Thursday, May 08, 2014

Spring movie roundup

Most people associate springtime with new life and hope. In the movie business, spring is winter: cold and dead. The charitable view is that it's a period of rest for Hollywood, as it falls between the campaign frenzy of Oscars season and the marketing frenzy of the summer season. Less charitably, it's also the period during which Hollywood tends to dump the movies it doesn't think are likely to do particularly well, either critically or commercially. On a rare occasion, a genuine blockbuster does arrive - for example, the first Hunger Games movie, which was released in March 2012 - but most years, spring is a time of low expectations for both studios and moviegoers. On the plus side, that means one is less likely to be disappointed and, conversely, more likely to be pleasantly surprised. Perhaps for that reason, I enjoyed most of the movies I saw in theaters this spring. It's a short but generally solid list:

THE LEGO MOVIE (voices of Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Will Arnett)

If you'd told me a year ago that the LEGO movie would get better reviews than George Clooney's prestige project "The Monuments Men" (see below), I'd have asked what you were smoking. But turns out it's true, and what's more, justified! Yes, the Lego movie may seem at first glance like the crassest kind of product placement - a massive toy advertisement masquerading as a movie. That doesn't disguise the fact that it's actually a good movie. Thematically it's surprisingly high-concept, playing out the age-old tension between the order of conformity and the chaos of creativity. Oh, there's also a prophecy, a diabolical plot, a counter-plot, and a lot of chases in between, but the main attraction here is the often hilarious interplay between the Lego characters and the ingenious rendering of the Lego world through detailed CGI that's made to look like stop-mo animation. The pace is sometimes a little frenetic, and I also wasn't a huge fan of the ending, which seemed too cute by half - though I can see it appealing to those who actually grew up playing with Legos (unlike me, for whom even stacking blocks was too much of a challenge). Still, overall, it lives up to its weirdly catchy them song: "Everything is Awesome!" GRADE: B+

THE MONUMENTS MEN (directed by George Clooney; starring Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchett)

Proof that great (true) story + good director + great cast ≠ a great, or even a good, movie. Based on Robert Edsel and Bret Witter's acclaimed book about the unlikely WWII heroes who saved some of the greatest art works in the world from being destroyed or made part of Hitler's private collection, Clooney's labor of love unfortunately doesn't yield a very compelling movie. The first half lacks any real narrative momentum and fails to convey a clear sense of where the Allied and German forces are moving, or why. Worse still, the film doesn't let us get to know the Monuments Men themselves in any depth. While the pace and urgency do pick up in the last third or so, the protagonists remain undeveloped as characters. We can care, in theory, about the mission, but it's equally important for dramatic purposes that we care about the men who committed to it. "Monuments Men"'s failure in this regard ends up being its fatal flaw. GRADE: B-/C+

VERONICA MARS (directed by Rob Thomas; starring Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni + most of the rest of the show's cast - yay!)

(This review for fans only; I've no idea what a non-fan would think, and suspect there weren't many in the audience.) Rob Thomas delivers a perfect tonic to those who felt cheated of a satisfactory ending to the series. Who cares if the movie stretches contrivance a little to bring a grown-up Veronica, on the cusp of a successful New York legal career, back to Neptune. As with the series, the plot is just middling to ok, but the wit is razor-sharp and the characters are aces. Logan Echolls, of course, is front and center, though thankfully less dickish this time around, and the Veronica-Logan dynamic is balanced by a healthy dose of the Veronica-Keith father-daughter dynamic, IMO the best thing about the show. The movie also provides just the right amount of Dick Casablancas (who hasn't lost any of *his* dickishness, and somehow became even funnier), and a downright lovely appearance by Leo D'Amato (my favorite of Veronica's boyfriends). Not quite enough Wallace and Mac, but what you gonna do with a 2-hour limit? All in all, a fun couple of hours revisiting our old friends. GRADE: B+ for Veronica Mars fans; probably a B for anyone else

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (directed by Wes Anderson; starring Ralph Fiennes and a whole bunch of Wes Anderson's regulars)

A Wes Anderson confection at its most Wes Anderson-y, crammed with super-stylized visuals, dazzling miniaturization, and quirky tics and crossed with undercurrents of wistful melancholy that save the whole production from being annoyingly precious. However, in some ways "Grand Budapest Hotel" feels like a departure for WA; there's a darkness that hasn't been present in his previous work. It's the darkness of pure evil - specifically, the evil that haunted Europe in the 1930s. No, Hitler isn't in the film, which takes place in a fictional central European country, but the specter of the Nazis' brutality looms over the fragile, double-embedded narrative of a first-rate concierge (Fiennes) trying to keep alive the Old World charm and civility his hotel represents, even as the region teeters ever closer to the brink of war. Fiennes is fantastic; the rest of the characters, alas, aren't given enough room to develop beyond caricature, and as is often the case with WA, the driving A-plot turns into a series of elaborate setups with a far too drawn out (and ultimately rather anticlimactic) payoff. GRADE: B/B+

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (directed by Anthony and Joe Russo; starring Chris Evans, Scarlet Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford)

The rare superhero sequel that's decidedly superior to its predecessor, "The Winter Soldier" builds off the discovery made in the first "Captain America" and expanded in "The Avengers" that Marvel's squarest hero could be its most compelling. Steve Rogers, a WWII-era soldier now planted in the 21st century, is an obvious fish out of water, but the movie doesn't just play that displacement for laughs (unlike, say, the first THOR movie). Instead, it zeroes in on the loss of his moral innocence - his belief that good and evil are easily identified and his job is to defend the former, slowly undermined by the dawning realization that he's being manipulated to serve other, far more sinister ends. In that respect, the film hearkens back to the paranoid conspiracy thrillers of the '70s (yes, I know every other critic has said that), and not just because Robert Redford appears as a key character. Of course, "Winter Soldier" is still a popcorn movie, loaded up with the requisite bang and boom, and surprisingly gripping fight and chase scenes, but what it's best at is building the tension of not knowing who one's true friends are. Chris Evans, as before, gives a likable and nuanced performance as the decent man whose decency is what makes him remarkable in an indecent world, and ScarJo pairs well with him as his ultimate foil - the woman of no fixed moral attributes who acts as his ally but whom he may or may not be able to trust. GRADE: B+

THE LUNCHBOX (written and directed by Ritesh Batra; starring Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui)

Did you know that Mumbai, India, has a service that allows any office worker to have his lunch delivered every day from his home to his desk? It's true, and the system is reputed to be remarkably efficient. But not, apparently, infallible - at least for the purposes of this quiet, modestly appealing film about a young housewife (Kaur) who tries to rekindle her relationship with her inattentive husband by cooking him scrumptious lunches, only to discover that they're being delivered to the wrong person. The accidental recipient is an older man (Khan, excellent as always), a widower who's on the verge of retirement and in semi-denial about it. The two strike up a correspondence that eventually leads to the question of whether they should meet in person. I won't spoil whether they do except to say that the film, somewhat annoyingly, tries to have its cake and eat it too. However, setting aside the unavoidable will-they-or-won't-they beats of the main plot, "The Lunchbox" provides an intriguing look at the culture of modern Mumbai and captures the isolation of being lonely in a big city with subtlety and grace. GRADE: B/B+


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