Review – The Lego Movie

As chaotic as it is clever and comedic, this gloriously absurd tale about the “highly sophisticated interlocking brick system” should be required watching for Michael Bay to see how movies about toys should be made.

As cunningly catchy as the signature awesome tune that plays throughout, The Lego Movie is that rarest of Hollywood gifts - a genuine and delightful surprise

As cunningly catchy as the signature awesome tune that plays throughout, The Lego Movie is that rarest of Hollywood gifts – a genuine and delightful surprise

It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while a film comes along that goes some way to make amends for the many wasted hours long-suffering cinemagoers spend sat in popcorn-encrusted multiplexes being force-fed creatively bankrupt Tinseltown trash.

For all intents and purposes The Lego Movie shouldn’t be that film. What should (read: normally) have happened is that it burst into cinemas and made a pot of cash before anyone realised it was rubbish. However, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller chose instead to take the road travelled most recently by Disney’s Frozen of making a well-written, funny and charming movie that appeals to young and old alike and attracts repeat viewings.

Simple, ordinary Emmet (Chris Pratt) is about to have his world rocked in The Lego Movie

Simple, ordinary Emmet (Chris Pratt) is about to have his world rocked in The Lego Movie

Lord and Miller’s previous animated flick, 2009’s Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, was weirdly anarchic in itself, but the crazy juice is in full flow here.

We all have something that makes us something, but construction worker Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt) is the definition of ordinary. That is until he inadvertently stumbles across The Piece of Resistance which, according to the prophecy set down by wonky wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), makes him The Special; the person capable of stopping the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) from using a superweapon called the Kragle to freeze the world and preserve perfect order.

Wonky wizard Vitruvius  (Morgan Freeman) faces evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) in The Lego Movie

Wonky wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) faces evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) in The Lego Movie

Emmet suddenly finds himself in a strange new world and is helped on his quest by the feisty Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), her boyfriend Batman (Will Arnett) and an army of Master Builders, recognisable from the world of comic books, movies and real life. However, they must all contend with Business and his relentless right clawed man Bad Cop (Liam Neeson).

The chaos of The Lego Movie is, aptly enough, exactly why the film works. As the makers of Minecraft would no doubt agree, the beauty of Lego is that it can be anything its builder wants it to be; whether that be an elaborately designed world (Bricksburg), a free-for-all (as depicted in the movie by the visually bonkers Cloud Cuckoo Land), a pirate ship, or simply two blocks randomly stuck together (the height of my Lego creativity as a youngster).

Batman (Will Arnett) prepares to "wing it" with Emmet (Chris Pratt) in The Lego Movie

Batman (Will Arnett) prepares to “wing it” with Emmet (Chris Pratt) in The Lego Movie

Taking Toy Story and The Matrix as building blocks, Lord and Miller’s knowing and subversive script weaves in everything from the unhealthy ties between politics and big business to cultural dumbing down (the TV show Where’s My Pants?), overpriced coffee, good old-fashioned satire and plenty of jokes.

By way of example, there’s the throwaway parody of Batman via the lyrics of a self-penned song he plays through the Batmobile’s new subwoofers: “Darkness… No parents… More darkness… Get it?… The opposite of light… Super rich… Kinda makes it better.”

The Lego Movie gang

The Lego Movie gang

To achieve this level of chaos without the film imploding in on itself takes some doing, while the animation itself is ingeniously rendered. Even water is fashioned from Lego blocks and somehow fits in with everything else that’s happening on screen.

The film also deftly underscores the cross-generational appeal of Lego and the different outlook that kids have (build whatever, deconstruct and start again) and adults (build something elaborate, stick it together with glue, remove the fun out of it) have when it comes to the little blocks.

As cunningly catchy as the signature awesome tune that plays throughout, The Lego Movie is that rarest of Hollywood gifts – a genuine and delightful surprise.

Advertisements

Review – Transcendence

The argument that Hollywood should be making movies that aspire to something smarter than big dumb action hasn’t been well served by this misguided sci-fi disappointment.

In spite of his obvious talent with the camera, Pfister would probably have been better served working on a less ambitious project in order to get properly comfortable in the director's chair

In spite of his obvious talent with the camera, Wally Pfister would probably have been better served working on a less ambitious project in order to get properly comfortable in the director’s chair

Wally Pfister’s directorial debut was among the most highly anticipated films of the year. Certainly the pedigree was there; Pfister’s work as Christopher Nolan’s DoP on such striking works as Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy set pulses racing, while the mouth-watering cast of Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany and Nolan veterans Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy promised much.

What a shame then that such promise has been squandered on a movie that fails to turn an interesting central concept into a logical and engaging viewing experience.

Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp) explains his theories in Transcendence

Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp) explains his theories in Transcendence

Depp plays Dr Will Caster, a genius in artificial intelligence whose work to create a sentient computer – a tipping point he calls transcendence – rubs up against an extremist group who shoot Caster and launch a series of terror attacks against tech labs. As Will slowly dies from his wound, his wife and colleague Evelyn (Hall) and best friend Max Waters (Bettany) work on a radical plan to upload his consciousness into a super computer.

Now free to roam online, Will-A.Im (sorry) promises technological nirvana and a better world, but invites suspicion among even those closest to him, including scientist Joseph Tagger (Freeman), as well as FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Murphy).

Scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) are shown around by Will's wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) in Transcendence

Scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) are shown around by Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) in Transcendence

The thrust of Pfister’s film, based on a script rescued from the Black List, is both intriguing and prescient – have we becomes slaves to technology that’s now moving so fast we can’t control it? Will the ‘singularity’ – the moment when machines achieve the ability to think for themselves – be a defining moment in mankind’s technological revolution or spell our doom, a la Skynet?

However, a sound idea does not a great script make and the cracks quickly start to show. The film takes odd leaps of logic; characters make decisions that aren’t properly explained; and dialogue gets bogged down in expository ramblings that make conversations sound stilted.

The shady Bree (Kate Mara) gets chatting to Max Waters (Paul Bettany) in Transcendence

The shady Bree (Kate Mara) gets chatting to Max Waters (Paul Bettany) in Transcendence

As you’d expect from Pfister’s background, the film looks great. His use of stark lighting is especially impressive and gives the impression of a cold intelligence at work, while the dead-end town of Brightwood, which is turned into Will’s HQ, is an effective location; all be it one Pfister isn’t able to take full advantage of, especially in the film’s lackadaisical final act.

Depp, who must be wondering if his box office magic is on the wane in light of Transcendence‘s and The Lone Ranger‘s disastrous performances, never looks comfortable, least of all when he’s playing a less sardonic version of Holly from Red Dwarf. The further Depp walks away from his more interesting ‘indie’ career choices, the less interested he looks.

Will (Johnny Depp) reaches out to Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) beyond the internet in Transcendence

Will (Johnny Depp) reaches out to Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) beyond the internet in Transcendence

Hall and Bettany are fine actors and do their best, but as the movie goes on they start to look less convinced of the material, while Freeman (whose terrible line – “It will be the end of mankind as we know it” – from the trailer was a stupid marketing decision rather than a Pfister-ism apparently and doesn’t appear in the finished movie) and Murphy are given next to nothing to do.

In spite of his obvious talent with the camera, Pfister would probably have been better served working on a less ambitious project in order to get properly comfortable in the director’s chair. Oh well, at least we have Interstellar to look forward to, right?

Debuts Blogathon: Ben Affleck – Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Debuts Blogathon

Another day, another great post in the Debuts Blogathon hosted by myself and Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, this time courtesy of Ruth from FlixChatter. If it’s quality you’re  looking for, look no further than this great site. Each and every post is infused with great insights, as well as Ruth’s unique, conversational style. She brings that style to this analysis of Ben Affleck’s debut feature Gone Baby Gone. I thoroughly recommend that you visit Ruth’s site (if you haven’t already of course) and see what I’m talking about.

Ben Affleck

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

When I first heard about this Blogathon, I was initially going to do The Usual Suspects as I thought it was Bryan Singer’s debut, but I ended up settling with Ben Affleck’s first film instead, which I think is still the top one out of the three excellent feature films he’s done. This is his directorial debut in a major motion picture, although he did direct two other movies that never made it to the big screen.

Gone Baby GoneI saw this crime drama/mystery quite a while ago, but I remember being quite affected by it. Set in Affleck’s hometown of Boston and starring his kid brother Casey, the story centres on an investigation into a little girl’s kidnapping, which turns out to become a professional and personal crisis for the two detectives involved. Based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name (who also wrote Mystic River and Shutter Island), this film has a strong cast that elevates the complex story and gripped me from start to finish.

Casey Affleck, who I think is the better actor of the Affleck brothers, plays private investigator Patrick Kenzie. He opens the story with a monologue as we get a glimpse of the neighborhood where he’s lived his whole life: “I’ve always believed it’s the thing you don’t choose that made you who you are…” It’s an effective opening montage that establishes Casey’s character and puts the grim kidnapping scenario into context.

Gone Baby GoneI’m not going to go into the plot as I feel that if you haven’t seen the film, the little you know about this film the better. What I can tell you is that, initially, you might think the film is about one thing, but slowly but surely, as details unfold it becomes even more devastating than what you think it is. Another missing person case in the second half of the film inexorably shines a light to a darker world of corruption within the force. It’s not something new that we see stories about police corruption; how those who’re sworn to protect us end up betraying that trust, but the way things play out here certainly makes you stop and pause. Despite some hints along the way, the ending managed to still hit me out of left field. It’s such a simple scene, but once you see it in context, Casey’s expression in that scene is just so gut-wrenching. In fact, as I re-watched it recently, it hit me how much of an emotional roller coaster this film was.

What makes this a worthy debut?

Gone Baby GoneIt’s quite a bold choice for Ben to tackle as his first film, considering how complex, twisty and morally-ambiguous Lehane’s novel is. This film stays with me for quite a long time after the end credits roll. It left me speechless as I pondered: ‘OMG! What would I have done? Would I have chosen to do the right thing? And what is really the right thing?’ What if the people you consider ‘righteous’ do unthinkable things because they believe they’re doing something for the greater good? Does that justify the act? Things aren’t always so black and white in our world and this film certainly made a good case for that.

The way he filmed the underbelly of Boston feels authentic and raw; it’s not the typical glamorous-but-impersonal shot of the city. It turns out that the people in the backgrounds in a lot of the scenes are real local Boston actors and members of the local town. Ben made a deliberate choice not to cast professional extras for authenticity and it certainly worked. It’s clearly a personal project for Ben all round, as Gone Baby Gone is also his favorite novel. Now, that doesn’t automatically translate into a good film, but Ben has quite a keen eye behind the camera and he certainly has a way of getting great performances out of his actors.

Gone Baby GoneI love how layered the characters are, beautifully realised by Casey and the stellar supporting cast, especially Morgan Freeman, Amy Ryan, Michelle Monaghan and the oh-so-underrated Ed Harris. Ryan was Oscar-nominated, but I think Casey and Harris were both robbed that year.

What I admire about this film, and it’s become a signature of sort in Ben’s direction, is the lengthy dialogue. They can be as thrilling and tense as any action scenes, in this case, the well-written script is fully realised by the terrific performances of the cast. The conversation between Casey Affleck and Ed Harris in this clip is a great example, take a look:

Ben Affleck – the auteur?

Ok, so maybe he hasn’t earned that label yet, but he’s certainly a force to be reckoned with as a director. It’s interesting to note that Ben was at a low point in his career a few years before this, starring in forgettable-to-downright awful films likePaycheck, Jersey Girl, Gigli and Surviving Christmas. He did ok in Hollywoodland, but his career wasn’t exactly in the up and up. I think Ben made the right choice to not star in this film and just focus on his work behind the camera. He did work on the screenplay, which is his first screenwriting credit since his Oscar win with his BFF Matt Damon inGood Will Hunting.

Gone Baby GoneI’ve seen all three of his feature films and all of them are excellent. I think if I were to rate his films, I’d go Gone Baby Gone, Argo and The Town in that order. Yes, I know Argo won Best Film at the Oscars last year and I’m good with that, but in the degree of how a film affects me, I think his first film still tops it for me.

That said, Ben’s work has improved over time as he’s become more confident behind the camera, and I like that he still maintains a certain degree of intimacy in the way he shoots his films. They don’t become ‘Hollywood-ized’ for lack of a better term, as his films are always story and character-driven. I hope he continues that trend in the future. I like how he chose characters who are caught in situations out of their depth; they certainly make for an intriguing protagonists. Though the budgets he’s worked with have gone up steadily from the $19m he got for this film, his films are still relatively small. The Town was only $37m, while Argo had a $44m budget.

Gone Baby GoneIt’s interesting that after the film came out, “…[it] was perceived either as a fluke or too dark to make Affleck a candidate for bigger films”, according to an interview piece Affleck did with The Hollywood Reporter. Affleck states in the interview that only Warner Bros executive Jeff Robinov pursued him with absolute conviction despite the lack of financial success: “… Robinov brought me into his office and said: ‘I think you’re a hell of a filmmaker, actor. What do you want to do? Tell us, and we’ll do it.’ And I wasn’t having those meetings with every studio”. He settled on doing The Town, which ended up earning nearly three times its budget.

I’m looking forward to Ben’s next directorial effort. It’s listed that he’s doing another Lehane adaptation, Live By Night, where he’s going to direct and star. Not sure what’ll happen to that project now that he’s been contracted to play Batman/Bruce Wayne in multiple films. I do think he’ll always be a better director than actor, but really, that’s really not a bad place to be in.

So yeah, if you haven’t seen this film yet, I can’t recommend it enough. I think it stands as one of the best directorial debut by a young director. We’ll see if one day Ben Affleck would indeed earn his status as an auteur.

Over at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, it’s the turn of Nika from The Running Reel. Nika covers Sam Mendes’ multi-Oscar-winning American Beauty. Head over to Chris’s site now by clicking here.

Tomorrow, I’m thrilled to welcome Tyson from Head in a Vice, who’ll be covering a biggie; it’s Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs. You won’t want to miss it.