The Trip to Italy


Behind Brydon and Coogan, things get a little less clear.

Behind Brydon and Coogan, things get a little less clear.

(2014) Comedy (IFC) Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Marta Barrio, Rosie Fellner, Timothy Leach, Ronni Ancona, Rebecca Johnson, Alba Foncuberta, Flora Villani. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Florida Film Festival 2014

Some may remember the 2010 British road trip comedy The Trip with British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing fictionalized versions of themselves going to the North of England to review fine dining restaurants for a newspaper. The two comedians got to riff with one another and trade impressions, check out locations made famous by poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and take stock of their careers and lives. The movie did surprisingly well in the States, amassing a cult following and becoming a popular rental on Netflix.

Now it’s time for the sequel and as we all know the sequel is supposed to be bigger, better and more of the same things that made the first film successful. This particular sequel adheres to that formula and does it well enough to make that rarest of the rare – a sequel that surpasses its original.

This time, it is Brydon – the happily married man – who is given the assignment to write restaurant reviews but this time it’s not the North of England but the Amalfi coast of Italy that is the destination and it is Coogan, whose American television show that he had accepted at the conclusion of the first movie has just been canceled, as the plus one.

The roles are somewhat reversed as Brydon, whose marriage seems to have lost its spark, flirts and at last has an affair with a pretty boat captain (Fellner) while Coogan goes all-out to reconnect with his son (Leach) whom he has rescued from a “boring Ibiza trip.” Yeah, we all know those endless discos and beach days can be a drag.

Like the first movie, the two comedians display dueling celebrity impressions, trade zingers and follow English romantic poets (in this case Shelley and Keats) while sampling gourmet food (with plenty of food porn shots) and seemingly ignoring the grand vistas of the Amalfi coast. Winterbottom makes sure that there are plenty of homages to Hollywood classics from the Mini-Cooper that the two men rent (from the original The Italian Job) to the spectacular cliffside Casa Malaparte that Godard used to such great effect in Contempt to the Camparian villa where John Huston and Humphrey Bogart shot parts of Beat the Devil.

And of course those impressions I mentioned. Expanding on the Michael Caine-a-rama that they utilized in the first movie, they expand it into a Batman-centric affair which morphs into a harried assistant director trying to get Tom Hardy to enunciate more clearly as Bane. It is one of the more hysterical moments you’ll see all year.

There’s also Brydon’s signature Small Man in a Box which he uses in Pompeii to our great amusement and Coogan’s disgust. I have to admit that it was a bit irreverent but I think we can safely say it’s not too soon.

I hope the two men continue to make movies together in this fashion (this is actually their third venture with Winterbottom playing versions of themselves). Hopefully this will achieve the kind of success the first film did, pulling in north of two million dollars which for an indie which got virtually no promotion is outstanding. This is actually opening in July (and is slated to come to the Enzian the following month) but as this is the last of my Florida Film Festival reviews for awhile, hopefully this will whet your appetite (figuratively and literally) for the movie when it does make its way to a theater (hopefully) near you.

REASONS TO GO: Coogan and Brydon are just as funny together. Wonderful cinematography.

REASONS TO STAY: Pretty much the same film as the first only more of it.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of salty language here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As with the first movie, first saw the light of day as a miniseries on the BBC which was later condensed down to feature film form for theatrical release.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Life in Ruins

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Fault in Our Stars

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Liberal Arts


Liberal Arts

Happy to be hipsters!

(2012) Dramedy (IFC) Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser, Kate Burton, Robert Desiderio, Kristen Bush, Ali Ahn, Ned Daunis, Gregg Edelman, Travis Alan McAfee, Angelic Zambrana. Directed by Josh Radnor

 

For those who attend a small liberal arts college (as I did), it becomes a benchmark that takes on a kind of bleary glow through which when looking back suffuses the time in a kind of mellow haze. Certainly I did a lot of growing back then and I learned a lot both in the classrooms but more importantly, outside it. What leadership skills I possess today began their evolution there, at Loyola Marymount (and a shout out to all my fellow Lion alums).

Nostalgia is one thing but at some point everyone has to un-tether the umbilical cord no matter how painful. We can’t just graduate and then stop growing – growth is a lifetime occupation.

This isn’t something Jesse (Radnor) learned in his small liberal arts college. With a degree in English (and a minor in History just to make sure he’s fully unemployable), he has taken a position as an admissions counselor in a New York university. It’s not a job he’s in love with and he kind of goes through life drifting through a sea of disaffection. He surrounds himself with books and thinks himself educated; his girlfriend breaks up with him and isn’t very nice about it.

When he gets a call from his college mentor, Professor Peter Hoberg (Jenkins) asking him to come back to campus and speak at his retirement dinner, Jesse jumps at the chance. Once there, all the memories come flooding back – the days of intellectual stimulation, the feeling of unlimited promise and of course the distinct lack of any sort of responsibility.

He meets 19-year-old sophomore Zibby (Olsen), the free-spirited daughter of a pair of friends of Professor Hoberg. They quickly hit it off, aided and abetted by Nat (Efron), a guy who walks his own path quite deliberately. After irritating Zibby’s roommate (Ahn) by their obvious May-July romance, Jesse returns home.

The two continue exchanging letters and Jesse listens compulsively to a disc of classical music that Zibby burned for him. She invites him back to visit her and he returns but things don’t go as planned. A further encounter with Professor Judith Fairfield (Janney), a romantic poets professor cements Jesse’s confusion. It seems he has a lot of growing up to do after all.

Radnor, who currently enjoys a spot in the popular sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” previously directed, wrote and starred in Happythankyoumoreplease which had some of the same themes of growing up and aging, but this is a far better movie than that. He has likable enough onscreen but not super-memorable; he might be able to carry a movie on his own someday but not at this point in his career.

I liked Olsen a lot in this movie. She really captures the kind of 19-year-old attitude in which the world is her oyster but she’s not quite sure how to crack it open. She sounds wiser than her years but makes some mistakes – one of which might be hooking up with Jesse. Olsen captures the vitality of youth and its accompanying heartbreak. It’s not a “real” performance – Zibby is a bit too self-consciously indie for that – but it’s a real good performance and she’s the one I’ll remember most from the movie.

That’s not to say that Jenkins and Janney don’t have their moments. Their screen time is pretty minimal but both make the most of theirs, Jenkins with a heartrending performance of a man fighting his age, Janney with that arch and imperious but deliciously funny delivery that she specializes in. Efron is surprisingly good as the Yoda-meets-indie hip Nat even though the part is a bit overwritten, and Magaro who plays a tortured genius sort makes good use of his limited onscreen moments.

There is plenty of heart here but maybe a bit too much. The Jesse character is pretty much excoriated by other critics who have disdainfully characterized him as effete and unmanly (using a word synonymous with kitty cats). I disagree; while Jesse is a bit wishy washy and overly romantic in the poetic sense, he’s more of a talker than a doer which some men find to be similar to nails on a chalkboard. I’m not necessarily that way; while he can be incredibly clueless at times, he simply overthinks things and is a bit of an intellectual snob, spending a long portion of the movie debating the merits of reading for fun (which Zibby does with books that are meant to be Stefanie Meyers’ Twilight trilogy) which Jesse is apparently against. Jesse isn’t metrosexual but if he hung out in the Village more, he might be.

This is a flawed movie but ultimately one with its heart in the right place. I found myself thinking of my college days and I imagine if I went back there now and hung out I might be tempted to let myself fall back into that sensibility, although to be honest I don’t much want to which is probably why I don’t think about it much. Those days were pleasant, but they are gone. The people that I met there who touched me are still either in my life or in my heart. The important things I learned in college will be found with them, in those places.

REASONS TO GO: Olsen is invigorating. Janney and Jenkins turn in some solid performances, as does Efron and Magaro.

REASONS TO STAY: Radnor a bit too “mushy.” Lots of heart but maybe too much. Doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some thematic concerns as well as implied sexuality, some smoking, some teen drinking and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The book that Dean carries around with him is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Wallace delivered the commencement speech at Kenyon in May 2005.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty much mediocre.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Could Never Be Your Woman

SMALL COLLEGE LOVERS: The college scenes were filmed at Kenyon College in Ohio which is not only Radnor’s alma mater but Janney’s as well.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Three Backyards

Bright Star


Fanny Brawne is so fashionable she never goes outside unless the flowers match her dress.

Fanny Brawne is so fashionable she never goes outside unless the flowers match her dress.

(Apparition) Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox, Thomas Brodie Sangster, Samuel Barnett, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Edie Martin, Olly Alexander, Samuel Roukin, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Sebastian Armesto. Directed by Jane Campion

John Keats is now considered one of the greatest poets of all time, but during his lifetime he was almost universally reviled and when he died at the tender age of 25, he considered himself a failure.

Keats (Whishaw) lives with his friend Charles Brown (Schneider), a burly Scot in Brown’s home (a sort of pre-Victorian duplex) in Hampstead, which at the time was on the very edge of London (but today part of the borough of Camden). Brown is disdainful of neighbor Fanny Brawne (Cornish), whose family lives in the other part of the house. He thinks her vain and spoiled, a typical society flirt who has little understanding of poetry and little intelligence beyond what is in fashion and what is not.

For her part she considers Brown a rude misogynist of little talent who has made no money from his scribblings and has no prospects of making any. At first, she finds Keats attractive but like most poets, impractical. She sends her brother Samuel (Sangster) and sister Toots (Martin) to a local bookseller (Ashton-Griffiths) to purchase Keats’ recent publication “Endymion.” This proves to be no problem, as the bookseller had purchased 20 copies and has sold, counting the one to the Brawne children, one copy.

As she reads “Endymion”, she realizes that his poetry may be difficult to understand in places but is leaps and bounds ahead of his peers (Brown, a poet himself, also realizes this). She begins to fall for the callow young man, not so much for his looks but for his soul. This is cemented when she observes him nursing his brother Tom (Alexander) who is dying of tuberculosis. 

For his part, he slowly falls for the young woman who is more self-possessed than most women he knows. She winds up being his muse, inspiring some of the most beautiful poetry of all time. Their relationship blossoms despite the objections of Fanny’s mother (Fox) who is concerned that Keats is penniless and has no means of supporting her, and of Brown who simply doesn’t like Fanny and is highly protective of his friend, whose genius he recognizes.

When Brown rents his half of the cottage out for the summer, he and Keats head off to the Isle of Wight where Keats writes ardent letters to his ladylove. Well aware of his social status and the impossibility of a relationship between the two, he moves to London initially but is unable to stay away from the love of his life and returns to Hampstead to be with her. However, their courtship is destined to be short-lived.

Oscar-winning writer (for The Piano) and Oscar-nominated director (for the same film) Campion once again performs both functions on this film. Her task was to create a movie that was as visually beautiful as the words of Keats. She succeeds, mostly using the landscapes of Hyde and Bedfordshire. There is something magical about the English countryside, and the Australian-born Campion captures it like lightning in a bottle. Her characters take long, languid walks in meadows filled with spring flowers and wetlands with dry summer reeds. She also manages to recreate rustic 19th century country village life, as well as the harsh alleyways of London.

Whishaw has the thankless task of portraying the dying, love-struck poet and that’s not nearly as easy a job as you might think. How does one portray a sensitive genius and yet make him accessible to general audiences? If you aren’t sure, just watch Whishaw here. He does a really good job of making Keats seem like a real person instead of an icon, which biopics often do with the poets and authors of the period.

Cornish, mostly known for her Australian television appearances, is a revelation as Fanny. She plays the woman at turns forthright and self-confident, and at others completely besotted by love. She’s complex and not always likable, but always true to her convictions. It’s a career-making performance and one which potentially may generate some Oscar buzz. Schneider play Brown like a Scottish laird, witty and not without charm but fiercely possessive of his friend.

Keats himself wrote that a thing of beauty is a joy forever, and Bright Star certainly fits the bill. Is this the definitive biography of Keats? No, because this is more a chronicle of his relationship with Fanny, the details of which must be inferred mostly through letters later in life from Fanny to her sister – most of the letters Keats wrote her from the Isle of Wight and Italy (where he went at the end of his life in an attempt to beat the tuberculosis) were destroyed at the poet’s request. Still, I’ve always wondered what makes a romantic poet so gosh-darned romantic, and Bright Star gives us an answer worth considering. There is no overt sexuality – the two followed the morals of their day, limiting their affection to ardent hand-holding and a few chaste kisses – but nonetheless this is a sexy movie – sexy in the ways of the heart.

REASONS TO GO: Cornish’s amazing performance, as well as solid work from Whishaw and Schneider is buttressed by cinematography of extraordinary beauty. Stay for the closing credits to listen to Whishaw read the poet’s own words regarding his love affair, which are worth the price of admission alone.

REASONS TO STAY: The film moves at a glacial pace at times which may drive modern movie audiences to distraction.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hyde House and Estate substituted for the actual Keats House in Hampstead Heath because the director deemed it “too small.”

HOME OR THEATER: A British costume romantic drama set at the turn of the 19th century? Sounds like home video to me.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Year One