Video Verdict: ‘Big Miracle,’ ‘Project X,’ ‘Wanderlust’

From left to right, Jonathan Daniel Brown, Thomas Mann and Oliver Cooper star in “Project X.”

This week’s major home video releases include a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd, a fake documentary about a high school party gone bad and a solid family film based on real-life events.

Big Miracle

3 stars (out of four)
Rated PG for language
Universal
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and on demand

There are lots of movies targeted at children, but it can be tough to find a film both tame enough for youngsters and smart enough for adults. With “Big Miracle,” director Ken Kwapis (“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”) has done a fine job striking the balance.

The film is based on Operation Breakthrough, a 1988 effort that saw dozens of people struggling to free three gray whales that became trapped near Point Barrow, Alaska. While attempting to reach the open sea, the whales became walled in by rapidly forming ice. So, they began to bob in an open hole, doing their best to keep the water from freezing over and drowning them in the process.

The fictionalized movie follows events from the perspective of Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), a TV news reporter who discovers the trapped whales while working on another story. Playing up the human-interest angle, Adam files a report, and it ends up going national. This garners the interest of everyone from Greenpeace activists to local Inupiat whale hunters, all of whom band together in hopes of freeing the whales.

Naturally, “Big Miracle” has an environmentalist slant, but the film stops short of political posturing. In fact, Kwapis seems to argue that human beings will never achieve anything great unless they put political differences aside. This is made clear by the fact that an oil executive (Ted Danson) who seems like a one-dimensional bad guy at the start of the film, is shown as both human and compassionate at the end. Likewise, his foil, Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), is depicted as good-hearted but often extreme. In other words, the movie delivers surprisingly fair and realistic portrayals of archetypes, despite remaining simple enough for children to understand and enjoy.

“Big Miracle” is likable not only because of the depth of the characters, but because the film carries a sense of optimism… even when things look bleak for the whales. Family films of this caliber are rare achievements, so this one’s worth celebrating.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a feature on the real-life story that inspired the film, deleted scenes and an audio commentary by Kwapis.

Project X

1½ stars
Rated R for crude and sexual content throughout, nudity, drugs, drinking, pervasive language, reckless behavior and mayhem – all involving teens
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and digital download

There have been plenty of films about teens on a quest to drink, party and have casual sex, but few are as indefensible as first-time director Nima Nourizadeh’s “Project X.” The movie, presented as a home video made by the film’s protagonists, follows three Pasadena high school students as they plan and execute a bash designed to make them more popular.

It wouldn’t be much of a movie if things didn’t get wildly out of control, and Nourizadeh takes viewers through a gathering that starts small, then becomes a full-on riot. Despite the documentary-like footage, the story is entirely fictional, a fact that makes its existence all the more questionable. It’s one thing to have a movie that examines real-life oddities. It’s another to celebrate and encourage incredibly bad decisions, and “Project X” does just that.

The film’s protagonist is Thomas (Thomas Mann), a nerdy-but-nice kid who has fallen under the negative influence of his more-worldly pal, Costa (Oliver Cooper). Against his better judgment, Thomas agrees to let Costa and their mutual friend, JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown), throw him a birthday party while his parents are gone for the weekend. The result is mostly disastrous.

Despite the destruction caused by the ill-planned party, Thomas, JB and Costa face few negative consequences. In fact, it’s arguable that they end the movie in a better place than they started it. That’s not only unrealistic, it seemingly encourages teens to engage in risky behavior. In a weak attempt to neutralize the movie’s depraved message, Nourizadeh warns viewers that everything was recorded in a “controlled environment” and that they shouldn’t attempt to recreate anything they see. But that’s akin to saying, “Smoking is bad for you, but look how cool it is.”

There is prurient appeal in watching young people behave badly, and “Project X” sells itself entirely on that basis. Fortunately, most filmmakers are more responsible and at least have the decency to note that excess comes at a price.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a short on the making of the film.

Wanderlust

2 stars
Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, language and drug use
Universal
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and on demand

As the U.S. economy struggles, it’s easy to see the appeal in leaving the technology-driven corporate world and settling into something more organic. But, as “Wanderlust” co-writer and director David Wain notes, dropping out comes with its own set of challenges.

The movie focuses on George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston), a New York couple forced to leave their home when George loses his job. Their plan is to move in with George’s entrepreneur brother, Rick (Ken Marino), in Atlanta. By chance, they end up at a bed and breakfast run by a Georgia commune; and when Rick becomes insufferable, they decide to join.

Needless to say, this stresses their relationship. Although George likes the laid-back vibe of the commune, Linda has to warm to the bohemian lifestyle. The couple also has to deal with the group’s thoughts on free love, particularly since a pretty blonde (Malin Akerman) and a heavily bearded philosopher (Justin Theroux) are intent on making sure they take advantage of them.

The setup of the film is solid, and Rudd is an extremely talented comedian. Unfortunately “Wanderlust” doesn’t give him much good material, and Aniston has never proven herself to be more than a one-note actress. What’s more, several of the scenes feel improvisational, and they sit the screen for long stretches without going anywhere.

All this makes it tough for viewers to empathize with George and Linda as a couple, and even harder to laugh at the bizarre situations they find themselves in.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a collection of deleted, extended and alternate scenes.

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Jeff, Who Lives at Home”: Comedy featuring Jason Segel as a thirty-something slacker searching for the meaning of life. Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon and Judy Greer also star. Written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass.

Spalding Gray films directed by Steven Soderbergh: The Criterion Collection is delivering two Steven Soderbergh movies centered on the life of writer-actor Spalding Gray: “And Everything is Going Fine” and “Gray’s Anatomy.” The latter is a Gray monolog that was turned into an 80-minute feature. “And Everything is Going Fine” is a 2010 documentary about Gray’s life and work.

“Seeking Justice”: Nicolas Cage plays a family man drawn into a vigilante organization after his wife (January Jones) is brutally attacked. Directed by Roger Donaldson (“The World’s Fastest Indian,” “The Bank Job”).

“Franklin & Bash” – The Complete First Season: First 10 episodes of the TNT dramedy about eccentric attorneys who sign on at a major, old-school firm. Breckin Meyer and Mark-Paul Gosselaar star.

“Radio Rebel”: Disney Channel movie starring Debby Ryan as an ordinary high school girl who secretly moonlights as a popular radio DJ. Sarena Parmar, Adam DiMarco and Merritt Patterson also star. Directed by Peter Howitt.

“Cat Run”: Action-comedy about fledgling private eyes (Scott Mechlowicz and Alphonso McAuley) who get more than they bargained for after agreeing to take a high-priced escort (Paz Vega) as their client. Directed by John Stockwell (“Into the Blue”).

“Web Therapy” – The Complete First Season: Showtime comedy series starring Lisa Kudrow as a therapist pushing a new form of treatment: short-form video chats. Season-one guest stars include Courtney Cox, Jane Lynch, Rashida Jones and Steven Weber.

“A Bag of Hammers”: Comedy starring Jason Ritter and Jake Sandvig as slackers who learn about responsibility after forming a bond with a young boy. Rebecca Hall and Chandler Canterbury also star. Directed by Brian Crano.

“John Mellencamp – It’s About You”: Documentary film that considers rocker John Mellencamp’s life on tour and in the studio. Co-directed by Kurt Marcus and his son Ian.

“Hey Dude” – Season 3: Thirteen episodes of the 1980s and ’90s Nickelodeon comedy about the owner and crew of a dude ranch in Tucson, Arizona. David Brisbin, Christine Taylor, David Lascher, Kelly Brown and Joe Torres star.

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. For more of his work visit http://www.ForrestHartman.com. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

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One response to “Video Verdict: ‘Big Miracle,’ ‘Project X,’ ‘Wanderlust’

  1. Pingback: A Bag of Hammers | movie reviews and ratings, movie trailers coming soon, movie dvd releases

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