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Review – The Monuments Men

MonumentsMen

The Monuments Men is a perfectly good movie. It’s entertaining, fast-paced, well-acted, and smartly-constructed. It may not have much deeper meaning than what it strives for, but it accomplishes its mission with aplomb. It tells the true story of a small group of artists from various fields, all a little past their prime, recruited into the army in the waning days of WW2 to rescue priceless antiquities from being stolen or destroyed by Hitler’s forces.

The mood is kept generally light, it’s nice to see a war-comedy that strikes a good balance between the gravity of the setting and outright silliness. It’s neither Hogan’s Heroes, nor Saving Private Ryan, nor Life Is Beautiful. The large all-star cast in humorous action or planning scenes evokes a sort of Ocean’s 11-in-fatigues feel. Writer-director-star George Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov’s script has a clever device for handling what could be an unwieldy group. The characters are paired off for most of the movie – Bill Murray & Bob Balaban, John Goodman &  Jean Dujardin, Matt Damon & Cate Blanchette – with the structure that works like a collection of funny vignettes moving back and forth between each pair.

The film was originally scheduled to be released last December, where it’s pedigree alone had already drummed up a considerable amount of awards-season talk. The producers, preferring the film to be cast in a more populist light, made the enlightened decision to push it back to February, thus avoiding any perceived “Oscar-snobbery.”

This was a great decision. It doubtless could have done quite well with awards. It’s a very finely crafted piece of filmmaking, with lots of talent both on and off screen. In fact, it likely could have made a major play for the top prize, maybe even won. Was it as good as those that did? Not even close. But it’s precisely the kind of well-made feel-good movie that no one can really dislike that so often wins awards. (Make no mistake: this year’s close race between two cutting-edge modern classics was a fluke.)

So pulling it out of the race and marketing it to the public instead of the campaigners was a great decision. The race was left to many superior players, and perhaps even more importantly, the usual February doldrums in the theaters – a time of year now famous for releasing the very worst movies – got a break with a decent piece of entertainment that’s worth the cost of admission.

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Review – The LEGO Movie

LEGO

A movie based on a line of toys has to be the most thinly veiled marketing ploy, right? Its very existence screams “sell more toys.” When money is the focus, quality storytelling often takes a backseat. Just look at G.I.Joe or Battleship or the Transformers movies. The latter franchise has been enormously lucrative, and to that end The LEGO Movie sounds like the biggest golden goose ever. Its huge cast of little plastic figurines includes both DC and Marvel superheros, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, and even basketball stars. The marketing possibilities are endless.

But what if… and bear with me here… just what if… you mixed alllll that stuff with solid, skilled storytelling, a positive message for kids, genuine emotions, and real heart? How would all that turn out? I’ll tell you in the words of the film’s catchy opening number: “Everything is awesome!”

There is so much right with this movie that could so easily have been oh so wrong. That song is a perfect example, so let’s start there. The track by the talented Tegan and Sara (with help from The Lonely Island) is instantly catchy. It’s also the most generic pop song you could imagine, but it turns out that’s the whole point. It was written that way on purpose, and a later plot point turns on that very fact.

The comedy seems to be built around the kind of quick throw away jokes and pop-culture references that have become so popular in recent years. But like the trick with the song, very little is actually thrown away. Everything comes back, grows, becomes important, either to the plot or to the emotional depth of the narrative. Nothing is wasted.

Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) is on screen for at most a total of 60 seconds – barely even a cameo – yet his relationship with the equally minor Superman feels more genuine than anything on display in those other movies I mentioned in my first paragraph. BadCop (Liam Neeson) feels very gimmicky in the beginning of the movie, and is nearly heartbreaking by the end. And Benny (Charlie Day) – otherwise known as “80’s-Something Space Guy” – was my instant favorite, since I grew up with those sets. But as the movie continued, it was his determined excitement in the face of all the newer and cooler LEGOs that I found most touching.

There’s an unexpected turn in the 3rd act (I won’t give too much away, but if you’ve seen it you know what I’m talking about) that could easily have been poorly executed and thrown the whole thing into a tailspin. But like everything else, the filmmakers more than pull it off. And at the risk of revealing a magician’s secrets, I’m going to tell you how they do it:

The heart of this movie is the idea of creativity. It’s a powerful theme, and it’s infused throughout every single frame of the film. Every detail works toward a single message, a soul of boundless, limitless invention that cries out to young and old alike: “Never stop creating.”

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