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.
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: 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.
Title: Sleepwalk With Me
Release Date: 18 November 2012
Director: Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish
Production Co: Sleepwalkers Anonymous
Summary/Review: Comedian Mike Birbiglia brings the story of his sleepwalking disorder (specifically rapid eye movement behavior disorder) to another medium after sharing the story in stand-up, storytelling, radio, and a book. The movie depicts a more complex confluence of events as Birbiglia’s semi-autobiographical character (a doppelganger named Matt Pandamiglio) tries to establish a career as a stand-up comedian while dealing with parental disapproval and fear of commitment to his longtime girlfriend. For a comedy, this is a dreary and depressing movie. Not that the ennui shouldn’t be depicted but I’d be interested in why this character puts so much on the line to become a comedian when there seems to be no passion or joy in anything. Lauren Ambrose is great in her role as the long-suffering girlfriend Abby who seems to be the only character able to enjoy herself despite all of that. Lots of This American Life regulars appear as supporting cast and it’s fun to play match the voice with the face. This is an okay movie, but if you’ve heard the story on The Moth or This American Life, you need not venture further out.
Title: 24 Hour Party People
Release Date: 5 April 2002
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Production Co: Baby Cow Productions
Country: United Kingdom
Genre: Biopic / Comedy / Music
This surreal, comic film tells the story of the Manchester music scene from the mid-1970′s to early-1990′s. Central to this story is Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) a TV news presenter who champions Manchester music scene by managing bands, starting a record label, and opening a night club. History and legend are gleefully mixed together as Wilson narrates his own story, often breaking the fourth wall to comment on events from a later perspective. Real people from Manchester bands appear in cameos sometimes commenting that the scenes in the movie aren’t how they remember them. The effect can be overly cutesy at times but mostly is rollicking good fun and Coogan really carries the film. Of central importance though is the music as bands like Joy Division (later New Order) and the Happy Mondays take center stage.
Three more episodes of podcasts worth listening too:
- “Disgustingly Adorable” – Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present covers the annual spring lambing, a big event for Phi Pi fans. Previous sheeplore: Fuzzy Pigs and Out Like a Lamb.
- “News from Lake Wobegon” – A Prairie Home Companion is a classic radio show, although it’s a bit tired these days. I’ve heard about all the Guy Noir and Ketchup ads I care to hear. Luckily there’s a podcast just for the best part, Garrison Keillor’s monologue. The one for May 3, 2008 is particularly good with a reflection on why Christianity is hard and the great line, “Gas costs more than beer. Don’t drive, drink.”
- “The Beauty and Challenge of Being Catholic: Hearing the Faithful” – An episode of APM: Speaking the Faith I learned about via Dirty Catholic. This a great selection of interviews from a cross-section of American Catholics. More interviews and transcripts at the website
Quite by accident we had a Cary Grant Film festival at home both before and after the birth of our baby boy. Susan requested His Girl Friday from Netflix (our first film delivered thanks to Craig’s gift subscription) and then I stumbled upon the rest at the public library. I’d also checked-out The Awful Truth, but the DVD froze up in the computer a minute into the film so I didn’t get to watch it.
His Girl Friday (1940)
I don’t know why I’m surprised when old films are cynical and satirical, but this one caught me off-guard. The basic gist is that the media are dishonest purveyors of sensational stories at the expense of real news like “the war in Europe.” I was particularly surprised that the underlying plot is about a white man who shot a black cop and the mayor who wants to execute him so he will not lose the votes of his black constituency. And this is just background plot that the filmmakers figure the audience will get it. In the main story, Grant portrays a manipulative news editor trying to prevent his ex-wife from remarrying mainly because she’s his best reporter. Rosalind Russell overshadows grant as Hildy Johnson the quick-witted, fast-talking ex-wife who learns that she will not be happy away from the sleazy life of news reporting.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
This is one of my all-time favorite movies starring two of my all-time favorite actors, Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Once again Grant is somewhat overshadowed by his co-star as Hepburn is delightfully lunatic, but Grant holds his own as a nerdy (believe it or not) paleontologist. This movie is absurdly wonderful as Hepburn tricks Grant into to going to the wilds of Connecticut in a convoluted plot involving not one but two leopards (as a child I loved that this movie takes place in Connecticut and portrays Connecticut as a crazy place). As an added bonus, Grant utters a line in which for the first time on film the word “gay” is used to refer to “homosexual.”
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Another Frank Capra classic which is one of my all-time favorites. This time it is Brooklyn that is the borough of insanity in a comic Halloween caper. Grant is a drama critic who marries the girl next door and on his wedding night learns that his entire family is criminally insane. There’s Teddy who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt and does bugle charges up the stairs. There’s his beloved aunts who poison lonely old men because they believe it’s charitable. Then there’s the mysterious Jonathan who returns after a long absence with a corpse and a creepy Peter Lorre. Grant shows off that he is a master of doubletakes and slow burns as everything comes to a head. It’s a comedy so all ends well in this diabolically funny film.
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)
Mr. Blandings is evidence that “starring Cary Grant” does not equal a good movie. The basic gist is that Cary Grant and his wife portrayed by Myrna Loy are dupes who put everything into a money pit in rural Connecticut to escape the city life. Most of the jokes and sight gags fall flat and the film is basically annoying sarcastic about everyone: the city and the country, the swindling real estate agents and contractors and the dopey people who pay them. Really, Grant and Loy are miscast because they are far too witty and urbane to be believable as these dull proto-yuppies leading the white flight out of New York.
You Can’t Take it With You (1938) is one of my favorite movies of all time, although it’s not the movie I remember. The last time I saw this film I was a teenager and I remember it being an inspiring movie about a household of eccentric people who do what they desire in life. Yes, I remember a plot about a granddaughter dating the son of an industrialist who is planning on destroying the neighborhood, but somehow the rest of the plot escaped my memory. You Can’t Take it With You turns out to be a less madcap and more sobering movie than I remembered, and a times a bit preachy too.
It’s a still a delightful movie in the Frank Capra mold. The strength of You Can’t Take it With You is in the performances of two actors portraying fathers and the decisions they face that will affect their children (I can relate to fathers now). Lionel Barrymore plays Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff, head of the eccentric household in Brooklyn while Edward Arnold plays his foil Anthony P. Kirby, the big businessman who has lost his way. A very young James Stewart also stars as the younger Kirby and even though he was a Reagan Republican in real life, he is seen spouting liberal anti-corporate ideology as he always seems to do in Capra films.
The supporting cast are excellent in portraying their various characters pursuing their crazy dreams. Message or no message this is a delightful film full of witty banter and all-around silliness. I highly recommend it.
Grandpa Martin Vanderhof: Lincoln said, “With malice toward none, with charity to all.” Nowadays they say, “Think the way I do or I’ll bomb the daylights outta you.”