Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Lego Movie (2014) **1/2

I've come to have high expectations for animated films. Spoiled as I am by a decade of Pixar films like “Wall-E” and “Monsters, Inc.,”I have little tolerance for weak plots and acting. “The Lego Movie” and all of its hype crashed into those expectations, and the results were rather disappointing.

“The Lego Movie” tells the story of Emmett (voiced by Chris Pratt), a generic, Lego construction worker who spends his days with the other workers, building things exactly according to the Lego instructions. Everyone in Legoland follows the instructions, in obedience to Lord Business (Will Ferrell), an OCD, control-freak micro-manager. Emmett is the most boring Lego person in town, with absolutely nothing to distinguish him, but he gets thrust into an adventure when he accidentally finds a legendary hunk of plastic called the Piece of Resistance. Rebel Lego-people bring Emmett into their movement, believing him to be the prophesied Master Builder, who will use the Piece to defeat Lord Business and save Legoland.

Given that all the characters and backgrounds are made up of Legos, you might think this would be a true stop-action animated film. Nope, this is another CGI-fest, which freed the animators up to make “The Lego Movie” one long, frenetic action sequence. Oh, every now and then they slow down for a brief lesson about “believing in yourself,” but mostly everything just MOVES, exhaustingly.

It isn't until the end, when Emmett meets the Man Upstairs, that things get really meta and interesting. At this point, all your assumptions about the story get turned on their heads, and the movie becomes quite open to interpretation. This segment explores the value of play and creativity versus structure and control. It would be possible to find some commentary here on regimented societies like China versus individualistic, more chaotic societies like the U.S. Going deeper, one could view the relationship between the Man Upstairs, his son, and the Lego world as an allegory of Christian theology. Truth is, there's all kinds of potential religious symbolism in this film. Emmett, himself, could be viewed as a Christlike figure, a promised savior who turns out to be different from what the people were expecting. The film also asks whether prophesy is real or just made up to serve as a self-fulfilling guide to future generations. Some might find the movie to be Existentialist. I can't divine, though, whether the filmmakers intended all this subtext or not, because they can't seem to wait to get back to the mind-numbing action. That's the problem with “The Lego Movie,” they don't slow down to offer any thought or meaning until it's too late,your mind is already mush from all the seizure-inducing kinetics.

When I first heard they were making a Lego movie, I thought it was the dumbest idea ever. Then I started hearing positive reviews and buzz, and my expectations rose to Pixar levels. Now, having seen it, I feel pretty “meh” about it. The ending does somewhat redeem the movie and provides some interesting fuel for discussion. Truth be told, though, I was bored while watching it, and for a movie like this, being boring is the one unforgivable crime. Even worse than not following the instructions.

2.5 stars out of 5  

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mud (2012) ***1/2

One thing you can count on is that when Hollywood sets a movie in Arkansas, it isn't going to be about lawyers, or university professors, or company executives. It'll be about backwoods, country-talking, toothless rednecks. “Mud” is no exception. That's my only real complaint about “Mud,” however. It's a funny, strangely entertaining coming-of-age tale.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are a couple of 13-year-old boys whose lives are wrapped up with the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the Arkansas delta. Everything in their lives is covered in mud, but the movie is named for a drifter (Matthew McConaughey) they meet on an island in the river. The boys sneak out to the island to check out a boat that has been lodged in a tree by floods. They find Mud living in it, and he ropes them into his world of superstition and romance. Mud is hiding out, waiting for a chance to meet up with his trashy girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon). The boys, especially Ellis,can't help but be impressed by such a romantic situation. They help Mud out, even when doing so runs them afoul of the law and a gang of bounty-hunters.

I like that “Mud” isn't about any big issue or theme. It's just a good story, well-told. Matthew McConaughey has fully left behind his lightweight, pretty-boy rep. He does take off his shirt in “Mud,” but he also sports bad teeth, looking as greasy and dirty as anyone should hiding out on an island in the summer. Equally fearless is Reese Witherspoon as Mud's trampy girlfriend, Juniper. She trashes up even better than Blake Lively did in “The Town.” It's the teen actors who really impress, however, especially Tye Sheridan. Sheridan only had one movie role before “Mud,” playing in Terence Malick's “Tree of Life,” which is not a bad start, artistically. Jacob Lofland had even less experience. “Mud” was his first movie role; he was chosen because he is an Arkansas boy who knows how to ride a motorbike and drive a boat. Both actors have been working steadily since.

It's true that “Mud” is overly optimistic, and certainly predictable, but the humor of the movie makes up for any weaknesses of story. The boys riding around town trying to sell fish, Ellis's fumbling attempts at romance, and Neckbone's wetsuit-wearing uncle are all comedy gold! It's also a testimony to how much love, or the lack of it, can mess you up. It's like the song says, “Love is like oxygen. You get too much, you get too high. Not enough, and you're gonna die.”

3.5 stars out of 5