The Lego Movie (2014)

The Lego Movie (2014) movie poster

directors Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
viewed: 04/05/2014 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

At first blush, or maybe first, second, and third viewings of trailers for The Lego Movie, it looked completely uninteresting.  The generic “brand” title, the “hero” protagonist a generic “Lego guy” character, the rather limited scope of animation to enliven Lego people characters, and no funny jokes, this movie looked like one to absolutely take a miss on.  Felix and Clara were of the same mind, more or less.

But then came the reviews and some word of mouth.  It’s not just not bad but really “pretty good!”  The buzz has been pretty consistent.  Consistent enough to encourage me to take the kids to see if it was indeed one of this year’s better animated features.

Thing is, I am guessing that this is a bit of a matter of how low your expectations may be.  I guess, if you were in the first wave going to see the film, expectations were probably pretty darn low.  And thus it was surprisingly good.  Maybe as good as the reviews would make one think.  But then, I guess, expectations for me at least had risen above the bottom rung.  I don’t know how high but not zero.

Ironically, the movie is neither terrible nor great.  It’s absolutely okay.  Okay being slightly above mediocre.

The story is about a Lego drone, Emmet, who lives in a Lego world of utter conformity.  He is just like everybody else.  Nobody special.  Until he runs into a huge rebellion and a vaunted “Piece of Resistance”, which embroils him in a multiverse of Lego worlds and an arch villain who wants to make everyone follow the rules to the letter and maybe freeze everyone permanently with Krazy Glue.

Lego animation is a kind of weird modern thing.  I’ve noted how my kids have watched or played Lego video games of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Indiana Jones, which incorporate Lego animated remakes of iconic scenes and sequence.   Lego people don’t have a lot of moving parts.  They are jointed at the neck, shoulder, wrist, and each leg stiffly at the hip.  The facial expressions are in real life limited to one permanent look, but when animated are still fairly simple.

In other words, not compelling design.

The film isn’t just some cheap knock-off thing.  There are some really nice animated sequences, adhering to the “if it was stop-motion animated Legos” aesthetic.  Ironic itself, isn’t it?  If it had been actually done in stop-motion, it might have been mind-blowing.  It’s still good but feature computer animation these days generally has its own high bar of aesthetic beauty to reach.  The Lego Movie is sort of limited in its aesthetics by its limited movement characters.

The upshot is that the film has its moments.  There are some funny bits, some good sequences, and it has a bit of a twist of an ending that gives it a little more than it might have staying within its own digitally-imagined world.

But it’s not a great movie.  It’s also not pure corporate marketing trash like the Disney Planes movies look like.  It’s a decent film.  You really don’t need to go out of your way to see it.  It absolutely can wait for TV.

Vasilissa the Beautiful (1939)

Vassilisa the Beautiful (1939) still

director Alexander Rou
viewed: 04/04/2014

For some time, I’ve been wanting to watch an Alexander Rou film.  Following the writings of Scumbalina on her sadly not so frequently updated blog Atomic Caravan, I read about two Rou films that I have not been able to get a chance to see, Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors (1964) and The Golden Horns (1973).  The only Rou film available from Netflix was a much earlier fantasy film, Vasiissa the Beautiful.

I know very little about Alexander Rou and little about Russian folklore and fairy tales, though that seems to be where he spent most of his career in cinema.  I don’t know where Vasilissa stands in his oeuvre, I also don’t know how long I will have to wait to see the films that Scumbalina wrote about.

But I can say this: Vasilissa the Beautiful is a gorgeous, wonderfully shot fairy tale film, featuring some marvelous effects, make-up, costumes and set design.  To be fair, some of it is less wondrous than others, but the images that Rou evokes that are his richest are brilliant and beautiful.

Apparently, from what I’ve read, the film is actually based on a different Russian fairy tale than that of Vasilissa the Beautiful.  I don’t know.  But the story is about a Russian peasant lad who, following his brothers’ lead,  shoots an arrow into the air randomly to find a wife.  While his brothers snag two rather unworthy lasses, his arrow lands near a frog in a pond, who he brings home just the same.  It turns out that this frog is Vasilissa, a beautiful woman, entrapped in frog form by an evil dragon.  When the dragon finds that she’s escaped, he sends back for her to become his wife.  The lad must go out on a quest to rescue Vasilissa and make everything happy for ever after.

I usually try to find an original movie poster to illustrate my blog posts, but for Vasilissa I settled for a screen still, which is actually quite nice.  It’s a matte painting of a forest and I think a very good example of the beauty of Rou’s sets and designs.  They are luxurious and massively evocative.  It’s not just the sets but the costuming and effects as well.

One of the film’s most impressive effects seems relatively simple in a way.  When the lad gains the sword he needs to fight the dragon, he slices the darkness and it shatters.  I could guess how this was accomplished, but the effect is so striking (see below).

Vasilissa the Beautiful (1939) shatter effect

Not all of the effects live up to this.  The big finale with the three-headed dragon is sort of disappointing by comparison.  It’s nicely designed but its heads flop about as clearly the puppet that it is, lacking the vigor or magic that it really needs.  It does look nice.

I was duly impressed by Alexander Rou’s Vasilissa the Beautiful and I eagerly await a chance to see more of his films.


Alice (1988)

Alice (1988) movie poster

director Jan Švankmajer
viewed: 04/04/2014

Jan Švankmajer’s Alice (1988) is probably one of my favorite movies.  The funny thing is that I hadn’t seen it in more than 15 years, I’m pretty sure.  It is a film that I had been wanting to watch with the kids for a long time, but it had turned out that they had already seen it with their mother, for whom the film is also a favorite.  Clara didn’t remember it, but Felix did.  It was in this vague middleground that held it out of the queue for what turns out to be far too long.

If you are not familiar with Jan Švankmajer, this is certainly the place to start.  It’s his first and best feature film, a loose yet spiritually-aligned version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  It’s actually a fascinating counterpoint to the lush and lovely Disney version of the story that we had watched recently.  Where Disney’s 1951 film is a Technicolor fantasia, Švankmajer’s is an eerie, strangely nightmarish world of pure oddity.

Švankmajer is a stop-motion animator and film-maker who uses puppets and found objects, like food, or other effluvia in his figures.  In his Alice, the White Rabbit is a taxidermied rabbit with its teeth rather prominently poised.  Bones and real, dead animals comprise much of the strange universe that Alice ventures into, starting from her real world room in which these objects exist around her.  Recurring themes of drawers being pulled open (with their knobs always coming off), revealing a litany of various objects: safety pins, scissors, wood-shavings.  It’s a dank, Old World dreamscape that Alice ventures round in.

Švankmajer also employs a rather unusual technique for his voice-over of the story.  Alice speaks the words of the text, often cutting to a close-up of her mouth and she says them.  It punctuates a rhythm throughout, sort of jarring, but relatively musical, through a film with little talking to speak of.

The contrast between this Alice and the Disney Alice in Wonderland, is that many of the same sequences occur, highlighting the films’ extreme difference in approach.  In Švankmajer’s Alice, the caterpillar is a sock with eyeballs, in a room overrun with socks, tunneling like worms through a wooden floor.  Švankmajer’s Alice is full of Freudian images, of dark surrealism and strangenesses that one could hardly conceive of on one’s own.

It’s Švankmajer’s masterpiece.  He has many, many wonderful short films, and some other good or very good features like his Faust (1994) or Little Otik (2000).  But this, the least literal, though most fantastical of Alices, is a film unlike any other.

Sanjuro (1962)

Sanjuro (1962) movie poster

director Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 03/31/2014

Sanjuro is Akira Kurosawa’s sequel to his great 1961 movie, Yojimbo, with Toshiro Mifune more or less reprising his role as the masterless but masterful samurai, finding himself in complex political situations and turning things on their heads.  And then splitting some heads of some bad guys.

Sanjuro features a more contrived plot, with Sanjuro showing up amid a group of young would-be samurai who are about to get embroiled in a political fiasco.  They don’t size up their situation right, initially planning to attack the more noble lord, while really getting set up by the villainous one.  By now, Sanjuro can size up a town of characters and easily make out who is good and who deserves to die.  He winds up protecting the young men and leading them in their endeavors.

The film’s tone features perhaps a bit more comedy than in Yojimbo, but lacks the darker seriousness that runs through the 1961 masterpiece.  Some of it is quite good, like the captured bad guy who turns out to be more tuned in and good than some of the original gang.  Some a little less so, in the mother and daughter aristocrats who are naive but naive like a fox, winding up offering wisdom against the violence and killing.

The film does seem to take a different stance on the killings, responding to the advice of the older woman.  Sanjuro reconsiders his use of violence, sparing the aforementioned captive, and ultimately trying to bring about a resolution without the bloodshed.  It’s all for naught in the end, with actually a rather punctuated and gushing moment of bloody violence.  The ending seems to take this pacifist forced again into violence a bit more forcefully.  But since Kurosawa never brought him back himself, one can only speculate what became of him.

The character of Sanjuro was one more highly associated with Mifune, as iconic as any in Japanese cinema.  But the movie Sanjuro is the lesser follow-up to its brilliant predecessor.

American Hustle (2013)

American Hustle (2013) movie poster

director David O. Russell
viewed: 03/30/2014

David O. Russell’s follow up to 2012′s Silver Linings Playbook finds him reteamed with a number of actors who’ve received Oscar nods in movies that he’s been making of late.  Christian Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter (2010), Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, and Jennifer Lawrence  from Silver Linings Playbook.  It’s not at all uncommon for directors to work with a consistent stable of actors, especially if they are finding success together.  But since The Fighter, Russell has been offering up Oscar bait after Oscar bait and American Hustle was quite that.

A more interesting story that perhaps those other two films, it centers around a complex “true story” of AbScam, in which an FBI agent, Cooper, ensnares two con artists, Bale and Adams, to help him try to ensnare more highly juicy criminals, including a senator from New Jersey.  It has the heft of reality beneath it, a complex, murky, not well understood, perhaps almost forgotten scandal beneath it and has all the period trappings of the 1970′s to slather on the surface.

And slather they do.

You can see how actors would be drawn to this.  The director writes juicy parts, is a perennial Academy Awards figure, and now they get to costume up big time.  It’s the film of bad hairpieces for men and some of the best cleavage for women.  Okay, the women’s hair probably looks pretty sweet too, but it’s hard to get beyond the cleavage.

I usually eschew films that wind up as Oscar bait for their stars.  I find them to be so focused on giving the actors their scenes to chew that they’re not really “cinematic”.  They are vehicles first, movies second.  I don’t think that is really true of Russell’s work.  He’s managed to strike a balance between writing big roles with big scenes and still keeping some overall vision for his movie.

I thought of this a lot while watching this movie.  And the point of contrast that I came to was Martin Scorsese.  With Scorsese, it’s always the movie first.  Actors are in his movie to make the movie (good or bad) the director’s vision, not simply to score points and win Oscars (though his actors have done well over the years, too).  Russell rides a line here, definitely in this film, between a more Scorsese-like film, edited and written with a vision bigger than the stories of its individual characters and then being the stories of his characters.

It’s written with multiple voice-over retrospect, so not from a single perspective.  And it’s pretty good.  But it’s also sort of caught up in itself.  I mean, the film opens with Christian Bale’s fat gut and a detailed sequence on how he manages his rather ornate comb-over.  In some ways this is emblematic of the film.  Bad hair rules the day (and rules the film).  It’s a competition between Bale’s comb-over, Cooper’s home perm, and Jeremy Renner’s pompadour.  You might be able to say that the hair represents the character, delusionally trying to look good, lying to themselves about how tacky and obvious they are, but then the women look hot in their period get-ups.  Their big hair is almost something to luxuriate in, not scorn.

Of the actors, Amy Adams has the most to work with and makes the most of it.  She’s got a character who runs a facade throughout, an inherent duplicity, intelligent and sympathetic but hard to pin down.

Frankly, I liked American Hustle better than Silver Linings Playbook.  I think it’s a far better film than 2012′s Oscar Best Picture Argo, another 1970′s period piece “based on true events” and getting nominations and wins like a champ.  Maybe those are not the best points of comparison out there, but those are the ones that came to mind.

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

Muppets Most Wanted (2014) movie poster

director James Bobin
viewed: 03/30/2014 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Ah, The Muppets.

I actually missed seeing The Muppets (2011), Disney’s rebirth of the Muppet franchise.  I guess I still have a soft spot for the Muppets overall.  I remember seeing The Muppet Movie (1979) in the theater as a 10 year old and laughing and laughing and laughing.  I guess that I’ve gotten a bit more cynical over the years, so I don’t know that I enjoy them quite at that level anymore, but like I said, I have a soft spot for them, right about…here.

The kids and I had been wanting to get to a movie for a while, actually missing a couple of movies that we could have seen (this being Little League season and time being at a premium.)  But Muppets Most Wanted was playing in West Portal, “the ‘hood,” if you will and so I pretty much willed us into this one.

This film, a follow-up of sorts to the last film, involves a Russian Kermit the Frog look-alike named Constantine, who is the “world’s most evil frog”.  He’s just like Kermit except for a mole on his lip and a very slow, overly pronounced approach to English.  He breaks out of the gulag and is teamed up with Ricky Gervais (who has become the Muppets’ new manager) to entrap Kermit, take his place, and do a lot of big heists.

Gervais’ character “Dominick Badguy” (“It’s pronounced ‘ba-jee’” he tells them in one of the film’s funnier jokes) is game, as is Tina Fey as a gulag warden.  There are lots of cameos, many truly brief, blink and you miss them.  And the film is pretty fun and entertaining.

The kids seemed to enjoy it.  And I liked it.  It’s well within the tradition that Jim Henson started, very much in the vein and vibe.

Disney has been acquiring assets like nobody’s business lately, promising new Star Wars movies every year, adding to their massive collection of their own characters and movies.  It was kind of strange seeing the Disney logo before the film and a Pixar short as well.  It’s just the promise of more and more and more the like.  A cache of rights to characters and properties that will no doubt be a bounty for decades to come, reinvention after reinvention, in perpetuity and perpetuity and perpetuity.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Thor: The Dark World (2013) movie poster

director Alan Taylor
viewed: 03/29/2014

When Thor: The Dark World came out last year, the kids weren’t particularly interested in seeing it.  We had relatively enjoyed Thor (2011) on DVD and they certainly enjoyed The Avengers (2012) which also featured Chris Hemsworth as the mighty Viking god (by way of outer space).  I’d read that this Thor 2 wasn’t quite up to Thor 1′s snuff so was fine to wait for DVD release.  But oddly, even on DVD, the kids were rather nonplussed about the whole thing.

Watching the movie didn’t change that.

Hemsworth is good as Thor and Tom Hiddleston, who has played his brother and nemesis Loki in both Thor and The Avengers is probably the most engaging character throughout.  This time around, Loki is more anti-hero than bad guy, en route it has been suggested to his own theatrical film perhaps due to his popularity among the fans.   Who knows?

The real problem with this Thor is that it isn’t such a comic book movie as much as a pretty complicated science fiction space adventure that results in quite a ton of CGi. The story requires a complex backstory introduction, about these “dark elves” and some superpowered matter called “Aether”.  This all takes place thousands of years in the past, setting up the story for this movie, and all I can say is that is a lot of exposition to set up an action film.  Especially a sequel where we all already know most of the principals.

The film is not an utter disaster but it’s immensely forgettable.  It reminded me vaguely of the super-flawed Green Lantern (2011) from a couple years back.

But it’s part of Marvel’s march to next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, a march that includes the coming Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and who knows what else?  The end game is to never have an end game it seems, to keep these superhero movies rolling to infinity and beyond.

Yojimbo (1961)

Yojimbo (1961) movie poster

director Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 03/27/2014

I continue my march through “major films I’ve never seen” or films by major directors that I haven’t seen.  The thing is, that I have seen Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo before.  It was a long while back, but wouldn’t qualify it for this particular trek/trope.  But in planning to see Kurosawa’s 1962 film Sanjuro, I came to realize (which I did not know) that it was a sequel to Yojimbo.  Since it had been long enough that I hadn’t seen it, I thought it prudent to watch it prior to seeing the sequel.

I’d definitely say that Yojimbo is perhaps my second favorite Kurosawa samurai film, after Throne of Blood (1957).  Yojimbo is definitely one of Kurosawa’s best-known films.  It inspired not only its own sequel but was recreated by Sergio Leone in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), which of course had two sequels itself.  Yojimbo is considered to have been roughly adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.

A lone ronin, the eternal Toshiro Mifune, randomly finds his way into a village that has become torn apart by two warring factions.  The ronin winds up playing both sides against one another, offering to work for whoever will pay him better, while really planning to bring them both down in a bloodbath.  He’s happy to see them make their own bloodbath and just watch from above.  Of course, in the end, he unleashes his sword on all the leftover villains.

The film is largely quite comical, perhaps one of Kurosawa’s most humorous movies.  It’s a sort of simple scenario, yet quite poetical in its way.  Totally brilliant film.

Daisies (1966)

Daisies (1966) movie poster

director Věra Chytilová
viewed: 03/24/2014

I’m having an odd streak in my “great movies I’ve never seen” movie-watching of late.  I recently watched director Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) but sadly the director passed away just before I saw it, while I had the DVD at home from Netflix.  And just now, planning to watch the Czech film Daisies, director Věra Chytilová passed away.  I wound up watching it in memorium, if you will.

I suppose it is not so odd with these films from a similar era, directors in their eighties, it’s just strange coincidence.   Not good news for other aging directors of great films that I’ve never seen.

Daisies is an irreverent, oddball, almost slap-stick comedy of the avant-garde.  It features two young women, Jitka Cerhová and Ivana Karbanová, acting out in bizarre, surrealist ways, with an array of visual asides, camera effects, colors, cuts, weirdness, silliness, and lots of food and eating.  What’s so refreshing about it is that it’s a feminist film but a feminist film with a great sense of fun and impropriety, but still quite polemical in its way.

It vaguely reminded me of aspects of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, perhaps the more abstract or animated sequences.  That said, the comedy is less traditional and skit-like.  It also resonated as a real contrast to a film like Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), a brilliant if intensely downbeat feminist movie.

An emblem of the Czech New Wave, it’s a wonderful, strange, and fun little film.  It’s easy to see how one could dig into it for analysis, but I’ll just leave it at that for now.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) movie poster

director Sam Peckinpah
viewed: 03/22/2014

Much like the populist Old West outlaw Jesse James, Billy the Kid’s short life became the thing of legend, popular folklore, with many, many versions of his story told and retold and told yet again.  Director Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid from 1973 would certainly fall into the revisionist category.  It’s a fascinating assessment of the Old West, quite particular to Peckinpah’s interpretation, gritty, bloody and cynical.

James Coburn plays Pat Garrett, the outlaw turned lawman, who goes after the bounty on his old pal Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) when hired by the land barons of Arizona to put an end to the Kid and his gang.  Again, like Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) and also his classic The Wild Bunch (1969), these are Westerns interested with the end of the Old West.  The film opens with Garrett’s death in 1908, shot down at the hands of men who had paid him to track Billy the Kid.  Though most of the story takes place in the 1880′s.

Bob Dylan appears as a quirky character called “Alias,” a clerk turned outlaw when he sees how cool Billy the Kid is escaping the law.  More effective than his performance is his great soundtrack for the film.  I’m by no means a particular Dylan fan, but the soundtrack is excellent, an interesting stylistic choice for Peckinpah, something of the old-style “folk music” and guitar and the modern, the unique Dylan interpretation of the style that was very much of the time of the film.

It seems that the film is about the outlaw lifestyle, embodied in the ennobled Kid.  He’s never seen doing anything truly nefarious.  He’s fighting against the law and the rich who run everything.  We’re not given some hardscrabble backstory of how the rich men ruined the poor but these characters certainly had analogues in the early 1970′s, of which Dylan and Kristofferson no doubt embodied modern archetypes, if not Peckinpah himself.

It’s Garrett who is the ambivalent villain.  He doesn’t really want to kill Billy.  He’d rather Billy ran off to “Old” Mexico where he’d be out of his jurisdiction, but he is also quite resigned that he must kill his old compadre.  And he knows that he is doing it for his own wealth and entitlement.  He has no illusions about right and wrong.

I’d last seen this film in England about 20 years ago, around the time that I was first getting interested in the Western as a genre.  I think I’m appreciating it much more today than I did then, though I recall liking it.  I’d just watched  Ride the High Country a couple of nights before and had also recently watched Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and frankly, I am currently totally digging Peckinpah of late.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  The Western is one of the great genres of cinema.  One who doesn’t appreciate the genre is missing out on some of the best films ever made.