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The LEGO Movie

You would expect a movie like this to be nothing more than a shameless attempt to sell more of the expensive little blocks. Instead, it’s probably the best kid’s movie of the year, and certainly one of the funniest and most enjoyable.

The key is that the writers understand Legos. They know that, sure, each package comes with instructions about how to build some cool-looking doohickey, and you’ll do that (or get your dad to do it,) and you’ll even play with it for a while, but the real fun starts when it falls apart. Then you get to build something new. You get to combine the pieces from this Darth Vader camping set with those pieces from Ice Queen Barbie and create something entirely new. If all you ever do is follow the instructions, you’ve taken all the fun out of Legos. They are toys of endless reinvention.

Chris Pratt does excellent voice work as Emmett, a perfectly normal guy living in a perfectly normal Lego world. He’s such a perfect fit for this world that he’s not aware it’s a conformist dystopia run by President Business (Will Ferrell,) who ruthlessly destroys anything and everything “weird.” But Emmett literally stumbles into a Matrix-like prophecy that makes him suddenly very important and sought after, both by the resistance and Business, who sends Bad Cop to shut him down before he can foil the President’s plan to turn the whole world into a TACO, or something like that.

It is an absolutely standard plot, borrowed straight from the Matrix, which borrowed it from a dozen other movies. But nobody has as much fun with it as Lord and Miller do here. There are so many throwaway jokes, both visual and verbal, so many things turned sideways and on their head. Emmett is aided by a girl named Wyldstyle, who is not a DJ. Her totally serious boyfriend is Batman, who’d rather be on the Millennium Falcon. Green Lantern has a boy-crush on Superman, who avoids him. And there are two Michelangelos; one’s a turtle.

The whole thing is breathlessly fast-paced, funny, and gone before you know it. Every now and then a movie comes along that I don’t mind if my kids watch over and over again, and this is one of those. In fact, they’ve already moved on, and I’m still laughing at new jokes I missed the first two dozen times around.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Into the Woods

I’ll admit it; I’m a sucker for Broadway musicals brought to the big screen. I loved “Les Miserables,” played “Chicago” in my car for months after I saw the movie, and might even go see this new “Annie,” which I haven’t heard a single good thing about. I’m still waiting for a screen production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I love big songs, big production, big performances. When it comes to big movies, give me a belting diva over a marauding robot or angry dragon any day of the week.

And so I was thrilled to go see Disney’s screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods.” I’ve never seen “Into the Woods” on the stage, and, as long as I live in Durango, I probably never will. But I’ve been familiar with the songs for a decade, since I saw the PBS Great Performances version, starring the amazing, inimitable Bernadette Peters. So I went into the theater already humming the songs.


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Bong Joon-ho does a fantastic job of melding Korean-style action, over the top and uber-violent, with pure Western post-apocalyptic doom and gloom.

Mankind tries to fix global warming with a magic pill (lower our consumption? Steward our resources? You must be kidding! We’ll just SCIENCE our way to an answer!) that goes a little overboard, ushering in a new ice age that kills everything and everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except those aboard a train powered by a perpetual motion engine.

The train is structured just like a jumbo jet, with the wealthy up front, doing drugs and raves and eating sushi, while the destitute crowd into the last car, surviving on what looks like kelp gummy bars. Every now and then Tilda Swinton swoops down from the front to tell the poor how lucky they are to be on the train at all, and then steals their children for some unknown purpose (You find out eventually what they’re doing, and I was relieved to find out they’re not eating them.)

The first class passengers are full of exceptionalism and sanctimoniousness; they’re probably watching all three parts of “Atlas Shrugged” over and marveling at its truth and beauty. (That would be the longest train ride in the world.) But the passengers in the back keep attempting to storm the gates and get at the good stuff, because if history has taught us anything, it’s that this kind of social striation does not a stable society make.  Chris Evans (“Captain America”) leads the charge that finally makes it to the front, only to discover that everything isn’t quite what it seems.

Harvey Weinstein rather famously lost a fight to cut the film down to regular blockbuster size, but he lost.  Harvey Weinstein doesn’t lose very often, and the result is that this film was released with almost no publicity or promotion.  It’s one of the best-kept secrets of 2014, though I’m hoping that its presence on so many critics’ top 10 lists will garner it the audience it deserves.

Harvey’s loss is our gain. One of the joys of the film is that it isn’t in a rush to get to the front of the train. Each car functions as its own little microcosm, and we take the time to eat sushi and to experience a bizarre and wonderful history lesson with a crew of third graders along the way.  I suppose these changes in pace should feel jarring, but instead they’re exhilarating.  Too many action films are a race from beginning to end.  This one takes the time to look around, and finds some truly bizarre stuff to look at.  It makes it so much more fun to watch.

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Mr. Turner

I am a fan of storytelling. I love a good story. When I watch a film, I want to be told a good story. All of the elements of filmmaking — the acting, direction, cinematography, set dressing and mise en scene — all should serve the story. Story is the reason I love movies and books more than paintings and sculpture.

A good story is a powerful, almost mythical thing, and cultures all over the world and all through time recognize this. One of the things I love about Jesus is that he was a master storyteller. He knew, as did Mohammed, Buddha  and many others, that you can embody an entire universe in a story. Philosophers and theologians fill volumes with explanations of stories the masters told with a few words.

You don’t have to look very long to find critics and/or film school graduates who complain about the constricts of plot, which is to say, story. They love formless movies, impressionistic movies, the kind of film that is more interested in evoking a mood or a feeling instead of telling a story.

To me, critics (and filmmakers) who talk like this remind me of, well, myself when I was in college. I was studying literature, and writing a lot of poetry. I complained about the constricts of conventional forms of poetry, like the sonnet. I pointed to the free verse of Milton, and idolized e.e. cummings. (Man, that guy didn’t even use capitals in his name. That’s art, baby.) And I was writing a lot of bad (really bad) poetry.

Along the way, I learned that the constricts of conventional forms are great teachers. By limiting what you’re able to do, they make you a better writer. Milton wrote in free verse only after writing sonnet after sonnet after sonnet — and getting really, really good at writing verses that rhymed. Form is ultimately freeing, opening up possibilities you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Back to film. I watch a lot of films that try to eschew the constricts of storytelling, and 95% of the time, I wish they wouldn’t. It is possible to make a great film without telling a story (the prime example that pops to mind is Beau Travail) but it’s really, really rare, and most films that attempt to climb that summit fail – and fail hard.

Which brings us to Mr. Turner, the latest film from Mike Leigh, who has never had much interest in storytelling. I find his movies very hit-and-miss: some of them (like Happy-Go-Lucky and Secrets & Lies) I really enjoy; others (like Vera Drake) I really hated. Leigh is famous for operating without a script; he finds actors he trusts, gives them the outlines of a scene or a situation, and lets them improvise their way through it. I guess this could be called operating outside the constricts of plot, but I think in his best films, his actors stumble across a story in their character explorations and thus supply what the director is lacking.

But because(like Vera Drake) Mr. Turner is a biopic, Leigh isn’t able to do that. Timothy Spall, great actor though he is, can’t just stumble upon the character of the great British landscape painter. There are beats that need to be hit, information that needs to be communicated. There is a story that needs to be told. Unfortunately, Leigh steadfastly refuses to tell that story, or a story of any kind. Indeed, there are points in Mr. Turner where it seems like a story is about to develop, and then the film stubbornly steers away from those moments.

What’s left when your director steadfastly refuses to tell a story? A series of barely connected scenes. And that’s what Mr. Turner is. There are at least a dozen scenes in this film that seem to have no relationship with anything else in the film. There are another set of scenes that really ought to convey important information about this historical figure, but fail to do so (I had to look up his daughters, after the two completely befuddling scenes with them in them.) Nothing comes together. No bigger picture comes into focus. We watch this movie for three hours — which feels like even longer — and come away knowing almost as little about its main character as we did when we started.

There are some nice things about Mr. Turner. Timothy Spall delivers a very good performance; it’s amazing the number of things he can communicate through a varied series of grunts and growls. I don’t know why he’s crying in the scene with the prostitute, but his performance in that scene is powerful, anyway. It is an excellent performance; I wonder if Mr. Spall is disappointed his director couldn’t work it into a better film.

It’s also a very pretty, very painterly film. Hardly three minutes goes by without some sort of composition that resembles a painting; often one of Mr. Turner’s paintings. There are lots of pretty pictures in this movie.

I can’t recommend this film. I love story. There’s no story here. And three hours is a long, long time to listen to Mr. Spall grunt and mutter.


Random Notes: 

For those who have seen the movie — A short list of the scenes I mentioned, that seem to have nothing to do with the rest of the film

1. the scene with the piano player.

2. the scene with the natural historian.

3. the scene with the art admirer that ends with a joke(?) about kidney pie.

4. the scene with the prostitute.


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Ernest & Celestine

“Ernest & Celestine” takes place in a fantasy France where the mice live underneath the bear society, but have built a society just as sophisticated as the daylight realm. Celestine is an orphan mouse who loves to draw, and doesn’t think all bears are bad, despite the terrifying stories the matron tells.  Ernest is a brusque busker, who writes songs about how hungry he is. The unlikely pair find themselves partners in crime, hunted by both mouse and bear police, and take refuge in a secluded cabin for the winter, where they overcome their nightmares of each other (hers is of being eaten; his of being overwhelmed by hordes of rodents) and become friends.

The story doesn’t quite make sense, but that’s okay. This isn’t a Chris Nolan film, after all. It’s a children’s story about a bear and a mouse.

The hand-drawn animation is charming in its simplicity; many scenes are more impressionistic, than life-like, sketching the details but leaving large parts of the cell empty, or dark. Life-like, 3D animation has taken over childrens’ movies made in America, to the point where you can’t tell one set of animators from another. (Back in the day, Tom & Jerry didn’t just act different from Sylvester the cat and Mickey Mouse, they looked different.)  

There’s a whole series of Ernest & Celstine books by Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent, and the directors have clearly paid attention to those illustrations when bringing this to the screen.  It’s also reminicent of another French kids’ classic: Celestine is a fearless orphan who finds herself on the wrong side of authority and conventional wisdom, a lot like Madeline. 

Their first encounter feels more like a woman trying not to get “played” by a ravenous man: “Take me seriously, Ernest,” she pleads. “But I’m HUNGRY!” he screams in protest.  But later on, it feels more like the immigrant situation in America: the two are pals as long as they’re useful to each other, but when the danger subsides and Celestine has no place to go, Ernest steadfastly refuses to let her stay with him. “You let one mouse in your house, before you know it, a hundred have come to stay with you while you weren’t looking. There’s no way to get rid of them.”

The story sort of devolves into a parable about two societies that hate and fear each other for no good reason.  That’s fine, I guess. Kids need to be taught that some bears are friendly, and some mice have manners, and you shouldn’t judge someone before you know them. But it’s a better film before that, when the title character are allowed to just be themselves, to argue and squabble and care about each other.  The quaint format is suitable for this kind of story; it feels awfully strained when it tries to be a story about systemic racism and injustice.

Things that don’t make sense:  Do the bears really believe in the tooth fairy? The mice steal teeth from the pillows of young bears, but they don’t appear to be leaving coins. So the mama bears must be sneaking in and placing coins on the pillows, and wondering where the teeth went. Do they think the tooth fairies are just really mean, greedy little punks?

Celestine seems to think that she must become a dentist. But clearly there are other jobs available. Someone has to build everything, and there are cops, and judges, and scary matron mice who run orphanages. Not many artists around, I suppose, but she has options.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

“You don’t always agree with me, and I don’t always agree with you, and yet here we are… still talking.” 

The little boy who plays God (or God’s messenger) in “Exodus: Gods and Kings” says this to Moses near the end of the movie, as Moses carves out the Ten Commandments with hammer and chisel (no finger of God here.) And that line may go the furthest to express Ridley Scott’s approach to God and spirituality throughout the movie.  This is a film filled with profound uncertainty, which is not the same thing as doubt.

Scott dedicated this film to his late brother, Tony Scott, who passed away in 2012. Knowing this, and knowing that the Exodus story has been told before as a story about rivalry between two brothers, Moses and Rameses, I expected a much more personal film than the one I watched.  This film is far more interested in spectacle than in characterization. The rivalry between the two main characters is about as bland as it can be, because the two leads are bland; we learn next to nothing about either of them.  No effort is made to portray them as distinct and unique individuals with a relationship full of history.


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Mockingjay, Part 1

I think one of the reasons big corporate studios love serial movies (trilogies and so forth) is because once you’re hooked into a series, you’ll go see it to the end, whether or not the movies are any good, even if it’s out of nothing more than a yearning for resolution. (I think the “Twilight” series proved that conclusively.) When it comes to the Hunger Games, I thought the first movie was entertaining enough, even if it was a sanitized version of the Japanese classic “Battle Royale.”  It was the second movie that got me hooked, and that’s why I saw “Mockingjay, Part 1.” This is the worst of the lot, by far, but damn if I haven’t already made up my mind to see “Part 2.”
Not that it’s a bad film, exactly, but Suzanne Collins’ determination to follow Katniss down the rabbit hole of revolution has gotten darker at every term, and by this point it’s taking us some really depressingly glum places. This is not a happy movie. Or a pretty movie, or a satisfying movie.  It opens, for heaven’s sake, with our brave, resourceful heroine cowering in a storage closetand begging everyone to just leave her be.  It doesn’t get better from there.
After cracking the sky open at the end of “Catching Fire,” Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) wakes up underground at the beginning of “Mockingjay.” She is in the secret realm of District 13, not destroyed after all, but building a resistance movement to take down the Capitol. Julianne Moore is the President of the Rebellion, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, once her man inside, is now something like her Director of Communications. They need Katniss to make a series of propaganda films to motivate the other districts to join the Resistance, but Katniss, so inspiring in the Games, is terrible, terrible, terrible when trying to recite lines in front of a camera. (One of my favorite things in movies: watching a good actress, like Lawrence, play a bad actress. It’s always worth a laugh.)
To make matters worse, the Capitol has Peeta, and he’s making a series of propaganda films for that side — and it’s not clear if he’s being coerced, or worse, into doing so. Every time his face lights up the big screen, Katniss turns to goo and wonders if she’s doing the right thing.  She convinces the resistance to launch a rescue mission, but what they find will really pull your stomach out through your feet.  And that’s where the film ends.
This movie is a test: can we take away everything that made you want to see the first two Hunger Games films: the Games themselves, the fantastic costumes, the romantic tension between Katniss and Peeta — and still make you watch it?  The answer is “yes” — but “Part 2″ better pull us up out of the dark in spectacular and heartwarming ways, or I’m going to feel like this trudge through the mud wasn’t worth my while.

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Mud (and other films by Jeff Nichols)

“Mud” was #7 on my top 10 movies of 2013 list.  I reviewed “Shotgun Stories” several years ago.

Over the last few years, Jeff Nichols has become one of my favorite new directors. He makes movies about blue-collar characters, men who are deeply connected to the land where they live and make their living, men who take care of their business but often see the world unraveling around them in one way or another. Nichols’ favorite actor is Michael Shannon, who’s also one of my favorite actors. If you’ve only ever seen him as General Zod in Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” you haven’t seen him at his best (though I thought he did a fine job there; in a film full of problems, he wasn’t one of them.) Shannon is eminently believable as both a man of the earth, a hard worker you’d want on your crew, and a thoughtful, pensive man, who doesn’t say half of what he thinks. That might well be the quintessential Jeff Nichols character, but, just as Shannon has only a minor role in “Mud,” that character is present but in the background in this movie.

Tye Sheridan, who was so good in “Tree of Life,” is just as good here, playing Ellis, a thirteen year old boy who lives with his father and mother on a houseboat on the Mississippi river. But that lifestyle is disappearing; his parents are splitting up, and the houseboat is in his mother’s name, who wants to move in to town. Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover a boat in a tree on a tiny island on the river, and then they discover a fugitive living on that island (Matthew McConaughey.) Neckbone thinks he’s just a bum and wants nothing more to do with him, but Ellis is intrigued, and decides to help him.


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“Best job I ever had.”

This is the toast members of a tank crew all offer to each other at the end of a particularly intense battle sequence in the new World War II drama “Fury.” They’re being sarcastic and/or ironic — all of them would rather be somewhere, anywhere else — but you get the sense that, even in the midst of the joke, they’re also speaking the truth. The adrenaline rush of a kill-or-be-killed situation is addictive, and so is the camaraderie of being in that situation with four other guys.  Add to that a cause worth fighting for, and you’ve got quite a powerful cocktail of violence, sacrifice and courage. And so even though every one of them would whoop and holler at the chance to go home, you get the sense that they’re going to find any other job startlingly anticlimactic.


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The Judge

Originally published in the Durango Telegraph. 

I was surprised when I got to the theater this week to find that the Gaslight had very nearly sold out the Friday afternoon showing of “The Judge.” When I bought my ticket, the cashier told me it was “one of those movies.” I had to check my ticket stub; the Gaslight was also showing “Left Behind,” which, I’d have to agree, is one of those movies. But that’s not what I was there to see, and that’s not which theater had nearly sold out.

“The Judge” opens with pretty standard, generic red state/blue state tension. Robert Downey Jr. is a well-to-do Chicago lawyer who successfully defends guilty clients. He had abandoned his small town Indiana roots. Robert Duvall plays his father, a judge in that small town, who hasn’t spoken to his son for years. Though the film never gets political, it wouldn’t be hard to guess which one voted for Obama, and which one is still waiting for Obama to produce a legitimate birth certificate.


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