Monthly Archives: March 2014
by Steve Habrat
At a quick glance, director Frank Perry’s surreal 1968 drama The Swimmer doesn’t jump out at you as a cult classic. When you watch the trailer, it swells with emotion as star Burt Lancaster proudly proclaims that he is going to swim home across a number of swimming pools that dot his scenic, upper class Connecticut suburb. Melodramatic music takes the wheel as the handsome Lancaster flirts with a number of beautiful socialite women, races a horse, and yellow on-screen text asks, “When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?” On the surface, it doesn’t seem like the type of film that would fit into the cult classic mold—a mold that was constructed over time by B-movie cheapies, ultra-violent midnight movies, grindhouse filler, and quirky failures. In all honesty, it seems like the type of movie your mother would love. However, when you dive deep into The Swimmer, you realize that the film, which was based upon a shot story by John Cheever, is a haunting tragedy dressed up in studio-drama garb. Led by an unforgettable performance by Lancaster, this overlooked gem is a film unlike any other—a strange, moody experience that slowly evolves from a sunny daydream into a stormy nightmare.
The Swimmer introduces us to Ned Merrill (played by Burt Lancaster), a charismatic and seemingly well-off advertising executive who unexpectedly appears in an old friend’s manicured back yard. Wearing nothing but a pair of navy blue swimming trunks, Ned is met with handshakes, smiles, and warm welcomes from all sitting around the pool. While peering out across the backyard, Ned realizes that there is a river of swimming pools that lead right to his own home, and he is suddenly compelled to swim the entire way home. Dubbing the river of swimming pools the “Lucinda River” after his often-mentioned but never-seen wife, Ned embarks on a journey that takes him to the homes of several old friends and acquaintances, all of which react to Ned’s sudden appearance in drastically different manners. Upon his journey, he reconnects with a young babysitter, Julie Ann Hooper (played by Janet Langard), who had developed a crush on Ned while watching his daughters, and Shirley Abbott (played by Janice Rule), a cold stage actress whom Ned had shared a brief fling with. Yet as Ned gets closer and closer to home, he realizes that several of his relationships and his lavish lifestyle may not be as sunny as they appear.
Early on, very little is overly strange or surreal about The Swimmer, the only peculiar things being Ned’s sudden appearance and his reluctance to reveal what he has recently been up to. He masks this unwillingness to speak about the present by offering up suave charms that tickle his old friends nursing hangovers by the pool. Upon getting the idea to swim home to his family, The Swimmer becomes increasingly moody, constantly bouncing between warm, sunny, charming, romantic, uncomfortable, psychedelic, and spontaneous before cowering down underneath gathering storm clouds in the final half hour. This constant shift in tone makes The Swimmer an incredibly unpredictable drama, as old friends and acquaintances welcome Ned with increasingly mixed reactions. Some people are icy and instantly order Ned off their property, while others are a bit uneasy with him dropping by. One encounter is fairly romantic, but it ends in squirm inducing rejection that leaves an emotionally wounded Ned limping off towards his next pool to dive into. One of the most stinging encounters comes when Ned meets up with Shirley Abbott, a woman Ned had a fling with many years earlier. Where once Ned’s playful flirtations were met with giggles and smiles, now they are met with put downs and the admittance that Shirley never enjoyed her intimate moments with Ned. Watching Shirley kill off what’s left of Ned’s cool optimism is immensely painful, ending with a venomous sting that leaves our bathing suit clad protagonist shivering in the dying sun. (This emotional encounter with Janice was actually ghost directed by newcomer Sydney Pollack.)
Aiding with The Swimmer’s shattering power is Burt Lancaster, who gives a mesmeric performance as Ned, the mystifying advertising executive on a mission to swim his way home. While Eleanor Perry’s script almost paints Ned as an apparition who just suddenly materializes from the nearby woods, Lancaster really pivots around all the emotions like the graceful professional that he was, using his massively expressive, baby-blue eyes to really emit Ned’s early wonder and his final soul-shaking trauma. He also draws from his career as an acrobat, leaping, jumping, and playing with Julie in a horse pen like a couple of invincible school children who believe they are capable of anything and everything. And then there are the small touches, especially near the end when Ned is growing weary on his journey. His face is drooping into exhaustion and emotional defeat as he begs his way in to a public pool and limps his way through the rusted gate that guards his mansion. In the supporting roles, Langard’s Julie is a young, naïve sunbeam who has yet to experience the sadness and disappointment that Ned has encountered. She rambles on about silly school girl crushes that she hid just years before, and sheepishly admits that she stole one of Ned’s shirts one evening while she babysat his daughters. Janice Rule’s Shirley is like a viper lying out in the sun, one that Ned tramples on with his bare feet and ends up with her venom pumping into his exposed ankles.
Since The Swimmer offers very little about Ned’s background, the viewer is left to piece together his rocky past through his swim across the “Lucinda River.” As far as one can tell, life started out great for Ned—a man with a great career, a loving family, a slew of friends, and a lavish lifestyle in the sun. Behind his wife’s back, he carried out flings and affairs that ended with broken hearts, and he wronged several of his friends, leaving them seething with bitter hatred. As relationships fizzled, so did Ned’s lavish lifestyle, as money problems struck the Merrill household, his daughters ran rampant through the neighborhood, and his wife’s elitist personality left many acquaintances sour. This all added up to tragedy and ruin for the swimmer, as he crawls his way through an early fall thunderstorm for a place to rest his aching bones. As far as the technical aspects of The Swimmer go, the film’s cinematography looks beautiful and radiant, and the score from Marvin Hamlisch is a rush of melodramatic strings that compliment Ned’s successes and failures in suburbia. Overall, The Swimmer is a unique work of art that can be interpreted many different ways. No matter how you choose to look at it, Perry’s film will haunt every inch of your brain long after you’ve walked away from it. It’s a true one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
The Swimmer is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you’re one that has ever sat through an entire Lucio Fulci film, you understand that the Italian horror director was something of an acquired taste. The “Godfather of Gore”—as he is often referred to—took great pleasure in painting the movie screen red with globs of entrails, buckets of candle wax blood, jellied brains, rotting skin, and showers of wiggling maggots, something that he was often criticized for. Surely, a man that crafts ultra-violent films such as these must have, well, a cat fiercely clawing, scratching, and chewing away at his brain! Near the end of Fulci’s long and varied career (he made everything from comedies to gialli to spaghetti westerns), he released Cat in the Brain (aka Nightmare Concert), a meta-gorefest that finds the cult filmmaker reflecting upon his gruesome body of work and the toll those gory films had on his psyche. Strung together with horrific snippets from his earlier gialli and horror films, Cat in the Brain is surprisingly well rounded and clever for a film that threatens to act as a sort of highlight reel for Fulci’s most revolting kill scenes. Yet the splatter master smartly builds a thought-provoking thriller around these recycled sequences, and the end result is a standout release from the twilight of his career.
Cat in the Brain finds Fulci playing himself, Dr. Lucio Fulci, a horror director who is well known for his ultra-violent genre films. One day, after filming a particularly nasty sequence involving cannibalism and a questionable steak, Fulci decides to go to a nearby upscale restaurant for lunch. Upon arriving, Fulci orders up a steak, but his appetite is quickly curbed when his mind wanders back to the gruesome sequence that he was filming just moments before. Some time later, Fulci suffers another flashback after glimpsing a gardener slicing up some logs with a chain saw. The flashback triggers a nervous breakdown that prompts the horror director to seek out the help of a local psychiatrist by the name of Professor Egon Swharz (played by David L. Thompson). Swharz suggests that Fulci try hypnotism to aid with these terrifying flashbacks, but as it turns out, Swharz has a much more sinister plot in store for Fulci. Swharz plans on committing a number of heinous murders and using the hypnosis to trick Fulci into thinking he committed the murders, pushing the already fragile director to brink of madness.
With Cat in the Brain, Fulci is fiercely aware of his fan base, composing a grand old opera of sex, violence, and depravity almost exclusively for them. It also finds the director recognizing the fact that he wasn’t exactly held in high regard in many circles, as he was often attacked for the exploitative nature of his horror films. In response to the criticism, Fulci conjures up a tidal wave of carnage that features chain saw mutilation, beheadings, cannibalism, melting faces, surging guts, a cat gnawing away at a brain, and various other segments of bloodshed that will have his devout fans floating on cloud nine and his harshest critics groaning is disgust. While there are various points of Cat in the Brain that send a chill or two (a certain graveyard sequence comes to mind), the endless barrage of grindhouse violence seems to be Fulci’s way of taunting his critics—looking them square in the eye and saying, “You thought my pervious work was vicious? Well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Of course, his response comes off as light-hearted and comical, as he presents himself in the opening credits as a perverse mad scientist hunched over a pad, conjuring up various death scenes to use in future movies. This transitions into a close up of a cheesy-looking cat devouring Fulci’s glistening brain matter, a ravenous and cartoonish madness that just can’t be tamed.
Then we have Fulci’s sympathetic performance as himself, a role he seems to take great pleasure in playing. In between his bouts of insanity, Fulci portrays himself as a nice guy who is just doing his job. To his friends and neighbors, he is simply that guy who makes those horror movies, yet everyone seems to have a general fondness and respect for the artist. When that cat starts hissing and clawing around upstairs, Fulci really gets to have fun with people’s perception of him. When directing a Nazi orgy, he presents himself in a misty medium shot as he manically whispers orders to his bare-naked cast members. Other times, he is stricken with disgust over the visions he suffers from, clutching at his heart like he is fending off a sudden heart attack. The stand out scene comes when he wanders around a friend’s house in terror, gasping at visions of the friend’s family members getting chopped, stabbed, sliced, and diced like a couple of Thanksgiving turkeys. (This sequence also appears to feature a bloody tribute to the shower sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho) The puppeteer behind Fulci’s madness is David L. Thompson’s Professor Swharz, a grinning madman who hypnotizes the poor director into thinking he is on a killing spree. Thompson is surprisingly creepy in the villainous role, a sadistic psychiatrist who uses other people’s demons to his advantage. One thing is certain; Fulci doesn’t think much of shrinks.
While Cat in the Brain’s self-reflexive structure seems a bit disjointed and slightly puzzling in places (Would you expect anything less from the “Godfather of Gore?”), Fulci still manages to produce a final product that effectively blurs the lines between what is a hallucination and what is real. This makes Cat in the Brain seem like a playful horror exercise, one that simultaneously toys with the viewer like a ball of yarn, while advising other horror directors who may have suffered light trauma from their violent work to opt for a sunny vacation with a pretty girl over a trip to the dreaded psychiatrist’s office. Another admirable aspect is the fact that Cat in the Brain is able to overcome the trap of acting as a highlight reel. It actually takes on an identity all its own, as Fulci meshes the gooey clips seamlessly with his freshly shot footage. Overall, Cat in the Brain is far from Lucio Fulci’s best work, but as a late-career effort from a man who was past his glory days and grappling with deteriorating health, it’s something of a high point. This is a delightfully deranged and darkly hilarious horror rendition of Federico Fellini’s celebrated art-house classic 8 ½, with an overflowing ladle of sex and sleaze drizzled on for extra zing.
Cat in the Brain (aka Nightmare Concert) is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Among the many subgenres that make up the exploitation catalogue of the mid-1970s and ‘80s, the most ferocious and merciless is undoubtedly the cannibal films that first emerged in 1972. Started by Italian splatter director Umberto Lenzi with his film il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio (The Man from Deep River), the jungle cannibal movement hit a barf bag high with director Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1980 bloodbath Cannibal Holocaust, easily the most stomach churning of the bunch with its traumatizing sequences of violence, sex, and animal cruelty, all laid out in plain view to make you recoil in disgust. From the dingy grindhouses on 42nd Street to the uproar it caused in Milan, Cannibal Holocaust was a major hit with audiences, prompting Lenzi—the director who started it all—to respond in 1981 with Cannibal Ferox, an equally repulsive but tremendously cheesy venture into the jungles of the Amazon. Released into American grindhouses and drive-ins under the menacing title Make Them Die Slowly, Cannibal Ferox will certainly have audience members with weak tummies burping back their lunch over the extreme special effects, but like most Italian exploitation films of the time, the film is brimming with goofy dubbing, mild overacting, eye-rolling dialogue, and a trumpeting score that only adds chills when it shifts over to a moaning electric guitar. It’s a gross out that you just can’t stop chuckling at.
Cannibal Ferox begins on the mean streets of New York City, with a drug addict looking for a heroine dealer named Mike Logan (played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice). Upon arriving at Mike’s apartment, the buyer bumps into two mobsters who demand to know where Mike is. As it turns out, Mike owes the mobsters $100,000 dollars, but has apparently high-tailed it out of town to avoid paying up. Meanwhile, anthropologist Gloria (played by Lorraine De Selle), her brother, Rudy (played by Danilo Mattei), and their free-spirited friend, Pat (played by Zora Kerova), arrive in the Amazon jungles to prove Gloria’s theory that cannibalism is a hoax. Shortly into their adventure, the trio bumps into Mike and his severely wounded partner, Joe (played by Walter Lucchini). Mike and Joe frantically explain that they were attacked by a cannibalistic tribe and that a third member of their party had gruesomely perished in a nearby village. The group eventually stumbles upon the village where the third member of Mike and Joe’s group met a grisly end, but the village now seems largely deserted, with only the elderly remaining. The group decides that they will camp out in the village until they can get help for Joe, but after Mike and Pat attack and kill a young native girl, the younger villagers return to exact horrific revenge.
When Cannibal Ferox first arrived in America, the posters and VHS jackets proudly declared that it was banned in 31 countries due to the extreme violence within the film—something that was sure to stir up some hype and lure viewers into the dilapidated theaters that dared to show it. Furthermore, swapping the title Cannibal Ferox for the more lurid Make Them Die Slowly also added another layer of icky intrigue. While time hasn’t exactly been kind to some of the ultra-violent Italian exploitation films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, the special effects of Cannibal Ferox haven’t softened up in the slightest. For those with the an iron stomach, the film treats to you to two castrations, a gouged-out eyeball, one character having hooks shoved through her breasts and then strung up to bleed to death, a group of natives slicing into the chest of one fallen character and chowing down on his innards, and another character having the top of his head sliced off with a machete and the villagers lining up to grab at handful of his brains like they were picking from a bucket of popcorn. For fans of the cannibal genre, it delivers, but when held up to the unflinching “found footage” approach that Deodato took to Cannibal Holocaust, it pales in comparison. Yet Cannibal Ferox gets an extra bump due to the real animal slayings that are guaranteed to upset the uninitiated. Determined to match Cannibal Holocaust every step of the way, Lenzi goes berserk with the animal cruelty to the point of disturbing even the most hardened of exploitation viewers.
And then we have the performances, led by genre regular Giovanni Lombardo Radice (Cannibal Apocalypse, City of the Living Dead), billed here under the name John Morghen. Radice brings some of the same screw-loose intensity that he brought to Cannibal Apocalypse. Here he is a greedy, coked-up madman who seduces Pat with powder, and gets his jollies from tormenting the natives. He’s a miserable piece of humanity meant to represent the savagery that brews and festers in bowels of civilized society. Radice is top-notch, even when his villainous side threatens to go over-the-top, but his downfall, which was out of his hands completely, comes from the atrocious dubbing and dialogue added in postproduction. As Joe, Mike’s wounded partner, Lucchini is surprisingly reserved when propped up next to the insane drug dealer. His compassionate side bleeds through when he witnesses Mike’s true savagery emerge in the most appalling way imaginable, making him a sympathetic character consumed by Mike’s personal demons. Kerova’s Pat is largely asked to run around with her shirt open and add a bit of sex appeal to this mud and blood show. Yet there is something fascinating about watching her get sucked in momentarily to Mike’s uncontrollable rage, and the results of her flirtation with the dark side have grave consequences. Mattei is slightly stiff as Rudy, the good guy who tries desperately to make a break for it and save his friends. De Selle overacts her role as Gloria, the anthropologist determined to prove that cannibalism doesn’t exist. Wait for her hilarious plea with a native savior gruesomely impaled on a wicked-looking jungle trap.
Like most grindhouse knock-offs made to capitalize on another film’s popularity, there are aspects of Cannibal Ferox that are glaringly cheap or unintentionally hilarious. On the whole, Cannibal Ferox lacks the realistic polish of Cannibal Holocaust, seemingly made in a hurry so that Lenzi could claim the cannibal movie throne from Deodato. The score from Roberto Donati and Fiamma Maglione is nice and sleazy, opening with a smile-inducing siege of funky trumpets and slapping urban jazz as Lenzi’s camera spirals around the concrete jungle of New York City. It’s definitely something you wouldn’t expect to hear in a film like this, and it certainly never matches the eerily calm and dreamy synthesizers that the late Riz Ortolani used to set the scenic stage for Cannibal Holocaust. Things fare a bit better in the score department when we step off the beaten path and venture deep into the jungle. It is here that we get static guitars that effective make your arm hair stand on end. And then there is the dubbing and dialogue, both of which keep earning their share of unintentional laughs over the ninety-minute runtime. Overall, while it provides plenty of sleazy thrills for horror and exploitation fanatics, and it thoughtfully reflects on how the depraved actions of one can have devastating penalties on so many others, Cannibal Ferox spends way too much time mimicking the far better Cannibal Holocaust. You’re left wishing that Lenzi, the godfather of the jungle cannibal movies, had taken a few artistic risks to further the genre along.
Cannibal Ferox (aka Make Them Die Slowly) is available on DVD.
With the boring movie months of January, February, and March slowly inching by, it’s time that we start getting excited about the big movies that have been receiving the hype treatment over the past year. In 2014, audiences will be getting talking raccoons, a brand new Christopher Nolan epic, a Captain America follow-up, and a remake of arguably the greatest monster movie ever made. So, without further ado, here are the ten movies I just can’t wait to see in 2014.
10.) Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
It’s been nearly ten years since Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller ushered us into the noir world of Sin City, and we’ve been salivating for more ever since. With an A-list cast that includes veterans Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, and Jessica Alba, and newcomers like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eva Green, Josh Brolin, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven, and Stacy Keach, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’s trailer indicates that we are in for another heaping, black and white dose of steamy lap dances, sexy femme fatales, and back-alley tough guys who walk on the wild side. Bring on the gruesome mayhem!
9.) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t expecting much out of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. However, director Rupert Wyatt surprised both mainstream audiences and critics with his white-knuckle prequel about the ape uprising. Now we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which promises to up the apocalyptic scope and chaotic action to chilling highs. This time around, James Franco is out, but the always-reliable Gary Oldman is in, as well as newcomers Jason Clarke, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Keri Russell. And we can’t forget the excellent Andy Serkis, who returns to raise hell as the ape kingpin, Caesar. Under the direction of Matt Reeves and taking place several years after the events of Rise, Dawn appears to be a worthy follow-up to the superb original.
8.) The Sacrament
Ti West has twice proved he is a filmmaker to watch within the horror genre. His 2009 breakout The House of the Devil was a retro nightmare, and his 2011 follow-up, The Innkeepers, was one of the spookiest horror films of recent memory. For his third act, The Sacrament, he uses the devastating actions of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple as the framework for this “found footage” freak-out. While the “found footage” subgenre has certainly worn out its welcome (*ahem* Paranormal Activity, I’m looking at you!), if there is anyone out there who could really give it its bite back, it would be West, who hinted that he had a handle on it with his unforgettable segment in 2012’s V/H/S.
If you haven’t seen the raucous trailer for Seth Rogen’s new suburban comedy about a bunch of frat bros who move in next door to a mild-mannered couple with a newborn baby, you need to fix that right this instant. Though it wasn’t written or directed by Rogen, I’m crossing my fingers that the scruffy funnyman is still riding the highs of last year’s comedic gem, This Is the End, which had critics and audiences everywhere doubled over in laughter. Based on the footage that has been revealed, it could prove to be a raunchy follow-up to that fireball of a comedy, even if it doesn’t quite pack the star power or the gimmick of actors playing “themselves.” If nothing good comes from Neighbors, it sparked the brilliant and hilarious idea to throw a Robert DeNiro party.
6.) X-Men: Days of Future Past
The X-Men series has been severely hit or miss. Director Bryan Singer’s first two installments in the franchise were solidly made superhero films. The third film, which was taken over by Brett Ratner, left a lot to be desired. In 2011, director Matthew Vaughn got the franchise back on track with X-Men: First Class, effectively meshing Cold War history with a whip-smart origin story. With Singer back in the director’s chair, and a time-jumping plot line that promises to mix the old cast with the new, X-Men: Days of Future Past is poised to be a comic book movie to keep your eye on this summer.
5.) Guardians of the Galaxy
With their cinematic universe fully formed and humming along nicely, Marvel dares to expand with this August’s Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps the most bonkers release yet. While director James Gunn’s space adventure is certainly a gamble, the trailer—which gives very nice introductions to the five main characters—suggests that this sci-fi adventure will have a stronger comedic tone to it. With plenty of rollicking space action on display, Guardians of the Galaxy seems to have plenty of potential, even with a talking raccoon that wields a machine gun and hocks loogies. Hopefully, it will be a welcome departure from the Iron Man and Thor movies.
4.) The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The last time Spidey swung across movie screens, his reboot was somewhat of a bore, mostly because new director Marc Webb rehashed a bunch of stuff we already knew about Peter Parker. With all the origin mumbo jumbo out of the way, it seems like Webb and his cast are really letting loose for an epic showdown between good and evil. Boasting not one, not two, but THREE superbaddies to face off against Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 could very well be this summer’s The Avengers. It looks to have the pulpy action to rival it, and like all good comic book sequels, it doesn’t seem to be shying away from a darker tone and heavier dramatics. Is it May yet?!
Not much is known about Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi epic Interstellar, but does that even matter? Christopher freakin’ Nolan is directing it and that is literally all we need to know! Shrouded in Nolan’s expected secrecy, Interstellar is said to be about a group of explorers who discover a wormhole and use it to push the limits of human space travel. The IMDB cast list is bursting with A-listers (Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, and more), and the stock-footage heavy trailer hints at larger-than-life filmmaking. What is even more exciting about Interstellar is the fact that Warner Bros. has chosen to release it in the thick of awards season.
2.) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Of all the solo Avengers films that Marvel has produced since 2008’s Iron Man, my favorite has been the WWII period piece Captain America: The First Avenger. With it’s pulpy aesthetic and rollicking action, Captain America seemed alive with the spirit of classic blockbusters like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I loved it. With Captain America: The Winter Solider, the stakes are higher and the destruction is nastier than ever. Did I mention that it looks to be much more interesting than Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World combined? While Marvel’s reluctance to release it this summer has slightly concerned me, Captain America: The Winter Solider seems like it will be a fierce comic book movie, and the gloomiest chapter in Marvel’s Avengers series yet. Bring it on.
There has been talk for years of another Godzilla reboot—one to scrub away all the horrid memories of that 1998 remake that should have been called Jurassic Park: New York City. With Puff Daddy and Matthew Broderick out and Bryan Cranston and director Gareth Edwards in, Godzilla 2014 is shaping up to be the mack daddy of summer movies. Seriously, have your seen the damn trailer?! It looks incredible, with some of the most savage city-smashing ever put on celluloid. What’s even better is that the filmmakers are re-establishing the idea that Godzilla is a walking A-bomb—a radioactive creation of the Atomic Age that continues to stomp on through the cinema history books. And here is the best yet: the movie actually looks pretty freaky! Oh, and did I mention that it appears that Rodan and Gigan will be joining in on the worldwide destruction? Yeah, let’s just get in line now.
by Steve Habrat
Almost any movie buff can tell you that January and February are far from the most exciting movie months of the year. Outside of a few Oscar nominees finally receiving the wide release treatment, audiences are stuck with—and astonishingly flock to—clichéd comedies, cable-channel action movies, vapid romantic comedies, and stiff horror movies that should have remained in their coffins. It’s extremely difficult to find a diamond in the rough, but every so often, one shimmering winner shines brightly through the piles of garbage. This year’s diamond in the rough is The Lego Movie, a rainbow explosion of sugary visuals and Adult Swim humor tailored for those far too young to know what Adult Swim is. Refreshingly weird, fast paced, and quick witted, The Lego Movie is an animated jewel that almost demands to be seen twice just so audience members young and old can appreciate the clever script from directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. It’s also a hallucinogenic tribute to soaring superheroes, pop culture icons, and cinematic classics that audiences have all come to know and adore over the years. Did I mention that it boasts an A-list cast enthusiastically lending their voices to these little plastic wonders, and that it also sends a wonderful message to children about the power of imagination?
The Lego Movie introduces us to everyman Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), a happy-go-lucky construction worker who always follows his instruction manual for conforming to the world around him. Despite Emmet’s best attempts to fit in with the rest of the citizens of his Lego world, the bouncy little guy always seems like the odd man out. One evening, while leaving work, Emmet spots a mysterious girl called Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) snooping around the construction site. As Emmet goes to approach Wyldstyle, he slips down a hole in the ground, and comes face to face with a glowing red brick called the Piece of Resistance. Entranced by it’s beauty, Emmet attempts to touch the Piece of Resistance, but when he does, he passes out and wakes up in the clutches of Bad Cop (voiced by Liam Neeson), who is the muscle for Lord Business (voiced by Will Farrell), the sinister president of the Lego world. While being interrogated by Bad Cop, Emmet learns that the Piece of Resistance has attached itself to his back, and that Lord Business possesses a weapon called the Kragle, which is capable of freezing the entire Lego universe. Emmet is soon rescued by Wyldstyle, who takes him to meet the Master Builders—a group of heroes capable of building anything they can dream of. Among the Master Builders are a wizard called Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman), Batman (voiced by Will Arnett), the pirate Iron Beard (voiced by Nick Offerman), the overly positive Princess Uni-Kitty (voiced by Alison Brie), and ‘80s spaceman Benny (voiced by Charlie Day). It is with the Master Builders that Emmett learns that he is the “Special,” the one who can save every man, woman, and creature from Lord Business’ evil plot.
The Lego Movie’s hyperactive style and rapid-fire jokes will mostly certainly turn off viewers who aren’t open to this sort of thing. But for those willing to open their imagination to what Lord and Miller have thrown up on the screen, the rewards will stretch far beyond the film’s runtime. It’s almost a given that children will be powerless against its 200-mile-per-hour pacing and the barrage of characters both old and new zipping across the screen, but the filmmakers don’t forget about the parents or those (possibly inebriated) audience members looking for a hearty dose of artistic vision. Adult DC Comics fans are sure to have just as much fun as the kids as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern flash across the screen and cleverly poke fun at themselves, while Star Wars fans will certainly have a chuckle at one joke that flickers with Family Guy’s sense of humor. For those who spend their evenings in a marijuana cloud watching Adult Swim, the film’s bloodshot psychedelics and self-aware jabs will have them doubled over in their seats as trippy graphics and sly pop culture references leap out in 3D and call upon the spirit of Seth Green’s dementedly anarchic Robot Chicken. This strange brew may sound like an acquired taste, but rest assured when I tell you that there is a brilliant last act twist that helps this dizzying concoction of caffeinated inspiration go down smoothly.
When it comes to discussing the The Lego Movie’s wide array of characters, there is a long line of A-list actors lending their vocal chords to these little marvels. Chris Pratt brings his man-child charms to Emmet, our everyman hero who proudly stands behind his idea for a double decker couch. Will Arnett lends his gruff voice to Batman, growling the expected “I’m Batman” line with an extra sprinkling of cheese. He’s easily the most fun character of the bunch, mostly because he’s so overly confident even when he’s botching his batarang throws. Elizabeth Banks makes Wyldstyle an instant plastic sweetheart with a rough and tough side. Little girls in the audience are sure to adore her as she flips, spins, punches, and kicks her way through an army of robotic bad guys. Charlie Day screeches his way through the role of Benny, the ‘80s space man who desperately wants to build the crew a retro rocket ship. Alison Brie’s coo and unpredictable mood swings make Princess Uni-Kitty downright hilarious, as she is in constant turmoil with her excessive positivity. Morgan Freeman offers his trademark vocal talents to Vitruvius, a wise but slightly spaced-out wizard with eyesight complications. Will Farrell brings his maniacal cackle to Lord Business, snarling playful threats to our heroes and his endless supply of henchmen. Liam Neeson rounds out the main cast as Bad Cop, the hushed muscle of Lord Business who will suddenly unleash his peppy side.
While The Lego Movie’s razor-sharp sense of humor makes it an instant winner, the real refresher here is the amazing animation that offers a nice change of pace from the computerized creations from Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks. Though the characters and the world around them are brought to life with CGI magic, the film never truly looks like it was brought to life with a computer program. It looks like we are watching a stop motion miracle—a toy store Lego display that has suddenly leapt to crude life and started interacting with us. The filmmakers don’t forget to smartly call attention to the Lego figurine’s flexibility limits, most memorably with Emmet’s hysterical jumping jacks that he starts his day out with. The constant swirl of colors, characters, and action is all brought home with a thumping title track called “Everything is AWESOME!!” from Tegan and Sara, an indie rock duo who provide a electronic dance track that is sure to be an instant favorite in your family. Overall, with so many animated features struggling to win the hearts of both adults and children, The Lego Movie stands tall as a shining example of how to appeal to all ages. It dares to get a little weird, a little wild, and a little satirical, but it does it with plenty of heart and intelligence, sending an enduring message about the power and importance of imagination.