It's only a week until the start of the summer blockbuster season (which is detailed in The Cricket's big Summer Movie Preview, out today).
To get ready, Hollywood is purging itself of its remaindered merchandise this weekend.
First movie in the clearance bin is "Pain & Gain," a hideous and reprehensible "comedy" directed by Michael Bay, who is to comedy what a flame thrower is to lawn care. This crime tale, based on a horrific real case, follows three Miami bodybuilders (Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie) who carry out a kidnapping and extortion scheme on a fast-food mogul (Tony Shalhoub), with disastrous results. Bay directs with his usual sledgehammer subtlety, killing whatever "humor" could be gleaned from such a nasty scenario and awful characters.
Nearly as bad is "The Big Wedding," an overstuffed ensemble comedy based on a French farce. Robert De Niro and Diane Keaton star as a divorced couple who must fake still being married during the wedding of their adopted son (Ben Barnes), because the son's devoutly Catholic biological mother (Patricia Rae) is flying up from Colombia for the ceremony. The cast which includes Amanda Seyfried (as the bride), Susan Sarandon (as De Niro's current girlfriend), and Katherine Heigl and Topher Grace as De Niro and Keaton's other kids are waylaid by hamfisted direction and plot "twists" you can see a mile off.
Meanwhile, there's a hodgepodge of specialty films opening today in Utah theaters.
Best of the lot is "Mud," writer-director Jeff Nichols' follow-up to his Sundance hit "Take Shelter." This time, the story is set on a rural Arkansas river, where two teens (Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland) find an island where a boat is stuck up a tree. They also find a man, named Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a fugitive who has returned to get his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). The boys agree to help Mud fix up the boat and get Juniper back, but they soon learn that Mud's stories and the course of true love aren't as simple as they believe. This riveting drama is helped by the authentic setting, and powerful performances by McConaughey and Sheridan.
Robert Redford is back in the director's chair, and on the screen, in "The Company You Keep," which has the makings of a chase thriller but is really a thoughtful (and, yes, a tad slow) drama about ideals and regret. Redford plays a small-town lawyer with a big secret: He's been hiding out for 30 years as a former member of the Weather Underground. When an ambitious young reporter (Shia Labeouf) exposes that secret, Redford's character has to hit the road, avoiding the Feds while trying to clear his name. A wealth of character actors (including Nick Nolte, Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Stanley Tucci and, again, Susan Sarandon) back up Redford, allowing some sharply written scenes that explore the big issues of radicalism, tactics and philosophy.
Also worthwhile is "From Up on Poppy Hill," the latest animated tale from Japan's Studio Ghibli. This one is a sweet memory play, set in Yokohama just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when the nation is rebuilding and modernizing after World War II. The story centers on Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger), a teen dealing with the loss of her father, and finding first love in Shun (voiced by Anton Yelchin), a classmate campaigning to save the school's rundown clubhouse. The movie doesn't have the surreal fantastical elements one usually sees in a Ghibli film, but it's tenderly rendered with dollops of humor.
"Filly Brown," a holdover from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, marks the acting debut of Mexican singer Jenni Rivera, who died in a plane crash last December. Rivera plays the imprisoned mother of the lead character, Majo (Gina Rodriguez), who wants to make it big as a rapper. The script is overly melodramatic, but Rodriguez' fiery performance is worth a look.
"Disconnect" links several stories of technology distancing people including a teen (Jonah Bobo) affected by cyber pranksters, a reporter (Andrea Riseborough) meeting a sex-website hustler (Max Thieriot), and a couple (Alexander Skarsgard, Paula Patton) hit by an identity thief. The storylines are weakly plotted, the dialogue comes straight out of an afterschool special, and the message lands with a thud.
Lastly, there's the comedy-drama "Arthur Newman," starring Colin Firth as a man who escapes his family life by faking his death and starting over with a someone else's identity in the United States. The Cricket didn't get a chance to review this one.