The Lego Movie (2014)
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.
Pacific Rim (2013)
by Steve Habrat
These days, it is extremely difficult and rare for a major Hollywood studio to take a creative risk, especially during the hot and humid summer months when audiences turn out in droves. The suits fall back on time-tested franchises, overdone remakes, comic book heroes with built-in audiences, and winded sequels that guarantee them a major worldwide hit. Take this summer, for example, as we have seen another Marvel megahit with Iron Man 3, a grim reboot of the Man of Steel, two familiar animated sequels (Monsters University and Despicable Me 2), a Brad Pitt led zombie blockbuster based off of a wildly popular novel by Max Brooks (World War Z), and another installment in the Star Trek series. While I have enjoyed all of the films I’ve pointed out here, I’ve still craved something fresh and creatively stimulating. Enter Guillermo del Toro, a man with a vivid imagination and a knack for serving up some seriously zesty cinematic efforts, both big (Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army) and small (Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth). After a lengthy hiatus from the director’s chair, we finally have a new summer blockbuster from del Toro and that film is the astonishing giant monster-giant robot mash-up Pacific Rim, a pulpy blast of rainbow science fiction that is exactly what the cinema doctor ordered. Seconds, please!
Pacific Rim begins by explaining that giant monsters known as “Kaiju” have crawled out of a portal beneath the Pacific Ocean and stomped into our cities. Unable to bring them down with the weapons we already have, the world develops a new weapon called “Jaegers,” which are giant robots capable of tossing around the raging “Kaiju.” After several exhausting years of battle, the “Jaegers” grow less and less effective in keeping the “Kaiju” at bay. The united governments of Earth grow weary of the giant robots and they decide to cut funding for their construction. The remaining “Jaegers” are shipped off to Hong Kong, where they are left to rust away and fade from memory. The remaining “Jaeger” program is left to Commander Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba), who is determined to keep the “Jaegers” fighting the good fight. Stacker approaches washed-up “Jaeger” pilot Raleigh Becket (played by Charile Hunnam), who piloted the American “Jaeger” Gipsy Danger but quit when he watched his brother die in combat, about rejoining the program in a final attempt to prevent the imminent apocalypse. Raleigh agrees and begins training to find a suitable co-pilot, which he finds in the scrappy “Jaeger” test pilot Mako Mori (played by Rinko Kikuchi). Meanwhile, bickering scientists Dr. Newton Geizler (played by Charlie Day) and Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (played by Burn Gorman) have assembled a machine that allows them to establish a mental link with the “Kaiju” and discovered that the giant monsters are in fact genetically-bred weapons sent to wipe out the human race so that their masters can colonize the planet.
While many will be quick to label Pacific Rim as a Transformers wannabe, the film has so much more to offer than one of those Michael Bay abominations. This candy-colored gem is an exhilarating ode to Toho Co., the Japanese production company that is responsible for releasing giant monster movies (called “kaiju” movies, which is Japanese for “giant monster”) like 1954s Godzilla. While Pacific Rim certainly tips its hat to Godzilla and his family of rampaging atomic beasts (Rodan, Mothra, etc.), del Toro’s vision is something completely singular. The story line is carried by the myriad of colorful characters, which consistently stand apart from the astonishing special effects and towering action sequences that are loud enough to wake up the two people sleeping through The Lone Ranger in the neighboring theater. In the vein of Toho, the action is relentless, especially the neon fist-fight between a handful of “Jaegers” and a couple of seriously nasty “Kaiju” in the middle of downtown Hong Kong. It’s a rock ‘em-sock ‘em moment of pure adrenaline ecstasy that will have adults and children cheering in delight. But the thrills don’t stop there, as del Toro keeps uping the ante and powering up his beasts for a show-stopping underwater brawl boosted by a nuclear fizz.
While the heavy metal CGI action is a must-see, Pacific Rim is a very human film and one brimming with performances that will beckon you back for more. Del Toro proves that you don’t necessarily need a Brad Pitt, Robert Downey Jr., or Johnny Depp in the thick of the action to keep the audience absorbed in what is playing out before them. All you need is colorfully drawn characters with fragile emotion tucked delicately inside the layered armor. The relatively unknown Hunnam is out for blood as Raleigh, and I mean that in the best possible way. He is the all-American good guy—one that is nursing deep wounds but is eager to deliver a one-two hit to the massive monsters that wade through the Pacific. His chemistry is exceptional with Kikuchi, who isn’t the same old love interest (It is hinted at but never addressed outright. Perhaps in the sequel.). Kikuchi is heartwarming as the girl with a shy crush, but she is a lightning bolt of vengeance when we are allowed to glimpse inside her broken heart. These two animated leads are kept on a short leash by Elba’s no-nonsense father figure, who pops pills for a life-threatening illness and delivers pulse-pounding speeches about meeting the “monsters that are at our door” and “canceling the apocalypse.”
While our three leads do an incredible job, the supporting players are certainly something to behold. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day is a quirky and fun choice as the tattooed “Kaiju” scientist Newton, who rambles and shakes like a hipster lunatic in oversized specs. Surprisingly, he isn’t here simply to act as the comic relief, which really is a testament to his talent. Burn Gorman is great as Day’s uber-nerd partner Hermann, who pounds on a chalkboard and hobbles around like a comic book Albert Einstein with high-waisted pants and a cane. Clifton Collins Jr. is a treat as Tendo Choi, an Elvis-like greaser “Jaeger” whiz who is determined to spice up the role of the guy who simply sits behind the computer screen and acts as a guide to the heroes in the field. Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky are great tough guys as Hercules and Chuck Hansen, a tough-as-nails Australian father-son duo tasked with a beast of a mission. The pint-sized Mana Ashida is fantastic in her minor role as a young Mako Mori. She basically just cries and wanders around with a shoe in her hand, but she sent chills down my spine with her raw emotion. Last but certainly not least is the always-welcome Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau, a blinged-out black marketeer in sinister goggles who tracks down and deals “Kaiju” organs. He shares some wonderful moments with Charlie Day’s twitchy scientist.
Considering that Pacific Rim is a tribute to Atomic Age creature features, there are numerous nods to Godzilla and many other Toho releases. I certainly smiled when Hong Kong citizens were locked into an underground shelter and huddled together as “Kaiju” footsteps boomed overhead, something that called to mind the original Godzilla. There is also a sly little tribute to the flare tactic used to keep Godzilla away from a blacked out city in Godzilla Raids Again and there is a magnificent aerial moment that sung praises to Rodan and Mothra. If there is something I absolutely need to criticize, there are a few moments where the action was a bit incoherent, but these moments are few and far between. Overall, while Pacific Rim doesn’t ever get as political and poetic as those post-World War II efforts did, there is still something deeply personal about del Toro’s vision. It is coming from the heart and it is a beautifully written love letter to the monster movies that del Toro loved as a kid. This film is a labor of love, a carefully crafted summer epic that earns its action sequences and doesn’t ever forget to remain human.
Horrible Bosses (2011)
by Steve Habrat
Let’s be honest, the premise of Horrible Bosses, a revenge-fantasy comedy that places three Average Joes at the center of an intricate plot to off their bosses a la Alfred Hitchcock’s Stranger’s on a Train could strike a chord with many casual moviegoers. Why? Because who HASN’T had a boss that has made their lives a living hell! It’s an amusing “What if?” that provides some minor laughs in the dead heat of the summer and a surprisingly small picture going toe to toe with films like Transformers, Harry Potter, and Captain America. But the film has a charming underdog persona that many can’t quite ignore (It also happens to feature an all-star cast!) and leaves you hoping it will be remembered once it’s long gone from theaters. I say this because the film walks the fine line between classic dark comedy and comedy-no-one-will-remember-in-a-year territory. I consider it a blue-collar comedy that pours it’s blood, sweat, and tears into all the shenanigans to make you laugh but sometimes it comes up a bit short. It’s a shame it might get lost in shuffle.
Every summer has a sleeper hit that audiences pass on via word of mouth. It ends up making a boatload of money and it usually turns out to be a comedy. We’ve already had a 50/50 summer when it comes to comedy and, frankly, comedy has been very uninteresting for quite a while. We had Bridesmaids which was a surprise smash and was a breath of fresh air. Two weeks later, the guys of the Hangover crashed the party and left everyone with a bad taste in their mouths. We’ve also seen Bad Teacher, one that was heavily hyped but largely written off by many and Zookeeper, another dud chucked out by Happy Madison. Now we have the often witty, sometimes disappointing Horrible Bosses, in which three nice guys decide they’ve had enough of their tyrannical bosses and decide to off them for each other. By killing each other’s, they are spared a suspected motive by the police and they end getting off punishment free. It’s a bit of a tired premise and really isn’t that inspired of an idea, but it will resonate! Especially if you take the dry asides of Jason Bateman (Arrested Development), the screeching insanity of Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and smart-ass narcissism of Jason Sudeikis (SNL) and pair them up against the sadistic Kevin Spacey, man-eating Jennifer Aniston, and the under-used coke addict Colin Farrell.
The three amigos, Nick (Bateman), Dale (Day), and Kurt (Sudeikis) enlist the help of a professional killer in Mother Fucker Jones, played by the dead-pan Jamie Foxx. They slam their heads together and they embark on a bumbling journey to expel their demonoid bosses from planet earth. The usually sticky situations follow and they are mostly all amusing. They sneak around their intended victims homes, accidentally get high on cocaine, stupidly leave their DNA everywhere, and drool over a lingerie clad Aniston as she deep throats a popsicle, a banana, and a hot dog. It’s good to see a fresh line-up of comedians like we have here, but they seem a bit new to the scene, in all honesty. They try to ad-lib with the best of them but sometimes it’s a bit forced and amateur, especially from Day who relies on his bat-shit crazy persona he crafted for his character on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He rattles off some winners and delivers some stink bombs that are intended to shock the audience into belly laughs. The most laughs come from Bateman, who delivers some zingers (One about fleeing to Canada will have you in stitches), Foxx who demonstrates extraordinary comedic timing (His explanation of how he got the name Mother Fucker will have you covering your mouth), and the largely ignored Colin Farrell, who delivers countless one liners that will leave you quoting for weeks (Wait until you see his outtakes!). Sudeikis fails to grab many of the chuckles and he passes himself off as a second rate Nick Swardson, who is funnier anyway. The casting could have been a bit stronger without his character. Spacey is clearly having fun but his character descends too far into downright evil territory. I know we are supposed to hate him but c’mon!! Aniston has some eyebrow-raising moments, mostly when she shows up almost nude in one particular scene and fires off more racy innuendos than any character in a Judd Apatow picture. She surprisingly churns out one of her better performances since Office Space. Julie Bowen (Modern Family) also shows up as Spacey’s wife but she is basically ignored in all the chaos.
There isn’t much to say in the way of Horrible Bosses. It’s charming even if it’s consistently raunchy and it’s hard to dislike it. There are clever gags and the film does not overstay it’s welcome by any stretch. It was a nice breather from all the explosions and superheroes that have been zipping around theaters. But I think that filmmakers could have poured a bit more time into this film. It’s a bit rough around the edges and appears rushed at times. You are left feeling that all the events that took place in the film were minor and insignificant. You want to rally behind it but sometimes it’s impossible to do just that. When all is said and done, it never really feels like these horrible bosses have had it stuck to them. Further, it falls short of the sleeper status that I thought would surely follow in its wake. Overall, it grasps at comedy greatness but comes up with comedy goodness. Don’t worry though; it will still have you chuckling to yourself as you punch the clock the next morning.
Horrible Bosses is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.