THE LEGO MOVIE: PIECE OF RESISTANCE (2014) reminds me of one of those reality-tv challenges. You know the sort: “Here, take a roll of police-caution-tape, and this bucket of plastic flowers, and that dumpster full of styrofoam peanuts — and make a whimsical 1920s-style bathing costume. For a giraffe. You’ve got two hours. GO!” And, because creative dexterity’s what it is, goldarnit if one of those contestants doesn’t come up with something pretty impressive. That’s THE LEGO MOVIE: “Here, make a movie using (almost) only Lego. You must use this huge roster of top-tier voice talent and these earwormy songs. You must feature a relateably generic hero, as well as spunky girl co-protagonist. You must namecheck every known Lego product but you must not — repeat — NOT appear to be encouraging their purchase. The film must appeal to Lego-kids of all ages, their Lego-naïve family members, and especially AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego). Oh, you must also celebrate unfettered creativity and family togetherness. AND be really funny. You have 110 minutes. GO!” Credit is thus due to directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller for bringing THE LEGO MOVIE in with such genuine gusto. It’s fun, fascinating, full of surprises, and really quite funny. And it looks great. But I’m not sure I liked it. Because, really, while I did delight in a number of moments, I did not find myself delighted by the film as a whole. True, a great many of the quickie FamilyGuy-esque non-sequiturs and one-liners did grab guffaws out of me, but a couple clunkers (especially a couple mildly homophobic quips, and a tiresome running gag drawn from a central character’s sightlessness) soured that fun. And SO many explosions, nonsensical plot switchbacks, and all those dead Lego people? I guess high-concept blow-‘em-up car-chasey heroics just aren’t my thing, even when made with Lego. But I think what really killed it for me was the magic-draining twist in the movie’s final moments. Felt like a cheat, which left me feeling cheated.
Memphis The Musical !!! Starring the one & the only JONATHAN RAGSDALE!!!!
AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN. I have much to say but I will limit myself, for now, to the four things that COVEN confirms about the AHS franchise. 1) Ryan Murphy is not Vince Gilligan. I say this not as defense but as reminder. Murphy’s like the demonic love child of Agnes Nixon and Sherwood Schwartz. He makes high-style, sitcommy soaps, always behaving as if he just got back from a shopping spree in the plot-device superstore. Logic-defying reversals? Evil-twin/enemies-becoming-besties/bed-swapping hooey? Gimmicky nonsense resolutions? All are to be expected in a Ryan Murphy production. It is just his way. 2) The fiercer the start, the more pathetic the fall. The first few episodes of this cycle blew my hair back. I suddenly understood that AHS (like most good horror) was playing with the terrifying pleasures (and gory perils) of power, with MURDER HOUSE a ghost story mashup about family secrets and ASYLUM a conspiracy mashup about surveillance. I was thrilled that COVEN promised to be a return-of-the-repressed mashup about suppressed histories. Which it was, in its way, when not distracted by petty vengeances in ways that obscured and forgot the historical long arcs that thrilled me so at first. A squandered opportunity, alas. 3) AHS’s rape thematics are truly squicky. Nonconsensual intimacy has been AHS’s core currency. It started as curiously 50Shades-y ghost sex in MURDER HOUSE and became outright torture-porn in ASYLUM. But what’s extra-squicky about COVEN is not only how the two younger male characters were survivors of maternal sexual abuse but that, even in death, their dead bodies became objects for continued erotic exploitation. Squicky. 4) Frances Conroy for MVP. Jessica Lange chews every bit of scenery with gobsmacking gusto, and Sarah Paulson sustains the show’s vulnerability, and Kathy Bates makes every batty lick utterly real, but it’s Frances Conroy who truly finds the sense within AHS’s nonsense. Conroy’s a marvel in COVEN, and her Myrtle Snow is for the ages.
STORIES WE TELL (2013) is Sarah Polley’s enthralling “true life” documentary experiment. In it, writer/director Polley gathers a cohort of storytellers to create a composite portrait of her deceased mother. These storytellers include members of Polley’s immediate family, as well as others whose lives were touched by her mother’s actions in ways both direct and indirect. Polley exploits the singular focus of her camera to, in effect, disrupt any confidence in a singular point of view — not only on the past, but also on what is happening “right now” in front of this or that camera. The film emerges as a fascinating formal riff on the conceits underwriting documentary film, while also somehow also being an emotionally captivating portrait of how one person’s actions can have lasting impact on so many people’s lives. The film is thrilling, in its meditative way, for the tension it maps between big philosophical questions about the knowability of the past, about the morality of this and that, and about the ontology of truth. Yet, the film is also emotionally vivid, mapping the startling surprises that inevitably come when a family mystery is finally plumbed. STORIES WE TELL is a strangely difficult film to talk about. On the one hand, I worry about giving away the mystery/ies narrated within it; on the other, I worry about ruining the surprise of some of the cinematic strategies used within the film. Still, what I loved most about the film is the way that Polley’s film-making became inseparable from the stories ostensibly being told within it. I also really grooved on one of the film’s guiding questions: when we tell someone else’s story, are we actually telling our own? Polley’s mother Diane — whose presence somehow defines the film because of her actual absence — becomes as a mirror for those telling her story. As we hear each of these people talk about Diane, we come to realize that, as they talk about Diane, they are actually talking at least as much about themselves. Potent film.