Digging for Fire (B-). I enjoyed director Joe Swanberg’s film Drinking Buddies, which was a low-key movie about a couple of nice single people who liked each other but couldn’t figure out how to, or whether they should, date. (It didn’t hurt that Olivia Wilde (Cowboys & Aliens) was one of the two stars.) Now Swanberg is back with another low-key movie, but this one is about a married couple negotiating their graduation into middle age, an event made manifest by their three-year-old son Jude. Tim (Jake Johnson, Jurassic World) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married) aren’t exactly unhappy, but their marriage is clearly a little frayed. While they are house-sitting for one of Lee’s (much wealthier) clients, Tim discovers a rusty old revolver and what might be a human bone on the property. Uninterested, Lee takes off to spend the weekend with her parents (Judith Light, TV’s Who’s the Boss, and Sam Elliott, The Hero), leaving Tim to do the couple’s taxes. Instead, he invites some of his drinking buddies over (such as Sam Rockwell, Moon, as the Really Loud, Obnoxious Friend) to help him dig in the dirt, and they in turn invite a couple of ladies over (Brie Larson, Trainwreck, and Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect). Off on her own adventure, whom should Lee encounter but a nice fellow named Ben who looks just like Orlando Bloom (The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies). It’s kind of a loose, shaggy movie, but obviously it has an impressive cast, and it did make me want to see what would happen and what the weekend’s repercussions would be for Tim and Lee and Jude.
The Last Five Years (C). If this little musical actually played in any theaters in Dallas, I totally missed it. But I read a rave review in The Weekly Standard, and so when I saw the DVD on sale at Target I snapped it up. It didn’t hurt that it stars Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air). It’s based on an off-Broadway show, and it is the story of the romantic journey of Jamie (Jeremy Jordan, TV’s Smash) and Cathy (Kendrick). I’m not giving anything away by revealing that there’s a gimmick: the characters alternate singing songs about their story, but Cathy starts at the end, and Jamie starts at the beginning. So we know from the very first scene how it ends: Jamie takes off, and Cathy is heartbroken. Knowing the destination, how much did I enjoy the ride? Eh, decently well. On the plus side, the performers were good, and Kendrick in particularly gives it her all. A few of the songs are catchy, and the movie moves along briskly, wrapping up in 94 minutes. On the other hand, many of the songs are kind of generic, and the story moves so fast I didn’t feel like I got to know the characters very well. If you like musicals, I say give it a try and see what you think.
Pitch Perfect 2 (B-). Second verse—same as the first! Anna Kendrick (Into the Woods) returns as Beca, a leading member of the national-championship-winning Barden Bellas. (That’s a college a capella singing group, in case you missed the first one.) A wardrobe malfunction during a performance attended by President Obama gets the Bellas suspended from stateside competitions, and their only shot at redemption is to win the world championship. You can guess at the trials and tribulations that pad out the movie. And I do mean “pad”; at 115 minutes, the film suffers from several long dead spots. And, like the original, it is unnecessarily vulgar—especially in scenes involving Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson, Bridesmaids). But there are also several chuckles to be had, and the elaborate musical numbers are pretty entertaining. Although most of the Bellas graduate from college during this installment, new freshman member Emily (Hailee Steinfeld, The Homesman) can provide a bridge to future sequels if Pitch Perfect 2turns out to be an artistic triumph makes a ton of money. Elizabeth Banks (Our Idiot Brother) both appears and makes her feature-film directorial debut.
Into the Woods (B-). I had never seen this musical before, and all I really knew about it was that it was some kind of mash-up of various fairy tales. The film version brought together a lot of talent–lyricist Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd), director Rob Marshall (Chicago), and actresses Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada), Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow), and Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect). But the result was only a little better than mediocre, in my opinion. The plot blends four familiar fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella) with one original one involving a baker, his wife, and a witch’s curse. The performances were fine, and the musical numbers were fine but not particularly memorable. (One notable exception was a duet by two charming princes about the agony of love; that one was pretty entertaining. Chris Pine (Star Trek) made a fine comedic Prince Charming.) The main thing I liked about the movie was that it was unpredictable; it definitely kept me curious about what was going to happen next. Oh, and having Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) in the movie certainly didn’t hurt. I’d say it’s worth the price of a matinee. Note that it is rated PG for thematic elements (whatever those are), fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.
Drinking Buddies (B). The Dallas Morning News gave this independent dramedy a good review, but I almost let it slip through my fingers—I had to skip out of work a little early a few days ago to catch it before it disappeared from the theaters. I found it a worthy effort. It’s basically about a couple of co-workers who dance interminably around the edge of romance. Kate (Olivia Wilde, Cowboys & Aliens) and Luke (Jake Johnson, Safety Not Guaranteed) work together at a small brewery, and they have an easy camaraderie about them. But they are both in serious relationships, she with Chris (Ron Livingston, Office Space), and he with Jill (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect). Then the two couples go off to a cabin for a weekend getaway together, and you start to wonder if things might—or should—get rearranged a bit. Olivia Wilde gets to play a real person for a change, and she’s pretty good. The dialogue seems pretty realistic, and the characters (except for Chris, who’s kind of a dud) are pretty likable. Check it out on Netflix or Pay Per View or wherever technologically savvy people get their movies these days.
Pitch Perfect (B-). The ubiquitous Anna Kendrick (End of Watch) strikes again in this rather predictable tale about Beca (Kendrick), a college misfit who joins a competitive a cappella group, makes friends, and finds herself getting emotionally invested in their winning regionals, semi-finals, etc. And about how Beca kind of likes this cute guy in a rival singing group, but she has to reject him because, you know, she’s emotionally distant on account of her parents’ divorce. Aside from the predictability, the movie is also unfortunately vulgar and gross. (Be warned: projectile vomiting plays a significant role in the movie.) But in spite of all that, I still kind of liked it. There are some pretty funny lines. There’s lots of singing, Glee-style, and it’s always entertaining. Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games) and John Michael Higgins (We Bought a Zoo) are funny as the highly inappropriate commentators at the various singing competitions. And the gorgeous Anna Camp (The Help) does a nice job of playing Beca’s nemesis, the tightly-wound but not entirely villainous leader of Beca’s a cappella group. It’s really too bad they had to make the movie so crass.
End of Watch (A-). I had heard that this cop movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Source Code) and Michael Pena (Babel) was good, but it was even better than I was expecting. Gyllenhaal and Pena are Brian and Mike, a couple of ordinary cops in Los Angeles, and basically the movie plays like a documentary about life on the beat. (Brian is supposedly filming stuff for a film class, but that has no bearing on the plot.) I have no idea how accurate the movie is to real life, but it felt very real. Brian and Mike aren’t sticklers for the rules, but they are plainly decent guys who enjoy being cops and who are good at their job. Along with plenty of tense moments in the field, we also get to see glimpses of their personal lives, with Mike’s pregnant wife and Brian’s new girlfriend (an unexpected Anna Kendrick, 50/50). America Ferrera leaves Ugly Betty far behind as another cop on the force who turns up from time to time. Suspense begins to build as the two buddies unwittingly cross a drug cartel that is trying to solidify a base in south-central L.A., and by the end I was on the edge of my seat. I thought it was a very interesting movie with some fine performances. It’s not for the squeamish, but I highly recommend it.
ParaNorman (C-). The trailers for this animated film piqued my curiosity a little bit. It appeared to be about a little kid named Norman who, like a kid in a certain blockbuster movie some years ago, possesses the “gift” of being able to see and talk to ghosts that are invisible to everybody else. His paranormal talent makes him a social misfit, even within his own family, but it may help him save the day when something happens and the dead begin to rise from their graves. Plus, the trailers used that groovy old Donovan song “Season of the Witch.” Anyhoo, the movie turns out to be a pretty bland affair–not very funny, not very creepy, not really much of anything. It kind of reminded me of that movie from some years ago called Monster House, in that the moviemakers seem to try really hard to come up with a fresh, original “scary story,” but the story just isn’t that involving. I will concede that the climactic scene was fairly satisfying, but that little victory was offset by a couple of totally unnecessary sexual references. I didn’t recognize many of the voices, but Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air) voices Norman’s annoying older sister, and John Goodman (O Brother Where Art Thou) voices his weird uncle Prenderghast.
50/50 (B+). From what I understand, this movie is based on a true story. Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Inception) is an ordinary 27-year-old guy living in Seattle. He’s got a somewhat flaky artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard, The Help), a loud and vulgar best friend (Seth Rogen, Paul), a father with Alzheimer’s and a mother who is somewhat smothering (Anjelica Huston, The Grifters). And, it turns out, he’s got cancer–a rare and somewhat difficult to treat variety. (He learns from the internet that he has a 50% chance of survival; hence the title of the movie.) He gets his diagnosis early on in the movie, and the rest of the movie is just about how he and his loved ones try to deal with his new reality. He also starts going to therapy with a psychology doctorate student played by Anna Kendrick, further perfecting her aggressively cute persona from Up in the Air. I thought it was a good movie, although the Seth Rogen character is so over-the-top obnoxious that you kind of wonder why he and the mild-mannered Adam are best friends.
Up in the Air (B+). This is another solid effort from director Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking), and it is getting great reviews (current Metacritic.com score: 82). George Clooney (Leatherheads) stars as Ryan Bingham. Bingham has an unusual job: when a company needs to fire a bunch of employees, they hire Bingham’s company, and Bingham comes out and performs the actual firings. He supplements his income by giving “motivational” speeches about how the best way to live life is with as few encumbrances as possible–and he counts both possessions and human relationships as encumbrances. Consequently, Bingham basically lives on the road, spending maybe 40 days a year in his desolate apartment in Omaha, Nebraska, and he is well on his way to achieving his single goal in life–accumulating 10 million frequent-flyer miles. But of course the real world won’t let Bingham off that easily. At work, a young whippersnapper named Natalie (Anna Kendrick, Twilight) proposes to cut costs (and Bingham’s travel budget) by doing the firings over the internet. Bingham’s little sister is getting married, and he feels obliged to attend despite his espoused philosophy. And in the course of his travels he meets an alluring blond (Vera Farmiga, Orphan) who seems to travel as fast and light as he does. How does an avowed nihilist deal with the unavoidable fact that no man is an island?
I liked it. It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking movie–and though not a comedy, it has some very funny lines. A few flaws keep it out of “A” territory for me, but I definitely recommend it.