Long-term relationships between filmmakers and actors usually indicate mutually rewarding rapport. The empathy between director Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan has resulted in a laid-back travelogue series over the past 10 years and a handful of offbeat movies.
Winterbottom is one of Britain’s most productive film-makers – 30 feature films and several TV series since 1990 – with no sign of slowing down.
The range is equally impressive, from thrillers to geo-political drama, and from literary-based period adaptations to improvised comedy.
The relationship began with 24 Hour Party People (2002), about the Manchester music scene from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Coogan, best known for his disc jockey alter ego Alan Partridge on TV, played Anthony Wilson, the maverick co-founder of Factory Records.
Coogan then starred in Winterbottom’s adaptation of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005) and in A Look at Love (2013) as London nightclub owner and publisher Paul Raymond.
The Trip, with Coogan and Rob Brydon as sparring partners in a dining out TV series, first appeared in 2010 and was set in England’s Lake District. It has since gone offshore to Italy (2014), Spain (2017) and The Trip to Greece (Madman).
The features are cut-down versions of six TV episodes and focus less on the food and more on the pair’s ability to improvise conversations that needle each other on their private and public lives.
Their journey starts where, many centuries ago, Odysseus set off after the fall of ancient Troy, now in Turkey, on a 10-year journey to his home at Ithaca on the Greek mainland. References to the classics continue as they move to Lesbos, where they confront a large Syrian refugee camp, and other sites in Homer’s Odyssey.
These include Skopelos, also the location of the original Mamma Mia! as well as the theatre at Epidaurus, Hydra, the caves of Diros, the Niokastro fortress in Pylos and Nestor’s Palace.
Some of these are skipped over quickly, and the conversations become less interesting as Coogan cuts short his trip because of a death in the family.
While this downbeat ending is likely the last of the series, it is not the end of Coogan in Greece. Greed (Sony) is an extension of Winterbottom’s other geopolitical forays (Welcome to Sarajevo, A Mighty Heart); in this case the use of cheap Third World labour in the clothing business.
Coogan plays Sir Richard McCreadie, loosely based on British retailer Sir Philip Green, who made his fortune in high-street stores such as Topshop.
Ruthless playboy businessmen don’t come much worse than Coogan’s impersonation of McCreadie, who is celebrating his 60th birthday. This tawdry toga bash is in Mykonos, where refugees again figure as a counterpoint to capitalist excess.
They are roped in as waiters and partygoers to replace no-show celebrities, frightened off by a disastrous fire in one of McCreadie’s Sri Lanka sweatshops.
Coogan’s performance is pitched for laughs, but the reality of sharp business practices is no laughing matter.
Ratings: The Trip to Greece: Mature audiences. 110 minutes. Greed: Restricted to audiences over 13. 104 minutes.
This is based on The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, a book about Cuban spies who penetrated the anti-Castro movement in Florida in the 1990s.
A political thriller is not new territory for French director Olivier Assayas (Carlos), who managed to film in Cuba, though his sympathies are not completely with the communist regime. The plot is woven around several characters and incidents such as the shooting down of two Cessna planes distributing propaganda material, the1997 bombing of Havana hotels and the FBI raid that arrested key players in the Red Avispa (wasp) organisation, which had infiltrated the Cuban American National Foundation. Penélope Cruz has a relatively minor role as the wife of the network’s leader, though she underlines the sacrifice of a family to the revolutionary cause. She is allowed out of Cuba to join her husband for only a few weeks before he is arrested. They were not reunited until 12 years later, on his release in 2011.
Netflix rating: 13+. 128 minutes.
In Africa, black lives matter is not a phrase you would use when, in 2018 according this revealing Spanish production, some 78 million migrated to seek a better life elsewhere. Crime, violence and corruption are among the causes. For Adú, a boy in French-speaking Cameroun, the trigger is the arrest and murder of his parents, leaving him and his older sister little option but to smuggle themselves on to an aircraft to Senegal. The trip ends in tragedy, but Adú is befriended by an older, English-speaking Somalian. They make their way to Morocco for the final part of their voyage across the Mediterranean to Spain. Meanwhile, a subplot involves the Spanish police guarding the exclave of Melilla, where a high razor-topped fence keeps hundreds of migrants at bay. Another subplot, set back in Cameroun, depicts attempts to prevent poaching of elephant trunks. The three threads are largely discrete, apart from some coincidence at the end.
Netflix rating: 13+. 110 minutes.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Fresh from his dramatic role as the errant husband in Downhill, Will Ferrell is back in his familiar role as a part-adult trying to survive in the real world. While Downhill was a personal project for co-star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ferrell has been interested in the catchy song competition for a couple of decades. That’s not hard to figure, as Eurovision is an ideal way to parody ubiquitous TV talent shows. However, as part of an Icelandic Abba-style singing duo (with Rachel McAdams), Farrell is two decades too old for the role – though that is the point. McAdams is also well beyond naïve as his talented partner. Icelanders, and their belief in troublesome elves, are an easy target. Director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) stages some impressive examples of the real thing using actual Eurovision performers.
Netflix rating: 13+. 123 minutes.