The Trip to Italy

September 5, 2014 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom (“The Trip,” “24 Hour Party People”)
Written by: Michael Winterbottom (“Everyday,” “9 Songs”)

British actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are far from household names here in the U.S. Sharp-eyed fans who know Coogan from his famous-in-the-UK character Alan Partridge by way of Netflix may remember him popping up in stuff like “Tropic Thunder,” “Night at the Museum,” and the Oscar-nominated “Philomena,” but Rob Brydon? Who is this guy? I mean, other than the guy we saw teamed up with Coogan last time around in 2010’s “The Trip?”

Regardless, the duo is back together—again playing semi-fictionalized versions of themselves–in the TV-series-turned-film sequel “The Trip To Italy.” This time around Coogan and Brydon are set to tour Italy, following in the culinary footsteps of poets while eating some amazing Italian cuisine. Along the way they toss dueling Christian Bale Batman impressions at one another, listen to mid-’90s Alanis Morissette, and shoot an audition tape for a Michael Mann film. The whole affair is underscored by huge dollops of dry British banter and the occasional twinge of the creeping doubt of success in middle age.

Coogan and Brydon are pleasant enough and their incredible chemistry can’t be denied. “The Trip To Italy,” however, has the general sense of going through the motions. Did you like the Michael Caine impressions in the first film? Like a meal you enjoyed before, they’re back, but the thrill of being new has worn off. The movie threatens to go in interesting directions, yet the Michael Mann audition and a sweet, slightly desperate extramarital affair thread fizzle out to make way for more food and witty banter. The film’s origin as a TV series, like its predecessor, perhaps are a better vehicle for the sometimes plotless diversions featuring the two veteran entertainers bouncing off one another. Checking in once a week for 30 minutes at a time seems like a more agreeable serving size; at feature length, the film begins to resemble the soft music at a fine restaurant: nothing more than background noise.

Philomena

November 29, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark
Directed by: Stephen Frears (“The Queen”)
Written by: Steve Coogan (“The Parole Office”) and Jeff Pope (“Essex Boys”)

It’s quite a treat to witness what an actress as highly regarded as Judi Dench can do with a lead role. There’s nothing particularly flashy Dench does on the screen that ever cries out for attention, but the transcending nature of her talent can sometimes be taken for granted. In “Philomena,” Dench, who will turn 79 early next month, proves that she is only getting better with age. Give actor/co-writer Steve Coogan all the credit in the world for complementing her performance beat for beat.

Based on the book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” written by former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, “Philomena” follows the title character (Dench) who reveals a secret to her daughter that she has been keeping for 50 years. As a pregnant teenager in Ireland in 1952, Philomena was sent to a convent where she was forced to give up her newborn son for adoption. Desperate to know what became of her child, she enlists the help of Sixsmith, a writer not all that interested in telling a human-interest sob story. When he meets and listens to Philomena’s tale, however, he immediately embraces it as his next writing project and the two set out to possibly reunite with her long-lost son.

Heartbreaking, sensitive and at times very funny, “Philomena” takes us on an incredible, full-circle journey and does it without one ounce of melodrama or false emotion. Flashbacks between the days a young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) spends at the convent are nicely edited between the present-day narrative and never feel like they are being used as a simple storytelling tool. There’s content that demands attention on both ends of the spectrum and two-time Academy Award nominated director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) does a fantastic job balancing everything without losing focus on his leading lady and what she is going through during this life-changing venture.

Script-wise, it’s easy to see where an actor like Coogan was able to contribute his dry wit and subtle British humor. Every line of dialogue between Philomena and Martin rings true. Nothing is overstated or overwritten and each scene is paced perfectly as if it were a soldier marking time. Then, of course, there’s Dench, who deserves a seventh Oscar nomination (she won Best Supporting Actress for “Shakespeare in Love”) for the work she’s done here, the best since 2006’s “Notes on a Scandal.” Giving “Philomena” motivation, endearing attributes and a positive outlook on life that far too few people have today, Dench is miraculous. With “Philomena,” she has given a character many would pass by without notice extraordinary depth and resonance.

What Maisie Knew

May 29, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgard, Onata Aprile
Directed by: Scott McGehee (“Bee Season”) and David Siegel (“Bee Season”)
Written by: Carroll Cartwright (“Dungeons and Dragons”) and Nancy Doyne (debut)

It’s a statistic stated so many times in the past few decades it is practically an axiom: half of all marriages end in divorce. While these days the stats show the number is closer to 40 percent than 50 percent, it seems unlikely that author Henry James could have known how timely his novel would end up being when he wrote it in 1897, a year when the divorce rate was a mere 6 percent. As a modern film adaptation of his novel of the same name, “What Maisie Knew” tells the story of a bitter divorce and custody battle through the eyes of a 6-year-old girl.

Set in New York City, rock ‘n’ roll musician Susanne (Julianne Moore) and her successful husband Beale (Steve Coogan) are embroiled in a failing marriage. As their relationship crumbles, a bitter custody battle ensues, causing their young daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile) to get caught in the middle. Both parents quickly remarry and eventually dump off parental responsibilities to their respective spouses, Lincoln, (Alexander Skarsgard) a bartender, and Margo, (Joanna Vanderham) who serves as Maisie’s nanny.

Moore and Coogan both give very strong performances, and Moore is especially good at being completely selfish and unhinged. Both actors are particularly strong at conveying tension, especially during the scenes where they butt heads and argue. As the film progresses, it is clear that Lincoln and Margo become more parental figures than Maisie’s actual parents. Though Vanderham is good, Skarsgard is a nice surprise in this role. His character and Maisie’s are thrown together quickly and slow to warm up to each other. As the film progresses, the two actors show tremendous magnetic chemistry and Skarsgard’s charm and interactions with Aprile become very enjoyable to watch.

What keeps “What Maisie Knew” from being a completely upsetting film is both the age of the character and the brilliant performance from a young actress. Maisie is a happy child and one that is largely oblivious to the neglectful and vindictive actions of her parents. It is always a risky move to have a child actor be the anchor of a film, but Aprile’s natural delivery and screen presence is such a wonderful revelation. The young Aprile is able to express so much with a simple gaze or facial expression and she never feels overmatched or misplaced in an ensemble piece with such strong acting all around. Of course, a child actor’s instincts can only go so far and much of the credit should be given to co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel for knowing how to coax a nuanced performance out of her and capture the blissful innocence of a child pitch perfectly.

Since much of the film focuses on Maisie rather than her parents, directors McGehee and Siegel cleverly step around melodrama in a few ways. When her parents have nasty screaming matches or sling verbal barbs at each other, rather than focusing on those characters, they are heard in the background as the camera stays with Maisie sleeping or playing. There are also very few scenes where huge fights, arguments or major emotional scenes feel over the top. A very delicate touch is present throughout the film, never more apparent than in the wonderfully understated moments where Maisie is heartbreakingly neglected. Part of what makes “What Maisie Knew” so effective is that the majority of what is shown in the film is firmly rooted in reality.

“What Maisie Knew” isn’t exactly uplifting. It is clear throughout the film that Maisie, while certainly loved by her parents, is being used as a tool for them to get back at each other. A lack of communication and effort often leaves Maisie in terrible situations or the responsibility of taking care of her dumped off to her respective stepparent. What makes “Maisie” such a beautiful film is showing that a child’s unconditional love is infectious and though sometimes aided by ignorance and obliviousness, how strong and perseverant a child can be in such painful circumstances.

Hamlet 2

August 30, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Joseph Julian Soria
Directed by: Andrew Fleming (“Nancy Drew”)
Written by: Andrew Fleming (“The Craft”) and Pam Brady (“Hot Rod”)

“Hamlet 2” is so politically incorrect, it makes “Springtime for Hitler” from “The Producers” sound suitable for preschoolers to sing.

The film begins and ends with Steve Coogan as Dana Marschz, a Tucson high school drama teacher, who proves that “if you can’t do, teach” wasn’t just a saying created to piss off teachers. Dana hasn’t had much luck as an actor other than the few infomercials and herpes commercials he’s starred in.

He falls back on teaching drama despite being the laughing stock of the entire school for the horrid plays he writes, produces and directs. Adapting “Erin Brockovich” as a stage production really isn’t a great way to show the school that they should keep funding the program.

It really doesn’t matter anyway. Dana only has two high-spirited students in his class, and it seems like the principal is about to drop the bomb on theater unless they start making some worthwhile plays. When the new school year begins, however, Dana, who is having some slightly dysfunctional problems at home with his wife (Catherine Keener), is surprised when his drama class is filled to maximum capacity with new students. Unfortunately, the mostly-Latino group of kids are only there because they couldn’t take the courses they really wanted so were funneled into drama to slack off.

But when Dana decides to write a sequel to William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the students must rise up against the school and community who become infuriated with the blasphemy-filled script Dana has written for the them to perform.

While director/writer Andrew Fleming pulls no stops, a few gags go a bit long before falling flat. Still, there is enough wickedness and total lack of morality (a lot of it hilarious) that will have you asking why Steve Coogan isn’t in more mainstream comedies (he is in “Tropic Thunder,” of course). With “Hamlet 2” Coogan has proven that British comedy sometimes does translate well for us American heathens.