Tuesday, September 26, 2017


Life in 2017 is weird enough. Now we have to add “able to say you have a favorite Lego movie of the year” to the list. In my case that’s The LEGO Ninjago movie, a bright and colorful comedy adventure film animated out of those blocky yellow figures and their multicolored brick surroundings. A platoon of screenwriters and jokesmiths have teamed up with a multitude of animators with slick algorithms for maximum Lego look as far as the eye can see. Unlike the rat-a-tat inventive Lego Movie or the endlessly referential meta-gagging Lego Batman Movie, this one is largely hilarious and exciting within the confines of its own story. The pleasures come from it springing forth inspired by kung fu movies, wrapped in a live action framing device (starring a charming Jackie Chan leaning into a wise old mentor role with an impish sparkle in his eyes) and content to be its own thing. Being based on an original line of Lego products, instead of nestled in an endless array of cross-promotional synergy, leaves this iteration the pleasant taste of only advertising one product line in its hectic cartoon silliness. 

In the Lego-mation story Chan narrates, we find a team of ninjas protecting a coastal city from an evil attacker (Justin Theroux putting on an Arnett-level growl) who swoops in with dullard henchpeople and towering mechanical beasties. In true Saturday morning cliffhanger fashion the ninjas constantly beat him back before he does irreversible damage. He sulks back to his cave to lick his wounds and plot anew, while the ninjas fit seamlessly back into their normal lives as plucky high schoolers. The wrinkle in the plot is that the lead ninja teen (Dave Franco) is secretly the son of the villain, a secret so potentially devastating that he dare not let it out lest it ruin his Ninjago reputation. Of course, it’s also the source of great angst. His parentage is a wound that’ll need to be healed over the duration of the fairly typical rise-fall-rise hero’s journey plotting on display. But luckily around it flies the zippiest, zaniest, cleverest computer-animated action this side of the Kung Fu Pandas (the other martial arts CG kids’ flick co-starring Jackie Chan) and, unlike the other Lego movie of the year, you can generally get your bearings and figure out what’s going on. The little ships zoom and zap and click and clack; the people (a charming cast of comedians and character actors) shout cheerful one-liners and quippy random nonsense. There are prophecies and curses, secret backstories and wild weaponry; charmingly cracked evil lair staff meetings and fast-paced goofs on the usual chop-socky tropes of training montages and surprise reversals of fortune. The jokes are good; the action is fun; the Legos are bright. I laughed my fool head off. And I barely felt the sales’ job underpinning the whole endeavor.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Requiem for a Scream: mother!

Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, mother!, is a jangled, claustrophobic freakout, a Polanski-esque picture of domestic tension refracted into close, uncomfortable, intimate horror. It’s about miscommunication, a fundamental flaw in a relationship escalating into insurmountable obstacle as the situation grows into one out of control. The couple at its center live in a dreamy house in the middle of a forest clearing, with no road or driveway or any obvious means of escape. It’s mid-renovation, courtesy of the young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) who spends her days refurbishing the home. The older husband (Javier Bardem) is a writer we see poised with pen at the ready, but who never seems to write a word, or at least at first. As the film moves forward, their parallel mental states diverge, he a seemingly unstoppable obsessive people-person lit up with an almost divine (or devilish, perhaps?) zeal and she an increasingly vulnerable paranoiac understandably unsettled by a loss of control driven by her husband’s paradoxically uncommunicative openness. (It put me in mind of Aronofsky’s other works – Noah married to Black Swan, I suppose.) The film sticks closely, exclusively, to the wife’s perspective, pushing in with uncomfortable close-ups as her face reflects confusion, then stress, then mental anguish, and finally a complete and total breakdown. It’s understandable every step of the way, though seems to add up to less and less the longer it goes. 

The whole thing is shot in grainy, tremulous, shaky, close angles, maneuvering with maximum discomfort. We sit right up close to the boiling chaos about to erupt in this marriage, though the context for the leads’ personalities is sketched simply, hollowly, a clangorous and multipurpose metaphor. It’s clear from the beginning something is dangerously off about the couple, she far too patient and generous for his brooding dismissiveness. How often do we see her earnestly offer plain-spoken assertions of her wants and desires only to be rebuffed by his gruff selfishness? By the time a strange man (Ed Harris) shows up in the middle of the night coughing and smoking and asking if they have a spare room, it’s a sort of darkly funny laugh of recognition – an “of course he would” – to find the husband immediately agrees without consulting his wife. When their unannounced guest’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, dripping with the dark comedy of a contemptible houseguest, but oddly underused) turns up at the doorstep, she’s invited in, too. Then their grown sons are ringing the bell and one thing leads to another and it’s like the Marx brothers’ classic stateroom bit ran headlong into Repulsion. Lawrence plays relatable notes of total confusion, a sense of her world spinning out of control while everyone else acts like she’s the crazy one. Why are all these people piling into her house? What’s going on here?

Flowing with shock sensation – dripping blood, heartbeats in walls, crumbling architecture – the movie gets schlockier and nuttier as it goes, to the point where the wild sustained climax – I dare not spoil its shape or scope, but, boy howdy, does it take the inevitable progression of its plot to the farthest reaches of its insanity – had me thinking to myself, “what am I watching?” Aronofsky commits to the intensity of it all, building on the foundation of one sparsely characterized couple a muddled outsized allegory. Sure, Lawrence plays pained sweet homemaker, and Bardem plays smoldering artiste, but beyond that small flimsy bit of emotional scaffolding there’s nothing by way of personality or characterization to hold onto. (It’s one of those movies where the characters are unnamed, listed in the credits as simply Man and Woman and so on.) We only have pure shapeshifting symbolism (fitting for our current Mystique) – the twisted progression linking up inevitably with thoughts of domestic violence, societal misogyny, and cycles of abuse (both intimate and environmental), as well as the chaos that can follow in the wake of a tortured artist unable to handle fame. These grand ideas float through, but Aronofsky mostly highlights rattling unease and escalating abstract terror. This movie’s stressful, eventually howling with screams and fire and death in increasingly brutal effects. Aronofsky’s a master at marshalling filmmaking techniques – precise sound design, intuitive cutting, thick filmic cinematography, intense performances – to push buttons, but here it’s at or near its most fruitless. It’s technically dazzling and utterly exhausting.


In a movie as painfully generic as American Assassin I start grasping at even the slightest glint of unexpected originality. Here it happens to be just one line, spoken by Michael Keaton in his role as a grizzled veteran trainer of deep-deep-deep-undercover operatives. He shoves a cell phone image of a suspect at his superior officer (Sanaa Lathan) and intensely inquires, “Does this picture bong a gong for you?” I appreciated all the trouble to think up a new way to say “rings a bell,” if only because there are literally no other scenes in the picture going that extra step. No, this is a movie flatly and drearily running through the standard dull, grim, guys-with-guns, geopolitical muddle thriller. There’s an ambitious hotshot who wants to save the world, a dead girlfriend serving as opening-scene eye candy and then motivation throughout, there’s a prickly mentor relationship, a couple double crosses, a mysterious connection between heroes and villains, thoughtless political hot button referencing (the Iran nuclear deal), gnarly scenes of torture, casual xenophobia, bloody Bourne-again action with a mild Wick twist, and a ticking time bomb finale with a big red glowing countdown clock. There’s not a single surprise to be found, up to and including the surprises. 

The film stars Dylan O’Brien, a welcome sight in his first role after a near-death accident on the set of the as-yet still unfinished third Maze Runner movie. (It’s sad enough he was nearly killed, but that it was for a Maze Runner is even sadder.) Here does what he can with a role that requires nothing more than a smooth face handsomely troubled and a taut athlete’s body wracked with mournful determination. In the opening scene he and his fiancĂ© are caught in a terrorist attack. He survives, but not intact, having seen the love of his life gunned down before him. Now he’s on a one-man counterintelligence revenge operation until the government steps in and pivots him into a top-secret anti-terror death squad. The whole thing is a topsy-turvy militaristic retaliation fantasy, channeling the character’s vengeance into state-sponsored assassination training. Keaton and O’Brien do what they can with the hoary clichĂ©s they’re made to spout, while the rest of the cast fades slowly into the background. It becomes a grey blur out of which flicker a few fleeting moments provoking thought. Taylor Kitsch pops up as the villain, a weirdly small role and a chance to lament how his great-2012-that-wasn’t (with starring turns in the fun, but underrated, likes of John Carter and Savages) reduced him to this. There’s a scene of unseemly torture-approval, as an Iranian double agent is dunked in a tub until the truth is waterboarded out of her. The climax involves the aforementioned time bomb and a whole flotilla of CG battleships. It’s just all so boring and empty and routine.