Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Love & Squalor 22 Best of 2013

As was the case last year, it has taken a while to put together my list of the "Best" films of 2013. This time, though, the reasons were multiple. 2013 was a great year for cinema in innumerable ways, and the number of on-screen moments that seemed to register as iconic even before the credits rolled was extremely high. From the smallest of independents to the largest show stoppers, genre boundaries were pushed, characters left lasting impressions, true stories had style, and our eyes were routinely, repeatedly dazzled.  Where 2012 too often felt drab and uninspired, 2013 was a year of artistic risks, and even when they fell just short of their mark, they sprinted towards greatness.  This is the longest best of list I've made for a single year since starting this blog, and there are still so many things missing.  When you feel you could hit 30 and still have honorable mentions, it starts to seem like something was just in the water... 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Like: The Lego Movie

From the beginning it seemed that I would not share the general public's enthusiasm for The Lego Movie.  I suspected it would be better than I'd initially anticipated (that is, I knew it probably wouldn't be a long commercial), but the trailers that seemed to amuse everyone so greatly left me feeling a little annoyed and a exhausted. I'd thought it was something I could get away with not going to in its theatrical release, but the February movie drought mixed with the glowingly positive word of mouth and I wound up with my ass parked in a theater packed to the gills with screaming, wandering, kicking children. There were only a few groups present not accompanied by these sugar-fueled hordes and we were one of them. To add insult to injury, the theater's speaker system wasn't working properly and the sound was entirely front-loaded - too low, nothing coming from the back.  I mention these details in part because it's important that you understand that my ability to effectively enter the world of The Lego Movie was already hindered,  and so you should read my thoughts as stemming from a person who was forced to look at the final product as if from a distance. Watching the movie felt like an appraisal, like I was counting jokes, assessing technical elements, looking to see what generated a response from the crowd.  I can't decide if my opinion is more or less grounded because of it, but can say that I don't share in the effusive gushing of the film's "awesomeness."
Instead, these are the adjectives (some interchangeable) I'd give to The Lego Movie: smart, clever, aware, meta, current, spastic, clunky, forced, silly, familiar.  From the negative end of that spectrum, it seems important to note that The Lego Movie mashes together plots and lessons pulled from a long string of computer animated kids movies before it. It uses the otherwise inanimate playthings of Toy Story and builds (literally) a world constructed according to the sort of active personification of Cars.  From there, we find a politics of that world that's very similar to Wreck-It Ralph, and in exploring that politics the movie lands on the importance of creativity, of being yourself, of believing in your own abilities, etc (see: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, How to Train Your Dragon, Monsters University, Frozen, The Croods, and so on).  All of this is good, and to its credit, The Lego Movie is very smart about its approach to what could ring false about the message. There's something that feels genuine and, considering the necessity of shirking the inherent product placement, real attention is given to the importance of play outside of the box.  The strength of the film is that it feels - at all times- like the hodgepodge train of thought of a kid using the devices they have before them to construct a narrative.

The interesting thing about the world of Lego, of course, is that means that objects can be created on the spot and that franchise characters blend in random, surprising ways that are ultimately more effective than your run-of-the-mill throwaway pop cultural reference.  An example of this, as many have said: is that The Lego Movie is the best Batman movie since The Dark Knight, and the reason is because here we're able to use the idea of him outside of a comic book context: he's voiced by Will Arnett, he is Gob playing Batman.  The fact of this plays well with the fact of, for example, Chris Pratt's gee-whiz vocal work or the meta-nature of Morgan Freeman spewing the faux-grandiose wisdoms of, well, a Morgan Freeman character.  All the voice actors are in their element while commenting on what it's like to be in that element, and the film is doing the exact same thing with the plot of every special effects blowout in the last 15 years: "the special" rises, there is a box, everyone wants the box for its great powers, they must defeat a villain seeking to "seal" their doom.

So yes: it's a very clever cartoon. To its credit, too, its a show being run by writer/directors with a keen ear for comedy. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are the guys behind both Cloudy movies, the short-lived Clone High, and also 21 Jump Street. As such, they've basically proven that they're capable of spinning drivel into gold and that they are the masters of making films that are "better than they should be."  Lord and Miller take what little content they have and get to the heart of why kids of all ages love to play with Legos.  They let the world take hold, grant their characters a fair amount of freedom, and run with the possibilities in place.  I appreciate this quite a bit, but thinking about the film from a distance is something of a more romantic process than actually watching the final product.  While the interlocking bricks are used brilliantly in the film, they aren't super conducive to a polished aesthetic. There was, by the end, something kind of annoying about the whole look of the film, and the animation is a spastic, constant barrage of jerky movements, exploding bricks, and pointy edges.  Where similarly minded films like Wreck-It Ralph and Toy Story had the advantage of mixing character types and spaces, Lego is all Legoland all the time, and something about that becomes exhausting on the eyeballs when one is not actually engaged with the play process happening on screen (as in, say, any of the Lego video games).  The good things, then, are wrapped up in visuals that are too persistent and seem to mar a bit of the effect with an overdose of sugar-fueled "physical" comedy.  I couldn't quite get past it, but perhaps in a different setting, with fewer kids, with better speakers, this rating would be higher.

Though, you know, this Batman song is dead on:       
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