The Trip to Italy – Film Review

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Technically, The Trip to Italy is not really a film. Like its 2010 predecessor titled simply The Trip, this second road outing comes from a funny, faux documentary style, six episode BBC TV series.  Director Michael Winterbottom carefully edited the series down to feature-film length and premiered the end result at the Sundance Film Festival in January.  Oddly, the TV series didn’t premiere on BBC TV until April; four months after the film was first shown.

The Trip to Italy stars comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, both well known TV personalities on their home turf though less so outside of the UK.  The pairing of Coogan and Brydon began when they teamed together for director Winterbottom’s largely improvised 2005 comedy, A Cock and Bull Story.  They played fictionalized, or perhaps more accurately, pompous versions of themselves using their real names and continually quoting their own career resumes.  That blueprint is repeated on the two Trip films, though it’s here in the sequel where both formula and style work best.

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Where The Trip had the two working acquaintances thrown together by The Observer newspaper to tour various restaurants in Northern England, The Trip to Italy has The Observer asking them to do the same thing; this time on the continent.  “It seems odd to do something the second time,” Coogan states to Brydon as they set off, but that’s exactly what they’re doing, only this time it’s in a more exotic locale; Italy, from Liguria to Capri with platefuls of pasta and Bolognese sauce in-between.

Both Coogan and Brydon are funny and talented mimics and like their first outing together most of the film centers on their improvised conversations at the dinner table while waiting for their food.  “We’re not doing any impersonations, are we,” Coogan says to Brydon while preparing for their overseas sojourn. “We talked about that.”  But within minutes of their first stop, the two can’t help themselves.

The car they’ve rented is a British Mini Cooper – of course.  The sight of that iconic UK vehicle winding its way through the twists and turns of the Italian countryside immediately and intentionally evoke memories of Michael Caine’s The Italian Job – the 1969 British original, not the 2003 remake with Mark Wahlberg.  “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” shouts Coogan at the dinner table in his best and most famous of all Michael Caine movie quotes, while Brydon tries to top his companion with a Caine impression from Batman’s The Dark Knight Rises.  This then leads into a truly hilarious conversation regarding the inarticulate mumblings of Tom Hardy as Bane and Christian Bale’s Batman.

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Throughout the film, each pit stop at either a hotel or a restaurant results with what sounds like a freestyle serving of unstructured conversations where both Coogan and Brydon comment on the state of each other’s career and who can do the best impersonation.  Even when they spend a day at sea on a yacht they end up trying to outdo the other with their best serving of Sir Anthony Hopkins as Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty.

Despite the overall feel of a documented free-for-all, there’s actually a structure to the film.  Coogan is having a problem with his teenage son who eventually flies out to Italy and joins dad on the final leg of the tour, while Brydon is negotiating an acting role in a Michael Mann Hollywood thriller.  When he tries to tell his wife of his surprise career development, she’s not really listening and would rather get off the phone.  This leads to an overnight tryst in a hotel room with Lucy (Rosie Fellner) after Brydon woos her with his best Hugh Grant impersonation on the beach.  In the morning when he wakes and sees Lucy asleep by his side and realizes what has happened he does what any good impersonator would do; he looks out of the hotel bedroom window and quotes Hugh Grant’s opening obscenities from Four Weddings and a Funeral.

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Like an enjoyable vacation that you wished had a couple of extra days still to go the film, the dinner table conversations between the two very funny men end all too suddenly.  The film simply stops.  The seemingly random style of events may not be for everyone, plus not all audiences stateside will get certain references or some of the British personality impersonations – a lengthy Michael Parkinson impression may fall flat simply because most won’t know who the journalist and TV presenter is – but listening to Coogan and Brydon continually trying to outdo each other at the table never grows old.  If there’s a third outing where the comedians travel across Germany sampling plates of wiener schnitzels along the way, I’m packing my bags with them.  And like the recent Chef and The One-Hundred Foot Journey that had prepared food as its base, don’t go in to The Trip to Italy hungry. You won’t survive.

MPAA Rating:  Unrated     Length:  108 Minutes      Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Last of Robin Hood – Film Review

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There’s a chance you may have heard of the phrase “In like Flynn,” a slogan, or perhaps more appropriately, a rallying call for potential womanizers.  There’s also a bigger chance you may never have realized it was based on the womanizing habits of Hollywood star, Errol Flynn, whose conquests were only too well known during Flynn’s heyday and further endorsed by his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, published after his death.

In The Last of Robin Hood, Kevin Kline plays Flynn and he’s quite perfect in an otherwise so, so production.  The film documents the last few years of the notorious actor’s life up until he died of a heart attack at the age of fifty, centering solely on his scandalous love affair with fifteen year old starlet Beverly Aadland (Dakota Fanning).  By the late forties, Flynn’s career was in decline.  Even though he continued making films, he was never perceived by audiences in quite the same way as he was during the previous decade when films like The Charge of the Light Brigade or The Adventures of Robin Hood were box-office gold.  The energy was gone.

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It was a party when he was around,” states Aadland’s star-struck mother (Susan Sarandon) to her daughter, “But the party’s over and we have to clean up the mess.”

Told in flashback, The Last of Robin Hood begins at the end with Flynn’s death.  A grief stricken teenager, Beverly Aadland, is hounded by the Hollywood press as she emerges from a small plane to return to her mother.  When faced with a barrage of questions, the young girl says nothing, but the mother, Florence, has no shortage of words.  “It was his last love,” she says to a reporter, “It was her first.

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What follows is a series of events as seen not only through the eyes of the mother, an admittedly unreliable source when it came to the facts, but also Flynn’s young personal assistant, Ronnie Shedlo (Matt Kane) who coincidentally was also a classmate of Beverly’s, and interviews from Beverly herself.  Having these three perspectives tell the same thing may have sounded initially like an interesting approach, but the style falters and ultimately gets in the way.

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Had the film stuck to a more straight-forward, single-handed account, things may have seemed more interesting, but told in this manner, everything comes across as a lightweight, surface-only account, as if writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland were trying to be more respectful than scandalous.  Running at only a scant ninety minutes, the film seems to conclude before it’s even begun.  “I’m too old for her,” admits a weary Flynn, “But, sadly, she’s not too young for me.”

Watching The Last of Robin Hood is like flicking through an edition of the Cliffs Notes instead of reading the full novel.

MPAA Rating:  R      Length:  90 Minutes       Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

As Above/So Below – Film Review

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The Paris catacombs are fascinating.  The remains of roughly six million people are down there, scattered skulls and bones, decorating the walls of the underground caverns, arranged in such a way that a friend who once visited them described it all unfairly as a sick joke.

The ossuaries, the name given to the final resting place of human remains, are a bizarre curiosity.  Perhaps even more bizarre is the fact that since 1874, the underground cemetery has been a popular tourist attraction and is today listed as one of the fourteen City of Paris Museums.  To quote the homepage on the official website: The tour is unsuitable for people with heart or respiratory problems, those of a nervous disposition and young children. No kidding.

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But there are areas down there you can’t visit; blocked passages that lead to other areas considered unattainable for tourists; areas ripe for the imagination of horror aficionados in search of new ideas to explore, and that’s what the brothers Dowdle – John Erick and Drew – have done.  The independent filmmakers behind 2008’s Quarantine have taken their hand-helds and created what is initially a great idea, ripe for thrills and chills and a few boo moments and turned it into something practically unwatchable.

Told in the found-footage style of story-telling – yes, I know; yet another queasy inducing found-footage movie – As Above/So Below introduces us to Scarlett (Perdita Weeks).  Scarlett is a well educated though annoyingly persistent British tomb raider who tells the camera of her formidable qualifications and language skills, including her black belt in the martial arts, though we’ll never see any evidence of her claim.

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Leading a small team of Parisian explorers who are enticed with the notion of finding buried treasure, Scarlett breaks away from the regular tour and heads down the uncharted maze of claustrophobic tunnels in search of the magical Philosopher’s Stone, presumably the same one Harry Potter was searching for in his first adventure (changed to the Sorcerer’s Stone for American audiences).  But it’s a bad idea.  There are supernatural elements everywhere, and it’s not long before everyone in the team are facing their worst fears and nightmares made manifest by whatever power rules the dark tunnels of underground Paris.

What’s it like down there?” asks one character. “If you run out of batteries, you will die,” answers Souxie (Marion Lambert).

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Despite the alluring premise, As Above/So Below quickly dissolves into an unpleasant experience of overly shaky camerawork that never quits shaking.  The video recordings of the expedition are shot from tiny cameras attached to each person’s lighted headset, so while we get the advantage of several different points of view, the only time when we can actually catch our breath from the nauseous visuals is when someone temporarily takes their headset off and places it on the ground.  But more important, the story itself doesn’t really make sense.  Storytellers of low-budget horror appear to have lost the art of good storytelling; they present intriguing ideas, some scary and imaginative conflicts, but never feel the need to actually explain anything.  They’re getting away with murder.

MPAA Rating:  R       Length:  93 Minutes      Overall Rating:  3 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Interview with producer Jim Wilson

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The man behind Dances with Wolves and The Bodyguard, famed Hollywood producer Jim Wilson, took the creative plunge recently by both co-writing and directing the true life story of Mine That Bird, a racehorse that won the Kentucky Derby in what the horse racing industry considers to be one of the greatest upsets in the history of the race.  The film was called 50 to 1 and starred Skeet Ulrich and William Devane, plus real-life jockey Calvin Borel, the man who rode Mine That Bird to win.

50 to 1 was given a limited release throughout the country earlier this year, and to Wilson’s surprise the film was given the warmest of receptions in Arizona.  In fact, the film’s valley popularity was enough to ensure a second visit: 50 to 1 returns to Arizona theatres this holiday weekend.

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Earlier I had the opportunity of talking to Wilson about 50 to 1 from his Hollywood office and I began by asking him to explain the initial appeal of making a horse racing picture.

“Well, I love horse racing,” Wilson began. “I’ve had a barn for twenty-five years, so I ride horses. I’ve always loved that union between sport, man and animal; there’s nothing quite like it.  When I saw that race visually it was so stunning.  I went right on You Tube afterwards to watch it again and again and it was so extraordinary what that horse did on that given day.  Then I went down to New Mexico and spent time with the real cowboys and the trainer, and the two owners, and I found them to be such colorful characters, full of these brilliant flaws that we’ve all got, I just wanted a great sports, underdog story, and this was it.”

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I had read that another producer had wanted to make a film telling Mine That Bird’s story, but the rumor was that the deal fell through; was that true?  “Yeah, that happens often,” Wilson explained.  “The financing fell through on the first go round and I said I think I can launch this, so let me have a shot at it.”

In order to find the right horse to play Mine That Bird, Jim Wilson waded through more than four hundred horses until he found what he was looking for.  It was a horse called Sunday Rest. “Usually in a film like Seabiscuit you’ll have seven or eight horses playing the one,” Wilson stated, “And I can always tell, oops, look, they’ve got another horse. The great thing is Sunday Rest does all his own work. I mean, he does everything.  He races at Churchill Downs, he’s in the gate, he’s on the track, he’s got all the crazy antics that Mine That Bird did, so we lucked out and found a three year old thoroughbred who had racing experience to play the lead.  Found him up in Canada.”

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I pointed out to Wilson that coincidentally I’d discovered that Sunday Rest had some local valley history having run at Turf Paradise.  “Yeah,” Wilson replied,  “He was racing there in 2011.  He had four races at Turf Paradise and wasn’t much of a racehorse but he ended up being a great actor.  He’s ended up having a couple of great parts since then, so, I think he’s going to end up having a bigger career than most of us.”

Did Wilson think that audiences who know next to nothing about horse racing will get a better glimpse of the allure of the sport after seeing 50 to 1?  “I think so,” Wilson said.  “I mean, I’ve done it for twenty-five years, so I think in terms of it being authentic – I shot it at forty locations, I’m at the real barns, I’ve even intercut a little of real footage – so I do think they’ll get a little more out of this.”

How about the horse racing industry?  Did it give a lot of support during the making of the film?  “We got a tremendous amount,” Wilson explained.  “Churchill Downs is not easy to break down back in Kentucky but they gave me two weeks to shoot anything I’d like.  So, I’m on their track, I’m recreating portions of the race, and I’m in the jock’s room, the gate, you name it.  We shot down in New Mexico where Mine That Bird ran a couple of races.  We even shot here in LA and shot a portion of the Breeders Cup, so we were true to the story, so, yeah, it’s quite authentic.”

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Skeet Ulrich plays the part of Chip Woolley and word was that the actor’s audition tended to be somewhat creative.  What happened there?  “I had pretty much cast the entire film,” Wilson said, “But I was without my leading man.  I’m on my computer late at night in New Mexico scouting locations just a couple of weeks before shooting began and all of a sudden up on my computer it said Skeet Ulrich, and I don’t know Skeet personally; I knew his acting a bit.  I pulled up his video and he had actually put three scenes down for me.  He shot them, cut them; he was in full attire with a little bit of a mustache that the character he was portraying had and it was an amazing audition.  It was about seven minutes long and I looked at it and said, that’s the guy I’m looking for.  Without meeting Skeet Ulrich ever – I was In New Mexico, he was in L.A. – I hired him over the phone.  I called him the next morning and said, I think you got it down, buddy, so let’s go to work.”

I pointed out that unlike Wilson’s earlier films, with 50 to 1 he was wearing three hats instead of the one.  Wilson agreed and explained the usual role of a producer.  “A producer is responsible for the delivery of the entire project” he said.  “If you give me forty million dollars to go out and make The Bodyguard, my responsibility is to find the director, find the cast, get it cut, get it edited and delivered on time, on budget.  I’m the go-to guy.  As producer, co-writer and director on this one you can only blame me, I can’t hide here.  On other films I might say, well, that director’s not very good, but this is all me.”

50 to 1 returns to Arizona this Friday, August 29, and opens exclusively at the following theatres: Arrowhead Fountains 18 in Peoria and Uptown 3 Theatre in Sierra Vista.  Plus, audiences in Show Low will get a chance to enjoy 50 to 1 next month, September 5, when the film will be shown at the WME Show Low 5 theatres.

Posted in Interviews

The November Man – Film Review

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Based on the spy novel There Are No Spies, the seventh in author Bill Granger’s November Man thrillers, The November Man is a story populated by reprehensible people continually doing awful things to other people under the guise that it’s all for the greater good while sacrificing an untold number of innocents in order to achieve it.

Pierce Brosnan – still looking good post James Bond while holding a gun – is Peter Devereaux, an ex-CIA agent in retirement who is pulled back into the game to protect Alice (Olga Kurylenko), an important witness to an atrocious event of the past that could possibly change the future of east/west relations.  The problem is, there are powerful people who want her dead and they’re not necessarily from the east.

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You can usually tell when a film, particularly a spy thriller, is adapted from a novel rather than an original screenplay; the story tends to be more complex with extra layers of murk not always making sense until the end when things will hopefully fall into place.  The November Man is one of them, but it’s more than just the plot that confuses.  Character motivations and actions are at odds with what you think you know.  Good guys come across a sociopaths as much as the bad guys; they’re killers trained to follow orders without question, even if it means carrying out atrocities against the innocent.  Despite being the good guy, Devreaux is among them.  “You can be a human or a killer of humans,” he states.  “You can’t be both.”

While it’s good to see Brosnan back in the spy business, The November Man has nothing to do with the playful fantasy of a Bond adventure. Devereaux exists in a world based on a reality that nasty things are always afoot somewhere in the world and the only way to fight them is to be and act like your enemies.  The end result is that a life led by man like Devereaux is no life at all.  “You need a relationship?” Devereaux asks a young agent during the opening moments.  “Get a dog.”

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Confusion kicks in early when you start wondering why Devereaux’s character is even there.  He’s retired, so exactly why is he involved?  You’re never quite sure.  Plus, it doesn’t help when he explains to the young woman he’s trying to protect that, “No one can hide forever,” only to later give her some cash and tell her to hide where no one find can find you.  And what happened to the nice young woman called Sarah (Eliza Taylor) who has her femoral artery slashed by Devreaux so that he can make a quick escape.  She’s rushed to the hospital in pain and tears while blood gushes from her leg only to never be seen or heard from again.  Did she live?  And if she did, did she ever explain to the authorities who did this to her and why?  We never know.  Like many of the bystanders who pay a deadly cost for simply being in the wrong place at the right time, she’s dispensed with.

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Director Roger Donaldson handles the action sequences well.  There are no over-the-top set pieces that stretch credulity to its limits – after all, this is supposed to be somewhat reality based – but the car chases, the street fights, the pursuits through shops and stores and hotel lobbies are all executed with a taut grip that excites, even if you’re not always sure why anyone is doing what they’re doing.

Brosnan has already announced that a sequel is in the works.  The thought of seeing him again with gun in hand is certainly welcomed, but fingers crossed that the follow-up has a plot presented with a lot more clarity.

MPAA Rating:  R      Length: 108 Minutes       Overall Rating:   6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Beneath – Film Review

Beneath posterWhen the opening titles to the new horror/thriller Beneath inform that the following is inspired by true events, it doesn’t take long to realize it’s really twaddle.  Obviously, some miners at some time were trapped somewhere six hundred feet below ground, but that’s as far as a true event gets.  Once everyone way below wearing a hard hat starts resembling white-eyed zombies intending to kill then you know reality is not exactly what they’re going for.

There’s a strong enough beginning with a sense of urgency that indicates something terrible has already happened under the earth.  A team of rescuers dig their way through a mine looking for survivors of a terrible underground accident when a voice suddenly declares, “We got a survivor!”  Then the titles cut to Four Days Earlier.  It’s an opening technique favored mostly by television telling us within minutes that a) something dreadful has occurred; b) there’s someone left, though we don’t know who; and c) we’re now going to backtrack and live through those four days until we find out what happened down there.

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Kelly Noonan plays Sam, an environmental lawyer who takes her father’s challenge to go with him down the mine along with his other team of miners in order to experience the kind of day to day life that has paid for her education.  Jeff Fahey plays her father and it’s his last day of work before retirement.

Say goodbye to the daylight,” dad tells his daughter as everyone enters the beckoning mine, little realizing that it’s going to be the last time most on his team are going to see the sun.  Once down there, six hundred feet below ground, something goes wrong.  A drill hits a hole, there’s an explosion, part of the mine collapses, and the miners’ world comes tumbling down.

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Quickly assessing the damage, a miner spells out what’s happened. “Three dead, five or six missing,” he states.  Sam is understandably distraught but she’s assured of the rescue procedures.  There’s an underground emergency shelter with limited power, food, water and breathable air known as the Condo where the remaining miners can huddle until help eventually comes, however long that may take.  It’s what happens next, outside of that metal underground container that takes up the rest of the film and it’s also there where everything starts to get murky.

A distant scream from somewhere outside puts everyone on edge.  Then there’s blood on the side of the container.  Then the outside lines to the air tanks are cut. Someone, or maybe something wants to get those miners out of that container, but we don’t know what.  With the lack of enough oxygen serving the miners, you’re never quite sure if what’s happening is the result of something truly supernatural or the fevered imagination of a mind suffering hallucinations.

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Sporadically the film hits the mark.  Some scenes are played in darkness with only ominous sounds to indicate what might be happening out there.  There’s also an effective sense of claustrophobia occasionally evoking the spirit of the superior The Descent plus a moment with Fahey caught in a cramped tunnel reminiscent of that moment in Alien when Tom Skerritt can neither move forward nor backward without becoming a victim of that thing.

But whatever tension is built by these random moments of efficient, atmospheric thrills falls apart by a simple enough setup that loses its grip.  Wondering whether those white-eyed, fright masked zombies are real or in Sam’s imagination isn’t half as much fun as a straight-forward horror thriller of miners trapped underground and being dispensed, one by one by an awakened, underground evil.  Making events intentionally vague doesn’t work, and neither does pretending it’s all based on true events.

MPAA Rating: Unrated       Length: 89 Minutes        Overall Rating: 5  (out of 10)

Posted in Film