3 stars = Good
"Big Miracle," slapped with a blandly generic title, is far from a miraculous movie but proves more educational and entertaining than you might imagine.
Three California gray whales, christened Fred, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm, are trapped off the coast of Barrow, Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle. They're essentially stranded in a pocket of water that hasn't crusted over with ice and serves as their breathing hole; miles of ice block their path to freedom and migration.
If something isn't done, the two adults and the young male will die, a plight that captivates the world in fall 1988 when "Big Miracle" is set. It was inspired by the real story that competed with the presidential race for airtime on the nightly news.
In the PG-rated blend of fact and fiction, it's small-town TV reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski of "The Office") who spots the whales quite by accident.
When the story goes national and then international, the media circus comes to town, Greenpeace activist and Adam's ex, Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), shows up, and everyone from President Reagan to a no-nonsense National Guardsman (Dermot Mulroney) and an oil tycoon (Ted Danson) get involved.
"Big Miracle" proves surprisingly heartwarming and shows image-conscious businessmen can turn into do-gooders, Eskimos accustomed to hunting whales can find ways to keep them alive and entrepreneurship can thrive anywhere, even at the top of the world.
3 stars = Good
Jeff (Jason Segel) indeed lives at home in Baton Rouge with his widowed and increasingly exasperated mother (Susan Sarandon). Jeff spends most of his time in the basement of his childhood residence, smoking pot, watching television and ruminating about the 2002 Mel Gibson movie, "Signs."
He eventually crosses paths with his younger brother, Pat (Ed Helms), whose wife, Sharon (Judy Greer), left no doubt about her anger at his purchase of a Porsche without consulting her. Pat suspects his wife is having an affair, even as Sharon discovers, through instant messaging on her work computer, that she has a secret admirer.
The movie, from directors, writers and brothers Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass, meanders around Baton Rouge with signs, sleuthing and ruminating until all of the main characters confront what could be their destiny or baptism.
At just 83 minutes or so, "Jeff" is slight but economical with little mistaking the family dynamics.
Sometimes watching a movie you wonder, "Where is this going?" and the answer is nowhere. This time you may ask the question but your patience will be rewarded.
2 stars = Mediocre
"Project X" takes the tried and true formula -- parents out of town, so spread the word about the party -- and inflates it like a bouncy house. This time, anonymous high schooler Thomas (Thomas Mann) is turning 17, and his parents are going away to celebrate their anniversary.
His father confesses, "I'm not an idiot, I know you're gonna have friends over." He says Thomas can have four or five people, tops, to their house in North Pasadena, but his car and office are off limits. He's not really worried about a blowout, telling his wife, "He's a sweet kid, but he's a loser."
He does not count on Thomas' wheeler-dealer pal Costa (Oliver Cooper). The bash, being organized with a third friend, JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown), is going to change everything for them, they hope, and it turns out they're right.
"Project X," directed by Nima Nourizadeh, celebrates sexist, illegal, selfish and just plain stupid behavior although it is energetically assembled and set to hip-hop and indie rock music. It's amusing to see just how far the party will go, but it's clearly aimed at immature teenage boys who lust for girls normally out of their league.
ALSO THIS WEEK:
• "Wanderlust" (1-1/2 stars): Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston star in a comedy about an overextended, stressed-out Manhattan couple who stumble upon a freewheeling community where the only rule is to be yourself.
• "The Sarah Silverman Program: The Complete Series": The box set contains all 32 episodes from the show's three seasons.
• "Charlie's Angels: The Complete Series": Three female detectives battle crime. Annie Ilonzeh, Minka Kelly and Rachael Taylor star.
• "Franklin and Bash: The Complete First Season": Cable law drama starring Breckin Meyer.
• "Super Why: Around the World Adventure": Preschool series designed to help kids ages 3-6 with the critical skills they need to learn to read.
• "Dark Blue: The Complete Second Season": Dylan McDermott stars.
• "Cat Run": Two young detectives must protect a high-end escort (Paz Vega) who has evidence of a government coverup.
• "This Is Civilization": Matthew Collings travels from London to Beijing to look at non-Western art.
• "Web Therapy: The Complete First Season": Lisa Kudrow plays a psychiatrist who sees patients via the Internet.
• "The Legend of Hell's Gate": A young boy falls in with two desperate outlaws. Eric Balfour stars.
• "The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea": Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson star in the new Blu-ray release based on the Yukio Mishima novel.
• "Trial & Retribution: Set 5": Gritty British crime series starring David Hayman.
• "Reel Love": A city girl (LeAnn Rimes) returns home to be with her sick father.
• "Hey Dude: Season 3": Benjamin Ernst wrangles up his crew for another summer of adventure.
• "Tyler Perry's House of Payne Vol. 9": Includes 24 episodes of the TBS series.
• "Empire of the Sun": The coming-of-age World War II drama debuts on Blu-ray to mark the 25th anniversary.
• "Down for the Count": A boxer ends up at a Muay Thai boxing camp.
-- Post-Gazette staff and Rick Bentley, McClatchy Newspapersmoviereviews