THE LEGO MOVIE. My childhood was littered with Legos. They were a constant fixture, as well as a sort of passively administered personality test for pre-adolescents. Some preferred their construction sets impeccably organized, either still in the original packaging or carefully assembled to match the example on the box. Others took a less clinical approach, dumping all the blocks into a tub or on the floor, and then letting their imagination and impulses lead whither they might. I guess I fell somewhere between the two factions, but I cut my teeth on Lego toys and am left with fond nostalgia for them. So it surprised me to feel so underwhelmed by a movie that is ostensibly their showcase.
Chris Pratt, a consistent standout on TV's Parks and Recreation, voices Emmet Brickowski, an unimaginative conformist whose loneliness is tempered mainly by his ability to ignore it. Emmet lives every minute of his life according to "the instructions," from the idiotic TV shows he watches to his rote construction job. But one day, at the end of his shift, he encounters a beautiful stranger named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), stumbles on a long-lost, totemic piece of plastic and finds himself in the midst of a revolution. Prophecy has it that he, as the finder of the "Piece of Resistance," will become the savior of the universe, the genius who will dismantle the fascist regime of President Business (Will Ferrell). This aligns him with Wyldstyle and a band of Master Builders, in hiding since the administration started rounding up their compatriots.
Good-hearted as it may be, this story has been told too many times to count: Forced by "fate" to become a hero, the underdog must eventually realize that heroism comes from within and can't be determined or defined by anyone else's terms. An unassailable theme, I will acknowledge, and perhaps more honestly presented here than in many animated features. But it's still pretty simplistic stuff, and a good example of the level of the storytelling in The Lego Movie. While proficiently told and briskly paced, the narrative offers disappointingly few genuine thrills or surprises. The jokes, though delivered by a talented cast, consist mostly of the lowest-hanging variety. Even though the sets are imaginative and immersive, the faux stop-motion style of CG animation distracts from the atmosphere they create.
Because this movie wears its heart on its sleeve and boasts more originality than much of what's being offered younger audiences these days, I refuse to dismiss it out of hand or say it isn't good. But the promise it shows leaves me wanting something more. PG. 100m.
THE MONUMENTS MEN. I am of two minds regarding George Clooney as a director. I loved his debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), but then again he had a script by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to work from. Still, from the outset, Clooney has demonstrated a strong sense of style behind the camera. He understands pacing and has a strong sense of story. I appreciate his drive to use cinema to comment on American culture, whether through the veil of contemporary political wrangling (The Ides of March) or a morality tale about TV journalism (Good Night and Good Luck). But sometimes the seriousness of the ideas behind the movies weighs them down so much that they feel more like sermons than entertainment. The Monuments Men takes a different approach. A 1960s-style World War II adventure, told in a breezy, direct style with a great ensemble cast, it is as entertaining as it is emotionally satisfying.
Based on a true story, the movie tells of a group of artists and historians (all well-past soldiering age) assembled to find and return the vast collection art and relics stolen by the Nazis who pillaged Western Europe. The Monuments Men follow in the wake of the D-Day invasion and take on a grand-scale scavenger hunt that ranges from the bloody beaches of Normandy to liberated Paris to the salt mines of Germany.
At bottom, The Monuments Men is about the idea that the theft or destruction of a culture's artifacts is tantamount to the destruction of the culture itself. Clooney takes care to approach this theme from a number of perspectives, giving the members of the titular unit their own distinct, well-earned stake in the work they undertake. The result is a rousing, atmospheric detective story about the permanent relevance and resonance of art. It also manages to tell a new story about the Second World War — an impressive accomplishment on its own. PG13. 118m.
VAMPIRE ACADEMY, on the other hand, delivers very little by way of originality. It will probably serve best as a place holder for viewers awaiting the next episode of The Vampire Diaries, although that show has markedly better production value. To her credit, star Zoey Deutch gives a vivacious, spunky performance, though some might compare her unfavorably to Ellen Page. But that's about all there is to recommend this derivative, hastily assembled mess. PG13. 104m.
— John J. Bennett
ABOUT LAST NIGHT. An '80s movie remake with Joy Bryant and Kevin Hart trying to go from hooking up to settling down. R. 100m.
ENDLESS LOVE. Another '80s movie remake with young love and parental disapproval. With Alex Pettyfer and Gabriella Wilde. PG13. 105m.
ROBOCOP. Yet another '80s movie remake with a policeman resurrected as an anti-crime weapon. The '80s is now out of movies. Joel Kinnaman is the new model Murphy. PG13. 117m.
WINTER'S TALE. Colin Farrell as a reincarnating thief who falls for a dying woman in a magical version of Manhattan. PG13. 118m.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. Julia Roberts scraps with her pill-popping mother Meryl Streep in the screen adaptation of Tracy Letts' play about a dysfunctional Midwestern family. R. 121m.
FROZEN. Kristen Bell in some standard Disney Princess fun with Josh Gad as a slapsticky snowman. Disney-oke showings available for those who need to burst into song. PG. 108m
HER. What if HAL crossed with Siri and sounded, you know, hot? Joaquin Phoenix is an introverted writer who falls in love with his upgrade. Like the relationship, it feels surprisingly real. R. 126m.
I, FRANKENSTEIN. Schlocky comic book adaptation with Aaron Eckhart as an immortal battling the undead. Not bad enough to be fun, not good enough to deserve Bill Nighy as its villain. PG13. 93m.
LONE SURVIVOR. A Navy SEAL team mission in Afghanistan goes sideways leaving Mark Wahlberg and Emile Hirsch between the rocks and the Taliban. Gripping and heartbreaking. R. 121m.
PHILOMENA. Steve Coogan helps former teen mom Judi Dench track down the son who was taken from her as a baby. PG13. 98m.
RIDE ALONG. Ice Cube is a scowling cop with plans to terrify his sister's mouthy fiancé Kevin Hart by taking him on patrol. R. 89m.
THAT AWKWARD MOMENT. Substanceless and un-sexy Zac Efron rom-com vehicle about a trio of dudes who each find the Abercrombie to their Fitch. R. 94m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill