It’s a particularly gray New York winter in 1961, and Llewyn Davis, the talented but struggling folk singer at the center of the Coen Brothers’ bittersweet odyssey Inside Llewyn Davis, has endured more than his share of hardships and is approaching a crossroads. Carrying on as a solo act in the aftermath of his partner’s suicidal leap (off the George Washington Bridge), Llewyn’s paying gigs have been dwindling, as is his own manager’s interest in Llewyn’s career; he’s also down to his last few dollars (dimes?) and the list of friends who will offer him a spare couch is pretty much exhausted (his future stayovers with some uptown non-folk friends being jeopardized when he loses their cat).
If you knew the end of the world was coming, you might want to have a last laugh enjoying This is the End, featuring a whole gallery of current Hollywood A-Listers hilariously playing exaggerated versions (?) of themselves. Seth Rogen stars and co-wrote and co-directed with Evan Goldberg this apocalyptic comedy in which Jay Baruchel comes to L.A. to visit old friend Seth and winds up being dragged along to a bacchanal at James Franco’s mansion. As Jay’s discomfort level reaches its peak (he’s not crazy about Seth’s new Hollywood friends, particularly Jonah Hill), he and Seth head out to a convenience store—and lo, the end of the world arrives in the form of explosions, mass chaos and a huge earthquake (which sucks in many game guest stars including Rihanna, Jason Segel and Aziz Ansari), as well as the arrival of some lascivious, murderous, and ravenous monsters. Rogen and Baruchel, along with Jonah Hill and Craig Robinson, take refuge at Franco’s house, and all is semi-well (considering it’s the end of the world) until they’re rudely surprised by Danny McBride, who not only has crashed the party, but proceeds to use up many of their supplies for an exorbitantly wasteful breakfast.
Much of This is the End is seriously funny, as the six stars vie for food (especially the Milky Way bar), attention and affection. All the actors are inspired: if you like Rogen, Robinson, Hill, Baruchel and McBride you won’t be disappointed. Michael Cera also scores, playing himself as so coke and sex-obsessed that an errant light pole barely deters him, while an armed Emma Watson makes a welcome appearance until she takes off with the group’s supplies (as the result of a misunderstanding that goes on a little too long). However it is Franco who especially impresses as a screamingly wealthy, secretive, self-centered version of himself who is obsessed with the idea of sacrificing himself to show what a good friend he is---if not in real life, at least with the proposed sequel to Pineapple Express. The idea of sacrifice in the service of friendship runs throughout the hijinks and the carnage, leading to a satisfying ending…at least for most of the cast.
For some reason, The Internship has been gathering some hostile notices. I hope some reviewers aren’t confusing this second Vince Vaughn/Jared Smith-scripted, Shawn Levy-directed collaboration with last year’s The Watch. I mean, The Watch was grim fare indeed with nary a chuckle among the powerhouse cast. The Internship, which reteams Vaughn with Owen Wilson is another matter altogether: light-hearted, fast-paced, genuinely funny at times, while keeping a smile on your face at other times. Vaughn and Wilson are both at the top of their game as career salesmen who are left in the lurch when their watch company goes under. In the ever-changing world of technology, they’re viewed (by others and themselves) as dinosaurs. Vaughn hits upon the idea of interning for Google, and convinces a wary Wilson to brave a Skype interview and join the ranks of summer interns competing for the rare Google paying job.
Much of The Internship can be seen as formulaic; Vaughn and Wilson have to win over their much younger colleagues, as well as their…younger superiors; there are the inevitable screw-ups; there is the one evil guy who wants to sabotage them (although in a nice moment, he says to Vaughn that he doesn’t have to do a thing-Vince can foul up all by himself); some tentative attempts at romance among the younger and the older set; and the inevitable moment when the guys prove they can still be relevant. However, it’s all good clean fun and features some good supporting turns from Assif Mandvi, Rose Byrne and John Goodman, as well as an amusing cameo from Will Ferrell as a man who makes his living with mattresses.
Now You See Me is a lot of fun indeed-- most of the way through. Four magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Isla Fisher) are maneuvered into joining forces by a mysterious benefactor, and one year later, as a group called “The Four Horsemen”, dazzle audiences in Las Vegas with a trick that seemingly involves using an audience member to rob a bank—in Paris—through teleportation. That the trick succeeds all too well brings them to the attention of the FBI (led by Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent) as well as a professional magic-debunker (Morgan Freeman).
From there, the complications mount, and the sleight of hand continues as characters and motives are not necessarily what they seem. While I enjoyed the various twists and turns (though a little Jesse Eisenberg goes a long way), Now You See Me loses momentum at the moment of its biggest trick, consisting of a twist that many might guess in advance—but without an altogether satisfying payoff.
Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) is at the plate many times in 42, Brian Helgeland’s effective, occasionally rousing film that focuses on Robinson’s first few years in the majors with the Brooklyn Dodger organization.
It’s the End of the World: Olympus Has Fallen, G.I. Joe: Retaliation
The Expendables 2 is an action-packed, testosterone-filled sequel to the 2010 Sylvester Stallone-driven (writer, director, star, set caterer—I may be mistaken on that last part) commando adventure. This time out Stallone shares the writing credit with Richard Wenk and relinquishes the directorial reins to Simon West. The result is the rare sequel that is actually an improvement on the original. Whereas the first film was laden with expository, brooding scenes meant to establish the team’s camaraderie and air of fatalism, the sequel is more focused and tighter paced yet with a looser feel, courtesy of some macho, quasi-mocking banter. In addition, the action scenes are consistently exciting and exhilarating without being excessive and exhausting. The plot is pretty negligible…the bad guys led by Jean-Claude Van Damme want to steal a lot of plutonium, enslaving a small town-and killing an expendable Expendable (Liam Hemsworth with death written all over his face—you’ll know the minute he mentions the girl waiting at home) in the process. This galvanizes these altruistic mercenaries (they only kill for a good cause) led by Stallone and Jason Statham into doing what they do best: locking and loading to wipe out these evildoers and possibly the save the world as we know it. Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger are back, but this time they ‘re not just picking up a check—these action icons are picking up automatic weapons and blowing away the bad guys; in addition, the script abounds with references to their past triumphs that enables everyone to be in on the joke-and enjoy themselves while doing it. At the screening I attended, the biggest audience response was reserved for Chuck Norris, playing a renowned lone wolf of a mercenary. Perhaps the big screen wants him back…
Dax Shepard wrote and co-directed (with David Palmer) Hit & Run, a hit or miss chase comedy that is noteworthy for not wasting the lovely and talented Kristen Bell, as well as giving Bradley Cooper a chance to shine as a vengeful bad guy with jail issues. Shepard is Charlie Bronson, so named after he entered the witness protection program. His idyllic, anonymous existence in New Mexico (with live-in girlfriend Kristin Bell and skittish agent/caretaker Tom Arnold) is jeopardized when he decides to drive her to L.A.---thus incurring her ex-boyfriend’s wrath, which leads the ex to contact Shepard’s nemesis, a dread-locked Bradley Cooper. Much fleeing, chasing and stunt driving ensue. The car chase scenes themselves are probably the lesser part of the movie; they’re not bad but you’ve seen them before-and better. However, the writing gives the performers plenty of opportunities to show off their wares; Tom Arnold, while initially a little too cartoonish as the would-be protective agent, nevertheless gets to display flashes of likability and warmth; Bradley Cooper is like an actor reborn as the animal-loving, gun-toting robber with more than a few axes to grind. Kristen Bell finally has a lead role that gives her a chance to show many of her formidable skills, including her comic timing, intelligence and ability to project strength and vulnerability (previous films of hers generally focused on one aspect, much to the films’ detriment). Shepard (Bell’s real-life fiancé) and Bell convince and have genuine chemistry as a couple, so that their exchanges between the chases aren’t just filler, but portray the insecurities and suspicions that can befall even a seemingly happy couple. Hit & Run is a hit—whenever the tires aren’t screeching.
Jay Roach’s funny but uneven political spoof The Campaign pits morally lax incumbent North Carolina congressman Will Ferrell against insecure, uptight tour guide Zach Galifianakis. Before you can say “no contest,” Galifianakis, with some seriously shady financial backing, not to mention a shark of a campaign manager (Dylan McDermott), manages to give the previously unopposed Ferrell a run for his money, as the two candidates descend to the kind of overzealous one-upmanship (including a novel use of a sex video) that gives politics a bad name. While the movie makes some passing references to the current economic situation and the power of the media, much of what occurs is a little too silly, with a corresponding lack of insight, to make this a genuine political satire. Despite this lack of artistic ambition, The Campaign is pretty funny, with a few hilarious sequences including a dinner in which Galifianakis learns more than he wanted about family secrets, and a scene involving the overly eager candidates and a baby. There is solid support form Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow as Galifianakis’ rapacious backers, Jason Sudeikis as Ferrell’s campaign manager, and Dylan McDermott as Galifianakis’ campaign manager from Hell-almost literally. As for the candidates: I've rarely found Galifianakis funny in the past, yet here he manages to be likable and appealing, even when he engages in some down and dirty dealings. Ferrell’s incumbent also manages to retain his likability, even when indulging in the must outrageous, childish behavior. Amidst all the shenanigans, there is a quiet scene where Ferrell and Galifianakis share some bourbon and reflections. It is not a particularly funny scene (nor was it intended to be), but it manages to convey some of the characters’ decency, so that what happens at the end of the contest is not totally unexpected or unfounded.
The sunny trailers for David Frankel’s Hope Springs might lead you to believe this may be a cheerful comedy about post mid-life crisis, but it’s much more serious than that. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones’ lengthy marriage has fallen into a malaise of hasty morning goodbyes, unrelieved small talk (if any) at dinner, separate bedrooms, and nothing in the way of intimacy. While Jones is seemingly content with how things are, Streep has decided (over Jones’ objections) that they will travel to a small town in Maine (called-you got it-Hope Springs) for some intensive couples therapy with compassionate counselor Steve Carell. There is some humor here- in the befuddled, cantankerous Jones’ reactions to small town life, as well as Streep’s sojourn in a tavern (under the watchful eye of bartender Elizabeth Shue—somebody get that actress more work). However, the wrenching power of the movie is in the portrayals of Streep and Jones. They are entirely convincing as a couple whose relationship is more like that of roommates than of soulmates. One can see Streep’s insecurity as she wonders if she is still attractive to Jones, as well as Jones’ fear that he is no longer the man he was-or that Streep deserves. The most intense scenes are in the therapist’s office as they lay bare, under Carell’s gentle prodding, all the disappointments and regrets-as well as the happy memories that caused them to find each other in the first place. The movie shows is how easy it is for two people to fall into marital monotony, to forego meaningful communication in favor of impersonal distance. Where the movie occasionally falls down is in not trusting the actors’ abiltities and instead adding some music to needlessly underscore the emotional moments. In spite of this shortcoming, the exquisite artistry of Streep and Jones should manage to move the hardened heart.
Savages - a Vicious Califor-noir from Oliver Stone
There is so much to savor in Oliver Stone’s Savages, especially if you’re a fan of clever dialogue, pulp fiction, film noir, Salma Hayek-and John Travolta.
Just when you thought you were done with the ‘80s, they’re back, courtesy of two new music-laden, star-driven vehicles, Rock of Ages and the latest Adam Sandler chuckle-fest, That’s My Boy. There is a good deal of amusement/curiosity value to be found in both as they resuscitate (some might say regurgitate) ‘80s pop culture in the service of musical mashups and predictable plotlines.
Snow White and the Huntsman, or 2012’s second revisionist look at Snow White, is a brooding, beautifully filmed work that attempts to graft a blend of Gladiator and Joan of Arc onto the tale of the fairest maiden of them all—with somewhat mixed results.