Movies: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Voices by: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman
Directed by: Mike Mitchell
Written by: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (screenplay); Phil Lord, Christopher Miller & Matthew Fogel (story)
Warner Bros., 2019
PG; 106 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)

_______________________________________________________

I’ve often said that the real problem with making an excellent movie (or television show, or writing an excellent book) is that it sets an expectation for everything after to be at least as good or better. And that level of excellence is impossible to sustain. “Quit while you’re ahead” is a saying for a reason.

Hollywood, however, has zero sense of going out while on top. It likes to run franchises into the ground, eking out every last bit of money from movie goers. In fact, even when things are terrible, it will keep making more of them if people keep paying to see them.

Don’t be afraid. The second Lego movie is not terrible. It’s just not as good as the first one, and that’s not at all surprising. The first one was fresh and unexpected. This one had a lot—perhaps too much—to live up to.

If you recall the end of the first film, little sister and her Duplo blocks had invaded Bricksburg. This movie picks up five years later and tackles the theme of growing up, losing one’s imagination, and sibling rivals. It’s a lot to pack in. But basically, Bianca (that’s the sister) takes some of Finn’s (that’s the brother) Legos and he goes on a quest to get them back. This quest takes the shape of Emmet having to rescue his abducted friends.

That’s as much as I’ll tell you; I wouldn’t want to spoil anything. I will say there are a number of references (such as new character Rex being billed as a “raptor trainer” a la Chris Pratt’s Owen in the Jurassic World franchise… Oh, and yes, there are raptors).

Bottom line is that I did laugh a few times, and I did find the movie super cute. But it also felt like it was trying a little too hard in its themes, leaning a little too much on the music, and it just doesn’t breathe. The new characters aren’t given much development, and the familiar ones are too one-note here.

Still, my kids loved it, and they came home and *gasp* went to play Legos together. So… that’s a win.

Movie: Abducted in Plain Sight

Okay, I don’t want to make these people feel any worse than they already do, and as the old saying goes, “Times were different then,” but geez.

This documentary is about a woman named Jan who, as a little girl, was abducted and sexual abused by a family friend—twice. The friend’s name was Robert, but everyone refers to him as “B” (for “Bob,” I think). B set up a long con that involved seducing Jan’s mother and also tricking Jan’s father into some homosexual situations… That right there leaves you to wonder, doesn’t it? That and the fact that B also convinced the parents to let him sleep in Jan’s bed as part of some ongoing “therapy” he was going through? I can’t imagine any circumstance—any friendship strong enough—that I’d let a grown man (or anyone, for that matter) sleep in my daughter’s bed. So, you know, it’s really difficult to not just yell at your television while watching this: “What are you thinking? How stupid are you?”

Now, they insist B was a master manipulator, super charming. Proof of this is provided in the fact he was a great car salesman, I guess? And not having been there, in these people’s shoes, I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. But the documentary does little to help that. The parents, in interviews, give limp excuses and explanations for their actions. An FBI agent calls them “naive,” which feels like an insane understatement. I’d say there’s a mixture of naiveté and just utter lack of judgement. Like, complete inability to accurately judge character. And/or a huge helping of denial. After all, no one wants to believe a family friend is preying on one’s child. But where were the protective instincts? Apparently they had none?

I will say that B clearly planned things out. He created an entire story to compel Jan’s cooperation and silence. In that much, he really was a master manipulator.

This documentary is equal parts fascinating and frustrating. It left me with a sense of disbelief and “what just happened?” I feel for Jan and her family; their pain is clear and evident in their interviews. What a wreckage. No matter how naive, no one deserves what was done to them. I’m glad they’ve been able to unburden, even if it was difficult for them to step up and speak out, knowing how the world might judge them in kind. Good on them for their courage.

Movies: Fyre Fraud

Okay, so this is the documentary about the Fyre Festival that’s on Hulu. (I wrote about the Netflix one a couple posts back; scroll down to read it if you’re interested.)

Again, a short recap of what the Fyre Festival was intended to be: a major, exclusive music festival on a private island in the Bahamas. What it actually was: a horrendous mess. Billy McFarland helmed the whole thing, the idea being that this festival would bring attention to the Fyre app he had developed (with Ja Rule). But McFarland is a compulsive liar and scammer who comes up with big ideas, gets people to pour money into them, and then the ideas go nowhere. So after creating a cool viral video advertising everything Fyre Festival was going to be, and after getting many “social media influencers” (because that’s a job title now, apparently) to tweet or post on Instagram or whatever, he sold a ton of expensive tickets to this event that had zero planning behind it. He made promises of villas and yachts and getting to hang out with models and musicians, but he couldn’t back any of these up with, you know, reality.

Things got really bad when McFarland basically began making up numbers about how much money they already had, thus encouraging more investors to toss cash in the pot. That’s where the “fraud” part comes in.

Fyre Fraud has a bit of an edge over the Netflix documentary because it actually features an interview with McFarland, and we get to watch him (a) make up lies on the spot, and (b) squirm when he can’t lie his way out of the questions being asked. This film also talks to some of those social media influencers, the self-centered little do-nothings whose whole “jobs” are to… exist? Tell people their opinions? This is definitely the one to watch if you’re a little older and hate millennials. (For the record, I don’t hate them, but many seem to think the best way to contribute to the world is to film themselves constantly, as though the world is simply waiting to get a glimpse or hear what they have to say. Blame the technology, I guess—YouTube, Instagram, etc.—but I think there’s some fault in them, too. The need for perpetual attention and validation is a kind of illness, and they would benefit from a social media diet.)

That said, the other documentary interviewed a wider variety of people and looked more closely at the people trying to make the festival happen, while this one focused on McFarland’s fraud, hence the title. So watching both is not entirely redundant. In fact, I’d certainly start with the Netflix one as a base of information. But Fyre Fraud is a bit more laughable, so it’s a good way to finish off the pair. Think of one as the wine you drink with your main course and the other as a dessert wine. Different, but all part of the bigger meal.

Movies: Fyre

This documentary plays into a viewer’s love of schadenfreude. Here are a bunch of rich kids paying tons of money to go to some exclusive music festival and… Well, you probably know how this ends.

For those who haven’t heard about Fyre, it was a festival that was supposed to happen in April/May 2017 on a private island in the Bahamas. The festival was named for an app that was designed to make it easy to book big-name acts so that people didn’t have to hunt down booking agents, managers, and the like. That’s not a terrible idea, assuming you have enough people with tons of money looking to throw said money at rock stars or whatever (well, and I suppose plenty of corporations organize big events, too; my husband’s company holds a huge concert each June), but delve a little deeper and you’ll discover there were termites in the woodwork all along.

See, Fyre Media was founded by Billy McFarland, who already had some questionable successes with previous big ideas (Magnesis). Basically, McFarland could talk a good game, but had no ability to follow through. So, with Fyre Festival, he saw this chance to live large with the rich and famous, and he sold that dream to a few hundred others via a promotional video and by using “social media influencers” to create buzz. But when it came time to actually, you know, put together a festival? He was utterly useless. Worse, he kept throwing around money he didn’t have.

This documentary is fairly entertaining in that it interviews many, many people who were involved in Fyre Media and the Fyre Festival. They all throw McFarland under the bus, of course, but he seems to deserve it. After it all fell apart, as he faced litigation, McFarland was already creating yet another scheme. The guy is compulsive.

But at the core, this is the story of one rich kid bilking a bunch of other rich kids. I don’t feel sorry for either side there. I do feel sorry for the workers on Great Exuma who never got paid. It’s one thing to take money from people who have it to spare; it’s another thing entirely to take it from people who don’t have much to begin with.

Overall, a somewhat enjoyable documentary if you enjoy being wowed by the utter stupidity of some people and the audacity of others.

Good vs. Memorable

Sometimes I’m asked, “What books do you think are good?” and that is a very broad question because “good” is subjective. Also, it depends on your criteria for “good.” Do you mean “well written”? Do you mean “entertaining”? Do you mean books with characters I fell in love with? Or do you mean books that have stayed with me for years, despite whether I actively enjoyed reading them?

There is, perhaps, a fair argument that a book cannot be very good if it can be forgotten the moment you finish reading it. However, not all writers are aiming to live in long memory. While I hope readers enjoy Brynnde and Faebourne, I understand that those books and others like them are often kind of like candy floss, melting away as the reader moves on to the next thing.

Then again, just because a book is memorable, that doesn’t mean it is (or was) enjoyable to read. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite—we remember books (or movies) precisely because they had such a negative impact on us. Yet one could argue the author has done a “good” job because he or she has made the book into something you will never forget. No such thing as bad publicity? Some authors and filmmakers actively attempt to shock and discomfit their readers/viewers. If they do so, they consider themselves successful, even if critics and viewers hate their work.

Sometimes, though, it’s a neutral thing that, for whatever reason, leaves an impression. I was once talking to a friend of mine about (if I remember correctly, and if I don’t, it probably disproves me) Needful Things by Stephen King. And at one point we both said at the same time: “When Alan catches the glass.” This references a very specific scene in the book, one that has stuck in both our brains for years. After all, I’ve only read that book once, when I was about sixteen or seventeen years old. I don’t remember much about it, but Alan catching the glass is burned into my brain… and velvet Elvis paintings.

At the same time, there are plenty of books I can recall liking, but if you asked me for specifics now, I wouldn’t be able to give you any. I loved “The Turn of the Screw” (and The Innocents), but I can’t give you any details on what about the story or film I particularly enjoyed. I only have this general feeling of: Oh, yes, I liked that one. This is true of so many books and movies, probably because we’re designed to remember what we dislike—what affects us badly—more than what we like. This is an old part of the brain, a holdover from the days when we needed to remember which plants made us sick or which animals were dangerous. But it’s the part of the brain that, today, makes us more likely to write a letter of complaint, or a bad review, than to praise something.

So what am I getting at here? I’m only pointing out that “good” is measured in many different ways. You can say, “I liked it,” but can you articulate why? And even if you don’t like something, if it stays in your mind and follows you around, does that make it “good,” at least on some level?

What books or movies have stuck with you over time? Did you like them? Or have they made an impression precisely because they were terrible? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Movies: Hearts Beat Loud

“Poignant” is the word that came to mind while watching this little indie film. I don’t know if that fits, exactly, but it’s what I actively thought at the time.

This movie stars Nick Offerman as Frank, single father to Sam, who is taking classes over the summer before leaving NY to attend UCLA. Frank has run a record store called Red Hook Records for 17 years, but now too broke to pay the rent, he has to close the place and find another job. He also has a mother (Blythe Danner) who “gets confused sometimes” and yet refuses to give up her rent-controlled apartment to live with Frank.

There are a couple of B storylines: Nick’s landlord Leslie is giving him mixed signals, and Sam falls in love with a girl named Rose. But the chief conflict is that Frank and Sam “jam” together, and after recording a song one night, Frank uploads it to Spotify and it gets put on a “new indies” playlist. It gets enough attention that there is interest in repping them, but Sam isn’t happy with her dad’s push for stardom. He used to be in a band with her mother, who sadly died in a bicycle accident, and Sam sees his desire to return to the limelight as pathetic. She doesn’t want to sign a contract and go on tour; she wants to go to med school.

As an aside, let me just say that I like to “collect” people who share the same birthday as me (date, not year), and Kiersey Clemons, who plays Sam, does! She really does have a magnificent voice, and she’s incredibly talented as an actress as well. No need for my well wishes, however, as she’s lined up to play Iris opposite Ezra Miller in a Flash movie. She’s well on her way.

Hearts Beat Loud is a small film, zeroed in on Offerman’s Frank as he navigates major life upheaval. While the storyline with Blythe Danner didn’t seem to go much of anywhere, overall this is a movie worth curling up with. If you liked Begin Again, or enjoy films of that sort, you’d probably like this one as well.

Movies: The House with a Clock in Its Walls

My kids were asking for a movie night, and this one was family friendly and streaming (the only two criteria). I vaguely recall reading and like John Bellairs’ book when I was younger, but I don’t remember the book itself in any detail… What, I wonder, does that say about it?

The movie is about Lewis, whose parents have died in a terrible car accident, so he has gone to live with an uncle he never knew he had. Uncle Jonathan (played with aplomb by Jack Black) lives in a house as weird as he is, and with a platonic friend Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). I really enjoyed watching these two; they seemed to be having fun, and my nine-year-old son laughed like a loon at all the banter and physical comedy this movie had to offer.

This is, in fact, exactly the kind of movie I would have adored at that age. However, be forewarned that, while my youngest did enjoy it, he was also a bit “creeped out,” as he put it, and we had to take extra care putting him to bed for the night. The creepy stuff includes animated dolls/mannequins, which I must agree is the basis for many a nightmare.

The story itself is fairly linear and goes without any real surprises: at first Lewis thinks Jonathan might be evil, but then he finds out his uncle is simply a warlock. Magic ensues, things go wrong, etc.

The production values are quite fine, and the movie is fun to watch as much for the colors and visuals as for the the silliness of the actors. I’m not sure why audiences didn’t enjoy it (46% on Rotten Tomatoes, though critics gave it 67%). Were they expecting something more sophisticated? It’s a kids’ movie based on a kids’ book, so it came in as exactly what I anticipated—slightly better than I expected, actually, given the ratings.

In short, it’s a solidly middling film, neither amazing nor terrible, just a fair amount of fun. I’d give it three stars out of five and say it’s worth watching with your kids (if you have them, or any you can borrow); otherwise, I’m not sure whether, as an adult, you’d find it worth your while. Maybe for nostalgia value. In any case, that’s a call you’ll have to make yourself.

Movies: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Voices by: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage
Directed by: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Written by: Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman (screenplay); Phil Lord (story); from characters created by a whole list of people I can’t be bothered to type here
Columbia Pictures/Sony/Marvel, 2018
PG; 117 minutes
4.5 stars (out of 5)

_______________________________________________________

It’s no secret that I’m long over superhero movies. Marvel in particular has been crumbling under its own weight for a while now. A large part of the problem (though there are many) is that these movies have begun to take themselves too seriously. They’re constantly seeking to up the stakes and lay on the drama. Yet the result is the audience becomes numb to the would-be tension. Instead of feeling like stakes are higher, it has come to feel like there are no stakes at all. Everyone comes back, after all. “We can rebuild, rebirth, turn back time; we have the technology.”

But I still enjoy some superhero movies. Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok are two of my favorites, and why? Because they don’t take themselves too seriously. Spider-Man: Homecoming was similar, though the need to shoehorn in Stark and tie it all to the Avengers… Ugh. Not everything has to be a crossover, guys. This isn’t fan fiction (though it sure does feel like it these days—except I’ve read better fan fiction than a lot of these scripts).

Okay, but what about this movie? I went in with no real expectations and no particular background knowledge of Spider-Man outside the films I’ve seen (Tobey Maguire, yes; Andrew Garfield, no; Tom Holland, yes) and what my husband sometimes tries to explain to me while my eyes glaze over. I’d heard, for example, that Gwen becomes Spider-Something at some point… That there were multiple universes… Yeah, that’s about it.

Into the Spider-Verse follows the origin story of Miles Morales, one of the many incarnations of Spider-Man. Miles is smart and awkward, new to a private high school where the expectations are higher. Meanwhile, he just wants to do his art (graffiti). While doing just that, he gets bitten by a radioactive spider and… You can guess the rest.

One supercollider-that-opens-other-dimensions later, Miles is joined by a number of other Spider-Peeps. He learns the ropes while trying to get everyone back to their respective universes. Then he must destroy the collider to keep the world (or at least NYC) stable.

It’s a straight-forward plot, which I really appreciated. These days, all the plots feel so convoluted as to be nonsense, just a backdrop for character drama. This felt refreshing by comparison.

The animation style, too, was really nice. This is a visually pleasing movie, and it really is like watching a comic book.

Viewers don’t have to know much about Spider-Man to get anything out of this film either. Once again, so nice not to have to watch twenty other films first to understand the story or know the characters.

Of course, there’s the imminent danger that this did well enough that they’ll turn it into a long, complicated series in its own right. But let’s hope not. For once, maybe they could just leave well enough alone and let us have nice things instead of ruining everything in their pursuit of profits.

Sigh.

Things don’t have to be complex to be good. In fact, there’s a tipping point at which they get so elaborate they turn bad. You know, it’s like jewelry, or architecture. There’s a pleasant level of embellishment, but that one extra piece or detail turns it from stylish to tacky in an instant. The Marvel Universe has become just that: tacky. But this movie, over here on its own and minding its own business—it’s chic. Fun. Well worth viewing. It doesn’t stumble under the weight of anything before it, nor does it try too hard to be “important.” It’s just a really good movie. And in a world filled to the brim with superheroes of all sorts, this one somehow manages to stand out like a rare gem.

Movies: Mary Poppins Returns

Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: David Magee (screenplay); David Magee, Rob Marshall, John DeLuca (story); based on characters created by P.L. Travers
Walt Disney, 2018
PG; 130 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)

_______________________________________________________

I really didn’t have any expectations going in. I recall enjoying Mary Poppins when I was young, and we took the kids to the stage play a couple years ago. Still, I wasn’t sure if they’d get anything out of this resurrection of an old character and property.

I needn’t have worried. My children loved this movie, and it was a joy to watch them watch it, especially my youngest. He was so very invested, bouncing in his seat, laughing like a loon. Meanwhile, my 10-year-old daughter kept checking on me to make sure I didn’t cry too much. (I did cry a bit, though, which is very unusual for me.)

Here we have a grown and widowed Michael Banks, raising three children: twins John and Annabel, and young Georgie. Due to their mother having died less than a year before, the twins have taken it upon themselves to grow up quickly and help run the household. They’re no-nonsense… Something Mary Poppins will soon fix.

The titular nanny arrives as the Banks learn they have only five days to pay back a loan to the bank else lose their house on Cherry Tree Lane.

It’s clear the goal was to evoke the feel of the original film in an almost one-to-one ratio of musical numbers and adventures. “A Spoonful of Sugar” is now “Can You Imagine That?”, “Jolly Holiday” becomes “Royal Doulton Music Hall”, “I Love to Laugh” equates to “Turning Turtle”, and “Chim Chim Cheree/Step in Time” has turned into “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” That said, all the charm remains intact (or it did for me, my husband, and family). Instead of a pale imitation, Blunt makes the role her own and Miranda likewise is endearing as earnest lamplighter Jack.

There is also more of a sense of a cohesive story here: the Bankses must save their home. Colin Firth plays the villainous banker intent on claiming the property. I do love Firth, and don’t especially like to think of him as evil, but he does the job with all the aplomb of a typical Disney villain. I’m only sorry he didn’t really get his moment of redemption at the end.

I’m very aware that, having just come out of the cinema, there’s a fair chance I’ll feel differently later as it all sinks in, but on the whole I call this one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. Just purely enjoyable. It felt a bit like a gamble to make it, but the result is a delightful win.

Favorite Books on Film

I saw this post on another blog (sorry but I don’t remember which one), and it got me thinking: Which book-to-film translations have I enjoyed? Sure, we all [usually] think the book is better, most likely because there’s a lot you can do with words that is difficult, if not impossible, to film. Inner dialogue, for example. But some books have translated pretty well to the screen anyway.

One I see on many lists—and yes, it’s on mine too—is Pride and Prejudice, in particular the BBC miniseries. Yeah, I love that one, too. Though it took me a while to warm to it because I had a college roommate that watched it over and over again. At that point I was avoiding her and the series, so when I finally did sit down to watching some years later, I found it was quite charming. And I do love Jane Austen.

Another book whose movie I enjoyed is Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. I saw the movie first, though, and then felt compelled to read the book, which was wonderful as well. There is a prequel I’d like to read as well, though I always hesitate when an author revisits a scene after a long break. (See: Anne Rice’s most recent vampire novels, which I just could not get into.)

I’ll admit I liked Interview with the Vampire, too. I have no excuse for why except that maybe it came out at a time when I was receptive to Tom Cruise as an overacting blonde and boy does Brad Pitt look pretty in that movie.

1939 — British actress Vivien Leigh on the set of Gone with the Wind, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell and directed by Victor Fleming. — Image by © Metro-Goldwin-Mayer Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Gone with the Wind is a favorite movie of mine as well. I used to lay on the couch and watch it whenever I was home sick from school. My freshman year of high school, we had to read the book. So, again, this is a situation in which I’d seen the movie first. And I know the romanticization of the Antebellum South is problematic, but Scarlett is such a vivid character that I can’t help enjoying both the book and film.

Another book/movie combo that makes my list: The Ghost Writer. Robert Harris both wrote the novel and the screenplay, so that probably goes a long way toward the two hanging together well. And you know I can’t say no to Ewan McGregor.

Finally, an oldie but goldie: The Haunting. I mean the 1963 version. I love, love, love Shirley Jackson’s novella “The Haunting of Hill House,” and this movie did it justice. Of course, maybe that’s because my friends and I stayed up late one night to watch it and scared ourselves silly. Fond memories can color one’s perception of how good a book or movie really is, I suppose.

What book adaptations have you enjoyed? Maybe later I’ll post about some terrible ones. I think it can be tricky to capture a book well on film, which is why good screenwriting is so important. Some day I still hope to see St. Peter in Chains make it to the screen . . . If and when it does, let’s hope it turns out well!