Tag Archives: The LEGO Movie

Window Dressing

Taxis are in a rush. That’s a known fact (that I thought as I did my usual ritual of staring down a cab driver today). It’s also a vital part of the game Crazy Taxi. The arcade-style driving game has you speeding around a time, picking up customers and dropping them off as quick as you can. It’s fun, and an excellent time and/or quarter sink.

But how vital is the taxi part of Crazy Taxi? Sure, speeding around an ersatz San Francisco and dodging trucks is great, but does it need that taxi-ness — that surrounding narrative — to work? Strip away all the window dressing and the game’s mechanics are quite simple: the player drives around an area getting objectives which, when completed well, nets the player more points and time. Could be in space, could be blocks moving around, you could throw Mario on it and call it a day. Instead, you play as a crazy taxi driver dodging traffic.

So what does the narrative window dressing of a cab driver bring to the story? Why is setting it in contemporary (ca. 1999) America better than setting it in space? Because then it’d be a different thing. I mean, obviously. It’s why The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai can tell a similar story and yet still be completely different movies. Look at The LEGO Movie and The Matrix. Both adhere to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey with a religious ferocity: a nobody turns out to be really special, goes into a different world, acquires new skills, and saves the day. One’s plastic toys and the other’s a cyberpunk dystopia. They have what’s essentially the same mechanics with different window dressing and thus gives them each different narratives.

Look at The Matrix: it filters the Hero’s Journey through a cyberpunk aesthetic and a decidedly blatant Messiah analogy. All these details — the window dressing — lets The Matrix mix in Plato’s Allegory of The Cave and a critique of consumeristic culture. George Lucas’ rendition of the Hero’s Journey (Star Wars, duh) doesn’t lend itself to that commentary — The Matrix’s aesthetic is incredibly important to its narrative.

Because The LEGO Movie is about, er, LEGO, it can play fast and loose with its setting and characters (Batman leaves a pirate ship to join Han and Lando in the Millennium Falcon? Awesome!). It also means the film can tap into the general collective consciousness concerning that plastic toy and what it has to do with being a kid. Imagination is a big part of playing with toys, especially LEGO ‘cuz, y’know, you build stuff. Mix that in with the child-like love of storytelling that lends the film’s live action segment its earnest seriousness and you have a wonderful movie that’s simultaneously similar to The Matrix and yet nothing like it. All because the same structure got given a different coating.

This is, in part, why Crazy Taxi works so well. We know that cabbies are in a rush. That’s a given. So it makes sense that if we’re gonna get to play as a cabbie, we’re gonna be rushing about the place. It’s what gives it an urgency that dressing the mechanics up as, say, a postman or a waiter wouldn’t. It’s because of the whole narrative surrounding speeding cabs that makes the game work.

That and, y’know, it’s just a whole lot of fun.

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Top Nine Movies of 2014

Eventually you get to the point when you realize if you keep putting off this list until you’ve seen everything you wanna see you’re never gonna write the darn list. So I’m writing it.

So here’s my list of top nine movies for 2014; nine because I’m leaving a space for movies I haven’t seen but want to. And it’s my list, so it’s very, well, me. I liked Birdman well enough and loved Godzilla, but neither quite made the list. These are the ones that I liked best.

9. John Wick

I have a soft spot for action movies, especially when they’re really slick action movies with Keanu Reeves doing what he does best. But what really sets John Wick apart is the incredible world building. There’s a deep background to the assassins and mafia that made me really want to know more. Also, it’s beautifully shot.

8. Gone Girl

Y’know that thing where you’re enjoying a story and then it changes gears? Like how Black Swan went from ballet drama to psychological horror? Gone Girl does that with ease, masterfully unfolding its plot like a magnificent murder mystery. Also, it’s decidedly not a date movie.

7. Whiplash

A movie about drumming should not be this intense. But it is, due in no small part to Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons’ phenomenal performances and how far the script goes. By foregoing a moralistic thrust in lieu of about pure drive the movie is able to get grippingly dark. And it works, man, it works.

6. Interstellar

Christopher Nolan’s greatest weakness probably lies in his portrayals of characters and emotion. Yet Interstellar, for all it’s sci-fi grandeur, is able to remain grounded in people and be genuinely moving. It may border on being overlong, but it expertly weaves in its core of love into a movie about wormholes and time dilation.

5. 22 Jump Street

Being unfamiliar with the original television series, I thought the original was a lot of irreverent fun; but it’s in the second film, I think, that Chris Lord and Phil Miller really cut loose. Blisteringly self-aware, the movie skewers sequels (and itself) while packing in the laughs start to finish.

4. Chef

No, the movie may not be super dramatic, and yes, it is a very warm, very feel good movie. It does it all well, though, and its charm more than ends its sweetness. Plus, it’s a delicious movie rife with heart.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy

I limit myself to one Marvel film on these things, and Guardians beats Winter Soldier by a hair, and that’s probably due to my love of space opera. James Gunn’s effortlessly handles high adventure while keeping it firmly rooted in character. And it’s just plain fun. And the soundtrack’s awesome.

2. The Imitation Game

I actually read Turing’s titular paper a week or two before I saw the movie, which gave it some cool context. The movie, though, is beautifully heartbreaking. Benedict Cumberbatch turns in an unparalleled performance as Alan Turing, a Turing given considerable depth and breadth by a gripping story. The movie plain works.

1. The LEGO Movie.

Could it be any other? I grew up with Legos so the movie appeals to the kid in me. But then the film’s superb plotting and usage of the Hero’s Journey and various tropes is what really pushes it up there while still consistently bringing the funny. Then the movie brings in an emotional beat that you’re simply not expecting yet doesn’t feel at all out of place. It’s simply magnificent and also my favorite movie of 2014. Easy.

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A Manic Pixie Dream Problem

You know the story. Boy’s stuck in the doldrums of life. Girl shows up. Is quirky. Her quirkiness brings boy out of the normal world. They fall in love. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has done her job. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a term to describe a female character archetype whose purpose is to bring a male character into a more interesting existence. Also they usually fall in love.

But this is a little broad. Is Wyldstyle from The LEGO Movie a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, then? For starters she’s Emmet’s love interest, should he be able win her away from Batman. Then her arrival brings Emmet out of normalcy into a life of adventure and she supports his transformation into the Chosen One. And she’s very different from anyone Emmet’s met, with her DJ-esque name, dyed hair, and rebellious nature. She seems to fit it to a T.

Thing is, Wyldstyle doesn’t only exist for Emmet. She has her own goal and arc. Wyldstyle wants to save the world, that Emmet is the Chosen one is more disappointment than cause for celebration. Over the course of the movie she learns to be vulnerable and to believe in herself.

Ramona, from Scott Pilgrim vs The World; however, is. Though a well-rounded character, her purpose in the plot is to be Scott’s prize and the catalyst for him to self-actualize (that is, realize that self-respect is necessary for love). Yes, she has baggage, but the movie doesn’t afford any runtime to developing it. And yes, she’s quirky: dyed hair, infinitely cooler than Scott, and is from New York. She’s that dream-girl who comes along and makes and makes the male character’s life better.

But Summer, from (500) Days of Summer, isn’t. Though Summer is someone a lot of people jump to when they think of this term (seeing as she’s quirky-ish and portrayed by Zooey Deschannel). The film, on the other hand, takes apart the notion of the dream girl. Tom expects Summer to ‘fix’ him and make his life better, but she doesn’t fit into who he expects her to be. Most notably, it’s only after they break up that Tom gets life together and gets out of his rut. Essentially, the movie breaks down the Manic Pixie Dream Girl fantasy, saying that someone else isn’t going to save you, you have to do it yourself.

I realize I’m using a lot of non-examples as a way of defining the term, but I owe that to my own unfamiliarity with a lot of the movies usually associated with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. So why even talk about it?

In the years since coining the term, Nathan Rabin has distanced himself from it. Way he saw it, the term had almost lost reason; it’d become a trope unto itself rather than a symptom of problematic portrayals of women. It became easy to just say that a character was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl rather than it fostering discussion.

Because the term isn’t a way to demean women or to pigeonhole them, rather it should make writers and viewers conscious of women existing solely in relation to men. Though archetypes can be good, sometimes, like damsels in distress, they not only become emblematic of lazy writing, but also perpetuates a less-than-healthy view of reality (especially given how prevalent this one can be). That’s why I love using (500) Days of Summer as an example here, since though Summer very much fits the archetype, the film shows the consequences of the mindset.

In any case, it’s time to write better characters. Give a character depth, depth beyond “being quirky,” and give her life.

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I’m Complaining About The LEGO Movie Snub Too

I’ve made it clear that I don’t really care for movie awards. Mostly because there’s a level of snobbery and predictability to them and also because, well, mostly because of the snobbery.

So naturally, like many people, I have great opinions on the stuff I don’t care about.

Like how this year’s acting nominations are blindingly whitewashed. Which, sure, happens, but is also incredibly indicative of culture as a whole and why movies like Big Hero 6 are important.

But something I found incredibly glaring – and also feel more qualified to talk about – is The LEGO Movie’s lack of a nomination in the animation department. It got Best Original Song and that’s it. This is a problem.

Now, I like the other nominations that I’ve seen (and have been meaning to find a way to watch Song of the Sea); Big Hero 6 is great, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is important, period, and The Boxtrolls is stop-motion which is always great to see. But The Lego Movie, as I’ll say again and again, is absolutely wonderful.

The LEGO Movie is an odd film to be sure. It’s something that could easily be a toy commercial, what with it being all about LEGO. There was a ready made audience for it, all the crew had to do was crap out a half-decent plot and go home to their paychecks. Only they didn’t. But The LEGO Movie isn’t just an animated with a great story, no they made a great story that plays with not only the fact that it’s a movie about LEGOs, but with the genre of adventure movies as a whole.

But it’s not snobby about it. There’s no mockery from The LEGO Movie. Rather it, very much like The Princess Bride, wholeheartedly embraces it knowing and even poking at its flaws. And also like The Princess Bride, there’s no cynicism to it. The film doesn’t embrace the idea that a deconstruction must be brooding, nor does it laugh at the genre it plays, ruthlessly mocking it. RatherThe LEGO Movie is filled with an unbridled love and passion for not just the toy but the genre the story plays out in. It starts a deep consciousness of what makes adventure stories tick – the call to adventure, the idea of being a chosen one, the quest into the villain’s fortress, and so on — then the film turns it up to eleven. There’s no subtlety to its narrative structure, it know what it is and runs with it.

So there’s a great grasp of storytelling from directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, same could be said about the folks behind The Boxtrolls and How To Train Your Dragon 2. What really setsThe LEGO Movie apart is its balance of a breakneck, almost psychedelic pace with its knowing of when to slow down. The film could be all fluff, all a great adventure with nothing deeper to it – and it seems that way with its bright visuals and hyperactivity – but they lay off the gas pedal at the climax. The movie is able to breathe and we’re held in this twist that has us rethinking the entire movie prior, but also lends a new deal of emotional weight to it.Yet it’s a beat that doesn’t feel out of place, it’s not something simply tacked on for the drama.

The LEGO Movie did something different. It’s a movie about originality that, for once, is actually very original. It merges Saturday morning cartoons’ visuals with a mastery of plotting and the ability to throw emotional post-modern curveballs. It’s rare that a movie – animated or not – even tries to do this, let alone pulls it off so spectacularly.

It’s all this that means The LEGO Movie should have gotten an Oscar nomination, it didn’t just tell an (animated) story well, it told it with more heart and gusto than a lot of stories do. But again, what makes this movie so great is that it marries its enthusiasm with impeccable craft. One without the other, or with any less of any of its parts, would be a lesser film. Seriously, everything about this movie is awesome. Would have been nice for there to be some recognition.

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It’s All In The Pacing

Time is relative. Some scientist said that at some point. For my purposes, it means that one minute can seem longer or shorter depending on the context. That minute in traffic is far longer than that minute playing video games before work that got you stuck in traffic in the first place.

Naturally, this applies to stuff like movies too. A two hour movie can feel incredibly long or it can flash by in an instant. Why? Pacing. Pacing is important. Really important.

Let’s look at An Unexpected Journey. It’s a three hour movie but, unlike the prior The Lord of the Rings films, feels much longer. The simple reason for this is for lack of content: the film takes much to long repeating points. The run in with the rock giants, for example, is a lengthy sequence that adds nothing to the plot (except an extra action scene). Sure, there’s a small moment showing Thorin’s growing acceptance of Bilbo as part of the team, but that’s a beat that’s seen elsewhere. Sequences like these bog down a movie and draw it out. The Return of the King and the rest of the trilogy were bursting with story and characters: every scene added another layer to one or the other. Those films didn’t feel bogged down as every beat felt necessary to the movie at large.

Transformers: Age of Extinction feels overlong in a different way: there’s way too much going on. Though visually pleasing (as you’d expect from a Michael Bay film), it’s a narrative mess. There’s no clear antagonist antagonizing the heroes and, as such, the heroes have little plan thwarting to carry out. With no central throughline pushing the story along, the film winds up feeling like a series of vaguely connected misadventures involving giant robots. Which wouldn’t be so bad if we actually gave a crap about these characters but, this being a Michael Bay film, we really don’t. As such, it’s 165 minute runtime really starts to drag after a while.

Guillermo Del Toro, another purveyor of giant robots, had this to say about film lengths: “All I know is that as an audience member, my ass meter starts ringing its fire alarm after two hours.” Essentially, there’s a point where it starts to feel like you’ve spent too long sitting in that chair. If a long movie is paced well it won’t seem long at all, if it’s paced poorly it’ll feel even longer. That said, you’ll probably start to notice how long you’ve been there as the two hour mark fades behind you.

Take Del Toro’s own Pacific Rim as a great example of a well paced movie that doesn’t feel too long. Big set pieces are linked together through emotional beats: The opening and Gipsy Danger vs Knifehead leads to the introduction of Stacker and Raleigh’s arrival at the Shatterdome before we see Mako’s flashback which in turn gives us a quiet character focused chunk before the big battle around Hong Kong. We get another break as Newt and Gottlieb work out the secrets of the breach before the final confrontation. These lulls not only to allow us to get to know and love the characters, but also give us breathers between action scenes and make us long for the next one. Del Toro, ever conscious of the audience’s collective ass meter, ensures that neither character/plot progression or action scene ever outstays their welcome, rather they work together to keep the movie puttering along, keeping us entertained throughout.

The LEGO Movie opts to follow Campbell’s monomyth and wisely never spends longer than necessary on individual beats. Not only does this allow for the movie to move along at a nice slick pace, but it means that when it comes time for it to spend time on something really important — take the conversation between the father/son and Lord Business/Emmet — there’s leeway for it to sink in without slowing down the plot.

At 143 minutes, The Avengers is a comparatively long movie. But it does as Pacific Rim does, stringing together smaller character moments between bigger set pieces, yet never allowing any to last too long. Add that to a group of great characters who you’re happy just to watch hang out with each other and it’s easy to get lost in the movie. And getting lost is the best, because suddenly you forget about time and your ass meter and just enjoy the movie.

Movie runtimes are one thing, how long they actually feel is another entirely. Watching Sex and The City (151 minutes) for class felt like an eternity, whereas The Dark Knight (165) felt just right. Time is relative — especially when watching movies. That’s where pacing comes in.

Note: Of course it’s not all in the pacing, but it is terribly important. Sometimes, a fascinating subject matter and engrossing characters are all you need — see Lost in Translation. That said, this blog post assumes that’s understood

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The (Lego) Hero’s Journey, Part Two

It’s been a few weeks since The LEGO Movie came out and proved that everything was indeed awesome. As I said I would before it came out, I’m going to break down The LEGO Movie with The Hero’s Journey.

But wait.

Two things you gotta do before you read on. First; read that blog post. I’m not gonna bother explaining The Hero’s Journey again. Second: watch the movie. Seriously. It’s a great movie in the first place and, equally importantly, I’m going to ruin the film’s big, magical twist. And I don’t use that word lightly.

And in case you missed it:

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. GO WATCH THE MOVIE THEN COME BACK AND READ THIS.

 

That clear? Alright. Here we go.

(I’ll be more or less using TV Tropes’ outline here; with splashes of others. Do note, some of the pieces can be juggled around, as they are in this film.)

The LEGO Movie opens with Lord Business defeating Vitruvius and getting the Kragle, at which point Vitruvius makes a prophecy about The Special stating that the Special will, be, well special. That’s step one.

Then we see Emmet, our protagonist, living out his normal, dull, life. His life is boring and routine. This is Thomas Anderson going to work in The Matrix, this is Luke on the farm.

Emmet’s normal world comes crumbling down when, after work, he falls down a hole and finds the Piece of Resistance. Like Thomas Anderson/Neo before him, Emmet then finds himself a captive of the bad guys only to be shortly freed by someone else. This is his Call to Adventure, something he resists at first.

Then Emmet must cross the first threshold, in this case being when he and Wyldstyle break out of Bricksburg into the Wild West pursued by Bad Cop. In Star Wars this is when the Falcon leaves Tatooine pursued by storm troopers. Alternately, look at when Neo leaves the Matrix for the first time. Emmet’s life has changed for good. The following chunk (and next few beats) are part of the Road of Trials, where Emmet is tested and really yanked out of the world. Think Neo’s training with Morpheus, where he finds that he knows Kung Fu.

Emmet meets the mentor, Vitruvius, here; a vital part in any hero’s journey. Like Obi Wan to Luke and Morpheus to Neo, and Dumbledore to Harry; this character aids the hero on his journey and urges him on. As Vitruvius does.

Next up is the Land of Adventure, which TV Tropes describes as “a strange, dreamlike realm, where logic is topsy-turvy and the “rules” are markedly different from the ordinary world.” In other words: Cloud Cuckoo Land. Here Emmet is developed and the set up laid for his Night Sea Voyage.

Which, courtesy of the attack on Cloud Cuckoo Land and a hastily built sub, actually takes place at sea. Now, this Night Sea Voyage marks the end of the Road of Trials and when the Hero mounts an attack on the enemy stronghold. In The Matrix this is Neo and Trinity rescuing Morpheus; in Star Wars this is saving Leia. For The LEGO Movie this means stealing a hyperdrive and getting to the Kragle.

Alright folks. I’m getting into the real spoiler bit. If you haven’t seen the film yet, bail now!

 

An optional part of the monomyth (Joseph Campbell would argue it was essential) is the hero’s Death and Resurrection. This messianic tropes is on full display in The Matrix with Neo, and in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. To my surprise and immense pleasure, The LEGO Movie throws it in. Emmet sacrifices himself to save the Master Builders. Basically, he dies. The proceedings in the ‘real’ world with Finn and his Dad (about which I could write a whole ‘nother rant essay on the way it doesn’t feel jarring because of how it masterfully works in the themes, but I digress) leads to Emmet’s resurrection. Like Neo, Emmet can overcome death and return to his world.

And returns he does in what’s dubbed the Apotheosis. Ever trusty TV Tropes defines this thusly: “The Hero comes to view the world in a new and radically different way, either because of a critical breakthrough he’s made or some crucial information he’s uncovered.” Where Neo can fly and defeat Agent Smith, Emmet can harness the full powers of a Master Builder (his Ultimate Boon), creating a construction mech and charging through Micro Managers and back to Lord Business’ command brick, in order to have his Fight Against the Big Bad.

With Lord Business redeemed, Emmet makes his Return to Bricksburg, changed and, well, special.

 

So there you have it, a fairly in-depth (but not as much as it could be) look at The LEGO Movie through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth as defined by TV Tropes (and myself). It’s a beautiful structure which, honestly, I haven’t seen pulled off this magnificently since The Matrix.

Seriously folks, this movie is awesome.

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Heart of a Child

I grew up in the 90’s with a steady diet of Lego, Jedi, superhero cartoons, mecha anime, Power Rangers, and Ninja Turtles. All this was peppered in with bedtime stories from my Dad, some of which were about the Chinese strategist Zhuge Liang, others were about Han Solo and Luke Skywalker going on adventures, and still others about Superman and Batman teaming up to fight bad guys.

There are side effects that come with this; the firm belief that giant robots are awesome, for example. Others are the ingrained image of a mulleted Tony Stark at an anvil, or memories of Captain America and Iron Man showing up on Spider Man’s cartoon. But then, those are all cartoons and stuff, puerile parts of childhood.

Only not.

A lot of the stuff I grew up with is being tapped and turned into cinematic fare these days. Sure, there’ve been Batman and Superman movies since well before I was born, but a movie about Iron Man? And Captain America? And one where they team up with the Hulk and Thor? In a movie? Eight year old Josh would be giddy at the idea (as twenty-two year old Josh still is).

Here’s the thing, I’m not eight anymore. How does a movie work to appeal to me now? Characters like Batman and Spider Man have had several incarnations in various media for various audiences. Adam West’s Batman differs sharply from the one in Justice League who in turn differs from Arkham Asylum’s. Sure, there’s the same character but differences in tone and style. There are many different ways to interpret characters and genres these days.

Especially Batman. Christopher Nolan approached the Caped Crusader from a much more mature point of view than we’d really seen on screen at the point. He deconstructs the idea of a superhero throughout the Dark Knight Trilogy. This is how Batman would work in a ‘real’ world: masks bought in bulk to avoid suspicion, for example. Gone is the romanticism of being a superhero.

Nolan’s Gotham is awash in a gray world of corrupt cops, sold-out lawyers, and mob rule. Batman himself is not entirely in the clear and, as he Commissioner Gordon puts it at the end of The Dark Knight, isn’t the hero Gotham needs. This is Batman for a more grown up, more adult world, a blurry world where right and wrong aren’t quite distinct.

Then on the other end of the spectrum we have Pacific Rim. The movie has, as director Guillermo del Toro put it, the heart of a 12-year-old and the craft of a 48-year-old. The movie is brimming with the hope and excitement you had when you were 12. There’s little attempt to ‘grow up’ the mecha genre, at least as far as growing up means how everything must be brooding, dark, and deathly serious. Sure, characters die and sacrifices are made, but it’s a clear view of Good and Evil; it’s that idealistic dichotomy.

Pacific Rim, like The Avengers, is a reconstruction of its genres. The Avengers acknowledges the problems of having a team of six superhero egos, but factors overcoming it into a plot. Pacific Rim makes Kaiju terrifying and Jaegers awesome, crafting a movie’s world where it not only works but is acceptable. These are movies that have grown up but remember the romanticism of being younger.

There is, however, yet another point on the spectrum: The Lego Movie. This movie doesn’t give a crap about growing up. There’s no playing at re/deconstruction; instead it takes it’s idea — a movie about Legos — and runs with it. It’s a movie about being a kid, about those times when you built a spaceship and ran around your room making laser noises and chanting “spaceship!” over and over again. If anything, The Lego Movie is an ode to childhood in the purest sense. It doesn’t just have the heart of a child, it’s about being a child.

Is one way of doing it better than the other? Nah. I love the grittiness of The Dark Knight as much as I love the colorful cacophony of The Lego Movie. I was ten once and these movies, with all their different interpretations, remind me of what it was like.

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