Thoughts on The Lego Movie

First things first:

That pretty much sums up my feelings about The Lego Movie.  It basically did everything I hoped a Lego movie would do, and it did it well.

The basic premise of the movie is that the evil Lord Business has found an ultimate weapon and plans to freeze the entire universe to ensure that it stays well-ordered like he designed it.  Emmet is the “Special”, the chosen one who can save the universe.  That universe is an amalgamation of all the different Lego sets and properties, and thus full of references to older Lego lines, sly in-joke character cameos, and a whole lot of craziness.  Anyway, Emmet turns out to be a less-than-suitable savioiur, and wackiness ensues.

The animation for this movie is rather beautiful—it almost seems like stop-motion at times.  For the most part, everything on screen is made of Lego, from the clouds to smoke puff to the waves in the ocean.  It gives it a really interesting look.  Several of the other visual effects also have a sort of home-built look as well, though I don’t want to ruin those gags for you if you haven’t seen it yet.  But overall, it managed to differentiate itself in an increasing crowded market of computer-animated movies, while at the same time staying absolutely true to the notion of being a Lego movie.

The voice cast was also perfectly done, including big names like Morgan Freeman and Will Ferrell and slightly-less-big-but-no-less-awesome actors such as Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, and Chris Pratt.  (There were a host of famous guest star cameos, as well—again, don’t want to ruin any surprises.)  Everyone stepped up to deliver a hilarious performance.

In many ways, The Lego Movie is a culmination of years of work bringing Lego to life in video games and on TV.  I think the irreverent, not-too-serious feel of this movie had its beginnings in video games like Lego Star Wars and Lego Indiana Jones.  The directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller rightly recognized that the Lego universe would have to be wacky and infused with humour, and they mined the toy’s rich history to extract every bit they could find.

I only really have one minor criticism.  Late in the movie, there is a… twist… that is a bit inconsistent with the feel of the movie up to that point.  Thankfully, it doesn’t undermine what came before as can sometimes happen in movies, and it is not completely devoid of the humour that pervades the rest of the film, but I found it a little jarring.  Oddly enough, I feel that the twist may make the movie more appealing to viewers who are not inherently fans of the toys, the ridiculous humour, or the fantastical plot.

Anyway, I wholeheartedly recommend this movie.  It was awesome.  I just need to get more Lego now….

Various and Sundry (July 2013 Edition)

This post is rather tardier than usual, but in all honesty I’ve hardly felt like I’ve done anything other than work at my job, work on my thesis, and plan my wedding all summer.

On the up side, I’ve been making decent progress on the thesis research.  This has been helped by using my vacation time from work as dedicated thesis time.  Even when I went to visit the fiancee in Philly/New Jersey, I got a good 4.5 days of thesis work in while she had to work during the week.

Oh!  That’s right.  International travel.  That is something, at least.  I finally got to see some of the historic sites around Philadelphia, like Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.  Look!  There are pictures!

Independence Hall
Independence Hall
Liberty Bell. No licking allowed.
Liberty Bell. No licking allowed.

We then spent some time in New Jersey while the fiancee was at work during the week.  We did pop over to New York City one night.  I have proof!

New York. Probably Times Square, or somewhere near there.
New York. Probably Times Square, or somewhere near there.

We had decided to see a Broadway show, so we looked at what was playing at a time that was convenient (and had good reviews), and so—knowing absolutely  nothing about it—went to see Once.  This turned out to be an excellent—if somewhat low-key—show, but was made all the more exciting because it was starring Arthur Darvill (Rory from Doctor Who!) and the dude could sing!

Possibly even more exciting than that, we also found a Lego Store in the Jersey Gardens Outlet Mall in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  There was so much Lego!  I wanted to roll around naked in it, but that would be both painful and frowned upon.  That outing also saw a visit to White Castle, which was okay, but not as life-alteringly transcendant as I would have hoped.

At the end of that week, we headed up to the Jersey Shore.  We actually didn’t make it to the boardwalk area, so it was really rather nice.  I have proof!

The nice part of the Jersey Shore.
The nice part of the Jersey Shore.

While down in the US I also managed to see Pacific Rim, which was super-enjoyable but not as mind-blowingly awesome as I had been hoping Guillermo del Toro could make a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters.  All the monster-on-robot action was great, but there was just… something missing that kept it from quite rising to the heights of his other movies like Hellboy.  (Pan’s Labyrinth is head and shoulders above even that, which is why I had high hopes.)

We also took in RED 2, which was quite well executed by the charming and awesome cast, but perhaps fell a little short of generating the excitement of the first one simply because it was no longer a novel concept.  As such, it didn’t feel quite as good, though it was certainly not a disappointment.

Okay, so July was actually pretty eventful.  Maybe that is my excuse for being tardy.

Thoughts on Jack the Giant Slayer

I recently managed to convince a somewhat reluctant friend to go see Jack the Giant Slayer with me.  Though that friend enjoyed herself and offered praise such as “actually an okay movie” amongst other contortions to avoid actually saying she liked it, I hold no such reservations.  It was a good movie and I liked it.

I mean, the script was rather corny in parts, but it tied together a lot of the different aspects of various Jack and the Beanstalk legends in an enjoyable story.  The cast was solid and suitably over-the-top when called for, and it was refreshing to see a fantasy story where the king (Ian McShane) was not corrupt or evil and the captain of the guard (Ewan McGregor) was actually competent at his job.  The chemistry between Jack (Nicholas Hoult) and the Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) was believable, and I liked that neither of them was played as stupid.  While the plot was set into motion by some unfortunate coincidences, it did not rely on the main characters acting like idiots to keep it going.

All of which is to say this was not a brilliant piece of filmmaking, but simply a well-done movie.  It didn’t blow my mind or anything, but it didn’t disappoint or dissatisfy, either, and in this day and age I consider that a major accomplishment.

Thoughts on Super 8

I finally got to see the movie Super 8 this past weekend.  It had been subject to a subdued viral marketing campaign, something akin to when Cloverfield came out a few years ago, but thankfully the payoff for Super 8 was much, much better.  I thought Super 8 was a fantastic movie.

Super 8 is a deliberately nostalgic movie, throwing back to the era of summer films with ensemble child casts (think Goonies or E.T.) and set in 1979, right smack in the middle of that era of summer movies.  It captures the awkwardness of childhood while showing the kids dealing with it and having an awesome, incredible adventure that you wish you too could have during your summer break.

The basic setup is that a group of kids filming a Super 8 movie during summer break witness the derailment of an Air Force train under mysterious circumstances.  After, strange things start happening around town which they end up getting caught up in.  Of course, this is just the basic premise of the plot, and ignores the character arcs that are the main driving force of this movie.

The young cast carries the movie, with the two leads (Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning) displaying a good degree of nuance, and the supporting actors hitting their notes just right.  The adult characters have an arc that parallels the kids, and while the handling of this is not particularly subtle, neither is it heavy-handed or overbearing.  I would consider this to be a very classically-structured film, and that’s entirely okay.  It totally works.

The reviews for Super 8 were mostly positive, with a few complaining about the ending.  While the ending was not particularly surprising or clever, I do think it worked, and I’m not sure how it could have been different without compromising the feel of the film.  Super 8 is a movie that doesn’t try to pull any tricks on the viewer; it is exactly what it appears to be.  And that’s great, because it is done so well.  Super 8 is easily one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.


Thoughts on New Moon

So, as something of an act of penance for having taken her to see Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen over the summer, I went to see The Twilight Saga: New Moon with my girlfriend.  (In her defense, she says she wanted to see it for the fun of mocking it, but I am deeply suspect of her true motive.)  I have not read the books, nor have I seen the first movie, so everything I say must be taken in that context.

First, I’d like to offer an apology to Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman.  I had thought that no two people could have less chemistry on screen than they did in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.  Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, however, have achieved new heights in visible disinterest in each other.  I can’t imagine any two people intoning “I love you” more apathetically than them.

Not that Stewart’s character, Bella, said much more than that.  Most of her dialogue consisted of “Please,”  “Don’t,” “Please don’t,” and “Don’t, please.”  She was completely and utterly useless throughout the entire movie.  When she was dumped, she moped for months.  MONTHS!  This was shown on screen in what felt like real time.  Then she starts leading on a guy who obviously has a crush on her, tries to kill herself a bunch of times so that she can remember her ex, and then runs off to Italy to save his unlife.   By showing up.  Not by doing anything active, god forbid, just by being there.

This movie was boring.  The pacing was slow, and I have no idea how the giant book it was based on still failed to provide any actual content for the movie.  All of the characters are completely stupid, and involved in self-destructive, abusive relationships with equally stupid people.  And nobody does anything—I haven’t seen so many characters going around and asking what they should do since The Matrix Reloaded.

Even the action was boring!  What could have been an awesome fight scene (where a werewolf pack hunted down what was apparently a recurring vampire villain from the first movie) became instead some running and later, a 1-second bit of flashback.

Leaving aside the ridiculous nature of the “world” of Twilight (sparkly, nigh-indestructible vampires with no meaningful consequences to becoming undead), this was more like a bad romantic comedy than a drama—minus any romance or comedy.  The way it was filmed did nothing to improve the source material either—the one scene of vampire Bella and Edward frolicking through the woods in Alice’s vision provoked laughter from everyone in attendance, whether they were buying into the rest of the material or not.

This was just not a good movie.  However, at least I went in with low expectations, and so I still came out less angry than after seeing Transformers 2.  It may have helped that the girlfriend bought the tickets, so I didn’t spend my own money on it.  But honestly, I can barely imagine that the fans of the books could enjoy this movie, much less anyone who has to take it on its own merits.  And still it did huge box office business.  It’s enough to make a guy cry.


Thoughts on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Ack!  I’m about twenty posts behind here, regarding things I plan to blog about.  Surprisingly, I’ve not been blogging because I’ve actually been doing work.  But last Sunday I encountered a tragedy so great that it had to jump the queue and spill forth as soon as possible.

Against, perhaps, my better judgement, I went to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, some trusty friends in tow.  I had found the last movie passably entertaining, if forgettable, in that it featured giant robots blowing stuff up, and Megan Fox was hot.  I didn’t find the first one very accurate to any of the various Transformers mythologies, or even all that sensible, but, like I said: giant robots blowing stuff up.

Clearly, I have pretty low standards when it comes to enjoying movies—especially summer blockbuster action movies.  And so, despite all the overwhelmingly negative reviews, I figured there was no way Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen could fail to be acceptably entertaining—after all, it featured more giant robots and bigger explosions.  I mean, any movie with robots and explosions has to entertain, right?

No.  No it does not.  This revalation was like discovering incontrovertible proof that there is no God.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was a boring, long, pointless movie that I cared absolutely nothing about.  Even Megan Fox couldn’t make this watchable.  It was like Michael Bay took a can opener, cracked open my skull, scooped out my brain, and took a dump so he could leave a steaming turd where it used to be.

Apart from the many plot problems, the movie just didn’t work on any level.  They introduced a boatload of additional Transformers, but it didn’t matter, because you couldn’t tell any of them apart, or even the difference between the Autobots and Decepticons.  All the action sequences with the robots were blurry, poorly choreographed, shaky-cam style affairs that meant you couldn’t really see what was going on.  So little time was spent with the characters that you didn’t care when they died, and, in fact, you hoped some of them stayed dead (but alas, no, they didn’t).  Comic relief was very poorly shoehorned into the movie, leaving it unfunny and awkward, and the supporting cast was entirely pointless.  I honestly cannot thing of a single redeeming quality of this movie.

Again, let me reiterate the generally low standards I have for movies.  I loved the near-universally panned Speed Racer (though I think that is a very misunderstood film).  I enjoyed the Jackie Chan and Jennifer Love Hewitt movie The Tuxedo.  I even managed to enjoy the awful Jackie Chan flick The Medallion more than this.  Hell, American Pie Presents: Band Camp is on TV as I write this, and I’m enjoying that more than I enjoyed Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

I did not like this movie.

At all.

Go Speed Racer Go

In the last nine days, I’ve actually seen the live-action Speed Racer movie twice, once on IMAX , and once on a regular screen. This probably seems rather odd, given how universally the movie has been reviled by critics. I had kind of wanted to see the movie before it came out, just to see how a campy cartoon was adapted to live action, but the lackluster critical review meant nobody really wanted to see it with me.

Then I read this review by Kazu Kibuishi, a comic creator I’m a fan of, and it convinced me to get off my ass and track down a theatre still showing it. As you may have gathered, I am so glad that I did, because it was actually — surprisingly, mind-bogglingly — a really good movie.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this is not a movie for everyone. Visually, it looks like a live-action cartoon — not a mix of actors and animation, but rather a fairly sound extrapolation of what a cartoon would look like if suddenly real. The movie also retains a lot of the campiness and goofy comic relief of the original cartoon, right down to the kid sidekick with a pet chimp.

And that’s about all that most of the negative reviews seem to mention. A few have even gone so far as to say there is no story, or to dismiss it as simplistic, or for little kids only, and it leaves me wondering whether those reviewers saw the same movie that I did.

I, for one, question whether younger kids would actually be able to follow the story — I can see kids easily enjoying the car racing, but the seamlessly fluid incorporation of flashback and flash-forward into the narrative as a means of establishing character motivation and background that so enthralled me might just be confusing to them. Perhaps that was the case for a lot of critics as well.

Now, when I talk about how flashback and flash-forward are incorporated seamlessly, I mean just that — at no point does the narrative ever stop to fill in back-story; rather, it is blended in in real-time, in a way I’ve never seen before. And it works so well . I was utterly captivated by how they used this to tell the story. (The kickin’ 70s-style muscial score by Michale Giacchino also provided boundless enjoyment, incorporating themes from the original cartoon and fitting the mood of the movie perfectly. It’s the first movie score I’ve bought in a long time.)

This being a Wachowski movie, the action sequences are naturally over-the-top, but it works in this context as it also retains an element of goofy charm. They aren’t flawless — some of the action in the final car race isn’t as comprehensible as I’d like — but they provide a lot of intensity and fun.

The last thing I should mention, oddly enough, is the cast. Emile Hirsch plays a solid lead, with John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, and Christina Ricci providing excellent support. (Christina Ricci looked surprisingly natural as a cartoon character… actually, that’s not so surprising.) The characterization is not necessarily all that complex (is is based off of a cartoon, after all), but they all pull it off well, and nail their characters and relationships. Solid casting all around. There are even a few cameo appearances by Richard Roundtree .

Overall, this was probably one of the most pure movie experiences I’ve ever had — everything worked so well together to pull this movie off, that I can’t even quibble about the the bits that, from an objective point of view, I wouldn’t like *cough*kid brother with chimp*cough*. I was more satisfied coming out of Speed Racer than I have been by a movie in a long time. So, if you think you wouldn’t find the visuals off-putting, and can deal with the campiness and comic relief, I strongly urge you to see this movie. I brought my girlfriend the second time I saw it, and she liked it, so I know I’m not delusional. And I know I’ll be getting the DVD as soon as it’s released.