Saturday, September 13, 2014

Movie Review: "Under the Skin"

Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay
Directed by Jonathan Glazer

Aliens have long been a subject of fascination in movies — some lovable (“E.T.”), some hideous (the “Alien” series), but almost always interesting. However, as “Under the Skin” makes abundantly clear, they can also be boring. That’s not really meant to be a knock on Scarlett Johansson, who plays an alien inhabiting the body of a woman on the prowl for men in Scotland. She frankly doesn’t have a very dynamic character to portray here, which I’m sure is part of the point in the script by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer (who also directs). But it sure doesn’t make for compelling viewing when long stretches of the film unfold in general silence with little to no action.

Glazer, who has been out of the movie scene for nearly a decade, made his very promising film directing debut in 2000 with the crime drama “Sexy Beast.” He’s not a filmmaker afraid to take chances, and with “Under the Skin,” an amalgamation of science fiction and horror, is able to occasionally generate a sense of uneasiness and dread. A scene involving a family at the beach with Johansson’s emotionally detached character watching a terrible series of events unfold is a perfect example of Glazer’s skill.

Bateman stars as Guy Trilby (who is employed as a proofreader), an admitted underachiever in education, having never advanced beyond the eighth grade. He uses that schooling deficiency to exploit a loophole in the rules of the National Quill Spelling Bee, allowing him to compete against children generally a quarter of his age. His participation doesn’t sit well with anyone, be it parents, the spelling bee officials or the competitors themselves. But Trilby doesn’t care. Instead, he responds to everyone with a sharp tongue and is exceptionally quick with insults. That acerbic wit is aimed at adults and children alike, with the script by Andrew Dodge generating laughter frequently, although you might feel a bit guilty along the way. Case in point: Trilby’s devious new use for a ketchup packet.

That said, the story’s driving action — as thin as it is — doesn’t generate much excitement and is too redundant. Much of the alien’s activities involve driving the Scottish countryside, picking up single men and taking them back to her place, where they meet their ultimate demise. How this happens is a creepily effective conceit in which nary a drop of blood is spilled, with the viewer left to speculate what exactly is the overall goal of the aliens. Johansson’s outer space visitor, like all characters in the film, is unnamed, but it seems clear she isn’t the lone alien in Scotland.

There are some memorable visuals and at times the film’s soundtrack is effectively haunting, which leads me to understand why Johansson would be attracted to being involved in a project that’s far away from the big-budget and high-profile “Avengers” world. Still, the movie’s rhythm is sometimes just off-putting, while the languid pace becomes a very difficult hurdle to overcome. Clearly, it’s a movie built much more on atmosphere than action. While that approach might work for an undisputed sci-fi masterpiece such as “2001,” “Under the Skin” is ultimately too bleak and cold around the heart to care much for what transpires.

Grade: C-
(Rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language.)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Movie Review: "Bad Words"

Starring Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Rohan Chand, Ben Falcone, Philip Baker Hall and Allison Janney
Directed by Jason Bateman

There’s a well known quote, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” That’s especially true when it comes to dark comedies, as they can easily push the limits of good taste right over a cliff. To the credit of Jason Bateman, making his directorial debut in “Bad Words,” he occasionally comes close to the edge but consistently finds a way to avert disaster.

Having built up a filmography in recent years of playing generally decent and well-intentioned guys on TV in “Arrested Development” and in movies such as “Identity Thief” and “Horrible Bosses,” it’s a little bit of a shock to see Bateman portray such a jerk in “Bad Words.” He is a funny jerk, though, so he’s got that going for him. That actually helps keep the audience on his side, which is imperative when your character is a 40-year-old man looking to defeat young children in spelling bees — by any means necessary. As the movie slowly reveals, that dogged and seemingly misguided determination in his character is more driven by hurt, rather than mean-spiritedness.

Bateman stars as Guy Trilby (who is employed as a proofreader), an admitted underachiever in education, having never advanced beyond the eighth grade. He uses that schooling deficiency to exploit a loophole in the rules of the National Quill Spelling Bee, allowing him to compete against children generally a quarter of his age. His participation doesn’t sit well with anyone, be it parents, the spelling bee officials or the competitors themselves. But Trilby doesn’t care. Instead, he responds to everyone with a sharp tongue and is exceptionally quick with insults. That acerbic wit is aimed at adults and children alike, with the script by Andrew Dodge generating laughter frequently, although you might feel a bit guilty along the way. Case in point: Trilby’s devious new use for a ketchup packet.

One reporter (Kathryn Hahn) serves as a media sponsor for Trilby as he makes his way through the regional bees to reach the national competition, with the hopes of getting a story as to why he’s so determined to win. He even grudgingly — actually, make that very grudgingly — befriends a lonely 10-year-old competitor (Rohan Chand, in a winning performance), who is exceedingly cheerful and in desperate need of a friend.

Setting much of the action in the world of competitive spelling bees filled with overbearing parents and stuffy, egotistical competition officials makes for some easy and predictable comedic targets. The movie does a better job of setting up the pins than knocking them down, with the story’s seemingly black heart lightening up down the stretch. Still, it never turns into a maudlin affair that tries to make its lead character learn the error of his ways. In Trilby’s world, there’s no time for apologies, even if it means crushing a bunch of middle schoolers’ dreams.

Grade: B+
(Rated R for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity.)

Sunday, September 07, 2014

What's New in Blu? (Week of Sept. 8)

“Brick Mansions” (R)
Starring Paul Walker, David Belle, RZA, Gouchy Boy, Catalina Denis
Directed by Camille Delamarre

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (PG-13)
Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

“Words and Pictures” (PG-13)
Starring Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Bruce Davison, Navid Negahban, Amy Brenneman
Directed by Fred Schepisi

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Movie Review: "Boyhood"

Starring Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater and Ethan Hawke
Directed by Richard Linklater

Richard Linklater has never been a filmmaker afraid to take chances, be it using rotoscoping animation techniques throughout entire movies (“Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly”) or crafting a romantic drama that’s played out over three productions and nearly 20 years (the “Before” trilogy). In fact, the latter movies likely were a precursor to his decision to film his latest creation, “Boyhood,” over a 12-year period.

Focused on a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) between the ages of 6-18, Linklater’s family drama — which he also wrote — demonstrates the power of a story simply told. It’s a film devoid of car chases, explosions, tearjerking tragedies or credibility-straining situations. It’s life played out over the passage of time, and how a family develops, changes and learns about one another.

That’s not saying that it’s all love and happiness in this family’s household. By the time the film opens, the parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke — a frequent Linklater collaborator) have already divorced, with Mom forced to provide for herself, 6-year-old Mason and 8-year-old Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Her struggles in navigating single parenthood are played out in a number of early telling scenes (arguing with a boyfriend about putting her kids before him, and the need to move to further her education).

After an extended time away from his children, Mason Sr. comes back into the picture as the seemingly responsibility-eschewing father who gets to whisk the kids away every other weekend to have fun at the bowling alley and baseball games. In the early scenes with Mason Sr., you feel you have the character pegged. But much like Linklater does with many of the people populating the movie, you see how time can change perceptions.

Many movies have offered slice-of-life vignettes on growing up in certain time periods. Some have spent time with characters over a summer or fast forwarded their lives as youngsters to adults. But I can’t think of any that have demonstrated the patience and perception that “Boyhood” has documenting the mix of pleasure and pain of growing up. That doesn’t just apply to the kids in this one.

Clearly, a movie that doesn’t have action sequences or a big budget to rely on, is rather dependent on a great script and performances to match. To its credit, “Boyhood” is strong in both areas. So many scenes play out with a deft ear for dialogue and the way most people converse with one another, you begin to wonder if some of them were biographical. Both kids, who grow up on screen before your eyes, never make you think you’re watching actors playing siblings. You believe it, particularly with the focused gaze of Coltrane in the central role as Mason. His character is not a big talker, but is definitely taking in his surroundings at all times. Arquette, who many may know from her role on the former NBC drama “Medium,” hits new heights as a mother doing the best she can for her children. Hawke takes what could have been a potentially cliched role and adds real depth.

Even though the movie clocks in at 165 minutes, it’s time you’re glad to have spent with this family. And there's no doubt it will make you think about time with your own family in the process.

Grade: A
(Rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use.)

The long wait is over

First off, 2011? That was when I last made an update to this blog? Wow, that's awful! I promise I didn't swear off my love of movies during that time. Clearly, I just got forgetful (and lazy). Well, that's about to change, as I'm bringing the updates back — hopefully on a much more consistent basis. Of course, who are we kidding? Any updates would be better than a nearly three-year drought that is now coming to an end.

As before, I plan to get some reviews cranking up, along with Blu-ray release roundups. I add trailers to the list of notable releases, because frankly the trailers are effective means to determine the value of a movie. In many cases, they are better than the finished product. Some movies reviewed will be new and some will be old, with an emphasis on smaller flicks that have flown under the radar of most movie watchers. That said, I can promise you some will have deserved to be overlooked, while others are hidden gems that deserve your time and attention.

OK, enough yapping from me ... I've got some updates to tackle.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

What's New in Blu? (Week of Dec. 20)

“Dolphin Tale” (PG)
Starring Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Nathan Gamble, Kris Kristofferson, Cozi Zuehlsdorff and Morgan Freeman
Directed by Charles Martin Smith

“Margin Call” (R)
Starring Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore and Stanley Tucci
Directed by JC Chandor

“Midnight in Paris” (PG-13)
Starring Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Carla Bruni, Marion Cottilard, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen, Owen Wilson
Directed by Woody Allen

“Straw Dogs” (R)
Starring James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skaarsgard, Dominic Purcell, Laz Alonso, Willa Holland and James Woods
Directed by Rod Lurie

“Warrior” (PG-13)
Starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo and Nick Nolte
Directed by Gavin O’Connor

Sunday, December 11, 2011

What's New in Blu? (Week of Dec. 13)

“City of God” (R)
Starring Alexandre Rodrigues, Matheus Nathergaele, Leandro Firmino
Directed by Fernando Meirelles

With the Olympics coming to Brazil in 2016, it’s safe to say this movie won’t be promoted by the country’s board of tourism, as it tells a tale of crime and poverty in a particularly violent suburb over parts of three decades. Adapted from a novel by Paulo Lins, director Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama pulsates with energy and eye-catching visuals.

It features a cast mostly made up of local Brazilians, some from the very neighborhoods where the filming takes place. It could be seen, in part, as a Brazilian version of “Goodfellas.” But the locale itself differentiates it from that Oscar winner, producing a rare glimpse into making tough life choices when the options and opportunities are scarce.
Grade: A

“Fright Night” (R)
Starring Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, David Tennant and Toni Collette
Directed by Craig Gilespie

“Kung Fu Panda 2” (PG)
Starring the voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross
Directed by Jennifer Yuh

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (PG-13)
Starring James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, Andy Serkis
Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Movie review: "The Descendants"

Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Judy Greer
Directed by Alexander Payne

First off, Alexander Payne should make movies more often. Seven years since winning an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for “Sideways,” the writer-director has finally made his follow-up. And much like the great 2004 comedy-drama following a pair of men on a road trip into California’s wine country, “The Descendants” takes viewers on another journey of discovery that mixes laughs in with serious domestic upheaval.

Matt King (George Clooney), a workaholic lawyer in Hawaii, finds himself faced with some mighty big dilemmas as the story begins. His wife has fallen into a coma after a tragic speedboat crash, leaving him with the task of stepping up as a father to their two children: Scotti (Amara Miller), a 10-year-old with attitude to spare, and 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), who is just barely able to keep her anger and disappointment in her parents under the surface.

Learning early on from doctors that his wife’s condition will not improve, Matt goes to retrieve Alexandra from boarding school (finding her there drunk), and sets out with his children to break the bad news to family and friends. The painful process for Matt is unexpectedly complicated when he learns his wife was in the midst of an affair prior to her accident, setting him off on an obsessive hunt to discover who she was involved with.

As if his domestic drama wasn’t enough, a big decision was already weighing on Matt’s mind before his wife’s accident, involving the potential sale of 25,000 acres of prime real estate on one of the islands. As the primary beneficiary, Matt holds all the cards as to whether his family (including a large assortment of cousins) makes off like bandits by selling the pristine property to real estate developers. It’s a burden he probably could have done without at this exact point in his life.

Like Payne’s prior efforts, “The Descendants” moves at a relaxed pace, allowing time for the personalities and intentions of the characters to emerge. Clooney, leaving his almost trademarked charm at the door, strikes the right cord with a performance that could have easily veered off into scenery chewing, given the complexity of emotions required for his character. He’s matched consistently by Woodley (a newcomer to movies) as the eldest daughter, swimming through resentment at her mother and a wary skepticism of her father being able to keep their family unit together.

Balancing a steady dose of comedic moments with tragic drama isn’t easy to pull off. Most movies fail in this regard, lapsing into cheap sentiment and melodrama. But “The Descendants” finds a comfortable balance that manages to surprise at times, remaining effectively funny and moving, while staying true to the flawed nature of the characters.

Grade: A
(Rated R for language including some sexual references.)