Tag: steve coogan

Philomena


Philomena (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

A recently unemployed BBC News journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), did not at all want to write a human interest story because he thinks these tend to be about vulnerable, weak-minded, and ignorant people. But after hearing an old Irish woman’s story about having a baby as a teenager and then the nuns giving her child away, Martin takes on the assignment and agrees to aid Philomena (Judi Dench) in locating her son.

When the words “inspired by a true story” graced the black screen during the opening credits, a sinking feeling bore in my stomach. “It’s another one of those,” according to my brain, so tired of being disappointed by so many bad movies that are supposedly inspired by or based on true stories.

But “Philomena,” directed by Stephen Frears, is head and shoulders above many of them. It is told with class and elegance sans sensationalism or relying on sentimentality. If it had been helmed by lesser hands, given its premise, it would likely have turned into a syrupy Lifetime movie where behavior takes precedence over the inner thoughts and feelings of its main players. Dench and Coogan play their characters exactly right: as real people from which the story is inspired by.

What is left to say about the great Judi Dench? Her performance is excellent. I loved and felt privileged for being able to look at her face and feeling every bit of the character’s shame, frustration, fears, and agony. Alongside Frears’ direction, the extra seconds when the camera simply lingers on the master’s wrinkly face allows us time to absorb Philomena’s inner struggle and to try to imagine how it must be like for her to not know what has happened to her son for half a century. Dench is such an ace performer that a well-timed blink or the manner in which she exhales can have so much effect on a shot.

I have always seen Coogan as a comedian more than actor although I know the two need not be mutually exclusive. Perhaps it is because he appears in a lot of comedic pictures. Regardless, I have always found his performances rather one-note, repetitive, and at times unrelentingly dull. Here, although the actor has funny bits, the camera does not fixate on how funny he is. In addition, I believed that Coogan is playing a character here: someone who wishes to restore his name as a journalist and yet someone who hopes to do the right thing. It helps that the screenplay by Coogan and Jeff Pope does not beat us over the head with Sixsmith’s goals, personal and professional, as well as possible ulterior motives.

The picture is beautifully shot. Whether it be inside a small, darkly lit local pub or a very spacious airport (accompanied by a hilarious description of what happens in a romance novel that the title character is just about finished reading—my favorite scene), the movement of the camera is fluid, never drawing attention away from conversations between the reporter and his subject. Human connection is highlighted with consistency and so we are naturally drawn to the conflict that drives the drama.

The Trip


The Trip (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Steve (Steve Coogan) is invited by The Observer to travel all over England and sample food from the best restaurants. His girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley), is supposed to go with him, but she has to cancel because she is offered a big opportunity for career advancement in America. After everyone else turns down Steve’s invitation to accompany him, Steve calls Rob (Rob Brydon) and the Welsh happily accepts.

“The Trip,” directed by Michael Winterbottom, is largely uneven because with every other amusing scene, every ounce of comedy is drained to the point where it ends up testing my patience. The experience is not unlike listening to a friend tell a funny joke and then that friend feeling compelled to tell more jokes that are less funny.

Steve and Rob love to imitate famous people like Hugh Grant, Sean Connery, and Sir Ian McKellen. I do not think anyone can resist not laughing when they mimic Michael Caine’s voice to a tee. At some point, I could not look at them without laughing so I had to close my eyes in order to ascertain the subtle differences between Rob and Steve’s impression of the actor. Coogan and Brydon understand the importance of timing.

Unfortunately, the characters’ penchant for doing voices disrupt scenes designed for us to have the opportunity to get to know them in new ways. With every place they visit (and while driving to their destination), they just have to do one more impression and, worse, sing until their voices crack. It is like being stuck on a bad road trip because I had forgotten my iPod at home.

I understood that Steve and Rob feel the need to compete with each other. Singing ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All” is not a coincidence. They are friends (or consider themselves as friends) but there is a tinge of ugly jealously in their friendship. Most of us can relate to comparing ourselves with another person and wanting what he or she has. It does not even matter if it is over something so silly. What matters is that the feelings are there and they do not seem to go away. For example, Steve feels insecure about himself because although he is now in his mid-forties, he feels as though he has not attained the recognition that he believes is worthy of his talent. From multiple attempts to prove himself that he is good enough, he belts out certain comments toward Rob that can be interpreted as bitter, unnecessary, and uncalled-for.

I admired the film most when it embraces its melancholy tone. It is able to consider the big questions, in a genuine way, about being middle-aged. For instance, should one mostly look back at his accomplishments, big and small, or should one look forward to the possibilities? What is more important: a flourishing career or a family? Though the questions have a layer of sincerity, the way the film allows Rob and Steve to answer them are mostly played for laughs. But maybe they need to approach the questions in such a way in order to avoid breaking.

“The Trip” is wonderfully improvised by Coogan and Brydon, but about a dozen of the imitation scenes need to be excised to the make room for more characterization. A string of scenes involving mimicry probably works on the television show but given that most movies require a defined arc, especially ones dealing with insecurities, I could not help but feel it merely settling in half lethargy.

The Other Guys


The Other Guys (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Detectives Danson (Dwayne Johnson) and Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) were the kinds of cops we often see in action movies. They were tough, hard-bodied, and unaffected by explosions and flying bullets around them. Not necessarily likable, they were considered as heroes. But when they jumped to their death, Detective Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), dragging reluctant Detective Gamble (Will Ferrell) along, aimed to take the celebrated detectives’ place. Much of the humor of “The Other Guys” stemmed from exaggerations. Whether it be a character quirk, a stylized action sequence, or just an embarrassingly awkward situation, the picture milked a scene for all its worth. It worked in some ways, but it didn’t work in others. I laughed at the scenes when Hoitz would always yell at his partner, but Gamble was like a wall of sound. Great partnerships often have opposite temperaments; the latter was happy with his safe desk job but the former craved more excitement and danger. One particularly hilarious scene was the lion versus tuna tidbit. It was creative, strange, and had a sense of manic energy which gave Ferrell a chance to show how funny he could be given the right material. A few scenes that aimed to satirize C-level action movies fell completely flat. When our protagonists were about to enter an accounting office only to have seen it blow up in front of them, the scene felt forced because the one of the characters kept going on about how–in the movies–characters don’t flinch when something explodes behind them, how he needed to go to the hospital, that perhaps he had gone deaf, and so on. It wasn’t any better than the projects they wished to tease. There was a case in which Hoitz and Gamble aimed to stop a multibillion fraud involving a capitalist named David Ershon (Steve Coogan). Other than the scene in which the criminals used a giant wrecking ball to break into a jewelry store, possibly a spoof of hyperbolic superhero villains’ plans, it failed to keep me interested. Instead, I wished there were more scenes with the underappreciated Michael Keaton as the captain of the police force with a penchant for quoting TLC, referencing to his bisexual son, and holding a second job at Bed Bath & Beyond. Out of all the actors, I thought he was the only one who was funny every time he was on screen. Directed by Adam McKay, “The Other Guys” had a good sense of humor but it felt too bloated. It needed to know when to pull back and let the audiences decide which scenes were worthy of laugh-out-loud funny instead of always throwing the jokes in our faces. It trusted us to spot its allusions, but it didn’t treat us like we were smart.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief


Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) thought that he was nobody special but was, in fact, the son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). After Hades (Steve Coogan) kidnapped Percy’s mother (Catherine Keener) because he believed that the boy had stolen Zeus’ lightning, Percy, his best friend (Brandon T. Jackson) and Athena’s daughter (Alexandra Daddario) went on a quest to find a way to go to the underworld, rescue Percy’s mom, and save the world. Based on a series of novels by Rick Riordan, the film impressed me with its special and visual effects but the big picture left me wanting more. It’s strange because for a two-hour undoubtedly thrilling action-adventure, it felt somewhat like an empty experience because it failed to really explore its characters except for exposing their most obvious quirks and dominant personalities. I like Logan Lerman as an actor but there were times when I spotted weaknesses in his acting. Some of the lines he delivered fell completely flat and I caught myself either rolling my eyes or chuckling because I just did not believe the words that were coming out of his mouth. There was a disconnect between him and the character and therefore his character and the audiences. This was particularly glaring during the most emotional scenes when he was supposed to summon sadness or rage. Perhaps if he was given more takes, he could have nailed the lines. However, as far as children’s adventures, I hardly think the movie was a failure. I enjoyed many scenes such as the duel with a minotaur, a nice surprise on who played Medusa (and I think she did a wonderful job), and that brilliant scene in Las Vegas in the Lotus Casino (it was nice that it illuminated why it was called as such). It was fun to watch, despite the characters making unnecessarily stupid decisions, lacking internal dialogue and angst, because it was very energetic and creative when required. If a sequel is in store for “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” directed by Chris Columbus, I’ll be interested in watching it. People have compared this film to “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and its sequel so I’m curious to see if it can grow as a strong franchise. In order for it to achieve “Harry Potter”-level, it is going to need more focus on the story and characters, much stronger acting especially from the lead, and more magic via playing with our expectations and emotions.

Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian


Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

This sequel to the highly successful “Night at the Museum” finds Ben Stiller, once a night museum guard in the first film, as a thriving businessman. But after he gets ahold of the news that the museum where he met the historical-figures-turned-to-life is to be closed, he feels like he must do something in order to repay them for inspiring him to do something better with his life. More conflict ensue when Stiller gets a call from Jedediah Smith (Owen Wilson), obviously in danger because Kahmunrah (the hilarious Hank Azaria) and his Egyptian army wants the artifact which turns everything in a museum into life to pursue his dream of world domination. Like the first installment, what I love about this picture is its energy. It’s not afraid to put disparate and random elements into the picture so it constantly surprised me. If I were to pick highlights from the film, I would definitely pick any scene when Stiller and Amy Adams (as the charming Amelia Earhart) would talk because they do have genuine chemistry. By the end of the movie, I wanted to know what would happen between them even though we all know that she’s going to turn into a statue when the sun rises. I would also point out that one scene when the both of them decided to jump into a popular photograph (a soldier/sailor and a woman kissing during the end of a war) and everything turned into black and white. During those scenes, I felt like I was watching more than a family-friendly film with funny one-liners. Having Azaria and his Axis of Evil (Steve Coogan as Octavius, Christopher Guest as Ivan the Terrible, and Jon Bernthal as Al Capone) was absolutely brilliant because of his well-timed sense of humor. Every time he spoke (lisp and all), I couldn’t help but laugh because of that one scene where he (too enthusiastically) declared, “I have… come back… to life!” That bit when he tried to decide whether Darth Vader and Oscar the Grouch were evil enough to join his team was pretty darn amusing. Still, I wished that Rami Malek (as Ahkmenrah) was in it more because he really was very funny in the first movie. His increased appearance would’ve also made sense because his older brother (Azaria) was the main villain here. Yes, the slapstick is still present (though in lesser amount compared to the first) but I really didn’t mind it because everything was happening all at once. The historical and pop culture figures may have been portrayed in a cliché manner but I think that’s half the fun of it. I say this one is just as good as the original even though it feels like it doesn’t have a profound story, just one funny scene after another. If they do make a second sequel, I’ll still be interested in watching it.

Hamlet 2


Hamlet 2 (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

I’m not a big fan of slapstick comedy and it’s dispersed throughout this movie, but Steve Coogan’s enthusiastic performance as a drama teacher who wants to inspire his students prevented me from becoming completely bored by it. The presence of familiar faces such as Elisabeth Shue, Catherine Keener, Melonie Diaz, David Arquette, and Amy Poehler made it that much better because their sometimes subtle performances contrast to the all-too-obvious elements of the picture. Not to mention that “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” song is not only satirical and catchy but just plain hilarious if one is not too sensitive when it comes to making fun of religion (Christianity in this case). I think I would’ve liked this film more if the slapstick that plagued the beginning were completely removed. Not only were they not funny, they also slowed the story down. Instead, the filmmakers should’ve dealt with race relations in the classroom; they tried to move in that direction but I got the feeling that the writers were afraid that the movie would get too serious. What is a comedy without a little bit of dramatic gravity? Despite my coming from a high school with a diverse group of ethnicities, self-segregation is not uncommon; it would’ve been nice if that was explored because I could relate to it and I think it’s still an important issue. I also liked the fact that the story of “Hamlet” was not just randomly chosen to make a play. Coogan’s character can relate to it, in his own strange way, so we get that sense of purpose. I don’t necessarily recommend this movie to just about anyone because it is targeted toward people with a specific sense of humor. If one is a fan of “Napoleon Dynamite” (which I hated with a passion), he or she might enjoy “Hamlet 2.” For me, this film is offensive (in a good way), satirical, and had heart but it could’ve been more insightful and moving if they had toned down the slapstick.