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, December 26, 2011

The Artist

When I first saw "OSS 117" at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2006 I discovered an actor with one of the most expressive faces I'd ever seen. Jean Dujardin showed he possessed more comic talent in his eyebrows than most actors do in their entire bodies. At the time of course I had no idea what "OSS" writer-director Michel Hazanavicius had in mind for Dujardin in the future but once I heard what it was I knew it was going to be something special.
"The Artist" is a (mostly) silent, black and white film and it is the perfect showcase for its star. It's Hollywoodland, 1927, and superstar George Valentin (Dujardin) has yet another hit on his hands. It is clear from the reception to "A Russian Affair," that Valentin's star shines as brightly as Keaton's or Chaplin's and what's more, he knows and loves it. He also doesn't mind aggravating his leading lady (Missi Pyle), his producer Al Zimmer (John Goodman), or his wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller). Still, he has great affection for his valet Clifton (James Cromwell) and his loyal canine co-star (Uggie the Dog).
After the premiere of "A Russian Affair" however, someone else enters the picture; hopeful young dancer and actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). There is an instant connection and slowly Peppy's star begins to rise. George is only too happy for her until Zimmer decides that silent films (and thus George) are the past. Talkies and Peppy are the future. George considers talking on screen to be beneath him and feels that talkies will be a failed experiment but a combination of being wrong and the stock market crashing effectively end his career. He attempts to pick up the pieces on his own while Peppy becomes a bigger and bigger star, but she continues to love the man who gave her her start.
Hazanavicius has written and directed a film that most filmmakers would be far too afraid to make. He reminds us all though that the loss of silent film as an art form more than 80 years ago was a sad one. His love and respect for it is in the details such as shooting it in the aspect ratio of the day, 1.33:1 (what TVs used to be before HD) and his supreme confidence in his cast. Dujardin is beyond wonderful and proves to be a true artist himself. It's clear that had he been born in another era he could have been as popular and beloved as Valentin in the mid-'20s. Bejo is excellent as well. She clearly pours her heart into the role of Peppy and shows her talent knows no time period bounds.
One of the advantages of making a silent film is that French leads such as Dujardin and Bejo can easily share the screen with Goodman, Miller, and Cromwell who provide fantastic support. I'd be incredibly remiss however if I didn't make special mention of Uggie, who may be the finest movie dog since Asta from the "Thin Man" series. I could watch Uggie and Dujardin play on screen again and again. They obviously have a lot of fun together. The music of Ludovic Bource is superb as well. A perfect fit.
"The Artist" is a movie for true film lovers. It is made with love and a sense of joy that is incredibly rare. I believe as well that Hazanavicius hopes to encourage those who haven't to give silent movies a try. He wants a new generation to discover Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and so many others. This makes me love his film all the more. I hope that many more will love it too. 10/10 ("The Arist" is currently in limited release. In Seattle it is playing at the Harvard Exit.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Melancholia" and "Young Adult"

Melancholia - I had only seen one Lars von Trier movie before. It was the well made but monumentally depressing Bjork vehicle "Dancer in the Dark." Yes, I just used the words, "Bjork vehicle." And when I say monumentally depressing I don't mean it was sad or it bummed me out a little. I mean for the last hour of the movie I felt as though life was horrible and nothing would ever be good again. That's the effect it had.
My friend Justin meanwhile has also only seen one von Trier film, "Antichrist." His description of that made "The Human Centipede" sound like a feel good romp. So why would I want to see another movie directed by this bizarre Danish man? ...I don't know, "Melancholia" just looked interesting.
The film is the story of two sisters fighting their own battles with depression. Oh, and there's a giant planet that may or may not collide with earth. Which would be bad. The younger sister, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), has just married Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and due in part to limo difficulties they are two hours late to their own reception. In these early moments we see Justine laugh and enjoying her big day. Upon their arrival however, the anger of her older sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and the bile of their despicable mother (Charlotte Rampling) fuel the deep sadness that lurks under the surface. The rest of the night is a disaster and an embarrassment to Claire and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), who are hosting the event. It doesn't end well either. All of this takes place before it is known by the characters that the planet Melancholia is coming near earth.
"Melancholia" is a moody, atmospheric film that I just liked for some reason. I can't say why and I really couldn't tell you what von Trier is really trying to say. But despite it's subject matter and who made it I didn't find it to be nearly as bleak as "Dancer in the Dark." It's not a fun film but in its way it's entertaining and it features terrific performances all around, particularly from its two female leads.
What else can I say about "Melancholia"? I wouldn't recommend it to most people, not even most people who enjoy independent films, but if you like your movies brimming with atmosphere, this is one you don't want to miss. 8/10.

Young Adult - It's hard to believe that it was four years ago that Diablo Cody burst into the film world with her Oscar winning screenplay for "Juno." For a period in early 2008 she was the toast of Hollywood for writing a movie that while quite good, contained the words, "honest to blog," along with a few other clunkers. Its quirkiness (how I've come to loathe that word) prompted people who never watched independent movies to boast that they knew "indies" inside and out. This of course led to a backlash which for better or worse I was a part of. I don't think "Young Adult" is going to inspire that same kind of reaction but for me, that's a great thing.
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is the ghost writer of a once popular series of young adult novels. She is also a deeply troubled 37 year old woman who can barely take care of herself or her little dog. She also guzzles Diet Coke as though it were the nectar of life.
Living alone in Minneapolis and attempting to write the final book of the "Waverly Prep" series (due to its waning popularity the publisher is cancelling it), Mavis receives an e-mail with a birth announcement. Her old boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) are now proud parents. Mavis reacts to this news the way any rational adult would. She gets into her car and drives to the small town of Mercury, Minnesota to reclaim Buddy and take him away from his wife and child. "Babies are boring!" she declares.
Upon her arrival in Mercury she runs into someone she barely remembers from high school but who most definitely remembers her. Matt Freehauf's (Patton Oswalt) locker was next to her for four years but its only after a few drinks that Mavis remembers him. And as the victim of a hate crime. A group of jocks who had mistakenly believed Matt to be gay pummelled him within an inch of his life forcing him to walk with a cane. When Mavis opens up to Matt about her reason for being back in town he foresees disaster but nothing will deter her.
"Young Adult" could have been a very predictable and cliched dark comedy full of uncomfortable moments that the filmmakers "dared" you to laugh at. Instead it manages to surprise and while there are laughs to be had (and some are uncomfortable) there's a sense of reality here that is deeply sad. Most movies in this vein would have milked Matt's story for "edgy" laughs at his expense. But this movie acknowledges that his story is anything but funny. Matt laughs to keep from crying.
Mavis meanwhile, is not only unlikeable she's borderline horrific. Yet there is a severely broken heart there that the average dark indie comedy either wouldn't show us or would merely touch upon at the last minute to try to fool us into thinking the film had something to say when it actually didn't. Cody's outstanding script and Theron's marvelous performance provide Mavis with a wealth of depth. They allow us to recognize something of Mavis in someone we may know or even, yes, ourselves.
Director Jason Reitman ("Juno," "Up in the Air") always displays a light touch but it always seems to work. He never overwhelms the story or gets in the way of the dialogue or the performances. Cody, for my money anyway, has grown tremendously since "Juno." There are no cringe worthy lines or characters here. In addition to Theron, the rest of the cast is excellent. Wilson does a wonderful job as the very likeable Buddy, who is either ignoring Mavis' signals out of politeness or just isn't picking up on them. But Oswalt is pitch perfect in a role that deserves Oscar consideration. He's proving himself to be more than just a stand up comic turned actor. This is a man of enormous acting talent.
"Young Adult" is easily one of the best films of 2011 and it will almost certainly be passed over by the vast majority of people who fell in love with "Juno" back in 2007. So much the better. 9/10.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

"The Descendants" and "Arthur Christmas"

The Descendants - "Election." "About Schmidt." "Sideways." Alexander Payne doesn't do pleasant. What he does do are character studies of people who are at best deeply flawed and at worst thoroughly unlikeable and he does it very well. With "The Descendants," he returns after a seven year absence. Payne is still Payne but in his time off he seems to have developed a gift for empathy. A little bit of it anyway.
Matt King (George Clooney) considers himself "the back-up parent" to his two daughters, ten year old Scottie (Amara Miller) and seventeen year old Alex (Shailene Woodley). It's something he does when he has time outside of his demanding work as a lawyer and as the only trustee of a large piece of virgin Hawaiian land. With his wife Elizabeth in a coma however, Matt has to step up and has no idea what to do.
Scottie has begun acting out in ways she never has before while incidents of getting drunk on school grounds are typical for Alex. The strain on the family only grows when Alex reveals to Matt that in the months leading up to her coma, Elizabeth had been having an affair.In spite of the setup and subject matter, "The Descendants" manages to be a more "likeable" film than you would imagine. Like Payne's other films there is a comic throughline to make all of the heaviness more palatable. For the most part it works, the comic aspects feeling natural rather than forced. There are moments however that don't click, many of them involving Scottie's behavior. Payne and co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash created a fine screenplay but they don't really deliver a totally believable ten year old. Scenes of her flipping someone off or trying out a new swear word she's learned from Alex don't really come off like the acts of a child actually doing these things (which of course kids do). They come off like an adult's attempt to write a kid. Amara Miller, in her first role, doesn't really play these scenes well either. That said, she handles some of the heavier dramatic moments very well.
Overall the acting is rock solid. Clooney is fantastic in one of the better performances of his career. As with "Up in the Air" it's the perfect marriage of "laid back Clooney" ("Out of Sight") and "serious Clooney" ("The American"). Woodley is very good as well, which is particularly evident in her scenes with Clooney. Their father-daughter relationship is a decidedly complex one but believable. They have their problems, she takes shots at him fair and unfair but ultimately she loves her dad and is rooting for him through the struggles. As her friend Sid, Nick Krause gives a very memorable and funny performance as an annoying, empty-headed, but ultimately likeable kid, who somehow seems to provide some sort of comfort to the King family.
"The Descendants" is a film that deservedly received several Golden Globe nominations this morning and will no doubt be a contender come Oscar time. The sense of place Payne establishes goes a long way towards its success. Its Hawaiian flavor permeates the film but in a way that doesn't distract. The film and its characters are well aware that Hawaii isn't quite like anyplace else but it's not paradise or a place to get away. It's just where they happen to live. It's a detail that makes "The Descendants" unique. This is one very good film. 9/10.

Arthur Christmas - Santa Claus the Nineteenth (voice of Jim Broadbent) is going out for his final Christmas Eve mission. Having been Santa since World War II he's an old pro, and he's employed modern technology in the art of present delivery. Instead of a sleigh he travels in something more closely resembling an alien space craft and rather than sliding down each individual chimney he tasks an army of elves to deliver gifts to an entire city in a matter of minutes. This Swiss watch operation is overseen by his oldest son, and heir to the red suit, Steve (Hugh Laurie).
Steve looks at the big picture but his younger brother Arthur (James McAvoy) sees each individual child. Due to his clumsiness, Steve and the elves try to keep Arthur out of the way, which means the head job in Santa's mail room. He loves Christmas more than anyone else at the North Pole and is determined that the wish of each and every child comes true. He has a deep admiration for his father but it's put to the test when a bike isn't delivered to a little girl in England due to a slight mishap. Santa and Steve are content to shrug a single missed child in the whole world off but Arthur won't have it. With the help of crusty old Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and a dedicated elf (Ashley Jensen, "Extras"), little Gwen is going to get her bicycle no matter what.
Produced by Aardman ("Wallace and Gromit"), "Arthur Christmas" is, not surprisingly, full of heart. While the film is CG animated, not stop motion, it still feels like an Aardman effort through and through. Directed by Sarah Smith, with a screenplay by Smith and Peter Baynham, it's an enjoyable story that encourages kids to maintain their enthusiasm in any and all circumstances. It also features some terrific voicework, particularly from Nighy. His Grandsanta has been in retirement for 70 years and at the age of 136 (by his own admission) he simply has no use for modern ways. A sleigh, eight tiny reindeer, and some magic dust are all he needs and he would never dream of sending an elf to go in through a window when he himself could "go down the chimbley." Smith and Baynham give Grandsanta all of their funniest lines and Nighy makes the most of them.
What holds "Arthur Christmas" back a bit is that Grandsanta aside it's never really as funny as it ought to be. There are certainly a few assorted gems but there are several moments when the comedy just doesn't hit the way it should. It keeps a good movie from becoming a great one.
Only time will tell if this gets added to the rotation of essential Christmas movies but even if it's not great you will enjoy yourself and it will make you feel just that much more Christmasy. 7/10.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Muppets

As children, brothers Gary and Walter were inseparable. Gary included Walter in everything. Baseball, the scouts, but Walter never felt he belonged in the world around him. Until the night the brothers and best friends discovered “The Muppet Show.” For the first time Walter saw people (and animals) who bore a striking resemblance to him. Yes, Walter is a Muppet too.
More than a decade later Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter (performed by Peter Linz) still share a room at their home in Smalltown. Gary is taking his girlfriend of ten years, Mary (Amy Adams), to Los Angeles to celebrate their anniversary. Coming along will be Walter who hopes to see the Muppet studio and meet all of his heroes. What he discovers though is that the studio is rundown and about to be bought by greedy oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Walter enlists the help of Gary and Mary to try to convince Kermit and the others to reunite after years apart to put on a show and save the studio. This is all the plot that this movie requires.
Written by Segel with Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) and directed by James Bobin (“Flight of the Conchords”), this is a film brimming with innocent fun and unapologetic silliness. It’s clear that all involved fully understand what always made the Muppets work and why. No one got the bright idea to try to make the Muppets edgy or include an avalanche of “Shrek”-style double entendres. This is a world where characters not only break into song, they can get places faster by “traveling by map,” and no mistake is too big that it can’t be fixed by a simple apology and some flowers. As the opening song (“Life’s a Happy Song”) suggests, you won’t be able to wipe the smile off your face. This song and the others written by Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords strike exactly the right tone.
Not only do the script, direction and music get everything right, the performances of Segel and Adams are simply perfect. Has there ever been an actress more suited to the Muppet world than Amy Adams? As for the Muppets themselves, despite the absence of Jim Henson or Frank Oz, the performances are wonderful. Really the only weak point in the entire film is Cooper, an actor I normally love. I understand he’s the villain and has a different mentality than any other character in the film but he never seems quite at home acting with Muppets.
“The Muppets” is every bit as magical as you’d hoped. It’s so delightful that it makes you wish that it were physically possible to hug a movie. It’s that loveable. 9/10.