(On Cable TV, February 2017) Count me as slightly surprised by this two-fisted adventure film. Most reviewers haven’t been kind to The Legend of Tarzan, and their lowering of my expectations surely played into the film’s favour. Once past the prologue and some tiresome rehashing of the classic Tarzan myth, The Legend of Tarzan gets its own identity as an anti-colonialist sequel to the original Burrough. As Tarzan returns to Africa to fight against slavers, the film becomes the straight-up adventure that it should be. Alexander Skarsgård (and his CGI double) is pretty good as the titular hero, Margot Robbie is fine (but no more) as a damsel able to fight her way out of distress, Samuel L. Jackson is dependably enjoyable as an action sidekick and Christoph Waltz is also up to his usual standards as a slimy antagonist. Director David Yates uses his experience helming visual-effects-heavy projects to deliver a swooping, dynamic series of action sequences grounded in the real world: the film reaches its apex by the time Tarzan flies through the jungle. The script isn’t too bad—despite some uninspiring lines, the anti-colonial themes are ambitious and nicely serve the character despite some white-saviour qualms. The Legend of Tarzan doesn’t amount to a remarkable movie, but it does make up most of a decent blockbuster entertainment film. It’s quite a bit better than some of the harshest reviews may suggest, and works just fine at what it wants to be.
(Video on Demand, February 2017) The last few years have been a boon for fans of cerebral big-budget Science Fiction, and here comes Arrival to continue the streak. As someone who’s quite familiar with Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life short story from which Arrival is based, I can’t say that the film had a lot of conceptual surprises in store. Still, that makes it easier to appreciate what was a difficult writing exercise: adapting a non-linear story of understanding and loss into a film that is, at times, thrilling, majestic, mind-expanding and deeply felt. Adding quite a bit to the short story without betraying its core, Arrival manages to take a borderline-ridiculous concept and boil it down to an intimate story for a woman who couldn’t be farther away from the action-hero ideal. Amy Adams is terrific in the lead role, sympathetically incarnating a brainy scientist abruptly thrust in the middle of a tense first-contact scenario. Arrival does nearly everything very well, but it’s notable in the way it presents an initially-familiar scenario (aliens land!) in a way that feels grounded in reality. By the time we’re in non-linear gravity-shifting mode, the film has earned the right to wow its audience. Most assuredly the best Hollywood Science Fiction film of 2016, Arrival gives a bit of hope back that Hollywood can still make great movies when it wants to. Best of all, it’s another celebrated entry in French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s filmography—and now he’s taking aim at Blade Runner and Dune.
(On DVD, February 2017) As the fourth entry in an uneven series, Vegas Vacation is no more and no less than average. The chuckles are there as the Griswold family takes a trip to Las Vegas, but the film struggles to have anything akin to the memorable sequences of the previous films. While better than European Vacation, it doesn’t reach the comedy heights of Christmas Vacation, nor attains the archetypical Americana of the first film. Chevy Chase’s doofus-dad character is very familiar by now, and if Beverly d’Angelo only seems to become more attractive with age, her character doesn’t have much to do except flirt with Wayne Newton. Some sequences are terrible (such as the Hoover Dam segment) while others are mildly amusing (such as the boy being an incredibly lucky gambler). The ending, appropriately enough for a final movie in a series, triumphantly sends off the Griswold family in the sunset with a drive home that could have been a movie in its own right. By far the most average and featureless film in the series, Vegas Vacation is worth a look if it’s in the same DVD case as the other movies of the series—otherwise, well, there are funnier film out there.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) Some will say that Garfield is terrible or misguided. I just think it’s dull. A bog-standard kid’s movie with animal characters, Garfield is noteworthy simply for its association with the comic strip, for the CGI lead character and for hearing Bill Murray’s disinterested dulcet tones as the lead cat. While Breckin Meyer is likable as Jon and it’s always nice to see Jennifer Love Hewitt, at some point in your life you have to make choices and consider whether what’s worth your time. Garfield certainly raises questions, most notably why-oh-why did they not use CGI for all the animal characters? Blending CGI Garfield with live-action Nermal and Odie completely misses the point of a movie adaptation of a comic strip, and even if the answer is likely to be” money”, then no-Garfield would have been preferable to a botched Garfield. Otherwise, there’s almost nothing here to interest adults—the script is painfully aimed at younger kids (simple plot, stock characters, dull dialogue), and there isn’t much in terms of cinematic sophistication. To be fair, nearly everybody (including Bill Murray) has had negative things to say about Garfield. The only grown-up suckers who see the film now are either parents or people who didn’t listen.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) Hmm. I’m a moderate Batman fan at best, but I do own the Killing Joke graphic novel from which this animated film is adapted, and I’m not happy to report that Batman: The Killing Joke has taken the worst aspects of the source material and amplified them. In an effort to expand the rather short story into a feature film, the screenwriter somehow thought it would be a good idea to spend the first half of the film focusing on Batgirl, giving her temper tantrums and a sex scene with Batman (!) before cynically using her as a revenge motivator though mutilation and an implied side order of sexual assault. Geez … for a movie consciously aiming for an R rating (with blood, language and disturbing themes), The Killing Joke often feels like an adolescent discovering swearwords and adult topics … and then overusing them to the point of self-parody. By the time the central conflict between Batman and the Joker finally unfolds, viewers with the slightest moral scruples will have checked out of the film and withheld their suspension of disbelief. The result isn’t fun. It doesn’t even feel meaningful, important or even respectable: It feels trashy, exploitative and misguided. The low quality of the animation doesn’t help. I don’t mind gritty takes on superhero stories, but The Killing Joke goes too far and makes me feel dirty. Not recommended. Hilariously enough, trying to watch this film on Canada’s The Movie Network proved to be an adventure, as the film was announced early, but then showed up weeks later in listings as “Batman: Bad Blood”. As a result, I wasn’t too sure for a long time what I was watching—the pieces started clicking once the Joker was introduced midway through. In retrospect, this may have been a way from the universe to dissuade me from seeing the results.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) I recall seeing Nine to Five as a kid, but given that I only remembered the iconic theme song, I will pretend that this was like watching a new film. It certainly feels like a time capsule from the late seventies, with its broad statements about feminism, contemporary fashions and work culture at a pre-computer, barely-photocopier era. Jane Fonda is a bit dull as the intentionally blank heroine, but Lily Tomlin is very good as a cynical office manager, and it’s a treat to see Dolly Parton in her prime as a smarter-than-she-looks secretary. Their story of female empowerment and revenge against a no-good boss (sorry, “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot”) is good for a few chuckles, especially when the film goes off the reality rails and features three outlandish dream sequences. As for the rest, the film has aged depressingly well: it’s discouraging to realize that much of the feminist content remains effective thirty-five-years later—there’s been progress, but not that much of it, especially in the United States. The theme song hasn’t gone out of style either: “Working nine-to-five/What a way to make a living…”
Wiley, 2010, 296 pages, C$34.00 hc, ISBN 978–0470407028
As an adult who has rediscovered the joys of Lego bricks over the past six months, I’m better placed than most in appreciating Jonathan Bender’s journey as described in Lego: A Love Story. Not that rediscovering Lego as an adult is an unusual phenomenon. Adult Fans of Lego (AFOLs) even have a term, “The Dark Ages”, to describe the period between the time we stop playing with Lego as children/teenagers, and the time we pick them up again as an adult.
In my case, I abandoned Lego bricks as an early teenager after being a big Space set fan (partially motivated, if I recall correctly, by my younger brother taking up my bricks) and then kind of … didn’t care for more than two decades even though my feelings toward Lego were never less than entirely positive. It took my daughter reaching her brick-playing years for me to rediscover Lego, first through Disney Princess sets (for her), then Creator sets (for me). We’re now pleasantly expanding our respective collections via the Friends (for her) and City (for me) lines, and we’re both trying our hands at original creations. Reading about Lego is an associated side effect of this rekindled passion.
So when Bender describes the end of his own Dark Ages in Lego: A Love Story, I’m right there along with him. As he picks up the bricks, we get to see him think about his childhood Lego passion, discover the world of adult fans, gradually join the world of Lego conventions and collectors, and wrap it all up with his feelings as he becomes an expectant father.
There are other, more strictly informational books about Lego out there. If you want the official history, grab The Lego Book, a lavish Dorling Kindersley production that can be supplemented by separate tomes on sets and minifigurines. If you want a more detailed history of Lego and a factually exhausting description of nearly every line ever launched by Lego, Sarah Herman’s A Million Little Bricks will be enough. But if you want to get into the head of an AFOL, then Lego: A Love Story is for you. It’s informative, fascinating, partially heartfelt and truly says more about Lego than a dry history of the toy could ever do.
It’s not perfect, mind you. At times, it feels very deliberate—the kind of artificial experience that is motivated by a book contract along the lines of “I will spend a year immersing myself in the world of Lego, make heartwarming parallels with my own life and deliver an emotional conclusion.” The book even has a Chekhov’s Lego set ready to be assembled at a thematically appropriate moment that we can see coming far in advance. This is a documentary with an archetypical plot and at times we can see the bare planks of the structure. (It doesn’t help that, looking at Bender’s online presence, he focused a lot on Lego from 2009 to 2010, and then went very quiet on the topic—I can certainly understand that raising a young child as a writer requires focus, but it doesn’t help the feeling that part of the book is hobby-for-hire.) Many smaller flaws do stem from this framework. Some of Bender’s early experiences in getting back to Lego feel faux-naïve (wow, they invented a brick separator!), as would befit someone wrapping a too-neat structure over a chaotic process. Later on, some promising plot threads are also abandoned midway through (such as the author wondering if he fell in with the bad boys of adult Lego fandom), which is perhaps inevitable for a book focusing on such a short duration. There’s a delicate balance between being new enough to the hobby to talk about it as a discovery, and being seasoned enough to talk about it with the authority of experience—but Bender does get most of it right despite a few slips along the way.
On the other hand, there is a lot to simply love about Lego: A Love Story. Bender’s thought processes as he gets in deeper Lego fandom are near-universal, and his ability to clearly describe some of the more subtle pleasures of Lego fandom (assembling an original creation that matches the initial vision, for instance) is eloquent. As a journalist working on a book, he gets to go places that other AFOLs would envy: Legoland in Denmark; behind the scenes at Legoland San Diego; a visit at Lego’s corporate U.S. headquarters in Connecticut; peering inside a Bricklink store, helping organize a Lego festival with other AFOLs; and so on. He packs a lot of stuff in the year covered by this book (see above for: writing to fulfill a contract) and we readers get to read along voraciously. Bender’s background as an improv comedian makes for good prose and amusing moments, enlivening a decent journalistic overview of Lego (the company, the toy, the phenomenon) with enough personal moments that he almost comes across as an old friend by the end of the book. Bender is not a Lego employee, so a few darker passages do hint at the less wholesome side of Lego (like all hobbies, it requires time and money that can always be spent on other things) even though they are not explored in depth—like most AFOLs, Bender see Lego building as a wholesome pursuit, and isn’t particularly interested in presenting another side to the Lego story. (Seriously; who hates Lego?)
What I can’t tell you is whether someone without any interest in Lego will enjoy the book. I suspect that it may help illuminate what goes on in an AFOL’s mind (hence a marginal recommendation for spouses, family and friends of committed AFOLs). I’m certainly convinced that AFOLs will like it, but I’m not entirely sure that this is the kind of book to make Dark-Agers rush to the store to pick up new sets again. On the other hand, I did enjoy quite a bit of it … so why worry about others’ reactions? Much of the same can be said about Lego enthusiasts.
(In French, On Cable TV, February 2017) If ever you wake up one morning and feel that cinema is too boring, to rote, too safe for you, then have a look at Pedro Almodóvar’s Hable con Ella. Strange and off-beat and surreal in ways that can’t even be described in a capsule review, it’s a film about death, life, obsession, accusations, two women in coma, the men who care for them and an outrageous dream sequence. Good performances by the lead actors complement Almodóvar’s unusual script and direction. It doesn’t deal with the usual topics, and certainly doesn’t deal with them in the usual way. Good, great, bad, boring—I’m still not too sure how best to describe Hable con Ella, but it’s certainly memorable.
(On DVD, February 2017) Lazy, repetitive and occasionally offensive, National Lampoon’s European Vacation is both the follow-up that the first Vacation deserved, and an irritating attempt to replicate the previous film without quite understanding why it worked. Gone is the classic road trip; hello to the stereotypes of ugly Americans offending a trail of European bystanders as they rampage across the continent. It almost goes without saying that the film immediately goes for national stereotypes: unflappable Brits, haughty Frenchmen, aggressive Germans … and clueless Americans. The episodic nature of the film is annoying, but never more so when the movie lands in its final Roman destination and then realizes it should have some kind of plot to wrap things up. Moments later, we have a jewelry heist and a kidnapping. It’s not particularly interesting, and so the film ends with a whimper even as it goes through the motions of a big car chase. In some ways, it’s natural that the producers would want to take the first film’s formula and make it better-bigger-louder by sending it to Europe. On the other hand, it sort of misses the point that the first film (and the third one) would take its strength from universal childhood experiences. Incidents during road trips or holiday gatherings are near-universal—angering Europeans far less so. The result is recognizably a comedy, but it’s a significant step down from the previous film.
(On TV, February 2017) Some movies are burdened with a bad reputation well before we can see a single frame of it, and so Staying Alive remains widely vilified as a terrible sequel to the quasi-classic Saturday Night Fever. But an appraisal nearly thirty-five years later may be more forgiving: While it’s nowhere near the dramatic intensity and off-beat maturity of its predecessor, Staying Alive has become a strangely interesting follow-up, steeped into eighties atmosphere like few others. Our hero has become a struggling Broadway dancer, and much of the movie avoids disco entirely to focus on nothing much more than a story of love and ambition set against the New York music theatre scene. John Travolta is, once again, very good from a purely physical performance point of view: he dances well even though the spotlight is seldom just on him. Finola Hughes is also remarkable as the film’s enigmatic temptress figure. Otherwise, though—it’s your standard romantic triangle, climbing-the-rungs-of-success kind of film. Under writer/director Sylvester Stallone, it plays like an underdog drama set on Broadway, with a finale that has the merit of not being purely triumphant. It’s, in other words, an average film that would be hazily remembered today if it wasn’t for its association with its predecessor. I can imagine the let-down in 1983 as fans of the first movie watched this follow-up and wondered what happened. Today, freed from some of those expectations, Staying Alive is merely ordinary, although the eighties atmosphere has now become an advantage for the film.
(On TV, February 2017) It’s kind of amazing that Wrong Turn spawned five sequels (and counting), given how much of a generic hillbilly horror film it is. Featuring college-aged protagonists pitted against murderous cannibal hillbillies, Wrong Turn delights in macabre gags, makes no secret of its affection for its monsters rather than its human victims, and feels like a cynical attempt to churn out just another clichéd horror film. It’s a film that doesn’t have much of a reason for existing, even while we’re watching it for the first time—it’s obviously following conventional genre formula, and it’s not particularly well executed enough to rise above the muck. Eliza Dushku and Emmanuelle Chriqui have featured roles (poor them), but that’s nowhere near enough to justify seeing the film. Wrong Turn’s meanness will be repulsive to anyone who’s not a convinced gore hounds, while not offering anything more than straight-up genre thrills.
(Second viewing, On DVD, February 2017) Movies become semi-classics for a reason, and the appeal of National Lampoon’s Vacation can be found in nearly-universal nostalgic reminiscences of childhood road trips to visit some far-off destination. That’s the vein that John Hughes picked up in giving life to the episodic Vacation, featuring Chevy Chase as a bumbling dad trying to ensure happy holidays for his family. Nearly thirty-five years later, there’s a pleasant eighties patina over the film, but many of the gags remain just as funny today. (There are exceptions, of course—some scenes, such as the saloon fake-shootout, remain more mystifying than anything else.) It’s a great piece of Americana, a rather good showcase for Chevy Chase’ comic persona, and it remains a fairly solid touch-point for references even today. Plus you’ll get to hum “Holiday Road” for days. It’s not my favourite of the series (that honour goes to Christmas Vacation), but it’s solid enough to show why it remains popular even today.
(On DVD, February 2017) If you’re looking for the proverbial “gem in the DVD bargain bin”, then stop looking as soon as you see These Final Hours, because it ends up being a surprisingly successful apocalyptic thriller despite being found at the local dollar store. A low-budget Australian production, this is a film that nonetheless deals with weighty issues, as the characters live out the last ten hours of life on Earth after a meteor collision. Our protagonist starts the film as a typical cad, eager to leave pregnant Girlfriend #1 to go to an end-of-the-world party with Girlfriend #2. When he comes across a young girl being assaulted by thugs, he reluctantly does the right thing … and finds himself inconvenienced into taking care of her. A road movie through suburban Perth as the end of the world makes everyone go crazy, These Final Hours grows more interesting as it goes. Writer/director Zak Hilditch is able to bring his story threads together in an impressive whole. By the end of the film, having done through a spectrum of intense emotions, we’re struck by the beauty of the apocalypse and characters finding inner peace through the people they choose to die with. It’s disarming in the way lowered expectations can lead to great movie-watching experiences. I suspect that the film will be far more efficient for viewers with families as it runs through possible scenarios on how to deal with an extraordinary scenario.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) Not everyone likes the kind of humour that comedy group The Lonely Island prefers, and movies like Hot Rod or Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (eleven years apart) clearly show it. The best feature of Popstar is, indeed, that it never stops never stopping: it throws so many jokes on-screen than some of them are bound to stick. Celebrity cameos help (including Ed Sheehan, in a third appearance in my single evening of viewing in-between this, pre-Grammy TV shows and A Lego Brickumentary), especially when they’re as ludicrous as telling Justin Timberlake to stop singing, having Seal maimed by wolves or Michael Bolton play an integral part of the conclusion. Andy Samberg makes for a rather good pop-icon hero, but the star here is the script and its willingness to go after today’s music scene in its full insanity. Some moments could be factual in a year from now, but it doesn’t make them any less funny. Some material doesn’t work, or goes on for far longer than necessary. Sometimes, it’s hard to say whether more or less restraints would have been better: The TMZ parody, for instance, is both overacted yet at its best at its most overdone moments. As I said: Humor is subjective, and Popstar’s aggressively absurd style is going to be more polarizing than most. I found it more controlled than Hot Rod, but that may be due to its grandiose subject matter more than anything else. Those with a good understanding of today’s music scene will get more out of Popstar than others, but there are laughs for everyone.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) As an Adult Fan of Lego, I watched A Lego Brickumentary more for affirmation than discovery: I don’t need to be convinced of why Lego bricks can be fun for all ages, nor being told once again about Lego’s history or various cool facts about how people are using Lego bricks to do art, filmmaking, therapy or architecture. This being said, give me interviews with Jamie Berard and Nathan Sawaya, take me to a Lego convention, or show me what’s necessary to build a life-size Lego X-Wing and I’ll be happy. (Plus, hey, there’s Ed Sheehan talking about his Lego obsession.) The CGI/stop-motion sequences, narrated by Jason Bateman as a minifig, do have the gentle humour that’s becoming the Lego house style. It’s not a dull documentary, and it treats Lego hobbyists with respect. The mixture of talking heads, documentary footage, humorous interludes and live interviews makes the film more animated than anyone would expect, and the production credentials are excellent. A Lego Brickumentary seldom stops being anything but a Lego cheerleader, and that’s a mixed blessing: For all of the film’s radiant positivism, there’s seldom any mention of the gender issues in Lego fandom, monetary costs of a Lego obsession or any of the less-pleasant aspects to the hobby. On the other hand, Lego (as a corporation) has always been so careful to portray itself as wholesome and act accordingly that it’s hard to find unpleasant aspects to the topic. It certainly helps that, a decade and a half after Lego’s 2003/near-death experience, the company has reformed itself to a better relationship with its fans, and continues to strive for progressive values. (No, seriously; read their Social Impact report for the details.) A Lego Brickumentary does works best as affirmation that Lego bricks are awesome, and that’s more than good enough.