Reel Life mini-review:
'Magic of Belle Island'
Once upon a time, director Rob Reiner ruled Hollywood with diverse and engaging movies such as "The Princess Bride," "Stand By Me," "This is Spinal Tap," "When Harry Met Sally," "A Few Good Men" and "Misery." So what happened?
Reiner's recent career spiral ("Rumor Has It," "Bucket List" and "Flipped") now includes "The Magic of Belle Island," a beige family drama not only short on magic, but on dramatic arcs as well.
Morgan Freeman (reuniting with Reiner from "Bucket List") plays Monty Wildhorn, a curmudgeonly Wild West novelist who has become a depressed alcoholic confined to a wheelchair. He moves to picturesque Belle Island next door to a pretty recovering divorcee (Chicago's Virginia Madsen) and her three daughters, one of whom wants to pay the writer to give her "imagination lessons."
It's cute, Disney-esque family fare to be sure, but Freeman early on telegraphs that Monty is just an old softy pretending to be mean and short-tempered, so when it comes time for him to make the obligatory quantum leap from cranky, embittered man to endearing old guy, it's hardly a surprise twist.
Will Monty give up the booze? Will he start writing again? Will he symbolically replace his old-fashioned typewriter for a word processor as a metaphor for his personal metamorphosis?
Better question: Will Reiner ever return to directing movies that actually pack magic in their frames?
"The Magic of Belle Island" is available On-Demand and is playing at the Renaissance Place Cinema, Highland Park. Rated PG. 109 minutes ...
Blue Whiskey flows
I've seen two features so far being presented at the third Blue Whiskey Independent Film Festival, scheduled Tuesday to Sunday, July 24-29, at the Cutting Hall Performing Arts Center, 150 E. Wood St., Palatine. Go to bwiff.com.
Todd Louiso's handsomely photographed domestic drama "Hello I Must Be Going" gives Melanie Lynskey the meatiest role of her film career as Amy, a depressed, thirtysomething recent divorcee whose emotional paralysis receives a jump-start from an impulsive affair with a 19-year-old actor (Christopher Abbott). Blythe Danner also stands out in a surprising, multilayered performance as her troubled, well-meaning mother.
David Spaltro's unorthodox drama of personal discovery "Things I Don't Understand" suffers from taking too many shortcuts.
First, former Chicagoan Molly Ryman's Violet narrates the film in first-person, a device that minimizes the need for actors to tell the story. Next, the movie relates scenes and dialogue the narrator could not possibly know about.
Second, the drama uses the easy shrink/patient premise that gets us inside Violet's head without the filmmakers doing any of the heavy dramatic lifting.
"Things" follows Violet, a grad student who failed at suicide, as she investigates near-death experiences, mostly through interviews with a young woman (Grace Folsom) in a hospice. It's a bold, character-driven drama that doesn't always work (a ghostly subplot comes off as pretentious), but it defies expectations and affirms Spaltro as a true independent storyteller.
Festival director Michael Noens told me that the best aspect of Blue Whiskey is that the festival shows its works on a single screen, so patrons can see all the festival offerings without being forced to skip one movie in order to see another.
Blue Whiskey had three times as many entries this year as last.
"That's awesome," Noens said. "The more we get, the tougher it gets to make the final choices for the program. But I'm glad the festival is taking off."
Blue Whiskey offers 30 shorts and features this year, including the Chicago-made dodgeball mockumentary titled "Red Balls." Opening night will not have movies, but the Chicago Band Called Catch. Tickets can be purchased at cuttinghall.org.
Reel Life notes
• The 2012 Elgin Short Film Festival wants your entry by the Friday, Aug. 17, deadline. Finalists will be screened at 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22, at the Hemmens Auditorium in Elgin. Go to hemmens.org/annualfilmfestival to sign up. (Money-saving hint: If you write "Midwest Film" at the top of your entry, you'll get half off the $40 entry fee! Thanks to Mike McNamara and Chicago's Midwest Independent Film Festival crew for the discount.)
• "Qwerty," a romantic comedy built around the game of Scrabble, comes from producer Nat Dykeman, a Vernon Hills man who operated a local video store before creating the Lake County Film Festival.
Dykeman, now an Aurora resident, said "Qwerty" (the title stems from the standard keyboard letters on the top row of a typewriter) was 60 percent shot in Lake County, 40 percent shot in Chicago.
It's about a suicidal guy and a Scrabble contest contender who fall in love with more than words.
Dykeman said the movie has already been booked to be shown at the National Scrabble Championships in Orlando on Wednesday, Aug. 15. But you can see it earlier on Saturday, July 28; Monday, July 30; and Wednesday, Aug. 1, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org/qwerty for tickets and schedules.
• Mark your calendars to join me in honoring winners of the Arlington Heights Teen Film Fest at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 5, at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights. I'll be joined by playwright Scott Woldman and Michele Harris, a longtime resident of Arlington Heights, as judges. Tickets are free, but reserve them at (847) 577-2121.
• Actor Paul Dano hit Chicago this week on behalf of his upcoming fantasy film "Ruby Sparks," opening at local theaters Wednesday, July 25.
I asked Dano, whose impressive and diverse resume includes "There Will Be Blood," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Cowboys and Aliens," what keeps him in acting.
"It's the constant learning curve that it has," Dano said. "It's a really interesting job. When I started, it was for no other reason than I thought it would be fun and something that I could be good at."
In "Ruby Sparks," Dano plays a one-hit novelist who creates his ideal woman, named Ruby Sparks, in his new novel. Then, she inexplicably becomes a real person (Zoe Kazan, Dano's significant other in real life).
Dano, known mostly for his withdrawn, recessive characters, has worked with Hollywood titans Robert De Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford.
Is there an intimidation factor?
"Those thoughts might cross my mind, but hopefully I've exorcised them before I get there (on set)," Dano said. "You don't want to be thinking about that. You just want to be there for the character and for the scene and for the story."
Then he added, "It is a real rush to get to work with the people who've inspired me. I try to learn something from them. It's just a great feeling."
• Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!