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, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games

Unlike most everyone I know, I have not yet read the wildly popular Suzanne Collins novel The Hunger Games. My initial impression based upon a quick synopsis of the story was that it was "The Running Man" with a teenage girl playing Arnold Schwarzenegger. As it happens there's a little bit of truth to that but as most everyone reading this review already knows it's far from the whole story.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, "The Hunger Games" is set in Panem, a nation that sprang up after an unsuccessful uprising presumably in North America 74 years before. Panem's one real city, the Capitol is the seat of all wealth and power while twelve outlying districts languish in poverty. As punishment for the uprising the Capitol has an annual "reaping" from all 12 districts. These "reapings" entail choosing one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to represent their districts in the annual Hunger Games. They are then sent out into the "arena" in which they are forced to fight to the death in front of a rabid television audience. Only one out of the twenty four will survive.Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, "Winter's Bone") is a sixteen year old in District 12. She provides for her mother and twelve year old sister Primrose (Willow Shields) by hunting illegally in the woods with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Since her father was killed in a coal mining accident, her bow and arrow have been a lifesaver for her family. When Primrose is chosen as the girl from District 12 Katniss knows it is a death sentence for her little sister. Desperately she volunteers to go in Prim's place as "tribute." Meanwhile, sixteen year old Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, "The Kids Are All Right") is chosen as the boy.
Katniss and Peeta do not go immediately to the arena. First they must train and receive mentorship from a previous winner (Woody Harrelson), all while appearing on television with colorful host and Hunger Games commentator Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, who's clearly having a lot of fun).Directed by Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit"), "The Hunger Games" is written by Ross, Billy Ray ("Shattered Glass"), and Collins herself. What they have created- at least from the standpoint of someone who's not read the books- is the perfect popcorn movie. Strangely for its dystopian premise it is actually extremely accessible which is no doubt the key to its mass appeal. Most every step of the way I felt I knew what was to come next and more often than not I was right. This wasn't disappointing however. The choices felt right as though most every decision is what you felt should happen. (I would imagine the book plays out the same way.) It's incredibly involving as well. When you finally do get into the arena, which seemed surprisingly far into the the movie, the sense of tension is remarkably strong. It's a real credit to the quality of the storytelling that the story is engrossing rather than horrifying. Remember, in this world 23 children are being sent to their deaths for the sake of entertainment.
All in all, the film is well cast. Established stars such as Tucci, Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Donald Sutherland give fine, often theatrical performances, while some of the younger actors such as Hutcherson and Amandla Stenberg (Rue) do good work. It's Lawrence's star making performance as Katniss that is truly remarkable. Already the recipient of a well deserved Oscar nomination for "Winter's Bone," Lawrence makes us truly believe that Katniss not only can but will win. Even when the situation is dire and she's outnumbered there's a sense that she's not really the one who's in trouble. It never comes off as a cheap "girl power" gimmick though. Katniss Everdeen isn't merely an archetypal tough girl, she's a real character with depth.
As the film ended I still had questions but questions that I feel confident will be answered in its subsequent sequels. "The Hunger Games" is a very entertaining film with far more intelligence than the average popcorn movie. I very much look forward to seeing what happens next. 8/10.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Lorax

I knew I was in trouble during the opening song of "The Lorax." It stunk with the kind of smug preachiness that never goes over well for me. "Will the whole movie be like this?" I asked myself. Unfortunately the answer turned out to be (mostly) yes.
Young Ted Wiggins (voice of Zac Efron) has a crush on Audrey (Taylor Swift), a neighbor a few years older than he is. The two have only ever known a world made entirely of plastic, which even includes trees. Aloysius O'Hare (Rob Riggle), the mayor of their home town of Thneedville, also owns the most powerful corporation in town. He's so powerful in fact that he's able to sell the people of Thneedville air in a bottle and the citizens love him for it. Audrey has a fascination however. A fascination with real trees and a great desire to see one. Ted of course makes it his mission to find a real tree and bring it to her. This sends him on a journey outside of town to a wasteland inhabited only by the Once-ler (Ed Helms). The Once-ler explains to Ted that he is responsible for the disappearance of real trees from Thneedville and he tells his story of how he met the Lorax (Danny DeVito).
The Lorax was a friend to all of the creatures of the world, but most of all, to the trees. When the young Once-ler chopped a single one down to begin his business of selling "thneeds," the Lorax appeared to mourn its loss and to prevent another one from being cut down. The Once-ler promised him that he wouldn't chop down another tree but his greed got the better of him and before long he'd cut down every truffula tree in sight.
Ted hopes that he'll be able to find another tree to show Audrey, while O'Hare will do anything in his power to stop the potential threat to his business.
I've always been a Dr. Seuss fan but my familiarity with this particular story was limited to seeing the 1972 TV special about 20 years ago. I accepted going in that its message might be laid on a little thick but this went well beyond the bounds of say, even "Cars 2." Watching it is like being awash in a sea of liberal guilt for 86 minutes to the point where you wonder how the filmmakers thought anyone could possibly enjoy it. There's nothing wrong with having a message in a film but you wrap it up inside a story that's entertaining or moving because we enjoy its world and care about its characters. "Wall-E" accomplished that with flying colors. The makers of "The Lorax" seemed to take the opposite approach. Its preachiness causes much of the comedy to fall flat and inspires us to either not care about its characters or dislike them altogether.
One of the reasons Dr. Seuss was so great was that he understood that one has to care about what happens to the people, animals,...trees in a story in order to get anything out of it. On that count this movie gets it wrong. 4/10.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"The Secret World of Arrietty" and "Act of Valor"

The Secret World of Arrietty - Studio Ghibli is considered by some to be the Pixar of Japan (or is Pixar the American Studio Ghibli?). Its films, comprised mainly of the work of Hayao Miyazaki, have dazzled children and adults around the world for decades. Their latest, based upon the popular Mary Norton novel, The Borrowers, tells the story of miniscule people who live in the walls and under the floorboards of human homes. Arrietty (voiced for the American release by Bridgit Mendler) is about to be thirteen and is very excited about her "first borrowing." She'll be accompanying her father Pod (Will Arnett) on a mission to get some necessary items from the kitchen of their hosts. Her mother Homily (Amy Poehler) frets for her daughter's safety.
The venture seems to be successful until a human child, Shawn (David Henrie), who is around Arrietty's age, sees her from his bed. Arrietty has been taught all her life to fear humans but Shawn is a gentle soul and she seems to know it. The frail, bed-ridden Shawn seeks out a new friend, while Arrietty tries to reconcile what she's been told her whole life with her own intuition.
Written by Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, "The Secret World of Arrietty" is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. It's a very quiet and thoughtful film and tells a nice, if somewhat slight, story. If you're a Miyazaki fan it probably won't top your list but you will enjoy it. 7/10.

Act of Valor - Going into this unique film I knew that it starred real active duty Navy Seals. This would mean it would have spectacular action sequences, the likes of which we've never seen before. It also meant that I would lower my expectations as far as acting and dialogue were concerned. These guys put their lives on the line in dangerous situations and kill terrorists for a living. I'm willing to look past the fact that they don't possess the acting chops of Edward Norton. This movie would have to be judged by a different standard.
Having said all of that it's difficult not to judge it by well, the same standard as anything else. As expected, the action scenes in which the Seals really get to show what they can do, are incredible. It's the inclusion of a narrative that is problematic. Making a documentary style drama that didn't require these men to act outside of the action scenes surely would have worked better. As it is, the non-combat dialogue scenes amongst the Seals are limited but it's still asking more of them than should have been asked and the scenes are meant to be powerful. I don't blame the non-actor actors for this, I blame the filmmakers who asked them to do that kind of dramatic heavy lifting.
There is, it should be said, one moment in which one of these non-actors gets to shine in a one on one face off. Senior Chief Petty Officer Miller (we are given no full names of characters or Seal actors), whose overall performance is a little less wooden than the rest of the Seals, interrogates a captured suspect (played by actor Alex Veadov) aboard the suspect's own yacht. In this moment, we see a man with a playful streak to his menace. ("You've never seen 'Star Trek?' That's insane.") As the scene progresses he becomes more terrifying by the second, using nothing but his words. Knowing he interrogates real terror suspects for a living made me feel that much safer. It's the one genuinely good piece of Seal acting in the film and it is the most memorable scene in the entire movie.
Honestly, I feel bad saying anything negative about a film that so positively portrays the people who protect this country every day. There are many things to recommend here but I can't go so far as to say that "Act of Valor" is a truly good movie. You just can't ask non-actors to carry emotionally powerful scenes like so many key moments in this film are meant to be. While I certainly never expected them to be great actors, the filmmakers shouldn't have expected them to be either. It's a glaring fault that I just can't ignore. 6/10.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sound of Noise

The cop film, while being one of my favorite genres, rarely yields true originality anymore. But this highly inventive Swedish comedy takes the cop film in a direction we've never seen- or heard- before.
Amadeus Warnebring (Bengt Nilsson) was raised by musical prodigies and his younger brother is now the conductor of the most respected orchestra in Sweden. But being tone-deaf meant Amadeus and his family knew from a young age his future would lay elsewhere. Now he's a detective on the trail of a group of musical terrorists, whose aim is to shake up the world around them through vigilante acts of percussion.
The terrorists in question include four remarkably talented drummers with a disdain for the average piece of music and the law. They are led by a conductor named Magnus (Magnus Borjeson) and Sanna (Sanna Persson), whose wild musical experimentation got her kicked out of music school years earlier. This hasn't deterred her exploration in the least. The plan the six hatch is to perform a concert in four movements around their city. Not to kill anyone, not for money, but to bring exciting music to a world they feel sadly lacks it. The lengths they go to however are what make this a big case for the music hating Amadeus.
Written and directed by Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, "Sound of Noise" has a spirit of fun that makes its premise really fly in ways that it wouldn't have had its creators been too smugly impressed with their own work. It has its flaws but they're largely forgiveable as the film as a whole is just so likeable. Its score, written by Bjoreson, and actually performed by his character's gang of "terrorists," is unlike any film score you've ever heard and perfectly captures the movie's world.
I'm very happy to recommend "Sound of Noise." Its one week run at the Varsity in Seattle ends tomorrow night but look for it soon on DVD and Blu-ray. 8/10.