Sun, Nov 16, 2014

: The LEGO Movie

When this movie came out last spring, I boycotted it. I had numerous reasons to dislike it without seeing it. I thought the idea was too artificial, a movie forced into being by a toy company. I’m huge fan of Legos — they were my favorite toy as a kid — but I abhor the little Lego people. (Back in my day, we didn’t have those. If you wanted people in your Lego town, you had to build them up from blocks!)

Despite those obstacles, I might have still seen the movie, but the trailer was awful: a bizarre mix of pop culture references and a plot about “the chosen one” seemingly ripped off from the Matrix and a few dozen other films. When the film became a huge hit, I stayed away out of spite. I didn’t want to encourage such cheapness.

Well, tonight the film debuted on HBO and out of curiosity, I watched it. It’s terrific. It opens with an ordinary Lego guy in a totalitarian society where everyone is supposed to follow the instructions. This is clearly a metaphor of those who build Legos via imagination and free will versus those who rigidly follow step-by-step instructions.

This society is pretty cool in some ways — the “rules” are often hilarious — but lame in others (the bad guy is the unimaginative and bizarrely named “President Business”). As the movie continued into a weird mishmash of popular culture — suddenly Batman and Superman and even Star Wars characters are in the movie — I was even more puzzled (and slightly revolted, if I must be honest).

At one point I had the wild idea that perhaps everything that seemed lame was actually part of a brilliant plan by the screenwriters and everything would actually make sense in the end. Of course, that was ridiculous and impossible.

Guess what? The ending of this is what did it for me. The bulk of the movie is a rather crazy high-speed adventure story of the ordinary guy being forced into the hero role… but while everything seems to be haphazard and crazy for the sake of craziness, everything is there for a reason. The ending actually does explain everything! It’s freaking genius. I’m in awe of this ending. All the nonsensical stuff in the middle is perfectly rational once you know what’s really going on. (And that reason really appealed to the child in me.)

And to top it off, there’s a great moral lesson in the story about being true to yourself, that everyone (even the most ordinary of us) is special, and there’s no wrong way to build — which is not only a great life lesson, but is particularly amazing when connected (Ha ha, see what I did there?) with Legos.

As a kid the thing I hated more than anything was when someone else tried to tell me the “right” way to build something with Legos. (I can remember dozens of times when adults would show me the “right” way to do something and I would pretend to listen and as soon as they left, I’d destroy what they did and redo it my way. That right there should tell you everything you need to know about me as a person.)

The whole point of Legos is that you can use your imagination and do whatever you want. Clearly these filmmakers understood that, and that I think that’s why they made this movie.

So the bottom line is that while the promotion of this film failed for me as it tried to look hip and cool and just came across as bizarre and confusing, it actually is an ingenious invention, and utterly worth your time. It’s a blast.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Nov 13, 2014

: The Scarecrow

Author: Michael Connelly

Apparently this is a sequel to a previous book, The Poet, that I hadn’t read. That’s not a big deal as this one happens ten years later. In that one our journalist hero tracked down a serial killer and it made his career. In this one he’s a victim of the fall of the newspaper industry and is being downsized. He’s got two weeks left and in those few days, he uncovers the biggest scoop of his career.

Random women are being murdered and left in the trucks of cars, but the murderer is a technical genius who is incredibly careful to not leave any clues and to vary his crimes so that no one even realizes it’s a serial killing. He always sets up a patsy to take the fall.

What I liked about this is that how our journalist uncovers this truth is believable and not forced. He’s soon on the trail of an unknown subject, while at the same time, the hacker already knows he’s being stalked and is hunting the hunter. The result is a cool cat-and-mouse game with some thrilling suspense.

The book’s a few years old (2009), so some of the tech is dated, but it’s surprisingly realistically done. The ending is a little anticlimactic, with Connelly trying too hard to be unpredictable, but it’s still a fun read and above average. Recommended.

Topic: [/book]


Wed, Nov 12, 2014

: Interstellar

This is a masterful film. While I went to see it mildly curious about the science fiction elements, what made me fall in love with it were the human relationships. The heart of the story is about the love of a daughter for her father. The ten-year-old is unconventional, a square peg in society’s round hole, and her father adores her for it and encourages her to think for herself.

The setting is a future where the earth is running out of food. Blight is gradually ruining all crops, turning the earth into a dust bowl, and the world is starving. The father’s a former astronaut, now a farmer, since the world needs food and not engineering.

The film begins with the daughter talking about ghosts in her room, as books have fallen off her shelves. The family humors her, but later the father decodes a hidden message written in the dust by the “ghost” which leads him to the location of a secret installation run by NASA.

There he learns that an expedition is underway to save the human race. As there’s a scarcity of experienced astronauts, he’s elected to lead the mission. A wormhole has been discovered near Saturn, and via it we can travel beyond our solar system. There’s hope for humanity, but the man must make the terrible decision to leave his family with the possibility of never seeing them again. Or, equally grim, returning home to find that while only a few years have passed for him, decades have passed for his daughter and everyone on earth, due to the effects of relativity.

Thus we’re set up with our key premise: the fate of our species versus the fate of our families. Which is more important? What sacrifice is too great? This same theme is beautifully echoed in smaller ways during the space mission as the crew of the ship must make similar decisions, due to lack of resources (fuel, oxygen, etc.).

It’s difficult to reveal much more without spoiling the story, but I’ll just say that everything resolves itself in a fascinating, and though wildly improbable, scientifically sound scenario. The film is gorgeous, dramatic, frightening, exciting, and thought-provoking, and yet because it’s so grounded in a “simple” father-daughter relationship, heart-breaking. The greatest testament I can say is that though the film is nearly three hours long, I didn’t look at my watch once. It didn’t even occur to me, as I was mesmerized, holding my breath about what was going to happen next. Definitely the must-see film of 2014.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Nov 08, 2014

: Non-Stop

This was not really what I was expecting. Obviously it was promoted as being similar to Taken, but there’s a lot less action — it’s more of a psychological thriller. That is more interesting, except that this is by-the-numbers and far too implausible.

The basic concept is a troubled air marshal is on a transatlantic flight and he starts receiving text messages from a passenger who says he’s going to kill somebody every 20 minutes if he doesn’t receive $150 million. As the air marshal investigates, it turns out everything is set up to frame him for a hijacking since with his past he’s a perfect patsy.

That part is intriguing, but then the whole thing becomes bogged down with texting technology (we have to read long conversations between the terrorist and hero) and turns into a “island” mystery where everyone is a suspect and no one can leave. The problem with that kind of thing is that we can’t trust the screenwriter: we soon don’t believe anything were told and we’re looking for secondary motivations for everything anybody does.

As always in such stories, the resolution is a letdown and not nearly as interesting as all the alternative scenarios we dreamed up while we were watching the movie.

Because of the cast and certain other aspects of the film it is watchable, but not nearly as good as it should’ve been.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Nov 07, 2014

: Big Hero 6

I didn’t know anything about this going in except that it was about a boy who builds a robot that looks like a giant marshmallow. (It turns out the story is actually based on a graphic novel series.)

Right from the beginning I was intrigued because it was clear this was not a “little kid’s movie.” Our hero teen — a tech genius — is engaged in illegal gambling and gets arrested, and soon there’s the death of a major character, storylines you don’t usually find in lighthearted cartoons.

That death motivates our hero, who soon figures out that someone was trying to steal his invention and use it for evil. It is at this point that the film becomes a superhero movie as the boy enlists some friends and with his tech they all become superheroes and go try and stop the villain. It’s really fun, unusual, and totally cool, but it’s also grounded in real characters and a real story with heart. Two thumbs way up!

Topic: [/movie]