Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley
Directed by: Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”)
Written by: Shane Black (“Lethal Weapon”) and Drew Pearce (debut)
After the roaring success of “The Avengers,” the biggest question facing the Marvel cinematic universe was “What’s next?” Since 2008, with the release of the original “Iron Man” film, everything that came afterward—vehicles for Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk—was a build-up (for better or worse) to the epic team-up adventure of last summer. And boy, did it deliver, wowing critics and audiences on its way to becoming the third-highest grossing movie of all time. But after all of that (Marvel calls it Phase 1), what could they possible have in store for fans?
Marvel’s answer: go back to square one and kick off Phase 2 with “Iron Man 3.”
While the film does reference the events that took place in New York City that involved gods battling aliens, “Iron Man 3” plants its feet as a stand-alone adventure. A rattled, sleepless Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has spent every waking moment since “The Avengers” tinkering with different designs for his Iron Man suit, which are at number 42 at this point. As a result of his erratic tinkering, though, Tony’s domestic life with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) has begun to suffer. Enter handsome Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a scientist with connections to both Tony and Pepper. He’s come peddling his highly unstable treatment for regrowing lost limbs—a treatment that may be tied to murderous terrorist the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).
For having the unenviable task of following one of the biggest films ever, “Iron Man 3” does pretty solid work. Director/co-screenwriter Shane Black (“Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”), stepping in for Jon Favreau, gets to stretch his legs in an adventure that’s refreshingly free of table-setting for whatever next year’s Marvel movie will be. Somewhat surprising is how little time Downey spends in the Iron Man armor, though the film’s climax more than makes up for it.
Not everything works, however, and the legacy of what came before it weighs a little too heavily on the film. Don Cheadle, returning as James Rhodes, again doesn’t get much to do. He flies around in his War Machine armor (now re-christened and repainted as the red, white, and blue Iron Patriot) for a little while busting up potential terrorist safe houses until he gets kidnapped and has the armor stolen from him like a punk. And the movie never really answers the nagging fanboy question: “Why not just call in the rest of The Avengers?” when Stark’s days get darkest. I appreciate that Tony Stark is a badass genius with incredible technology at his fingertips, but couldn’t the Hulk or Captain America or even that chump Hawkeye have chipped in to take out a goon or two?
Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”)
Written by: Creighton Rothenberger (debut) and Katrin Benedikt (debut)
Yes! Yes, Gerard Butler, “Olympus Has Fallen” is exactly the kind of film you should be making nonstop! Enough with the horrible romantic comedies. They absolutely do not work with you in the lead, and society is general is worse off for having to experience them. Stick to action and we’ll all be golden, okay? Even if the screenplay is utter crap. We can deal with that as long as there are some cool explosions and fistfights and such.
In “Olympus Has Fallen,” Butler stars as Mike Banning, a dedicated Secret Service agent tasked with protecting President Asher (Aaron Eckhart), First Lady Margaret Asher (Ashley Judd), and their young son Connor (Finley Jacobsen). After a terrible accident leaves Banning disgraced, he is moved from the President’s detail and reassigned to a desk job at the U.S. Treasury. Eighteen months later, when a rogue C-130 gunship soars over Washington, DC, mowing down citizens and law enforcement alike in a hail of bullets, Banning springs into action. The target is the White House (code named Olympus). When the building is taken by foreign terrorists, Banning slips inside and becomes the last hope for saving President Asher–and the nation itself.
If you aren’t the kind of moviegoer who can sit back and let the testosterone and jingoism of a political action film just wash over you, then “Olympus Has Fallen” makes an easy target for scorn. The script from first-timers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt is overflowing with action movie cliches and is unashamedly aping “Die Hard.” Butler delivers another meathead performance, complete with an American accent as shoddy as the special effects on display. And Morgan Freeman (as the Speaker of the House pushed into action when both the President and Vice-President are held captive) is clearly phoning it in after having played roles like this seemingly dozens of times. Throw in unstoppable super-weapons, genius computer hackers, and a sneering foreign villain along with everything else and you’ve got the recipe for Generic Action Movie #876, right?
Well, yeah. But in spite of it all, it still works. The “what if?” scenario of the White House succumbing to a terrorist assault is juicy stuff, and it’s hard to get tired of Butler tossing out curse-laden one liners while stabbing bad guys in the brain. And as the Secretary of Defense, Melissa Leo is having a blast as she gets to spit foul-mouthed venom in the face of her captors. When she’s dragged down a hallway screaming the Pledge of Allegiance (as corny as it may be), it’s hard to not be on the edge of your seat waiting for Butler to come to her rescue and put a bullet in someone’s face.
Starring: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut
Directed by: Brad Anderson (“The Machinist,” “Transsiberian”)
Written by: Richard D’Ovidio (“Thir13en Ghosts,” “Exit Wounds”)
From time to time, publicists send out emails to film writers across the country to make them aware of upcoming movies. These typically include the stars, the title, and release date, so that if you are preparing some sort of seasonal movie guide or something, you’ll be able to populate it with all the relevant information your readers will need. In the case of the new Halle Berry film “The Call,” however, we got an email two months ago advising us that the new “UNTITLED HALLE BERRY THRILLER” would be released in “SPRING 2013.” It’s rarely a good omen when a publicist can’t drum up something less generic than that.
In “The Call,” Halle Berry stars as hotshot Los Angeles 911 operator Jordan Turner. Working in the slick call center known as The Hive, Jordan is a rock star, handling emergencies and prank calls like a champ. When a teenage girl calls to report a man breaking into her house, Jordan buckles down and talks the teen skillfully through how to throw the prowler off her trail and hide until the police arrive. When the girl accidentally disconnects the line and Jordan redials, however, the man is able to find the teen’s hiding place thanks to the ringing phone. After taunting Jordan over the phone, the man kidnaps and kills the girl, sending Jordan spiraling into a moral crisis over her mistake. Six months later, Jordan takes the call of another abducted teenage girl (Abigail Breslin) and must overcome her personal demons to help save her.
In spite of the ho-hum premise that wouldn’t be out of place as the plot of a typical “Law and Order” episode, for the first hour “The Call” just plain works. Director Brad Anderson (“The Machinist”) fills each frame with tension, sticking extreme close-ups of Breslin panicking in the trunk next to surveillance-style footage of the kidnapper’s car speeding anonymously down an L.A. freeway. The interaction between Berry and Breslin on the phone feels real, and the tactics Berry has Breslin employ to get the attention of other drivers (like kicking out the tail lights and pouring paint out to leave a trail) are extremely clever. When the chase ends, though, is where some disappointment sets in. The last half hour starts going to some icky-yet-routine places as the kidnapper drags the half-naked Breslin down to his underground dungeon to begin whatever psychotic ritual he had in mind. All is not lost, though, as a last-second plot zigzag (that I won’t spoil here) gives the ending a weirdly satisfying kick.
What kind of contractor builds those underground sex dungeons anyway?
Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams
Directed by: Sam Raimi (the “Spider-Man” trilogy)
Written by: Mitchell Kapner (“The Whole Nine Yards”) and David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rise of the Guardians”)
There aren’t many movies that your grandparents could have enjoyed as small children that are still capable of entertaining audiences today, but the 1939 MGM classic “The Wizard of Oz” defies convention and remains enjoyable 74 years later. Despite displaying very little of the grammar present in modern filmmaking (like cutaways and performances that aren’t constantly projected toward the back of the theater), “The Wizard of Oz” endures. It’s curious, to say the least, that the last three-quarters of a century has failed to deliver another universally-acclaimed film set in L. Frank Baum’s enchanted Land of Oz. Yeah, sure, there was “The Wiz” and “Return to Oz,” but those remain cult hits at best. Why hasn’t some studio stepped up, eager to craft a modern classic that would also earn them enough cash to build an actual Emerald City?
Twenty-eight years after their aforementioned “Return to Oz” flopped, Disney, um, returns to Oz with the prequel “Oz the Great and Powerful.” James Franco stars as carnival magician Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a low-rent huckster working a sideshow in the dusty Kansas countryside. With the help of his put-upon hype man (Zach Braff), Oz fools the yokels with his sleight of hand and charms the ladies with a never-ending supply of his grandmother’s one-of-a-kind antique jewelry boxes. When one of his romantic encounters comes back to bite him, Oz books it for a hot air balloon. One tornado later, however, and Oz finds himself in Oz. Stumbling out of his wrecked balloon, Oz meets the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) who tells him of a prophecy wherein a wizard named Oz will defeat the Wicked Witch. Who is the Wicked Witch, you ask? Is it naive, love struck Theodora? Her conniving sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz)? Or their rival, glittery, good-hearted Glinda (Michelle Williams)?
Of course it’s not Glinda. I mean we’ve all seen “The Wizard of Oz,” right? Anyway.
Try as he might, director Sam Raimi can’t overcome two big problems that bog “Oz” down. First, the screenplay, credited to Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, creaks and lumbers under the weight of too much exposition and almost-certain corporate interference. It too-often lazily mirrors the plot structure of the 1939 classic. Second, and most disappointing, is that Franco is completely wrong for the part. The movie needed a natural flim flam man – someone with smarmy charisma to spare; someone like Robert Downey Jr., who was originally cast and dropped out. Franco can be a great actor, but when he’s called upon to laugh heartily like a vaudevillian rascal and shout “prestidigitation!” he sounds more like a high school drama student getting ready to tie a classmate to cardboard railroad tracks while he twirls his mustache. “Oz” is far from a total blunder, though, and a handful of bright spots stand out. Williams’ warm and radiant Glinda, the magnificent and fragile living doll China Girl (voiced by Joey King), and the whiz-bang climax all point toward the rousing adventure the bloated script and James Franco are keeping hidden behind the curtain.
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons
Directed by: Richard LaGravenese (“P.S. I Love You”)
Written by: Richard LaGravenese (“Water for Elephants”)
When the “Twilight” films were unleashed upon the world, with their tales of romance between brooding vampires and the mere mortals who fell madly in love with them, the table was set for more supernatural monster/normal teenager love stories to come pouring out of Hollywood. While this particular genre tree has taken a little while to bear fruit, 2013 appears to be the year for new takes on the format, what with “The Twilight Saga’s” 800-pound gorilla finally ending its run. This year has already brought audiences a zombie-centric romantic comedy in the delightfully sweet “Warm Bodies,” while Valentine’s Day heralds the arrival of “Beautiful Creatures” and it’s mixture of ancient witchcraft and swoony teenage love.
“Beautiful Creatures” begins with high schooler Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) dreaming of a mysterious girl whose face he’s never able to catch a glimpse of. Ethan longs to get out of his boring southern town, applying to colleges as far away as possible. His attention is quickly diverted, however, upon the arrival of Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), a mysterious girl (hmm…) sent to live with her uncle, local recluse Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons). Ethan falls immediately for Lena, and as their romance builds, Ethan learns Lena is a “caster” (read: witch) and that uncertainty clouds her future. For you see, upon her 16th birthday, she will undergo “the Claiming” which will forever paint her as either a dark or a light caster. All the while the town’s churchgoing elders, led by Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson) work to get Lena expelled from school and sent packing back to wherever it is she came from.
Unfortunately “Beautiful Creatures” doesn’t stop there. Director and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese commits the most commonly-occurring crime when it comes to adapting a young adult novel into a feature film: failing to actually “adapt” and instead merely “translating.” The film chugs along at decent pace until about halfway through when it dumps a washtub’s worth of mythological backstory all over everything. Emmy Rossum’s evil cousin Ridley storms in to do battle with Lena using shoddy special effects and spinning tables. Fine veteran actresses Eileen Atkins and Margo Martindale show up randomly to stand around in stupid witchy wigs to tell tales of prophecy and then promptly disappear again. And an otherwise well-done church showdown between old pros Irons and Thompson further complicates the plot by throwing in a villain of sorts who must be defeated.
It all reeks of table-setting for sequels that are hardly a guarantee and turns the film from a juicier, southern-fried “Twilight” into an overstuffed meal that, while not terrible, only leaves you with indigestion.
In “Beautiful Creatures,” a teenager named Ethan (Alden Ehenreich) longs to escape his small, backward southern town. When a mysterious new girl named Lena (Alice Englert) arrives, she seems to have stepped right out of Alden’s dreams. As their relationship blossoms, they uncover dark secrets about both their families and their hometown.
As Alden’s love of Lena grows, he pulls away from both his trusty best friend Link (Thomas Mann) and Bible-thumping mean girl ex-girlfriend Emily (Zoey Deutch). I sat down with Mann and Deutch last month in Dallas after a screening of the film, where we discussed the challenge of taking on a character already established in the minds of readers, playing normal humans in a supernatural world, and why guys shouldn’t be afraid to see “Beautiful Creatures.”
The film is based on a young adult fantasy novel. Were either of you fans of the book before you were cast?
Thomas Mann: I had no prior knowledge of it, actually. When we got the audition the didn’t even let us read the script, so I just Googled what the books were [about].
Zoey Deutch: You’re smart. I should have done that.
TM: I just got a basic understanding of what it was.
ZD: I didn’t know. I didn’t know. And we weren’t even allowed to see the scenes to audition with or anything.
So it was that big of a secret?
ZD: Apparently they didn’t trust us.
It’s strange that you wouldn’t be able to read the script even though the book is out there.
TM: Its good to build buzz and sometimes they use it to get actors in the room, too, that [they] wouldn’t normally. But I’m not sure why they do it, really.
Is it intimidating as an actor to take on a character from a novel that so many people are super passionate about?
TM: Yeah, I mean, its always in the back of your head. Like at some point someone is going to be judging and making sure that I’m living up to whatever their idea of this character is. You know, when you read a book you kind of direct your own movie in your head so you hope, at least in some ways, it kind of lines up with what they want to see.
Is is difficult to play the straight man and straight woman to all the fantastical, supernatural characters in the film?
TM: Well, that’s what I love about Link. While all this supernatural crazy stuff is happening he’s really just this very normal, simple guy. I just see Link as a really lovable guy. He’s a good, loyal friend to Ethan. They’ve been friends since they were little kids. I think it [brings] a light, comedic balance to all the crazy, dramatic stuff that’s happening.
Zoey, your character isn’t quite as lovable.
ZD: (Laughs) No.
Is it difficult playing the…what’s would be a nice word for it?
ZD: Am I allowed to curse?
You can do whatever you want.
ZD: Is it hard? Its really fun. I don’t know, I think its…no, its not hard. I don’t know. It was interesting to play her. And its my reaction to playing her that’s also really interesting to me. I’ve become wildly defensive of her because—although I’m very aware of her role in the movie, to show the audience that [Ethan's] past is everything he doesn’t want and Lena is everything that he does want, so I understand that role, that’s what she represents. But at the same time I’m so defensive of her because I feel like bullies aren’t bullies without reason. People aren’t mean without cause. Most of the time people who are bullies have been bullied. And it was fun. I got to be like, “Oh, so those people that were mean to me…I finally have an excuse to say they were in my life for a reason!”
So this is potentially the first installment of a series. It’s a four-part novel series.
ZD: “The Caster Chronicles.”
Are the two of you on board should this continue?
TM: Well I think a three-picture deal is standard [now], just in case. So hopefully people respond to it and we get to come back an make another one.
ZD: Because we had fun! (Zoey and Thomas high five)
Do you know what’s in store for your characters? Have you read ahead in the novels?
ZD: I have.
TM: Yeah, it’s some good stuff.
Can you tell us anything?
ZD: We don’t wanna ruin it. People should read it for themselves. Keep the mystery alive!
TM: The Link and Ridley [played in the film by Emmy Rossum] relationship gets a lot more in depth and you sort of start to see that Ridley does have actual, human feelings for Link, which is kind of sweet.
ZD: You get Emmy Rossum to fall in love with you? You’re so lucky.
That’s a pretty sweet deal, I’ve gotta say.
TM: Yeah, yeah. It’s all right.
The film opens opposite “A Good Day to Die Hard.”
ZD: The day after…
It’s very, very close.
TM: It’s close enough.
What would you tell the boyfriends of America that are going to have to skip out on an action movie–
ZD: Its Valentine’s Day! What is wrong with you?!? That’s what I’d say.
Would you try and convince them this is appealing to them too?
ZD: Its Valentine’s Day.
TM: Appease your ladies.
ZD: Your multiple ones? Okay.
TM: I’m talking to an audience of people.
ZD: I’m gonna say it again: what is wrong with you?
TM: You’re ladies. All of you are ladies.
Would you say this is a guy’s movie, too?
TM: Its from a male’s perspective. He’s not like the brooding, typical leading guy. He’s a really likeable, funny—Alden’s so funny.
ZD: So charming it’s, like, bananas.
TD: He doesn’t try to be too cool, and I think that’s what’s so great about all these characters: they’re really very human with real quirks. And no one’s perfect.
ZD: [Alden's] brilliant, and I think people are going to appreciate—guys, girls, women, and men—are going to appreciate that it’s about the guy…not necessarily “chasing.” I’m using that word because it’s always [the case] in movies that the girl is chasing the guy. So that’s why I use that word, but its not like that. In this movie, he’s pursuing her, he knows he loves her and he knows that its worth it. And I appreciate that its about the guy doing that opposed to the girl.
You never see that perspective, right?
ZD: And it shows a vulnerability in men that movies don’t, for some reason.
So if you go see “Beautiful Creature” with your girlfriend, she’ll see you as a sensitive man?
ZD: Exactly. Yes.
And then afterward that weekend you can do whatever you want. You’ve got a free pass.
ZD: You can go see “Die Hard!” (Both laugh)
In “Warm Bodies,” a self-aware zombie named R saves a human girl named Julie from certain death, falling in love with her in the process. The fate of the human race hangs in the balance based on whether or not the two of them can convince Julie’s father, the gruff General Grigio, played by the eternally-quirky John Malkovich, of R’s change of heart. I had a chance to speak with Malkovich last week, when he talked about the current popularity of zombie fiction, acting opposite CGI zombies, and the modern-day zombies smartphones may have created.
Zombie fiction is huge right now. Are you a fan or is it something you don’t pay attention to?
I don’t pay the slightest attention to it. (Laughs) One of many things I don’t pay the slightest attention to.
Are you a fan of any supernatural fiction at all? Or is that a genre you completely avoid?
It’s not so much avoidance, its just really not on my radar, generally. This book [“Warm Bodies” by Isaac Marion] was an interesting story since it kind of went out of the normal publishing circles and it was written by a young person. And I liked the tone and thought it would be interesting and challenging to try and capture. But no, I never—even as a kid—I didn’t follow much supernatural…probably didn’t go further than Ray Bradbury, maybe.
You mentioned the book. Did you read the novel beforehand?
I did. But not before I was involved with the film.
It has a huge youth following.
Mmm-hmm. And, in fact, I think my producing partners probably read it as something for us—our company is called Mr. Mudd—something for us to produce. Because they seemed to know it quite well.
Near the beginning, the film touches on the isolation caused by modern technology like smartphones, Twitter, and Facebook. Are you constantly connected in that way?
I really can’t afford to stay away from it because, you know, when I’m here just doing [press for a film], I’m having to deal with something in the fashion business I work in. I’m having to deal with the production of a French play, getting the financing to bring it to London. I’m having to deal with setting this [interview] up. I’m having to deal with the cuts of two movies we have in post-production now. There’s a lot you have to deal with. But I don’t do Facebook or Twitter, but certainly for emails and text I kinda have to.
You aren’t typically known for appearing in films with lots of special effects. Does acting opposite armies of computer-generated zombies take some getting used to or is it just like any other acting job?
I think it’s just like any other acting job. It has its irritations, sure, but in acting you’re always pretending. And you can either pretend or you can’t. And pretending with someone else…yeah, it’s probably easier in some ways, but still, in the end, you have to pretend by yourself. You have to be capable of suspension of your own disbelief anyway. And they generally explain quite clearly what it will be, what it will look like, what it will do. And I don’t find it so difficult.
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Directed by: Andreś Muschietti (debut)
Written by: Neil Cross, Andreś Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti (debut)
There’s an interesting dichotomy at work in the career of Guillermo del Toro. When it comes to directing, he’s known for his dark flights of fancy, plunging his films into twisted worlds haunted by fantastical, meticulously-crafted heroes and villains filled with pathos and often blurry lines between good and evil. As a producer, however, del Toro often lends his name to horror projects that begin with promise of del Toro-esque quality and end up as routine scary movie snores. The latest film presented by del Toro, “Mama,” unfortunately continues that trend.
“Mama” stars two-time Academy Award-nominee Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”) as punk rock girl Annabel who, along with her boyfriend Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), ends up taking care of Lucas’ young nieces after they’re found in a nearly feral state prowling around a remote cabin. The girls have been living seemingly on their own for five years after their father Jeffrey (also Coster-Waldau, for some reason) murdered their mother and fled with his daughters in tow. As Jeffrey prepares to pull the trigger on his oldest daughter, a mysterious specter snatches him away to his implied death and takes her place as the girls’ guardian, know to them as Mama.
“Mama” arrives with an interesting premise – feral children with a seemingly otherworldly caretaker readjusting to normal society – but ends up disappointing early on. First-time director Andreś Muschietti tips his hand too soon by revealing Mama’s supernatural status in the first act.
Muscheitti, who also shares a screenwriting credit, deflates any psychological tension the situation might naturally create (is Mama a figment of the girls’ imagination? Is one of them actually Mama?) and instead turns the rest of film into an hour of the audience waiting for everyone on screen to discover this malevolent ghost we’ve already seen in action. The final act of the film wallows in a few half-prophetic dream sequences before limping to a conclusion that throws plot points out the window to eke out an ending indifferent to the rest of the film.
On another note, the sheer ferocity of Mama is puzzling. She’s introduced saving a young girl from being murdered by her father, for which her savage behavior is wholly appropriate. When she ends up putting well-meaning people into comas for investigating why moths are crawling out of a moldy portal to another dimension that’s randomly appeared in a hallway, well…not so appropriate.
Starring: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Albert Brooks
Directed by: Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up,” ‘Funny People”)
Written by: Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up,” “Funny People”)
Were you aware that director Judd Apatow’s last film, “Funny People,” has a runtime of 2 hours and 26 minutes? Yes, the crude-yet-thoughtful comedy clocks in at just 20 minutes shorter than the epic fantasy adventure “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” and that disparity drops to 13 minutes if you count the extended edition available on DVD. It’s the most glaring weakness built into the DNA of nearly every project Apatow’s name is attached to: an intelligent script and top-notch comedic performances stretched too thin by pacing that sometimes devolves from storytelling to simply hanging out with the characters. While Apatow has arguably earned such indulgences after re-shaping modern cinematic comedy as a hit-making producer and director, it’s tough to keep the laughs going for that long without testing the patience of the audience.
Though not as egregious an offender, “This is 40″ still manages to stick around at least half an hour too long. As a quasi-sequel to 2007′s “Knocked Up,” the film features Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprising their roles as Pete and Debbie, first introduced as the extended family of Seth Rogen’s and Katherine Heigl’s lead characters. The lived-in feel of their relationship fleshed out the edges of that film in ways that often overshadowed the chief plot line. Five years later, Pete and Debbie are front and center and on the cusp of their 40th birthdays. Well Pete is, anyway. Debbie has been weaving an elaborate web of lies about her age culminating in her claim to be turning 38 instead. Pete and Debbie are also dealing with the trials that plague similar couples across the nation: financial problems, unpredictable children, and the boring familiarity that inevitably rears its head in long-term relationships.
“This is 40″ has little to speak of in they way of plot, with the only real threads that stretch from beginning to end being the very loose planning and execution of the birthday party and the dire financial struggles of Pete’s boomer-skewing record label. Newly-minted Apatow players Lena Dunham and Chris O’Dowd turn up to deliver laughs as Pete’s co-workers, with O’Dowd rewarded later in the film by sharing an extended (though highly unnecessary) exchange with Apatow all-star Jason Segel. A couple of comedic heavyweights check in along the way: Albert Brooks drops in as Pete’s dad, an old man with a new young family, and Melissa McCarthy stops the show as a mother defending her son with an hilariously insane rant (curiously absent, though, are Rogen and Heigl). Despite all the talent on hand, though, the film belongs to Rudd and Mann. The honesty of their relationship is never in doubt, and the familiarity each have with Apatow’s voice help turn already funny lines into quotable and hilarious one-liners.
Yeah, the film overstays its welcome, but so what? Like the rest of Apatow’s characters, these people are fun to hang around with.
Starring: Seth Rogen, Barbra Streisand, Dale Dickey
Directed by: Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal”)
Written by: Dan Fogelman (“Crazy, Stupid Love”)
About halfway through “The Guilt Trip,” Andy Brewster (Seth Rogen) looks on as his widowed mother Joyce (Barbra Streisand) eats a 4-pound steak at a Texas restaurant during a layover on their cross-country road trip. Filled to the brim with red meat, I would have bet $100 that Joyce’s entire meal would have been violently vomited out all over the interior of the vehicle as soon as she buckled herself in. Never mind that the legendary Streisand would have been the one puking; it was the presence of Rogen, known for his roles in raunchy comedies, that had me waiting for something gross to happen. I mean, his frustratingly over-bearing mother ate a steak the size of a small dog and was cramming herself into a comically-undersized car. That’s a setup for a spew if I’ve ever seen one, right? Weirdly…no.
Anyway, anyone with a mother will find a frustration to relate to in “The Guilt Trip.” Rogen’s Andy lives far from his mom in Los Angeles. Andy is a former biochemist turned inventor struggling to pitch his all-natural cleaning product to disinterested retailers. Even from 3,000 miles away in New York, Joyce dotes on Andy, leaving dozens of voice mails about everything from the underwear she bought him at The Gap to theories she developed with her friends about his failed love life. When Andy visits his mother on the eve of a big sales trip, Joyce confides in him that he’s named after a long-lost love. Deciding that his mother, who hasn’t dated since her husband died more than 20 years ago, deserves to be happy, Andy concocts a plan. After secretly tracking down his namesake, Andy invites Joyce along on his road trip, intent on surprising her in San Francisco at the doorstep of the man she once loved.
One would be forgiven for expecting this to be a typical Seth Rogen comedy. After all, there aren’t many live-action movies featuring the actor that you’d be comfortable watching with your mother in the same room. “The Guilt Trip” changes that, though, with an amusing (if not laugh-out-loud funny) screenplay from Disney and Pixar vet Dan Fogelman and a fun performance from Streisand, who is game all the way through. This time around, it’s the younger viewers who might be experiencing discomfort as Streisand’s character hits a little too close to home. While Joyce often veers dangerously close to stereotypical “annoying Jewish mother” territory, she winds up tossing out just enough recognizable nuggets of nagging Rogen’s way to spark twinges of, “Ugh, my mom says the exact same thing!” recognition in every member of the audience.
Yeah, sorry Mom. Even me.
In “This is 40,” Leslie Mann reprises her role as Debbie from 2007′s “Knocked Up.” In the film, Debbie’s marriage to Paul Rudd’s Pete is tested by financial troubles, moody teenage children, and the resentful rut all long-term relationships seem to fall into. I spoke with Leslie about her marriage to the film’s director Judd Apatow, how improvisation is handled on the set, and how she’s coping with her daughters’ budding acting careers.
Your husband, Judd Apatow, wrote and directed the film. How much of what is onscreen is drawn from your actual marriage?
Well, I think that it’s emotionally truthful. I feel like it’s emotionally truthful to a lot of people, struggling with marriage and raising kids and just how hectic life is. Those are pretty universal feelings and ideas. But it’s not really, you know, it is fictional. It’s not plucked right out of our lives.
Everyone seems to assume that Judd’s films are filled with improvisation. Is that the case, or do you stick pretty close to the script?
We do stick close to the script. You know, Judd is a really generous director and very supportive. He started as a stand-up comic. So sometimes when we’re shooting we’ll roll and he doesn’t cut. He lets it roll until it rolls out so we’ll shoot for sometimes – like 10 minutes straight. And sometimes he will yell out lines as we’re rolling, so he’ll kind of rewrite while we’re shooting the scene. And then the actors will shoot a bunch of takes like that. We’ll have like a “free take” where we kind of do whatever we want. But it usually winds up being what’s on the page. Pretty close to it.
Your daughters, Maude and Iris, play your daughters for the third time [after “Knocked Up” and “Funny People”] onscreen.
Do they have any aspirations to maybe play someone else’s daughters someday?
(Laughs) Well…I keep saying that I want them to stay in school and just, you know, have a normal childhood because there’s plenty of time for them to be working when they grow up. But then I talked to Tom Cruise last night—Judd was doing Jimmy Fallon, and Tom Cruise was there. And Tom Cruise kind of disagreed with me and thought that I should let them become actors if they want to. If they’re good and they’re interested in it [he said] I should let them do that. And my daughter Maude was there, who does want to act, and she’s like, “See Mom? I don’t need to stay in school! Tom Cruise said that I should go out and become an actress!” So now I’m not sure what I’m gonna to do.
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage
Directed by: Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy)
Written by: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) and Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”)
Revisiting fanboy-friendly cinematic properties after an extended absence from theaters is always a tricky proposition. On the financial side, it’s an absolute no-brainer: you’re getting more proven product to sell to an already-existing audience. Huge box office numbers are pretty much guaranteed, not to mention sales of any ancillary products that might go along with it. Creatively, however, these endeavors often fail to live up to incredibly high expectations held by fans. I mean, spend a few minutes looking up what the internet at large thinks about “Prometheus,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” or, God help you, the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
See what I mean? Now you understand what any follow-up to director Peter Jackson’s mega-hit “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy has to deal with. Ever since the final film, “The Return of the King,” ended up raking in all the money and Oscars available back in 2003, audiences have been anxiously awaiting an adaptation of the trilogy’s official prequel, J.R.R. Tolkein’s more kid-friendly novel “The Hobbit.” Legal issues tied up the film rights for years, but the wait is over. Jackson’s first film of a new “Hobbit” trilogy, “An Unexpected Journey,” is finally here, for better or worse.
“An Unexpected Journey” begins 60 years before the events of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), happily puttering around his Hobbit hole, is approached by wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) and offered the opportunity to enrich his life by embarking on an adventure. Bilbo politely declines, but, undeterred, Gandalf volunteers the Hobbit anyway. Soon, a pack of Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) arrives at Bilbo’s door demanding food and singing songs. With the help of Gandalf, the Dwarves set out to enlist the reluctant Baggins in their quest to retake their home and treasure from the dragon Smaug.
While none of Peter Jackson’s previous adventures in Middle Earth were known for their brevity, at least those films had three huge books filled with pages and pages of source material to draw from. Not so with “The Hobbit.” Stretching one novel into three epic films is understandably worrisome, and the strain shows from the beginning. Kicking things off with a prologue featuring Ian Holm’s aged Bilbo Baggins writing a letter and Elijah Wood’s Frodo checking the damn mail is an exercise in padding. Plus, the dinner introducing the baker’s dozen of Dwarves is 45 minutes of “get on with it!” Once all of that is out of the way, though, the film slides easily into the groove that turned the “Rings” trilogy into blockbusters. Geared ever-so-slightly to younger audiences, the quest mixes the whimsical, like the goofy wizard with a rabbit-drawn sleigh and a trio of moronic cave trolls, with the terrifying, such as the hook-handed Orc bent on hunting down Thorin or the chilling duel of riddles Bilbo engages in with the pitiful Gollum played by Andy Serkis, once again in top form. By the time the latter scene comes to an end with Bilbo in possession of a familiar golden ring, Jackson’s magic is back in full force. Even the notoriously fickle fanboys should be ready to journey there and back again with the director. Whether he can keep it all going for two more bloated films is the real question.
One technical note: Jackson shot “The Hobbit” in a new format known as HFR, or high frame rate. What it does is double the traditional frame rate of film, 24 frames per second, to 48 frames per second. Select theaters are screening the film in HFR, which is how I saw it, and I can’t recommend this format at all. The difference is stark and distracting to say the least, with a look reminiscent of a cheap soap opera, and ends up unwittingly exposing the fakery of many special effects shots. Avoid HFR.