Monday, August 14, 2017

COOGAN AND BRYDON MAKE FOR A DELICIOUS COMEDY TEAM IN "THE TRIP TO SPAIN"

Original caricature by Jeff York of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in THE TRIP TO SPAIN. (copyright 2017)
Where are the great movie comedy teams today? Long gone are the days of Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, and Martin & Lewis. There have been some couplings that have brushed up against greatness like that, most notably Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in the three movies they made together, but since then it’s been slim pickings. Which is even more reason it’s such a pleasure to see Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon return for their third film in THE TRIP series. This time they’re heading to Spain to take in the scenery, the local cuisine, and indeed, the piss out of each other. And it makes THE TRIP TO SPAIN one of this summer’s funniest films, cementing Coogan and Brydon as the closest thing to a genius comedy duo working onscreen today.

THE TRIP TO SPAIN, following THE TRIP in 2010, and THE TRIP TO ITALY in 2014, is another road trip movie showcasing comics Coogan and Brydon as they make a gastronomical tour of a European country. The movie once again has been culled down from the episodic series of the same name that runs on the BBC, but like its predecessors, each film does more than just cull the highlights from the series. They hone and focus on the flavor of the country and its best restaurants, as well as what it is like to be a comic traveling with another comic. Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom has produced and directed the TV series, as well as the movies, and he knows how to showcase the countries and the comedians with equal relish.  

Winterbottom has worked with Coogan many times before, most notably on the cinematic hit 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE back in 2002, so he knows the actor’s charisma and foibles intimately. Coogan is a gifted hyphenate: actor-writer-producer, most recently receiving all sorts of acclaim for PHILOMENA with Judi Dench. Coogan received Oscar nominations for producing the Best Picture nominee as well as writing it, and he won the BAFTA that same year for his adapted screenplay with Jeff Pope. Coogan is one of Britain’s brightest and biggest stars, a superb talent at farce, drama, romance, you name it. Yet, his actor’s insecurity impedes his enjoying such status and these films illuminate his struggle.

In THE TRIP TO SPAIN, Coogan is bigger and better than he’s ever been, but it doesn’t make him any happier. The man looks amazingly fit at 52, and he’s riding the wave of worldwide acclaim for PHILOMENA. Yet he’s still perturbed by every slight directed at him, whether it’s from travel mate Brydon who knows just how to needle him, albeit with a certain affection, or the hiccups along their journey together. When he finds out that the studio he’s hoping will greenlight his latest script decides to bring in another screenwriter to give it a polish, the air lets out of Coogan’s metaphorical tires. He’s been in show biz long enough to know the game, but he still feels every prick from the pricks running Tinsel Town. It casts a shadow over the trip, even though almost every scene is Spain is sunny and gorgeous.

Coogan's inability to roll with the punches has been a central theme of all three movies in THE TRIP franchise, and his pain is our pleasure. Watching this grouchy wit grumble about his plight is hysterical, even more so because he must face his shame with the ever-competitive Brydon right by his side. Coogan over compensates for his worries by dropping his PHILOMENA acclaim into many a conversation, but it’s not lost on Brydon. He serves as Coogan's frenemy and Greek chorus, calling him out on the name dropping. Yet, Coogan likes his foil enough to share some of his innermost secrets, like the fact that he's having an affair with a married woman. Brydon is sympathetic and even sage in his advising of his friend. And even though Coogan may be dour, misanthropic and occasionally self-destructive, it’s fascinating to watch him both need and reject Brydon. Navigating Coogan's ego is a minefield for both men, but it's funny as hell too.

Brydon is the one who's more of a sensualist, enjoying the luxury of their hotels and meals. Even as Coogan keeps everything at arms’ length, including the succulent feasts, Brydon sees it mostly as a gift. He's definitely a “glass is half full” type, whereas his companion is the opposite. Such crucial differences give these movies a philosophical aura, as the debate seems to be how to enjoy such trips. And with each film, Brydon is becoming more and more of Coogan's guardian angel, a man trying to lighten his dyspeptic soul. 

Brydon happens to be one of Britain’s shiniest stars as well and he loves clowning and being on. If he has any fault as blatant as Coogan's misanthropy, it's that Brydon seems to be unable to ever turn off his need to perform. Coogan desires moments where he can sit and brood in silence, but those moments seem to frighten Brydon as he feels compelled to fill them with bits and jokes. 

And what he brings to the table is hilarious. Brydon is a brilliant mimic, as well as ace at accents, and watching him perform is a pleasure. However, he pushes too far and then he grates like a car alarm that won't stop. Brydon has a natural warmth and wit, and doesn't need to strive so hard to impress. It would seem that Brydon feels the need to literally and figuratively sing for his supper, but having him along for these trips makes them truly fun for even the dour Coogan.

Of course, at his core, Coogan wants to entertain and be adored by audiences just as much as his friend does. That makes this duo truly two peas in a pod. Watching them compete for who can be the funniest and make the other laugh hardest is a lot of fun, but also a bit cringeworthy. Actors are awesome...up until they treat normal life as their stage, and their friends as unwitting audiences. Coogan and Brydon push so hard that sometimes their attempts at impressing the other borders on bullying. They're still boys trying to one up each other at jacks on the playground.  

The funniest bit in THE TRIP TO SPIN occurs when the late Roger Moore comes up in conversation and both Coogan and Brydon try to educate the other on the proper way to imitate the actor. They both do a killer impersonation of the man who played 007 in seven films, but their impressions go on and on and on as they try to best the other’s take. The Moore bit then becomes a running gag in this film, just as their imitations of Michael Caine and Al Pacino did so in previous trips. Even when the guys are dining with two female industry peers, they can’t help but let their competitive urges get the best of them. Brydon even continues to do Moore when less attention is being paid by the others at the dinner table. 

Brydon shouldn’t be as insecure, considering he’s got a grounded home life. We see his lovely house, loving wife and adorable young children. Still, Brydon wants more. He not only wants to be Ricky Gervais, a British comic fielding more offers than one can shake a shtick at, but it seems he wants to be Coogan. Thus, Coogan lords his superior resume over Brydon, boasting of his numerous BAFTA’s. Still, Coogan isn’t happy being Coogan. He seems to want to be someone like Steve Martin, a comic recognized equally for his range as an actor, writer and producer. At the very least, the acclaimed talent can't stomach a studio hack rewriting his material, certainly not after Oscar's recognition. Still, the greatest threat to both Coogan and Brydon are their own egos. The insecurities of these clowns crying on the inside are tragic in their way, but also very amusing. It's wonderful to have these films showcase such struggles. 

Even when they dress up as Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza for a Spanish PR magazine article, with Coogan taking the more prominent role of course, his frustration fills the screen. Coogan is a crank about it all, even while Brydon enjoys getting to be in the spotlight with him.  Celebrity is indeed a windmill, and it taunts Coogan while lifting Brydon.

Winterbottom clearly loves them both, though he’s more than willing to show their dark sides. What provides counterpoint to it is of course they gorgeous settings and the exquisite culinary art on display. Truly, these movies are a feast for the eyes and for the funny bones. And in a summer with too many sequels, prequels, and reboots that haven’t connected with audiences, this is one franchise that continually delivers. The only question is "Where to next for Coogan and Brydon?" The USA, particularly a restaurant tour of Hollywood, would seem like a natural for two such hungry talents. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

THE HITS & MISSES OF LATE SUMMER

Original caricature of Jessica Williams in the Netflix original film THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES.
(copyright 2017)
As we crest into August, there is already a nip of autumn in the air, and the airwaves are inundated with “Back to School” sale messages. That means the summer movie season is rapidly ending too. All the major tent poles have opened and thankfully some of them, like WONDER WOMAN, were quite worthy of all the money and attention they were rewarded with from the worldwide movie-going audiences. I’d pick that film, along with THE BIG SICK, as the standouts of the summer season. But before it’s all a memory, here are my reviews of five other films that have opened before the leaves start to fall.

ATOMIC BLONDE


For all the hype surrounding ATOMIC BLONDE, it’s neither the female JOHN WICK it wants to be, nor does it showcase Charlize Theron nearly as well as MAD MAX FURY ROAD did. This actioner does prove, however, that the 41-year-old actress can excel at kicking ass on screen better than just about anyone. In fact, in one expertly choreographed fight scene after another, she performs more believably than most actors and actresses half her age. Unfortunately, ATOMIC BLONDE also proves that spy films are truly just extended fight films these days. Where, oh where, is the spying?

Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, one of those spies who favors standing out in a crowd with designer duds, heels that make her 6’2”, and a platinum hair color that could guide ships at night. She then complains to superiors that she was instantly made when she arrives in Germany to extract a scientist who’s turned against the Communists, but who is she kidding, standing out like a peroxide thumb? And if the film is going to be that ludicrous, then it needs more joy. Instead, it lacks wit and character and genuine thrills. We in the audience become almost as exhausted as Lorraine does as she must fight her way out of one big set piece after another. I'm not expecting realism, but for all the throw down, Lorraine doesn't ever seem too worse for the wear. 

The film is shot and choreographed with precision, but that should be the price of entry for any action film these days. Director David Leitch wins points for not editing heavily to mask the stunt woman amidst all the kicking and screaming. In fact, the film’s greatest accomplishment may be that it appears to be Theron doing all the stunts, and often in long takes. Kudos to her, but why couldn’t the script then give her some genuine witty quips before, during or after all that huffing and puffing? Screenwriter Kurt Johnstad gave all the characters in his adaptation of Frank Miller's 300 a lot of  memorable dialogue, but here it seems as if he’s been neutered. Maybe it was curbed to allow the 80’s era production design by David Sheunemann to take center stage. (It does, with enough neon to fill Deney Terrio’s dream palace.)

When Lorraine’s not tying rope to an enemy to help break her fall when she jumps out a four-story window seconds later, or emerging from a tub filled with ice cubes to reveal her bruised but dynamite body, her personality seems that of a cipher. All the better to keep us thinking she might be the mole screwing up the allied efforts during the late 80’s Cold War one supposes, but couldn’t she have some interesting traits other than knowing how to reload guns and round-house kick? She's too cold, even for a Cold War thriller. 

Veteran scene stealers John Goodman, Toby Jones, and Eddie Marsan are featured but given little to do other than stare at Lorraine as if she’s such a bad-ass, she takes their breath and voice away. And James McAvoy overacts through his obvious traitor role, but by the end, this spy film simply wears out its welcome. It needs to have the snap, crackle and pop of not just bones breaking, but of crackling entertainment. If it’s trying to be John Wick, albeit with a female lead, why not give it some, ahem, real kick? I don't think I laughed once. Perhaps Lorraine and Jonathan, as Ian McShane’s Winston is fond of addressing Mr. Wick, can team up for a cross-pollinated sequel together. Now that would be a helluva lot of fun.

THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES


If you want to see a strong female character kicking ass in a truly engaging way, check out THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES, an original movie done for Netflix. It stars former DAILY SHOW correspondent Jessica Williams as a bright and feisty New Yorker trying to wrangle all that she’s got going on in her world. She’s quite the juggler too with all sorts of balls in the air. She writes plays, teaches drama to kids, has an active social life with family and friends, and she even excels as a fashion-forward funk icon. Jessica is brash, sexy, powerful and she dominates every entry in her busy calendar. Even when life serves her lemons, this Bea makes lemonade. And she does all that without ever once taking an ice cube bath.

THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES made its auspicious debut at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter and proved that filmmaker Jim Strouse knows how to write and direct clever, heartfelt comedy, as well as strong female characters. And in the vivid part of Jessica James, Jessica Williams proved to be a natural. She’s funny, fierce, beautiful and can wholly captivate the screen. And even when her character comes on too strong, often bullying or talking a mile a minute, Williams knows how to make her character accessible. She lightens her voice so that it softens the often rapid delivery of her dialogue. Williams always lets us see how Jessica is thinking too. Jessica may have most of the answers, but when she does not, Williams slows her character down and we watch the cogs turn in her brain. It makes her all the more vulnerable as she tries to manage a world that will throw her for a loop or two. 

Jessica James is thrown all kinds of curves in the film, most notably a suitor named Boone (Chris O’Dowd). At first, he seems the least likely match for her. He’s divorced, speaks with great uncertainty, and has his own eccentrics rhythms that don’t jibe with Jess. Still, she’s intrigued by him and dazzled when he throws out a witty retort demonstrating that he's not just clever but listening intently to her. They have some typical up’s and down’s in the standard rom-com kind of way you always see in these sorts of comedies, but this film mostly zigs where others would zag. And even though there is a definitive arc to their relationship, their romance never dominates the story. 

This is a character study, and Jessica has so much personality, it's enough for two movies. (A sequel seems likely because of that.) She even has ginormous hair, which seems to serve as a metaphor for how ginormous a presence she has. It goes along with her big brain, full heart, and huge zest for life. After all, Jessica James would be the first to tell you how “dope” she is, and indeed, I want to spend more time with this incredible woman. 

DETROIT


No one seem to be coming at the Caucasian filmmaker Jim Strouse for telling the story of an African-American woman in THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES, but director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are getting a lot of heat for filming their take on how African-American men were victimized during a Detroit race riot in 1967. Both talents won Oscars for THE HURT LOCKER, and they worked on the Academy Award nominated ZERO DARK THIRTY too, so they are adroitly attuned to serious films with political messages, but does that preclude them from writing so specifically about the black experience? Some think so. I do not. 

Arguably, their angle on the horrible happenings on that July day when police brutally beat seven black men and two white women in during the infamous "Algiers Motel Incident", resulting in the death of three of the men, is done through the lens of violence more than the specifics of the black experience. Still, would this film have been better if a black filmmaker would’ve tackled this story? Perhaps. Ava DuVernay’s take on SELMA gave that historical film about Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on that Alabama city during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's an authenticity and perspective that it might not have enjoyed otherwise. But let's credit Bigelow and Boal for telling this story at a time when it needs to be told as too little has changed in respect to black lives and the police.

The main story, for those who may not be familiar with it, concerns the violence that occurred during a race riot in Detroit, Michigan during the summer of '67. A riot was incited when local police shut down a bar in a black neighborhood for its faulty liquor license and the ensuing protests were met with force. Soon, the Detroit police, along with factions of the National Guard were patrolling the streets and creating as much havoc as they were there to reduce. Then, a black man named Carl fired a starter pistol from an Algiers motel window in the direction of the guards. That led numerous cops and soldiers to invade the motel looking for what they thought was a sniper. Caught in the ensuing chaos were two musicians from the R & B group called The Dramatics, as well as two young, white prostitutes, as well as some other tenants who happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. Witnessing it all, as well as getting pulled into the morass, were a bystander warrants office and additionally, a local security guard.

That’s a lot of players in one drama, and the actors who play them do exceptional work bringing the dread to life. As Larry Reed of The Dramatics, Algee Smith makes a vivid impression, trying desperately to keep his wits about him as everything crumbles around him. Anthony Mackie is always great and he is terrific here to as a Vietnam veteran Greene who is pulled into what was essentially kidnapping and torture in that motel. And John Boyega (STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS) makes you feel every inch of angst and panic in his role as the security guard Melvin Dismukes, one of the black men who lived to tell about what happened. (Dismukes helped guide this movie’s production and authenticity.) Then there are the three white racist officers, the culprits who held all these people against their will in the motel, and these vividly treacherous roles are played by Will Poulter, Jack Reynor and Ben O’Toole.

All of them, along with Bigelow and Boal, are aware of the importance of this story and give the subject matter the proper reverence and details it deserves. DETROIT is a remarkably tense and moving film, as harrowing a thriller as you will see at the Cineplex this year. The moment-by-moment story of how the riots led to these out-of-control events caused by the utter abuse of the Detroit police is both riveting and yes, quite sickening. 

Other questions surrounding this film as it opened concerned whether it needed to be as violent as it is, showing virtually every blow and act inflicted upon those victims at the Algiers. Could the film have been just as involving and terrifying without having to show every hit? Probably, but I cannot fault the filmmakers for their commitment to showing as much of what happened as possible, and that includes all the violence. It’s difficult to sit through, obviously, but sanitizing it might have played as well, pulled punches. Bigelow and company should be applauded for not flinching, even if we are bound to.

THE DARK TOWER


Even though Stephen King is one of America’s greatest and most prolific authors, the film adaptations of his books are usually hit or miss. There have been outstanding versions, such as CARRIE, THE DEAD ZONE, MISERY, THE SHAWKSHANK REDEMPTION and THE SHINING, and there have been utter duds like FIRESTARTER and THE LAWNMOWER MAN. THE DARK TOWER falls into the latter category, a big miss. 

The eight-book series, a blend of western, sci-fi, fantasy and horror, deserves better than the scant 90-minute adaptation that opened in theaters, though it apparently has been designed as the pilot for a TV series to come. No matter, the complex and detailed narrative in his books, that which King describes as his magnum opus, deserves better than this light fare.

The biggest problem, other than trying to squeeze that many books into an hour and a half, is that the movie focuses on the 11-year-old Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) rather than the gunslinger Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) from the books. It ends up taking what was an adult story and turning it essentially into a YA title. And as a film aimed at 11-year-old boys, it’s not bad. In fact, it’s a lot smarter and better produced than most such features aimed at that demographic. Still, it seems almost shocking that this was how Hollywood approached material that should have had a GAME OF THRONES feel to it.

Not that it didn’t cast some heavyweight adult talent to try to raise its game, and indeed having Elba as Roland, and Matthew McConaughey play the villainous Man in Black gives this venture instant weight. Wisely, both underplay their roles, adding as much nuance and subtlety to the story as they can. It's just a shame that so much of King's nuance and subtlety is lacking in the screenplay here. But as you watch these two potent actors duel, the main thoughts one has are of the “What could have been” kind.

Gone is all the rich backstory of the Mid-World, a desert that resembles the Old West, yet is also forged with modernity and diversity beyond yesteryear. Granted, everyone talks about codes of the gunfighters and rules of the land, but there are alien monsters wearing human skins and plenty of folks with psychic powers that give it all a sci-fi sense of modernity. This is not your granddad's shoot 'em up. 

Jake comes into play as he carries with him special powers. His ESP and visions are called “The Shine” here, and yes, it's a reference to THE SHINING, one of King’s numerous references to his previous work in THE DARK TOWER. Jake's talents allow him to see visions of the Mid-World and the slaughter of many of its inhabitants at the hands of the Man in Black. It gives him nightmares, but when the Man in Black gets wind of the future, he's excited as this devilish prick wants to do away with the boundaries forbidding him from ruling both worlds.

To do so, this marauder must destroy the vaulted Dark Tower. It's the source of power in the Mid-World and the one thing standing in the way. (Think of it as a protective shield, if you will.)  The Man in Black thinks that the key to toppling it is using the incredible kinetic energy found in other children with the Shine, but when he discovers the stronger Jake, he realizes the boy is his meal ticket.  

Of course, Jake finds a way to get to the Mid-World first because he’s a smart kid, which is refreshing in this sort of thing. It also happens too fast in the story, but then everything here is rushed. All the better to get to that TV series, apparently. What’s a little bit of rushed exposition, after all, when it’s the long-form show that the producers really want to get to? In a word, plenty.

This is everything wrong with Hollywood today, as they chase franchises instead of concentrating on one film at a time. Just as Universal botched their introduction of their Dark Universe to meld all their monster properties together, this film too rushes through the basics and ends up defeating its greater purpose. The audience I saw THE DARK TOWER exited shaking their heads in disbelief that it was all done in an hour and a half. It reminded me of watching WATCHMEN in 2009. That expansive story, from the comic pages, was owed a long-form treatment too, but instead received a 2.5 hour theatrical movie. Some studio heads never learn.

The action scenes in THE DARK TOWER are perfunctory at best with nothing particularly memorable or truly exciting to them. McConaughey is having fun playing the bad guy, even though he’s dressed too dapper. He's too elegant for a Western and frankly, looks like he just got out of a joy ride in a Lincoln town car. Elba is always interesting, even if the color-blind casting here does raise some strange questions in relation to tropes of the Old West. Still, such issues are way down on the list of problems with this film. 

The one saving grace to it is the sense of humor that weaves throughout. It's a clever political joke when Roland accompanies Jake back to New York City to get guns and ammo and realizes that such things are plentiful in a society dripping with unchecked NRA clout. Of course, there are too many obvious jokes about food here and clothing differences from the two worlds, but they will make the 11-year-olds laugh. But even with the best gags, it can't erase the fact that all this comedy is playing after Jake's mother and stepfather have been slaughtered by the Man in Black. He gets over that way too fast, but then, everything is rushed here. King and his tome deserve far better. 

AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER


Another politically skewed movie, as relevant today as the period piece DETROIT, is AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER. The second part of that title seems unnecessary, especially when the first part of the title says so much. It is a sequel that none of us should really want to see, but alas, we must. Since AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH came out in 2006, a lot of strides have been made in the world’s fight against climate change. Unfortunately, it’s not enough and this sequel was created to remind us of the work still to be done.

And while this one doesn’t have quite the shock value that the first documentary had, this sequel does have one yuuuggge antagonist. It's the current President of the United States as he is now the one inexplicably dragging his feet in the battle. China is onboard with the Paris Accords, Russia, too, but no longer the USA. This doc shows 120 plus nations agreeing to do their part back in 2015 and 2016, but here we now sit in 2017, with Trump deciding to sit it out.  

Hence, a sequel is needed now more than ever. What the film does showcase is quite positive nonetheless. Despite such setbacks, the inhabitants of this vulnerable planet are marching forward in the fight and one of those leading is of course, the tireless Al Gore. Most of this sequel showcases his work and how the former Vice-President continues to be a tireless champion of the cause.

In fact, this documentary, directed by Bonnie Cohen and Jon Shenk, essentially shadows Gore as he flies all over the world witnessing ecological catastrophes, helping galvanize the forces to combat the crisis, as well as help teach hundreds upon hundreds of advocates to become experts on global warming and go out and start teaching others about what's happening. We see Gore up to his knees in flooded streets in Louisiana, valiantly hiking up polar ice caps, as well as hob-knobbing with the world’s most powerful men and women at numerous political conferences pitched at slowing global warming. 

One of the most extraordinary sequences in the film is when Gore works with 2016 Secretary of State John Kerry to ensure that India is part of a climate agreement pact. The powers that be in India had their feathers ruffled when some accused them of not doing enough to curb their country’s emissions, but through calm conversation and a “we’re all in this together” vibe, India was pulled into the agreement. It’s a primer on how true political discourse can achieve genuinely achievable goals. And thus, it is a film that everyone in the White House and Congress should be mandated to watch.

It’s especially ironic that at the end of a summer that has seen steam rise from the temper of the POTUS on Twitter on a daily basis, it's a film about climate change that demonstrates how so much can be accomplished when, ahem, cooler heads prevail. It’s an incredibly positive message and it helps make this sequel one of the more inspiring films of the year. So much good has been done in the past decade, and the film argues that we’re starting to win the battle. Now if we can just convince the White House. Al Gore has his work cut out for him.