Friday, December 05, 2014

Austin Film Festival Review: "Wild"

Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffman, Thomas Sadoski, Kevin Rankin, Michiel Huisman, W. Earl Brown
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Director Jean-Marc Vallée struck gold last year (or rather his actors did, as “Dallas Buyers Club” netted gold Oscar statuettes for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto), and it’s certainly possible the star of his newest film, Reese Witherspoon, could do the same come next February. Regardless of her Oscar chances, Witherspoon delivers a layered and emotionally resonant performance in “Wild,” an adptation of the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed. She carries the film for long stretches of its nearly two-hour running time, as she occasionally is the only actor on screen.

As a prior Academy Award winner (portraying another real-life personality as June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line”), Witherspoon has shown the ability to be a focal point of movies. The “Legally Blonde” films demonstrate that very well. But she’s never had to take on such a physical role before, which had to appeal to her as an actress. Indeed, the material itself was obviously attractive to Witherspoon in the first place, as she serves as one of the film’s producers.

The physical aspects of the film center around Strayed’s decision to hike a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, covering the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon up to the Washington state border. A serious hiking challenge for anyone, the journey was complicated by the fact that Strayed, 26 years old at the time, had no prior backpacking experience. Just as Strayed herself likely didn’t, the movie has no problem poking fun at her naiveté on the trail, adding in some unexpected, but welcome, humor along the way.

Adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby, the movie smartly maintains a lot of its focus on the hike, while interspersing Strayed’s journey with flashbacks to what had led her to this moment in time. It allows for shadings on who Strayed was and is to be sprinkled thoughout the story, including interactions with her mother (passionately portrayed by Laura Dern) and her ex-husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski).

The movie doesn’t whitewash Strayed’s troubled past, but doesn’t linger on it, either. Witherspoon finds the humanity and determination in Strayed’s journey towards self-discovery, but avoids the temptation of making her a symbolic role model. In fact, there are times during the movie you probably won’t even like Strayed, as she makes some self-destructive decisions that could have ruined her life.

“Wild” is frequently beautiful to look at, as Vallée and his cinematographer Yves Bélanger capture the beauty and seemingly endless landscapes of parts of the Pacific Northwest. And good luck getting Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” out of your head after the movie, as strains of it play frequently. I saw the film more than six weeks ago, and I still have it rattling around in my brain, much like Witherspoon’s performance.

Grade: A-

(Rated R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language. Now playing in select cities and opens wider throughout December and January.)

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Austin Film Festival Review: "Dawn Patrol"

Starring Scott Eastwood, Rita Wilson, Jeff Fahey, Kim Matula, Dendrie Taylor, Chris Brochu, Julie Carmen
Directed by Daniel Petrie Jr.

A film that was launched at the Austin Film Festival (the screenplay originated out of a competition at the 2008 event), “Dawn Patrol” is an absolute mess, with stilted dialogue, despicable characters and some surprisingly terrible acting.

As part of a large audience watching its world premiere at the festival, I kept holding out hope that the very rocky start the film gets off to would eventually improve. It didn’t. In fact, it only got worse and more preposterous as the story lumbered forward.

Eastwood (son of Clint) stars as John, a surfer and general beach bum (much like his entire family), who seeks to avenge his brother’s death with predictably negative results. The film opens with John, now a Marine, driving an unidentified passenger to a location out in the desert while a gun is pointed at his head. He sets out to recount his story to the passenger of how they both arrived at this point in time, setting the film on what is primarily a long flashback.

Although John’s brother is portrayed as such a great surfer in the film, he generally seems like such a terrible person, you hardly feel for the family when he’s found dead by his brother one day on the beach. Maybe that was the film’s intent. Who knows? In fact, Eastwood’s character is probably the only one who isn’t drawn like a cliche or a cartoon. The performances of Rita Wilson (as the brothers’ self-absorbed, pot-smoking mom) and Kim Matula (as the dead brother’s on-again, off-again girlfriend) give particularly grating performances. On more than one occasion, the film generated unintentional laughter, such as after a logic-challenging sex scene involving the girlfriend and John in a bank-foreclosed beach house.

So for those looking for a few cheap laughs from an intended drama, “Dawn Patrol” might be worth catching a wave. But for the most part, it’s just a wipeout.

Grade: F
(The film has not yet been rated. Set for release Feb. 6, 2015.)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Austin Film Festival review: “That Which I Love Destroys Me”

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

Taking a heavy topic such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could have been delivered in a sledgehammer approach with countless talking heads and statistics. But to director Ric Roman Waugh’s credit, he keeps the focus on two very well-spoken veterans and their very personal struggles with the disorder. Both special operations soldiers, Tyler Grey and Jayson Floyd relate their stories in a powerful and, at times, devastatingly personal manner.

Waugh wisely restrains from sensationalizing their stories or dressing it up with emotional music, as he recognizes the power of the material comes straight from the soldiers’ mouths, as they document their time as active military and the struggles they faced after their time on the battlefield ended.

It’s a well-filmed documentary that doesn’t exploit its subjects even as they both lay bare their soul. It simply provides a tableau on which to share how PTSD can impact people and how help is out there for those willing to seek it.

Waugh, Grey and Floyd were all on hand at the festival screening, as well as a post-film Q&A, and were greeted with well-deserved standing ovations.

Grade: A-

(This film has no rating.)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Austin Film Festival Recap

Getting the opportunity to recently drop (clap, clap, clap, clap) deep in the heart of Texas, I attended several screenings at the Austin Film Festival. The annual fall event is one of roughly a gazillion festivals the capital city has every year, but as a multiple time visitor to it, I enjoy the film fest’s laid-back vibe and well organized band of volunteers that keep movie industry insiders — both current and prospective — coming back year after year.

But the ultimate success of any film festival is largely judged on the quality of the lineup, and this year’s batch of films was not quite a knockout in high-profile features. Still, there’s was certainly a little something for everybody, and I made sure to take in a wide ranging mix of films — including a musical, a documentary on posttraumatic stress disorder and a comedy about four adults trying to recapture their youth in a night on the town.

Here’s an admittedly belated back at my viewing schedule, sans the inevitable waiting in lines that permeate festivals. These will come in a series of posts over the coming days, with a review of "The Last Five Years" kicking things off.

“The Last Five Years”

Starring Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan
Directed by Richard LaGravanese

Based on a stage musical of the same name by Jason Robert Brown, “The Last Five Years” is pretty much wall-to-wall music with the two main characters (who are frequently the only people onscreen) singing about their respective views on a five-year relationship. It’s no spoiler alert for me to mention that the relationship is a failed one, with struggling actress Cathy (Anna Kendrick) lamenting the end of it in the film’s very first scene. Naturally, she and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), a budding novelist, have a different perspective on their years together and why it failed.

Dialogue in the film is a bare minimum, and your toleration for the material will largely rest on how well you can handle hearing constant singing from two quite self-absorbed characters. To their credit, Kendrick (in her second big singing role after “Pitch Perfect”) and Jordan fill their roles well, yet can’t quite make their characters likable enough to want to spend 90 minutes with.

With the exception of Kendrick’s opening number, most of the musical numbers are in a loud, reaching-for-the-balcony-style that become a bit overwhelming as the running time stretches on. But at least it’s not a brain dead cliche-riddled romantic comedy — faint praise as that may be.

Grade: C

(The film has not yet been rated. Set for release Feb. 13, 2015.)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Movie Review: "Birdman"

Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu

Operating in a highly ambitious structure almost unheard of (Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” is a very rare example), Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s darkly funny and expertly crafted “Birdman” is a film in which choreography is so essential, yet nary a dance step is performed.

Michael Keaton, who rises to the high quality of the material, stars as Riggan Thomson, a struggling actor seeking a professional resurgence by adapting, directing and starring in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. Having long since left behind his role in Birdman, a popular superhero franchise, Thomson sees the play as a go-for-broke chance to validate what’s left of his career and bring him back into relevance.

He’s hardly helped by a mess of a personal life, what with an ex-wife (Amy Ryan), a potentially pregnant co-star in the production he’s sleeping with (Andrea Riseborough) and a temperamental personal assistant who also happens to be his fresh out of rehab daughter (Emma Stone, in a standout performance). That’s to say nothing of the very disruptive voice of Birdman that only he hears, which might be signaling his gradual loss of sanity.

The aforementioned choreography doesn’t come specifically from scenes in the play, although several are dramatized in rehearsals, disastrous preview performances and opening night. Instead, the superb craftsmanship of “Birdman” is a result of its meticulously planned and executed filming style that incorporates long, unbroken takes — a challenging demand for any actor. That complexity is magnified here, as the camera swings, swoops and glides, seemingly following the cast inside every square inch of the theater, as well as numerous locations outside. It’s a bold filming decision, but one that avoids being unnecessarily showy. In fact, it seems to aid in the storytelling, as the characters cross paths in hallways, dressing rooms, backstage and even the rooftop.

The casting of Keaton (whose past experience as Batman brings a knowing wink to the proceedings) is inspired, as the recently underutilized actor digs deep into his role as a bit of a jerk and admittedly bad father who is willing to risk everything to resurrect his career. The rest of the supporting cast shines, particularly Edward Norton as a self-aggrandizing stage actor, and Zach Galiafianakis, as Riggan’s manager, who is struggling to keep his client and friend together as the production’s opening night approaches.

Innaritu’s past films (“21 Grams” and “Babel,” among them) have generally been humorless affairs that explored the depths of human emotions. “Birdman” definitely also has its moments of intense emotional exploration, but does so in a generally lighter tone that lifts the material to heights Innaritu has formerly never reached. It’s a film that has lofty ambitions and reaches them without seemingly breaking a sweat.

Grade: A

(Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence.)

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Movie Review: "Begin Again"

Starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, James Corden, Cee Lo Green
Directed by John Carney

While not quite a musical, the perfectly pleasant comedy-drama “Begin Again” certainly is packed full of music. But that’s no surprise when you consider the writer-director is John Carney, who made a splash with audiences and critics with 2006’s wonderful “Once.” That film focused on a singer-songwriter who falls in love with a working-class girl as he hopes to land a music contract.

“Begin Again” involves a singer-songwriter and a music executive who is determined to help the musician make a mark in the industry. So see, totally different movies, right? Actually, the prevalence of the music in both films is one of the few elements they share in common, as “Once” is mostly a two-person love story set in Dublin. “Begin Again” paints its tableau in New York City (used to great effect by Carney and cinematographer Yaron Orbach), and uses a much bigger cast filled with notable names carrying connections in music (Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green) and out (Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley).

Ruffalo plays Dan, a disillusioned music executive who is fired from the very record label he founded. By that night, he drunkenly stumbles into a bar and hears Gretta (Knightley, who proves she can sing quite nicely) performing a song about heartbreak. Dan is impressed, and in her sees a chance to recapture a long dormant love for his job. Gretta, meanwhile, is ready to go back to her home in England after a bad breakup with her boyfriend (Levine). She tells Dan she has no aspirations for stardom, and is much more comfortable as a writer than a performer.

Naturally, Dan is able to woo her into working with him (otherwise there’d be no story), and sets out to record an album using the great outdoors as their studio. There are a lot of great sequences of the two, along with their assembled band, performing in various locales (Central Park, a subway platform, building rooftop) that capture a sense of creativity and fun in making music.

Although hardly an in-depth character study of two troubled souls, Carney’s screenplay gives his actors room to explore and emote, and Ruffalo and Knightley carry the material very well, with the always dependable Catherine Keener (as Dan’s ex-wife) offering solid support. Sure, the film’s ultimately a bit of a trifle, but it sure sounds good while it plays — and it’s not too shabby of a travelogue for NYC, either.

Grade: B+

(Rated R for language.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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

“Earth to Echo” (PG)
Starring Teo Halm, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Reese Hartwig, Ella Wahlestedt, Jason Gray-Stanford
Directed by Dave Green

“The Purge: Anarchy” (R)
Starring Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Zoe Soul, Justina Machado
Directed by James DeMonaco

“Sex Tape” (R)
Starring Jason Segel, Cameron Diaz, Rob Corddry, Ellie Kemper, Rob Lowe, Jack Black
Directed by Jake Kasdan