Bob and Justin's Mad Movie Blog

My name is Bob. My friend Justin and I are aspiring filmmakers and we have pretty similar tastes in movies. This will include our take on what's going on in film and television today as well as updating you on the status of our own work.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Reviews: "A Serious Man," "Where the Wild Things Are," and "Black Dynamite"

So I've seen a few movies the past few weeks and just haven't gotten around to writing reviews. Well here they are.

A Serious Man - A new Coen Brothers movie is an event for some people. I am some people. "A Serious Man" is their 14th feature film but it seems that for the first time they've made something that is at least slightly autobiographical. Set in the world the brothers grew up in, suburban Minnesota in 1967, it tells the story of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a college professor whose stable professional and family life suddenly comes apart at the seams. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce so that she can marry the sleazy and condescending Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), the tenure he's been promised has been threatened, his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is a gambling addict living in his home, and his teenage children are teenage children.
Larry has tried his best to lead a good and honorable life but when it all comes cosmically crashing down he turns to help from the Rabbi. Actually from several Rabbis, none of whom seem to provide Larry with an answer to his many questions or a solution to his myriad of problems.
As a dyed in the wool fan of the Coen Brothers I have to say that "A Serious Man" was actually strange even for them. It doesn't have quite the sharp focus of their best work (which I deem everything they've made with the exceptions of "Intolerable Cruelty," "The Ladykillers," and "Burn After Reading"), but it is full of intriguing ideas, strong performances, and some powerhouse scenes. Larry's telephone conversation with a representative from Columbia House is a quietly powerful moment. "But I didn't do anything," Larry says again and again. Like the record that showed up in his mail he didn't ask for any of this and yet it just arrives at his door.
It doesn't stand up to "Fargo," "O Brother," or "No Country," but "A Serious Man" is still a Coen Brothers movie and one that is definitely worth your time. 8/10.

Where the Wild Things Are - Usually when a beloved book is adapted into a film the most common complaint is, "They cut out too much!" It's an unusual thing when filmmakers are put into the position of having to add on to an existing work. This was the unique position director Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich") found himself in. You would think this would allow Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers free reign to create something new, imaginative, and full of depth. What they deliver however is a film that looks great but has a script so thin it's anorexic.
Quite simply the story is young Max (Max Records) gets mad at his teenage sister, feels ignored by his mom, and runs away to a magical world. While there Max becomes the king of a society of pretty unlikeable monsters and eventually he decides he wants to go home. That's about the amount of depth provided by the film's script.
There are elements I liked quite a bit about "Where the Wild Things Are." It's a great looking film. Jonze's decision to use suits instead of subpar CGI for Max's new friends was the right call and the performance of Records is terrific. He's not a typical movie kid. He's not wise beyond his years, he's not precocious, and he's not there to be cute. He plays Max as an obnoxious, annoying brat. He's a real kid. The film also features a great soundtrack from Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
All in all, "Where the Wild Things Are" is an interesting failure, whose problems fall entirely on its weak script. There just isn't any meat on it. 5/10.

Black Dynamite - I have saved easily the best for last. "Black Dynamite" is about as funny as you could ask a movie to be. Michael Jai White stars as the baddest brother on the planet, Black Dynamite. He's out to avenge the death of his brother by declaring war on anyone who sells drugs to the community. "But Black Dyanmite," one character protests, "I sell drugs to the community."
"Black Dynamite" is a successful film in two ways. It parodies the blaxploitation films of the seventies with a broad sense of humor while managing to subtely capture what those movies were. The grain, the bright colors, the cheap sets, the boom mics, the actors reading their lines off of cue cards. It's all there!
White co-wrote the screenplay with Byron Minns and director Scott Sanders which is razor sharp and consistently laugh out loud funny. The moment Black Dynamite and his cohorts unravel an insidious plot inside of a restaurant is easily the funniest thing you'll see in a movie all year. Maybe for a few years. And I defy anyone to come up with a more bizarely funny line than, "Donuts don't wear alligator shoes."
If it's playing anywhere near you "Black Dynamite" is a must see. In Seattle it's in its final week at the Varsity. 9/10.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

"The Invention of Lying" and "Zombieland"

It's been about a month since I've reviewed anything (of course I haven't seen much in that time either), but we are now getting into that time of year when week after week will start producing noteworthy films. In the coming weeks and months films from Spike Jonze ("Where the Wild Things Are"), Wes Anderson ("The Fantastic Mr. Fox"), and Terry Gilliam ("The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus") will hit theaters. And we're a mere two days away from the newest Coen Brothers film, "A Serious Man." It's movie time, everybody! Here's a look at the first big offerings of October.

The Invention of Lying - There are high concepts and then there are really high concepts. "The Invention of Lying" presupposes a world in which no one has ever lied. Not out of a sense of right and wrong but simply because they mentally cannot.
In some ways this world is not so dissimilar from our own. The better looking, more confident, and more successful you are, the better your life is. It's just that honesty is so much more brutal for a "fat man with a pug nose," like Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais).
Mark is an Englishman living and working as a screenwriter in America. Films are a bit different in this world. Since no one can lie, no one can create fiction of any kind, so the latest blockbusters feature distinguished gentlemen in smoking jackets reading historical accounts. Mark, who's been stuck with the 14th century, is fired and about to be evicted from his apartment when suddenly something snaps in his brain. Something that has never happened before in all of human history. He lies. Due to his discovery he's able to withdraw enough from the bank to keep his apartment. As he explains to his best friend Greg (Louis C.K.), "I said something that wasn't." There's no word for it yet, in fact the word truth doesn't exist because it doesn't need to. It's only a matter of time before he starts figuring out what else he can do. No matter how outlandish the tale, no one disbelieves him because no one has reason to. Mark uses his gift to get his job back by writing the world's first fictional screenplay and in hopes of winning over Anna (Jennifer Garner).
The controversial element of the film comes in when Mark tries to comfort his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan). Fearing "nothingness," Mark tells her that when she dies there won't be nothingness, but instead describes a place that sounds a lot like heaven. Mark's attempt to ease his mother's pain ends up making him a worldwide celebrity overnight as people believe that Mark knows something about "what happens after you die." In desperation, Mark tells the world that there's "a man in the sky" who determines our fates and if people are good they'll go to be with him and live in a mansion after they die.
From this point forth "The Invention of Lying" is blatantly atheistic. Both Gervais and his co-writer and co-director Matthew Robinson share this belief but there is absolutely nothing in this film designed to influence anyone's way of thinking. While I decidedly do not share their point of view I certainly respect their right to create a film saying anything they want and no believer in anything should feel threatened by it. After all, "Star Wars" takes place in a world where the Force has replaced God and that's hardly controversial.
For the past few years I've considered the two-headed comedy beast of Gervais and Stephen Merchant (who makes a brief appearance) to be the funniest entity on the planet. The original version of "The Office" and their follow-up "Extras," are comic masterpieces. This makes me believe that the upcoming "Cemetery Junction" (which re-teams Gervais and Merchant as writer-directors) should be a better film than "The Invention of Lying," though there is much to like here. The early part of the film is particularly good, in which we see billboards that read, "Pepsi: When They Don't Have Coke," The romantic comedy element is sweet and it's well played by Gervais and Garner, playing a woman with a kind heart but simply isn't able to soften what she believes to be the truth about Mark. In the end, "The Invention of Lying" is a good movie but never quite hits the stride of Gervais's television work. 7.5/10.

Zombieland - Maybe I'm just becoming curmudgeonly in my old age but I've been wanting to declare a moratorium on zombie movies for the past couple of years. Not because I don't like zombie movies but just because there have just been far too many of them in the past five years. Ever since the one-two punch of the remake of "Dawn of the Dead" (the original being THE gold standard for zombie movies) and the instant comedy classic "Shaun of the Dead" in 2004, we have been deluged with zombie films from all over the world. They've become inescapable and every time you look there are more and more of them. You just can't keep them down! Come to think of it...zombie movies...and zombies...well, you know.
So when I saw that "Zombieland" was coming along I thought it looked entertaining enough but didn't expect to see anything terribly new from it. This is a good mindset to have when going into "Zombieland" because Ruben Fleischer's film doesn't show us a whole lot we haven't seen before (namely in "Shaun" and the little seen but hilarious "Fido"), but it sure is fun.
Our hero is Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg, "Adventureland"), a nerdy college student who has managed to survive not out of toughness but by being a smart guy who learns how to use a shotgun and by obeying his own set of rules. Rules such as "double-tap" (always fire one more bullet into the head), "beware of bathrooms," and perhaps most importantly, "Don't be a hero." He is called Columbus because that's where he hails from. There are no names in the United States of Zombieland. People have already lost so many loved ones they don't want to get to close to anyone new. This is especially true for Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a cantankerous tough guy who reluctantly hooks up with Columbus in hopes of staying alive long enough to reach a place on the east coast which is supposedly zombie-free. What Tallahassee wants more than anything though is a Hostess Twinkie. He'll even risk life and limb for it, something Columbus isn't too comfortable with, but he's not really comfortable with anything. Their trust issues are only exacerbated when they meet a couple of con artist sisters, Wichita (Emma Stone, "Superbad") and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). But it won't be long before these four have to find a way to make it work by sticking together.
For the majority of its running time "Zombieland" is an entertaining and light on its feet gory comedy. But for about 10 or 15 minutes at around the halfway point it achieves the kind of comic brilliance that few films do. It features a cameo appearance by well, pretty much the coolest man alive. I won't ruin it for you but you'll know it when you see it.
So in spite of their being far too many zombie films in the world today, "Zombieland" sets itself apart, not by being overly original, but just by being a heck of a lot of fun. Sometimes that's all I ask. 8/10.