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UNFINISHED SONG

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C

If it weren’t for stars Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave, “Unfinished Song”—originally titled “Song for Marion”—would be pure sentimental claptrap. With them it’s still that, but they’re such formidable personalities that they almost make it worth watching from sheer force of will.

Redgrave plays Marion, the angelic, terminally ill wife of gruff retiree Arthur (Stamp). Though frail, she’s devoted to singing in the neighborhood’s chorus of elderly folk that their ebullient young director Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton) has dubbed the OAPs, or Old Age Pensioners. Since the normally brusque Arthur is equally devoted to her, he takes her to the group’s rehearsals, though he thinks the whole business a lot of nonsense and waits outside, smoking, to escort her home afterward.

Elizabeth has also decided to enroll the OAPs in a choral contest for which they learn a new repertoire—predictably, a bunch of rock songs that play on the cuteness factor of oldsters singing them. At the outdoor recital where they’ll be judged as to whether they’ll be counted among the finalists—and go on to the concluding round—Marion is also given a solo, a slow rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” which also serves as a valedictory statement of her love for Arthur, who stands morosely among the crowd of well-wishers. Naturally the OAPs will advance to the final round.

But it will be without Marion, who expires shortly thereafter, to Arthur’s enormous pain. Her death doesn’t even manage to bring the taciturn widower back to an emotional connection with his estranged son James (Christopher Eccleston), a single dad to the adorable Jennifer (Orla Hill), who’s angry that Arthur showed no affection for him over the years. But it does lead Arthur to approach Elizabeth about joining the OAPs, revealing a fine voice that will lead to his being assigned a solo in the finals, a number that will serve as a posthumous love letter to his beloved Marion.

Of course, that’s the stripped-down version of the scenario that writer-director Paul Andrew Williams has concocted. There are complications that arise in the last act to threaten the group’s participation in the concluding contest, of course. And throughout there are moments designed to highlight the darling character of the other chorus members, who are frankly employed as ever-so-cute props in a virtual paean to the lovability of oldsters. There’s even an odd, intrusive episode in which Elizabeth approaches Arthur for comfort after she’s dumped by her boyfriend. (Happily, that isn’t taken very far.) And it goes without saying that Arthur and James enjoy a rapprochement.

It’s all terribly predictable (even if a connection between James and Elizabeth, which one might have expected, doesn’t occur)—a manipulative assemblage of tear-jerking clichés that doesn’t so much strain credulity as shatter it completely. But it has Stamp and Redgrave, who play Marion and Arthur with such conviction that one almost buys into it. She brings her patented sense of ethereal fragility to the mix, and he’s fine as the sullen, taciturn man who can show love only to her, until she’s gone—at which point he begins to flower, even if only inwardly. It’s a perfect example of how trite, second-rate material can be elevated by a couple of canny veterans whom an audience will automatically be rooting for. And both milk their solos for all they’re worth—which is quite a lot.

Otherwise “Unfinished Song” offers only meager rewards. Neither Arterton nor Eccleston brings much to the party, the supporting oldsters are mostly treated as comic caricatures, and in visual terms the picture is no better than average, with Carlos Catalan’s cinematography capturing the lower-middle-class British ambience but never evincing any imagination.

Older viewers may be moved by the saccharine contrivances of “Unfinished Song,” and everyone can appreciate the wealth of experience and expert timing the leads bring to these weakly-written characters. As an acting lesson, the picture has something to offer. But not much else.

THIS IS THE END

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C

You have to give Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg credit for taking on the Rapture, and unlike Michael Tolkin (in his eponymous 1991 film) sending up not the chosen believers to heaven but the religious concept itself. By the standards of today’s Hollywood comedies, that’s pretty audacious. It’s a pity that their approach is less sharp-edged satire than frat-boy goofiness.

At root “This Is the End,” an expansion of a short that Rogen made years ago with his buddy Jay Baruchel, is very much an in-joke vanity project in which a passel of young actors who’ve been staples in the Apatow-inspired stream of slob comedies play what one hopes are skewered versions of themselves. They’re all enjoying a big bash at James Franco’s modernistic new house when Armageddon hits: good people are sucked up into the skies and not-so-good ones either fall into blazing sinkholes that open up on the lawn and drag them down to Hades, or are left to fend for themselves in a highly inhospitable environment.

Among the guests who perish in the initial onslaught is Michael Cera, who must have had fun playing against type as coke-sniffing doofus with a distinctly ungentlemanly attitude toward the ladies. But a number of survivors take refuge with Franco. There’s Rogen, along with Baruchel, who’s been visiting his friend in L.A. and has been dragged reluctantly to the party after an afternoon of video games and drug-taking at Seth’s place. Joining them are Jonah Hill, whose creepily uptight friendliness may be nothing more than a façade, and Craig Robinson, the prototypical gregarious party guy. They fortify the place as best they can against demons and marauders outside and squabble over how to divide the food on hand, while lapsing into weirdly sophomoric reveries about their fate. And a couple of visitors happen by: Emma Watson, who departs quickly after becoming irate over what the guys might have in mind for her (she wields something a bit more dangerous than a magic wand in escaping), and Danny McBride, a self-centered boor who intrudes on everything and everybody.

The movie isn’t much more than a series of sketches with a loose, improvisatory air, though some—an exorcism scene after one of the guys is possessed and a big finale that finds some of them transported to a paradise that has more to do with a stoner’s surrealistic fantasies than anything else—are more fully developed. The humor is relentlessly crude and the gags unremittingly vulgar, in line with modern taste (or lack thereof), with a penis-centered emphasis that’s totally in line with these guys’ cinematic repertoire. The self-mocking never cuts very deep, being pretty much limited to mild jibes about cinematic missteps (“The Green Hornet” and “Young Highness” both get well-deserved put-downs, while a riff on a possible “Pineapple Express” sequel has a pot-induced feel and a passerby’s early quip about Rogen never playing anybody but himself is doubly true given the context). Of the characterizations, only Cera’s and Hill’s possess any real comic bite, but McBride certainly comes across as a loathsome creep—the problem is that his pugnacious nastiness isn’t remotely funny. A few other members of the usual crew—like Jason Segel, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Paul Rudd, Rihanna and Mindy Kaling—show up briefly, though their appearances don’t add much beyond a “Where’s Waldo” sort of kick.

“This Is the End” boasts lots of special effects, all deliberately cheesy and most emphasizing the movie’s sex-driven motifs, with the huge devil with what appears to be a massive hard-on in the finale the most obvious example. They all fit in with the scattershot, haphazard quality of this adolescent end-of-days farrago, which seems perfectly suited to midnight screenings for well-stoked audiences. If you come to it with a clear head (or a few years on its cast), though, you’ll probably think that it was a lot more fun to make than it is to watch.

For a truly edgy apocalyptic satire one still has to go back nearly half a century to “Dr. Strangelove.” No Rapture, and no penis or masturbation jokes, to be sure, but a lot more wit.