Tag Archives: Steve Coogan

Mellow Yellow

Minions: The Rise of Gru

by Hope Madden

Gru is back, which means more minions. As long as you’re not sick to death of either of those things, Minions: The Rise of Gru is fine, moderately enjoyable family entertainment.

If you are sick to death of any of the above, it’s probably because you are an adult. For you, this second installment of the Minions franchise, fifth overall Despicable Me project, hopes to keep your attention with loads of nods to the Seventies. This probably means they hope the kids are going to theaters with their grandparents.

Why the Seventies? Because we’re watching young Gru (Steve Carell) try to break into the super villain biz. He’s but a wee thing, not yet jaded. Rather than Farrah Fawcett or Starsky and Hutch posters on his walls, though, his bedroom is adorned with The Vicious 6 paraphernalia.

The Vicious 6 are the most notorious supervillains in the world: Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), Jean-Clawed (Jean-Claude Van Damme), Stronghold (Danny Trejo), Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren), and Nun-Chuck (Lucy Lawless).

Other newcomers to the series include Michelle Yeoh and RZA, joining returning performers Julie Andrews, Russell Brand and Steve Coogan.

Damn, that’s a lot of talent behind the microphone.

The animation’s great, too. This movie is gorgeous, especially the 3D rendering of San Francisco.  There’s an eye-popping Chinese New Year parade and a pretty great cross-country motorcycle ride a la Easy Rider that looks amazing.

Writing is a bit of a weak spot, though.

Part of the problem is that all that voice talent is given very little to do because Pierre Coffin (voice of the Minions en masse) gets most of the screen time.

You see, Gru is kidnapped and several of those little yellow pills set off to rescue him. They’re separated. One pulls a Nicholson to RZA’s Peter Fonda. The other three train in the art of Kung Fu with Master Chow (Yeoh).

Minions don’t make great primary characters. They are interchangeable and have no arcs. They’re wildly, suffocatingly popular, yes, but they can’t really carry a film. They’re a hell of a waste of a good cast, though.

Greece Is the Word

The Trip to Greece

by George Wolf

“Exhausting? Me? You should meet you!”

Yes, the boys are at it for the fourth time on the big screen, enjoying exotic locales, savoring sumptuous cuisine, and critiquing the finer points of each other’s celebrity impressions.

Since taking The Trip around England ten years ago, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have also toured Italy (2014) and Spain (2017), reviewing restaurants and juggling their slightly fictionalized lives while director Michael Winterbottom documents it all.

This time out, they’ve also adopted more of an interest in history. They journey from Troy to Ithaca, following in the footsteps of the Odysseus, checking the tour book when they aren’t quizzing each other on historical timelines or Bee Gees tunes (Brydon’s bit with “Stayin Alive” is a scream).

The sarcasm is thick and the barbs sharp per usual, but while the overall hilarity level may be down a notch, this film boasts the most impressive vistas and enticing recipes of the entire series. Sure, it might be the quarantine talking, but less than an hour in I was ready to call either a travel agent or a Greek restaurant. Maybe both.

And in what might be a nod to the end of the franchise, the whiff of mortality pierces the air. Steve calls home often for updates on the health of his dad, and the levity of the “at our age” references carries an added layer of wistful resignation. You get the feeling these guys are finally giving up chasing youthful ghosts and embracing the time they have now.

These trips have always been about appreciating old friends, great food and often uproarious conversation. But while this isn’t the franchise high point, there’s a poignancy here in Greece, underneath Aristotle’s ashes and all the painful falsetto harmonies, that would make it the most satisfying finale.

Money, It’s a Hit


by George Wolf

Greed is a film with a big, timely target and a handful of well-groomed darts. But as much as it consistently lands shots on the board, it never gets close to the bullseye.

To be fair, landing a knockout satire is no easy trick. That writer/director Michael Winterbottom can’t manage it is one problem, but you’re never quite sure he’s fully committed to trying, which is the bigger issue.

He did land a stellar cast, starting right at the top with Steve Coogan, who plays retail fashion mogul Sir Richard McCreadie to pompous perfection.

McCreadie, Britain’s “Monet of Money,” is ready to celebrate his 60th birthday with a huge, Gladiator-themed blowout on the coast of Greece, complete with a recreated Coliseum, a live lion, and entertainment from Elton and Coldplay.

Those Syrian refugees camped out on the public beach, though? Yeah, they’re ruining the view, so they’ll have to go.

While McCreadie’s mother (Shirley Henderson), his ex-wife Samantha (Isla Fisher), their son (Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield, all grown up!) and various employees and hangers-on dodge his frequent outbursts, official biographer Nick (David Mitchell) is trying to make sense of it all.

Winterbottom, writer and/or director for all of Coogan’s The Trip franchise, uses Nick’s fact-finding as the catalyst for plenty of time hopping. From a ruthless young McCreadie (Jamie Blackley) building his empire to a well-scripted episode of “reality” television filming alongside the party planning, Greed unveils a surface-level social consciousness in search of a clear direction.

There’s absurdity, clever amusements and some outright laughs (especially McCreadie haggling over the prices for big-ticket entertainers and a financial writer explaining the illusion of money), but Winterbottom doesn’t seem to trust himself – or his audience- enough to get off the pulpit and commit to satire.

The unveiling of shady business deals, the folly of the “self-made man” and the distance between wealth and consequence is all valid terrain, but Greed is content with paths less challenging and more obvious.

And on one occasion, the film’s timing works against it, because as great as this cast is at dry humor and glossy obnoxiousness, hearing someone label McCreadie a “parasite” only underscores how vital this class warfare theme can be with more inspired execution.

Another Fine Mess

Stan & Ollie

by Hope Madden

Wouldn’t it be nutty to peek behind the curtain of one of cinema’s most famous pairs—your Martin and Lewis, Abbott and Costello, Bert and Ernie—only to find that they are exactly as entertaining and likable in person as they are onscreen?

That’s actually part of what makes Stan & Ollie, Jon S. Baird’s loving biopic of the famous comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, so peculiar a film. Go in expecting demons, divas and drama and you will be disappointed. If you’re looking for a tender image of partnership and friendship struggling to overcome a harsh business, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The inexhaustible talent of John C. Reilly squeezes into a fat suit of Darkest Hour impressiveness as Oliver “Babe” Hardy. The physical transformation awes, but it’s the way the actor mines Hardy’s gentle good nature that impresses even more.

Coogan’s the real surprise. Not only is his resemblance to Stan Laurel almost eerie, but the performance is easily the best dramatic turn of his career.

Both actors, working from a wistful script by Coogan’s Philomena writing partner Jeff Pope, sidestep drama in favor of a kind of resigned camaraderie. Theirs is that well-worn relationship of both love and necessity that comes with decades of familiarity, unspoken grievances and love.

The actors’ chemistry is a fine match for that of the iconic duo, and through the pairing, Baird explores partnership in a more meaningful and less sentimental way than what you’d normally find in a “stars in their declining years” biopic.

The result is an endearing, if slightly underwhelming dramedy, enlivened by Baird’s charming direction. While the film is at its best when Coogan and Reilly quietly grapple with changes facing them, it is at its most enjoyable when art imitates life imitating art. That is, when Stan and Ollie drag a really big trunk up a big flight of stairs, only to let go of it, watch it slide back to the bottom, and do it again.

Like the comedy of Laurel and Hardy, this film is sweet, clever and entirely of another time.

Third Course

The Trip to Spain

by George Wolf

“I’m asking you if you’ll come with me.”

Steve Coogan may be inviting his travel buddy Rob Brydon to join another tasty road trip, but he may as well be asking us if we’re game to ride shotgun.

Once again it’s a witty, breezy, sometimes utterly hilarious getaway.

If you’re hip to The Trip, The Trip to Italy or even the original The Trip TV series, you know what’s coming. For the uninitiated, it’s Steve and Rob playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves as they tour a particular region to sample the finest restaurants and write reviews for the U.K. Observer.

This time out The New York Times is in on the action, too, as our boys are off on The Trip to Spain. They’ll eat well, deliver sarcastic barbs (Rob: “We welcome Philomena back to the conversation, it’s been a good 5 or 6 minutes.”), and of course try to one up each other with dueling celebrity impersonations from Bowie to Brando and Mick Jagger doing Shakespeare.

But in Spain, Roger Moore becomes the new Michael Caine. After trading rapid-fire imitations, Steve detours into a lecture on the Spanish history of the Moors while Rob continues on as Roger.

It’s LMAO funny and the film’s most uproarious bit.

Director Michael Winterbottom is back for this third go ’round as well, and while you’re right to expect more of the same, all involved sense a need to deepen the characterizations.

Understandable, but ultimately a bit of a double edged sword.

There’s bittersweet humanity mined from how Steve and Rob have settled into separate lives, but as the running time begins to feel bloated, the sense that this premise is treading water makes the slightest of appearances.

Not enough to derail the journey, mind you. These boys are still good fun, and so is The Trip to Spain.



Bon Appetit

The Dinner

by Hope Madden

Enduring a dinner party – in cinematic terms, it can lead to a cathartic catfight (Carnage), mass suicide (The Invitation) or an all out apocalypse (It’s a Disaster).

It would appear that having to remain civil through such a meal causes us, as a civilization, a lot of anxiety.

Writer/director Oren Moverman (Rampart, The Messenger) ignites that discomfort and then looks at it from all angles with his newest, The Dinner.

Richard Gere – that silver fox – is Stan Lohman. A politician with a congressional race on the line and an important bill currently up for a vote, he’s juggling a lot right now. So why stop everything to join his brother Paul (Steve Coogan), along with Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) and his own wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) for a 5-star meal?

Well, it isn’t good news.

The restaurant of choice is beyond posh, its lushly appointed dining rooms and obscenely laden tables a fascinating surrounding for the drama unfolding. When Moverman remains with his primary foursome inside this restaurant, an involving and curiously repellant morality play unfolds.

Moverman has a particular talent – one that these veterans relish. He scripts characters who are rarely entirely what they appear at first blush, never go where you expect them to go, and somehow wind up being the same and yet remarkably different than what you’d imagined.

This kid of layered challenge can prove too much for many actors, but Hall, Coogan, Gere and especially Linney are custom made for such work. Indeed, in many respects these actors are superior to their material.

Linney and Hall suffer from underwritten characters, which is a shame because both find something primal under all their characters’ studied polish.

Gere is breezily at ease as the smooth politician, convincing himself and others of his genuineness as he works the room.

Coogan is the standout surprise, playing against his traditionally comedic type as the enigma in the middle of this conundrum.

Suffice it to say, the couples have a parental nightmare to contend with, and it’s when Moverman brings in flashback to enlighten the audience that his drama begins to lose its way. Mix in some additional flashbacks to illuminate Paul’s character, including an excruciating Civil War sequence (we get it – sibling rivalry – enough already!), and the slow film comes to a stand-still.

It’s a frustrating way to spend an evening, The Dinner, but not a waste of time. Every member of the cast has a moment of brilliance working with a script that also shines in fits and spurts.


Second Helping


The Trip to Italy

by George Wolf


Yes, they do the Michael Caine bit again.

If this news brings a knowing smile to your face, you’ll have a fine time taking The Trip to Italy.

For the uninitiated, the “bit” involves Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon trying to one-up each other in a hilarious battle of Michael Caine impressions. It was a highlight of the 2011 film The Trip, which chronicled their travels to some of the finer restaurants of Northern England. Playing fictionalized versions of themselves, they engaged in joyously witty banter during a stint as food critics for the UK paper The Observer.

As you might guess from its title, the sequel takes the pair on a similar assignment in Italy, where they try to keep tabs on their respective acting careers while enjoying the picturesque locales and tempting cuisine of the region. And, of course, bickering about everything from Alanis Morrisette’s music to Jude Law’s hair.

Director Michael Winterbottom is back at the helm, with good instincts for what this film needs to equal, and often better, the first go round. The simple novelty of the premise may be gone, but there is a subtle deepening of character development, and an all-around breezy warmth that is contagious.

But, those are just tasty side dishes supporting the main course:  two likable chaps given plenty of room to match razor-sharp wits. They display a wonderful chemistry, and complete command over the process of turning droll, deadpan humor into some uproarious moments.

Sporting plenty of laughter, wonderful scenery and delectable looking dishes, don’t be shocked if you leave The Trip to Italy with an urge to call your travel agent.





Of Faith and Forgiveness


by Hope Madden

Not so very long ago in Ireland, unwed mothers were deemed unfit to raise their children. The “sinners” and their offspring were relinquished to the charge of the nuns, confined to convents around the country to work off their debt to the church and watch as their babies were given to more “deserving” Catholics. Philomena Lee was one of these beleaguered young mums, and Steve Coogan (of all people!) decided her tale would make a great buddy picture.

I’m sorry, what?

Well, weirdly enough, his instincts were not too far off the mark. Coogan and Jeff Pope adapted the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, written by Martin Sixsmith.  With Stephen Frears at the helm and the great Dame Judi Dench in the lead, Coogan’s cooked up a surprisingly buoyant depiction of what, by all accounts, should be a devastating tale.

Coogan plays Sixsmith, the world-wearied political journalist who stoops to writing Philomena’s human interest story out of desperation. As he and Philomena attempt to track down the child she was forced to give up nearly 50 years before, an odd couple road picture develops.

It’s a strange structure for an enlightening bit of nonfiction about a systemic abuse of power and of faith – one that, through the pair’s sleuthing, uncovers a fascinating parallel with a more modern crisis of shame and secrecy.

Coogan’s script is sharp, funny and layered, and Frears’s direction settles into a decidedly understated presentation of content that would so easily become maudlin or melodramatic. But let’s be honest, Dench is the reason to see Philomena.

As always, she carves out such a unique and real character that the term acting feels too cumbersome to describe her work. Her natural presence and effervescent depiction are a perfect offset for Coogan’s cynical detachment, and the warm chemistry the two share is infectious.

In fact, there are times that the cheery tone feels almost dismissive of the deep injustice uncovered in the story.

In 2002, writer/director Peter Mullan produced the film The Magdalene Sisters, an emotional wallop of a movie that told of Ireland’s shameful not-so-distant treatment of unwed mothers and other girls deemed disreputable by their church and families. It’s a powerful film, but compared to Philomena, it’s a bit like being beaten about the head and neck.

Instead, Philomena uses one woman’s resilience to set the tone of a film not about tragedy, but about forgiveness and redemption. It doesn’t always work, but it’s an honorable attempt.