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Movies: 'Inside Llewyn Davis,' 'Grudge Match' & '47 Ronin'

Published 4:27 pm, Friday, January 10, 2014

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  • The movie, "Inside Llewyn Davis," draws on the folk music scene in early-1960s New York City. Photo: Contributed Photo / Westport News contributed
    The movie, "Inside Llewyn Davis," draws on the folk music scene in early-1960s New York City. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:

"INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS"

Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have concocted a droll, darkly sardonic comedy, pivoting on the sweet desperation of one week in the life of a folksinger in New York's Greenwich Village in 1961.

Ever since he left the Merchant Marines, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) has been trying to earn a living as a musician, but it just isn't working out for him. Homeless, he often sleeps on a sofa at the Garfeins, bohemian academics (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett) who live near Columbia University.

One day, when leaving their apartment, their cat escapes, igniting a series of escapades, leading Llewyn back to MacDougall Street, where he also crashes with Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake) Berkey, but there are alienating complications inherent in that relationship. So, toting his guitar, Llewyn takes off on an ill-fated road trip to Chicago with two strangers (Garrett Hedlund, John Goodman) to audition for a music manager (F. Murray Abraham). As is often the case, it's the journey that's important, not the destination.

The Coen brothers ("True Grit," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") create an irritable, eccentric central character whose choices are relentlessly self-defeating, resulting in unrelenting misery.

Half-Guatemalan/half-Cuban, Miami-raised Isaac is superb as the surly, self-sabotaging misanthropist, revealing a silky voice as he sings soulful songs in the Gaslight Cafe, hoping -- in vain -- for commercial success, as Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography captures winter's frigidity.

The terrific Americana soundtrack, recorded live and produced by T-Bone Burnett, includes "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," "Fare Thee Well," "500 Miles," "The Death of Queen Jane" and an amusing novelty ditty, "Please Mr. Kennedy" -- with nods to the Clancy Brothers, Brooklyn's Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is an enthralling, enlightening 8, evoking Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner's words: "I believe man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among the creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."

"GRUDGE MATCH"

It's a bit misleading to believe that just because 67-year-old Sylvester Stallone and 70-year-old Robert De Niro are sparring in a boxing ring, there's going to be a retirement-age match between Rocky Balboa and Jake "Raging Bull" LaMotta. 'Cause that's not what happens.

Having retired from boxing, Henry "Razor" Sharp (Stallone) works in a steel mill, which helps pay retirement home bills for his curmudgeonly former trainer, Lightning Conlon (Alan Arkin). Razor's perennial Pittsburgh rival, womanizing Billy "The Kid" McDonnen (De Niro), owns a car dealership and a steakhouse, where he continues to milk his fleeting fame in a nightclub act. As light heavyweights, they fought each other twice -- back in the 1980s -- each scoring one victory. But then Razor abruptly -- and inexplicably -- quit boxing, leaving McDonnen yearning for that elusive third battle for the crown.

Cue the fast-talking son of their former promoter, Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart), who cleverly manipulates both men into participating in a video game. Their unexpected brawl during a motion-capture session becomes a viral sensation, leading to a real rematch, which is dubbed "Grudgement Day." Adding emotional complications, the woman who once came between them (Kim Basinger) resurfaces, along with McDonnen's now-grown, illegitimate son (Jon Bernthal), who becomes his trainer.

Screenwriters Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman ("First Kid," "Two and a Half Men") have patched together snippets of cliched nostalgia, mixed with legendary imagery, crudely masquerading as a script.

The flaccid direction of Peter Segal ("Get Smart") encourages both Stallone and De Niro to unabashedly ham it up. And watching these two wrinkled, leathery grandfathers -- who are way past their prime -- strip to the waist, touch gloves and duke it out in a big arena showdown in front of cheering crowds is not only callously cruel but also pathetic. Adding insult to injury, the CGI placement of Stallone and De Niro's youthful faces on other actors' bodies is visually ludicrous.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Grudge Match" flails at a 5 -- with the funniest scenes occurring during the end credits.

"47 RONIN"

When a lavish 3-D fantasy/action feature about legendary samurai bombs in Japan before it has even opened in the U.S., you know there's a problem.

Set in 18th-century feudal Japan, Keanu Reeves plays Kai, a half-English/half-Japanese outsider who is one of the 47 warriors who become masterless samurai, known as "ronin," after villainous Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) forces Lord Asano Naganori (Min Tanaka) to commit seppuku and then claims the land.

Though not accepted by his fellow exiles, mystical Kai was trained in demonic sorcery and survival skills by the earless/noseless snake men in the Tengu forest who, eventually, supply the ronin with swords to avenge the dishonor to their master.

To complicate matters, lowly Kai is secretly in love with Asano's beautiful daughter Mika (Ko Shibasak), who has been promised to top-ranking warrior Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada). Heroic Oishi, Kai and their stoic cohorts must battle not only Kira's army but also menacing CGI beasts and a vampy, shape-shifting sorceress (Rinko Kikuchi), who transforms into a giant snake.

As related in the opening voice-over, the fundamental story is based on a revered historical Japanese legend about disenfranchised samurai, often referred to as "Chushingura," who avenged the death and disgrace of Lord Asano, despite orders from the ruling Shogun not to retaliate.

Formulaically scripted by Chris Morgan ("Fast and Furious 6") and Hossein Amini ("Drive," "Snow White and the Huntsman"), it's directed as a first feature by Carl Rinsch, who built his reputation with high-concept BMW and Heineken TV commercials.

Problem is that it's confusing, poorly paced and mindlessly generic, despite its reportedly bloated $175-plus million budget, which is evident in Jan Roelfs' sumptuous production design and John Mathieson's sweeping cinematography.

The tragic characters are solemn, inscrutable caricatures, offering the audience little emotional investment.

Having directed "Man of Tai Chi" and starred in "The Matrix" franchise, Reeves' affection for Asian martial arts is evident -- but enough is enough.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "47 Ronin" is a dull, faltering 4. Perhaps it's meant to be a video game.