Title: The LEGO Movie
Release Date: 7 February 2014
Director: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Production Co: Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures
Country: United States
Genre: Animation | Adventure | Comedy
You’re reading this correctly. I’m reviewing a current film that’s in theatrical release right now. My son and I went to see it yesterday.
The LEGO universe is an Orwellian dystopia, albeit a cheerful one as minifigures go about their days exulting in consumer excess and carefully following written instructions. Emmett is an ordinary construction man who through a series of misadventures is believed to be the “Special” who will save the world from the evil President Business. He joins a group of Master Builders – people who can build things using their imagination out of pieces they find around them rather than following the instructions – and heads off on a series of comical adventures. What The Pirates of Caribbean was able to do for movies based on theme park rides, The Lego Movie does with movies based on toys (of course, it also owes a debt to the Toy Story franchise). The movie works on several levels: a meta-commentary on LEGO toys and their collectors, a satire of consumer culture, a slapstick comedy, a post-modernist agglomeration of popular culture references, and a family adventure film. It really pieces together a lot of things (see what I did there) to make a movie more complex than it looks on that surface. Oh and that surface is some really excellent animation of what a world of LEGO bricks would like.
Hollywood probably has boilerplate scripts for the “need to be an individual in a world of conformists” theme as well as the “we can succeed with teamwork” trope, but rarely to you see both of them brought together with nuance. Another theme of “toys should be played with imaginatively like kids do” rings a bit hollow since LEGO has spent a lot in recent years targeting adult collectors. If I have any other criticisms of this movie is that the relentless pacing of the movie doesn’t ever let it breathe. The only time it slows down is during the live action segments with The Man Upstairs, and I’ll contradict myself here because that part drags on a bit. I’ll also sound like a cranky old codger when I say this, but I missed a lot of dialogue because it was drowned out by the music and sound effects. That being said, these things are not likely to bother most audiences and I think this is an enjoyable film and an instant classic.
Some stray thoughts:
- Benny the 80s-something space guy is my favorite because I had that set when I was a kid, right on down to the broken chin strap on the helmet. I built some cool spaceships for him back in the day
- Every time I see Will Arnett, I’m convinced someone else is doing his voice. Now I know that it’s a Batman minifig.
- Shaquille O’Neill, Anthony Daniels, and Billy Dee Williams could voice their own characters, but Harrison Ford could not? Mark Hamill basically does voice acting for a living now, so maybe they should have found a place for him instead.
- I want a bunk couch.
- I expect “commence micromanagement” to become a catchphrase in offices across the nation.
- Everything is AWESOME!!!
Seriously can’t get this out of my head. For a song so deliberately bad, it’s actually pretty good.
Release Date: 18 September 2012
Director: Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg
Production Co: Break Thru Films and Major League Baseball Productions
Country: United States
Genre: Documentary | Sports | Baseball
The knuckleball is baseball’s most enigmatic pitch. Despite its name, it is thrown with the finger tips and unlike any other pitch it prevents the ball from rotating. This makes the ball move in unpredictable ways that it make the knuckleball difficult to hit. Yet that unpredictably has a way of coming back to haunt the pitcher, so there are few pitchers who risk using it. This documentary follows the 2011 season of the only two knuckleball pitchers in Major League Baseball at that time: Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox (now retired) and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets (now with the Toronto Blue Jays). These are also two of my all-time favorite pitchers. The documentary does a good job of explaining the mechanics of the knuckleball and how knuckleball pitchers are treated as an oddity in the baseball community. It also has some excellent archival footage of the lives and careers of Wakefield and Dickey. If there’s one thing that could improve the movie is to not have so many talking heads and clips of baseball commentators repeating the same basic facts about the knuckleball and perhaps delve into the science and history of the pitch a bit more.
Title: Slap Shot
Release Date: 25 February 1977
Director: George Roy Hill
Production Co: Kings Road Entertainment
Genre: Comedy | Drama | Sport
Another classic comedy that I never got around to seeing until now. With the closing of the local factory, the Charlestown Chiefs are likely to fold at the end of the season. Aging player-coach Reg Dunlop (Paul Newman) carries out a series of Machiavellian schemes to increase the teams value so that it will be sold to another owner. This primarily involves having his team use goon tactics, which successfully draws in the crowds and helps them win games. Concurrently, Reg also plots to reunite with his ex-wife and reconcile the strained relationship of the Chiefs’ top scorer and his alcoholic wife.
This movie exudes the 1970s in the clothing, music, sexual liberation, and a carefree attitude in a world falling apart. There are a lot of great gags and lines with much of the humor coming from silly characters like the Quebecois goalkeeper and the uber-violent (and extremely dumb) Hanson brothers. But there’s also a gravitas underlining the film that keeps it from being just a screwball comedy although not enough to turn it into a “dramedy.” The ending of the film is utterly bizarre, but it it’s appropriate to the movie.
Title: Frances Ha
Director: Noah Baumbach
Production Co: R.T. Features
Country: United States
Genre: Comedy | Mumblecore
This stylized b&w film follows the foibles of a 27-year old dancer in New York over the course of a year in which her prospects for work, relationships, and even a place to live dwindle. It would be very easy to classify this movie as white whine, especially Frances with her poor decision-making skills and nervous way of interacting with other people is not the most sympathetic lead. But then I remember how stupid I was when I was 27. I wouldn’t blame anyone for not liking this film because it could easily rub one the wrong way, but I warmed up to Frances and her story.
Title: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Release Date: 25 November 1987
Director: John Hughes
Production Co: Paramount Pictures
Country: United States
This is one of those supposed classics that I never got around to seeing until now, so I have no nostalgia connected to this movie. A lot of the gags in this movie that I expect are supposed to be laugh aloud funny didn’t even make me chuckle, especially all the “funny car” gags in the latter parts of the film (and I was spoiled for the “that’s not a pillow” gag years ago). The one exception was Steve Martin’s tirade at Edie McClurg. So this comedy didn’t make me laugh, but fortunately John Hughes’ writing goes beyond just laughs and I was impressed by how he develops the central idea of empathy among the two characters. It helps a lot that while “wacky opposites” they’re more than caricatures, and Martin and John Candy play them perfectly. It was also a nice little time capsule of the United States in 1987, and well, that made me nostalgic after all. So even though I didn’t find Planes, Trains & Automobiles to be all too funny, I did think it was a decent movie.
Title: An Adventure in Space and Time
Release Date: 22 November 2013
Director: Terry McDonough
Production Co: British Broadcasting Company
This movie recreates the history of the birth of the BBC family science-fiction classic Doctor Who. You can tell it’s the early 60s because everyone smokes and the clothing is fabulous, but also gives a feel for a much different era (just a decade after the end of WWII rationing) when a science-fiction show would be shocking and new. It’s also interesting that a show that would become a British cultural icon was created by a Canadian (Sidney Newman), produced by the first woman producer on a BBC drama (Verity Lambert), and initially directed by a man born in India (Waris Hussein). The film focuses mainly on Lambert’s challenge of getting the show off the ground as well as the first star of the show William Hartnell dealing with ill-health and memory loss while creating a classic character. All of the lead actors do a terrific job and really look the part and make for a charming if bittersweet story. While some of the facts of the real story are modified for dramatic effect, it is a good introduction to the series.
For a more detailed history of Doctor Who‘s origins, check out this article on the Oxford University Press blog.
Title: Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Release Date: 1971
Director: Robert Stevenson
Production Co: Walt Disney Productions
Country: United States
Genre: Adventure | Fantasy | Family | Musicals | Animation
Set in Second World War England, three children have been evacuated to the countryside (oddly to a town overlooking the Channel) to stay with Miss Price (Angela Lansbury), a witch-in-training. Along the way on their magical adventures they pick up the con-man Professor Browne played by David Tomlinson. The movie is more of a series of loosely-connected set pieces than a story. Some of them go on too long, like the dance number on Portobello Road, although it is interesting to see the many faces of the British Commonwealth represented in a cheerful wartime London. Better are the mixed live action and animation sequences with fish dancing in an undersea ballroom and a raucous soccer game among wild animals. The conclusion features some whimsical special effects that stand up well after forty years as military uniforms and armor are magically brought to life to defend Britain against a German incursion. It’s a fun, entertaining bagatelle of a movie. My kids enjoyed it for sure.
Title: Safety Not Guaranteed
Release Date: 18 October 2012
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Production Co: Big Beach Films
Genre: Comedy | Romance | Sci-Fi
The staff of a Seattle magazine head to a coastal Washington town to investigate a classified ad by someone recruiting an assistant for a time travel adventure. The young intern Darius played by Aubrey Plaza makes a connection with the purported time traveler Kenneth (Mark Duplass). They turn out to have a lot in common, feeling like misfits and suffering from life-changing losses. There’s also a subplot about a drunk, lecherous writer (Jeff, played Jake Johnson) who actually organized the business trip as a pretext to reunite with an old flame, but I find those parts of the film more intrusive. The idea of time travel is used to explore the ideas of aging and grief. There are some cheesy romcom cliches and the conclusion has 80s tv movie feel with various characters gathered in the same place while Jeff cheers on the leads. Good performances by Plaza and Duplass mixed with a lot of charm, humor, and humanity make for an enjoyable film.
Title: 30 for 30: Four Days in October
Release Date: 5 October 2010
Director: Gary Waskman
Production Co: Major League Baseball Productions
Genre: Documentary | Sports | Baseball
The ESPN documentary documents the last four games (played over four consecutive days) of the 2004 American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, from the Red Sox point of view. There’s nothing radical about it from a filmmaking perspective, merely clips of tv and radio footage from the games interspersed with interviews with Red Sox players and some celebrity fans. I watched it mainly so my 5-year-old son could learn some Red Sox history, and it quickly became his favorite movie. It was also a nice nostalgia trip to see memorable Red Sox comeback and all the little aspects I’d forgotten (doubly so to watch it without the feeling of twisted intestines that I had back in 2004)
Title: In The Loop
Release Date: 17 April 2009
Director: Armando Iannucci
Production Co: IFC Films, BBC Films
Country: United Kingdom
Genre: Comedy | Satire
This satirical film depicts mid-level government officials in Britain and the US as they work towards declaring war against an unnamed Middle Eastern country (an obvious parody of the run-up to war with Iraq). Some of them hope to avert the war due to the obvious holes in the rationale behind the invasion, but most of the characters simply want to do whatever will advance their careers. Every character in this movie has sharp acerbic wit and insults are hurled left and right. Kind of a mix of The West Wing and The Office and Dr. Strangelove. It is funny with a lot quotable dialogue. On the other hand, the general mean-spiritedness of the affair leaves a bad feeling in my mouth. Good performances by Peter Calpadi, Tom Hollander, Anna Chlumsky, James Gandolfini, and others carry the film.