My Week in Movies – February 27th

This week I only managed to catch the Robocop remake. It proved timely but not probably not timeless.

Robocop
In preparation for my viewing of Robocop this week, I re-watched the original with Peter Weller as Officer Murphy. It’s not quite how I remember it, the violence is excessive. I certainly didn’t catch the satirical statements when I was younger. To me Robocop was an awesome cyborg cop who beat up bad guys. But that’s my childhood memory and nostalgia. The remade Robocop is interesting and relevant to today’s society. Robocop touches on the war on terror, drones, nation building, national security and political commentary. The story was modified, the satire is far more visible and the violence is actually toned down a bit. Murphy’s still a cop with a family who is killed, rebuilt and struggles with his humanity, or lack thereof. But he’s not the only man struggling with ethical issues, his creator, Dr. Norton, played by Gary Oldman. Jackie Earle Haley’s Mattox and Michael Keaton’s Raymond Sellars provide solid antagonists. I’m not always a fan of remakes or adaptations but I didn’t find this film particularly problematic but it wasn’t great either. It’s relevant to current events and yet I’m not sure if it will hold up over the years.

Grade: C+

Next week, I’ll be out to see Liam Neeson’s latest action/thriller, Non-Stop.

Monuments Men

George Clooney, mustachioed and with his forelock hanging just so, grins like the Cheshire Cat at a surrendered Nazi. That surrendered Nazi goes from cool and confident to wet-his-pants worried as Clooney’s art-professor-turned-soldier leans back in his chair and smiles that Clooney smile, the tables turned; Clooney’s Frank Stoles is the predator now, and this murderer, this man who burns masterpieces and humans alike, he is the prey. As his Frank Stokes taunts the prisoner, saying someday soon he’ll be eating at his local Jewish deli, reading about how this Nazi has been hanged for war crimes… well, one can’t help but draw up comparisons to the grinning, mustachioed 2009 performance of the one Ocean’s Eleven lead who did not hop on the Clooney train for Monuments Men – Brad Pitt, who drawled his way through Quinten Tarantino’s profane but profound reworking of World War II, Inglorious Basterds.

The comparisons are not kind to Clooney. As an actor. As a director. As an interpreter of material.

This is good material. Based on the true story of a group of art collectors and academics who ventured to the front to stop the destruction of great art and architecture, this story of underdog soldiers with a passion for art who saved some of the world’s most treasured masterpieces sounds like exactly the kind of engrossing material we crave. Even without the incentive provided by the notion that this material might be interpreted by the likes of John Goodman, by the likes of Cate Blanchett, by the likes of Bill Freakin’ Murray, the very ideas this material should wrestle with seem like they should grab us, excite, confound, and startle us.

How, we might wonder, do a group of aesthetes, untrained in the tactics and intricacies of war, walk into an active warzone where young men are dying and Jews are being carried to the gas chamber, and value a painting, no matter how beautiful, above all else? Is this a defensible position? What does that kind of appreciation for artistic beauty amidst the mire of war do to the human soul?

Monuments Men‘s interpretation of these questions is one-sided and horrendously incomplete – the script frequently (okay, ad nauseum) poses the critical question, not by showing the cost necessarily but by actually asking and answering it a whole lot, probably about every twenty minutes by my count: are human lives worth sacrificing for art? And while we all, on a fundamental level, admire art on an aesthetic level and hate to see it destroyed by anyone, least of all greedy Nazis, it would have been intriguing to see this film struggle with that question at all. If it could have seen it from the other side, maybe given one of its Monuments Men an opposing point of view (or an attitude that comprised something other than cheerful and dutiful determination), maybe created a situation where a mission compromised an important military operation in the name of saving a building and this put genuine doubts in the minds of these art collectors. Maybe the film could have, for a second, put the shoe on the other foot, posed an actual problem and not a physical obstacle for these heroes and martyrs that make up the Monuments Men, rather than answering so readily, so fervently, and so incessantly in the affirmative. If it had, this could have been a film that honored both the tradition of great, complex films about World War II and honored the intriguing material upon which the film is based.

As it stands, Monuments Men is an overly chipper, joke-laden examination of fervent art preservation in a time of crisis that pays lip service to the tragic loss of life surrounding the tragic loss of art, but not much more. When the men that make up the team are recruited to the cause in a dialogue-free montage that feels maddeningly rushed and tells absolutely nothing about anyone, each team member greets their invitation to rush overseas, leave their families, and run around trying to steal paintings back from Nazis with a hearty “Oh you rascals” grin. That smug grin persists unfailingly, only being wiped away briefly for something somber or sad. Monuments Men is accordingly airy, light, even convivial for much of its run time, only taking on a sense of gravitas when it comes time for Clooney’s Frank Stokes to examine once again whether this mission is worthwhile, whether it is even sane.

Yes, yes yes! Of course it’s worth it, Clooney argues! (In both his first and last scene, directly at the audience, staring into our eyes, as if we are students in a Clooney lecture on the value of the masterpiece to the human soul.) He doesn’t so much persuade us that this is the case, or show us. This would require patience, diligence, a critical understanding of all facets of the argument at hand, especially necessary in a film that dances around the Holocaust so tepidly – instead, this film is a fervent argument in favor of something, yes, but with all the persuasive power of an all-caps comment on a message board. It’s argument is “BECAUSE ALREADY, JEEZ!” The film strong-arms the audience by talking at them so long about why this all makes perfect sense that we either agree or shut the film out.

As the overbearing score swells under Clooney’s stirring lectures to dismissive presidents and generals about the importance of art; or as jerky superior officers brow-beat the Monuments Men for having the audacity to worry about anything so trivial as a statue or church tower while war rages; or as an aged Stokes (played by Clooney’s own father) cloyingly admires a statue he saved thirty years after fighting has ceased, musing aloud to his grandson that indeed it was all worth it, it’s hard to see any other valid position through all the indigence and privilege. Not that we as the audience couldn’t come up with some merited points to the contrary – it’s just that Clooney, within the text, would rather not entertain those points as anything more than the ignorance of boorish men engaged in their war games without a care in the world for beauty or elegance or higher callings.

The Monuments Men are anything but boorish men. They are wonderful, sensitive men; for one, played by Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, a checkered past is mentioned, but it is just that – a past. Neither his character nor any other struggles with a quandary. Mission: Save art. Crack wise. Mourn. Save more art. These are their only settings.

Only Blanchett hems and haws over anything – she is trapped in her own side film with Matt Damon, who spends almost the entire plot stranded in Paris, far from the action or the important discoveries or anything significant at all. Blanchett plays a Parisian who distrusts the true motives of the curator of the Met, played affably by Damon. This distrust is fair – she refuses repeatedly to hand over important information to the potentially greedy (though this is such a nationalist film that it suggests only Soviets – ugh – would ever be so vain as to keep the things they nobly rescued, ha, yeah right) Americans, who could take all that art back home with them. That is, she refuses right up until, essentially, she forms a huge crush on Matt Damon, who is admittedly still puppy dog cute more than fifteen years after he first played an American soldier stationed on the front. That is the word I would have to use to describe Damon’s James Granger – cute, maybe a little self-depreciating, not great at speaking French. That just about serves to describe every character – cute, if in some cases in an “Awww, old man…” kind of way, and self-depreciating.

The film, through its score and cinematography, evokes everything from Bridge on the River Kwai to Inglorious Basterds to Saving Private Ryan (a comparison that rings so shockingly hollow when Clooney and friends walk onto that same beach weeks after D-Day as if they are having a pleasant afternoon stroll), but the film Monuments Men most wants to be is the art-lover’s Dirty Dozen. Unfortunately, the Monuments Men are misfits in the Dirty Dozen mold only in the fact that they look like John Goodman and Bill Murray and Bob Balaban – old, fat, balding. In that way, they are out of the norm.

As characters, though, to a man, each is such a sainted do-gooder that it becomes difficult to describe any one character in terms that do not describe his occupation or the actor portraying him. Switch Goodman’s and Murray’s characters’ scenes completely and behold the exact same movie. Only Balaban truly stands out – he steals the film as a shrimp with an attitude, forever peeved that he is a private in a uniform meant for a man three times his size. Oh, he is as noble as everyone else, no doubt, but at least he is at turns prickly and tender, a character with more than one layer. His interplay with Murray, whose character otherwise has no defining characteristic outside “affably good-humored,” is a bit forced at times, but ultimately, that interplay forms the heart of the film.

Monuments Men is a film with a heart. It won me over in its own small ways as it progressed. It begins in quite a hurry, aiming to get everyone willingly into uniform by minute ten, missing myriad opportunities to examine why men in their seventies would risk everything for a beautiful fresco, but slowly, it does backtrack, filling little things in, letting little pieces of character slip through, almost as if it was accidental. One scene in particular, a wordless scene set to a haunting acapella [rendition][rendition] of “Have Yourself a Very Little Christmas,” finally wore down my resolve. It is maudlin, for sure, but also so effective at conveying without words what the film never can with them, that I finally began to appreciate these old fogeys as something more than the same interchangeable smart aleck with an art degree.

But if Balaban and Murray and Goodman (who needs their character names really?) and even young Sam, the German Jew, grew on me over time, Clooney’s Frank Stokes never did. I still can’t shake how important he should be to this film, how much doubt or anger or indignance he should have as the leader of this crew on an impossible and potentially insane mission, and how none of that ever shows. Frank Stokes is smooth, heroic, perfect – in a word, he is Clooney. Pitt’s Aldo Raine, a similar leader on a mission, was a hero too, but also a bastard – a man so single-minded in his pursuit of huntin’ Naaazis that he is both admirable and clearly not a pleasant man to hang out with. Pitt (in real life, plenty charming in his own right) is a picture of backwoods determination and self-righteousness directed, in this instance, towards a noble cause – this man is all sharp edges, but all pointed directly at something in need of stabbing, Hans Landa.

Frank Stokes is, in comparison, someone whom we would expect to be an everyman. He is, by profession, a teacher, an inspirer, akin perhaps to Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan. Throughout that movie, Miller’s hand shakes and his color drains at every wartime horror he sees, but Stokes is cool, calm, and collected at all times. In Gravity, as a supporting character, that imperturbable nature Clooney innately possesses was a gift. In a World War II drama, it is a curse. That smile, that unwavering baritone used here to trumpet the importance of art, that forelock hanging just so, it seems like a refusal of the stakes of war, the inevitability but also the tragedy of loss, the idea that sometimes, that loss is not worth it, is not justified.

In the end, Clooney may not be wrong: the real Monuments Men may have been great heroes, the greatest heroes – but in its cool-handed assuredness that its position could not be more convincing, the film Monuments Men is not very convincing in this regard at all.

My Week in Movies – February 20th

So, this week did… not go as well as I’d hoped. But that doesn’t mean it was a complete loss.

That Awkward Moment
Zac Efron is joined by half of the upcoming residents of the Baxter Building, Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller. These three dudes deal with rom-com relationship issues, but from the (only in the rom-com genre) not-as-explored male perspective. The film revolves around Efron’s bro, but, counterintuitively, he was the character I liked the least. I empathized with Jordan’s failed marriage and with Teller’s discovery of his romantic feelings for his platonic friend. But it’s Efron’s movie, and his general demeanor and actions left me utterly disappointed that he was actually able to win over a girl like Imogen Poots. And then lose her and win her back again. But I suppose that was always the way it was going to happen, because there was never anything particularly fresh about this film’s plot. It was a mildly satisfying diversion with some laughs and a few touching moments and, unless you count the failed attempt to humanize a jerk, a complete lack of innovation.

Grade: C

The Monuments Men
Finally, George Clooney’s World War II Ocean’s movie, The Monuments Men, released to theaters after a huge, portentous delay! I didn’t care. I was so excited for this movie last year and remained excited for the day I could finally see it. Clooney gathers a band of misfit artists – and great veteran actors you always dreamed you’d see in a movie together – and leads them into World War II. Their mission: to protect and rescue Europe’s prized art and culture before Nazis and bombs leave nothing left to admire. The cast was an interesting choice, with the definite vibe of the Ocean’s series, but funnier. Yet the movie’s script moralizes and evangelizes so hard, trying to impart the import of art and culture, that it robs this interesting cast of its chance to do much more than hang out and josh around in uniform, criminally robbing them of their chance to stretch and make tough choices resonate with acting decisions. Tense moments (and how could there not be tense moments with how much the film tentatively evokes the Holocaust?) were cut with winking jokes a few too many times. I still enjoyed this movie on the whole, and will always come out to the theater when Clooney headlines a team-up film. I just wish this one had been better.

Grade: B-

So not a bad week, per say, but not nearly as good as I had hoped for, especially considering Clooney was in the mix. I’m not holding out much hope for next week, as I’ll likely only see one movie and it has no Clooney at all.

RoboCop

At this juncture, it is practically a truth universally acknowledged that everything is a remake. Even those films that shock us with their originality in an age of derivation, films which have no source material outside the brilliant ideas populating the minds of their auteur screenwriter/directors, like Gravity and Her, are in essence still built upon old ideas (like the myth of Pygmalion) and genre conventions (what is Gravity but a lost-at-sea thriller transplanted to the final frontier).

What is originality really? Don’t go to the cinema this month to find out; three of four major releases opening wide this Valentine’s Day 2014 are remakes of 80s films (two are remakes of films it is unlikely anyone under 30 has any familiarity with at all) and the other film is a bonkers adaptation of a bonkers fantasy romance. Everything may be remixed, but this Valentine’s Day, the DJ is barely trying. It appears he fell asleep at the turntable.

Of these February remakes, RoboCop is both the most respectable (and has in turn gotten the most respect) and the most sacrilegious. It is respectable because if any film’s content has gotten more relevant from its release to 2014 (other than Network of course) it is RoboCop. A new vision of that material doesn’t just seem appropriate… it seems necessary. It is sacrilegious because the film upon which this remake is based is now considered a beloved classic – it, unlike About Last Night and Endless Love, has much to live up to and little hope of unseating Peter Weller in the hearts and minds of the unexpectedly-worshipful masses who have adopted Paul Verhoeven as a kooky-kinky Dutch hero in the decade and change since his Hollywood exile.

I cannot compare this new RoboCop, directed by Brazilian newcomer Jose Padilha, to the 1987 original because I have not seen the original (in brief: sorry, soon to be rectified), but I did not need to see Verhoeven’s original RoboCop to realize the many ways in which (as many[robocopy] have begun to teasingly call it, and I can’t help following the trend) RoboCopy is a derivative work.

As a matter of fact, I saw a film last month (it was the only 2014 release I managed to see last month and already it’s been replicated to a tee) that shares so much with RoboCop it is almost humorous to behold the two films existing in such close proximity to each other, circling the same drain of exhausted tropes. I did not like Ride Along very much, but at least one of its Dirty Cops was played with lispy enthusiasm by John Leguizamo, it’s Bad Arms Dealer role was given over to a hammy but surprising-in-a-good-way cameo, and the overwhelming plottiness led to a great set-up for Kevin Hart to do what he does best – try to play a more physically imposing man than he actually is or could ever be. RoboCop too has a set of Dirty Cops who serve their master, a Bad Arms Dealer, and turn on the Only Good Cops, putting them in harm’s way. Beat-for-beat, in spite of being set in a not-that-distant future, in a different city, in a science fiction movie about robot-men, this story plays out identically in Ride Along and RoboCop. In Ride Along, the familiarity was tiring, but allowed some room for Kevin Hart to play in Eddie Murphy’s sandbox. In RoboCop, the familiarity is disheartening, stifling what seems from the outset to be a film of political vision and cutting satire, drowning it in yet another story of bought cops. It is exhausting to see a film this fanciful and this politically ambitious focus so heavily on component parts that are so overused that they feel recycled from last month’s bad comedy and seem to be more ill-used here.

But so much of this film is about familiarity. As a film designed to impress upon young male’s how much of a badass this armored-in-black law-drone is, RoboCop is ruthlessly efficient in mashing together smart-sounding media-satire (much of the film is a string of buzzwords [Drones! Senate Votes!!!] shouted in the cable-news mode so that RoboCopy sounds like it belongs in 2014) with a superhero origin story, the most tired of all genre tropes in 2014.

And really, in a sea of superhero movies, that is all that can be said for the film’s many action setpieces which see RoboCop take out scores of enemies – they are ruthlessly efficient. They occur. We know who dies. Give the film this: it is easy to keep score in this action film – if you’re not sure who RoboCop is killing, expect the character’s name and vital signs to appear onscreen a moment later… the benefit of having a robot protagonist I guess.

The only pieces of this film that step outside that efficiency, that seem to be more man, more soul, than machine, feature Gary Oldman as a mad scientist who is, contrary to the standard trope, more mad with compassion than ambition or avarice, and Samuel L. Jackson as a conservative talking-head for a crass Fox News stand-in.

Oldman is extraordinarily effective as the film’s cautious soul, a genius doctor able to do so much with science who is hesitant to act on that ability. He wants the best for his patients; he beams admiringly as one is able to use prosthetic hands to play the guitar while his wife looks on in tears. He is a Good Man in a Bad Situation, but Oldman takes it deeper than that. When he shares the screen with Joel Kinnaman, the cop in the suit this go-round (Kinnaman brings a healthy swagger and pleasant soulfulness to the role before his emotions are turned off and the Weller imitation begins), RoboCop is a modern-day Universal monster film. Kinnaman is a man turned beast, pining after what cannot be his. He is a brain, a pair of lungs, and a hand, encased horrifyingly in cold metal and tubing. He is our argument on cutting off life support taken to drastic extremes.

Exploring this dynamic, the dynamic of a man so far from being a man that it should be impossible for him to return to domestic bliss, Robocop justifies its existence. It nearly invalidates all that hard-work by, in the end, letting all the Good People who allow the Bad Situation to happen by merely following along, from Oldman’s doctor to Abbie Cornish’s longing wife, to get off scot-free. There should be a cost for all this madness, and yet, remarkably, in spite of how insane it is that a robot-man gets half of Detroit shot up and kills the CEO of the city’s favorite/maybe-only company, the epilogue shows all surviving characters are all smiles now.

With the exception of Jackson’s Pat Novak, that is. The Jackson pieces, which open and close the film and are peppered throughout a bit too inconsistently to warrant the device, act as a demented Greek chorus, relaying important stage-setting and thematic information to the audience, but filtering it through a corrupted, imperialistic lens. Using Jackson in this way, allowing him to speak directly to the audience, is an interesting hook, setting the film apart from just about everything else and giving it a futuristic look that much of the rest of the film somehow lacks; but Jackson’s bead on a media blowhard is too good. In spearing the Fox News type, he is all thorns and no blossom. He has none of the oily charisma that might win an audience over to his point of view. He seems too much the clown we can laugh at rather than a man whose power to sway the American public should scare us.

All the oily charisma in the film is saved for Michael Keaton who, for much of his time on-screen, does a fine job pulling everyone around him, Oldman’s scientist included, to his dark side while spouting off about protecting the American people in the most efficient manner possible and creating a new American hero. He does this in such a calm, level-headed way that his argument’s often seem genuinely convincing even though we know as an audience they all come from desires that have little to do with the safety of the American people and much more to do with the tax money of the American people. Before Keaton’s OmniCorp CEO goes, as he must, mad with power, he lands enough points to make any liberal opposed completely to drone warfare think twice. In this character, a whip smart and scarily relatable corporate head who turns, with little provocation, into a mustache-twirling fool (sans mustache, but if he had one, he’d twirl it) all of this film’s squandered potential lies.

Padilha comes so close to making a clever, necessary film. Undoubtedly (and by design, for sure) Padilha’s remake is relevant. Trailers seemed to promise that this relevance might prove justification enough for the reuse of the RoboCop character – maybe this wouldn’t just feel acceptable, maybe it would feel essential! Surely the need for this type of story could not have peaked in the Reagan years! And while Padilha proves there is gas left in the tank, that a RoboCop for a new age could truly speak to things in 2014 that RoboCop 1987 could never have dreamed of, it is sad that much of what RoboCop 1987 represented seems more suited to our times than this ultimately inessential remake which, in its happy-ending, and in its optimistic portrayal of a Detroit, borne upon the shoulders of a machine with a true American soul, on the rise, seems optimistically aspiration in the most impossible, untimely ways.

The Oscars

In this ‘Commercial Break’-style episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, Charles and James watch and react to The Oscars as hosted by Ellen. Can she do better than Seth MacFarlane? Will Leonardo DiCaprio finally get his Oscar? Which film will take home Best Picture?

My Week in Movies – February 13th

I didn’t hit the theaters after Ride Along and I, Frankenstein (anyone would need a break after that), but the Lord/Miller collaboration that that greeted me upon my return was worth the wait.

The LEGO Movie
Now here is a comedy I can enjoy. The LEGO Movie is easily the best movie of the year thus far. (Might survive to the end of the year with that title, that’s how good it is.) It’s funny and caring, yet not unwilling to poke fun at itself and its “corporate overlords”. I mean, come on, the antagonist (voiced by Will Ferrell) is named Lord Business! His nemesis, and our protagonist, is Emmett (Chris Pratt, soon to be Star-Lord/battler-of-dinosaurs), a standard, non-descript LEGO construction worker. He meets WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks), a master builder looking for the Piece of Resistance. Emmett stumbles onto it by accident and WyldStyle whisks him away from Lord Business and Bad Cop (Liam Neeson!). The movie follows Emmett’s attempts to halt Lord Business’s nefarious plan to use the Kragle (all these silly names will make sense eventually) to freeze his Lego world in a perfect state. Along the way, we meet several master builders, including sage-like Vitruvius (Morgran Freeman), Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Brie), Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) and characters from just about every licensed property you’ve ever loved. This movie never takes itself too seriously, has tons of priceless cameos, and is a truly great adventure. There are even two hilarious songs, “Batman” and “Everything is Awesome”, both of which shine as parodies of real music and as catchy tunes in their own right. Best of all, the movie isn’t afraid to point out that LEGOs really are just toys, meant to be played with and enjoyed by all. Just like this movie.

Grade: A+

Really, The LEGO Movie has more than made up for everything I’ve watched thus far. Maybe 2014 is starting to pick up, because next week looks like it will be pretty good too.

The LEGO Movie

In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, Charles and James discuss the first hit movie of the year, The LEGO Movie. Is it just a fun romp in childhood memories or is there more to this animated movie? Listen in to find out.

The LEGO Movie

Indulge me for a spell as I tell you why The LEGO Movie works, why it is certified Fresh with a shocking 95% on Rotten Tomatoes (for reference, Oscar front-runner American Hustle is locked in at 93%), while pushing beyond what is most obviously captivating about it: its humor, a perfect blend of sly satire and see-what-I-did-there pop culture gags cultivated through years of making… oh, you know, every adorably clever cut-scene you’ve ever sat through in a Lego video game.

For 29 years, Legos were, as one character in the film puts it, “a highly sophisticated, interlocking brick system.” Beyond that, they were what you made of them. Want someone to walk around in them? Find a thimble, call it a man. Then, in 1978, came the introduction of minifigurines (one of whom winningly plays a big part in the film by wanting nothing more than to build an old-fashioned spaceship), like analog Sims that builders could move around through thirty years of already-constructed Lego cities and Lego worlds like all-powerful Lego-Gods. With the introduction of licensed figurines, they could even make Star Wars characters, on the bridge of a meticulously built-to-scale Millennium Falcon, do and say whatever they wanted.

The best thing Lego ever did for its branding, not that the corporation ever needed much help, was get in on that joke. Lego Han Solo is not real Han Solo – he is blocky, yellow, cute. Since Lego Star Wars in 2005 (it seems like much longer, right?), and through countless licensed adventures that have adorablized some of the biggest blockbusters of the past fifty years, Lego has rebranded itself through video games as a hip enabler, letting you be Batman while also, at the distance afforded by Lego cuteness, being silly about how absurd Batman’s dark streak can be.

And yet no Lego video game would ever put normally harsh critics in the mood to combine forces for a 95%! Even Frozen, one of the most beloved animated films since Pixar’s heyday (which, sad to say, is no longer “always”), is sitting just outside the 90th percentile, asking The LEGO Movie through the keyhole if it wants to build a snowman.

Humor goes a long way towards disarming critics and audiences who are inherently wary of what, given its name, could have easily been a feature-length Lego commercial. That it is not simply product placement, that it is sly and aware about things like corpratization and, as the characters in The World’s End would put it, “starbucking,” that its running gag about Superman (Channing Tatum) resenting the very presence of Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) serves both as the kind of off-beat character work Lego has established between long-running characters and as a commentary on the shade thrown by studio Warner Brothers towards Lantern since the failure of his big-screen debut (almost like the studio saying “No Hal, you’re grounded and you don’t get to play with Clark today!”), while also bringing about a mini-21 Jump Street reunion, makes The LEGO Movie alarmingly funny in clever ways. But many kids movies have been alarmingly funny in clever ways since Aladdin and Shrek opened the door to pop culture references only adults would get being seeded through films made ostensibly for their children, which is now the modus operandi for most animated features. And so something else must be going on here.

That something is structure. The gift The LEGO Movie, a joke-machine featuring an every-plot structured around a simpleton, Emmet, singled out as “The Special” for completely arbitrary and silly reasons that defy exposition, bestows upon us (besides its obvious good humor) is its ability to step outside itself in its third act while keeping itself stable and truly funny and also finding new, deeper resonances. The key here is that The LEGO Movie, as it expands its canvas to new Lego worlds and beyond, is still a movie begging the same questions it posed at the outset – as we go through Emmet’s morning routine, this is a film about the benefits and startling limits of following instructions; Act 2 complicates this by showing both sides, the creative and the logical, having victories and losses large and small (Uni-Kitty particularly shows that complete freedom, when enforced, can be just as limiting, and yes we just used a character called Uni-Kitty to explore deep thought, which is part of what makes the film wonderful); and Act 3 follows this debate to its logical conclusion.

Compare this to the films The LEGO Movie shares the most DNA with structurally, and we begin to see why this unexpected turn in the third act has won audiences over and not, as has often happened when a third act in a kids’ movie gets preachy, turned them off. Happy Feet and Rango serve as strong templates for The LEGO Movie in that both start off as contained narratives about a fixed community fighting for one thing (the tradition of heartsongs; water) before being thrown slip-shod through a series of expansions and reveals that make the films about so much more. Rango gets away with its spectral visit from psuedo-Clint Eastwood and its turn toward the cost of human destruction mostly because, in a way, it was always a meta-film about the intrinsic limitations of genre constructs – maybe, in this way, it learned its lessons from the film that preceded it.

I think there are definite lessons to learn from Happy Feet, a joyful, hilarious film that uses Robin Williams in all the best ways, and that also has deep, unforgivable structural problems. Whenever a film has gotten too big for its britches since, I have diagnosed it with Happy Feet Syndrome. It’s not that I don’t admire ambition in children’s entertainment; the world’s admiration for Pixar films and The LEGO Movie shows that challenging narratives in animation get all the praise they need if done right. Happy Feet is ambitious, but without being able to hold to a cohesive whole. Every act forgets what the previous act was about. By the time Mumble is captured and the story becomes about the ways we humans destroy the lives of penguins and other Antarctic creatures through our own interference, the film has almost completely forgotten that it started as a penguin musical in which characters sang Boyz II Men songs as a way to convey that tapdancing was not an appropriate way to express one’s heartsong. No matter how many times I watch the film knowing the turn towards environmental solipsism is coming, it never proves to be an easy or comfortable transition. Happy Feet, in trying to provide perspective, attempts to take a step back from its story, and in doing so, takes a huge step backwards in the story department.

Compare that to what we see when Emmet, our sad everyman, lands in a new, unexpected world (obviously doing summersaults to not spoil this for you), and we begin to be able to judge how directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, already ballyhooed for the way they turned 21 Jump Street and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs into self-aware yukfests, take what could have been a funny, mildly self-aware product placement, and turn it with unexpected nuance into a complex, structurally-sound treatise (with undercutting elements that add some vinegar [a talking cat poster] to what ultimately turns out to a rather sugary message about belief in oneself) confident in its ability to get across not just what makes Legos (available at your local toy store!) great, but what makes them great in different people’s eyes. It is a film in which Batman can have a self-authored heavy metal theme which consists of the lyrics “darkness… no parents;” an unexpected cameo from recent high-profile Disney acquisitions can seem remarkably uncrass; and a climactic father-son bonding moment is allowed to be moving; and all of these elements can marry perfectly without tipping the film too far into mean-spirited parody or maudlin sentimentality. As with any Lego construction, we can bicker about the pieces used (I for one, for instance, would not have started the movie with the prophecy scene; it starts the film on the wrong foot and doesn’t make much sense considering what the film becomes), but on the whole, the final construction is something to behold – immaculate, meticulous, well-thought out, awe-inspiring. Ultimately The LEGO Movie is not merely a fun film; it is a film made all the more fun for its commentary on how and why we construct fun out of nothing but colored blocks and passive yellow faces.

2013 in Film Part 2

In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, Charles and James finish off their review of film in 2013 by talking about their Top 13 films in 2013. There’s a few expected movies, Thor: The Dark World, Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street and Her. But there are several surprises in store.