The LEGO Movie

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A movie based on one of the most popular building toys of all time sounds like a 100 minute commercial fishing for nostalgia dollars on paper, doesn’t it? But the fact that “The LEGO Movie,” the third cinematic home run forwriting/directing team Phil Lord and Chris Miller, skirts the line between extensive playset pushing and satirical dressing down of its very own existence while still managing to be a funny, beautifully animated all-around crowd pleaser in its own right is nothing short of miraculous. A little over two months into 2014, we’ve already been treated to one of its best cinematic offerings, animated or otherwise. As much as I want to get back to building as we speak (that Simpsons House set isn’t going to builditself), I’m gonna need to throw up a minor spoiler warning from this point on. I won’t be addressing any portion of it directly, but if you haven’t managed to get to a theater to see this patchwork marvel yet and you’re still reading this sentence, don’t blame me if you infer anything from what I’m about to say.

 

Last chance to turn back…

 

And here we go.

 

The set-up of “The LEGO Movie” has the anarchic zeal of a goofy Filmmaking 101 final project. Our hero is Emmet (Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt), an average construction worker mini figure who follows the instructions (literally the LEGO instruction booklet that comes with his house) with a complacency that borders on psychotic. While poking around his construction site late at night, he stumbles onto an age-old battle between a renegade team of Master Builders, who can build anything out of any spare piece they find,and the orderly tyrant Lord Business (Will Ferrell), masquerading as the all-powerful business tycoon and president of the world President Business. Emmet is revealed to be the “Special,” a chosen one whohas found the fabled Piece of Resistance whose duty it is to use his nonexistent skills as a Master Builder to put a stop to Lord Business and his secret weapon, the Kragle, with the help of MBs including the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), the energetic WyldStyle (ElizabethBanks), and Batman (Will Arnett).

 

It’s revealed early on that Emmet’s hometown of Bricksburg is but one LEGO world that exists in the LEGO Universe at large, complete with different sets including the Old West, ocean worlds, space worlds,and Cloud Cuckoo Land. Lord Business wants to freeze the world perfectly into place with the Kragle (a bottle of Krazy Glue with some of the letters rubbed out) and the race to craft Emmet into a Master Builder is on.

 

It’s yet another movie about a chosen one with a magical object and a destiny, but Lord and Miller seem to know that, too. Along with the overall conceit of a toy universe continually calling attention to the fact that it’s indeed a universe of toys, “The LEGO Movie” is a deft pop culture satire with its crosshairs focused on chosen one action movies like “The Matrix” and actual overblown feature length toy commercials like the “Transformers” franchise. Characters as diverse as DC heroes, LEGO stock figures, and 80s cartoons are all over the place, but Batman in particular is made ripe for a blunt comic dressing down, perfectly cast voice actor Will Arnett hamming up the now well known Dark Knight variant on the Caped Crusader that’s been done to death for almost a decade now. Emmet’s ultimate goal is given extra weight with a third act turn that giveshis actions, and the movie at large no matter how fun and beautiful it is, something that it would’ve been missing otherwise: heart.Trust me. You want this to be a surprise.

 

Its style of animation, completely computer-generated, is made to look like a stop-motion LEGO fan film blown up to cinematic proportions, complete with explosions, smoke clouds, dirt, and even water all depicted with the ubiquitous studs and blocks. The herky-jerky animation juxtaposed with the high-octane action is both visually arresting and seriously funny, playing with the notion that the film is constantly questioning its own existence in a cinematic landscape awash with advertisement disguised as entertainment.

 

 

A rallying against the misrepresentation of children’s entertainment,or at least supposedly family-friendly fare by older minds (“Man of Steel,” “The Lone Ranger,” etc.), is at the very core of “The LEGO Movie,”and amid the laugh-a-minute gags, the absurdly inventive animation,and top-notch voice cast, that’s what pushes it into special territory. There’s a stark difference between a movie that (forgive the pun) builds a thoughtful and engaging world around a particular object and a movie bent on selling a particular object, and “The LEGO Movie” lands in that first camp. It’s an oxymoron of itself and it’s one hell of a good time.

 

 

CineMasai’s favorite new characters:

 

MetalBeard

Benny The Spaceman

Unikitty

Milhouse

 

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Her

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For someone whose films tend to focus on decidedly metaphysical entities and concepts, i.e. “head” movies (The mind transference of “Being John Malkovich” dealt with self perception, “Adaptation” delved into the mind of a screenwriter, and “Where The Wild Things Are”revealed the inner workings of a young boy clinging to childhood with all his might), director Spike Jonze’s films are pre-packaged with alot of soul. They constantly manage to convey their more complex ideas without sacrificing emotional resonance. Much of that was thought to be due to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who penned both “Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” but Jonze has re-worked the template to craft “Her,” a sci-fi romance able to indulge the intelligence and big ideas of his earlier work while doubling as a sweet and affecting love story that is no where near as creepy as it sounded on paper.

 

That love story centers around Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), an introverted recent divorcee who writes letters for those unable to articulate their feelings. Part of the gimmick of “Her” is Jonze’s commentary on the state of modern human relations, to the extent that they exist in this near future mostly on the end of smartphones, tablets, and newsfeeds. Theodore picks up a new OS, an artificially intelligent software that grows and learns like humans do. She dubs herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice), seamlessly integrates with Theodore’s computer and phone, and she and Theodore start what eventually turns into a romantic relationship.

 

And that’s really the extent of the initial set-up. The real beauty of it all stems less from the standard “awkward first date, getting-to-know-you walk around, dates at the carnival/beach, sexual encounter, emotional clashing, etc.” formula than it does from Jonze’s insightful and clever screenplay. Like I mentioned before, Jonze has crafted a world where the possibilities of social networking through technology have led to us growing farther and farther apart; Theodore spends his days manufacturing emotions forcouples on paper and spends his nights playing video games with vulgar supporting characters and looking for love in online chatrooms that amount to little more than auditory arousal. The fact that Theodore manages a better connection with an artificial intelligence than he did with actual people, including his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) but not including his co-worker and friend Amy (Amy Adams), is part of the joke, or it would be part of the joke if Jonze were even remotely interested in ridiculing Sam and Theodore’s emotional connection.

 

Jonze offers plenty of sci-fi insights into the possibility of AI in an operating system, including the juxtaposition of Samantha’s playful speaking manner with her emotional naivete, introducing a surrogatebody for physical contact, and even the idea of operating systems interacting with one another and forming relationships of their own.There are big ideas at play here that serve to enrich this brightly colored yet melancholy world. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytemacoats “Her” in a bright, almost saccharine haze with bold distinct colors that contrasts well with the more reserved tone of the romance. Phoenix plays Theodore as more than an eccentric, but a wounded soul with puppy dog eyes and a void that needs filling, and Johansson imbues Samantha with childlike optimism, intelligence, anda desire to feel, impressive given that she’s essentially playing SIRI with a mind of her own.

 

In short, “Her” never comes across as the creepy “man falls inlove with his computer” story that it may have sounded like on paper. Jonze has crafted a funny, melancholic soulful film that emphasizes the importance of connection, human or otherwise in a world where we use social networking to isolate ourselves from each other.

This Is The End

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A film where every actor/celebrity is playing an over-exaggerated version of themselves reeks of all different kinds of vanity, the kind that continues to emanate from raunchy self-indulgent post-Judd Apatow tripe. With its surprising directorial nuance and barrage of cameos and split-second non-stop laughs, comedy writing duo Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s latest collaboration (and directorial debut) This Is The End powers through a script that substitutes bromantic fantasy with pathos by just being an absolute riot to watch.

Current Hollywood comedy bit player du jour Jay Baruchel lands in LA to see long lost bud Seth Rogen, now a garish Hollywood heavyweight, who Baruchel worries may leave him behind. The two wind up at James Franco’s house for the party to end all parties, complete with celebrity cameos, musical serenades, cocaine clouds, and ass grabbing; the party winds up a prelude to a very different kind of end…the literal biblical End of Days. After an earthquake opens up a portal to Hell on the front lawn, the surviving celebrities, including Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride have to contend with the Apocalypse (and each other) while they frantically find their way out.

The main joke compliments the conceit of the film very well; what if a whole bunch of really funny guys are cooped up in a house where they do really funny things amid random celebrity cameos and adolescent mid-90s nostalgia for an hour and forty minutes? The cast is game, which puts the jokes more on the side of hit than miss; each of the main 6 is playing up major aspects of their public personae (Hill’s holier than thou attitude post-Oscar nomination, Franco’s hipster performance art poster boy, Robinson’s tendency to sweat a whole bunch) to great effect here. Not since last summer’s Ted has a film barraged audiences with gratuitous comedy yet still manage to appeal so broad and stay so consistently hilarious.

What’s even more surprising about This Is The End is Rogen/Goldberg’s juggling of meta-comedy with action horror elements; the apocalyptic scenario is wisely not just utilized as a mere device to keep them constrained to the house. Loads of practical gore effects, demonic creatures, and even a surprise possession keep things varied enough to draw attention away from the overlong runtime and insubstantial relationship between Seth and Jay. Seeing as how the film stemmed from a short they created called Jay and Seth versus The Apocalypse, the constant shifts in rhythm from raunchy comedy to half-assed affection don’t quite hold the same sincere weight they did in Knocked Up or Superbad.

This Is The End is a film that doesn’t need such emotional resonance to be worth the watch, however; the cast works incredibly well at keeping their one joke fresh and the Rogen/Goldberg team prove to be funnier than ever, which ensures its place as the summer comedy to end all comedies…or does that smack of tempting fate?

Blaxploitation vs. Black Criticism: The Boondocks vs. Black Dynamite (rewrite)

Fans and critics alike of Adult Swim’s Black Dynamite, based on the brilliant 2009 

blaxploitation spoof of the same name, have wasted no time in lumping it and sister 

series/racial fire-starter The Boondocks together since its premiere last summer, 

and while the comparison is apt on a superficial level, it isn’t necessarily a fair view of 

the two shows. Yes, both shows share an executive producer/writer in black animation 

juggernaut Carl Jones, a similar if not completely identical animation style, and a  

universally controversial look at Black culture of the past and present; while 

both focus on the same area, it’s important to realize that The Boondocks and Black 

Dynamite both subscribe to different forms of comedy, satire and parody respectively, 

and utilize them in different ways to both celebrate and criticize Black culture with the 

toughest of love and plenty of tongue-in-cheek self-indulgence.           

        

           Created by Aaron McGruder in 1996, “The Boondocks” initially ran as a satirical 

comic strip that put modern day African American culture on McGruder’s objective 

chopping block, exploring its misrepresented yet rich underbelly through the eyes of 

Huey Freeman, a wise beyond his 10 years leftist revolutionary misanthropic budding 

domestic terrorist. His 8 year old brother Riley Freeman, a rap-obsessed, faux-gangsta 

youth who lives in his own bubble of ignorance, or Robert Jebediah “Granddad” 

Freeman, the boy’s ornery self-centered womanizing grandfather content to hop on the 

Civil Rights bandwagon and collect Social Security checks in the autumn of his life 

round out the main cast, all three of whom represent some of the most prevalent facets 

of the African American experience in media: the revolutionary idealist hell bent on 

informing/saving his race, despite the resistance and scrutiny that’s put upon him 

(Huey), the mis-guided hip-hop obsessed youngster bathing in his own ignorance 

(Riley), and the older generation’s ideals and hang-ups with modern culture personified 

(Granddad). These are only a few examples of ways that McGruder uses his 

background and current events to dissect and criticize African American culture. 

Serious-minded, grounded satirical animation is what The Boondocks boils down to. 

 

          Black Dynamite, on the other hand, doesn’t take its subject matter nearly as 

seriously. Stemming from a fake trailer-turned cult favorite feature spoof of 

blaxploitation films, Dynamite, being a blaxploitation project, almost serves as an 

antithesis to Boondocks’ more serious-minded satire; it has much less to say about the 

culture that it represents, instead simply playing with conventions of the genre of film for 

laughs, not moralistic payoff: the straight-faced, no-nonsense bad ass leader (Black 

Dynamite), the right hand man who rhymes within meter (Bull Horn), the slightly 

effeminate second hand man (Cream Corn), and the sexy mama who struts her stuff as 

only she can (Honey Bee); the main conceit of the show pits these four eclectic 

personalities against goofy situation du jour that makes liberal fun of everything from 

celebrity icons (Elvis Presley, Richard Pryor, O.J. Simpson) to film (King Kong, 

Cannonball Run) to socio-political happenings (Vietnam War, Richard Nixon, “the black 

community) infusing a ridiculous premise with a campy lightness of tone that “Boondocks”

tends to lack.

 

          At its most basic level, differing forms of comedy separate these two shows yet 

simultaneously leave room for interesting parallels to be drawn; Boondocks’ cynical 

culturally introspective satire and Dynamite’s more campy hero-worship parody are two 

equally hilarious sides of the Black representation that Adult Swim should be severely 

proud of.

42

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Besides breaking the Major League Baseball color barrier in 1947 and the baseball sport telecast color barrier in 1965, Jackie Robinson co-founded Freedom National Bank in Harlem, served as vice president of personnel for Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee, campaigned for twoconservative political figures (Richard Nixon in 1960 and Nelson Rockefeller in 1964) and still found enough time in the day to fight for Civil Rights until his death in 1972. Doesn’t that come across as a life that is worth recounting on screen, one of variance and (admitted) ambiguity? Brian Helgeland’s “42” has a much narrower focus, choosing instead to chronicle Robinson’s early baseball career in typical biopic fashion; “42” is a classical feel-good sports movie/biopic whose sentimentality is cemented by notable performances and comprehensive period detail that is as effective as a conveyer belt cinematic life story can be, for better and for worse.

 

“42” charts Jackie Robinson’s (Chadwick Boseman) transition from Negro League obscurity to Brooklyn Dodgers fame, his relationship with Dodgers executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), and the vast racial barricades that Robinson faced from aggressive managers and disapproving fans and fellow players who don’t welcome the mixing of races in America’s national pastime. We also get a glimpse of the early days of Jackie’s marriage to Rachel Isum (Nicole Beharie), including Isum’s adjustment to a not so welcoming world.

 

The fact that Helgeland’s film is extremely traditional in scope and execution is its greatest strength and weakness; this very time-honored portrayal of a fraction of Robinson’s life will rouse and inspire the crowd in all of the ways it needs to, no more and no less. From Rickey’s opening monologue about moxie and grit in the game of baseball in his quest to “find Jackie Robinson” to Robinson’s last lap around the diamond after his home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates, “42” paints the life of a true American icon in the broadest, most recognizable strokes possible, yet another celebrity fed to the sports movie machine.

 

Not to say that there aren’t glimmers of inspired decisions in here somewhere. Boseman’s Robinson is scrappy and hard-nosed, to be sure, but Boseman portrays him as far more than just another rebel with a cause; he is able to properly convey that Robinson was a man under constant social pressures, desperate for acceptance yet not willing to give in to the bigoted powers that be. In such a linear and well-known story, nuance like this carries “42” along.

 

Even with Boseman’s performance and Helgeland’s admittedly briskly paced screenplay, “42” come across as a very boilerplate and, let’s admit, toothless film. Biopics by nature come across as a very observational genre, one that doesn’t usually takes sides in regards to its subject and just presents the facts in a way that is digestible, yet everyone knows that Robinson is the man who integrated baseball; this is a road well traveled cinematically (“Soul of The Game”, “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson”), already paved with this information. Helgeland’s film could’ve benefited from a more all-encompassing approach to Robinson’s story, a la Taylor Hackford’s 2004 biopic “Ray”, a film that wasn’t afraid to sketch musician and Civil Rights activist Ray Charles in a more ambiguous and humanizing light while still maintaining a level of earnest authenticity to its time.

 

The quintessential Jackie Robinson movie, one that addresses the man, the myth, and the legend in equal measure, still has yet to be made. Brian Helgeland’s “42” is a well-meaning, yet utterly toothless introduction to the life and accomplishments of a multi-faceted American icon.

The Lords of Salem

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I certainly couldn’t have predicted the amount of panache musician Rob Zombie would bring to his cinematic work. He became established through the band White Zombie before branching off on his own, channeling a love for grisly schlock-horror that followed him from hard rock stardom to the writer-director’s chair. His first two features, “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects,” fit into the niche of visceral horror thrills that entertain as much as they horrify, two grisly thrill rides that combine the hard-rock weirdness Zombie has worked with throughout the years with interesting Southland narratives.

In his latest film, “The Lords of Salem,” Zombie heads in the complete opposite direction, combining slow burning gothic spookiness with tales of witches and Satanic worship in Salem, Massachusetts, and he fails pretty spectacularly. Zombie’s vision and cinematographic sensibilities are still here, but the spark of scary-good entertainment is gone. “The Lords of Salem” is an unremarkable supernatural wash.

Heidi Hawthorne (Mrs. Zombie herself, Sheri Moon) is a troubled former drug addict who MCs as a member of the “Big H Radio Team,” a trio of local rock radio personalities including friends Whitey Salvador (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Munster Jackson (Ken Foree). Hawthorne receives a mysterious package in the mail from a group that calls themselves “the Lords,” a group of Salem witches and Satanic worshippers from the 1800s, which contains an ominous recording that has a strange effect on Hawthorne and kickstarts her descent into the occult.

I’ll say this about director Rob Zombie: all of his work has a clear sense of style, being steeped in schlock horror, that compliments his cinematic talents. Unfortunately, those sensibilities don’t work well with “Lords.” His sense of style simply doesn’t translate well to a film so portentous, serious-minded, and slow, clearly taking many cues from the worn pages of “The Exorcist” and other horror classics. The only sense of eerie in “Lords” comes from Moon Zombie’s spirited performance, one that hides many layers of self-doubt and checkered history. The rest of the cast is on occult horror autopilot.

And that’s what I can say about “Lords of Salem” as a whole. This was Zombie’s chance to break into a different mold of horror, one more serious and ripe for scares that claw at the memory and rest in the subconscious; he gets the chilling build-up yet forgets the pay-off. Slow burning portentous horror is not Rob Zombie’s strong suit, as “Lords of Salem” proved to me that Zombie should stick to thrills instead of chills.

Evil Dead

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No one expected “The Evil Dead” or its wunderkind director Sam Rami to explode in popularity the way they did when they first burst onto the horror movie circuit in 1981. Rami, along with childhood friends Robert Tapert (producer) and Bruce Campbell (star), gave audiences a paranormal scare-fest whose genuine fun-house horror thrills curtailed in by Rami’s raw filmmaking prowess that existed on a plane somewhere between terror and fun that established “Dead” as a modern horror cult classic while catapulting Rami and Campbell to stardom. Its legacy looming large 32 years later, the horror genre has gone through some vast changes, favoring psychological terror and extremely graphic and serious-minded “splatterporn” over tongue-in-cheek blood and guts. “Evil Dead”, the 2013 re-imagining directed by neophyte Fede Alvarez, seeks to have its blood-splattered cake and eat it too, attempting to re-tell the original story with more modern sensibilities while retaining the gleeful sense of dread the series is known for. With Rami, Tapert, and Campbell all serving as guiding lights in producer’s chairs, “Evil Dead” is a worthy, if not exactly excellent, successor to the original, a stylish and blood-soaked horror fun-house that revels in its silliness while maintaining its contemporary horror composure.

          Friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci), Olivia (Jessica Lucas), Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), and David (Shiloh Fernandez)  take a trip to a cabin in the woods in order to help their mutual friend and David’s sister Mia (Jane Levy) go cold turkey and kick a smack addiction. As they begin to explore the cabin, the group comes across a basement filled with disemboweled cats carcasses hanging on hooks and the good ol’ Necronomicon, the Book of The Dead, which Eric proceeds to un-wrap from its barbed wire bindings and read from, resulting in the possession of Mia and the eventual summoning of a demonic Abomination if she isn’t “cured” before the Necronomicon claims 4 extra souls.  

           It all smacks very much of Rami’s original story of demons in the woods, and Alvarez’s film does share many similarities with its precursor; the characters are just as intrepidly moronic, deliberately walking into problems that are unavoidable when you recite a passage from a book bound in human flesh marked with “DO NOT READ THIS” in blood; the basic story beats are still here, though the film plays fast and loose with who the next Ash Williams analogue will be, toying with your expectations of who the real Deadite killer is at the end. The film also occupies (to a less successful degree) the same tonal space that Rami’s “Dead” did, the plane of existence right between carnival fun-house spooks and a macabre walk through abandoned woods; a morose and utterly pointless story involving insanity and familial trust issues immediately interrupted by gleefully graphic acts of facial disfigurement, loss of limbs, and exchanged bodily fluids not seen on screen since Rami’s own “Drag Me To Hell” back in 2009. Because Alvarez’s “Dead” is bathed in the modern super serious-minded “gore-nography” affect, as some call it, it’s difficult to tell when the movie’s tongue is piercing through its cheek or simply suffering from a schizophrenic identity crisis. 

          Alvarez and the producing dream-team he’s working with are smart enough to know that contemporary horror, forever affixed to the grimy gloss of “torture-porn” brought about by the “Saw” and “Hostel” films, is steeped in an affect that doesn’t leave much room for the same kind of gonzo wackiness seen in the 1981 “Dead”; they’re also smart enough (and see their audience as such) to simply play into the conventions, both old and new, that modern horror has saddled on its back, minus the meta acknowledgment; think of it as an antithesis to Drew Goddard’s meta masterpiece “The Cabin In The Woods” from last year, essentially a joke premise that isn’t in on the joke  and is all the more fun for it. By nature, this makes “Evil Dead” an incredibly divisive film; people are either going to love or hate this one, and the film doesn’t really care which side you choose.  

           From a purely cinematic perspective, however, “Evil Dead” is much more solid and assured. Aaron Morton’s sepia-toned cinematography is a once both grimy and crisp, the gore (all accomplished through makeup, inspired camerawork, and buckets of blood with minimal CG touch-ups) is hilarious and shocking in that how-will-they-top-themselves-next? kind of way, the performers all all fine, conveying the right amount of schlock terror and stupid decision making that is the heartbeat of splatterporn like this (see above) and the contemporary horror roadmap is put to inspired use (Mia’s initial possession being looked over by her friends as just another withdrawal freakout escalates tension in a truly unnerving way). Where will the horror genre go next? It may not have the answer, but “Fede Alvarez’s “Evil Dead” is a flawed yet shamefully enjoyable minor treat of contemporary gore-nography that, for better or worse, channels the spirit of Rami’s cinematic staple.