Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado

Release: Friday, June 29, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: Stefano Sollima

I need to file a complaint. Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado is an eyesore of a title. It is an awkward concession, the plasticine product of a marketing scheme designed to put the movie in “the best position to succeed.” Really though, it’s just poised to confuse. Elsewhere (outside of North America, that is) you’ll find the same film operating under various guises, such as Sicario 2, Soldado and Sicario without Emily Blunt.  

Good. Now that that resolved something, maybe now we can talk about the movie itself.

And what a vicious movie it is. Fortunately, at least with regards to quality, the content is not the title. Italian-born director Stefano Sollima confidently carries the torch passed to him in what appears to be a bonafide crime saga anthology in the making. While Soldado indeed navigates the same ethical and tactical morasses Villeneuve established in his instant classic from 2015, it’ll be remembered more for its even bloodier, soul-bruising action bent. And yet, in the spirit of its predecessor and despite the absence of an audience surrogate like Blunt’s Special Agent Kate Macer, Soldado effects the thrill of privileged access to things we should not be witnessing.

In 2018 the game has changed and so have the rules. The war against the ruthless Mexican drug cartels has taken an even more nefarious turn. Rather than the smuggling of illicit drugs, the focus has shifted to the prevention of human trafficking — specifically the transporting of bomb-making desperadoes across the line. An opening salvo details in gut-wrenching fashion precisely what CIA black ops agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the enigmatic hitman Alejandro Gillick (Benecio Del Toro) are up against this time. We experience first-hand in Kansas City the callousness with which the bad guys are able to dispatch with the innocent.

Graver, who specializes in getting his hands dirty, is called in by U.S. Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) for an assignment seemingly tailor-made just for him. Given such rampant violence, the American government has reclassified these gangs officially as terrorist organizations. Their objective now is to exacerbate tensions between the factions to the point where they simply wipe each other out. Victory by way of escalation, not extradition.

To get things rolling, Graver enlists his friend to carry out a ballsy false-flag operation involving the kidnapping of Isabel Reyes (a crushingly good Isabela Moner), daughter of the sadistic kingpin Carlos Reyes. The mission gets a bit more complicated/spoiler-rich but suffice it to say it doesn’t all go off without a hitch. Double-crosses and unexpected escapes crop up along the way, and it isn’t long before Graver and Gillick themselves question just what it is they are trying to accomplish. (And, as an aside, this is the coldest and most ruthless I have ever seen Catherine Keener. Consider me now a big fan.)

Crucially, Taylor Sheridan returns for this loosely-connected sequel. Once again his screenplay masterfully simplifies a lot of technical jargon without diluting the essence of the conversation. The gifted screenwriter is of course blessed with acting talent to match. Bad-boy Brolin feels at home in his über-niched role as a sandals-wearing DoD enforcer, while the aforementioned Keener and Modine lend incredible weight with their government agents standing at a safe distance. Del Toro may never have been quite this interesting (or this blood-caked). Meanwhile, the child actors — yes, absolutely Moner, but also introducing Elijah Rodriguez as the wayward Miguel — commit to their emotional load-bearing roles as consummate professionals.

Sheridan’s world-building also impresses. What else is new? He presents the labyrinthian network of black market dealers and uneasy relationships among different levels and loyalties of law enforcement as an ever-shifting landscape of personal vendetta and evolving objectivity. A lot of traveling is required and to exotic locations such as Djibouti and the Gulf of Somalia, and we hop back and forth across the border enough times to get dizzy. The director has to temporarily suspend reality in a few places to accommodate character arcs, but even with a few cut corners the main flow of the narrative rarely, if ever, exceeds our grasp — even while we shield our eyes from the more gory details.

Soldado isn’t as sophisticated a drama as what came before. This movie is more of a blunt instrument than a think piece, and it has no interest in being anyone’s friend. In almost any other production it would take some effort to justify this level of bloodshed. No, Soldado doesn’t exactly champion humanity, but it is a reflection of it. And yes, it should upset you. It should make you cringe, if not for Alejandro and friends then for the next generation caught in the crossfire.

Recommendation: Savage confrontations and a dearth of feel-good moments characterize this action thriller of above-average intelligence (poor titles notwithstanding). Soldado should satisfy fans of the original with its continuation of the same blood-soaked moral quandary established three years prior, even if a lot of nuance is lost in the transition. And the way this second chapter leaves you — left me, anyway — is nothing short of morbidly fascinating. I can’t wait for a third installment. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “You’re gonna help us start a war.”

“With who?”

“Everyone.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Little Prince

'The Little Prince' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 5, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Irena Brignull; Bob Persichetti

Directed by: Mark Osborne

The Little Prince is a gem. It’s a crime it never received a theatrical release. It’s a heartwarming journey rivaling anything Pixar has created on an emotional and intellectual level, and perhaps it’s the complex, multi-layered animation that truly sets the film apart, interweaving crude stop-motion with crisp, computer-generated imagery to produce an aesthetic you’ll struggle to find elsewhere.

Kung Fu Panda director Mark Osborne’s enchanting tale is a reimagining of the 1943 French novella of the same name, penned by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a successful commercial pilot (and novelist, poet, aristocrat and journalist) prior to World War II. The man once traveled to American shores in an attempt to convince the government to bring the fight to Nazi Germany following his disenfranchisement from the French Air Force in the early 1940s. He spent a little over two years in the States writing what would later become three of his most popular works. He later would re-join the Force only to disappear mysteriously soon thereafter à la Amelia Earhart.

Saint-Exupéry’s experiences as an aviator factor into this modern interpretation of The Little Prince in curious ways. (It should be noted, however, that his original story was published before he enlisted.) Fantastical elements are of course front-and-center and the story is entrenched in the stresses of modern living, but under the surface lie untold mysteries and tales of bravery, heroism and self-discovery. Strong emotional hooks are drawn from an impressive, inspired voice cast and Osborne’s touch, though ultimately nothing unique, is just confident enough to steer the story in a direction that, come the end, very well may have you in tears. The good kind, of course.

We’re introduced to The Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy, who thus far has Interstellar, The Conjuring and Ernest & Celestine on her résumé, and at the time of writing she’s yet to turn 16) who lives in a very grown-up world driven by rules, schedules and obedience. Her Mother (Rachel McAdams) wants her to attend the prestigious Academy so she can grow up and become an essential, contributing member of society. The initial interview does not go well as the panel, led by Paul Giamatti‘s intimidating and overly harsh instructor, springs an unexpected question upon her that causes her to panic. Mother has a Plan B: make her daughter cram so much studying into each and every day of her summer vacation she’ll be sure not to have any distractions (i.e. friends).

Mother draws up an impossibly elaborate Life Plan and constructs it so that each minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year is accounted for. Soon enough, The Little Girl rebels. She befriends their eccentric, hoarding and elderly neighbor, The Aviator (Jeff Bridges), who is introduced as the scourge of this SimCity-esque neighborhood — one comprised of identical blocky houses and roads filled with cars driving identical speeds and in organized right-angled patterns. Mother looks at the situation like so: “Just think about [his] house being the reason [ours] is available. This is the place where you’ll learn to grow up and become Essential.” (I paraphrase.)

The Aviator is a wonderful creation, and Bridges brings the character to life in ways that are difficult to fathom. Practically speaking, his performance is little more than a voice laid over/synced up with a cartoon character. It’s not the genuine article, and yet, he is mesmeric as he regales The Little Girl about his past experiences with an enigma he calls The Little Prince, whom he met after crashing his plane in the Sahara Desert many years ago. The Little Prince (voiced by the director’s son Riley) shows him a world where everything is possible, a reality that The Aviator has been trying for years to communicate to anyone willing to listen. Finally he has found someone who will, even if her intelligence means she’s skeptical about certain details.

The Little Prince is a space-traveling young lad who once lived on a tiny planetoid, a celestial object so small you could traverse on foot in a matter of minutes and whose existence is constantly being threatened by hungry tree roots eager to take over the entire planet. He left this world and a Rose he fell in love with (voiced by Marion Cotillard for some reason) in search of greater truths amongst the cosmos. In the present day, The Little Girl decides it is her responsibility to track down The Little Prince and prove to The Aviator that he still does exist, and that even though he has grown into a jaded, passive adult, he never abandoned the child within.

The Little Prince astounds on a visual level. It is an exercise in contrasts, the real world from which The Little Girl temporarily escapes suffocating with its seriousness and sterility, while the universe expands into this wondrous, strange space in which individual worlds are populated by simplistic, insulated communities comprised of childless, passionless adult drones. Scale is quirkily reduced to something almost tangible. We’re not talking interstellar travel here, more like a weekend road trip amongst the stars. You’ll find the stop-motion animation reserved for backstories concerning The Aviator’s relationship with The Little Prince while the rest operates in a pristine, colorful world that gives Disney a run for its money.

Much like a Roald Dahl creation, The Little Prince refuses to condescend to its pint-sized viewers. It strikes a delicate balance between entertaining youngsters while providing the more jaded a few different ways to look at the lives they’ve shaped for themselves. Occasionally the chronicle trips into the realm of the pretentious with a few overly-poetic spits of dialogue that attempt to spice up an already fairly advanced narrative. It doesn’t have to try so hard. The exploration of just what it was that caused the kid in us to go away is profound enough on its own.

The Little Prince

Recommendation: The Little Prince offers adventurous viewers something a little different. Generally speaking the story arc isn’t something you’ll be experiencing for the first time, but it’s the incredible nuance and the textures and the layers to the animation that make it one of the most original works this former animated-film-skeptic has seen all year. Stellar performances abound. There’s even a cute fox voiced by James Franco, a Benicio del Toro-sounding snake and Albert Brooks is along for the ride so the cast is reason enough to check it out. Also, stop-motion. Have I mentioned how awesome the technique is? Yeah, it’s pretty awesome. Available on Netflix.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “It is only with heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Good Dinosaur

The Good Dinosaur movie poster

Release: Wednesday, November 25, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Meg LeFauve

Directed by: Peter Sohn

Life’s pretty good if you’re a Pixar film. Contrary to the fact the ambitious animation studio is consistently held to a higher standard than the likes of DreamWorks, Blue Sky, Fox and Warner Bros. (to name a few), such an impressive track record has earned it the luxury of being able to crank out the occasional less-ambitious production without fearing a major media storm in which words like “disaster,” “major setback” or “uninspired” could comprise the headlines of the day.

Since introducing Woody and friends in the mid-90s the studio has essentially controlled its own destiny. So why shouldn’t it be allowed to conjure something that, narratively speaking, doesn’t aspire to classic status? I haven’t seen everything the studio has put out, not even close, but I feel comfortable suggesting that Cars 2 looks forward to greater replay value than, say, Hotel Transylvania 2. After all, the one constant that can be found in these films is the visual grandeur. In fact Hayao Miyazaki’s team of impossibly talented artists over at Studio Ghibli seem to be the only ones interested in giving Pixar a legitimate run for its money.

I don’t mean to suggest Pixar should ever become complacent though. With its latest adventure, The Good Dinosaur, a charming tale focusing on a family of green apatosauruses, there is an undeniable emphasis on graphics rendering over narrative construction. It tells of Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), an unconfident and wobbly-kneed youngster trying to make his way back home after falling in a river in his attempts to fend off an intruder in the form of feral child Spot (aw, how cute! — no, wait; he’s going to eat these dinosaurs out of house and home . . . not cute).

The Good Dinosaur theorizes something pretty radical: what if the meteor that wiped out these prehistoric beasts never actually hit Earth? In this scenario, millions of years on, dinosaurs not only still exist but dominate the landscape, and have developed to the point of being able to articulate their thoughts and verbally communicate with one another. Arlo’s family happen to be efficient farmers. They place high value on working hard and loving one another, with Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand) encouraging their three offspring to make their mark — a literal mud-print on the side of their stone silo — by doing something for the family and not just themselves.

Inevitably Arlo and Spot become reluctant traveling companions as Arlo starts to realize his enemy might actually be of help in getting back home. In practical terms, he recalls the advice of his father: as long as he follows the river he’ll find his way, but in this harsh, unpredictable and ultimately impossibly beautiful environment Arlo could use the company. He often benefits from Spot’s defensive nature and knack for finding sustenance. In a brilliantly crafted scene that sees the pair mourning — with almost no dialogue — their respective home lives, Arlo learns the little boy is also desperate for companionship.

The Good Dinosaur boils down to a generally well-intentioned though considerably flawed protagonist having to confront his deepest fears and ultimately overcome them. As the film expands, the meteor strike that never was turns out to be a footnote rather than a headline. It’s nothing if not a convoluted way to justify talking dinos and the role reversal between humans and prehistoric reptiles.

We get the requisite subplot that obliges Arlo to put others’ needs in front of his own (just as Poppa had encouraged him to do). A trio of Tyrannosaurus Rex, led by Sam Elliot’s intrepid Butch, ends up rescuing the pair from some insane pterodactyls. Arlo pays it forward by helping them recover a herd of long-horned bison they had lost track of. In the process, he gets one step closer to being back in familiar territory.

As an audience we never truly leave familiar territory behind. We’ve seen this story replayed dozens of times before, and within the Pixar universe. Thankfully, the photorealistic backdrop goes a long way in compensating. As per usual, the world is fully realized and completely immersive. Throughout our journey we come across creatures both friend and foe, bare witness to spectacular sunrises that crest the jagged peaks of Teton-esque mountain ranges, and weather severe storms that manifest as some of the film’s most unforgiving antagonists.

In keeping with tradition, almost everything you see on screen is a character unto itself, with some becoming far more memorable than others. Arlo comes in a close second behind the curious little Spot, who is very difficult not to fall in love with come the tear-jerking conclusion. I’m willing to forgive the film it’s few shortcomings because, and I reiterate, this isn’t proof of Pixar forgetting how to tell sophisticated stories. This is proof the studio knows there are different ways to express sophistication.

umm. . .yeah, supposedly this is an animated film

Recommendation: This isn’t a film that satisfies both halves of its audience in equal measure. Adults aren’t going to share in their children’s giddiness in the same way they did with Pixar’s earlier 2015 offering but there’s more than enough here for those with more matured palettes to feel comfortable kicking back and basking in the technical achievements made possible by the advent of superior graphics rendering software. And while the story isn’t the most ambitious, The Good Dinosaur is still a beautiful film in more ways than one.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 93 mins.

Quoted: “The storm provides!” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Beasts of No Nation

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Beasts of No Nation represents another first for the mecca of online streaming media that is Netflix, becoming its first original feature-film debut, and a potent one at that.

Despite voluntarily sacrificing potential business, major theater chains such as AMC, Regal and Carmike are throwing a hissy fit and refusing to screen the picture, deeming its online availability a violation of their exclusive 90-day release period. Too bad for them. While the convenience Beasts presents to anyone with a Netflix subscription suggests it will be readily consumed by the masses, its thoroughly brutal subject matter is likely to put it at odds with a great many subscribers. This is a film of almost impenetrable darkness, fabricated out of the stuff of real-life nightmares reminiscent of the Darfurian and Liberian conflicts. Needless to say it takes some courage to watch, at least without pausing.

Cary Joji Fukunaga’s harrowing probe into a war-torn, nameless West African nation finds a young boy named Agu (Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah in a brilliant and heartbreaking debut role) falling into the clutches of a rebel army led by Idris Elba’s sadistic Commandant after Agu flees into the dense forest away from violence recently visited upon his town, violence that has just claimed the lives of his older brother and father. His mother and younger sister manage to make it onto a cramped bus bound for the nation’s capital. Beasts is so consistently bleak that although we never see the pair again, we may as well assume they don’t make it there alive, either. I suppose it would help to be more positive and just assume the opposite, but who really knows.

Fukunaga’s uncompromising vision finds much success in a lack of structure, in unbridled chaos; this is a film centered around child soldiers committing war crimes that grown men would be desperate to forget for the rest of their lives. In fact, that’s one of the subtler tragedies evoked by the quite incidental fate Agu meets when he’s plucked out of the lush canopy by an intimidating man surrounded by kids of varying ages and threatening countenances. Watch how quickly the boy is stripped of his innocence. One particularly gruesome scene suggests Agu loses it in one fell swoop, yet this ‘initiation’ merely marks the beginning of the fall.

Beasts is somewhat aimless in its traipsing through endless overgrowth and through towns just like the one Agu and Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye), a mute boy with whom he bonds, have been ripped away from, yet there’s a method to Fukunaga’s madness. And that is indeed it — madness. The Commandant takes great pleasure in his propagandistic leadership, while the film zeroes in on the specific relationship he has with his newest recruit. We learn through Agu’s eyes how everyone else has been similarly brainwashed, convinced that it is the war that has done this to them and their families. The leader (who apparently always looks “all right”) has merely saved their lives and now they must avenge what has been lost. (Of course, he’s not a true malefactor without having ulterior motives, like earning a long-sought promotion, which, in effect, demonstrates the degree to which the guy actually cares about his troops.)

Beasts, which was not only written and directed by Fukunaga but produced and framed as well, manifests more as an unfeeling, journalistic observation than a damning political statement. There’s a part where the group is patrolling an open road and gets passed by a vehicle carrying what are obvious outsiders, armed with cameras and looks of horror as Agu and Strika flank Commandant while mimicking his thuggish comportment. However intentional the parallel is remains unclear, but our status as third-party to these atrocities puts us in that vehicle from which we look on, helpless to do anything. The neutrality works insofar as it allows the violence to unfold frankly and from all angles, much of it being dispensed by our tortured protagonist.

But that same neutrality clashes with the internal monologue Fukunaga inserts at sporadic intervals; Agu expressing on more than one occasion how he doesn’t remember time passing, that he fears God is no longer paying attention to him. His thoughts come infrequently to the point where they interrupt rather than compliment the perspective driven by camera angles and a focus on the dynamic between the follower and the leader. Regarding the latter, it helps that Elba is absolutely outstanding in this vile supporting role, but it’s a shame he all but disappears from the frame somewhat surprisingly. Fukunaga leaves just a little too much interpretation up to us by failing to bang his gavel and sentencing the bad guys to whatever fate they deserve.

Would a less ambiguous conclusion have made Beasts an easier watch? Of course not. And it wouldn’t have made the film any easier to forget. But it might have helped crystallize just what we’ve gained by trudging through two hours of hell. All the same, this is a project that displays great confidence in delivering gut punches by focusing on an oft-overlooked aspect of war, and a part of the world that doesn’t receive the attention it ought to. Filmed on location in Ghana, this is a beast of a film.

Recommendation: Not exactly an easy watch, Beasts of No Nation represents a grim reality that mainstream films have for too long ignored. Granted I don’t think the concept of child soldiers perpetrating war crimes makes for an easy pitch, so good for Fukunaga for committing to it and for involving a quality actor in the British thespian. Amazing performances all around, in fact. If you’re strong-willed, you shouldn’t let this one pass you by. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “Bullet is just eating everything, leaves, trees, ground, person. Eating them. Just making person to bleed everywhere. We are just like wild animals now, with no place to be going. Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody’s ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Inside Out

Release: Friday, June 19, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Pete Docter; Meg LeFauve; Josh Cooley

Directed by: Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen

Spoiler alert: Inside Out is an emotional rollercoaster.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, here’s another kicker: it’s being extremely well-received. But you probably already know that. Pixar’s latest can’t escape comparisons to the studio’s paragons of the late ’90s and early 2000s, and why should it even try? The likes of Toy Story and Up may have the nostalgia factor working for them but it’s hard to recall a(n animated) film that embraces such an abstract concept like trying to personify emotions while ostensibly marketing it to a young audience — an audience, mind you, who unfortunately may not fully appreciate the value thereof. Inside Out could very well be that rare experience where the attendant adult viewer gets more out of the film than their children.

Riley (voice of Kaitlyn Dias) is 11 years old and her father has just taken a new job, relocating the family from the comforts of their Minnesota home, where she learned to play hockey, to the unfamiliar urban sprawl of San Francisco. The transitional period is ripe for displaying the emotional development of a child trying to come to terms with what’s happening to and around them.

For as long as Riley can remember, Joy (Amy Poehler) has defined who she is. But there are other feelings now coming into play: there’s Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (a perfectly cast Lewis Black). Inside Out jumps into the recesses of Riley’s mind to create an endearing, if not simplified, model for how emotions dictate our responses to certain situations. In crucial moments, it refocuses attention on Riley’s exterior as the emotions manifest themselves in her facial expressions.

Having been a part of Riley from a very early age, Joy likes to run things in ‘Headquarters.’ It’s never a good thing when Sadness happens to touch a memory, each of which are wrapped up in color-coded, spherical orbs that roll down a track and are stored on a kind of library shelf. The other emotions wittily banter amongst themselves, determined to find their roles. At headquarters they have at their disposal Riley’s core memories (look, but don’t touch!), and they oversee a landscape that includes five different personality ‘islands’ as well as Imagination Land, Abstract Thought and a revolving door of indefinable (at least to those without a degree in psychology) characters and features responsible for shaping Riley’s mental state. Perhaps the easiest one to embrace is the Train of Thought.

Inside Out balances out ambition with a focused, decidedly simplistic conflict. Once again Pete Docter proves that with profoundly touching, universal themes comes Pixar’s responsibility to present them with narrative clarity and an obligation to avoid convolution. Or boring the viewer with cliches and lazy execution. The internal struggle (literally and figuratively speaking) occurs when Joy and Sadness are ejected from Headquarters after Sadness touches one of Riley’s core memories, tinting it blue accordingly. In an effort to prevent further damage at the hands of Fear, Anger and Disgust who remain at the control center, the unlikely pair must journey across this whacky landscape and restore balance. In the process, Joy realizes that she’s not the only emotion with a crucial role to play in the shaping of Riley’s future; every emotion is necessary. Even Sadness.

Laden with gorgeous animation and sparky personality — Black may be the best suited to his character given his generally blustery personality — Inside Out manages to strike rare emotional depths with its portrayal of a young child torn between feeling hopeless and hopeful. San Francisco, particularly her first day at her new school, throws her a curveball she’s not ready to swing at. And yet, thanks to the film’s unique perspective, we see she’s ultimately equipped with the tools to overcome. This is the stuff that perhaps those who have already endured the turbulence of childhood will identify with easier. But let’s get one thing straight: moving, at any phase in one’s life, is a challenge. And before you believe the film has covered all the bases, it hints at the next major stepping stone: adolescence.

Of course, younger viewers come to see animated films for more than the bright, shiny colors and goofy characters. They come to entertain their imagination, to laugh and feel all kinds of feely things, physical manifestations they can’t exactly explain for themselves. Kids understand well enough that Andy moving on from Buzz and Woody and all of his toys doesn’t create the best feeling in the world; they feel melancholic and maybe even pure sadness.

Inside Out boldly tackles that very phenomenon, breaking new ground by defining and giving character to core emotions that will eventually (and hopefully) transform generally happy children into well-adjusted adults. The ambition is probably too much for a lot of younger viewers to grasp, and I don’t mean to imply that they aren’t smart enough to get it. It’s just too natural to think that the average 11 year old won’t appreciate that Inside Out is an uncommonly perceptive production. They won’t realize how lucky they are to have a film like this at their disposal, at least not until they’ve grown up a bit more.

Recommendation: An emotional masterpiece, Inside Out gives some of the studio’s finest a run for their money in terms of conceptual complexity and character depth. Give this one a few years and making comparisons among Pixar’s classics will become an even more interesting conversation. Take your kids to see it of course, but be prepared for a quality and moving experience yourself. This is a film loaded with surprises. One of my favorites of the year. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “All right, make a show of force. I don’t want to have to put the foot down . . .” / “No, not the foot!” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.gokaiju.tumblr.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Maggie

Release: Friday, May 8, 2015

[iTunes]

Written by: John Scott III

Directed by: Henry Hobson

In defense of a very deliberately paced, melancholic film misleadingly billed as a thriller, Maggie serves as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s finest hour (and a half).

Of course, describing Arnie’s role here as the best thing he’s ever done may seem a relative compliment. There has been no shortage of instances in the past where he has invited parodical criticism without trying. Admittedly memorable, if not slightly comic phrases — most lasting no more than five words or so — have come to define the hulking Austrian and his career as an actor.

It’s just as understandable that many would automatically dismiss as fruitless any attempt he might make to go another direction; to not use his accent as a term of endearment or his muscular bulk, now slipping a bit in his older age, as a force to be reckoned with. When it comes to Henry Hobson’s directorial debut all that remains of the familiar Arnie is his larger-than-life physicality, but even that is somewhat tempered by Claire Breaux‘s suitably understated wardrobe selection.

Rather than obliging himself as some sort of perceived menace or spectacle he’s simply Wade Vogel, a father who must sit and watch as his only daughter succumbs to a deadly virus that converts the living into flesh-craving zombies. Broad shoulders slump; a tough face wrought with wrinkles brought on by wariness. A spirit broken by the knowledge that the ugliness of this apocalyptic event has hit home since Maggie was somewhere she should not have been.

Triumphing over the ubiquitousness of a zombie apocalypse is the love Wade has for his daughter (Abigail Breslin). The relationship is front-and-center, making the film steadily more challenging to endure. Maggie takes its time in tracking the virus as it takes hold of her, though the slow burn isn’t done any favors by the ‘thriller’ classification. There are as many thrills in Maggie as there are desperate pleas from Arnie for his family to get to a chopper. Still, where there isn’t much in the way of action and excitement there also isn’t really a place for it in this deeply personal examination of a family in crisis.

It almost goes without saying that Arnie’s young co-star delivers a heartrending performance as well. This isn’t quite as memorable a lead as her beauty pageant hopeful in Little Miss Sunshine, yet Maggie is a role she can be truly proud of. Breslin embraces a thoroughly challenging character arc, effecting a personality that’s easy to empathize with. Of course, she is a teenaged girl and this is the apocalypse, so who knows what she’d be like under different circumstances. That’s beside the point, though. Together, Breslin and Schwarzenegger make for a fantastic duo that instantly gives this story heft.

There is something to be said for Maggie‘s relentlessly bleak outlook. This isn’t a happy movie. A conclusion seen a mile away, there isn’t a great deal anyone (least of all Wade) can do except hope to be as prepared as possible when the illness takes over completely. A hauntingly beautiful score permeates deep, draped over many a scene like a dense fog, arguably contributing further to the sense of futility in fighting the inevitable.

Though the scene is a zombie outbreak, the allegory isn’t exactly hiding. Maggie’s torturous transition from human into something less than so — more accurately, Wade’s refusal to turn her over to the authorities, preferring to care for her as long as he can — undoubtedly reflects the strength of families afflicted by cancer and similarly devastating diseases. In that context especially, Schwarzenegger doesn’t seem to be the go-to guy. But he’s brilliant. He carries the burden of this tragedy so well it’s difficult to believe this was at one point (and soon to be again, apparently) the Terminator.

Recommendation: An emotionally devastating piece that doubles as a fascinating spin on the ever-popular zombie genre, Maggie isn’t for the casual watcher. This one takes a little determination, but the reward is watching Arnie transition from a physical to a true actor, and witnessing the chemistry he and the young and talented Abigail Breslin have together. That’s how I’d recommend the film: for great characters. I’d also recommend a couple tissues, they might come in handy. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 95 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Boyhood

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Release: Friday, July 18, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

I know my refusal to get up out of my seat even after almost three consecutive hours of sitting — in considerably cramped quarters, I might add — is pretty weak testament to the fact that Boyhood just may be one of the coolest films this reviewer has had the privilege of watching. Saying I didn’t move after the film ended is not a very flashy statement and it probably won’t help sell a lot of tickets, I’ll admit. Instead it’s one that might even lead readers to think I just got stuck in the chair or something. Maybe I had even fallen asleep. I have seen that before, actually; people just lying there comatose while the credits rolled — sigh. What are they paying for?

If I had fallen asleep here, I would have just paid to sleep through a rare kind of cinematic event. Foolishly, I would have muted a voice I, as something of a nit-picky consumer of media, have been needing to hear for awhile. A voice that’s already too hard to hear when the Michael Bays and Brett Ratners and M. Night Shamalyans of the world won’t hush. Indeed I would have, in effect, slept through another chance to grow up once more, to do it all over again.

Wait, I didn’t mean I slept through my childhood the first time, just that I would have been. . . . . oh, never mind. You know what I mean. And you know what else, even if that opening line isn’t all that attention-grabbing, hey at least I’m being honest! I remain unable to leave this film behind, physically or psychologically. Yes, I might still be in denial. Yes, I’m still in the theater a week later. Yes, okay, that’s a lie.

But here’s something I can’t lie about: Richard Linklater’s much-anticipated project no longer exists in mythology. It’s now out there, ready for public consumption, even if its distribution will only allow the public to ingest it in nibbles.

Should I be surprised, though? Maybe it is fate that Transformers: Age of Exstinky debuted to some 3,000 theaters all crammed to the brim like cans of sardines while this astounding feat of cinematic beauty has slowly earned the right to open in front of less than 1,000 indie crowds over the past month and a half. Seems to me the public always picks its battles quickly, and in this example it’s one between films with short skirts versus those with long-winded explanations. And it’s so totally a one-sided affair, too. An overwhelming number of times the former emerges victorious. Visual stimulation is easier to accomplish — not necessarily cheaper to produce — than ones of a conceptual or emotive nature. After all, even despite dismal reviews that caucophany was the fourth installment in a series that has seriously lost its way but is still earning money. Lots of it.

Boyhood is a rare film for many reasons, but chief among those has to be how faithfully it adheres to the typical viewer’s own experiences. (Unless, of course, you’re an alien.) Never before has the line between fiction and reality been so flirtatious, so challenging to define. Character names and relationships are afforded the protection of fictionalization, and thank goodness too because that’s one of perhaps two things distinguishing proceedings from home-video footage (the second element being a distinctly more expensive piece of equipment used in filming). Production values exist on a level liable to boggle the mind if one is not careful. And hopefully, if one is not passed out in their seats.

We first meet Mason as his diminutive frame sprawls out upon a patch of brilliant green grass — eyes wide and full, ingesting every ounce of the sky above. Already he is engaged in a process we, the mere spectators, have been practicing for some time: being aware of his surroundings. (Later, finding a way to blend in.) While it’s a bit disconcerting never being able to pinpoint the precise moment we become aware of our own presence, there certainly becomes a point where its clear cynical men have abandoned the nescience of true boyhood. Such abstraction may not occur to every viewer, but it’s one of the more breathtaking developments over the course of these fleeting minutes.

In that iconic opening shot, Mason’s already sponge-like, absorbing and observing things about his environment, about the kinds of things kids his age do. He’s learning his family is also not the most traditional one, but he won’t understand why for another little while. Neither will we.These are the kinds of things real people grow up having to cope with, rather than worrying about when the token girl will pop up “on screen” and “become central to the plot via some contrivance.” That sugarcoating just won’t ring true here. And yet, Mason’s going to be a hero all the same for walking through this. Although enigmatic from the get-go his charm is not instantly earned. Particularly in the early years, Mason doesn’t feel as though he’s made of the stuff of even the most transparent of cinematic creations.

There’s something more organic about Coltrane’s presence. Whether this comes down to a particularly subtle acting style on his behalf or a sensationally perceptive script could be debated until the cows come home. Or at least, you know. . . until the absentee father does. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, two somewhat illustrious names in the industry, help ensure some of the film’s emotional gravity is not lost on slightly inexperienced actors. But this casting is about as extravagant as Boyhood becomes and it is not to suggest Coltrane doesn’t have to sweat the big stuff. Oh, how he does. But rather than sweating, Coltrane remains graceful, poised. He simply becomes what is asked of him.

Meanwhile, more identifiable ‘performances’ can be found with Hawke, as he embraces the opportunity to portray Mason Sr., the biological father whom Mason and Samantha only see on the odd occasion. A very fun Ethan Hawke provides charisma and energy where these kids really require strong parental support (every hard-working mother in the room should be able to empathize to great depths with Arquette’s brilliant performance); gifts where they need valuable lessons.

Ah, but he comes prepared with a few of those, too.

Mason Sr. is a great guy, but perhaps not so much a competent father figure. All of his wisdom is imparted on-the-go. A scene in which he’s delivering the birds-and-the-bees speech takes place in a public setting and he’s even considerate enough to include both kids in the discussion. That kind of awkwardness only manifests itself in reality. There’s no way this scene is actually scripted. . .is there? Could it be? That’s just one example, albeit a particularly strong one. If I were to name some others we could be here all night and day.

As per the lyrics: “let me go. I don’t want to be your hero. I don’t want to be a big man. I just want to fight with everyone else.” Indeed. Ever the idealist, I didn’t want to get out of my seat because I wanted those pangs of nostalgia to never subside. Best part of all, my refusal to move is merely unique to one particularly reactive moviegoer. Linklater easily could have groped for sentimentality but where he avoids forcing saccharinity, he’s unable to escape effecting profundity.

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5-0Recommendation: Boyhood is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Immense in both scope and ambition, Richard Linklater’s project is also intensely personal. His name ought to be crowned among the greatest directors of all time. With a single movie — although it would be a bit dismissive to label this just another title to add to the stack — I feel he has earned that right. A labor of love it may be, but this is also one of the most important and significant films ever released. I urge you with something akin to desperation, to treat yourself to this marvel.

Rated: R

Running Time: 165 mins.

Quoted: “Why are you crying?”

“Because I don’t have all the answers.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Big Daddy (1999)

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May is moving on with or without me, and now that I’ve committed to doing Adam Sandler movies this month, I kind of can’t wait for it to be over so I don’t have to be responsible for these posts anymore. I already know several people who question me. I want to make it up to them. I can maybe make them some real shortbread pie or something, and maybe send it to them? Eric, how expensive was shipping and handling on your Shitfest trophies??? Anyway, yes, indeed the month and the theme continues onward, to my third favorite of his old little shitty-ography.  

Today’s food for thought: Big Daddy

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Release: June 25, 1999

[DVD]

Big Daddy marks the third of a triumvirate of decent Sandler comedies from the mid-to-late ’90s that, while earning a certain reputation through the collective opinion of mainstream critics, managed to garner a significant fanbase for Sandler. This film is the last one he would do before starting up his own production company, Happy Madison Productions. Yes, that ever-reliable entity we can all thank for churning out garbage on a very frequent basis starring Adam Sandler and friends hogging a camera in a backyard for 90 minutes at a time.

This film is — surprise, surprise — not a far cry from its scatological cousins, Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison (not to mention a smattering of other, lesser offensive outings later on down the pike) who enjoyed making fun of the elderly, the homeless, the funny-looking. . .and women. The whole goal of being in an Adam Sandler movie was that you can act like a dick and get paid. This is my underlying theory of how they are able to keep cranking out true stinkers one after another in today’s market, anyway. It makes a lot of sense. Movies can be made quickly and cheaply when there is a 10-page script, most of the pages of which contain 80% choice language and made-up words.

The Big Daddy iteration of Sandler’s shtick concerns a 32-year-old unmotivated tollbooth operator finding himself in a limbo between growing up and facing being alone because of his stubborn ways. All around him his friends are getting ahead in life by proposing to long-time girlfriends and getting relocated to China for positions in law firms. Sonny himself has a law degree but hasn’t found the will to study and pass the bar exam and get his act fully together. However, an opportunity to do so presents itself when young Julian (played by twins Dylan and Cole Sprouse) appears on his trodden doorstep.

While Sonny’s initially reluctant to take on any more responsibility than the current crap-ton that he has, he finds himself becoming close with Julian and even enjoys acting like a role model for the kid, even if at times he’s a questionable one. Unfortunately it is later discovered by a Social Services worker that Julian was meant to be in the care of his biological father, Sonny’s roommate and friend and that Sonny’s extensive caretaking has been a complete circumvention of the law. He faces kidnapping and fraud charges.

I’m sure there are a few life lessons to be found somewhere in this comedy, let’s see what we can find, shall we:

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    You should learn to smile more, for you have Jon Stewart for a father. Granted, there was that little issue of him jetting off to China for years to become a successful lawyer while never knowing you existed, but these things happen. You must learn that not even Jon Stewart is perfect.

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    Life is all about experience. I’ll just leave it at that.

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    “The Birds and the Bees” discussion can never be held too early. Of course, this conversation can go into greater detail if put off until later. Then again, if you put this off til too much later, . . ah crap. That’s a real catch-22.

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    Life requires you be patient. Not everything will fall completely into place at first. But you might find things coming together a bit quicker if you upgrade your vocabulary beyond that of a fifth grader. Don’t worry, though. No one in the real world actually judges you if you can’t spell ‘hippopotamus.’

  5. bigdaddy27

    Birthday parties are life’s little way of showing you a progress bar on the side of your Life Screen. Where you hold your parties, who hosts them for you and who attends them says a lot about who, what and where you are in your own life. Go on, enjoy it. Even if it’s at a strip joint. Or excuse me, a Hooters.

3-0Recommendation: Big Daddy is  . . .well, it’s Big Daddy. It’s neither the finest of Sandler’s offerings (a relative term for many people, this I do understand) but it’s far removed from the worst of his current drivel. Sandwiched comfortably among Sandler’s more memorable outings, this story benefits greatly from strong chemistry between it’s foul-mouthed lead and a pair of charming little twins who this reviewer still cannot tell apart. It falls into the same grooves as all Sandler’s creations do but manages to remain an enjoyable and surprisingly heartwarming raunch-fest that naturally belongs in the discussion of the man’s better contributions to the comedy of the 90s.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 89 mins.

Quoted: “Fish! Pony! Hip, hip hop, hip hop anonymous? Damn you! You gave him the easy ones.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: google images

The Lego Movie

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Release: Friday, February 7, 2014

[Theater]

The 7-year-old in me nearly wet his bedsheets in anticipation of the first ever full-length feature film involving his favorite toys from childhood. The essential. . . . . . . . . .e-hem. . .building blocks of my youth have come to life on the big screen in 2014 in ways I never could have imagined.

In light of this special occasion, let’s make things a little more fun in this review. I am going to style this piece in an interview format, with my 7-year-old self asking my future self what a film would be like if it were ever made, and me in the present now being able to answer all (or at least most) of his questions. In the process, I’ll let him know that the many hours he spent on the carpets building up and destroying Lego villages and whatnot were not spent in vain. (Not that they were without this film, but the arrival of The Lego Movie proves that grown-ups can have just as much fun with the stuff as kids have had for years.)

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Do you think they will ever make a movie with my Legos? I really like them, and I hope that they do that. I think it would be so cool!

 

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Hey buddy, you know what? That is a really great question. And I am here to tell you that yes, yes they will. You are going to someday be watching a movie with all of your toys and characters — and a bunch of new ones you never even thought about — brought to life.

 

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Really? Do they have any of my favorite characters in it?

 

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Well, who were your favorite characters? I seriously can’t remember who those were! Haha. If you mean things like Spaceman Benny, the little put-together shark and maybe an alligator piece, then yes. You’ll recognize a few guys. But the rest is a bunch of insanely imaginative characters that you are just going to have to wait to grow up a little more to fully appreciate. That’s a good thing, though pal.

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What happens in the movie?

 

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Welp. It mostly focuses on this regular, average-Joe Lego man named Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt. . .I don’t know why I just told you that, you don’t know him). He’s an obedient little construction worker who stumbles into a most unusual situation. After a typical day at work, Emmet discovers a secret power that has been lost through the ages. He comes across this thing called the Kragle, which is a huge, enormous super-weapon that, if in the wrong hands, could destroy the entire world. When he finds it, he becomes the target of the evil Lord/President Business (voiced by Will Ferrell — don’t worry, you’ll know him later), who sends his good cop/bad cop henchman out to get him and inadvertently sets the guy on a date with destiny.

 

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. . .I’m confused.

 

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Tee-hee. It is pretty complex. But just wait until you see this thing, and learn how many different people this ordinary guy meets! He may seem like a boring old fart (like your older self is going to inevitably become) but he’s really pretty exciting to watch. Don’t be put off by the complicated situation. Little Tom, it’s actually even better because I enjoyed the film as much as you would. . .maybe even more. And I often can’t get out of my mind sometimes and think in terms of innocent things like Legoland anymore. Although, that place is pretty awesome. . .Granddad is going to take you there sometime.

 

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Is there a really bad guy in the movie? Am I going to be scared of him?

 

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There is a pretty nasty villain in the movie, yes. Scared? Hmm. . .I don’t think so. He has some funny parts and yes, he’s a real mean guy but he’s not that scary. That’s what’s so good about this movie, bud. It’s really, really clever. You’ll know who’s evil and who’s nice but there’s never a point where you get really scared. It’s just good old-fashioned fun. I swear, I didn’t think they’d be making kids films like this ever since Toy Story, but I was wrong.

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Toy Story, I don’t know what that is. . .

 

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Damn it! Nevermind. . .I had a really awesome follow-up reference there but. . .apparently YOU’RE TOO YOUNG!!!

 

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I guess. So, would mommy and daddy like this movie? To me, if they make a movie on my Legos, I don’t know how they would be interested. . .

 

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Oh man. How they would be! The Lego Movie is going to be just as much fun for them as it’s going to be for you. In fact, I’d even argue that there’s more material here for them to think on and laugh about than little kids. There’s a lot of stuff here that could go right over you youngsters’ heads. Themes like corporate greed and monopolization (big word, right?) are just as clear as the themes of believing in yourself, and not giving up on dreams and living your life as you want to. This is a classic film for all ages, in my snobby opinion. Tee-hee.

 

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Who’s the best character in the movie?

 

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Wow buddy, you’re just firing out all sorts of good questions, aren’t you? That’s a tough one to answer since there are so many people to like here. But. If I just had to make a choice, it would be the Batman character, who is voiced by Will Arn. . .you know what, it’s just someone you don’t know yet. And maybe won’t ever know. But he’s awesome because he makes fun of the Batman legend so much. It’s great!

 

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Does anyone die? I hope not.

 

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Now that is one I can’t answer man. There’s a little thing in the movie reviewing  business that we call ‘spoilers,’ information that can possibly reveal too much information about a movie so as to ruin the fun of the whole thing. So I won’t answer that one. Sorry buddy.

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What was your favorite part about the movie, and do you think I would think the same thing? Do you still like Legos twenty years later?

 

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Wow. Gosh. You know, my favorite thing about The Lego Movie was something so very simple. And so I guess I’ll answer the third part of that first: I loved, loved, loved Legos then, and I still love them to this day. The creators of that product are simply geniuses. I don’t think I have any laying around anymore, which is kind of a bummer, but I tell you, this film made me want to break out any boxes that I might still have stored at the ‘rents house. My favorite part of this movie was the way the simple shapes were realized. Those awkward, cup-shaped hands; the basic facial expressions. . .actually, some of those become more complicated in the movie, which is even better. And the fact that everything, and I do mean everything in this film is either made out of pieces of Legos or is edited using stop-motion to make the non-Lego elements move realistically (or like Lego pieces would). I’m pretty sure this is the biggest appeal for kids your age, is the Lego men. Their faces, their movements and their actions. The dialogue and story is almost more appropriate for us grown-ups.

 

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Was there anything about it you didn’t like?

 

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In all honesty, this was a pretty perfect little diddy. Actually, I shouldn’t call it ‘little.’ It is very much large-scale. It’s epic, and the marketing for it is a little unclear. Is it for kids of the now generation, or for the 80s? My guess is, given the amount of stuff covered here it’s meant for both. But sometimes it gets overwhelming. That’s not really a bad thing, but it’s definitely at times too much for a little kid like you to handle! Sorry buddy! Wait until that brain of yours develops a little bit more and maybe when you grow up you’ll understand it more. Oh wait. Too late.

 

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.14.21 PMIf I were with you right now, if I was your kid, would you take me to see this Tom?

 

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 11.14.20 PM What a precocious little dude you are! Aw, and that really kind of breaks my heart, because I know this isn’t possible. But yes, I absolutely would take “you” with “me” to this movie. I guess, in a way I have. Watching this movie was one of the most nostalgic film experiences I have ever had. It was remarkable what these guys have accomplished. I so badly want to be back where you are. You may not like where you are now because you have to go to bed early, but trust me. Things get a little harder later on. This movie is a nice reminder that things don’t always have to be so serious.

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4-5Recommendation: The Lego Movie is a jolt of energetic vibrance the film industry has needed for awhile. On several levels. First of all, it’s only February, so to have a movie released that is of this kind of quality seems like a rarity; secondly, it’s probably the best animated film I have seen since Toy Story, almost without question. And third, there were so many red flags I saw before this movie was coming out. My main concerns were: how could they possibly animate such limited figurines in a full-length movie? How could they maintain interest for that length of time? And even if they did that, would they just submit to being a silly, childish story that doesn’t really appeal to general audiences (which, of the three concerns I had, was the least problematic. . .sometimes dumb kid fun is what you need from a film). But Warner Brothers struck gold with this. Good for them. This is a must-see.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “A house divided against itself. . .would be better than this.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com