Friday, August 22, 2014


New this week:

The Trip to ItalyIrritating though the term “postmodern” has become, it’s probably valid to call the British TV comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon a postmodern Hope and Crosby. First of all, like Hope and Crosby, they travel together, bantering, flirting with women and obsessively one-upping each other. Secondly, their comedy in no small measure derives from being irritating, from pushing every joke too far.

In 2010’s The Trip, adapted from a TV series, the conceit was that “Steve Coogan,” a glum and dour English comedian played by Steve Coogan, was touring dining establishments in northern England’s Lake District for a series of Observer articles, in company with his insufferably cheery and chatty Welsh friend “Rob Brydon,” played by Rob Brydon.

The point, of course, was not their journey but their conversation along the way, an endless duet of mild aspersions and competitive celebrity impersonations, often quite bad—their badness, combined with their persistence, is part of the joke. It’s the sort of silly chatter that passes the time agreeably between friends on a trip but would generally puzzle and annoy an outsider, but Coogan and Brydon give it a comic tension by showing us the underlying rivalry between the buffoonish fictitious versions of themselves—their prattle is an envy-fueled low-level combat.

Directed, like the first film, by Michael Winterbottom, and gloriously shot by James Clarke, The Trip to Italy takes the same shtick to the land of pasta. The two men cruise, in a Mini Cooper, through incomparably beautiful settings, eating incomparably beautiful food at incomparably beautiful restaurants and staying at incomparably beautiful hotels. All the while, they’re imitating everybody from Michael Caine to Al Pacino to Hugh Grant to Robert DeNiro, and spouting off about the poetic merits of Byron, Shelley and Alanis Morissette with roughly equal passion.

The film can give rise to mixed response. Scene for scene, I found it very funny, often riotous—an extended riff on the comparative incomprehensibility of Christian Bale and Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises was a particular highlight. But in the aggregate, I confess it was a little tiring for me, and I was ready for it to be over by the time it was.

The Trip to Italy is also a curiously reproachful species of food porn. Winterbottom often cuts away from the nattering of his stars to the kitchen staff wherever they are, expertly preparing their exquisite-looking meals. At times it made me want to yell at Coogan and Brydon to shut up and pay attention to their food.

If I StayIn this screen version of Gayle Forman’s successful 2009 novel, Chloe Grace Moretz plays Mia, an Oregon teenager who finds herself out-of-body after a horrible car crash leaves her in a coma. In this state she scurries around the halls of the hospital, following her stricken family and friends, and tries to decide between waking up or Going to the Light.

A key to this decision, drearily but believably, is her boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley), with whom she was on the outs before the accident. Mia’s a cellist, you see, and she’d like to go to Julliard, and Adam’s a rocker whose band has a record deal, and can these two kids from different musical worlds somehow make a long distance relationship work?

This is the real meat of the story, which unfolds in flashback as Mia tries to answer The Clash’s eternal question “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” As a teen love story, it has plausibility, which is to say that its conflicts seem overwhelming to the pair involved, and fairly tedious to onlookers. But the luminously-photographed young Moretz is touching as she lopes along the corridors or gazes down at her unconscious physical self, and her acting is heartfelt. Indeed, Moretz, painfully vulnerable in the overlooked Texas Killing Fields and funny in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, carries this sweet showcase vehicle like a true star.

Some of the other actors have charm, too, especially Mireille Enos, unmemorable in the thankless role of Brad Pitt’s wife in World War Z, but much livelier here as Mia’s cool ex-rocker-chick mom, and Joshua Leonard (of The Blair Witch Project) as her drummer-turned-music-teacher dad. Stacey Keach turns up, too, as Mia’s adoring grandfather; his short speech to his comatose granddaughter was the one moment in the film that jerked a few of my tears. All of them, and pretty much everybody else in the cast, have one job in the movie—to worship Mia—but they manage to maintain their dignity while they do it.

I’m not sure if the real-life loved ones of coma patients will all appreciate the story’s seeming implication, repeated several times by an angelic-seeming nurse, that coming out of a coma is always and entirely the choice of the patient. But if you accept the premise, your choice, as an audience member, will probably be to stay in your seat, and not to head for The Light of the Lobby until the end credits. And you probably won’t regret it.

Island of Lemurs: MadagascarThe blank, fixed, wide-eyed faces of lemurs suggest minds perpetually blown, and it’s hard not to find them endearing. This IMAX documentary, which runs well under an hour, offers a pleasant dose of these most ancient yet somehow most alien of primates, and of the paradisal, sadly threatened forests of their country of origin.

It was directed and shot by David Douglas, with narration scripted by Drew Fellner and spoken by Morgan Freeman—all part of the team behind the similar 2011 IMAX flick Born to be Wild. That film focused on two animal orphanages, one in Africa for elephants, one in Borneo for orangutans, both run by formidable middle-aged women. With Island of Lemurs, the filmmakers evidently saw no reason to depart from this structure—their central figure is Dr. Patricia Wright, an American who runs a lemur preserve in Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park, and whose researches in the ‘80s led to the rediscovery of the Greater Bamboo Lemur, thought extinct.

Island of Lemurs is a little diffuse; it might have been a bit more engaging, for children especially, had it focused on a specific lemur or family of lemurs. But it’s full of delights: The big Indri, largest of the lemur species, indulging in their weird and beautiful choral howling, a Bamboo Lemur ripping apart a stalk of its namesake plant with relish, elegant Sifakas romping sideways from tree to tree. And, as in Born to be Wild, the film has unusually good music, including selections by Madagascar band Tarika. In short, it has lemurs, the voice of Morgan Freeman, and “I Will Survive” sung in French. What else could you want, in less than an hour?

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