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Films I Neglected To Review: European Vacation Edition.
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Are You There," "The One I Love," "The Possession of Michael King," "A Summer's Tale" and "The Trip To Italy."

No one has ever suggested that the majority of the characters on "Mad Men" are exactly overflowing with the milk of human kindness but it is part of the genius of creator Matthew Weiner that he is able to create characters that are still interesting, compelling and oddly sympathetic despite their oftentimes loathsome and self-centered natures. Now Weiner has made the leap from the small screen to the multiplex with the comedy-drama "Are You Here" but seems to have left that all-important ability behind, along with his senses of humor, drama and character development. Owen Wilson plays Steve Dallas, a self-absorbed weatherman with a steady line of patter that he feeds to anything in a skirt, precious little money to feed to those skirts who charge by the hour and an enabler in burn out best pal Ben (Zach Galifianakis). When Ben unexpectedly inherits a near-fortune from his estranged dad, much to the consternation of his surly sister (Amy Poehler), Steve accompanies him on a pot-fueled trip home to collect, partly in hopes of getting a slice for himself, and finds himself distracted by the dead man's much-younger widow (Laura Ramsey), a flower girl type who doesn't seem to want anything and who doesn't seem to object too much when an obnoxious stranger barges in on her while she is taking a bath.

I don't know what Weiner's intention was with this film but unless it was to create a dully misanthropic waste of time and talent, I would have to say that he failed badly. The screenplay starts off with a shockingly simple-minded premise and then fails to do much of anything with it--every plot twist and moment involving people coming to terms with things is telegraphed with sledgehammer subtlety--and with the exception of the widow, who is little more than an occasionally naked simp, all the characters are profoundly unpleasant. Faced with such one-note roles to play, not even the talented likes of Wilson and Poehler are able to make them into anything but shrilly obnoxious jerks--it says a lot about them when I tell you that the usually odious Galifianakis delivers the closest thing to a sympathetic performance. The nicest thing that I can say about "Are You There" is that it is so dreadful that perhaps it was deliberately created to take on the onus of being inevitably compared to "Mad Men" while he got to work on putting together a project far more worthy of his talents.

As the indie oddity "The One I Love" begins, the marriage of Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) and Ethan (Mark Duplass) has hit a rut--the passion has long since vanished and they seem more interested in throwing zingers at each other than in anything resembling intimacy. During a visit to a marriage counselor (Ted Danson), he offers them the use of a secluded estate in the hills for a weekend so that they can try get back in sync with each other. The place is as fabulous as advertised--plenty of wine, a pool and lots of room to walk around--but before too long, they discover another feature to the place, one that I cannot even begin to hint at without revealing the big twist that writer Justin Lader has up his sleeve.

The problem with reviewing a film like "The One I Love" is that this surprise comes so early and is so fundamental to the narrative that it makes it almost impossible to write about in anything more than the vaguest of terms. As such things go, the premise is intriguing on the surface but it just isn't quite enough to sustain an entire feature film--as a one-hour episode of an anthology series, it might have been nifty but the extra 20-odd minutes end up dragging the whole thing down. That said, director Charlie McDowell gets an admirable amount of mileage out of the material and the performances from Duplass and Moss are undeniably impressive in their complexity and nuance. For me, neither the twist nor the film as a whole quite worked for me but if you are able to get behind the former, then the latter should prove to be an admirably oddball night at the movies, though couples going on their first date might be advised to choose something else to see.

For those of you who have been thinking that it has been just too long since the last cheapo found-footage horror film trying to ride the increasingly frayed coattails of the "Paranormal Activity" franchise, "The Possession of Michael King" should prove to be a balm for your tortured soul. For the 99.99% of the rest of us, it will prove to be a singularly intolerable work that almost makes the "PA" films look competent by comparison. Following the tragic death of his spiritually minded wife that he believes was caused by her following the crackpot advice of a phony medium, obnoxious documentarian Michael King (Shane Johnson) decides that he has found the way to prove that the dark hoary afterworld is a fake once and for all--he will deliberately undergo all sorts of Satanic rituals designed to summon up all manner of demons so that when nothing happens, he can say "Nya nya nya" to all believers in such things. In a twist that will come as a surprise to anyone who doesn't know the title of the film, things quickly take a turn for the worse

If you are wondering why he wouldn't devote his time trying to make contact with his wife in order to prove his point, you clearly haven't seen enough shitty horror movies in your lifetime. Writer-director David Jung just as clearly has seen entirely too many of them because there isn't one thing about this one that comes across as fresh or interesting--the concept makes no sense whatsoever, the shocks are almost entirely of the "BOO!" variety and accentuated with the usual white noise and other ear-splitting aural nonsense and the found-footage gimmick pretty much guarantees that no matter what happens, it won't be framed particularly well. What is an innovation of sorts is that our nominal "hero" is such a self-satisfied dummy that not only is it impossible to develop any rooting interest in his battle against the forces of darkness once things go sideways, many viewers may find themselves actively cheering against him in his struggle. Put it this way--it is no "The Devil Inside" and man, I never thought I would ever write those words.

Made in 1996 as the third entry in his "Tales of the Four Seasons" quartet but inexplicably not released in the U.S. until now, Eric Rohmer's "A Summer Tale" may not be one of the late master's crowning achievements but it is certainly one of the most beguiling. As the film opens, music student Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) arrives in a Brittany seaside resort to await the arrival of girlfriend Lena for a brief vacation. Alas, she is late in showing up and while waiting for her arrival, he finds himself becoming involved with two other local girls--the sweet-natured Margot (Amanda Lagnet), who quickly becomes a friend and confidante, and Solene (Gwenaelle Simon), a friend of Margot's whose appeal is of the more overtly erotic variety. At this point, Gaspard seems to be living the dream of many a young man--attracting the simultaneous attentions of not one but three beautiful and charming women, each with their own special qualities--but when the time comes to finally settle on one of them for his romantic pursuits, he ruefully discovers that some paradises are not quite what they are cracked up to be.

It all sounds like the premise for some raunchy sex comedy but that is not what Rohmer has up his sleeve here (and that may play a large part in why the film never opened here). Instead, he is more interested in quietly observing his hero as he gradually begins to realize that there is more to these women than the fact that they look great in bathing suits--they also have lives and feelings of their own and will continue to do so regardless of what he decides to do--and that maybe there is a chance that he might eventually be able to look upon a woman as a possible friend instead of solely as a potential sexual partner. Poupaud's extremely low-key turn as the passive-aggressive Gaspard may drive some viewers up the wall but he perfectly nails a certain type of guy that we all know--the kind who has yet to realize that he is not quite as deep, profound or irresistible as he clearly seems to think he is. The three actresses opposite him supply more than enough fire and charisma to go around (with Langlet being the scene-stealer of the bunch) and managed to generate an enormous amount of palpable erotic tension despite no nudity or explicit sexual content on display. Had it come out when it was supposed to, this probably would have gone down as one of the more perceptive films about the fumblings of youth to emerge that year and it actually feels like that even more so now.

The hilarious 2011 comedy "The Trip" found U.K. comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon collaborating for a largely improvised road movie with director Michael Winterbottom that saw them touring the finer restaurants of Northern England while indulging in a running commentary that included constant one-upmanship, musings on their personal and professional lives and dueling impressions of Michael Caine that became a sensation on YouTube. In "The Trip to Italy," Coogan, Brydon and Winterbottom have reunited for a sequel that has them doing pretty much the same thing, only this time on a pasta-heavy jaunt through Italy. Although this one may lack the novelty of the original, few are liable to notice because they will be far too busy laughing hysterically as the self-absorbed Coogan and the uber-affable Brydon riff on everything from the music of Alanis Morissette (which inexplicably becomes the soundtrack to their journey) to their competitive nature (Coogan's not-so-subtle reminders that he is the better-known of the two begin to founder when Brydon is unexpectedly cast in the lead of a new Michael Mann film) and the unintelligibility of Christian Bale and Tom Hardy in "The Dark Knight Rises." As for the impressions, Brydon offers up a hilarious Al Pacino (which may be low-hanging fruit but still. . . ) and the two work in tandem to do all the various James Bonds in one fell swoop. There are also some sober-minded and unexpectedly affecting moments as well as the two try to come to grips with where they are at in their lives that prove that Coogan and Brydon can do more than simply crack wise. If you have seen "The Trip," I hardly need to tell you to rush out and see this in the theater or order it on VOD--there is an excellent chance that you have done so already--but if you missed the first one, you should catch up with it as soon as possible but don't let that keep you from one of the funniest films of the year to date.

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originally posted: 08/22/14 07:30:43
last updated: 08/22/14 22:38:24
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