It’s the midpoint of May, and while the Summer movies aren’t rolling out, as usual, there are still films to take now of. While drive-ins are certainly one viable option, if available in your area, keep in mind the availability of movies via streaming services and VOD. Things are different, but there’s still room for new reviews too. That in mind, I have assembled some brief takes on new films either currently available or arriving in the near future, along with one retro pick for the week. The following features reviews for The Trip to Greece, Scoob!, The Painter and the Thief, Inheritance, How To Build A Girl, and Waiting for Guffman.
The Setup: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite for the fourth and (apparently) final installment of The Trip series, which now finds the two on a six days odyssey in The Trip to Greece. Once again, the pair find themselves arguing over who does the better impression of various stars, in addition to discussing tragedy and comedy, astronomy, myth, history, and the meaning of life. All of this occurs, while the two visit historical sights, and have grand meals together.
Review: While serving as a BBC TV series, the idea of editing the six episodes of each season together for a series of films has made The Trip one of my favorite and most reliable movie franchises for the past decade. There’s a warm joy to getting to spend some time with these exaggerated versions of Coogan and Brydon, even as the two get on each other’s nerves, as it feels both authentic and is very funny.
Honestly, I can’t quite tell where this entry ranks for the series, but these films have been so consistent for me that it’s hard to really nail down the differences. Yes, the first sequel (The Trip to Italy) seems to split many as far as featuring attempts to top the original’s battling Michael Caine impressions, while also drawing from Federico Fellini for cinematic influence. The third (The Trip to Spain) seems like it was either a challenge to some or a welcome return. This fourth and final sequel, however, has similar and new ideas on its mind.
This time around, director Michael Winterbottom appears to be drawing from Ingmar Bergman for inspiration, which makes sense in the context of the film, but also directly, given the black and white dream sequences Coogan has. Not unlike the other films, there is a sense of melancholy that comes with the laughs. Both men have been dealing with growing older for the past ten years in these films, despite finding various levels of success professionally and personally. That in mind, this may be the most dramatic trip yet.
At the same time, while the laughs go between hilarious exchanges and amusing anecdotes, there’s the sort of comfort you get with just hanging out with two guys that really do have a bond with one another, even if they (mainly Coogan) don’t explicitly express it all the time. If anything, this may be the first of the films where I’m actually more curious about how the full season played out.
The films have cleverly developed over the years as fun larks with solid character work. As a result, it’s not just that I’m happy taking the time to visit with this version of these guys for a laugh, but I am now also concerned for their well-being. Luckily, even in the face of tragedy, the comedy still finds a way to emerge and bring some smiles with it.
Where To Watch: Available in Select Theaters, Digital, and VOD starting May 22, 2020.
The Setup: Following a brief origin story of how Shaggy Scooby, Fred, Velma, and Daphne met, the modern setting presents Mystery Inc. with an adventure-mystery that will take the help of Blue Falcon, Dee Dee Sykes, and Dynomutt the Dog Wonder to figure out if they intend to stop the nefarious Dick Dastardly.
Review: It is unfortunate there is not a better Scooby-Doo movie here. While mildly amusing and excitingly animated, the film misses out on making anything special about a new Scooby-Doo mystery, partially because there’s no real mystery, but also due to a lack of an attempt to let the gang work together for a majority of the film. For a series that has been around in one version or another since 1969, which includes 30+ direct-to-video movies, this needed to be a movie that stood out from the pack.
Sadly, following a promising opening that has its share of gags and a fun look at younger versions of the characters, all of this is dialed back in favor of a pop culture gag-fest, and a central story that both divides the main characters and abandons the things that make Scooby-Doo what it is. Not to say other filmmakers were needed to make this work, but if Warner Brothers could release a LEGO movie that somehow worked really well (a couple of times), then Scoob! could have benefited with a stronger focus on either subverting the tropes of the original cartoon or relying on a better story.
As it stands, much of the film focuses on tying into the superhero genre, complete with Mark Walhberg’s Blue Falcon and Ken Jeong’s Dynomutt (as well as Keirsey Clemons as exposition machine Dee Dee Sykes) to both give the film more action sequences and work as a means to introduce other Hanna-Barbera characters for the sake of a possible cinematic universe. That’s actually a fun idea, but I wish I could have had a more standalone film to better establish Scooby and friends, or at least do better at working these outside characters into a story featuring the whole Scooby gang, and not just some.
Not wanting to go too far into this, but I will also say it’s disappointing that funnyman Will Forte didn’t bring more to Shaggy. Given how Matthew Lillard (ideally cast in the live-action films, and the voice of Shaggy for the last ten years) wasn’t brought in for this latest feature, I would have hoped to get more out of the replacement, but Forte felt lacking. That said, Jason Isaacs as Dick Dastardly and Jeong as Dynomutt (as well as Tracy Morgan’s extended cameo as Captain Caveman) do a lot to fill out their moments to shine.
As far as entertainment value, while not entirely satisfying as an all-ages entertainment endeavor, the film has enough slick visuals and colors to appeal to the intended age group. I only wish there was more work going into playing with the Scooby-Doo mythos, in addition to good-natured gags that worked every so often. Not quite a delicious Scooby Snack, but better than what a villain under a mask would offer.
Where To Watch: Currently available for rent or purchase on digital and VOD.
The Setup: When the patriarch of a rich and powerful family suddenly dies, his daughter, a rising district attorney, is left with a shocking secret inheritance that will need to be dealt with, despite revealing some harsh truths.
Review: Inheritance is the kind of twisty thriller that forces the viewer to squint to see have a good time with it. The premise is nonsensical, but if you don’t think too hard, it works well enough. Performance-wise, Lily Collins and Simon Pegg don’t quite have a full grasp on what is needed to sell their characters, but if you look at only the areas that register, you can get past the attitudes and bad wigs. Even the later reveals sort of work, assuming you can get past what it took to build from its initial hook.
Yes, this is also the kind of film that is best kept under wraps in terms of a more detailed plot description, except to say it is revealed early on that Pegg’s character, Morgan, has been held in a form of captivity for a lengthy period of time, and Collins’ Lauren is forced to make some tough decisions under pressure. However, a major flaw is the need to stretch this story out to nearly two hours, with too much of a slack second act to keep the thrills coming.
Fortunately, there are some unnerving elements to be found in the final act. This again requires effort from the viewer to go along with all that is taking place. That in mind, I am down for a bizarre set-up, as allowing for something unique to enter the fray is a nice change of pace when it comes to genre films that only have so much to work with. It’s just a shame the film can’t seem to escape lesser writing and moments that end up feeling too formulaic to help out this story any further.
There is ambition to be found in some of the presentation, but it only takes the film so far. Again, with a heavy emphasis on exposition and characters sitting to tell each other certain things that should be more alarming, there needs to be performances that match up to the intensity required or are more in “out there” territory.
Pegg should be working that angle, and while he puts in the effort, it doesn’t quite register as well as intended. Having worked with director Vaughn Stein previously (Terminal), I do like that the actor is trying to push himself in this sort of territory. At the same time, this is more Collins film, and while she doesn’t quite fit into the Succession-vibe the non-thriller aspects of the film are going for, she and Pegg work nicely together.
So, the gift of inheritance is not always what one expects, but this thriller falls into familiar territory, following its initial shock value, and can’t quite sustain the value.
Where To Watch: Available on digital and VOD starting May 22, 2020.
The Setup: In an attempt to get answers concerning the theft of her two paintings, a Czech artist seeks out the criminals who stole them. She ends up inviting one of the thieves to sit for a portrait, only to form a close bond, as the two seem to share more in common than expected.
Review: Here’s a documentary that sets out to show just how true the expression “truth is stranger than fiction” can really be. It’s not that this story is preposterous, but it’s the kind of story many documentarians would be lucky to track. Director Benjamin Ree set out to make a film about the initial art theft, but the several years spent tracking these individuals managed to reveal something quite unusual as far as artist Barbora Kysilkova and career criminal Karl-Bertil Nordland are concerned.
I’m generally quite intrigued when watching a documentary with a narrative so interesting it could easily play as a feature film. The results are pretty hit-or-miss (Rescue Dawn is excellent, Welcome To Marwan and The Walk, less so), but fortunately, I don’t have to worry about that right now. Instead, here’s a fascinating journey unfolding over 100 minutes, revealing information about both main characters that continually skirts the line of how much of this is truly authentic, as opposed to having people react to things while knowing they are on camera.
One shouldn’t make assumptions, though. While this is a documentary, like any film, it is shaped by the filmmaker’s vision. As it stands, what I observed is a tale of two lonely souls doing what comes naturally to them. In the case of Barbora, it is to paint. So, the idea of her having parts of who she is stolen from her makes this quest an appropriate one. Given what we learn about her background, the results add a justification and understanding for wanting to maintain a peculiar connection.
For Nordland, here’s a man who seems out of place with the world. He commits crimes not out of malice, but seemingly in an attempt to find his own way to connect to a system. His tattoos that include the obvious “Snitches are a dying breed” show he has enough familiarity with a lifestyle he wants to connect to. And yet, from what we learn, he’s a deep thinker, and sensitive to what’s around him.
Part of Ree’s success comes from the editing structure of the film. It may feel disjointed to some, but it seemed to me as though Ree wanted to find a way to balance reality with a sense of mystery that could pay off in narratively rewarding ways. As a result, this is a good-looking film that cleverly rewards viewers with what they need to see in a given moment. All of it adds up to a little less than one may think, though The Painter and the Thief still manages to end on a final shot that could be displayed prominently in a gallery.
Where To Watch: Available on digital and VOD starting May 22, 2020.
The Setup: A teenage girl, and promising writer, living with her working-class family, lands a job as a music journalist. She soon finds her integrity in question when success comes at the cost of negatively critiquing everyone, rather than embrace the things she truly enjoys.
Review: Working as a semi-autobiography of English journalist Caitlin Moran, this is the sort of coming-of-age comedy that feels like an afterschool special only made better by the various performances, and the setting. This is not unlike The Devil Wears Prada, only without a key anti-hero performance from Meryl Streep. All of the beats ring true – happy-go-lucky lead character, aspirations for success based on key skills, conflicted family/relationships, balancing job/selling out with personal life, making the big decision about the future, etc. Is it any good? Yeah, it’s okay.
Beanie Feldstein and her English accent do what’s required to keep the story moving. The added support of an always winning Paddy Considine as her dad, along with supporting turns from Alfie Allen as a likable musician and Frank Dillane as another key journalist, help things along. Brief appearances from some other notable actors (Chris O’Dowd and Emma Thompson among them) make me wonder if there was any more to this film at some point.
That in mind, the early 90s setting provides a specific sense of place that does well to expose the music scene for what it was, with special emphasis on the way journalists were tapping into this area. It’s, perhaps, a bit too clean in what it is trying to say, as there is no grey area to speak of. At the same time, despite a lack of fantastical elements, the film does seem to rely on being loose enough to make the viewer look past deeper layers to the other characters and focus on the mission of a young woman figuring out how to best use her considerable writing skills.
There’s an audience for a film such as this, as it does what’s needed to put out positive messaging for young women with opportunities or in need of direction, given where they are in life. That said, other coming-of-age films do a lot of this more effectively. Still, given what How to Build A Girl is working with, it does a decent job of presenting this familiar storyline.
Where To Watch: Currently on digital and VOD.
The Setup: In honor of the 150th anniversary of the town Blaine, Missouri, the eccentric director Corky St. Clair plans to stage a musical tracing the town’s history. His performers include a dentist, a pair of travel agents who have never left the city, an auto mechanic, and a Dairy Queen worker.
Review: It’s been a minute since I watched Christopher Guest’s gem of a madcap mockumentary, but having the Warner Archive Blu-ray release from not too long ago, and upon hearing the news of co-star Fred Willard’s passing, it seemed like the time was right for a lot of good laughs. That’s what Waiting for Guffman is, a big bowl of laughs, reliant on peculiar characters, with actors who are all committed to the bit.
Not unlike many of Guests other films (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, etc.), let alone what he achieved with director Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer on This Is Spinal Tap, Guffman is a heavily improvised comedy that is likely a much more significant undertaking than it seems. That feeling comes from how comfortable all of the actors are at looking ridiculous, but the joy comes from Guest knowing how to take what must be hours of footage and crafting a feature that is both a solid comedy, as well as one that cares for its subjects.
That’s what separates Guests films from many others. While the actions of the characters are funny, this is not a film about making fun of who we are watching. There’s a heart beating within this film, and it is what helps a viewer not only laugh at the big musical numbers, while also caring about just how well the players are doing at being on stage in front of an eager audience.
Of course, being ridiculous is still the name of the game, and Guest has a crew that would stick with him and expands in the years to come. In addition to maybe my favorite Guest character, Corky, there’s also Willard, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, and Bob Balaban. That’s a terrific row of comedic talent, and each cast member gets several moments to shine.
All of it adds up to a frequently funny film that sometimes becomes hysterically funny. I’m an even bigger fan of Best in Show, and I really enjoy the dedication to having strong music in A Mighty Wind. Still, Guffman has a wonderful handle on the format as well, not to mention some final minutes during the credits that are some of the funniest bits from Guest. Some talent may go undiscovered by Broadway, but the goofiness here is a joy.
Where To Watch: Currently on digital and VOD.