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.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

"Black Swan" and "True Grit"

Black Swan - It's been a full week now since I saw Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan." I still have not determined whether or not I actually believe it to be a good movie. What I determined immediately and still feel very strongly, is that it is challenging, maddening, and that everyone involved have poured themselves into it fully. You have to admire Aronofsky's guts in making a film such as this. Even more than that though you have to admire his ability to get his cast and crew fully on board with a movie that could have gone so terribly wrong. This very easily could have been an unintentional cult comedy classic and I have the feeling that for some it still will be.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a driven ballet dancer in New York City who is undeniably talented but held back by what her director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) says is an inability to "feel it." She is determined to get the role of the Swan Queen in his production of "Swan Lake" and has to convince Thomas that she is able to let go of her inhibitions. Nina must also overcome competition in the form of the decidedly uninhibited Lily (Mila Kunis) and also break away from her controlling mother Erica (Barbara Hershey).
At a certain point it becomes clear that "Black Swan" is an oddity even for an "art" film. As Nina begins to let go so does the movie itself. Every emotion is thrown broadly at the screen particularly in the scenes between Portman and Hershey. Eventually I began to expect Hershey to belt out, "No wire hangers, EVER!" I saw the film at a sparsely populated show in Marysville but I could practically hear the cackling from a large (and insufferable) U District audience as some of the bigger arguments played out. It seemed clear that Aronofsky and writers Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin intended "Black Swan" to be melodramatic but I'm not sure as to why they felt this was the right choice.
In terms of the performances Portman understands exactly what Aronofsky is going for even when we don't. As is the case with the film overall I'm still not sure if the performance really works or not but you certainly can't question her commitment to it. The same can be said for Hershey and Winona Ryder as a once great dancer unable to exit gracefully. Kunis and Cassel are terrific and manage to be subtle in comparison to everything surrounding them.
One thing I'm certain of is that it will take a second viewing for me to really solidify if I think "Black Swan" is a good movie or not. That said, the sort of broad almost comical melodrama that it is just isn't the sort of movie I really want to watch again. Even if I determine that "Black Swan" is a good film in my mind it will probably still be more a movie that I admire than one I really like. What I will say is that if you're interested in seeing it that you absolutely should. Then let me know what you thought of it.

True Grit - In the interest of full disclosure I have only seen snippets of the original 1969 film that won John Wayne his only Oscar. It is however sitting on the DVR so I'll be watching it any day now. As much as I love to rail against the remake insanity that grips Hollywood I have a hard time believing that Henry Hathaway's original will stand up against what the Coen Brothers have given us.
The set up is quite simple. It's the late 1870s and 14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is taking care of the business of having her murdered father buried. More to the point though is the business of avenging his death. The man who killed him, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), is on the run and she will stop at nothing for justice. When given three recommendations as to who the best man for the job would be in tracking down Chaney she chooses the man described as the cruelest, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).
Through sheer force of will she wins over the reluctant Cogburn to perform the task of finding Chaney and bringing him to justice. Also on the manhunt is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), tasked with bringing Chaney in to hang for another murder. The three make an unlikely team and it's no surprise that problems arise between them along the way. Through it all Mattie remains focused on the goal of capturing Tom Chaney and seeing him hanged for her father's killing.
Three years ago "No Country For Old Men" was described by many as a postmodern western. It was also quite possibly the best film the Coen Brothers have made, which is saying something. Now they have made their first "traditional" western. I put traditional in quotes because these are the Coens we're talking about after all. There are a few oddball touches that only the Coens could have concocted but for the most part, as they did with "No Country," they opt for simplicity in the storytelling.
In terms of the dialogue and the performances there is a sense that this is probably closer to the reality of the time period than westerns made back in the 1950s. As "The Assassination of Jesse James" did, "True Grit" acknowledges most of these men were not well educated and they certainly don't enunciate. There are moments as Cogburn when Bridges is unintelligible, something I usually find aggravating but it worked well here. Overall his performance is outstanding. He's a cantankerous yet lovable character on the surface but there's more going on underneath.
Damon is absolutely fascinating as LaBoeuf, a man who initially appears to be nothing but empty bluster. We see the depths of his character as well. As Chaney, Brolin is actually surprisingly amusing and in a way pitiable. There's also a wonderful turn from Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned Pepper (no relation as Lucky Ned is fictional). Robert Duvall played the role in 1969 and in a way he does again. Barry Pepper essentially becomes Duvall as Ned Pepper, even looking quite a bit like him. I wouldn't have thought that could work but it does in a big way.
Acting wise though, "True Grit" belongs to one person and it's Hailee Steinfeld. She's a virtual newcomer but she proves more than able as she shares the screen with some of the most talented actors in the world. Puzzlingly she's been receiving nominations for Best Supporting Actress from critics boards. Mattie Ross is the main character and Steinfeld easily has more screen time than anyone else. In my mind she gives quite possibly the best lead performance, male or female, that anyone has given in 2010. She displays Mattie's toughness and brutal honesty with wit and confidence. The title "True Grit" may have been meant to describe Cogburn but it is an even more accurate description of Mattie.
Fans of the Coen Brothers, westerns, and just great movies alike should be very happy with "True Grit." It's old fashioned in a new fashioned way. 9.5/10.

Monday, December 20, 2010

"Narnia" and "TRON"

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - At the end of "Prince Caspian," the second film in the "Narnia" series, lion king Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson) informed the two oldest Pevensie children Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell) that they would not be returning to Narnia. According to Aslan they had learned all the lessons they could from that world. As for the two younger Pevensies, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) they would return at the appropriate time, whenever that may be. Edmund and Lucy have clearly grown to be much more mature than Peter which seems to suggest that the oldest Pevensie just wasn't wanted there anymore.
A few years later with World War II in full swing, Edmund is still not old enough to enlist in the British army. With Peter and Susan off in America, Edmund and Lucy are staying with their aunt, uncle, and their insufferable young cousin Eustace (Will Poulter, "Son of Rambow"). Annoyed with the constant talk of "imaginary places," Eustace sees himself as far more serious and grown up than his cousins. During an argument with them in a guest bedroom a painting on the wall begins to move and within seconds the room is full of water and all three kids are sucked into Narnia and aboard a vessel named the Dawn Treader.
Edmund and Lucy couldn't be happier to see old friends such as King Caspian (Ben Barnes) and the brave little mouse Reepicheep (voice of Simon Pegg). Eustace meanwhile is less than thrilled to be aboard a ship with talking animals and obviously has some difficulty adjusting to it. More important than Eustace's feelings however is Caspian's mission. He is on a search for the Swords of the Seven Lost Lords of Narnia and is all too happy to have Edmund and Lucy to assist him. Finding them will be of paramount importance to defeating evil in Narnia.
The previous two "Narnia" films directed by Andrew Adamson were highly enjoyable if not earth shattering. "Dawn Treader," directed by Michael Apted, falls into the same category. Despite the change it maintains the feel of the first two movies. With Peter and Susan only making very brief appearances, Edmund and Lucy are developed much more here than before, which was fine by me as they were my two favorites from the beginning anyway. Keynes and Henley deliver solid performances as we see their two characters deal with their greatest fears. Poulter's performance is more difficult to judge. Eustace is an irritating character so whether Poulter did a good job or not he was going to be an annoying presence on screen. I think it works because (without giving any major plot or character points away) by the end I found myself liking Eustace and clearly we are meant to.
The effects work is quite good here as well. It's not easy to make humans interacting with talking animals work but it's pulled off nicely here. The CGI characters still look like CGI characters but they do come to life and we come to care about them as much as anyone else in the film. Pegg gives a fine vocal performance as Reepicheep though I'm not sure why he was cast in place of Eddie Izzard, who voiced the character in "Prince Caspian." They're equally good so it doesn't really matter in the end.
The Christian allegorical elements of the earlier stories are more evident here than before but they are there if you want them and easy enough to ignore if you don't. Either way what the three children learn along the way are good lessons for kids who incidentally, should enjoy this movie quite a bit. So will anyone who enjoyed "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" and "Prince Caspian." I hope this one does well enough to encourage Fox to make more. 7/10.

P.S.: I challenge any fan of "Ghostbusters" to not start chuckling at a certain rather serious moment in this movie. You'll know it when you see it.

TRON: Legacy - It's been 28 years since Disney released a fairly well-reviewed science fiction movie that was unfairly deemed a box-office failure (it earned almost twice what it cost to make). It seems hard to believe then that a 1982 sci-fi cult classic would end up with a sequel in 2010. Adding to the improbability, the studio trusted a first time director (Joseph Kosinski) with the sequel and its $170 million budget. So it may come as a surprise to some then that the result is an incredibly entertaining film.
In 1989, seven years after the events of "TRON," Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is a single father to a young boy named Sam and the highly successful CEO of ENCOM. Flynn's mysterious disappearance leaves ENCOM in the hands of greedy, lazy businessmen who his old partner Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) has little power to fight. Twenty years later though Alan gets a page from Flynn, leading Alan to convince Sam (Garrett Hedlund) to take a look at Flynn's old arcade for answers. The set up is entertaining enough but when Sam finds himself inside the Grid, "TRON: Legacy" becomes the movie I had hoped for.
Disc matches, light cycle races, Michael Sheen playing the love child of David Bowie and Gozer. It's all here. The story isn't as mindblowing as the look of the film, but the movie never felt like it existed solely to be an effects demonstration. Unlike a certain 3D megahit from this time last year or a certain prequel trilogy, I actually cared about the characters and didn't cringe whenever someone spoke. The screenplay and performances won't win any awards but they absolutely get the job done.
With so many movies being released in 3D now it's nice to see a film where it isn't an afterthought dealt with in a rush during post-production. Intended to be a 3D movie all along, the sequences where it's employed are immersive and exciting to watch. What's more, you want to be on the Grid playing the games (thanks to Wii, you can!). We don't simply have objects thrown at us as is typically the case when a filmmaker doesn't know what to do with the technology. Kosinski knows what he's doing with it and more importantly he knows how to make an entertaining movie. I look forward to more from him.
The only real problem I had with the film was the look of Clu, a program also played by Bridges. Flynn created Clu in his own image during the late '80s and unlike Flynn, he has not aged. There's something disconcerting about the very "Polar Express-y" look of Clu's face against everything else we see. This aside, "TRON: Legacy" is the sort of movie that shows what technology can do but remembers that the audience needs more than that. What we get is a movie that is just an incredible amount of fun. "TRON: Legacy" is a blast. 8/10.

Monday, December 13, 2010

127 Hours

On Friday April 25, 2003, 27 year old Aron Ralston headed out for a hiking trip into Utah's Blue John Canyon, territory he knew very well. The next afternoon he tried to get into a narrow canyon to take some pictures as a boulder got loose. He and the boulder both fell and before he knew it Ralston's right arm was pinned between the rock and the canyon wall. Having told no one where he was going and without a cell phone, Ralston knew he was in serious trouble. "127 Hours," tells the amazing true story of how he got free.
Ralston's story has been well known to the public at large for several years, making the exuberance of the early part of this film all the more impressive. Even knowing what is to come you can't help but enjoy watching Ralston (James Franco) bound across the rocky landscape and befriending two lost young women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn). Franco displays a devil may care charisma that immediately pulls us in. It doesn't hurt that it's directed and co-written by Danny Boyle, who has long had a knack for making wildly entertaining movies with often dour subject matter ("Trainspotting," "Slumdog Millionaire"). It is only when Ralston says a carefee goodbye to his new friends that a sense of dread begins to creep in. Not for Ralston, but most certainly for the audience. From this point forth "127 Hours" is an intense experience that is sometimes very difficult to watch, but ultimately uplifting and one of the few "inspirational" movies you'll ever see that actually earns that tag.
As he was trapped, the real Ralston took short breaks from trying to free himself by documenting the experience with his video camera, mainly to say goodbye to his parents, knowing he would probably not be getting out alive. His tape has not been released to the general public but it was shown to Franco and Boyle. It's unclear how much of what we see is verbatim from the real tape and how much is the invention of Boyle and co-writer Simon Beaufoy ("Slumdog Millionaire") but none of it feels false. Even Aron's mock TV morning show interview with himself in an attempt to keep himself sane comes off right.
Carrying virtually every moment of "127 Hours" squarely on his shoulders, Franco delivers a performance that will be long remembered and revered and with good reason. He lets us in on Ralston's thought process and emotional state through the entire ordeal striking every note perfectly. The title tells us how long it took Ralston to get out of the canyon and most who see the film will already know just what he had to do to get himself free. Franco's performance and Boyle's direction make the experience entirely engrossing. A great deal of credit goes to the sound department as well. Even if you can't bring yourself to look at the screen in certain moments you completely feel the intensity of Ralston's ultimate solution.
Although Aron Ralston had no one to physically help him for more than five days, "127Hours" is really the story of a lone wolf realizing he needed to get back to the people who loved him. He pulled himself out but it was a group of family and friends who saved him.
"127 Hours" is easily one of the best films of 2010 and Danny Boyle's best work since "Trainspotting." Many movies are described as powerful but this one truly is. Not many films get me near tears but "127 Hours" did. I can't recommend this highly enough. 10/10.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010


As all of you know I see myself a lot of movies. Whenever I watch something, in the back of my mind there's always the acknowledgment of things that came before or after it, depending on if it's a new or old film. This is especially true of movies that acknowledge what's come before themselves. What made my experience with "Tangled" so interesting is that I went to see it with my friend Amber who is a certified Disney Princessologist. While I've seen most of the earlier Disney princess films I don't know them inside and out the way she does. I realized though that for her and other D.P-ologists, it's what "Hot Fuzz" was for me when I first saw it in the theater. All of those references to action movies, most of which were non-specific or under the radar stuck out to me and provided a joke within a joke. In both "Hot Fuzz" and "Tangled" (and this will probably be the only time the two are compared) the references are sly enough that they don't make the film confusing or any less enjoyable if you don't know what they're in reference to. But if you do know them they make an already great movie all the more special.
Based upon "Rapunzel" by the Brothers Grimm, "Tangled" is the story of a young girl named, well, Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore). She is about to turn 18 and in some respects is a normal teenage girl. Her mind and heart are focused on a single dream and she desperately craves the approval of her mother. The dream and the mother however are not exactly normal. Plus there's the fact that she has the longest head of hair in the world which possesses supernatural properties and she's never left the tower she's lived in all her life.
When Rapunzel was born her birth mother, who happens to be the queen, became very sick. With the aid of a magical flower provided by an old woman named Gothel (Donna Murphy), the queen was healed. When the healing power transferred to Rapunzel the old woman kidnapped the child for her own to keep herself young. In the years since the queen and king have been despairing over the disappearance of their daughter. Every year however on her birthday, floating lights appear in the sky in the hopes that Rapunzel will find her way home.
Rapunzel doesn't know the reason the lights appear every year but the fact that they always come out on her birthday isn't lost on her. Her singular dream in life is to find out what they mean. Mother Gothel however has controlled and manipulated her so completely that Rapunzel fears stepping out into the world. Thankfully for the young girl however a potential guide and protector has arrived. At least that's what she convinces Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi, "Chuck") to become after she's bonked him on the head with a frying pan a few times.
Flynn is a thief who believes himself to be far more dashing than anyone else does. But with the help of Flynn, her faithful chameleon Pascal, and a horse who is Flynn's sworn enemy, Rapunzel goes off to find out the reason for the lights. Along the way they encounter singing vikings and royal guardsmen.
"Tangled" is an astonishingly good film. In a year that has already seen three great animated movies come before it ("Toy Story 3," "Despicable Me," and "How to Train Your Dragon"), this may be the best of the bunch and I don't say that lightly. The comedy has a modern sensibility but it also has a classiness to it that's rare for any modern day movie, animated or otherwise. While it's full of references to previous Disney princess films (as evidenced by the many notes Amber took) they're not done in an obnoxious way. They slip in and out of the movie and it doesn't matter if you catch them all or not (I didn't).
The three main roles are incredibly well developed. Mother Gothel isn't just an evil old stepmother. She isn't a likeable character but she is a strangely sympathetic one. She loves what Rapunzel provides her with and is determined to keep that at all costs, even though it's meant a lifetime of psychological damage to the young girl. Even so, Mother Gothel has a shred of goodness to her. If nothing else she makes a point of making Rapunzel her favorite meal from time to time and provides her with things to make life in the tower more bearable. It is though, only a shred.
Rapunzel is a fantastic character. She does begin as a timid girl who fears essentially everything but that's the product of Gothel's manipulation and that's where she has to begin for this story to work. As she goes on her adventure the movie does an outstanding job of illustrating her constant internal struggle between doing as she's been told her whole life and becoming a strong person. This struggle is played for laughs at first but it ultimately is incredibly well done and what makes the character so fascinating and why we get so invested in her.
Flynn is every bit as well explored as the others. He becomes a better and more honest man due to his association with Rapunzel. Through it all though he remains very funny due to both the animation and the excellent vocal performance by Levi. He's exactly the right balance of wannabe Han Solo smarminess and real hero. Flynn possesses both qualities all along but over the course of "Tangled" the ratio changes for the better.
With a screenplay by Dan Fogelman and directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, "Tangled" is beautifully animated (water looks so real here) and really should appeal to most anyone regardless of age or gender. While the story is perfectly suited to be a Disney princess fairytale there are flashes of Looney Tunes style comedy here that nine year old boys will love. The songs are also terrific. It's not easy to make songs feel organic or not disrupt a movie's flow. They're perfect here. And as far as the inevitable romance between Flynn and Rapunzel is concerned it plays exactly how it should. We understand why these two love each other, it's not just a function of the plot needing them to fall in love. The moment they realize their feelings for each other and open up about them is the precise moment in the film when they should.
So now that I've thought about the movie more and written my review I've realized that what I was going to rate a 9 I'm actually going to rate a 10. Because it's just that outstanding. It's only the second one I've doled out all year (the first being for "Inception"). Yes, Disney Princessologists will get something extra out of "Tangled" that the rest of us won't, but when a movie is this great it really doesn't matter. 10/10.