Sunday, February 16, 2014

Movie Review: The Lego Movie

It's always awkward when you show up late to a party. The Lego movie opened last week to widespread acclaim. Rotten Tomatoes has it at 96% fresh, and it's already blown past the $100 million dollar mark (and that doesn't include the toy sales). It's performing at summer-movie levels in February, which just demonstrates what most of us already knew: this "summer blockbuster" thing is nothing but a self-fulfilling prophesy. Movies have been performing at blockbuster-levels during the summer because all the blockbusters have been getting released during the summer. People will go see a good movie whenever it's released, and - in some circumstances - there are more opportunities outside the crowded summer and Christmas seasons than within.

There are a lot of interesting aspects of The Lego Movie worth considering. It represents the first official big-screen appearance of Wonder Woman, even if her role was only slightly more than a cameo. It's also the first time Batman or Superman have appeared in a motion picture in supporting roles.

By now, you've probably already seen The Lego Movie, and even if you haven't, you've certainly heard it's worth watching. I'm not going to contradict that: it's more or less indisputable. This is, without a doubt, the best toy commercial since the 1986 animated Transformers movie. It might even be better.

It's fun, it's entertaining, it's sweet, it's emotional....

But, you know something? It's actually a little overrated.

Not a lot. All that stuff I just said is true: it's a great movie. The directors, Miller and Lord, have once again established themselves as the best in the business when it comes to transforming an incredibly dumb premise into a heartfelt and intelligent movie. But the end of the movie doesn't quite deliver the punch it should have.

Okay. I'm going to try to keep this as close to spoiler-free as I can by being vague and non-specific. But if you're good at putting pieces together and you haven't seen The Lego Movie yet, this might be a good place to stop reading. Just in case.

Let's talk about how Will Ferrell's character was portrayed at the end of the movie. Ultimately, the entire film was built around this scene - the emotional core of the film came down to this moment. And it wasn't bad. Ferrell did a fine job, and the scene worked all right. But given its importance, they should have made it perfect. As it was, there was something artificial, something overly animated about how his dialogue was being written.

Like I said, it still worked. But imagine how much more powerful the sequence would have been if we'd believed in his character. I don't think there was anything wrong with his point-of-view, just in how he was presenting it. He explained his perspective the way a cartoon villain does, when a more nuanced, realistic approach would have been better.

I don't think it's a trivial issue, either. I think it would have elevated this movie, which was clearly already great, into the running for best-of-year. It would have given it an emotional resonance few films achieve. And all it would have taken was a few minor adjustments to the dialogue.

Oh, well. I guess we'll have to settle for a great movie.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Movie Review: Her

Her is a neat science fiction film that would appeal to fans of the novel, Facsimile, if Facsimile had any fans for it to appeal to. Don't get me wrong: they're very different stories and even different settings, but they're in the exact same sub-genre. I don't know of anything else that is.

Sorry - I'm getting off track.

At any rate, like all of Spike Jonze's movies, there's a lot more going on in Her than the premise implies. What you've likely heard about Her is that it's a love story about man and a conscious computer system. And, on the surface, it is. In fact, if you're not a fan of science fiction, it'd be really easy to watch Her and think that's all that it was about. The movie follows its lead around constantly. Its focus rarely wanders at all. And, to him, this is a simple love story.

But there's so much more here. While I liked the quirky love story, I was much more interested in what was happening off screen. There are huge things happening in this film - massive, world-altering events - that the movie implies or mentions in passing. The main character doesn't grasp the ramifications, and it would easy for the audience to miss them, as well.

From an SF perspective, the movie handled these really well. Where it faltered was in the smaller details. For instance, rather than demonstrate an emergent consciousness, the OS came out of the box with a complex inner life. Sure, she had to learn to love and want and all that, but she started with a sense of self, which suggests it was something she was programmed with. While this didn't devolve into a Skynet situation, one wonders why the programmers took that chance.

There were several details like this. Small factors that raised unanswered questions. For example, if computer consciousness is this advanced, why haven't jobs like the one held by the main character been automated?

It'd be easy to give these issues too much weight, though. The larger ideas and themes work extremely well. Like Jonze's earlier movies, Her leaves you with a lot to mull over and piece together. I enjoyed it quite a bit.