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

 

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.

Frozen

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Disney is finally showing genuine signs of self-awareness, guys. I thought it would take another decade or so myself, but it seems like they finally understand what their moves need to be in order to continue keeping their animation domination seat warm in the 21st century. “Frozen” is as much a note-perfect harkening back to the Golden Age of Disney princess flicks as it is the next logical step in their evolution.

Don’t let the Olaf the snowman-centered ad campaign fool you. At its heart, “Frozen” is a love story between royal sisters Elsa and Anna very VERY loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Snow Queen.” Elsa (Idina Menzel) is born with the inexplicable ability to conjure ice and snow, and mortally wounds her younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell) when they’re both children. The only cure wipes out any memory of magic ever existing in Anna’s life and leads to the king and queen to lock Elsa away from her sister until she has a better grasp on her powers. Being a Disney movie, their parents die in a ship wreck while away on business, and Elsa is next in line for the throne. On the day of her coronation, Elsa reacts harshly to her sheltered sister’s insistence on marrying a nobleman she just met, musical number and all, and accidentally unleashes her powers for all to see. Embarrassed, Elsa runs off into the mountains, isolates herself in a fortress of ice, and unintentionally leaves Arendelle draped in eternal winter, leading Anna to chase after her and bring her back as the rightful queen.

…and this is the set-up. Screenwriter Jennifer Lee has the Disney princess formula down to a science, with the aforementioned first act being a marvel of screenwriting efficiency. The characters of Elsa and Anna are very different from many of their predecessors, regardless of what the faulty ad campaign may have you think. Lee portrays both girls as capable and strong-willed, yet stuck in their own arrested development; Anna’s starry-eyed optimism comes from her sheltered upbringing and desperate longing for human contact and affection, while Elsa’s isolation from those around her has forced her into a sort of perpetual puberty, ashamed of what makes her special and having been trained by her parents to “never feel, never reveal.” See where this is going?

Beyond the subversive undertaking of Disney princess lore, “Frozen” has all of the other elements you’d expect: goofy supporting characters, namely flustered ice salesman Kristoff and his moose Sven and Olaf (Josh Gadd), an adorably naïve snowman brought to life by Elsa’s magic. The ad campaign gears you up to hate the little guy, but he doesn’t show his face until about an hour into the movie, and is just funny enough to bowl you over by the end. His gimmick is that he’s a snowman who’s obsessed with experiencing the summer sun, which is especially cute given his origin, and Gadd really nails the naïve optimism of the goofy side character perfectly, making him saccharine without being grating.

Speaking of perfect casting, Menzel is sinisterly well cast as Elsa, especially because most people still know her from her work in the Broadway show “Wicked.” Her booming voice deceives Elsa’s initially quiet body language and is absolutely dynamite with the songs. “Let It Go” will be this generation’s “Reflection,” I’m telling you.

Regardless of its excellent cast and self-aware critical eye, “Frozen” isn’t perfect. The rest of the cast fits their character stock types a little too well (with one out of nowhere exception that I won’t spoil), and it’s a little on the long side, with a third act sequence involving Kristoff’s family that could’ve been trimmed a bit in particular.

Even so, “Frozen” is within striking distance of Golden Age Disney princess status. In a year where France’s “Blue Is The Warmest Color” proved once and for all that romance knows no gender set, “Frozen” finally shows that the Mouse House understands that the narrative thrust of love doesn’t always come from hormonal lust. It’s not what you’re expecting. Give it a chance.  

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?

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.