Monthly Archives: March 2014

The LEGO Movie

The LEGO Movie is one of the pictures where the less said about it ahead of time, the better. So I won’t say a lot about the specifics.

But I will say that this movie works on so many levels at once, it’s clear that despite the ease with which it unfolds on the screen, the lines and plot and themes were carefully thought through. This movie was lovingly crafted, and with deep respect for its audience. What comes off as cliche in other movies did not scan as cliche here.

It works as a pop-culture smorgasbourd (anything from fantasy and comic book tropes to science fiction movies and Saturday morning cartoons).

It works as a nostalgic peek at the toys that multiple generations have built with.

It works as a humor Gatlin gun, one laugh flung right after the next so that you might miss a few zingers if you’re not attentive.

It works as a self-referential story with strong overtones of The Matrix, dovetailing the efforts of freedom fighters to overthrow a despotic regime with one LEGO figure’s quest to find meaning for himself.

It works as an exploration of the relationship between parent and child — what kinds of expectations exist and what kinds of interactions are ultimately productive for everyone.

It works as a criticism of cultures that alternately squelch out creativity and freedom in favor of mindless productivity and efficiency, while at the same time frantically stoking the self-indulgent fires of each individual’s imagined self-importance.

It also works at the best kind of advertisement, not just as a venue for multiple product placement or by presenting options for what one can build with LEGOs, but by respecting and encouraging the creative spark that exists in EVERY person regardless of whether someone is zany or traditional, old or young. It says that we all can be remarkably inventive, regardless of our personality style, without a quiver of exploitation or snark in its voice.

And this last bit, in a movie that could have easily veered into becoming mostly cynical or somewhat trite, that could have favored part of its audience at the exclusion of other parts but didn’t, is what makes it truly remarkable.

4.5/5

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Divergent

One of Divergent’s strengths is that it isn’t “The Host” or “I Am Number Four,” but every time the movie almost becomes interesting, it swerves back to the format’s conventions.

Divergent is one of those vague post-apocalyptic tales that looks like it was paid for on someone’s credit card despite an $85 million budget.  It looks like it was shot in the ghost city of Pripyat, Ukraine; there are very little special effects (aside from maybe parts of the “fear” sequences and the short-lived zipline scene); and the prop lists consists of a train always running in the same direction, a springy net, an assortment of plastic guns, and whatever non-descript clothes the characters wear on their backs.

(As “The Host” exemplified, sometimes less is, well, less.)

People have labeled “Divergent” as “Hunger Games Lite,” which is understandable but rather unfair because “The Hunger Games” at least seems to make more sense. A revolution against the ruling class leads to the subjugated provinces being forced to pay tribute and having their children drafted into annual games for sport? That story is an old one; I can buy it.

What we have here, though, is more of internalized angst — the unnuanced adolescent quest for identity coupled with typical cynical mistrust of the system — externalized into a contrived plot. The remnants of Chicago have been divided into five rigid factions to which everyone must belong; and unless you’re “Divergent” (i.e., don’t fit into the system), you’re presented as part of the uninspired 95% — soulless, uninventive drones who just follow orders and support the establishment. Rebel against the system? Any sane person would, or at least set up a council populated by people from all the factions; but apparently few of the adults have any backbone or common sense, so that job is going to fall to the kids. The movie seems to be a cross between flipping the bird at tests like the popularized Myers-Briggs Trait Inventory (MBTI) and the typical unease teens feel at the thought of selling out one’s ambitions to find economic and social security in an undesirable career.

Woodley plays Beatrice (later renaming herself “Tris,” which sounds less stodgy), a daughter of Abnegationists who has reached the age of choice, but of course she tests as a multiple (Divergent) and ends up choosing Dauntless — which is not just the most exciting-looking faction but the one most convenient for the plot (since it allows for fighting and action sequences — the movie would far slower if she had picked the equivalent of the farmers, altruists, lawyers, or brainiacs). While they’re supposed to be cops and soldiers, Dauntless seems to spend the days and nights running around town whooping like drunk frat boys on the last day of class, climbing stuff and jumping off things. I suspect their mortality rate is much higher than the other factions.

Woodley is never quite convincing as a girl with enough edge to stay in the game; underneath she seems soft rather than hard. It’s telling that, no matter what trouble she gets herself into, her eyebrows and hair remain picture-perfect or merely mussed in the way a model’s would be. However, she and Tobias (Theo James, noticeably older than his character but more than adequately solid and empathetic) hold the movie together; both are likeable and relate well to each other, and I wanted to see them happy.

The movie trundles on by the numbers, each beat as predictable as the rails under a train track. Tris is the underdog but manages to make each cut mostly because she doesn’t quit. Tobias, the hot, kind, quiet guy, of course falls for her. And of course he is Divergent as well. (Believe me, that’s not really a spoiler.) She manages to bump a few times into Jeanine, the head of Erudite who also serves as the movie’s baddy; and Winselt plays the role with perfunctory coolness that doesn’t fool us for a second about her regard for Tris as more of a structural nuisance rather than an interesting rarity. Toss in some predictable family tragedy to clean up loose plot threads + provide additional motivation for Tris to really rebel, and you’ve got your setup for the next movie.

I can’t speak for Roth’s original text (which I haven’t read but suspect was deeper), nor for the travails of condensing this book to the screen, but the movie as completed seems overgeneralized — vague and thin. What would have happened if the factions and adults had been treated less as cliches? What if the deck hadn’t been stacked so much in favor of the Divergents? I’m hoping that later movies will reveal substantial reasons that could justify the existence of the faction system, or at least why the authorities fear those who have no regard for the establishment aside from simply the threat of losing their power.

You don’t necessarily need to be Divergent in order to be cool.

 

2.5/5

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Movie 43

I’ll just come right out and say it: I think it’s silly to give a comedy movie a Razzie award. I think the Razzies should be aimed towards movies that try to be taken seriously and yet end up being impossible to see as anything but a big joke.

Comedy is also in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. You can figure this out just by seeing what comedy shows are on television and noting the vast degree of difference — even if we just focus ones that actually have developed followings, we’ve got anything from All in the Family, Cheers, The Facts of Life, and The Office to Futurama, Archer, Robot Chicken, Kids in the Hall, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And that’s barely scratching the surface. Typically what one person thinks is funny, there’s someone else in the world who thinks it’s stupid. That’s the nature of comedy.

Movie 43 can deservedly take some crap (literally) for catering to the lowest-common denominators: scatalogical and sexual humor. While compilation comedy movies like “The Kentucky Fried Chicken Movie” and “Amazon Women on the Moon” (both of which are worth seeing, btw) manage to vary things up and branch into the silly with only a few nods to sex, Movie 43 can’t seem to move away aside from the topic — well, aside from a clip about a pissy little leprechaun, that is, and another one about how blacks dominate basketball. But it doesn’t mean that none of the clips are amusing, if you can handle the subject matter.

It’s also rather amazing at the degree of talented actors who agreed to play a small role in the movie — we’re talking about Academy-Award winners/nominees here. There’s at least one star in every clip who is high-profile in the acting business, as well as the thin but sometimes amusing storyline that connects everything involves Dennis Quaid, Greg Kinnear, and Seth MacFarlane, among others. (I guess I’m just amused that Dennis Quaid can actually come off looking like a crackhead living in a Dumpster behind Sears somewhere.) I’m not sure what favors g0t called in here, but someone was really saving up for a long time.

Not all of the segments are as funny as others. Some might even be (as expected in a string of comedy sketches) offensive to some. My personal favorite is “Homeschooled,” starring Naomi Watts and Liev Schrieber (ironically, a couple in real life) as parents raising their teenager at home while trying to provide him with an “authentic high school experience” … which ends up being full of enough existential angst, alienation, and social rejection/abuse to give some of us flashbacks of our own miserable teen years. (You have been warned.) But I still laughed at some of the fake ads, the Speed Dating bit (with a pervo Batman trying to help Robin — impeccably cast as Justin Long — score with the ladies), and even the opening clip with Hugh Jackman as the guy who has dangly bits hanging from his throat and Kate Winslet as his unsettled date gets some mileage.

No, it’s not high art, but was it the worst movie of the year enough to win the Razzie? Do we laugh at something because it’s funny, or do we think something is funny because we laughed? Well, as Veronica says, let’s not have another chicken or egg debate…

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Turbo (3D)

The idea of a snail “going fast” (enough to compete in the Indianapolis 500) is a nicely amusing one, but a great high concept is only the first part of a successful movie.

The positives? Turbo 3D looks beautiful. The colors are remarkable. The 3D is vivid. The shots of the yard and garden are breathtaking. The crows really look like crows. Turbo also looks rather cool zipping around, with that blue nitrous oxide trail highlighting his wake, even if the science involved there belongs on Amazing Spiderman 2 this May and not really in high-school bio lab.

The negative? There’s nothing unexpected here, you pretty much can predict every beat of this by-the-numbers story… it even steals from Talladega Nights (which was a more dramatically interesting movie, sadly). Nothing is really “wrong” with the movie, but nothing really stands out either. It’s one of those animated movies that kids who like fast things will enjoy watching to pass the time, which is why Netflix also made a series out of it, but it’s not really something that sticks in your heart and soul. There’s a conscious attempt at multiculturalism (Hispanic), but it all seems to focus on the cosmetics.

Still, the final lesson — that in the end, it doesn’t matter what powers you have, it just matters (win or lose) that you gave something everything you had, the victory is found in one’s will to persevere — is a good lesson to come away with.

3/5

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The Counselor (Extended Edition)

Even commenting on a movie like this means navigating between two factions: The majority of people who hated on it more than it might have deserved, and the minority who are using the hate of the first group to establish themselves as the few Chosen Ones who are able to appreciate the glorious cinematic masterpiece of two masters (director Ridley Scott and writer Cormac McCarthy).

To cut to the chase, the movie at times seemed to be a somewhat pretentious writer’s exercise with a beautiful veneer — the characters dress impeccably, the shots are beautifully framed; even the ornate settings don’t feel cluttered. And if you’re a clumsy-eared gringa like me, born and bred in the rural US, you might even have trouble understanding some of the dialogue in the movie due to the heavy accents in places. All these things put up potential roadblocks to understanding what’s going on, not just plot-wise but (more importantly) thematically.

And I think this is a movie where theme actually is more important than plot. Things happen in the plot and soon enough you’ll “get” what’s going on even if they take awhile to really start rolling; but in the end the plot doesn’t roll very far. What’s more important is what the characters understand of the forces they’ve set in motion and how they’ve positioned themselves to those forces. Some are prey; some are predators; and some (sadly) are just in denial.

While the story definitely meanders about, some of the anecdotes shared are amusing to listen to (like when Reiner describes in a graphically detailed flashback how his girlfriend Malkina had sex with his car — and yes, you read that right… not IN his car, but WITH his car). The actors have fun with their roles and their lines (albeit not quite as much as a Tarantino movie), even when some of those lines need a professional contortionist to utter them.

But I think irony is even more palpable when you realize how Fassbender’s character (the eponymous Counselor — we never learn his real name) is the one character constantly asking others for advice and being denied until almost the very end. And thematically, the reality is that a lawyer’s job is to make cases and change people’s opinions, and so The Counselor is unprepared to deal with the realities of this world that he has chosen to be part of — a world where no arguments matter, no one is interested in listening, and the only choice that matters is the one you originally made to enter that world at all. The other characters (Westray and Malkina especially) are very very aware of this and take responsibility for what happens to them, but despite Westray’s repeated harping on the matter, The Counselor doesn’t really understand until it is too late.

Much of the pushback against this movie, to me, stems from this focus on theme versus plot, Scott’s directing style (he’s not great at lending impetus to weak scripts, he typically plays things too clean for that), and McCarthy’s writing style that works better on the page than ported directly into audial-visual. The very reason the film was anticipated is probably the very reason it failed critically and in the box office. Also, there seemed to be a very strong expectation for plot to dominate more (like in “No Country for Old Men” — things happen, characters are very active), whereas here there is very little direct activity between the characters and most things resolve through dialogue, even when you might expect the plot to kick up a notch. It’s true that the Counselor, as “hero” of this story, seems ineffectual and acted up rather than acting on others… but I also think that that’s the point as well.

Admittedly, I had difficulty with the movie and actually paused it multiple times in the first half to do something else — not really an auspicious beginning, if it can’t hold my attention for more than ten minutes at a time. But once I figured out the plot, and I had enough pieces thematically to grasp where it was going, I could start recognizing those patterns in the latter half of the movie and things became more interesting. And I still walk away with the important lesson that sometimes the choices that matter most are the ones we are tempted to view as the least consequential. New worlds open, old ones vanish, and we are stuck with what remains and cannot change what we have already wrought.

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