Archive for the Comedy Category

Bad Words

Posted in Comedy with tags on March 23, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Bad Words photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgCritics often use the expression “check your brain at the door” for movies that are best enjoyed without thinking about their inherent ridiculousness. I’d like to coin the phrase, “check your morality at the door“ for Bad Words. The production has a gleefully amoral sensibility when it comes to what is socially acceptable to say in polite conversation. The story concerns Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), a middle aged man who has strong-armed his way into a national spelling bee on a technicality. You must not have completed the 8th grade, the rules state. This junior high drop-out never did. Why he wants to compete in a children’s spelling bee is a bit of explanatory information that should be gleaned from watching the film.

Bad Words has a profoundly cynical overtone. The humor is pitch black so many viewers will understandably not warm up to its prickly charms. Guy walks through this chronicle perceptually annoyed with everyone and everything. He’s racist, sexist and an all-around first class SOB.  Perhaps anyone who’s ever been pestered on a plane by a child when you’d prefer just to relax, might sympathize a little with this jerk. Some of the putdowns he dishes out to the adults (and even some kids) are downright nasty in nature but they’re so creatively written that you’ll find your self gasping and laughing almost at the same time. The attitude is usually the kind of stuff I hate. Vulgarity is no substitute for wit. Yet Andrew Dodge’s script is intelligently irreverent. It doesn’t rely on mere shock value. Plus the drama doesn’t hold up Guy as someone to emulate. There is an ultimate point to the madness.

For most of the picture, Bad Words’ dark outlook means to subvert clichéd Hollywood tales where the optimistic adult inspires a youngster to be a better person. If Bad Words is guilty of a legitimate offense, it would be in betraying its initial politically incorrect premise with an ending that devolves into saccharine schmaltz. The change in atmosphere doesn’t ring true because it’s a complete sellout of the acerbic first half. A sincere but awkward 10 year old proves to be his undoing. Pint sized actor Rohan Chand is a genuinely sweet presence. He is really winning as Chaitanya Chopra. The descent into sentiment is both the screenplay’s weakness and success. It’s hard not to appreciate Chand’s toothsome tyke who balances out a lot of the nastiness. The saga still treats Guy Trilby as a misanthrope. But it makes Jason Bateman’s character easier to take because the child becomes his comic foil. Underlying the “clutch the pearls” shenanigans is a moral center that has its heart in the right place. You might roll your eyes at the resolution, but you’ll savor the warmth as well.

Muppets Most Wanted

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Crime, Family with tags on March 18, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Muppets Most Wanted photo starrating-3stars.jpgHistory repeats itself. Much in the same way that The Muppets (2011) was a reboot of The Muppet Movie (1979) so too does Muppets Most Wanted (2014) follow in the burglar footsteps of The Great Muppet Caper (1981). The Muppets burst out singing in their opening number “We’re Doing a Sequel.“ In a nod that acknowledges a regrettable reality, they sing “And everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good.” I wish I could say the lyrics were just a lighthearted bit of self-depreciation but the acknowledgement is sadly prescient.

In this go-around the gang are led astray by a slick manager named Dominic Badguy. That’s pronounced “Bad-JEE” he says. “It’s French.“ That’s a well written line. He convinces the Muppets to take their act on a worldwide international tour. Kermit’s better judgment warns that renting out the largest theater in Berlin for their opening-night performance is probably not a smart idea. But strangely he turns out to be wrong and the show sells out. Dominic‘s increasingly outlandish ideas and ‘say yes to everything’ attitude secures favor in the group. As he gains their confidence, he secretly replaces Kermit with Constantine, the World’s Most Dangerous Frog. Save for a mole on his upper lip Constantine is a dead ringer for Kermit in appearance. His personality on the other hand, is quite different. Constantine and Dominic work together as a team although the evil frog’s song “I’m Number One” clearly delineates their relationship. Meanwhile Kermit is correspondingly mistook for the master criminal and thrown into a Russian Gulag.

Most of the ingredients are here to have another success. Director James Bobin is back as director. He also co-wrote the script with Nicholas Stoller who returns as well. Bret McKenzie is doing the music again. The songs stand on their own, but are less essential to the narrative this time around. They’re often shoe-horned into a scene forcing the action to take an abrupt stop rather than truly adding to the mood.  Jemaine Clement, the other half of McKenzie’s comedic Flight of the Conchords duo, plays one of Kermit’s fellow inmates at the prison. Despite all the returning talent, this doesn’t have the sincerity or integrity of the previous entry. I have to wonder if the missing ingredient is Jason Segel. His presence is nowhere to be found.  He not only co-wrote The Muppets but he added a human element as an actor that gave the story a genuine warmth. I’ve already mentioned Ricky Gervais as the central villain. He‘s entertaining. Ty Burrell is an Inspector Clouseau type paired up with Sam the Eagle who plays his American counterpart at the CIA. The two are investigating a string of bank robberies. He is very amusing as French Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon. But Tina Fey is wasted as Nadya, a Russian prison guard that has the hots for Kermit. That’s a shame because her part is a sizeable chunk of the movie. Unfortunately she is given little to do other than affect an exaggerated accent and mug for the camera. It’s a poorly written role. None of her scenes are funny. Oh alright maybe one.

Muppets Most Wanted is a respectable entry. It’s impossible not to enjoy the return of Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, et al. These characters are enduring personalities for a reason. It’s really a pleasure seeing the old gang reunited in anything at this point. The Muppets was a heartwarming confection. It mixed in a lot of sweetness amongst the self knowing cynical jokes to make it one of the best releases of 2011. It made my Top 10 of that year in fact. Muppets Most Wanted, in contrast, is a collection of scattershot humor that never quite gels into a cohesive whole. It has positive qualities, but much of the story is just a setup for gags. The story doesn’t really add up. Case in point: Dominic Badguy’s master plan, actually costs an insane amount of money to make it work. It also takes the entire film for Kermit’s lifelong friends (with the exception of Animal) to even notice his personality shift.  The fact is a little hard to swallow.  Constantine speaks with a bizarre Russian accent to boot so he doesn’t even sound like Kermit. I’m nitpicking. These issues are unimportant if the laughs are there. There are some sprinkled throughout but they are mild chuckles rather than actual knee-slappers. The picture’s funniest parts, like the “my badge is bigger than yours” bit, were shown in the trailer. The best production number hints at what could have been. When Miss Piggy turns to singer Celine Dion in a moment of crisis, the vocal pairing of the two divas is hilarious. As the two duet on “Something So Right”, the production hits a high note of lunacy that is truly inspired.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on March 12, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Grand Budapest Hotel photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Grand Budapest Hotel is a dazzling slice of enchantment. It’s a tale wrapped up in a tale wrapped up in a tale. Try and explicate the nested account and its convoluted evolution threatens to implode upon itself. I’ll admit the chronicle is, shall we say, meticulous?  Ok so naysayers might say tortured. If you‘re not already a Wes Anderson fan, this film won‘t change your mind. But for this aficionado of the auteur, the intricate set up was only the beginning of an exquisite yarn that had me captivated from the get-go.

We begin in the modern day with a young fan reading a book at the grave of a dead novelist. Zoom to 1985, the writer is played by Tom Wilkinson who recalls a time that he stayed at the hotel. We then flashback to 1968. That same writer is now Jude Law interacting with F. Murray Abraham as Mr. Zero Moustafa. As the hotel’s old owner, Moustafa reminisces about a time when the place was more opulent. Another flashback to a grander time, 1932 to be exact, where we meet the boyish Moustafa now played by Tony Revolori. The main narrative concerns the friendship that develops between M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), as the hotel’s respected concierge, and the youthful Moustafa who becomes his devoted protégé.

Have you marveled at the depth of acting talent on display? I’ve only barely begun to name-drop. Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson and Bill Murray are all present and accounted for. The latter’s presence in a Wes Anderson film shouldn’t be a surprise, yet his role as the concierge at Excelsior Palace, Grand Budapest’s rival hotel, was greeted with cheers of applause at my screening. Despite the expanded cast, everyone adds value. But I digress.

Wes Anderson has done a most noble thing. He has taken the fabric of a genuine reality and formed an alternate universe. His amalgamation alludes to history but manipulated to suit his romantic world. The Grand Budapest Hotel is located in the Republic of Zubrowka. I’d place the fictional European nation somewhere in the vicinity of Germany and Hungary. The proper saga begins in 1932, a year when elections in Germany would appoint Hitler as the head of government. A time between the two world wars, still several years before the outbreak of WW2, Yet Germany, Hitler, Nazis and Jews are never mentioned. The SS for example is actually the ZZ — the Zig-Zags. The director has carefully fashioned a drama set within his impressionist vision of a country on the brink of war and the results are intoxicating.

The plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel seemingly hinges on the fate of a priceless Renaissance painting. “Boy with Apple” is a key plot device credited to artist Johannes Van Hoytl the Younger, an entirely fictional construct. Once again Anderson’s attention to detail is impressive. The mannerist artwork is impressive in its own right, perhaps something attributed to Albrecht Dürer or Il Bronzino or Hans Holbein the Younger. I can’t decide which. At one point M. Gustave is bequeathed the valuable painting in the will of a wealthy old dowager who has died under mysterious circumstances. The objet d’art represents something over which everyone obsesses. When the canvas is removed from the wall, it’s replaced by a lewd watercolor that suggests Egon Schiele. It’s a hilarious visual joke. Ah but the piece isn’t the point at all. Its existence is really the MacGuffin if you will — an unimportant bit of nonsense deliberately constructed in the same playful spirit as everything else in Wes Anderson’s universe.

The composition of a scene has always taken precedence to actual story in a Wes Anderson picture, but here even more so. The ornate milieu is home to an offbeat comedy that focuses on a missing painting. But what makes the narrative so affecting isn’t the future of the portrait. It’s the fastidiously created world in which our characters live. I could spend pages explicating the distended cast. In the interest of brevity, I’ll merely disclose numero uno: Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave. As the hotel’s concierge, he is nattily attired and consistently perfumed. Then there is the hotel itself, a beautiful storybook creation that is the soul of the film. The stunning art nouveau palace is highlighted by a funicular and rows of columns. An edifice photographed with an eye for detail not seen since Stanley Kubrick’s ode to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Notice the red lacquer walls in the elevator or the pink pastels of countess Madame D.’s suite. Naturally the architecture is the director’s vision but it’s flawlessly presented through the work of cinematographer and frequent Wes Anderson collaborator, Robert D. Yeoman. One does not simply watch a Wes Anderson film as you would say a pot on the verge of a boil. No you experience it. The Grand Budapest Hotel is best appreciated as a work of art in which to luxuriate in the glorious ambiance of its fastidious charms.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on March 12, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Mr. Peabody & Sherman photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn both spirit and style, the feature film Mr. Peabody & Sherman bears little resemblance to the 5 minute cartoons on which it’s based. The brief segments called Peabody’s Improbable History, first aired during The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show in the 1960s. The rudimentary shorts were characterized by primitive artwork and hilarious puns. The writing was snarky and sarcastic. DreamWorks Animation has kept the same basic set-up, but not the tone. Mr. Peabody is a talking dog – athlete, inventor, scientist, and all around super-brain. He has a adopted a 7 year boy named Sherman as his son. The two time-travel back in time meeting famous figures of ancient times. There are a lot, but among those getting significant screen time are Marie Antoinette, Maximilien de Robespierre, King Tut, King Agamemnon, and Leonardo da Vinci. There’s also a subplot concerning an antagonistic school counselor named Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney) who doesn’t think a dog is a fitting guardian for a boy. These are welcome additions but the cast is populated with unwelcome personalities too. Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter) is a female classmate of Sherman’s that acts as a bully turned friend. She’s thoroughly annoying and completely unnecessary.

What sets Mr. Peabody and Sherman apart is the anarchistic sense of humor, sexual innuendos only an adult would get, and some mild potty humor. And no, those distinctions are not an improvement.  A Trojan horse appears to be pooping when Greek soldiers exit its rear. “Well Sherman, it looks like we were the butt of that joke” says Mr. Peabody when they shoot out of the back end of the sphinx. Even Bill Clinton pops up to sheepishly admit “I did worse” referencing activities best not even alluded to in a children’s cartoon.  The script has regrettably jettisoned the sophisticated wit of the source material. That’s a shame because this could’ve been an irreverent but educational romp through history. The rather lowbrow take seen here is only tepidly amusing in parts. I suspect a child will respond more favorably to the colorful animation and poop jokes. As I sat watching the seemingly endless credits, I marveled at the sheer number of people involved to create such a derivative product. It’s visually pretty. I enjoyed the look of the action, but story wise it’s an uninspired trip thorough the past.  This has been done much more successfully before. The climax in particularly is obviously lifted by writers raised on 80s comedies. I liked Mr. Peabody & Sherman…………when it was called Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Live Action

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on March 1, 2014 by Mark Hobin

OSCAR SHORTS photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgThe Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film was first presented at the 5th Academy Awards in 1932. Paddle to the Sea was a nominee in this category one year and it still holds a special place in my heart. I saw it in kindergarten. Judging from this year’s selections, the category isn’t constrained by the country actually giving the award. Every film is represented by a different country and not one is from the U.S.  This is usually a strong category but it’s a mixed bag this year with one really gripping film.





Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?
Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?
FINLAND / 7MIN / Director: Selma Vilhunen
A mother in a panic tries to get her husband and two daughters ready in the morning for a wedding they are late for. The girls don Halloween costumes when their party dresses are discovered still in the wash. An amusing little comedy that is refreshingly succinct.



DENMARK / 23MIN / Director: Anders Walter
A young dying boy in a hospital learns about an imaginary land called Helium from a kindly hospital orderly. Tender story is whimsical tale with fanciful storytelling and magical elements. It’s also pretty sappy too so you‘ll either roll your eyes at the payoff, or sigh a big “Awwwwww!”.



Just Before Losing Everything
Just Before Losing Everything
FRANCE / 30MIN / Director: Xavier Legrand
A boy supposedly on his way to school, is picked up by his mother. She proceeds to get her daughter from school as well who bids a tearful goodbye to some school friends. Both are driven to her place of employment instead. The only production in this group of five that is a truly gripping work that compels us to keep watching. It’s unclear just what exactly is happening and that keeps us interested as each new bit of information brings us closer to clarification. It’s a nailbiter.



That Wasn't Me
That Wasn’t Me
SPAIN / 24MIN / Director: Esteban Crespo
3 European social workers are held up by child soldiers involved in some unnamed African conflict. This is a subject requiring a much deeper handling than this brief 24 minute film can give. Gratuitous without the necessary depth to make the violence meaningful.



The Voorman Problem
The Voorman Problem
UNITED KINGDOM / 13MIN / Director: Mark Gill
Martin Freeman stars as psychiatrist that treats a prisoner Voorman (Tom Hollander), who believes he is a god. Amusing concept feels like it’s over before it even begins. Oh well. The interesting seed of an idea for a Twilight Zone episode.



The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Documentary

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on February 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Oscar Nominated Short Films photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject) has been awarded every year since the 14th Academy Awards beginning in 1941. In the early years many were propaganda films focused on the U.S. effort in WWII. Over time however they have focused on a variety of subjects. This year’s crop were an extraordinary mix of both feel good and heartbreaking subjects. A very strong collection that was the most substantial of the three short film programs. As far as I’m concerned any one of these could triumph and it would be a solid winner.



USA / 39MIN / Director and Producer: Jeffrey Karoff
Ra Paulette is an artist. He digs “cathedral-like caves” into the sandstone cliffs of Northern New Mexico. He has done commissioned work, but often his desires do not always match those of his clients. An absolutely fascinating portrait of idiosyncratic fellow and the jaw droppingly beautiful spaces he creates. This is seemingly the most lighthearted, but I found it deeply moving and my favorite of these five strong choices.



Facing Fear
Facing Fear
USA / 23MIN / Director: Jason Cohen
The lives of a neo Nazi skinhead and a gay man living in West Hollywood intersect in the 1980s. 25 years later their paths would cross again. Fascinating document of how these men, once enemies, would become unlikely allies. Tale of forgiveness and redemption unfolds gradually with emotionally compelling results.



Karama Has No Walls
Karama Has No Walls
YEMEN, UK & UNITED ARAB EMIRATES / 26MIN / Director: Sara Ishaq
The population in Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen, has assembled in Change Square as an act of civil disobedience. Without weapons, they peacefully demand that President Ali Abdullah Saleh end his three-decade-long rule due to widespread corruption and human rights abuses. Under a barrage of sniper bullets, a peaceful demonstration turns violent. Emotionally powerful chronicle is difficult to watch but, like Oscar nominated documentary feature The Square, it’s a powerful record of atrocities that cry out to be recorded.



Prison Terminal
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
USA / 40MIN / Director: Edgar Barens
The final 6 months in the life of a terminally ill prisoner, Jack Hall, is detailed. Hospice volunteers, also prisoners, attend to the once war hero. One might ask, as I did, why we should even care about the life quality of a convicted murderer in the Iowa State Penitentiary. If so, you are the perfect audience for this documentary.



The Lady In Number 6
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
CANADA / 38MIN / Director: Malcolm Clarke
Alice Herz Sommer is 109 year old, the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor and high on life from her piano playing. The subject is unquestionably touching but it’s also a bit expected as well. Come on! Let’s combine growing old, classical music, and the Holocaust all in the same documentary. I mean how can this lose? It’s almost scientifically designed to win the Oscar.



The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Animated

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on February 27, 2014 by Mark Hobin

2014 Oscar Nominated Short Films photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Oscar for Animated Short Film has been awarded every year since the 5th Academy Awards beginning in 1932. Walt Disney received 12 of his 22 Academy Awards in this category. Needless to say it’s a prestigious honor that should highlight some of the most important contributions to the world of animation of that year. With that said, this year’s crop of animated films were a wee bit disappointing. With one exception, I found them to be pleasant but uninspiring.





USA/13min/Director: Daniel Sousa
A wild boy is found in the forest by a hunter. He is brought back to civilization where he must adapt to his new surroundings. Black and white with green tints, the hand drawn story has some eerie visuals and some beautiful music, but this wordless mood piece is rather dull and inconsequential.



Get a Horse!
Get a Horse!
USA/7min/Director: Lauren MacMullan
Easily the best of this group. Fun throwback to the earliest B&W shorts of Mickey Mouse. The production is thrown completely on its ear when flat animation becomes 3D and colorful. The characters appear to burst from the screen as they use their surroundings to their advantage. An homage to classic Disney but it also deconstructs the character in a delightfully modern way to create something fresh and original. A real winner.



Mr. Hublot
Mr. Hublot
Luxembourg/France /11min/Director: Laurent Witz
Mr. Hublot is a quirky character that lives in a mechanized world beautifully rendered in computer animated detail. A robot pet resembling a dog is introduced into his life and the addition will have a major effect on his comfortable existence. If Get a Horse! didn’t exist, this would be my favorite.



Japan/14 min/Director: Shuhei Morita
A man lost in the woods, waits out a storm in a small shrine. Suddenly the room is transformed and inanimate objects appear before him. Beautifully animated but the story is random and aimless. Not my cup of tea.



 photo ROOM_ON_A_BROOM_zpsbbdf1be3.jpg
Room on the Broom
UK/25min/Director: Max Lang and Jan Lachauer
Story about a overly sweet witch with a collection of animals she invites to share space on her broom. This is based on a children’s picture book and it feels like something for pre-preschoolers. Constant narration explains to us what is happening while we actually watch it happening…for 25 long minutes. The book is read to us by what sounds like a librarian as portrayed by Simon Pegg. From the producers of The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child.



About Last Night

Posted in Comedy, Romance with tags on February 16, 2014 by Mark Hobin

About Last Night photo starrating-3stars.jpgDavid Mamet’s 1974 play “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” was sanitized into a 1986 brat pack romance starring Rob Lowe and Demi Moore when they were in their early 20s. It was a moderate hit with audiences but David Mamet (and the critics) hated it. Flash forward nearly 3 decades later and the comedy about the divide between men and women has been remade. Director Steve Pink’s update is familiar stuff to anyone who has ever seen at least one romantic comedy in their life. He recycles timeworn ideas but now the location is Los Angeles. The story charts the relationship of two wildly different African-American couples who also happen to be friends. The principals skew closer to the age of 40 this time around. One is genuinely into long term commitment, the other craves instant gratification.  The material is more sexually explicit, but it‘s all because of frank repartee. It’s verbally raunchy, but not graphically so.

The real stars of About Last Night are the sidekicks Bernie and Joan, portrayed by Kevin Hart and Regina Hall. This is the 6th film the two have appeared in together, 7 if you count the upcoming Think Like a Man Too. However this is the first instance where they have been a couple. Note to Hollywood: continue pairing these two up as such.  Kevin Hart is a motor-mouthed comedian with enough energy for 5 romantic comedies. Regina Hall is his sassy match. She seems happier in an argument than at peace. Their characters are in it for the physical act and not about the commitment. They’re lewd, crude and yes hilariously over the top. They stand in stark contrast to actors Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant who play the reticent Danny and Debbie that fall deeply in love. Then they move in together. They’re shy types that develop a sweet intimacy, but they can be sensual too. On one occasion Debbie spends the evening making dinner. In one fell swoop, Danny knocks it all to the floor so they can have sex on the table. I couldn’t help thinking, you just ruined a lot of good food, to say nothing of her time and effort. No mention is made of that. Instead they squabble over things like getting a puppy.  <yawn> On New Year’s Eve, they actually complain about being boring. Only the dullest couple would fight over such a thing.

The narrative is frenzied and haphazard. Danny and Debbie’s relationship goes through unpredictable fluctuations. Danny progresses from nice guy to jerk on New Years Eve. Danny’s anger with staying at home is perplexing because up until that point he had always enjoyed a quiet evening with his girl. Debbie makes another delicious meal for Danny. Then Bernie calls him and they all end up going out instead. More wasted food. They meet up at the club and Danny starts pounding one drink after another at the bar. Who is THIS guy? Bernie and Joan’s behavior doesn’t make a lot of sense either. Joan is constantly getting angry at the drop of a hat, sometimes for reasons that are completely random and unpredicatble.

About Last Night concerns the sexual politics of two couples. The sweet one wants to commit following a one-night stand. The other passionately volatile, are like two moths drawn to a flame. The pace is frantic. The frenetic editing can go from screwball to headache in seconds. One minute of conversation between two people talking is a series of 30 jump cuts back-and-forth between two faces. Relax! It’s OK to linger on a shot for more than 2 seconds.  Director Steve Pink’s movie bears little resemblance to David Mamet’s play or dialogue, but that doesn‘t mean this isn‘t an improvement to the 1986 adaptation. Argumentative Bernie and Joan are fun to watch. Their shouted dialogue is delivered machine gun style at each other in rapid succession without breath. They interact in hilarious fashion and their discussions descend into bickering, often suddenly without warning. They quarrel, often for no good reason other than to provide laughs. They raise this from a clichéd chronicle to an enjoyable romp.

The Lego Movie

Posted in Action, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on February 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Lego Movie photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgLow expectations totally help The Lego Movie. We’ve seen other examples of films based on a specific brand name toy before with mixed results.  At least Transformers and G.I. Joe were box office successes if not critical ones, while Battleship was a failure by anyone’s measure. It’s hard not to be cynical at the title and greet this animated film as nothing more than a feature length commercial. While the production will undoubtedly sell a boatload of Lego, it’s surprising that there is a lot of creativity behind the marketing. The Lego Movie works on a meta level. We’re watching an advertisement for toys that warns us about a nefarious corporation that tries to sell us products: these include the TV show Where Are My Pants?, the ubiquitous hit song, “Everything is Awesome“, and designer coffee for $37.

The evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) wants to unleash the Kragle (a tube of Krazy Glue with some letters missing). It’s a superweapon that will leave the many various Lego worlds immobilized in perfect constructed harmony forever. Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is completely average in every way. Nothing special. He helps build skyscrapers for the Octan Corporation. He’s one of the faceless Lego denizens at the construction site. One day after everyone has gone home, he accidentally stumbles into a pit and a red relic – “the Piece of Resistance” becomes fused to his back. Wyldstyle a tough fighter chick, and Vitruvius a blind wizard, now believe him to be the “Special” – the one the prophecy foretold would be sent to stop Lord Business.

The story is pure formula. Yes the plot admittedly bears more than a passing resemblance to The Matrix. However that implies The Matrix was an exclusively original concept.  It wasn’t. These ordinary heroes thrust in extraordinary circumstances have been an archetype dating back to ancient myths. Even side characters suggest earlier works. Lord Business’ lieutenant, the split personality Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson), is reminiscent of the Mayor of Halloween Town in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Where the saga takes off is the utter senselessness of it all. Lego owns the rights to Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, DC superheroes, so each of these figures can and do pop up. Some making only a very brief appearance.  The action moves at a speedy clip through different lands rarely stopping to take a breath. The Old West, Middle Zealand, Cloud Cuckoo Land are represented.  It combines these disparate inspirations and solidifies them into an entertaining amalgamation. It’s mostly computer animated, although the animation is purposefully done in a herky jerky style to resemble the way Lego bricks actually move. There are rapid fire bullets, frantic chases, and flying machines – all rendered in a kaleidoscopic spectacle bursting with colors. Sometimes it’s so chaotic it verges on distracting, but it’s impressive as well. I loved seeing Lego bricks forming puffs of smoke as they’re billowing out of a train stack or an explosion rendered as a series of colorful bricks.

This is pretty manic stuff.  For better or worse, the narrative is all over the place. Writers-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street) are the minds behind all this lunacy. They manipulate the conventions of children’s entertainment and turn them right on their ear. They imbue the proceedings with a subversive bent. The importance of a coherent story is ridiculed. The prophecy of wizard Vitruvius (brilliantly voiced by Morgan Freeman) is not taken from some venerable sacred text. It’s something he just makes up on the spot. Emmet zones out when listening to Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) give exposition and all he (and the audience) hears is, “blah blah blah proper name place name back-story stuff.“ Wyldstyle desperately wants to be the “Special”. And why not? She’s infinitely more qualified because she is creative and brilliant, unlike Emmet who just follows the rules. The hero is in fact a zero. But believe in yourself and you can achieve anything, right?  The message is superficially cloying but there is a twist.  Without revealing anything important, the underlying recommendation is to NOT follow instructions. The “good guys encourage the workers to rise up against Lord Business. Imagination is a powerful thing. Freedom is better than conformity. However the script’s greatest inspiration lies in its ability to explicitly decry business while indirectly celebrating it. This is after all, an advertisement for Lego toys, right?

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on January 26, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Ferris Bueller's Day Off photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThe simple tale of how a high school senior spent one glorious spring day playing hooky after faking an illness. It doesn’t sound like a saga destined for greatness, but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has become iconic. Perhaps it’s lead actor Matthew Broderick’s delicate balancing act. He gleefully inhabits a character that is a smug smartass, yet we are delightfully happy to see him succeed.

He urges his buddy Cameron Frye to borrow his Dad’s prized sports car then manipulates the administration into releasing his girlfriend Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara) for the day. News of Ferris’ infirmity grows. We are made aware of the public’s concern for the boy’s health at various moments during the chronicle. Apparently news of his sickness has spread far and wide in the school and throughout the city. People really like this boy. Definitely not in the Ferris Bueller fan club is Dean of Students Edward R. Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) who makes it his mission to prove the truant boy is not really sick. Ferris’ sarcastic sister Jeanie (Jennifer Grey) is also not taken in by her brother’s shenanigans. Her brother’s ability to go unpunished for his many misdeeds, provokes a hilarious mixture of outage and jealousy in her. Grey also registers considerable chemistry at the police station with a dangerous rebel played by Charlie Sheen.

John Hughes would go on to write bigger hits (Home Alone). But of everything he directed, this was his biggest box office success. It’s easy to see why. Part of what makes this comedy so winning is the utter innocence of it all. Ferris’ indulgences comprise of nothing more than trips to a fancy restaurant, the Sears Tower, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. Ferris famously crashes a parade celebrating German-American culture. His lip-synch to the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” is a highlight. Indeed the spectacle was enough to push the hit back onto the Billboard Top 40 charts back in 1986. Music figures prominently in inspired bits elsewhere. An instrumental version of The Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” at the museum is fittingly poetic. And nothing underscores a teen’s desire to drive a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder convertible more perfectly than “Oh Yeah” by Swiss electronic band Yello. The song has become a symbol of want.

For anyone who was in high school when this came out, the production will resonate even more as pure nostalgia. Much of the teen movie is well crafted lightweight fun. But as the film’s final coda unfolds, Ferris’ altruistic motives become apparent. His objective to help his best friend achieve a deeper sense of self-worth resonates long after the movies fades.


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