Movie Review ~ The Trip to Greece


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Actors Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan travel from Troy to Ithaca following in the footsteps of the Odysseus.

Stars: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Rebecca Johnson, Tim Leach, Cordelia Bugeja, Tessa Walker, Michael Towns, Marta Barrio, Kareem Alkabbani

Director: Michael Winterbottom

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  It’s funny how our tastes change over time, isn’t it?  Much like how we continue to develop our palate for new foods as we grow, our interest in certain topics and curiosity in outside stimuli remain in flux well into our adulthood.  That’s probably why I’ve found myself throughout this time of shelter in place going back through a number of older movies that I’ve seen before when I was much younger but can only really appreciate now.  Films like Cabaret or Broadcast News look different when viewed as an adult and newer (to me) titles like North by Northwest (don’t judge) and Sullivan’s Travels are discoveries long overdue.

All this preamble is meant to illustrate is that I can easily see my younger self staying far away from the quartet of films in The Trip series because they wouldn’t have spoken to me until I reached this point in my life.  The first film, released in 2010 was an out-of the blue delight and it’s 2014 follow up, The Trip to Italy, took the original premise and found new ways to mine laughs and pathos.  If 2017’s The Trip to Spain wasn’t quite in the same league, it was still miles ahead of other comedic endeavors because the series as a whole is so unique to begin with.  There’s just nothing quite like it and it’s hard to explain why following around two middle-aged men through various picturesque locales as they quip, nip, and nibble is so incredibly entertaining.  So when I got wind that The Trip to Greece was setting sail, I couldn’t wait to escape for another adventure.

Returning once more to play exaggerated versions of their own personas, Steve Coogan (Philomena) and Rob Brydon (Blinded by the Light) are found at the top of the movie in Turkey already at their first stop for their latest road trip.  Coogan’s publisher wants him to write a piece that follows the journey of Odysseus across Greece, bringing Brydon along for company and commentary.  Together, the men dine at fine restaurants in front of jaw-dropping vistas and stay at luxe accommodations as they see the sights the countryside has to offer.  Through some amazing cinematography, it’s the best kind of postcard for Greek tourism the country could ask for…and extra painful right now when all I want to do is travel.

Director Michael Winterbottom (The Look of Love) has a long history with Coogan and Brydon by this point and more so than other entries this feels like it has longer takes with more freedom for the men to improv and riff off of each other.  This leads to a series of riotously funny sequences with the competitive guys trying to best the other, be it with impressions of Mick Jagger, determining who can swim better, or who hits the best falsetto notes on an old Demis Roussos song.  The comic takedowns are endless and rapid fire, but they are all in good fun and you can easily see how much the two like one another.

While other entries have all had some sort of dramatic interlude that brings the fun fantasy trip back to reality, The Trip to Greece takes a more somber turn than I expected and it’s a jarring transition.  This being the supposed final entry in the series (for now at least) I had hoped to see it go out with a different message but I suppose there’s a take away from where we last see both men as the film draws to a close.  I won’t spoil the ending for you but when you reflect back on all the places we’ve traveled with Steve and Rob and all the wonderful meals we’ve shared with them, you realize that it truly is about the journey and not so much about the destination.

Movie Review ~ Premature


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Seventeen year old Ayanna meets handsome and mysterious Isaiah in her path towards self-discovery. Her entire world is turned upside down as she travails on the rigorous terrain of young love on the summer before she leaves for college.

Stars: Zora Howard, Joshua Boone, Michelle Wilson, Alexis Marie Wint, Imani Lewis, Tashiana Washington, Myha’la Herrold

Director: Rashaad Ernesto Green

Rated: NR

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Seeing movies at film festivals is, honestly, often a crapshoot.  Though the movies have been curated by a supposedly sensible staff there are times when you find yourself watching a selection and wondering how on earth the committee thought a crowd would respond to this title.  Thankfully, the group behind the Twin Cities Film Festival have an exceedingly good feel not just for what will appeal to their festivalgoers but also what filmmakers/actors/projects could be the next buzzy project.  It’s these films that are often selected to either open the festival or be the closing night title, so I always tend to pay close attention to what gets those coveted slots.

At the 11-day event this past year, Premature snagged that closing night position so I made sure to get it on my schedule and I was glad I did because it lived up to the hype.  Catching a movie so early in its festival run can be difficult because it can fade from memory when it finds a wide-release date but that wasn’t the case here. Now, seven months later it’s finally debuting on the streaming service Hulu after winning a number of awards, including Film Independent’s  Someone to Watch Award for director Rashaad Ernesto Green back in February.

When Ayanna (Zora Howard) meets Isaiah (Joshua Boone) during one hot summer in her Harlem, NY neighborhood, she isn’t looking for any kind of a relationship.  She’s on her way to college in the fall and is tentative about getting involved with the older man, charming though he may be.  Her poetry and journaling is her method of expression and she pours her feelings into lines that hold great power.  When she inevitably finds herself moving forward with Isaiah, her life changes in ways she never expected and emotions of both pleasure and pain factor into her thoughts on building a future with him.

Co-written by Green and star Howard, this is a sensitive drama involving young love that doesn’t follow the typical trajectory we’re all used to seeing.  Bucking most conventions of the romance genre, it gives voice to the black community in current, vibrant ways and you can feel its energy pulsating off screen from beginning to end.  It’s a frank film, in language and sexuality, yes, but also in honesty of emotion and all feel entirely earned and justified.  Simple resolutions don’t exist in Ayanna and Isaiah’s world and I appreciated seeing the world from that vantage point.

The script is one thing but the performances are what elevate Premature to that next level.  Green has assembled a hell of a fine cast, from bit players to supporting actors playing Ayanna’s pseudo Greek chorus girlfriends.  Though made on a tiny budget you get the feeling all of these people have known each other for years and Green just made a few phone calls to get them all together to shoot.  Boone and Howard have a fiery chemistry that is so very rare to see and Boone makes what could be a problematic character less so with his gentle approach.  The movie belongs to Howard, though, and not just because she’s written an especially strong female lead for herself.  Ayanna’s imperfections is what makes her so understandable and whether she’s struggling with communicating with her mother (a strong Michelle Wilson) or reacting to a perceived slight from Isaiah, we understand her frustration more than we are aware.  It’s a bold, brave, memorable turn.

Premature was always going to be a tough sell even without the quarantine and pandemic to quiet it’s already small release in theaters.  Now that it’s going straight to streaming on Hulu there’s a chance more people will discover it early but it’s a true gem that you should get on the bandwagon early for.  It falls into the same step with If Beale Street Could Talk with presenting straightforward black relationships without resorting to cloying clichés.  That should be celebrated and encouraged.

Movie Review ~ Inheritance (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A patriarch of a wealthy and powerful family suddenly passes away, leaving his wife and daughter with a shocking secret inheritance that threatens to unravel and destroy their lives.

Stars: Lily Collins, Simon Pegg, Connie Nielsen, Chace Crawford, Patrick Warburton

Director: Vaughn Stein

Rated: NR

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Over the past few months while I’ve been cooped up there’s been time to do more than watch movies, a shocking thought to be sure.  Though I resisted at first, I’ve only recently given over to becoming a member of the puzzling community and now I have another project to occupy my time.  The jigsaw puzzle I’m working on now is tricky because the picture you see on the box doesn’t match the final one displayed in the finished work, meaning that you can only use the original image as a reference point.  What’s even trickier is that some pieces seem to fit right at first but wind up not being the exact match you originally thought they were.

Watching the new thriller Inheritance is a lot like putting together this puzzle because what you see isn’t exactly what you get and it’s made up of pieces that don’t fit.  Audiences in the mood for a twisty suspense film are willing to piece together intricate plot points but you have to provide them with the proper skill level for their efforts.  While I feel the finished project is overall an entertaining one that rises above some more standard tropes, it can’t get away from some big red flags that prevent it from rising to the next level.

Wealthy Archer Monroe (Patrick Warburton, Ted) has passed away suddenly, leaving his wife Catherine (Connie Nielsen, Sea Fever) and children William (Chace Crawford, Peace, Love & Misunderstanding) and Lauren (Lily Collins, Mirror Mirror) in shock.  The head of a successful and influential family, he was also a hard and harsh man toward his children and there doesn’t appear to be a lot of love lost at his demise.  At the reading of his will, his estate is divided between Catherine and William with Lauren receiving a smaller portion of his fortune.  This comes as no surprise as politician William is mounting another reelection bid and Lauren has always been somewhat of a disappointment to her father…even though she’s the District Attorney of Manhattan. (!)

Lauren gets something more for her inheritance, though.  A secret.  Delivered by the Monroe’s lawyer (Michael Beach, Aquaman) she becomes keeper of the keys to a secluded bunker behind her family estate that holds a dark mystery from her father’s past.  Now, it’s hard to speak of what this is without revealing too much of the wild turns Inheritance begins to take but suffice it to say it involves a man (Simon Pegg, The World’s End) who could sully her family name. Their relationship eventually forces Lauren to make the choice between family and virtue and leads to the awakening of some deep-seeded resentment toward her father we see played out in flashback.

Directing only his second feature film, Vaughn Stein takes Matthew Kennedy’s at times far out there script and finds a nice visual balance by draining the film of a lively color palate.  Upstate NY (actually Alabama) looks bleak, leaving our heroine literally out in the cold for much of the film.  Stein has a good eye to keep the film interesting to look at, even if he allows it to go on longer than it should because with a running time of 111 minutes it’s could easily lose 14 of them and be a tighter, tauter affair.  Reviews of Inheritance have given away the twist and I could have expanded on what’s in the bunker but I’m deciding to be deliberately obtuse because I saw the film without any knowledge of the deeper plot and that’s how I think you should too.  There’s a lot about the movie that’s, frankly, silly so the more you can take the seriousness when it’s available I say run toward it.  While it builds to some truly ludicrous switcheroos and supposedly smart people acting like complete dopes, I found a lot of Inheritance to be an an engaging ride.

Remember how I mentioned that puzzle piece that seems like it fits but really doesn’t?  That would be Collins as the leading lady who gives it her all but is just miscast in the role.  Taking over the role from Kate Mara (who would have been aces), Collins doesn’t look old enough to be the Manhattan DA, let alone have a child that barely needs to be in a car seat.  It feels like these character points were written when Mara was still cast and weren’t changed when Collins came on board.  Had the script been tweaked to make her child younger and alter her career position (not because she couldn’t hold the position but because I didn’t believe she was old enough to have it yet) I would have been able to buy her character fully.  Though Collins acts up a storm, she just feels out of place throughout.  Aside from some truly heinous acting from a bit player Collins meets with to get answers about her father, the acting is strong from the rest, particularly Nielsen who feels underutilized…until she isn’t.

Inheritance is a perfectly OK thriller, one of those films that you’d see pop up on your Netflix queue that you’d give some time to and walk away none the worse for wear.  It has some good points (I was surprised at a few rather spooky set-ups) and some stumbles but having approached it with no real investment there was nothing for me to be let down by.  It’s well-made and nicely assembled with performances that are nothing less than fully committed – I just wish the script was tailored more to the actors playing the roles and not the other way around.

Movie Review ~ The Painter and The Thief


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova develops an unlikely friendship with the man who stole two of her paintings

Stars: Barbora Kysilkova, Karl-Bertil Nordland

Director: Benjamin Ree

Rated: NR

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: With the advances of media and technology, we can now capture so much of our lives.  From the very public to the intimately private, there’s opportunities to catch the tiniest moments and it’s led to rich advancements in documentaries over the last two decades.  So instead of a documentary filmmaker having to be with the subject 24/7 they can glean footage from iPhones or video cameras set to film conversations that go for the most realism as possible.  What began as frontline footage that was often dangerous to obtain by guerilla filmmakers shining a spotlight on injustice or showcasing an underseen population is now, maybe not easier, but different to compile.

I’m a sucker for documentaries and look forward to the announcement of the Best Documentary category about as much as I do the top prizes at the Oscars every year.  Of course I love the ones that feature the glitz and glamour of the entertainment industry but I also hold a special place for the docs about human relationships that evolve over time that aren’t set in one specific time period.  Seeing the subjects age and grow (not like in movies where they are aided by make-up/technology) is documentary in its most pure form and we’re starting to see more of these labors of love as the years go by.  Even better is that while so many Hollywood movies have plots that are recycled from the same three or four formulas, you never can predict where a documentary will take you.

That’s why I was so intrigued when I first heard about The Painter and the Thief.  Here was a documentary centered on an artist from the Czech Republic recently relocated to Oslo that has two of her prized paintings stolen out of a gallery.  The men are caught and the artist forms a bond with one of the men that winds up changing both of their lives in unexpected ways.  Sounds like something right up my alley and the perfect issues for a documentary.  Right?  So why did the movie and its subjects leave me so…cold?

What I’ve been trying more and more during this time is to read as little about the films I’m watching beforehand as possible so when approaching The Painter and the Thief I knew just the basics.  Watching the film directed by Benjamin Ree I was struck by how much it felt like a narrative project and I kept having to remind myself it was a documentary and not a work of fiction.  There’s something in the way that Ree has presented the work and how the painter (Barbora Kysilkova) and the thief (Karl-Bertil Nordland) carry themselves while on camera that it comes across like everyone has a distinct awareness of what’s going on.  That tends to rob some of the drama and revelation out of what transpires, though it must be said that I don’t think it was Ree’s intention to provide this kind of emotional journey at the outset.

What I can’t seem to get over is a nagging sense of being somehow manipulated throughout into a particular path and it becomes more over the longer the film runs.  This isn’t completely out of bounds for a filmmaker to add in their personal slant, however The Painter and the Thief manages to go beyond that so the audience tends to doubt some certainties along the way.  Aside from feeling like you can’t believe the developments that take place, there are some oddities you can’t quite shake.  If we know that Karl-Bertil is the thief, why on the security footage that is captured and presented as evidence in the court is his face blurred out?

The film finds its success in its thread of redemption and it’s not just for the thief.  The artist, seemingly quick to forgive the men who robbed her, goes through her own journey of forgiveness within herself that feels like a far more strenuous battle.  And the uphill climb Karl-Bertil takes is quite incredible, you see him come back to life through the copious amount of footage Ree has whittle down to the finished film.  The final shot is a bit of a magic trick, tying up a lot of loose ends with satisfaction while opening a whole new can of worms.

You can easily imagine this being turned into a feature film and I wouldn’t doubt we’ll see this story brought to the screen within the next several years.  While I question the full range of authenticity on display for the duration of The Painter and the Thief there’s little in question that the human connection found within its framework is captured with grace.

Movie Review ~ Villain (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Released from prison, a man returns to his violent ways when a menacing drug lord threatens his indebted brother.

Stars: Craig Fairbrass, George Russo, Izuka Hoyle, Mark Monero, Tomi May, Eloise Lovell Anderson, Taz Skylar, Nicholas Aaron, Michael John Treanor, Marcus Onilude, Robert Glenister

Director: Philip Barantini

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Over here in America we think we’ve got the gangster movie nailed down and maybe we’ve had a good run but there’s something about the way our friends over in the UK do it that elevates it to another level.  Though Guy Ritchie is credited as revitalizing the crime thriller for a new generation with his slate of movies in the early 2000s which combined rough action and slick dialogue, it overly complicated what is ostensibly a simple genre.  All that flash may give the feature an interesting look but it’s the performances and plot that propel these hard-nosed titles forward into success.  While Ritchie made a play to regain some of that magic with The Gentlemen earlier this year, it still leaned a little too much on the side of style over substance…but it was on the right track.

Now we have Villain, a smaller title with no A-listers to amp up the star quality and it winds up running circles around The Gentlemen for the plain fact that it goes back to the original formula instead of designing from the next gen hybrid.  It’s a hard-nosed, bloody knuckle ride that feels like it was working from script that’s been around since the 70s.  That’s not a bad thing, either, because it keeps the world of our characters small and the attention focused, creating a cracking action package that also takes interesting dramatic turns.

Having served his time in prison, Eddie Franks (Craig Fairbrass, Cliffhanger) is headed home to take back the family pub from his ne’er-do-well brother Sean (George Russo, also a co-screenwriter) who has been keeping it afloat during his absence.  Though the watering hole continues to generate steady business from the locals, Sean has a side operation with a few ruddy drug runners that have set him up in a shady extortion plot.  With Sean’s life on the line and Eddie not wanting to go back to prison so soon for kicking the tar out of these men, the brothers offer to peaceably make good on the debt and let everyone be on their way but when the thugs push back it sets a chain of gruesome events into motion.  With his family on the line, Eddie has to come out of his good guy retirement to protect his brother, his business, and his estranged daughter (Izuka Hoyle, Mary Queen of Scots) that wants nothing to do with him.

Actor turned director Philip Barantini oversees his first feature film and it captures the feel of those 70s British gangster films while still retaining a modern sensibility.  It’s obvious Barantini has done his homework and while the movie doesn’t feel old-fashioned or overly reverential, you can see that it is definitely tipping its hat toward the films it was inspired by.  The same feeling is found in Russo and Greg Hall’s efficient script.  The characters are fairly well defined and we know as much as we need to about them so that their motivations make sense.  The introduction of Eddie’s daughter could have been a typical saccharine development but the way Fairbrass and Hoyle play it we know that a resolution won’t be wrapped up in a bow in the course of 97 minutes.

I wasn’t familiar with the work of Fairbrass before this but looking over his IMDb credits he’s amassed a lot of similar roles over the years.  He fits into that elder Jason Statham role and I wouldn’t be shocked to hear this was originally offered to Statham, which is meant as no disrespect to Fairbrass because I think he wound up being the better choice anyway.  He’s an intimidating presence but soft-spoken, you know he’s paying you respect by not slapping the hell out of you if you look at him sideways.  While the supporting cast is solid across the board, this movie belongs to Fairbrass and he’s a commanding (and affable) lead.

Though it starts to run out of steam and interesting places to go near the end, I wasn’t quite sure for the majority of the movie where Villain was headed.  For once, I could have imagined countless different solutions that would have been a satisfying finale and the one that was chosen likely makes the most sense dramatically.  As much as the movie is about settling up old scores and paying for actions, it shows that no one is above consequences, even purportedly minor ones.

Movie Review ~ Military Wives


The Facts
:

Synopsis: With their partners away serving in Afghanistan, a group of women on the home front form a choir and quickly find themselves at the center of a media sensation and global movement.

Stars: Kristin Scott Thomas, Sharon Horgan, Jason Flemyng, Greg Wise, Emma Lowndes, Gaby French

Director: Peter Cattaneo

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: One of the last movies I was scheduled to see before this pandemic hit was Military Wives and I have to say, I was disappointed to be missing it.  Yes, I know that the #StayHome and #StaySafe orders were for the best and I am in full support of social distancing in order to kick COVID-19 to the curb (what will people think reading this in a few years?) but I was seriously in the mood for something that looked as joyously heartwarming as Military Wives looked to be.  Though you could literally see the plot points developing while the trailer was unspooling it was no matter, sometimes it is OK to know the route before leaving the station.

The chance to get to see this early did present itself, though, so I found myself watching a screener of this during a particularly glum week and I have to say, it really did the trick in brightening a mood.  Even though it deals with some emotional subjects and is, at times, a heart-tugging tearjerker, this is the kind of film made to turn on during a dark period.  It’s bright, it’s light, and it while it is disappointingly not as deep or as sensitively profound as I thought it would be there’s so much good will being poured into it that it’s hard not to give over to its charms at one point or another.

At the Flitcroft Military Base, families are preparing to say goodbye to their loves ones that are shipping out on active duty for a tour in Afghanistan.  In order to stay busy, the spouses/partners of the soldiers serving try to stay busy with events organized by the partner of the second in command.  Previously, this was tightly-wound Kate (Kristin Scott Thomas, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) but with her husband (Greg Wise, Last Christmas) now the highest level officer at the base, that role now falls to Lisa (Sharon Horgan, Game Night) who is more loose with her definition of organized activity.  When Lisa’s experience with choral work is brought up, the ladies decide to start a choir leading to a power struggle between Lisa and Kate.  With little initial energy behind the choral club from the members and the leaders, it takes a shocking wake-up call to remind the group of their strength and how important their role as caregivers are.

I’ll say off the bat that those expecting a raucous comedy about a dysfunctional choir that starts off bad and turns into an overnight sensation after a series of hysterical antics should likely go back and dust off their copy of Sister Act (actually, do that anyway) because that’s not exactly the movie we have here.  Screenwriters Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard have taken a true-life story and fictionalized it, letting the Flitcroft Military Choir be the amalgam for a number of choirs that came together during the Afghanistan deployment back in 2008 and their focus is not entirely on laughs but on humor…if that makes sense.  Most of the comedy is derived from the ladies reluctance to participate in the chorus, only to be swayed when they begin to gel as one as they find their voices as a group.  Scenes that you think are headed for a comic punchline either veer in a different direction or don’t go anywhere at all, at times it feels like Flynn and Tunnard are afraid to stray too far into comedic shenanigans, even though the movie might have derived some needed energy from these flights of fancy.

This being a film about loved ones engaged in war you may be able to guess at least one of the poignant moments – and you know it’s coming but just not when or to whom.  Thankfully, the screenwriters spare us the suspense and don’t make that the event that the final act hinges on but rather what pushes it forward.  The real heavy emotional lifting is done by Scott Thomas playing the wife grieving the loss of her son killed in battle left behind by a husband also unable to cope with his sorrow.  Had the movie shifted the focus to be more on Scott Thomas and used her involvement with choir as a way toward her finding healing, I have a feeling it would have been more successful.  As it is, there’s just not enough story or character development to go around the numerous (appealing) supporting cast that doesn’t get much in the way of fleshed out story arcs.  Even the talented Horgan can’t drum up much interest and though she’s meant to be a co-lead she’s often overshadowed by Scott Thomas solely because her character isn’t as well-defined.

Director Peter Cattaneo found unexpected triumph (and an Oscar nomination) over twenty years for the quirky delight that was The Full Monty and as much as the marketing materials want you to believe this is another slam dunk like that was, it isn’t.  That’s not to say Military Wives is without its own share of rich moments of humanity…it’s just that there aren’t quite as many opportunities as there could have been.  It follows a standard formula that gets the job done but is workmanlike in its delivery.  Though it culminates with a moving performance at the Royal Albert Hall and features a typically fantastic performance from School Thomas, Military Wives winds up just under pitch.