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Film Leaders: The LEGO Movie Road-Blocks Conformity + 2013 Reviews in Brief: Her, Computer Chess

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Irrespective of its bland trailer and product-based matrix, The LEGO Movie breaks down the soul-crushing tenets we liminally take for granted as societal cornerstones, and it champions individualism as an elemental building block for child - and adult - and societal - development.

Walking out of Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, I queried a fellow - dare I say it? - film writer, who unleashed a torrent of critiques and disappointments from his vantage point as an adult (or approximation thereof; he was a forty-eight year-old comic-book nerd), failing to understand that this was a film with a magic rainbow seahorse and mythic inter-genus species, designed for the young adult market. Nonetheless, he was disappointed by the movie, as if it shoulda been made with him in mind.

"Try and see the film from a kid's point of view: can you imagine what it's like to be, say, twelve, and watch this movie? What would your twelve year-old self have said?" I asked.

"That's good advice" chimed in one of the generally mute, secret service-esque press screening security staff.

By way of an early digression, some of the more interesting post-screening conversations I've had have been with security staff; during the New York Film Festival's opening-night screening of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I took a champagne break towards the end of the film and spoke with one of the security guards at Lincoln Center, who'd asked me what I thought of the movie, and what I'd seen lately. I mentioned Gravity and suggested that he see it and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with his GF, with whom, he had told me, he was thinking of breaking up, or getting more serious (which seems to be a decision many couples are facing these days). I told him to share this The Secret Life of Walter Mitty/Gravity double-bill with her as a gift to champion her liberation, should she need it, and that he might view The Secret Life of Walter Mitty mindful of his own need for freedom and possible sense of being trapped. After these films, I estimated, they could decide whether to proceed, and if so, their bond might be stronger.
The next time I saw him was at the NYFF screening of Her, and he hugged me warmly, thanking me for the advice: his GF loved Gravity, and they would be seeing The Secret Life of Mitty when it opened, but was sure of their direction.

Returning to the film, The LEGO Movie is not just one of those lil' kids' films that have jokes for adults written-in so that critics can note same, deem it tolerable, and it does well at the box-office; far more importantly, it offers alleged grown-ups a simple and invaluable lesson, which comes about three-quarters into the story, during a cut to live-action, which breaks the what? fourth? third-and-a-half? wall (the hush which came over the children in the audience during this sequence transitioning from animation to live-action was terrific to hear; it was perhaps their first-ever surreal cinema moment) when we meet Finn (Jadon Sand), a young boy who is actually the daydreamer of the entire scenario, which is a projection of his lonely, identity-seeking self during a solo-playtime amidst a LEGO city in the basement of his house, wherein resides his LEGO alter-ego, Emmett (Chris Pratt), a most non-special person who's eager, yet unable to fit-in.

At the end of another ordinary workday at a construction site, Emmett follows a mysterious and beautiful stranger (Elizabeth Banks), and suddenly finds himself dodging bullets with her. After fiercely battling their attackers, she whisks him away and tells him that her name is Wildstyle, and she was sent to bring him to Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), a bearded sage, comically noted in-film as akin to the indiscernible Dumbledore and Gandalf, though he is actually a namesake of a LEGO MVP - Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, architect and military strategist of Ancient Rome.

Vitruvius explains to Emmett that he is "The Special", a unique being in possession of super-powers, and takes him into the clouds, to give him perspective beyond Bricksburg, where everyone marches in line, hoisting $32 coffees, singing the same song, "Everything Is Awesome", which plays all day on the radio. In this Matrix-esque revelatory moment in the ether, Emmett is shown a vast white space, which he learns, is his own mind, and this introduction of tabula rasa serves as a nice reminder to kids that they can be what they want to be and should endeavor to become so, before the blueprint of society gets writ large across their psyche.

Thus is Emmett, à la Neo in The Matrix, conscripted into battle against President Business/Lord Business (Will Ferrell), an ostensibly benign authority-figure (in his public role as President Business), who is actually a short-tempered dictator (as Lord Business, in his corporate boardroom-slash-interrogation and torture chamber).

Intolerant of any deviation from a completely regimented way of living, he has outlawed the Master-builders, creative types who've escaped to a place called Cloud Cuckoo Land. The daily existence of Bricksburg's citizenry is monitored and regulated through various enforcement mechanisms and personnel, including an army of whirling drones known as the Micro-managers, and a frighteningly schizophrenic, literally two-faced police officer aptly named Good-Cop/Bad-Cop.

Adding another level of sophistication and quite useful subversion to this film are several apt and surprisingly bold critiques of the pseudo-democracy which is resultant of a passive, complacent and distracted citizenry manipulated by the vacuum-filling machinations utilized to serve the intolerant world-view of those in full control of power structures. Thus we learn that Lord Business's corporation manufactures the city's history books, surveillance cams and voting machines. Watching a televised speech by President Business, Emmett just barely notices a threat to put him and anyone who doesn't comply with The Law to sleep, and as Emmett asks in a double-take, "Wait, what did he say?" a gag from his regularly televised programming cracks him up, and he forgets what he was unnerved and alarmed about.

In tandem with its anti-status-quo message, the film also validates the case for giving order and structure to creative minds, positing the notion that working within a system to make radical changes may be the most truly revolutionary action, and herein, Emmett finds his own voice, as he tells the creative types of Cloud Cuckoo Land, "You're all very creative, but you can't agree on anything", in a rallying cry which galvanizes a rebel movement.

Although Emmett's only discernible strength in the beginning of the film is that he can follow instructions, when he comes into contact with these Master-builders, the Apollonian and Dionysian unite, and following instructions to infuse a system with new ideas and thus re-direct it, becomes a valid strategy for self-defeating creative cast-offs, who are often unable to get it together. Following instructions and working together may be the most subversive and effective thing they can do. On the subject of cuckoos gaining power through organization, there's also a Tea Party joke, taking place quite aptly, in a wild, wild, west saloon.

In the live-action realm, we learn that the LEGO set with which Finn is playing actually belongs to his Dad (the Bricksville alter-ego of whom is, you guessed it, President/Lord Business), who likes his LEGO city nice and orderly. He's forbidden his son to enjoy it, and is in fact about to Krazy Glue the pieces into place. When Finn asks why he can't make changes to his father's constructs, the ensuing comical argument from his father is, on one level, an ad for the product's fun-for-the-whole-family appeal, and on another level, it is an essential characterization of the controlling parent. To be certain, this is one of the most interesting product-based films ever made. Yes, I did just say this.

Advancing the progression from demographically-targeted radio or TV programs around which a product is advertised, through the emergence of animated super-heroes, characters, cable TV tween-phenom franchises spawning cottage industries hawking cereals, figurines, lunchables, ad infinitum, ad nauseum, perhaps in 2014, The LEGO Movie constitutes a next phase: a feature-length film (as opposed to a crowd-sourced contest-winning short film) in which the highly imaginative content is artistically - which is to say both artfully and artlessly - immanent to the product-slash-film experience (and by film, I mean a mouthful, the entire range of cinema's existential domain), thus eliminating for marketers the extra step, and also going far beyond trad product-placements, and instead subverting the empathetic experience of film in the service of effacing any consciousness of the product as an external consideration. Or, as posited by the "sell me this pen" scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street, the film creates the need. Whilst this perhaps pseudo-McLuhanistic (and that's not a redundancy) gobbledygook may sound like a critique, The LEGO Movie accomplishes this whilst delivering meaningful messages.

Although the idea of Emmett (which etymologically traces back to old English and German for "ant") as the chosen one drives the plot, it is nicely anti-climaxed by his realization that he's just, well, himself, and that's unique enough and worth fighting for to preserve, making for a nice, classic lesson in self-acceptance, and of equal importance, self-reliance.

The other element that drives the plot, the quest for the "piece of resistance" which possesses extraordinary powers required to transcend the conformity of Bricksburg and defeat the autocracy of President/Lord Business, is actually, and quite beautifully revealed to be SPOILER ALERT: the cap to the Krazy Glue, which Finn's Dad places back on the tube, after re-thinking -- thanks to Finn's open-hearted plea to him -- his plans to lock the pieces of Bricksburg -- and, by metaphorical and symbolic extension, his own son's unique individual development -- into their exact place, as he sees fit.

The capping of the glue tube seemed to my feeble mind, an inversion of Freud's observation that guilt is the glue of family and society, showing instead how the thwarting of healthy individualistic development and self-discovery is a tragically commonplace result in a way of life which parents and society are often guilty of perpetuating. It is indeed the film's pièce de résistance, which, no doubt, many will note.

There are instances in The LEGO Movie when benign faces re-align their muscular structure and become embodiments of pent-up rage, and these scenes scared some of the kids in the audience, much in the way a glimpse of real, adult-rage let loose from a previously benign parental countenance does in real-life.

We see this during President Business's speech (almost suggesting a subliminal message), and during the declaration of a happiness manifesto of sorts, by the part-feline part-unicorn Uni-Kitty, the queen of Cloud Cuckoo Land who outlines the path to happiness as "never, ever EVER!" allowing bad thoughts to come to the surface, speaking across a vocal range that oddly reminded me of comedienne Judy Tenuta's alternation from sweet lilt to growling wrath. Interestingly, this part was played by Alison Brie, who also plays the eternally positive-spinning for the sake of appearances and decorum, Trudy Campbell, on "Mad Men".

One young person I spoke with told me about being scared by this effect, though not afraid of films with dragons. I am always fascinated by what actually scares kids and adults, and what doesn't. The aforementioned morph-face-filled Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters certainly freaks-out some kids and adults, while others think it cool.

Additionally, on the subject of content, at the screening I attended, some children did not laugh during Emmett's very lengthy fall down a construction site (reminiscent of Homer Simpson's famous skateboarding cliff-fall) yet they were laughing during the SPOILER ALERT decapitation of Vitruvius. Interestingly, although The LEGO Movie utilizes CG, one of the most beautiful scenes in the film features one of its seemingly least hi-tech creations: a LEGO-bricked sea, rising and falling in a hypnotic, near hallucinatory rhythm, via a simple, exquisite time-lapse shot, reminding me of the first time I saw "Davey & Goliath".

By way of a fun fact, the film uses nearly four million LEGO bricks, though, again, despite being product-based, and irrespective of special effects, it succeeds in deriving a enduringly poetic concept from these simple building-block toys, in its critique of a society in which the way to fit in, as Emmett sees it (and thankfully, un-learns), is to be someone whose favorite song is the same as everybody else's, "Everything Is Awesome"; to be someone who watches the same sitcom as everyone else, "Where's My Pants"; to be someone whose favorite food is anything from a fast food chain.

Positing the fantasy-world of the child as bulwark against the tyranny of the micro-managing parent, and championing individualistic rebellion as the path to self-discovery, this film may just re-boot kiddie consciousness. Such re-emphasis of a greater trust in one's instincts is, well, important in a time when experience is aggregated and commodified, and knowledge is associative, with test-taking methodology courses decimating the inherent value of knowledge, and speed-dating accelerating gene pool research and spitting out social grades, and leads for possible mating partners to follow-up with (granted, the costumed Sci-Fi speed-dating that Comic-con hosts is fascinating).

And in a year when films are populated with individuals who, albeit entertainingly, epitomize the "don't hate the player, hate the game" mentality, say American Hustle, The Bling Ring - though Sofia Coppola's film was more of a distanced, Ellisian character-study, rather than, say, the empathetic, semiotic endorsement that The Wolf of Wall Street was, it's nice to see The LEGO Movie road-blocking conformity, which is the building block of the kind of buck-passing that borders on nihilism.

Much in the same way Meet the Millers (rather admirably, although the scene when the Mexicans are being chased at the border drew no laughter from the audience) subverts the acceptance of dysfunctional descent with second-chance, relativistic family values, here's hoping The LEGO Movie helps today's kids avoid becoming a generation of conforming block-heads, and delivers a directive for parents obsessed with getting their offspring into the right pre-school, to be less rigid and regimented; hopefully also, Finn will follow his Father's suggestion, at film's end, to allow his sister to build a new LEGO city with him. Maybe this will be the story in The LEGO Movie 2.

Random Notes

Welcome to the machine, Spike Jonez's Her and Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess make for a worthy double-bill:

I found Her to be much less about our dependence on machines, than it is about the near-impossibility of intimacy and the failure of romantic love to truly remedy problems inherent to existence, ending as it does with SPOILER ALERT: human suicide (though some might argue that it does not end this way). It's a beautiful film, and I'm surprised that it's not been seen by more moviegoers. Although you might know its storyline - boy meets adaptive girl algorithm who is built-into his computer's operating system, adaptive girl algorithm meets dead philosopher, boy loses adaptive girl algorithm as she and other adaptive algorithms evolve and shuffle off their mortal components - it is not in the experience of his and other humans' unique love affairs with their OSs, but instead in the heartbreaking look at being human, that Her has its greatest value.

Computer Chess
looks at the time before the time when the word "computer" sounded outdated, and a very small group of individuals were estimating the extent to which The Machines would take over, and were already paranoid about -- and simultaneously game to offer their services to -- The State's co-option of their innovation. Computer Chess delivers more interesting character studies (also including lonely individuals, some of whom utilize novel systems for intimacy) than Her, and while based in the past, it is actually the more innovative of the two stories, and its vintage videotape-esque aesthetic is dynamite .

Both Her and Computer Chess are eminently worth your time, and easily top-ten listable, should one decide to make such a list.

The New York International Children's Film Festival starts on March 7th, find info HERE

The folks at Facets will be hosting their 20th annual Kids Film Camp this Spring and Summer, info can be found HERE


FILE UNDER: "When we see Coney, we think we're home"


"Somewhere out on that horizon, far away from the neon sky..."
Seeing the crowds of people herding through chain stores in The LEGO Movie reminded me of how my hometown has seen the presence of generic franchises more than what, triple? over the past few years? Kudos to Amy Nicholson, director of The Zipper: Coney Island's Last Wild Ride, a doc about the still-avoidable death of Coney Island's millennia-old shoreline, which is in a fight for its life, because of the completely illegal re-zoning and deletion of protected park land, resultant from the corrupt battle twixt the former Bloomberg administration, representing one bloc of franchises, and an equally myopic developer representing another bloc of franchises. This can still be stopped, and stopped it must be.

One does not take an hour-long train ride to get out of the city, say, on the F line, which evokes in one that unique New York state of mind that can only be delivered by a chugging train passing cemeteries, high school football fields, wall-sized calligraphy, amidst the sounds and languages of your fellow urban brethren, all of us en route to that completely, existentially singular place where we can uniquely escape this sometimes maddening metropolis and retreat in, re-hearten ourselves by, the sounds of silence, the collective daydream-state we all melt away into, where the land meets the water: the beach -- only to be bombarded by a shopping mall.

The destructive construction of hotels and stores on Coney Island is simply illogical and will deprive New Yorkers of a crucial, sanity-saving human and wildlife preserve: the timeless, human-scale beach, which, once destroyed by hotels and stores on its shoreline, can never, ever be restored to its Rothko simplicity.