‘White Bird in a Blizzard’
**1/2 (out of four)
Shailene Woodley (“The Spectacular Now”) is just so good. She’s always present in the scene; you don’t want to take your eyes off of her.
That helps compensate for some of the narrative bumps in “White Bird in a Blizzard,” adapted by writer-director Gregg Araki from Laura Kasische’s novel. The movie opens on 17-year-old Kat (Woodley) discovering her mom (a breathy, effectively odd Eva Green) zonked out in Kat’s bed. She’s dressed up and acting bizarrely, something that can be considered a regular occasion before mom disappears. Dad (nicely subdued Christopher Meloni) hangs missing posters; Kat’s concern can’t diminish her attraction to the detective (Thomas Jane) on the case.
Much of “White Bird in a Blizzard” feels stuck in neutral. Kat talks to a therapist (Angela Bassett). She gabs about sex with her pals (including Gabourey Sidibe) and wonders why her boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) doesn’t want to sleep with her anymore. It’s all circling the long-challenging relationship between Kat and her mother, who years earlier told her daughter, “God, you’re getting fatter by the hour.”
But no matter how many times it generates laughs from Phil’s stupidity (he thinks the expression is “cut him some slacks”) or, uh, makes Kat’s breasts a key point of emphasis, “White Bird in a Blizzard” (which contains an absurd, out-of-nowhere ending) seems distant. It’s not as a means to emphasize Kat’s occasional feeling of being an actress playing herself. And there’s only so much Woodley can do when the film only scratches the surface of a young woman who’s equally haunted when asleep and awake. -- Matt Pais, RedEye
Christopher Meloni on "White Bird in a Blizzard" director Gregg Araki.
The actress explains her interest in working with the "White Bird in a Blizzard" director at the film's Sundance premiere.
More from Shailene Woodley on the appeal of "White Bird in a Blizzard."
Gabourey Sidibe on a major, secret moment in "White Bird in a Blizzard."
Shailene Woodley on filming out of sequence.
Barrington native "Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead" costar Jocelyn DeBoer tells a joke.
When did "Happy Christmas" costar Mark Webber stop thinking a gig is a gig is a gig is a gig?
** (out of four)
When “Rudderless” begins with Josh (Miles Heizer of “Parenthood”) unhappily writing music in his dorm room, you think you could be watching an episode of “Parenthood.” Later, when Josh’s dad Sam (Billy Crudup) passes off the songs Josh wrote as his, you think you’re watching the episode of “Nashville” when Gunnar did the same with songs his brother wrote.
The important distinction is what happens in between. Josh dies in a campus shooting, and the way co-writer/first-time director William H. Macy withholds relevant information about the incident is hard to justify. He plays coy with a major plot point, selling out credibility for the sake of a twist when coming clean from the start would have been bolder. (Note: A film from 2011 explored these issues more appropriately, but identifying which one would be a spoiler.)
“Rudderless” does feature a great turn from Crudup and some really fantastic music, performed by a band that includes Anton Yelchin (as nuisance-turned-friend Quentin) and musician Ben Kweller as the bass player Quentin very deliberately runs into--hoping Sam will want to recruit his talents. Their songs stick immediately, and this Oklahoma-based group attracts a following to its regular bar gig like any band should when performing excellent material.
And still. In addition to Sam’s go-nowhere friendship with a music shop owner (Laurence Fishburne), an underdeveloped part for Selena Gomez as Josh’s girlfriend and painful scenes of Sam bickering with an annoying guy at the lake where he lives on his boat, it’s hard to get the taste of manipulation out of your mouth when “Rudderless” obscures truth instead of challenging it. Macy was smart not to assert answers to questions that don’t have any. And he raises but insufficiently considers whether we can separate art from the artist, an ever-intriguing conversation that crops up every time a controversial figure (Chris Brown, for example) releases an album. The problem is that “Rudderless” perpetuates the very denial it indicts. -- Matt Pais, RedEye
**1/2 (out of four)
Movies are so much more than their concepts. “Gravity” is an amazing onscreen achievement, but the script is lousy. It’s not a great movie. Its points come from the fact that Alfonso Cuaron pulled it off.
To a degree, the same goes for “Boyhood,” which writer-director Richard Linklater filmed over the course of 12 years. That’s really ambitious. Unlike Michael Apted’s series (docs checking in with the same people every seven years) or Linklater’s “Before” trilogy (following the same characters every eight or nine years), “Boyhood” filmed a little bit with its cast over the course of a dozen years. So we don’t just meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as an elementary schooler. We’ll see his voice change and observe as he goes through rites of passage like sucking at bowling when you lose the bumpers, peer pressure to drink and lie about your sexual experience and incidents when trying to be yourself means you become a bit of an ass to the people who are trying to help you.
Here’s the thing: None of the moments in “Boyhood” are bold in suggesting that the experiences are universal. Linklater isn’t deconstructing our communal stepping stones; he’s merely reminding us of them. It’s easy to watch the film and recall similar moments in your own life. That’s not enough; the film needs to inspire reflection, not just recollection, and it doesn’t.
Linklater pal Ethan Hawke plays Mason’s dad in such an Ethan Hawke-y manner you think he’s still being Jesse from the “Before” movies. Patricia Arquette’s a bit stiff as Mason’s mom, and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei plays Mason’s older sister Samantha, who begins the movie annoying her brother by singing and dancing to Britney Spears’ “Oops! I Did It Again.” Which brings us to another problem with “Boyhood”: The movie constantly marks years with popular songs, opening with Coldplay’s “Yellow,” stopping at, among others, Outkast’s “Hey Ya” and Phoenix’s “1901” and winding up at Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” Music is a big part of people’s lives. Popular songs remind us where we were at the time. But to depict the bulk of a lifetime and show the characters constantly listening to the most popular songs turns the movie into a dramatization of life, not an authentic portrait.
Mason experiences minimal joy, sadness or surprise. Perhaps that’s because Linklater wants to show that for many, years are made up of the mundane, not the peaks and valleys. That may be true, but when charting the significant experiences someone has between 6 and 18, it’s ridiculous not to include the most resonating sorrow and elation that shapes who he or she becomes. When Mason’s mom marries a college professor who turns out to be an abusive, alcoholic jerk, “Boyhood” becomes cartoonishly melodramatic.
Again: Everyone has seen someone play a solo acoustic version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” and Linklater deserves credit for following through on his ambition. But it’s worth wondering how much the way the actors grew influenced the trajectory of the movie—if Coltrane hadn’t grown into a good-looking fellow, would Linklater have been able to make Mason a bit of a ladies’ man?. And, more importantly, why the movie feels like a list of experiences instead of an exploration of them that makes you feel anything. -- Matt Pais, RedEye
"Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead" costar Ingrid Haas raps.
Ingrid Haas and Chicago native Jocelyn DeBoer do the "Fresh Prince" theme.
Capsule review: ‘Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead’
*** (out of four)
There’s nothing like a well-timed “[Bleep] yeah.” It’s one of many hilarious moments in “Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead” and also something fans of its 2009 predecessor about vacationing Norwegians attacked by Nazi zombies will say throughout the sequel. This time Martin (Vegar Hoel), the lone survivor, has a zombie arm attached that gives him super-strength, kind of like “Rookie of the Year” if Henry Rowengartner used his power to punch through chests. Martin’s still trying to take down the Nazi zombies, but now he has help from an American trio that goes by the Zombie Squad, comprising their leader Daniel (a hysterical, perfectly cast Martin Starr) and his improbably attractive, nerd-fantasy colleagues (Jocelyn DeBoer, Ingrid Haas) who disagree about the superiority of “Star Wars” versus “Star Trek.” Some people will never find a movie containing this quantity of blood and intestines funny, but if you are not one of those people then prepare to crack up at “Red vs. Dead,” which has an excellent and ridiculous sense of humor. “I have two kittens!” one character bellows, pleading for his life. The story takes a little while to get going and then moves in a pretty straight line, but the hooting, hollering and laughter in the theater will drown out the grumbling. -- Matt Pais, RedEye
*** (out of four)
It’s hard to get better. I mean that in the sense of Chicago director Joe Swanberg moving forward from his great “Drinking Buddies” and in terms of Jenny (Anna Kendrick), the main character and hot mess of “Happy Christmas.” Before she arrives in Chicago, her brother Jeff (Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) lead a relatively unfussy life with their 2-year-old son Jude (Swanberg’s real son Jude, who could not be cuter). Then she arrives to stay in her family’s basement and nurse the wounds of a recent break-up. “She doesn’t seem like a responsible person,” Kelly says. Her husband responds: “She’s not a responsible person.”
Utilizing, as usual, an improvised approach taken from a rough outline, Swanberg resists delving into Jenny’s past relationship and doesn’t make her new thing with Kevin (Mark Webber) into more than it deserves. “Happy Christmas” merely wants us to watch Kendrick shade sadness into even Jenny's celebrations, and nervousness into her excitement to babysit her nephew. Much time is spent on the developing relationship between Jenny and Kelly, as Jenny and her friend Carson (Lena Dunham) encourage one-time novelist/current full-time mom Kelly to spend more time writing—even persuading her to try an erotic novel.
“Happy Christmas” has a looseness that makes it easily watchable but also a bit meandering. Part of the achievement of “Drinking Buddies” was the way it merged Swanberg’s low-key style with a focused examination of romantic uncertainty. “Happy Christmas” is sweet and funny and always rings true (especially in its depiction of family relationships and discussions among its female characters), but even a study of an immature 27-year-old figuring it out one day at a time shouldn’t feel like it’s being guided with similar indecision.
Still, I love some of the contradictions in “Happy Christmas,” like Jenny knowing a book is great even when she doesn’t understand it and Carson wanting a baby even though Jude kind of grosses her out. She’s crazy: That kid is so hilarious and cute it really bears repeating. -- Matt Pais, RedEye
Anna Kendrick on a moment she's surprised didn't make it into "Happy Christmas. "
Joe Swanberg on his style of Chicago moviemaking.