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.

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.


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