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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with THE TRIP TO ITALY, THE ONE I LOVE, LAND HO!, and THE POSSESSION OF MICHAEL KING!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…


THE TRIP TO ITALY
The 2010 film THE TRIP was one of the more enjoyable experiences I had that year, witnessing comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (a virtual unknown stateside) playing thinly veiled versions of themselves drive around the roads of northern England, eating great food and trading some of the funniest banter and impersonations you're likely to hear. Woven between the laughs are a few serious discussions about career and life and love, but most they exist for our pure amusement. So it should come as no surprise that the sequel, THE TRIP TO ITALY (also directed by the great Michael Winterbottom), brings Coogan and Brydon back together to make a similar journey through Italy's finest cities, hotels and restaurants, but with perhaps a bit more emotional heft.

Driving in a mini-Cooper (pretty much rented by Brydon because of the film THE ITALIAN JOB) through Rome, Liguria, Tuscany, Amalfi and finishing off in Capri (sadly not in Sicily, where Brydon wanted to re-live some of the great moments from THE GODFATHER, PART II), the pair continue their eating and jibing journey, set to the soundtrack of only CD they happen to have on them, Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill," which they both acknowledge their love for.

What separates THE TRIP TO ITALY from the first film are the moments in between the jokes and eating. Brydon cheats on his wife and is racked with guilt for much of the film, except for the moments when he wants to do it again. Coogan is dealing with cancelation of his fictional American TV series and is looking to re-connect with his son (Timothy Leach), who joins the pair at the end of their trip. And its these moments that strengthen the film to such a degree that it makes it a much more spiritually fulfilling experience, and not just a wonderful chemistry test between the leads.

Lest you think these two get along in the traditional sense, they relish the idea of tearing down even the slightest sense of accomplishment or pretension the other might feel. My only regret about this movie is that it didn't take place after Coogan's recent Academy Award nomination, which he would have gleefully dangled in Brydon's face for the duration of the film, to which Brydon would remind him that he didn't actually win. And fret not, lovers of the first film, the dueling Michael Caine impersonations return briefly, as they should, supplemented with takes on most of the cast of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

Much like this another current release, LAND HO!, THE TRIP TO ITALY boils down to being a story of friendship, and as much as they bicker and pick at each other during the course of this film, there's no way these movies would work without there being a true bond between these men. I hope every four or five years, the pair and director Winterbottom pick a new country to drive through and make their mark upon and allow us to share in the truly joyful experience. I should make it clear that although seeing the original film should be on your to-do list if you haven't seen it, it's not required watching to fully enjoy THE TRIP TO ITALY. But just to be safe, watch them both in succession.


THE ONE I LOVE
When every minute of a film (aside from the first 15 minutes of set-up) is potential spoiler material, it makes for interesting reviewing, but let's attempt this in broad strokes.

When a married couple is as good-looking and lovable as Ethan (Mark Duplass, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED) and Sophie (Elisabeth Moss, "Mad Men"), it makes it that much more difficult to watch their relationship start to crumble. But as this pair begin to drift emotionally and physically, their therapist (Ted Danson) offers them a unique opportunity to spent a weekend in the country on a property outside of Los Angeles that includes a couple of cozy, tastefully decorated houses—a main quarters and a guest house—where the couple can either sleep in the same bed or choose to spend their days separately. The mission, in theory, is to bring the best version of themselves to the weekend, rekindle loving feelings and hopefully begin to repair what's broken.

At first, things seem to be going swimmingly. Ethan and Sophie eat, talk and just generally enjoy each other's company. And as an audience, we begin to settle into what we believe will be a sweet, perhaps brutally honest look at 30-somethings trying to together in this crazy modern world. But settling in and getting comfortable in the hands of first-time feature director Charlie McDowell and screenwriter Justin Lader would be a giant mistake.

On that first night at the retreat, it's clear that something is amiss and it may not necessarily be about the relationship. Sophie wanders from the main house and into the guest house, where she is eventually met by Ethan, and things get intimate, seemingly because Ethan has turned the perfect husband controls up to 11 and becomes completely irresistible. In the after-sex glow, Sophie runs back up to the main house to find Ethan sound asleep. Confused by not alarmed, she wakes him and asks how he pulled a fast one, and he seems confused about her description of the whole night after dinner. Thinking he's now reverted to his jerky ways, Sophie is hurt and throws him out to sleep in the guest house. Once there, Ethan crawls into bed and before long (you guessed it), Sophie crawls into bed next to him like nothing ever happened. And that's as far as I'm going to get in terms of specific plot.

At its most basic, THE ONE I LOVE is about being careful what you wish for when it comes to your significant other. It concerns that nagging feeling that we sometimes get that they would be perfect if they would just change that one thing... or two things... or seven things... and before long the list becomes endless, especially if our partner actually does better themselves at your behest. Before long, a new grievance takes the place of the old one. But what if you are suddenly presented with the "perfect" or "ideal" version of the person you love? The film begs questions such as, could you ever be happy with this person? Or, could you ever be happy with anyone? Needless to say, both Ethan and Sophie are drawn into this Garden of Eden-level temptation, without much thought as to what they must sacrifice for taking a bite.

What's even more remarkable about the film is that, although the grand scheme of the plot was mapped out in advance, Duplass and Moss essentially improvised most scenes or sketched them out roughly in the day before shooting. The conversations they have, both loving and filled with anger, seem so utterly authentic that it's difficult to imagine that their words aren't carefully scripted down to the punctuation. This may be my favorite on-screen performance from both actors, as they are called upon to play variations of the same two characters in ways that are meant to be both charming and vaguely creepy (but never menacing).

In many ways, THE ONE I LOVE is the antithesis of every romantic comedy Hollywood has ever churned out. It dares us to either love the one you're with (as the song goes), or cut and run immediately to avoid drawn-out heartbreak. And it somehow pulls this off while remaining fairly lighthearted, humorous and entertaining. The only downside to the plot is when the curtain is pulled back and we're more or less clued into exactly what's going on with this couple as they move back and forth between these two curious houses. The mystery is 90 percent of the fun, but much can be the same about relationships, so it seems appropriate that the film eventually asks us to accept the whole and not just the parts that make us the most happy.


LAND HO!
Movies about friendship are a mixed bag, which makes the sheer greatness of the road trip (through Iceland) story LAND HO! all the more interesting and entertaining because it's a work that dives into the nature of friendship and what makes two people suited as pals. Every fiber of my being wants to believe that stars Paul Eenboorn (THIS IS MARTIN BONNER) and relative newcomer Early Lynn Nelson are real-life friends, despite their being such different creatures. As reserved newly divorced Colin (Eenboorn) and his good old boy ex-brother-in-law Mitch, these two men cook up a spontaneous trip to Iceland just for the sake of adventure—not necessarily a last adventure (I'd love to see these two go to a new exotic place in future films)—and end up learning a great deal about each other.

The film comes courtesy of another unusual pairing between directors Aaron Katz (COLD WEATHER) and Martha Stephens (PILGRIM SON), who wrote the screenplay for these actors, but could not have anticipated how wonderfully they took to the unique landscapes of Iceland. Less a travelogue film, more of a character study, LAND HO! relishes the art of conversation, while taking full advantage of the nation's topography, cuisine, climate and (to a lesser degree) native people. Most of the people that Colin and Mitch interact with are not from Iceland; instead, like many tourists, they gravitate to other Americans and even a family member who happens to be in the same part of the world.

As the film moves along, the gentle jabbing and jokes told at the other's expense between the two men becomes something more significant. Thoughts of dreams and failures and missing opportunities and fears of aging abound (both men are well into their senior years). They smoke pot, annoy each other at times, complain about their kids, but inevitably just find ways of becoming deeper friends in a world where making them becomes increasingly difficult. Eenhoorn is a known quantity as an actor and wonderfully lets little bits of his deeper thought rise to the surface; Nelson is a brash, forward, front-of-brain performer (as in real life), so when his concerns about health and the future are spoken, there's more a shock to his honesty and anxieties.

LAND HO! never allows itself to become sappy or sentimental; it never even gets close. Situations play out unexpectedly, almost defiantly so at times. And when all is said and done, we feel a little bit more secure that these two guys will live out the rest of their long lives with their feisty streaks full intact, always ready for a new ride and maybe even a new lady to share it with. You will find it impossible not to love this film.


THE POSSESSION OF MICHAEL KING
I don't have the immediate, knee-jerk negative reaction to found-footage/faux documentary films that a lot of people do. I still think they have a place in the cinematic world, although I think filmmakers may have exhausted their effectiveness at this point. Still, I'm always happy to take a look at a slightly new take on the method and hope for the best. THE POSSESSION OF MICHAEL KING falls more into the faux doc category, as we seem to be watching a pieced together finished film culled from security cameras that the filmmaker has placed around his home in his attempt to discover if the devil actually exists.

In the wake of his wife's untimely, senseless death, Michael King (Shane Johnson) has lost all sense of spiritual meaning and belief. He wasn't much of a religious man to begin with, but he foolishly decides to show those who do believe once and for all (using none-too-scientific means) that as much as he tempts being visited by evil forces, such things simply don't exist—ergo God doesn't exist, by King's logic. Never mind that he has a young daughter (Ella Anderson) depending on him to support and protect her—he's more interested in finding occultists and demonologists and anyone else who might inject him with all sorts of bad juju. In case you haven't figured it out, first-time writer-director David Jung doesn't really care if we like Michael King, and that's fine; we don't have to like a main character to be entertained by him. And like most people who tempt fate, King gets himself a little bit possessed, and the things inside him have their sights set on getting their mitts on his daughter.

The conceit of THE POSSESSION OF MICHAEL KING is that every bit of footage (I believe) is meant to have been captured by one of King's countless spy cameras planted around his home, some in places that don't even make sense if their only intention is to capture as much information in a given room as possible. I hate playing the game of "Would the subject keep filming in these circumstances?" or "Who's filming this exactly?", but this film practically begs you to in so many spots during its short running time that it becomes truly obnoxious. Pick a style, commit to it, don't change the rules unless you have a good reason to. I've seen films where the found-footage style is dropped, and if it's part of the way the story is being told, it's pretty great. Not here.

And that brings us to Shane Johnson's performance, which admittedly requires a lot out of him, both in terms of the physical demands, vocal gymnastics and addressing the camera as a sort of amateur reality show host. The sad truth is, Johnson and director June aren't bringing anything to the possession or exorcism table that we haven't seen before. Even the faux doc format has been used before in this sub-genre of horror, and while Johnson's performance isn't embarrassing, it's not especially inspirational either. He's good enough, and that's about as far as it goes.

There are certainly a few well-timed scares in THE POSSESSION OF MICHAEL KING, but it's not enough to just make me jump for a second and move on. The things that make me remember and recommend scary movies (or any movie) are characters and how much I care about their well-being. I never feel like I get a chance to understand King's belief structure. I get that the loss of his wife was painful, but since we only get to see them together for a couple of minutes early on, we don't feel the loss as deeply as he does—not even close. So his tantrums and grand emotional outbursts seem a bit overreactive. If there were even just a few choice moments that felt fresh and inventive, I might have been able to recommend the film, but as it is, you'll probably forget the details of the film walking to your car after seeing it.

-- Steve Prokopy
"Capone"
capone@aintitcool.com
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