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.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"The Young Victoria" and "The Book of Eli"

The Young Victoria – It’s been a recent trend that films have depicted the lives of monarchs in their youth, giving an actress in her twenties a chance to wear a corset and portray a woman living in extraordinary circumstances (Kirsten Dunst in “Marie Antoinette,” Keira Knightley in “The Duchess”). Now it’s Emily Blunt’s turn and she is arguably the most talented actress to do so.
In 1837 as Princess Victoria (Blunt) approaches her eighteenth birthday, a not-so behind the scenes power struggle is taking place in regards to her right to the crown. Raised hidden away from the world by her overprotective mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson, as always, playing someone generally despicable), Victoria faces constant pressure from her mother and Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong, “Sherlock Holmes”) to sign a regency order in the event of the King’s death. This would put the Duchess on the throne if the King died prior to Victoria’s birthday. Victoria’s uncle, King William IV (Jim Broadbent) makes no secret of his deep disdain for the Duchess and he manages to live just long enough to allow Victoria to reach the throne.
What the screenplay by Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”) is more interested in though, is how Victoria dealt with life before and after her coronation. In the film’s open we see how unique Victoria’s childhood was. She seemed to have been aware from early on that her upbringing was decidedly different from that of other children. How this would affect her worldview is touched on but I would have liked to have seen this more fully explored.
What works very well is the examination of Victoria’s friendship and eventual marriage with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) of Belgium. Presented in the film as being much more than a royal marriage for political reasons, we see that Victoria and Albert not only love each other but complement each other personally as well as in their royal duties. Blunt and Friend each give terrific performances that are so reserved for so much of the film that their emotional moments carry a much greater weight.
Also of note are the performances of Paul Bettany as Lord Melbourne, an advisor to Victoria with a romantic interest in her until she finally marries Albert, and the all too brief appearance of Jim Broadbent as the King.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee seems to follow a pretty well-worn path in the look and feel of “The Young Victoria.” British dramas in this period of history generally seem to follow the same pace and tone and Vallee doesn’t particularly deviate. It almost seems as though there’s a law mandating that all movies set in Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries include at least one shot of a character sadly peering out of a window while someone enters or exits a coach. I counted two here. Still, Vallee doesn’t really take any notable missteps either.
As a piece of filmmaking “The Young Victoria” is accomplished but plays it too safe. However the performances of Blunt and Friend are strong enough to keep us interested and make us care about Victoria and Albert. 7/10.

The Book of Eli - It's only been a couple of months since the release of the absolutely fantastic "The Road" but apparently you can never have too many post-apocalyptic stories about wanderers trying to reach the ocean.
Eli (Denzel Washington) is all alone as he heads west. From the beginning we see that he can quite literally sniff out an ambush and he is not a man to be messed with no matter how many guys you've got or what weaponry you have. Armed with a sword and a book whose significance is lost upon a generation that never learned to read (Eli states it's "been 30 winters since the flash" which blinded a great many of the few who survived), Eli will not deviate from the path he is on, even in extreme circumstances.
The book Eli carries may be unknown by most who walk the earth, but it is vitally important to Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a villain who at first seems to have more in common with Gene Hackman in "Unforgiven" than most of the villains played by, well, Gary Oldman. This only serves to emphasize the feel of the movie as a post-apocalyptic western. Early in the film, Eli, unaware of Carnegie's hunt for the book, is invited to stay the night in Carnegie's saloon. Carnegie, unaware Eli possesses the book, hopes that Eli will decide to join his crew in the search of it. Carnegie attempts to seal the deal by offering up Solara (Mila Kunis), but Eli isn't interested of taking advantage of the young woman and instead teaches her how to pray, a fact that Carnegie is tipped off to the following morning. When Solara escapes a reluctant Eli allows her to join him on his journey west, with Carnegie close behind.
While it doesn't pack the punch or create the sense of place that "The Road" did, "The Book of Eli" is a very entertaining film with strong action sequences, solid performances from the leads (along with some brief appearances by Tom Waits and Michael Gambon), and actually has more substance than you would expect. Written by first time screenwriter Gary Whitta and directed by the Hughes Brothers ("From Hell"), I actually found myself surprised that modern Hollywood would make this film. It's religious content is evident and unapologetic but it manages to not come across as heavy handed.
It may be the exception rather than the rule, but "The Book of Eli" is no "January junk." 7.5/10.

On another note, Ricky Gervais was brilliant as the host of the Golden Globes. "I like a drink as much as the next man. Unless the next man is Mel Gibson." Every awards show should be hosted by him, Steve Martin, or Conan O'Brien (Lord knows he'll have time on his hands soon).

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Two years ago this month when Heath Ledger died it was revealed that he was in the midst of filming with Terry Gilliam. While I was of course saddened by the death of Ledger the movie geek in me couldn't help but think, "Well it figures it would happen to Gilliam." He's faced severe adversity on seemingly every movie he's made, most famously on "Brazil" and the unfinished "Man Who Killed Don Quixote." When he's managed to overcome it though, he's produced some amazing work, particularly with "Brazil" and "Twelve Monkeys." Lately though, he's been a bit off his game. "The Brothers Grimm" was entertaining but doesn't hold up terribly well to repeat viewings and "Tideland" was certifiably unwatchable. Seriously, I couldn't bring myself to finish watching it. But the hope for Gilliam fans was that he could overcome adversity once again to produce something special. The result is a film that is so maddening and unfocused that I really think that Terry Gilliam is done as a filmmaker. Done making anything worthwhile anyway.
Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, "The Sound of Music") runs a traveling carnival around the streets of London. To all the world it appears to be a cheap and unmagical show with a rather sad troupe of performers. There's a little man in an animal costume (Verne Troyer), awkward Anton (Andrew Garfield), and the Doctor's daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), who's fifteen going on sixteen. And when Valentina turns sixteen the Doctor's going to have hell to pay, literally. Long ago the childless Parnassus made a deal with the Devil, or Mr. Nick (Tom Waits... naturally), that if he was ever able to have a child that the child would become Nick's the day they turned sixteen.
As it turns out, the carnival features a mirror that leads into another dimension. It's limited only by the imagination of the person who steps through it. Nick seems to enjoy his interactions with Parnassus so he offers him a new deal just a few days before Valentina's birthday. The first to capture five souls would win and the winner would get Valentina. This seems an impossible task for Parnassus until the troupe finds Tony (Heath Ledger), hanging from a bridge, dead by all appearances (a rather eerie introduction for Ledger's final character). Still, they untie him and find that he's still alive, thanks to a little ingenuity on his part. Parnassus takes this as a sign that he is going to win and so the fight for Valentina's soul begins.
The answer to the question how did they get around Ledger's death with filming not yet completed is surprisingly simple and honestly it's one of the few things about "Parnassus" that really works. Every scene in which Tony appears in the real world, Ledger had completed. Only the sequences in which he goes into the imaginarium remained, so it was written into the script that Tony take on a different appearance whenever stepping inside. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all appear as imaginarium Tony's and each does a surprisingly good job at keeping the character consistent, or as consistent as possible with this script. While it's unfortunate that this is Ledger's last film and unfortunate that the film itself is a failure, I can honestly say that it is in no way Ledger's fault. He's as charismatic as he ever was in the role of Tony, a schemer whose past is never quite understood and whose true nature is not fully explored. He does a terrific job with a character who sadly remained underdeveloped in the script by Gilliam and Charles McKeown. Plummer and Waits each do fine work as well, but Cole and Garfield are forgettable and Troyer gives a performance so abysmal I honestly don't know how he gets work as an actor. I can't remember the last time I saw an actor so inept at simply delivering lines. Every single word from his mouth is an exercise in pain. It's of little consequence though when the script and direction are as clunky and unfocused as they are here. It certainly doesn't help matters that its two hours feel more like three.
It's a shame for so many reasons that "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" just doesn't work, despite the valiant efforts of Ledger, his replacements, Plummer, and Waits. Ledger will be remembered for far better things. So will Gilliam for that matter. 5/10.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

For some, Sherlock Holmes stories are all about solving mysteries and becoming captivated by one man's unique intellect. While these are certainly a part of Guy Ritchie's new film, at its heart, this is a look at one of the most legendary friendships in all of fiction. Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) are closer than brothers and bicker like an old married couple. They've shared a London flat while solving several mysteries together but now Watson is getting married to Mary (Kelly Reilly, "Mrs. Henderson Presents") and moving out.
Feeling abandoned and bored, Holmes fills his days and nights performing some rather dangerous experiments. It's been months since their last case in which they caught the infamous Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), whom Watson himself pronounced dead after his hanging. But when Blackwood's tomb is found destroyed from the inside, the coffin is opened. Blackwood has been replaced with a red-haired "ginger midget." It's just the sort of mystery to get Holmes out of the house and perhaps more importantly to him, a chance for some more bro time with Watson.
Ritchie and a rather large team of writers have crafted a very entertaining film full of action, humor, intrigue, and most importantly of all, characters we care about tossing around fantastic dialogue. Regardless of what your idea of Holmes may be, Downey is a blast to watch. He's as charismatic as an actor can be here. Law is almost as good. Despite the many annoying and manipulative actions of Holmes, Watson is loyal to the end and it's easy to see why these two are the closest of friends. Think Shawn and Gus from "Psych" but in late 19th century England. Rachel McAdams does a fine job as well as the only woman to ever outsmart Holmes...twice.
"Sherlock Holmes" is a ton of fun and a great way to spend a Friday night. Or any night for that matter. 8/10.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

"Up in the Air" and "Nine"

Up in the Air – “Who the f%#k are you?!” That’s a question you would get asked a lot if you were Ryan Bingham (George Clooney). It’s easy to understand why. Ryan works for a firm that specializes in traveling the country to fire employees when bosses don’t want to do it themselves. Ryan’s technique is notable because he puts a positive spin on the situation. He’s fond of the phrase, “Everyone who ever changed the world or built an empire sat where you’re sitting right now.” Given his successful sideline as a motivational speaker it only makes sense that Ryan would pitch this to the newly unemployed.
Given the constant travel and almost no contact with people in a positive frame of mind, Ryan is understandably isolated. He likes it this way, or so he tells himself. The closest thing he has to a friend is a woman in his apartment building, the place he calls home for, by his estimation, about 44 days a year.
The only thing that Ryan seems to truly care about is reaching 10 million frequent flyer miles. They’re not to go anywhere really. “The point,” he explains, “is the miles.” While on his journeys he meets a like-minded woman named Alex (Vera Farmiga, “The Departed”). They bond over wanting nothing serious in a relationship and thus begins a casual relationship built around figuring out when they’re next scheduled to be at the same airport again.
Things change for Ryan when his firm hires a young woman on the go. Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) plans to revolutionize firing people by having the firm’s employees stay home. The solution is to perform layoffs via video conferencing. Ryan is disgusted by the idea, telling his boss (Jason Bateman) that, “There’s a dignity to the way I do it.” Surprisingly this line doesn’t come off as a cynical joke. Ryan truly means it and from what we’ve seen we can’t help but agree. His boss decides that Ryan has a point and due to Natalie’s inexperience, the two are sent on a training run across the country. Ryan’s going to show Natalie what firing people is really all about.
Co-written and directed by Jason Reitman (“Thank You For Smoking”), “Up in the Air” is funnier than its subject matter would suggest and sadder than its trailer would lead you to believe. The role of Ryan Bingham is tailor-made for Clooney but he’s far from coasting here. He gives one of the finest performances of his career as a man who’s never truly connected with anyone and is just now figuring out how lonely that isolation really is. What is interesting about the performance and the film as a whole is how we see that Ryan is not only unable to commit to a romantic relationship, he has no real friendships, and even his family feel like strangers. It’s hard to imagine any actor but Clooney making such a character relatable, let alone likeable.
Kendrick meanwhile gives a breakout performance as a young woman who like so many other people in their twenties is obsessed with the idea of living on a timeline. “I’m 23 years old, I’m supposed to be driving a Range Rover by now.” In one of the best scenes in any movie of 2009 Natalie, Ryan, and Alex discuss life and the idea of timelines.
Reitman has fashioned a movie that is as timely as it is good. It’s so timely in fact that many of the people we see getting fired are not actors. They were people who recently lost their jobs and were given the chance on camera to either re-create their on the spot reaction or to say what they wish they would have said to the person letting them go.
There are moments in “Up in the Air” that I related to and others that reminded me of the struggles of my own friends and family. Any movie that can do that and still entertain is pretty special.
Believe everything you’ve heard, this is one of the best movies of 2009. Not to be missed. 10/10.

Nine - Several years ago I took a class all about Italian film director Federico Fellini. He made some good films ("Nights of Cabiria"), some great ones ("La Dolce Vita"), and some nearly unwatchable messes ("Satyricon"). Fellini was erratic but he did make at least one undisputed masterpiece, "8 1/2." The story of a movie director having a mental and emotional breakdown because he's run out of things to say is probably one of the most personal films ever made. That was 1963.
In the decades to follow Fellini's film was adapted into a novel which was adapted into a stage musical which has been adapted into Rob Marshall's "Nine."
Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is set to begin filming "Italia" in ten days. After making several beloved "early films," Contini's latest offerings have been by his own admission, "flops."
Seemingly the whole of Italy is hoping that "Italia" will be a return to form. But what Guido isn't telling anyone, except his trusted costume designer Lilli (Judi Dench), is that not one word of script has been written. In his desperate search to recapture the creative spark he turns to his life's obsession, women. Amongst others there's his muse, Claudia (Nicole Kidman), his mistress, Carla (Penelope Cruz), an enamored reporter (Kate Hudson), and his neglected wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard, "La Vie en Rose"). Guido hopes they will help him find his way but with each passing day he just comes further and further apart at the seams.
As with Marshall's earlier film, "Chicago," "Nine's" musical sequences are framed as fantasies of the lead character. The highlights belong to Cruz ("A Call From the Vatican"), Dench ("Folies Bergere"), and the best singer of the bunch, Cotillard ("My Husband Makes Movies" and "Take It All").
"Nine" doesn't come anywhere close to the greatness of "8 1/2," but it is a good and worthwhile movie with a dynamite performance by Cotillard. Her Luisa has long put up with Guido's infidelity and lies. She's finally had enough. It's the most fully realized woman in the film in both the script and the performance.
Day-Lewis meanwhile had a lot to live up to after "There Will Be Blood" and while this won't make anyone forget Daniel Plainview, his work here is very impressive. At one point Luisa tells him, "You think this is your job but this is our lives!" Day-Lewis has breathed life into a man who cannot separate the two. When this is the case the inability to create goes well beyond writer's block. 7.5/10.