September 2017


ninjagoDuring my 44 summers on this planet, I’ve learned a few things. I know about Apple products. I know my way around a spreadsheet while wearing a blindfold. I know not to depend on any Michigan-based sporting teams for anything. But at no point has anyone taken the time to explain what the hell a ninjago is to me.

And that presents a bit of a problem, because The Lego Ninjago Movie kinda expects you to know what a ninjago is along with the answers to a whole host of related questions, to the point that it doesn’t feel the need to explain anything to you. Without apology, it just drops you into a world where the bad guy and the good guy are estranged father and son and the good guy is a member of a team of ninjas who protects the city of Ninjago — aha! — against the bad guy’s daily attacks. Apparently, there was a TV show. It’s absolutely true; every day really is a school day.

When the movie takes a breath and allows the visuals to bed in to the screen for a second, it’s actually quite a pretty sight and the attention to detail — the random numbers stamped on some of the Lego pieces, for instance — is amazing. I had enough Tupperware boxes full of jumbled Lego bricks in my youth to feel a strong twinge of nostalgia. A perfect touch, and one that acted as a familiar invader into one’s child-like imagination, was giving the role of main monster to a domesticated short-haired cat. Who, as a kid, hasn’t created a fictional world on their bedroom floor only to have the spell shattered by an indifferent pet or an apathetic vacuum cleaner?

When it doesn’t take a breath, it’s a colossal mess of themes that seem to go as well as gin and vinegar, salt and tonic. Is it a superhero movie? Is it a ninja movie? Is it some cool futuristic Japanese sci-fi movie? Is it a quest movie? Is it a satire? I’m not sure it knows itself.

Dave Franco — who I hugely prefer to his rascal brother — takes the lead as Lloyd and eagle-eared viewers will also spot the vocal stylings of Kumail Nanjiani, a woefully underused Zach Woods, Jackie Chan, Abbi Jacobson, with Justin Theroux, hamming it up to levels that would make it appealing on a sandwich, as the baddy Germadon. So we’re not exactly bereft of talent, here.

Where we are missing, though, is for someone to piece together the building blocks of a decent storyline. Ironically for a movie that exists in a universe of Lego, there’s nothing particularly inventive or surprising here and it feels unnaturally repetitive, vis a vis the L-loyd pronunciation gag. It follows its own instruction set from step one to step ten, never veering to see what would happen if steps six and seven swapped around, or step eight disappeared all together. And in a complaint that was shared with my better half, it relies so much on delivering a Moral Message that I half expected Bill Cosby to show up during the closing credits to terrify us all.

Perhaps most damning though, after 44 years, it seems that Lego can be boring. Who’da thunk it?

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Mother-Poster-Rosemarys_1200_1789_81_sThere’s a video that was doing the rounds on The Internets a few years ago that showed a guy riding a unicycle through a parking lot. While wearing a kilt. And a Darth Vader mask. Playing the bagpipes. With fire coming out of them. You’ve probably seen it. Like me, you may remember the first time you saw it. You may recall how your brain felt as it struggled to pull all the pieces out, recognize them individually, and then piece it all back together, all the while wondering just what the hell you were watching.

Darren Aronofski’s mother! is on a whole new level of weirdness. Even the title is weird, starting with a lower case letter and working towards a exclamation point at the end. What’s even weirder, is that this is a fairly accurate metaphor for the movie.

Our lower case start sees Mother, Jennifer Lawrence, wake one morning to find that her poet husband, Javier Bardem, isn’t in bed with her. When she finds Him — that’s how he’s credited and no characters really have names — we learn that he’s going through a bit of a creative slump since his last release and is blocked, making him a bit of a grump. Mother does her best to ignore it and continues the decoration of their new home, which we learn is in the middle of nowhere, had recently burned down and had been restored.

One day, a Man (Ed Harris) turns up unannounced, claiming to be a fan of Him. To Mother’s surprise, Him invites Man to stay the night. Later, Man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up and the two of them act inappropriately together considering they’re strangers in someone else’s house. They have sex in a room without closing the door, they leave broken dishes and cigarette butts around the house. Woman asks Mother a series of personal questions. Mother becomes increasingly distressed by this but Him is perfectly happy with the arrangement, informing Mother that they have nowhere else to go. Then Man and Woman’s two sons arrive and things start to get really messed up. We spend the next hour or so hurtling towards that final !.

At some point, Kristen Wiig shows up because a rule has been in place for many years now that Kristen Wiig always has to show up.

It’s difficult to say more without giving the game away. All I knew about the movie was the summary I’ve just shared and, according to the director, it’s allegorical and that’s about all I needed to know. That said, for the first hour, I’m happy to admit that I didn’t have a clue what I was watching.

It should come as no surprise that Jennifer Lawrence, who must be in around 95% of the frames of the movie puts in an excellent performance and it’s easy to feel that the disbelieving Mother is seeing things as the audience in the cinema sees them. Bardem and Harris never put a foot wrong, but it’s Michelle Pfeiffer’s striking performance that really stays in the memory from the supporting cast. The sound design, which I never think about remarking on in most movies, is incredible as the noises of the house circle Mother, leaving her even more exposed and isolated and without escape. Fans of a shaky camera will be over the moon and again, this added a surreal queasiness into the waking dream sensations on screen.

Is it any good, then? Well, it all comes down to the allegory and understanding it really saves the movie. If I accepted everything I saw on the screen today on face value, I’m pretty sure I’d have thought it was a shambolic mess. Nothing makes sense, particularly post-Wiig. It’s outrageous to the point of comedy. No one behaves the way these uninvited guests behave. Surely no one would stand for it. Clarity clicked for me about two-thirds of the way through and I scrambled to apply that lens to what I had already watched. While it’s clever and something to admire from a sheer audacity point of view, some four hours after seeing it, I’m still not exactly sure enough to answer my own question. Thinking about it makes me laugh and shake my head. It may be the best movie I’ve seen this year. It may well be the worst.

It’s exhausting. It’s grueling. It’s totally messed up. And I don’t doubt it’ll be too much hard work for some. Those people might want to find something easier to do. Like playing flaming bagpipes on a unicycle.

 

It_(2017)_logoI’m just going to start this tentative toe back into the world of reviewing movies by saying up front that I enjoyed It. Parts of this review are probably going to leave you with the impression that the opposite was true, so I insist again, I enjoyed it. I might even go so far as saying I enjoyed it very much. But I didn’t enjoy it in the way I thought I was going to enjoy it.

The trailers are, perhaps, responsible for me going in with different expectations. They’ve been so perfectly constructed that I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that this was going to be one of the scariest, most brutal movie experiences of the decade and I’d be spending two hours desperately trying to keep my heart in my chest and my poop out of my pants. Honestly, I needn’t have worried.

Based on one half of the 1986 Stephen King novel, we join a sickly, stammering, thirteen-year-old Bill Denbrough making a paper boat for his little brother, George, during a storm. Happy as the proverbial, George chases the boat along the curbside as it floats along on a river of rain water and ultimately down a storm drain and into the clutches of a clown who introduces himself as Pennywise and it isn’t long before George and his boat are reunited down the drain and into the hands and mouth of the monstrous It. Almost a year later, a mourning Bill and his rag-tag crew of misfit friends discover that their hometown of Derry, Maine has the highest level of missing people in the country and they work out why when Pennywise begins to introduce himself to all of them.

I found the book terrifying. I found the 1990 mini-series less so. I didn’t find this version terrifying at all. There are a few jump scares scattered through the piece, some more effective than others, and there’s a wonderfully nightmarish quality to the visuals, but there’s no real sense of dread. And the moments that do threaten to terrify are immediately followed by a joke, making me wonder if scaring me was even director Andy Muschietti’s primary goal.

As with most horror movies, common sense stretches out for a nap on the backseat, and the kids do things that would typically be filed under Things You Should Never Do. Like run towards the haunted house. Like investigate why your dead brother’s bedroom light has suddenly popped on. Like stick your face in the sink to see if you can see what’s talking down the plughole. All that’s just about forgivable.

Where the movie succeeds, though, is as a coming-of-age adventure story, and if you’re thinking you may have already seen a coming-of-age Stephen King movie, well, the comparisons to Stand By Me are pretty clear to see. But the characters are believable, their problems relatable, their relationships solid, their company is warm and it’s on this level that the movie really sucked me in. All of this is thanks to the fantastic young cast. Jaeden Lieberher sells Bill’s stutter perfectly. Sophia Lillis is channelling Molly Ringwald as Beverly and pretty much owns each scene she’s in. Jack Dylan Grazer is brilliantly funny as the hypochondriac Eddie.

Visually, Bill Skarsgard fills Tim Curry’s floppy clown shoes remarkably well and his Pennywise has a threatening presence that the 1990 version didn’t really have for me, mainly thanks to his cheeks. Where it fails a little, is when he starts to talk. It’s just a little too close to a poor impression of Scooby Doo for my liking. And while I’m talking about mis-steps, the soundtrack also goes off in a few weird directions. There’s a scene where we see what happens with all the people dragged down to float in the sewers, and rather than some suitably heavy, portentous music, we get a glorious swell similar to the moment they find the pirate ship in The Goonies. That said, Anthrax’s Antisocial during the (sadly short) Apocalyptic Rock Fight was perfect.

So, yeah. It was fun. It was funny. It was a thrilling adventure with some memorable set-pieces. I enjoyed it a lot. But it was nothing like the thrill-ride those two minute snippets from earlier in the year would have had me believe.