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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

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

“Mr. Peabody and Sherman” (PG)
Starring the voices of Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Allison Janney, Ellie Kemper, Ariel Winter, Leslie Mann, Stanley Tucci
Directed by Rob Minkoff

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” (PG-13)
Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage
Directed by Bryan Singer

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

What's New in Blu? (Week of Oct. 6)

“Edge of Tomorrow” (PG-13)
Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson
Directed by Doug Liman

Science fiction gets a kind of "Groundhog Day" treatment in "Edge of Tomorrow," an action-packed tale of a military officer (Tom Cruise) forced into combat who becomes the key to unlocking the strategy to kill a seemingly unstoppable alien species that has invaded Earth. As Maj. William Cage, Cruise is in fine form, playing a bit against type as a soldier who knows how to sell the public and press on going to war, but not actually fighting in it himself. In fact, when his superior, Gen. Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), orders him to the front lines, Cage doesn't react well and tries to flee. It only gets worse for him from there, as he is later killed almost instantly upon coming face to face with the alien opponents. But then he wakes up, and is right back on base with his new platoon, confused and kind of horrified to realize he has to relive the whole day again.

Having entered into some kind of time loop (don't worry, the movie makes an effort to offer a reasoning behind it that's not quite completely absurd), Cage is forced to live the day over and over in an attempt to finally defeat the aliens. He's assisted by Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt, who, like Cruise, goes against her previous image with good results), a tough-as-nails soldier who happens to understand what is happening to Cage and agrees to help train and ultimately fight alongside him.

A good measure of humor is sprinkled throughout the movie, particularly in the early resets (of which there are many) for Cage, as he slowly realizes what's happening to him. For example, he begins to memorize people's conversations with him, as if he's heard them dozens of times (because he has). It's a good counterpoint to the frequent action sequences that, thanks to strong direction from Doug Liman ("The Bourne Identity"), refrain from getting excessively redundant — a real challenge in a film such as this.
Grade: B+

“Million Dollar Arm” (PG)
Starring Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton, Suraj Sharma, Lake Bell and Alan Arkin
Directed by Craig Gillispie

“A Million Ways to Die in the West” (R)
Starring Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman and Liam Neeson
Directed by Seth MacFarlane

Sunday, September 28, 2014

What's New in Blu? (Week of Sept. 29)

“Chef” (R)
Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Downey Jr.
Directed by Jon Favreau

“Transformers: Age of Extinction” (PG-13)
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammar, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor
Directed by Michael Bay

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What's New in Blu? (Week of Sept. 22)

“Neighbors” (R)
Starring Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Dave Franco
Directed by Nicholas Stoller

A couple somewhat grudgingly moving forward in adulthood and parenthood is faced with a temptation that turns into trouble after a college fraternity moves next door to them in "Neighbors," a frequently funny, occasionally raucous comedy. Someday, perhaps a movie will depict the value and meaningful experiences of being in a fraternity. This is not that movie. But it does take a good concept and has fun with it, even though it overloads on the raunch a bit. Seeing Rogen and Efron face off is pretty much what the movie trailer promises, but Byrne is a real standout in her portrayal as a loving wife and new mom who has no problem mixing it up with the boys. Normally, the wife/girlfriend role in movies like this is left on the sideline to complain and be the voice of reason. The movie does lose steam down the stretch, but delivers the laughs often enough to forgive its shortcomings.
Grade: B+

“The Rover” (R)
Starring Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy
Directed by David Michod

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Movie Review: "They Came Together"

Starring Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Cobie Smulders, Christopher Meloni, Max Greenfield, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Jason Mantzoukas, Melanie Lynskey and Ed Helms
Directed by David Wain

There are some movie genres that seem to be setting themselves up to be skewered — probably none more so than the romantic comedy. That’s the goal of “They Came Together,” which also serves as a practical reunion of the cast of “Wet Hot American Summer,” the 2001 comedy that marked the feature film directorial debut of David Wain.

Here, Wain teams up with longtime friend and collaborator Michael Showalter on a script that is riddled with cliches and occupied with broadly and poorly developed characters. However, that was the filmmakers’ intent, and while the movie definitely generates some legitimate laughs, it never hits the manic, anything-for-a-laugh spirit of spoofs like “Airplane” and “The Naked Gun.” At times, the movie clearly has an aim at ridiculous sight gags and literal interpretation of dialogue that those popular 1980s-era films did, but with sporadic success. It tries to wink at its audience a bit too much, as you practically expect the characters to look into the camera every few minutes.

The cast certainly does all it can to move the very slender story along, with Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler portraying the romantic leads, Joel and Molly, who meet on the way to a Halloween party (where both are dressed as Ben Franklin, naturally), and instantly hate each other. But as the genre dictates, that hate turns to love in fairly quick succession, even as a corporate candy company for which Joel works looks to open up a candy superstore and close down Molly’s little candy shop (Upper Sweet Side) in the process. Will their love survive?

Actually the movie is hardly concerned with the story as anything but a series of scenes in which to hang their jokes. More land than flop, but not by a large margin. Clearly, the cast is on board with the material, as Wain gets an immeasurable amount of help from a strong collection of comedy veterans. (Rudd, in particular, has brought a winning everyman quality to past Wain projects, including “Role Models” and “Wanderlust”).

“They Came Together” ultimately is a bit of a letdown, yet still funny through sheer force of will from its game cast. If it were a candy, you’d probably still eat it, but maybe not buy it again.

Grade: B-
(Rated R for language and sexual content.)

Monday, September 15, 2014

What's New in Blu? (Week of Sept. 15)

“The Fault in Our Stars” (PG-13)
Starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern,Willem Dafoe
Directed by Josh Boone

“Godzilla” (PG-13)
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn, Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins
Directed by Gareth Edwards

“Think Like a Man Too” (PG-13)
Starring Kevin Hart, Gabrielle Union, Michael Ealy, Taraji P. Henson, Meagan Good, Romany Malco
Directed by Tim Story

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.