s movie should fill the gap – making Roman Polanski’s Carnage (2011) look like a light-hearted comedy by comparison. It’s definitely no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or even My Dinner with Andre.

Dinner for four at an over-the-top ostentatious restaurant is the setting, and aggravation is the sauce for each course – labeled on screen for our convenience as Aperitif, Appetizer, Main course, Cheese, Dessert, and Digestif. Richard Gere is Congressman Stan Lohman, a candidate for Governor and a slick politician in the midst of a battle to get the necessary votes for approval on his sponsored bill. He is joined by his second (yes it matters) and much younger wife Katelynn, played by Rebecca Hall. Rounding out the foursome is Stan’s estranged (and strange) brother Paul (Steve Coogan) and Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney), who is every bit as off-center as her husband.

These four have no real interest in sharing dinner time conversation, but the horrific actions of their teenage sons have brought them together for a strategy session. Michael (Charlie Plummer) is Paul and Claire’s son, while Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) is Stan’s son with first wife Chole Sevigny. Video of their despicable and unforgivable act has been posted on YouTube, and now the four “adults” are convening to decide the best step for these “good kids” who just need help getting back on track. At least that’s what Claire would have us believe. In fact, if satire exists at all in this script, it surely would be in the fact that the politician is the only one to exhibit any semblance of moral fortitude in this situation. We even hear the incident described as “an unfortunate chain of events” … further emphasizing the film’s theme that EVERYTHING is political these days.

The film itself is often too-congested and convoluted. The flashbacks are messy and unnecessary, and the dialogue ill-timed and seemingly written for shock value rather than with situational purpose. No one does droll like Steve Coogan, yet his character spends the film sermonizing (with his running narration of a Gettysburg analogy) and showing no signs of humanity. The big reveal with his character is borderline shameless and insulting. Somehow we are left to ponder who shows the worst judgment – the teenagers or the adults. Evidently we are supposed to feel the moral outrage that all of society is now driven by politics, and in politics, “someone always gets hurt”. Personally, if I have outrage, it is directed at a manipulative film that stole valuable time from me.

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RULES DON’T APPLY (2016)

November 23, 2016

rules-dont-apply Greetings again from the darkness. Few films can match this one for pedigree. Actor/Director/Producer/Writer Warren Beatty is a 14-time Oscar nominee (won for Best Director, Reds, 1982) and Hollywood legend. Screenwriter Bo Goldman is a 3 time Oscar nominee, and has won twice (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Melvin and Howard). The cast includes 4-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris, 4-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening (Beatty’s wife), and other Oscar nominees: Alec Baldwin, Amy Madigan, Candice Bergen, and Steve Coogan. The all-star production also features Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (a 5 time Oscar nominee), Co-Editors Leslie Jones and Billy Weber (both Oscar nominees), and two-time Oscar winner, Costume Designer Albert Wolsky. It’s Mr. Beatty’s first time directing since Bulworth (1998) and first time acting since Town & Country (2011). Being such a filmmaking icon, he attracts some of the most talented folks in the industry whenever he decides to work.

Of course, this isn’t a career retrospective and there are no brownie points won for surrounding yourself with the cinematically decorated elite. It still comes down to the movie, and unfortunately, this one is never as exciting, entertaining or funny as it seems to think it is.

Rumors of Warren Beatty making a Howard Hughes movie have bounced around for decades, and it appears this is as close as we’ll get. The director himself plays the billionaire, and the story mostly revolves around the time the enigmatic man (Hughes, not Beatty) was most involved with Hollywood and the movie business. Much of the dialogue and the majority of the scenes involving Hughes emphasize (and enhance?) the man’s idiosyncrasies that bordered on mental instability. Beatty mostly plays him as a mumbling and shrugging goofball who dines on TV dinners and is frightened of children.

The best parts of the movie don’t involve Hughes, and instead feature the youngsters trying to make their way in his convoluted organization. Lily Collins (Phil’s daughter) plays Marla Mabrey, a wanna-be starlet committed to her staunch religious upbringing – said beliefs incessantly reinforced by her distrusting mother (Annette Bening). Her driver is Frank Forbes played by Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!), and his own agenda involves convincing Howard Hughes to invest in a real estate development project on Mulholland Drive. As expected, sparks fly between the young actress and the equally conservative young visionary, and we find ourselves engaged with them – in good times and bad.

The two youngsters have some nice screen chemistry that multiple times is brought to a screeching halt by the inclusion of yet another cockamamie Howard Hughes scene – most of which feel more like Beatty’s desire to be on screen rather than an extension of the story. These intrusions prevent any real flow to the film and actually bog down the most interesting aspects of the story. In fact, the disruptions cause us to spend more time “spotting the celeb” than caring about the characters. The list of familiar faces that pop up include: Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Taissa Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Chase Crawford, Martin Sheen (as Noah Dietrich), Oliver Platt, Steve Coogan, Dabney Coleman, Paul Sorvino, and even Candice Bergen (as Hughes’ secretary).

It’s easy to see the nostalgia and fond memories that Mr. Beatty has of this late 50’s – early 60’s era in Hollywood. It was all about glamour and the magic of what’s on screen. The real Howard Hughes story is at least as interesting, if not more so, than the history of Hollywood, but the cartoonish aspects of the billionaire here don’t hold up to such previous works as The Aviator, or even Melvin and Howard.

These days, the Howard Hughes Hollywood legacy is barely a blip – a few recall Jane Russell’s close-up or the aerial battles of Hell’s Angels, while fewer know the RKO Studios story. Warren Beatty’s movie legacy is much more than a blip; however his latest adds little to the legend.

watch the trailer:

 


PHILOMENA (2013)

November 29, 2013

philomena Greetings again from the darkness. Two people telling the same story can make that story sound infinitely different. Two people united in their efforts to solve a mystery can have vastly different reactions to the same situations. Such personality and attitudinal differences are the real core of this story … even more than the true life inspired story of a quest to reunite a mother and child after 50 years.

Peter Mullan’s startling 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters provided us a look into the dark side of Ireland convents in the 1950’s. Here, director Stephen Frears brings us the very personal story of Philomena Lee – one of the unwed teenagers banished to the convent to deliver her baby and work off her debt to the nuns and church, after signing away all future access to her child. It’s a heart-breaking story of the times, of the church, and of a singular woman. Philomena struggles with guilt and regret over 50 years until her daughter arranges a meeting with journalist Martin Sixsmith. This begins their journey to uncover the truth and find Philomena’s son, and provide us with a front row to two distinct ways of viewing the world.

Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena and Steve Coogan (also co-writer and producer) plays Martin, resulting in a very “odd couple” road trip and personality test. Dench is remarkable is her role (surely in the running for an Oscar nom) as the seemingly simple woman who reads romance novels, gets excited about salad bars, is thrilled with mints on her pillow, and has lived a lifetime with a hole in her heart created by having her young son ripped from her world. Coogan is effectively restrained (minus his usual exaggerated comic mannerisms) as the snooty Brit journalist who thinks writing and reading human interest stories are a waste of time. She has maintained her religious faith and faith in people, while he has long ago given up on God and flaunts his cynicism in most every situation.

Director Frears has a widely varied movie career – from The Grifters to High Fidelity to The Queen. He excels in drama with a wry sense of humor.  Some will view the movie as anti-Catholic (replete with cruel nuns) … it is difficult to defend the painful childbirth, isolated mothers, selling of children and lack of assistance in reconciling the parties. Others will view this as a victory of faith over intellect. It’s the world-weary journalist with the $5.00 words who ends up learning a life lesson. It can be a reminder that life is going to throw some difficult situations your way. Your attitude and approach that will determine how you deal with it … and how much emotional pain follows. This is another entry into gray cinema that will generate much debate and discussion … a sure sign of success for a movie!

**NOTE: this is based on Martin Sixsmith’s book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee”

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: instigating post-viewing debate is one of your movie criteria OR you want to see what could be another Oscar nominated role for Judi Dench

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: stories inspired by real life heart-break is not your idea of holiday entertainment, no matter how thought-provoking or well-acted.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DBPqcp6Hc4


WHAT MAISIE KNEW (2013)

June 10, 2013

maisie1 Greetings again from the darkness. An ultra-modern indie update of the 1897 Henry James novel introduces us to parents we know, but wish we didn’t. Steve Coogan plays Beale, a self-absorbed art dealer. Julianne Moore plays Susanna, a self-absorbed rock star. OK, you and I may not know art dealers and rock stars, but we know self-absorbed types and we know they make terrible parents. So not only do we know it, but it’s also what Maisie knows.

Five outstanding performances and strong work by co-directors Scott McGhee and David Siegel prevent this one from spinning off into the neverlands of melodramatic muck. Onata Aprile is a wonder as Maisie. She displays none of the typical “movie kid” precociousness. The movie (and James novel) are told from her point of view. We see the fragmented bits and pieces she experiences as her parents fight. Rather than a full story drowning in details, we share her maisie3moments of late pick-ups, early drop-offs and forgotten trips.

Soon enough Beale and Susanna are divorced and the real wars begin. These despicable adults make little effort in hiding their hatred of each other from 6 year old Maisie. It becomes background noise to her life. Further proof of the epic narcissism from both: Beale soon marries Margot the nanny (played by Joanna Vanderham) and Susanna reacts by marrying Lincoln, a simple-minded band gopher and bartender played by studly but Alexander Skarsgard. The most startling moment of the movie occurs when Lincoln first begins playing with Maisie … it’s as if we had almost forgotten what it means to give your attention to a child.

maisie2 This is not an easy film to watch … at least if you understand that parenting means putting yourself second. The directors do a wonderful job of showing us how Maisie takes in moments and what memories she makes from these. The neglect and false moments of caring from her parents make her acceptance of the attention to her step-parents even more poignant. We can’t help but hope things work out for this little girl and it’s a reminder that childhood innocence cannot be recaptured once lost … and it’s worth hanging on to for as long as possible.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a realistic and terrific performance from child actor Onata Aprile OR you’ve always believed that Henry James doesn’t translate to the big screen

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the last thing you wish to see is two more pathetic parents

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68pgeWPc-QI