IRRESISTIBLE: Simply too resistible


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Chris Cooper is always a welcome sight, and he certainly is in Irresistible. Casting him is one of the few things writer/director Jon Stewart gets right in a political satire that is all too easy to resist. In our politically polarized times, all Americans might just agree for once: The movie is a fail.

What Stewart clearly wants is to make a modern-day The Great McGinty, Preston Sturges’ antic and deliriously funny 1940 screwball comedy lampooning corruption in American politics. An admirable ambition to be sure, but Stewart lacks Sturges’ wit and he is hamstrung trying to satirize an era in which a game show host is the president of the United States. The satire, such as it is, is modern American history

Stewart casts Steve Carell as Gary Zimmer, the Democratic Party’s top strategist and spin doctor. Living with the ignominy of watching all his work go for naught when Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump, he is a man in desperate need of a win. When he sees a viral video of retired Marine Colonel and dairy farmer Jack Hastings (Cooper) at a Deerlaken, Wisconsin, town council meeting passionately speaking up on behalf of undocumented workers, Gary has a brainstorm. Looking for his own redemption after the 2016 debacle, he wants to run Hastings in Deerlaken’s mayoral contest, a first step toward proving the Democrats can win in the America’s heartland.

From that set-up, Irresistible misfires in all directions. The My Fair Lady-like plot with Hastings as a political Eliza Doolittle to Gary’s Henry Higgins defies belief. Why would an apparently moral and ethical man go along with Gary’s scheming? Cooper also appears to be in an entirely different movie than that of the rest of the cast, particularly Carell and Rose Byrne as Gary’s Republican counterpart Faith Brewster, who comes to Deerlaken to work on the incumbent mayor’s campaign. Cooper is such a confident and truthful actor that he convinces even as he plays an underwritten character. But Carell and Byrne flail in cartoonish roles, mugging helplessly for the camera.

Irresistible‘s worst sin is that it is not funny. Not a bit. Stewart, the man who used to so nimbly navigate political satire as a writer as well as the host of The Daily Show, has penned a screenplay shockingly laugh free. In a way, Stewart is like his main character, someone dispirited and poleaxed by Hillary Clinton’s defeat and the Trump presidency. Irresistible is his attempt to grapple with these last long four years, but not only is this an era that defies satire, Stewart’s sense of humor has fled under the onslaught. Under those conditions, the failure of Irresistible is only too predictable. –Pam Grady

Ailing teen seeks prescription in bad boy in Australian BABYTEETH


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babyteeth 3Moses (Toby Wallace, Boys in Trees) is every parent’s worst nightmare: A feral, homeless, and heavily tattooed drug dealer with sticky fingers and a terrible mullet. At 23, he is also far too old for 15-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen, Little Women‘s Beth). But the heart wants what it wants and Milla wants Moses and she is seriously ill, leaving psychiatrist Henry (Ben Mendelsohn, Animal Kingdom) and classical musician Anna (Essie Davis, The Babadook) to feel they have little choice but to let the ebullient felon into their lives. In the world of Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth that accommodation to a situation neither parent wants is a moment of clarity: Henry and Anna cannot fix what is wrong with Milla, but they can allow her a small bit of control in a situation in which she otherwise has none.

The word “cancer” is never uttered in Rita Kalnejais’ script adapted from her own play. Nor are there any scenes in hospital. When Milla is first introduced on a Sydney train platform, only a nosebleed suggests she is any different than any other schoolgirl. But it is not long before her golden tresses are only a wig covering a bald pate. She still goes to school and takes her violin lessons in a bid for a sense of normalcy, but her alliance with Moses is not simply a crush on a bad boy. He is freedom and escape from everyday routine and from illness. Moses’ vivacious nature also appeals, a marked contrast from her parents’ obsessive worry. Besides, in a weird way, Moses fits right in with the dysfunctional family dynamic, everyone sharing a certain bent for chemical relief, whether through pot or pharmaceuticals.

Given the heaviness of the subject matter, Babyteeth is often surprisingly light. It is a story not without humor. The four leads are outstanding, particularly Wallace, winner of the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor at the Venice Film Festival. Moses is a tricky character, as changeable as the weather, sometimes appearing to be the warmhearted boy Milla needs him to be, while other times showing a manipulative side that lives down to Henry and Anna’s low expectations. That his own mother will not allow him in her home speaks to trouble he appears to accumulate. Wallace nails all those many shadings.

Babyteeth is not a complete success. The film is broken into chapters, each with a name coyly hinting at what is about to unfold. It is a convention that grates, irritatingly twee. The same can also be said of some unfortunate soundtrack choices. Climactic scenes create an abrupt tonal shift that widens the focus from the family to incorporate others in their orbit. Rather than create a feeling of community around Milla, those scenes simply create questions. Babyteeth is an evocation of family, those we are born into and those we create, but that works best in the context of the four central characters.

The film never turns into a tearjerker and that is among its strengths. Milla cuts a vibrant figure. Whether she lives or dies, she wants to set the terms of the time she has, pulling her parents and Moses along for the ride. Her lack of sentimentality sets the tone for her story. That Babyteeth a most unusual cancer kid movie. That is refreshing. – Pam Grady

Babyteeth is playing at select theaters and is available on VOD platforms.

Pageant brings mother-daughter relationship into focus in engaging MISS JUNETEENTH


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Miss Juneteenth42‘s Nicole Beharie and newcomer Alexis Chikaeze deliver incandescent turns as mother and daughter in writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples’ arresting feature debut. Using a small Texas town’s Miss Juneteenth pageant as the lens from which to view a complicated parent-and-child relationship and a mom’s attempt to secure her progeny’s future, Peoples limns an indelible portrait of family and community life.

Once upon a time Turquoise Jones (Beharie) was Miss Juneteenth. The scholarship pageant was supposed to be her ticket to a bright future. Other Miss Juneteenths went on to great personal and professional success. But that was not Turquoise’s fate. Oh, she still has the drive of a Miss Juneteenth. That is evident in everything she does as she manages a bar and BBQ joint, works on call as an aesthetician for a funeral home, does what can for her alcoholic mother (Lori Hayes), and raises daughter Kai (Chikaeze) with only unreliable support from Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), her on-again/off-again partner and Kai’s dad.

Now, Turquoise’s ambition is burning again at the idea that Kai could be the next pageant winner. Her intention is not to relive her own youth through her daughter, only that Kai should have the future Turquoise was denied. Fourteen-year-old Kai is not so enthusiastic. She resents that her mother does not support her passion for dance and actively shoos away the boy she likes. Pageant-mandated etiquette lessons Kai finds humiliating when a vicious former competitor of her mom’s—now a pageant bigwig—delights in calling her out when the teenager makes mistakes. Turquoise means well, but she is also overly controlling, right down to insisting that Kai recite Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” during the pageant’s talent competition, the same poem Turquoise performed in her day.

The mother-daughter relationship is beautifully expressed in all its messiness. Kai is at an age where she wants to start claiming her own place in the world, while Turquoise is afraid of where that measure of independence might lead. There is a generation gap to negotiate and a refusal on both sides to acknowledge the other’s position. Yet there is no doubting the bond between parent and child. Perhaps learning from her difficult relationship with her own mother, Turquoise has built a connection with her daughter that is built to withstand arguments and tension.

Among Miss Juneteenth‘s strengths is its depiction of the community around Turquoise and Kai. The film offers a nearly tactile portrayal of life in a small town where the Juneteenth parade is a celebration not just of history but of the town, pride expressed in marching bands, floats, and local horsemen showing off their steeds. It is the type of place where people help one another out in times of trouble. And while the ladies at the Miss Juneteenth pageant may look down at Turquoise for not fulfilling the promise of her reign, she is, in fact, one of the town leading citizens by dint of her always doing for others despite her own troubles.

With this first feature, Peoples, an award-winning maker of short films, establishes her mastery of place and mood. Gorgeously shot, beautifully acted, Miss Juneteenth won the Louis Black/Lone Star Award for Best Texan Film at SXSW, that spring pageant for independent movies. It deserved that tiara. Like Turquoise Jones, Miss Juneteenth is all heart and that heart is most definitely in the right place. –Pam Grady

Miss Juneteenth is available at the Roxie Virtual Cinema and other on-demand platforms.

Gordon-Levitt soars in high-flying thriller 7500


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7500There is a sizeable cast in director/co-writer Patrick Vollrath’s breathtaking feature debut, set on a flight from Berlin to Paris in mostly real time, but only one actor who really counts: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the flight’s co-pilot Tobias, an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Hijacking dramas are nothing new but this is not the stuff of a Steven Seagal or Kurt Russell movie. 7500 is not an action picture, but rather a slow-burn psychological thriller in which the hero’s defining trait is an ability to hold fear at bay on the worst day of his life.

Vollrath sets the stage from the opening frames, introducing the flight’s passengers as they pass through security and lounge at the gate. The angle is overhead, the view that of surveillance cameras, establishing an uneasy tone from the start. Moving into the plane, Tobias and the pilot Michael (Carlo Kitzlinger) do their pre-flight checks while flight attendants Nathalie (Aurélie Thépaut) and Gökce (Aylin Tezel) get ready to greet passengers. It is all very routine, prosaic and a little dull, a far cry from the mood established in the terminal.

That banal calm shatters not long after takeoff as hijackers emerge among the passengers, determined to breach the locked cockpit door and commandeer the aircraft. Sporadic action gives way to a sharp focus on Tobias, struggling with limited options. A video feed allows him a tiny view of the area right outside the cockpit door. He has radio communication with air traffic control. But mostly what Tobias has are his wits. He thinks fast on feet, which when coupled with his Herculean effort to keep his rising panic down, gives him a fighting chance against an existential threat.

7500 is a modest endeavor that serves as a calling card for its director as Vollrath extracts maximum suspense out of a story that plays out within the confines of the claustrophobic cockpit. Masterfully edited by Hansjörg Weißbrich, the film’s pacing is superb, the flight’s horrors emerging bit by bit during its slim 92-minute running time.

Austrian actor Omid Memar lends strong support as the one hijacker with whom Tobias finds some rapport, but this is Gordon-Levitt’s movie. With the camera trained on him in nearly every scene, often in closeup and only rarely with another actor to play against, the one-time child star gives a master class in performance. Tobias’ fear, grief, and sense of helplessness are only too real, pulsing always just below the surface as he works to extricate himself and everyone else on the plane out of a dire situation.

7500 is no sweeping epic. It is a small story, but one that is masterfully told and magnificently acted. –Pam Grady

7500 is available on Amazon Prime.


Fathers, Sons, Scrabble: SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER


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Sometimes Always Never 3Family, syn., blood, clan, kin, linage, tribe. Disappearance, syn., loss, concealment, hiding. Eccentric, syn., bizarre, erratic, off-kilter, off-the-wall, peculiar. Family, disappearance, and eccentric and their synonyms are words at the heart of this offbeat British melodrama in which an online Scrabble game reenergizes a father’s search for a long-lost son even as it stirs resentment in the child who remained home. Sometimes Always Never flirts with being twee (syn., cutesy, cloying, gooey), but never quite crosses that line, thanks to welcome doses of humor and assured performances form stars Bill Nighy and Sam Riley.

Nighy plays Alan, the oddball tailor and Scrabble hustler at the center of the story. Years before during a heated family contest of the word game (or a version of it, anyway), 17-year-old Michael walked off in a huff, never to be heard from again. Alan’s conviction that he has found his son in an anonymous online opponent in Scrabble pushes him toward imposing on son Peter (Riley) and his family, wife Sue (Alice Lowe) and teenage son Jack (Louis Healy). A short visit one evening turns into an extended stay, with Alan scarcely noticing Peter’s frustration and resentment while he schools his grandson on the importance of sartorial style and Scrabble strategy.

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The script by Frank Cottrell Boyce tonally resembles that of his screenplay for Danny Boyle’s Millions, a certain fairytale quality butting up against darker, more realistic notes. The fantasy aspects are further amped by the film’s production design, which would not be out of place in a Wes Anderson movie (granted, one on a far smaller scale than the typical Wes Anderson film). Even a road trip Alan and Peter undertake takes on a magical quality through director Carl Hunter’s liberal use of back projection. Locations in Yorkshire and the shore in Merseyside add to the air of enchantment.

Even one key grudge that Peter holds against Alan adds to the fanciful quality as the now middle-aged son rails against his widowed, single dad who would never buy him or Michael normal toys. Scrabble was not Scrabble. Legos were not Legos, and so on.  The family was not poor, but Alan was not – and is not – quite part of this world. It is a quality that has apparently only worsened in the intervening years as Alan obsesses over the absent child at the expense of the one who is present. At its most heavy-handed, Sometimes Always Never touches on the Biblical story of the prodigal son, a flourish that is a little too on the nose.

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This is a souffle of a movie and one in constant peril of falling flat. What keeps it buoyant is Nighy, playing Alan with a measure of sadness that grounds the character in reality, and Riley as the frustrated Peter, whose exasperation with a difficult parent is palpable. Alan has let Michael’s memory loom so large that it has crowded out the reality of Peter in his mind. The central question that Something Always Never seeks to answer in its own oddball way is which son Alan really needs to find. –Pam Grady

Sometimes Always Never is currently playing virtual cinemas, including Rafael@home and will be available on VOD platforms on July 10.



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Pete Davidson plays a man-child that cannot get out of his own way in this irresistible dramedy that cements his status as the latest Saturday Night Live cast member bound for big screen stardom. Judd Apatow’s first feature directing job since 2015’s Trainwreck is one of the best films of his career. A screenplay by Davidson, former SNL writer Dave Sirius, and Apatow embroiders facts from Davidson’s real life to spin a coming-of-age tale both goofy and poignant.

In a way, The King of Staten Island is a kind of examination of where Davidson’s life might have gone had he not had the drive to start doing stand-up in his teens and the talent to carry it all the way to a job with SNL at 20. Like Davidson, 24-year-old Scott Carlin is a Staten Island native with a sister and widowed nurse mother, suffers from Crohn’s Disease, and lost his firefighter father when he was just a little boy. (Davidson’s father, to whom The King of Staten Island is dedicated, died at the World Trade Center on 9/11; Scott’s father died at the scene of an ordinary fire.)


The similarities end there. Scott’s failure to launch is tolerated by his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei); a cause for worry for his younger, college-bound sister Claire (Maude Apatow); a source of frustration for childhood friend Kelsey (Bel Powley), whose torch for the big galoot shines brightly (not that he is observant enough to notice); and scarcely noticed by Oscar (Ricky Velez), Richie (Lou Wilson), and Igor (Moises Arias), his trio of buddies who are even more clueless than he is. Scott can barely hold down a job and his dream of becoming a tattoo artist seems destined to be thwarted by his tendency to embrace self-defeat.

Something has to change, but this is not a movie of epiphanies and sudden self-awareness. Instead, it is pique at firefighter Ray Bishop (Bill Burr) showing interest in Margie that inadvertently spurs Scott to his first baby steps to an adult life. The two cannot stand each other. Ray sees Scott as an impediment to a relationship with Margie. That Ray is a fireman is too much for Scott, who has never gotten over his sense of abandonment when his father died. But Ray and his fellow firefighters, including Papa (Steve Buscemi, who was a New York fireman before turning to acting) and Lockwood (Domenick Lombardozzi), are also living embodiments of Scott’s dad. Through watching them, the memory of his father begins to accrue flesh and blood, a necessary step if he is ever to get out of the rut that has become his comfort zone.


Apatow has shepherded so many young talents toward connecting with their best selves as actors and writers. He does it again with Davidson, who can be hilarious in his high dudgeon over his mom’s relationship with Ray and with his bluster of false bravado whenever the subject turns to his unrealistic ambitions. But he also has a sweet side that comes out in exchanges with small children and at his worry and wonder when he watches Ray and his crew at work.

The King of Staten Island is exceptionally well-cast down to its smallest roles, but the biggest delight comes in watching Davidson and character actor Burr. As adversaries, Scott and Ray are hysterical whether engaging in a war of words or slapstick fighting. A movie built from that alone would have been satisfying, but the story is deeper than that and part of the joy of it is watching these actors add shading to their characters and to that relationship. It is a pleasure watching comedian and character actor Burr step up to his first major role in his 50s and it is a pleasure watching the 26-year-old Davidson take his place as a leading man. Staten Island should be proud of its famous son. –Pam Grady

The King of Staten Island opens on Premiere Video on Demand on June 12.



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Somewhere Rod Serling is smiling. Nearly 61 years after the 1959 premiere of his classic sci-fi series The Twilight Zone comes a whip-smart movie that plays as if it could be one of show’s greatest episodes. A spooky mystery tale set in 1950s New Mexico, it makes a virtue out of its small budget, creating an eerie sense of paranoia and hair-raising thrills out of offbeat characters, ingenious use of a screen gone pitch-black (and held there), evocative sound design, and a portentous score.

It seems like just an ordinary Friday night in Cayuga, NM, for 16-year-old Fay (Sierra McCormick) and her DJ friend Everett (Jake Horowitz). It is the night of the high school basketball team’s biggest game of the season, an event that will draw in most of the town. But after visiting the gym to try to diagnose a problem with flickering lights and showing Fay how to use her new reel-to-reel tape recorder, he is off to his night shift at WOTW radio. Fay, too, has a job to go to, manning the town’s switchboard. But before long, a bizarre audio tone, disconnected phone calls, a mysterious caller to Everett’s show, sudden disappearances, and other intrusions into Cayuga’s normally mundane existence suggest something strange is afoot in the isolated town.

A central conceit of The Vast of Night is that what we are watching is a Twilight Zone-like TV show. At key moments within the narrative, the view switches to that of a 1950s living room where someone is watching the events in Cayuga unfold through snowy black-and-white images on a small television set. But when the image widens and the muted color comes back up, we are thrust again into Fay and Everett’s world, the normal rules of suspension of disbelief applying.

Fay is an earnest teenager, smart but already resigned to a dead-end life, telling Everett she has no plans for college because her family cannot afford it. Everett has the beat energy of a hipster, tempered by a certain earnestness. Together, they are Nancy Drew and a Hardy boy determined to get to unravel the cause behind the strange goings on around town. As they investigate clues, they are inexorably drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery.

Director Andrew Patterson’s debut ingeniously spins the yarn written by first-time scripters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. Told in close to real time, during the span of that high school basketball game, and full of references to classic sci-fi, The Vast of Night exists in its own off-kilter world.  Like the show that clearly inspired it, the film exists in “another dimension,” as Serling would have said, one that casts its dreamy spell not just on Fay and Everett but on anyone watching. –Pam Grady

The Vast of Night is available on Amazon Prime.

Welcome to Phoenix, Oregon


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PhoenixTwo middle-aged men decide to take a chance on themselves, swapping their dead-end lives for a shot at controlling their own destiny in an affable comedy that stars James Le Gros and Jesse Borrego. A throwback of sorts, Phoenix, Oregon tonally fits the types of indies Borrego (Lone Star, I Like it Like That) and especially Le Gros (Living in Oblivion, Floundering) made back in the 1990s, big-hearted and full of idiosyncratic characters.

In late middle age, lifelong friends Bobby (Le Gros) and Carlos (Borrego) are still living in Phoenix, their small hometown. Working at the same restaurant for the smarmy Kyle (Diedrich Bader), Bobby as a bartender and Carlos as a chef, it is a bearable but bleak existence. Both harbor dreams: Bobby spends his days in his cramped Air Stream trailer, working on a graphic novel, a long-gestating memoir with perhaps too much focus on his failed marriage. Carlos, whose exacting standards are constantly thwarted by Kyle’s insistence on stocking only cheaper—and inferior—ingredients, wants his own restaurant. When a dilapidated bowling alley comes on the market and they are able to pool their life savings with money from an angel investor found by their friend Tanya (Lisa Edelstein), it seems like the answer to an unspoken prayer.

Writer/director Gary Lundgren intersperses vivid scenes from Bobby’s novel into the action, but the most striking images are those within the bowling alley as these men discover a newfound passion for life. Both are a little bit too exacting for their own good – Carlos will not brook an ingredient as mundane as pepperoni on his artisanal pizzas, while Bobby turns up his nose at the idea of stocking Budweiser in the bar. Neither is a good negotiator, revealed as Al (a hilarious Kevin Corrigan), the repairman they hire to refurbish the lanes and pin setters, sets his price high and will not budge. As Tanya pitches in to help prepare for the opening, Bobby’s crush on her is only too evident.

The buoyant middle section of Phoenix, Oregon is pure delight as, little by little, Bobby and Carlos transform a seeming pipe dream into a tangible reality. The film hums with their pleasure and enthusiasm. Hovering over them as they work are the unspoken questions. Is this real? Can it last? Lundgren makes a lively game out of answering those questions. And he has cast his story well. Le Gros and Borrego are likable actors playing likable characters, but neither actor rests on his charm. Bobby has issues with trust and anger, and he allows his disappointments to fester into resentment. Carlo is far more optimistic, but his dreaminess can get in the way of his good sense.

Phoenix, Oregon feels as retro as Bobby and Carlos’ bowling alley. The essentially sunny outlook, the ensemble work, and its rich vein of goofy humor seem like throwbacks from another era. Not that that is bad thing. In the midst of pandemic, worldwide strife, and a dismal election year, a feel-good movie like this one is a welcome reminder that joy still exists, sometimes in the most unlikely places. –Pam Grady

Phoenix, Oregon is available on streaming and cable platforms. DVD and Blu-Ray editions are coming soon.



Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon come to the end of the road in THE TRIP TO GREECE


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It almost seems cruel for Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Greece to be coming out now with COVID-19 still wreaking havoc in the world and tourism at a standstill. Like the three previous The Trip movies, this one stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as fictional versions of themselves on a culinary/cultural tour of a corner of Europe. Like the three other films, it is designed to send the viewer scurrying to guidebooks and travel sites to follow in the actors’ footsteps. For now, any plans to turn those dreams into reality are delayed. Visceral adventure is all that is available.

At least, Coogan, Brydon, and their director deliver the goods in what Winterbottom is calling the series’ final installment. This time the premise is that The Observer has once again hired Coogan to write an article, this time sending him to follow the route laid out in Homer’s The Odyssey, beginning in what is now Turkey and traveling through Greece. Brydon’s observes tartly that Odysseus’ journey back to Ithaca in the ancient epic took 10 years, while he and Coogan are devoting only six days to their CliffsNotes’ version of the trek.

However compact the trip, the odd acting couple pack in a lot of incident. If Greece has a bad angle, it is not apparent from this film. Traveling by car and sometimes boat, Coogan and Brydon take in azure seas, verdant countryside, and sleek cities. When they are not indulging in gastronomical delights, they walk in the steps of the ancients. Among the sites the pair visits are Athens’ agora, the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the Caves of Diros, and the Theatre of Epidaurus.

What is surprising about this film as The Trip series reaches its finish line is its tone. Oh, there is still plenty of humor and celebrity impressions – a highlight is Coogan and Brydon offering competing versions of the torture scene between Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man. Coogan remains dedicated to proving his superior intellect, even as Brydon gently chides him with his own displays of knowledge. Coogan is still a heat-seeking missile of all-consuming ambition. Fresh off his BAFTA-nominated success as comedian Stan Laurel in Stan and Ollie, now he has his heart set on a part in La La Land director Damian Chazelle’s latest film. The more family-oriented Brydon continues to be content with his lot in life as a character actor.

But with all that, The Trip to Greece is scarcely a comedy. Coogan is in a different place in his life and the film takes a melancholy turn as he absorbs news from home. The situation transforms his dreams into vivid, surreal nightmares. He is often distracted in his interactions with Brydon. And for all the ways the series has portrayed Coogan as the completely self-involved one, Brydon never asks the reason Coogan is so often on the phone with his son Joe (Timothy Leach).

Some will carp at this turn from humor, but The Trip to Greece is the most resonant of the quartet of films. Lost among all the praise for Coogan and Brydon’s dueling Michael Caines and other impressions is the fact their very performances are impressions – of themselves. At last, Coogan and, to a certain extent, Brydon emerge as deeper, more complex characters and the film is the richer for it. If this really is the end of The Trip‘s road, the series takes its final bow on a satisfying note. Now, if only the rest of us could take our own Greek vacations. –Pam Grady

The Trip to Greece is available in select theaters and all major digital/cable platforms.

Beanie’s Baby: HOW TO BUILD A GIRL


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“How to Build a Girl” publicity stillMost of us would be appalled to win a prize called “Asshole of the Year.” In general, no one wants to be that asshole. But in Coky Giedroyc’s acerbically funny adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s novel How to Build a Girl, rock scribe Johanna Morrican aka Dolly Wilde (Beanie Feldstein) accepts the dubious honor exultantly as a measure of her success. The bullied has become the bully and it feels good – a momentary rush inside the fantasy Johanna’s built for herself until stark reality intrudes in a comedy that tracks where one teenager’s inchoate ambition to be freed of her circumstances leads.

Feldstein, a scene stealer as the best friend in Lady Bird and one of the good girls who riotously let go in Olivia Wilde’s directing debut Booksmart, nails not just Johanna’s Wolverhampton accent but also her precociousness and her unhappiness. At school and around town, she is a target for abuse. At home, she has an ally in her brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston), but her mother (Sarah Solemani) suffers from postpartum depression after giving birth to twin sons, and her father (Paddy Considine) is well-meaning but lives in the past of his ’70s rock musician glory days. Besides Krissi, her closest companions are the “gods” attached to her bedroom wall who come to life and commune with her in her imagination, a diverse collection of personal heroes that encompasses Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen), Sigmund Freud (Michael Sheen), Sylvia Plath (Lucy Punch), and more.

Johanna’s salvation – for that is how she sees it – comes in the form of an advert looking for rock critics. It is the pre-internet 1990s, but trolls are already in ascendance, not that Johanna recognizes the breed in the music tabloid’s editor and staff. She is not even a rock fan at first, but she is a quick study and a gifted writer. There are hiccups on her road to notoriety as Dolly Wilde, but once fellow critic Tony (Frank Dillane) explains that the whole point of the publication is to promote a very chosen few and denigrate the many, Johanna wholeheartedly embraces snark to stunning effect.

Only 16, Johanna is a work in progress readily adaptable to changing conditions. To interview for the job, she utterly transforms her look into that of a striking, dramatic redhead with a penchant for micro-minis. When mean-spiritedness makes her not only popular in school but also in the pop culture firmament and allows her to support her impoverished family with her earnings, she is all in with that persona. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll become her lifestyle and her religion. It makes her the asshole of the year, not just to her readers, but to her family and to John Kite (Alfie Allen), a rock star who shows her genuine kindness and friendship.

The question that hovers over How to Build a Girl is just what kind of girl is Johanna building? She is at a pivotal moment in her life. As sweet Johanna is subsumed by boisterous, malicious Dolly, can that Johanna ever return? It is to the film’s credit that that question hovers unanswered for most of the movie. How to Build a Girl has been compared to Bridget Jones’s Diary, but other than being about two ambitious young women with jobs in the media, there are few similarities. Johanna is not seeking a Mr. Darcy to give her a fairytale ending and Bridget was old enough for her selfhood to be set, not necessarily the case with Johanna. Is she capable of more transformation or is she stuck at asshole of the year?

One question is settled by How to Build a Girl. What her previous movies and her triumph on Broadway as Minnie Fay in Hello, Dolly! suggested is made manifest here: Beanie Feldstein is a young woman who is going to have a monster career. She is a charming actor, but not one that needs to be liked, and she embodies the baser aspects of Johanna’s personality in those moments when the teenager is truly abhorrent. Yet, it is impossible to dislike Johanna for long, if only because she is so funny. Feldstein is the complete package, a gifted comic with a full emotional range at her disposal. Moran has written a witty, insightful adaptation of her own book and Giedroyc has made a delightful, well-cast, and resonant film, but How to Build a Girl film lives or dies on Feldstein’s performance. It lives. –Pam Grady

How to Build a Girl is available in select theaters and on demand.