Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Steve Coogan”

The Trip to Italy

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, May 2014

There was bound to be a follow-up.

When British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (strictly speaking he’s Welsh, a technicality that definitely adds flavour to his particular brand of hilarity) took a jaunt through the fine restaurants and boutique hotels of the English countryside a few years ago, their non-stop ribbing and mild ribaldry had audiences laughing so much it hurt. Playing slightly hyperbolised versions of themselves, The Trip sent up Coogan’s vanity in the wake of genuine Hollywood success and Brydon’s mildly sycophantic attempts to hold his own against Coogan’s witheringly hilarious put-downs. Quite aside from the whip-smart dialogue being relentlessly funny, there was further pleasure to be gained in watching two talented but insecure grown men behaving the way we might expect they do in real life.

Director Michael Winterbottom had created the film version of The Trip from his six-part television series of the same name, cutting together the best bits into a perfectly satisfactory cinematic narrative. Coogan had just been dumped, so was looking for lust on the moors, while Brydon simpered happily at his wife and new baby down the iPhone each evening. During the day they would tip up at a fine restaurant in some tiny village, enjoy an exquisite meal and engage in impersonation-offs (who does the best Michael Caine, we’re still asking?).

Four years later, the duo has been sent to Italy for more of the same. They travel by rental Mini and hired yacht around the winding streets and stunning coast of Amalfi, pausing to visit the land which inveigled Byron and Shelley and continues to attract gastronomes and literati alike. They quote Romantic poetry and muse on how they’re not Lotharios anymore. However, in the intervening years the celebrities’ statuses have shifted somewhat, and so have their allegiances to family.

But nevermind the incredible food shots and sensational cinematography – you want to know if it’s funny. Heading off inevitable comparisons with the original, early on in the film Coogan says “It’s odd doing something for the second time”, referencing the well-worn notion of “the difficult second album” and the fact that sequels are never as good as the first (at which Brydon inevitably raises The Godfather Part II). But The Trip to Italy isn’t as laugh-out-loud hilarious as its predecessor, whether because this time we go in with expectations fully primed or because the script simply isn’t up there. Interestingly, now it’s Brydon who monopolises the conversation (thank goodness they often dine in a private room), though it’s sweet to note that his monologues are clearly as amusing to Coogan as they are to us.

Nonetheless, there is a very funny Bond-off at a seafront lunch table, and Brydon brings out his Small Man in a Box to enormously clever effect when they visit Pompeii. The soundtrack is happily predictable with its moving operatic arias and soaring orchestral tunes. More like a gently humourous travel programme with two hosts vying for the spotlight, this is still a trip worth taking.

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Philomena

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 15th December 2013

Philomena is a gentle, based-on-truth story of injustice and heartbreak, headlined by two major stars, so audiences will understandably have high expectations. One word of warning: if you prefer your plot entirely unspoiled, avoid the movie trailer. In such a simple tale of a woman searching for her adopted son there aren’t that many lines of enquiry to follow, so your pleasure will be greater if you just let it unfold before you.

The screenplay was adapted from British journalist Martin Sixsmith’s investigative account of an Irish teenager who was forced by a convent to give up her baby boy in 1952. Sixsmith (here portrayed by comedian Steve Coogan) became caught up in the woman’s later life quest for truth, and their journey (which would seem improbable were it not based on fact) is rendered in poignant interactions and well-rendered flashbacks. Before the opening credits are over, a fierce nun is bellowing “Did you enjoy your sin??” and we are plunged into a tale less harrowing than The Magdalene Sisters but one which will nonetheless pique your outrage.

It’s interesting to see Steve “Alan Partridge” Coogan’s face being less facetious than we’re used to, and as a serious actor he moves impressively and convincingly into Stephen Rea territory. Judi Dench is her reliable self, Oirish and lovely – her Philomena occasionally comes across as a bit dopey yet also prone to amazing insights, and as a pair the duo are adept at delivering light-hearted laughs.

Director Stephen Frears has long proven he can turn his hand to anything from High Fidelity to The Queen, and while this is neither a complicated tale nor a sophisticated script, Coogan, Dench and their strong supporting cast ensure that this “human interest story’s” good intentions are not undermined.

What Maisie Knew

It can be a double-edged sword when there are lots of great actors headlining a movie. So often the starry cast belies a weak script or clichéd story (Woody Allen is particularly guilty of this, although he has been vindicated by his latest offering, Blue Jasmine). The Oceans Eleven franchise started really taking the mickey when the actors looked to be having a better time than the audience.

What Maisie Knew boasts Oscar-bait Julianne Moore, British comedian Steve Coogan and Swedish heartthrob of American television, Alexander Skarsgard: an eclectic if potentially heavenly cast. Excitingly, this excoriating tale of parents splitting up and doing everything you shouldn’t for the sake of the child stuck in the middle turns out to be even better than you could hope.

The film takes Maisie’s point of view, the camera gently following the eccentrically dressed young child from home to home, step-parent to step-parent, as she plays her powerless role in the negotiation of her parents’ separation. The viewer therefore only sees what Maisie sees, ingenuously bringing us directly into her experience.

But the power of this film really belongs to the adults, all of whose performances are brilliant – Coogan is better than he’s ever been, perfectly personifying a horribly recognisable bad father against Moore’s Oscar-deserving turn as the narcissistic but loving rock star mother. Support from the unfathomably gorgeous Skarsgard softens a few of the emotional blows that render this film incisive and insightful, devastating but delicious.

Back in 2001, the Tilda Swinton-starring The Deep End foreshadowed co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s talent for capturing the frailties of human nature and presenting characters who are enthralling despite dubious levels of moral fibre. They have scored again here – while Coogan and Moore behave badly, our judgement is not easily doled out, since both actors create real people with understandable motivations. Moore in particular earns plaudits for wordlessly allowing a flicker across her face to spell out several conflicting emotions and a resulting epiphany.

What Maisie Knew
is a delightful surprise for its depth, its warmly layered characters and its cinematic flair. If the narrative lapses somewhat predictably in places, this criticism is soothed by things working out exactly as you – and Maisie – might want them to.

Lives torn apart

This post was first published in Watt to Watch at http://www.stuff.co.nz on 2nd August 2013

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, as I have just two more viewing days of festival left. I’ve kept the last day completely unbooked, since I usually have an eleventh-hour bout of FOMO and rush to something, anything, before the crushing comedown of the post-festival blues.

No time to mope just yet, however, as I’ve been gorging on mind-expanding documentaries, pausing only for some eye candy of the handbag and shoes kind.

Screening this Sunday on the Auckland leg’s final day is the theatrical edit of documentary-maker Annie Goldson’s latest foray into telling it like it is. He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan makes for an excellent history lesson on why we joined the allied forces in a conflict not of our making, before enlightening viewers on what we’ve really been doing there.

He Toki Huna

Initially it’s rather embarrassing – I couldn’t help feeling we are the kid who is only invited to play in the Big Boys’ game to make up numbers. However, it soon transpires that New Zealand’s involvement in “reconstructing” the war-torn country is distinctly murky behind the positively-spun newsreel.

Taking up the cause for Kiwi journalist Jon Stephenson, discredited by John Key for earlier reported assertions, He Toki Huna travels to Kabul and into Bamiyan province, where locals are interviewed about New Zealand’s presence over the past decade. The Kiwis are regarded well enough, though recipients of our reconstruction efforts are scathing about the quality of work.

But the real revelations fly when Stephenson talks to those affected by a night raid that left two Afghans dead. Whether you’ll be shocked that New Zealand isn’t as 100 per cent pure as we’re led to believe, or whether you’re inured to tales of alleged military misconduct, this is an engaging, enlightening view of a story in which, for once, the Americans aren’t the leads.

While we’re talking documentaries, a special shout-out to the innovative rendering of Cambodia’s tragic past in The Missing Picture. Most people know that two million Cambodians were killed under Pol Pot’s 1970s regime, and while there have been several documentaries taking various angles (last year’s superb Brother Number One is notable for its New Zealand connection), here the filmmaker has painstakingly sculpted clay figurines to play out the story of his losing his entire family to starvation and murder. Interspersed with contemporary footage, much of it from Khmer Rouge propaganda videos, the gentle French voiceover describes horrors that are represented on screen in a surprisingly affecting manner.

Not wanting to break the sombre mood, I then watched The Captain and his Pirate, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a real-life ship hijacking that left the captain undergoing trauma therapy in a clinic in Germany, while the Somali pirate describes his affection and respect for the captain from the safety of his desert village. There is an astonishing moment when the interview is played back for the captain to hear hurtfully candid remarks. But given this is a view into the real world of ordinary people whose lives are brought painfully together, it’s the whole tale that’s remarkable.

A Hijacking

And what a perfect introduction to piratical life before I embarked on the superb Danish thriller, A Hijacking. Dramatising the same situation, writer/director Tobias Lindholm (who wrote The Hunt, and shows even greater skill here) tells the desperate story from both sides. In the corporate offices of the shipping company, CEO Peter (The Killing‘s Soren Malling) is trained by a real-life hostage negotiator in how to deal with the pirates who have taken his ship in the Indian Ocean. On board, the beleaguered cook Mikkel tries to survive mentally and physically as the crew languishes for [I won’t tell you how long!] as negotiations are drawn out. The acting is superb, and every line of dialogue seemingly spot-on for such an unimaginable situation. Full marks go to Lindholm and his own crew for producing one of the highlights of my festival.

By comparison, Sofia Coppola’s heralded The Bling Ring is made of fluffier, ickier stuff. Starring Emma “Hermione Potter” Watson in a breaking-the-mould role, she’s actually terrific as one of a bunch of real-life spoilt Hollywood kids who broke into celebrities’ homes and stole beautiful things. As we see inside the boudoir and Nightclub Room of Paris Hilton (better than any episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and almost worth the ticket price on its own), you soon feel as though you’ve eaten too much candy. The overall experience left me a bit soiled, like when I’ve read a WHO Weekly magazine. Definitely enjoyable but hardly “improving”.

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However, capping off an excellent two days was another stunner, What Maisie Knew – an excoriating tale of parents splitting up and doing everything you shouldn’t for the sake of the child stuck in the middle. The film takes Maisie’s point of view, gently following the eccentrically dressed wee child from home to home, step-parent to step-parent. Remarkably, every performance is brilliant here, too – Steve Coogan is the best I’ve ever seen him, perfectly personifying a bad father against Julianne Moore’s Oscar-deserving turn as the narcissistic rock star mother. Support from an unfathomably gorgeous Alexander Skarsgard softens a few of the emotional blows that render this film incisive and insightful, devastating but delicious.

The Trip

Michael Winterbottom, a filmmaker whose career is as diverse in its subject matter as that of Ang Lee, revisits the wit and charm of A Cock and Bull Story by teaming up again with comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon – you know, the guy who played Alan Partridge, and that Welsh chap who does impressions.

Coogan and Brydon again play themselves (you can say “versions” of themselves, but there are so many truths and likely-truths illuminated by their largely improvised chitchat that most of the laughs derive from that classic, close-to-the-bone humour we all witnessed from the mean-but-funny bully at school).

Coogan gets a gig from the Observer Sunday newspaper to drive around boutique hotels and restaurants in the north of England and write reviews.  When his American girlfriend decides they need an hiatus, he begrudgingly invites new dad Brydon along.  They spend their days driving from village to village, riffing and singing and trying to outdo one another’s impressions of everyone from James Bond to Anthony Hopkins to welsh actor Michael Sheen.

Winterbottom directed the BAFTA award winning TV series from which he built this film, splicing the episodes together so well that you don’t feel you’re watching anything less than a planned feature film.   It is quite simply hilarious, air-gasping, side-splitting stuff – from the “Michael Caine-off” in one fine restaurant, to the well-observed examination of why men going into battle always decide to leave at “daybreak” (not “8:45 for 9 o’clock”).  The humour lies in the sending-up of Coogan as the bigger star, but also the one who wants it desperately, against Brydon’s happy home existence and his online success with Small Man Trapped in a Box.

Two of Britain’s finest comedians, directed by one of Britain’s (and the world’s) most talented filmmakers, The Trip is indispensable viewing.

 

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