Movie Reviews - 2014 postsMonday February 10, 2014
Movie Review: The Lego Movie (2014)
“The Lego Movie” is a 90-minute commercial for a global product into which my nephew Ryan has already sunk (or we have sunk for him) something like $10,000. I believe that was his father’s estimate last Christmas.
It’s also the following:
- A satire of contemporary pop culture.
- A satire of overdone movie storylines.
- A meta-message on traditional Legos (the kind I grew up with) vs. its modern update (the kind with instructions).
- A morality tale about the folly of wishing for permanence in an impermanent world.
If, in other words, you’re going to see a 90-minute, synergistic, corporate commercial, this isn’t a bad one to see.
The ordinary special
Emmet Brickowoski (voice of Chris Pratt) is one of those Ken-doll-haired, construction worker Lego guys. He loves his life even though his life doesn’t really love him. His favorite song is everyone’s favorite song, “Everything is Awesome,” which plays all the time. His favorite TV show is everyone’s favorite TV show, “Hey, Where’s My Pants?,” which plays all the time. There are intimations that both of these things—song and TV show—are used as thought control for the masses. That’s the satire of contemporary pop culture I was talking about. It’s the world Emmet lives in. He goes to work, roots for the local sports team, buys $37 lattes.
But good ol’ Emmet, who has no close friends, gets caught up in a plot he hardly understands. He falls into a pit and winds up with the “Piece of Resistance” affixed to his back, which means he’s “The Special,” the one who has been prophesied to save the world from destruction—just as Neo was “The One” who would save his world from destruction, just as Harry Potter was the one who ... as Bilbo Baggins was ... as King Arthur .... as Jesus ... as yadda yadda. This plotline was the main reason I went to the movie in the first place. I wanted to see it satirized. I’m tired of how often it is used and how much it feeds into the id in all of us: making us think we’re the one rather than one in seven billion.
They don’t do a bad job with it:
Wyldstyle: You’re the Special! And the prophecy states that you are the most important person in the universe! That’s you, right?
Emmet: Uh ... Yeah. That’s me!
Except ... The Special is supposed to be a master builder and Emmet knows he’s not a master builder. He’s only good at following the instructions. He’s can’t do what the others can do: use his creativity to create virtually anything from the building blocks of their society, which are, of course, Legos. “I don’t think he’s ever had an original thought in his life,” says Wyldstyle, his kick-ass sidekick (voice of Elizabeth Banks).
The villain in all of this? Pres. Business (voice of Will Ferrell), who doesn’t like the notion that the building blocks of their society can be reconfigured into something else. He wants permanence and perfection. So he’s ready to use “the Kragle” to create that permanence. To keep everyone stuck in the same place.
In this battle, Emmet, despite having Wyldstyle on his side, along with the wise, wizened Vitruvius (voice of Morgan Freeman), who first prophesied the coming of “The Special,” not to mention Batman (voice of Will Arnett), and Superman (Channing Tatum) and Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) and the 2002 NBA All-Stars (including Shaq), despite all of these partners, Emmet still gets nowhere. He can’t do what he needs to do because he lacks both imagination and instructions. It’s not until he sacrifices himself—as Neo, Jesus, et al.—that he is able to return, stronger and smarter, and win the day.
“Sacrificing himself,” by the way, means falling into our world, a non-animated world, where we realize that this entire adventure is taking place in the mind of a young boy, Finn (Jadon Sand), who simply wants to play with his Legos. Unfortunately, his father (Ferrell again) likes creating the perfect Legos diorama and doesn’t like it messed with. He doesn’t want it changed. In fact, he’s ready, this Tuesday, Taco Tuesday, to use an old tube of Krazy Glue with several of the letters rubbed out so it reads “Kra--Gl-e,” to glue everything in place. To make it all permanent.
That’s what the battle’s been about all along. It’s a father-and-son battle over the son’s toys.
Old Legos vs. New Legos
Question: Does this final pullback into our world diminish any of the other levels of the movie? Early on, I was hoping for a better critique of our culture, a la “The Simpsons” in its heyday. But can you properly critique a culture through the mind of a young boy? It feels slightly off for me, less relevant, less cutting. It went the “Toy Story” route but without the big heart of “Toy Story.”
Plus the lessons of the movie, which was written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” “21 Jump Street”), keep shifting. Trying to create permanence in an impermanent world is obviously a bad idea; but the movie doesn’t really resolve the conflict between the Legos I grew up with during the 1960s (use your creativity to build what you want) and the model-kit Legos reboot from the 1990s (follow the instructions). I suppose the movie, and the brand, doesn’t want to resolve this conflict. Creativity is obviously better to promote in a movie but no one wants to kill a cash cow. No one wants to suggest the cash cow is the lesser thing.
The final lesson of The Special, too, is that we’re all special, which is a bit of a fudge on the meaning of “special.” But what the hell. I guess the greater lesson is something Vitruvius tells Emmet in the middle of his hero’s journey: “Don’t worry about what the others are doing. You must embrace what is special about you.” That’s a lesson worth repeating, no matter your age.
Movie Review: The Monuments Men (2014)
It’s a surprisingly limp movie.
“The Monuments Men” is based upon a non-fiction book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter whose subtitle is more thrilling than anything in the film: “Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” Wow, cool! Except it isn’t. In the movie, I mean.
The book chronicles the exploits of 345 men and women from various countries who worked together to preserve the great art of Europe from Nazi greed and treachery. In the movie, these 345 are understandably pared down to seven. But were there no better stories to tell from the 345? The men in the movie seem disconnected from each other and from any kind of tension except a trumped-up kind at the end. I.e., Will they get to this-or-that mine before the Nazis, who want to destroy all the great art they collected? Will they get there before the Russians, who want the art as reparations for 20 million lost? And will they find the one piece of art, the Bruges Madonna and Child, that suddenly means so much?
Answer: generally yes, yes, and yes.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It’s a good seven, by the way. Every time one of them first showed up I smiled. Hey, Bill Murray! And Bob Balaban! Mon dieu, Jean Dujardin! Ah, good ol’ John Goodman. Then I stopped smiling. Because nothing interesting happened.
Richard Campbell (Murray) and Preston Savitz (Balaban) apparently don’t like each other. Why? Who knows? But they’re partnered up and they survive an encounter with a German youth with a gun. Later there’s a scene where they get packages from home. Savitz’s includes cheese and crackers; Campbell’s includes a phonograph his wife made and sent him. But where can he play it? He’s in the shower when Savitz plays it over the camp loudspeaker. It’s his wife talking, the kids talking, then the wife singing a very good rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But it’s like a not-bad scene from a not-bad episode of “M*A*S*H.” It has meaning only within our cultural memory. It pushes those buttons.
Garfield (Goodman) and Clermont (Dujardin) are also teamed. They, too, survive an encounter with a German youth with a gun. It’s a sniper, and Clermont storms the building only to find the sniper is, you know, 10. Again: meaning via cultural memory. Again: we’ve seen this movie before.
Meanwhile, in possibly the dumbest plotline, James Granger (Matt Damon) parachutes into the south of France then makes his way north to Paris, where he encounters Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who was forced to act as secretary as the Nazis plundered a French museum. She’s brave enough in her encounters with her Nazi boss, Viktor Stahl (Justus von Dohnányi), staring down his gun as he fled a step ahead of the Allies; but once Jimmy Granger shows up she turns into a complete idiot. She sits on crucial information she has because she doesn’t trust Granger, the Americans, or the Metropolitan Museum of New York. She sticks with the Nazis. Really? Those are her only options at this point: the Nazis or the Met. And she goes with the Nazis. When she finally has evidence we’re on the up and up—months later, after Campbell and Savitz recover art from Stahl’s home and incarcerate him—she’s ready to help Granger. More, she’s ready to sleep with him. There’s sexual tension. Actually, no, not even that. There’s sexual awkwardness. There’s nothing sexy about it at all.
The Monuments Men are led by Frank Stokes (writer-director George Clooney), who plays his usual glib professional. He quickly realizes his mission is meant to fail, since he has little authority, and since the military men he’s dealing with would rather save a life than a work of art. This leads to many speeches, many voiceovers, on the value of art. But Stokes doesn’t have a story until one of his men, Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey”), travels to Bruges, Belgium, to rescue, among other works, Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. The Germans still occupy the town so he sneaks in against orders, confronts them attempting to steal the Madonna, and is shot and killed. Was it worth the life of this man to preserve this work of art? Stokes doesn’t know. But he knows he’s gonna get the Bruges Madonna back.
Thus the search, amid the hundreds of thousands of stolen works of art, for this one piece. And guess when they find it? After the Germans have surrendered and the Russians are coming, and the men have recovered all 12 panels of the Ghent altarpiece in a mine in Altaussee, Austria, and everyone’s saying, “Go! Go!” before the Russians arrive, Stokes, hoping beyond hope, spies, in a back corner, a tarpaulin ... and uncovers it .... and there it is. Holy shit. That’s what the others say anyway, Balaban and Goodman and Murray, when they see it. Holy shit. But we don’t. We knew it was there. Because we’ve seen this movie before.
Smearing the glue
“The Monuments Men” should’ve worked. It had the talent, it had the story, it just didn’t connect things. If it did, it did so clumsily, smearing the glue, making the connection obvious.
Maybe it should’ve focused on two or three of the men rather than seven? Maybe it shouldn’t have relied so much on the cinematic shorthand and the face recognition of its stars?
It wants to be a World War II movie, a “Greatest Generation” movie, when maybe it should’ve been about crazy, obsessed art historians. Composer Alexandre Desplat, who usually does no wrong (“Un Prophete,” “The Tree of Life,” “Rust and Bone”), even composed a jaunty little whistling tune, some combination of music from “The Great Escape” and “Bridge on the River Kwai”; but it, too, is unconnected to anything on the screen. It falls flat. It recalls, as the movie itself recalls, Orwell’s Republican missiles from “Homage to Catalonia,” which, instead of thrilling with their whizz and explosion, sounded “like nothing so much as a man riding along on a bicycle and whistling.”