Everything IS awesome in 'The LEGO Movie'
Owls Head — The LEGO Movie (Warner, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 100 min.). This is a nonstop roller-coaster of a movie, and a lot of fun to boot. The movie is so jam-packed visually that it requires repeated viewings, or at least frequent use of the pause button, to see all the frankly amazing LEGO creations. And who can resist the "Everything is Awesome" song with its pulsating beat?
Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt) is just an everyday LEGO construction worker, who follows the manual on how to live his life. However, when he falls into a hole after work, he beats Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to "the piece of resistance," which was set up in the prologue by Master Builder Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), to be the only thing that can stop Lord Business (Will Ferrell), also now the president, from using the Kragle weapon to freeze everything the way he wants it to be. With only three days to thwart Business' plan, Wyldstyle brings Emmet, now also known as The Special One, to the now-blind Vitruvius, who is hiding out in The Old West scenario. Wyldstyle is sure Emmet is not special -- he is not even a master builder -- but Vitruvius says his empty mind is a plus because he does not need to first clear his mind to see visions of what to build.
The movie has takeoffs on so many cultural icons that it is hard to keep up; however, the master builders who are against Lord Business include many familiar faces, including Batman (Will Arnett; and also Wyldstyle's boyfriend), Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and others. There is a pirate called Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), as well as 1980s space guy Benny (Charlie Day) and Unikitty (Alison Brie); plus, the Millennium Falcon and its crew have a hilarious cameo. Helping Business subjugate the world is Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), who can swivel his head into Good Cop mode. Bad Cop gets one of the funniest lines when, after he shoots Wyldstyle's hurriedly-built motorcycle down, he says, "Rest in pieces." There is a breakneck speed and abandonment of the linear to this witty film, co-directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ("Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," " 21 Jump Street").
The extras are decent too, albeit, there could have been more. The highlights are the audio commentary by the co-directs, along with actors Pratt, Arnett, Day and Brie, and a feature on actual LEGO master builders (13:28). Pratt narrates a making-of feature (12:36) and there is a Batman rap video, a fun look at history cops (trailer for a non-existent movie), a quick look at the story's development, an "Everything is Awesome" sing-along, storyboarded deleted scenes and 12 minutes of mini-instructions on how to make some of the vehicles and the double-decker couch used in the film. The "Everything is Awesome" Blu-ray combo pack comes with an exclusive LEGO Vitruvius minifigure, a bonus 3D version of the film and a 3D Emmet photo. Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 3.25 stars
Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it
300: Rise of an Empire (Warner, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 103 min.). At the complete other end of the spectrum is this overly bloody companion film to 2006's stylistically groundbreaking "300" film. True the blood splatter is highly stylized and in slow motion, as it was in the first film, but there are so many body parts hacked off here, I wonder how the film was able to escape with only an R rating. Based on Frank Miller's "Xerxes" graphic novel, the film, directed by Noam Murray, is bigger, nosier and above all bloodier, as it tells the story of Themistokles' (a solid Sullivan Stapleton) four water battles against the invading Persians during the same three days that the Spartans held off the Persians at Thermopylae in "300," until they were betrayed by a hunchback.
The movie is not really a sequel then. It tells a parallel story, beginning with a prologue about Themistokles' defeat and slaying of King Darius (Igal Naor) at Marathon in 490 BC, narrated by Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headley from the first film, also "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones"). (Note that the real Darius died of natural causes.) We see Darius' son, Xerxes (again played by Rodrigo Santoro) turned into a god-king after submitting to dark power. Twenty-one minutes in, we get seven minutes of Artemisia's backstory; she is the Greek who was saved by a Persian, turned into a warrior and now the admiral of Xerxes' fleet. As played by Eva Green, she is the best thing about the film.
Then comes the first of the four great sea battles, with Themistokles' strategy the key to the first two. Ultimately, the Greeks were defeated and retreated to Salamis for the fourth and final battle. In the first film, directed by Frank Snyder, who is heavily involved with this film as well, Sparta was rightfully portrayed as a society all about war. Here, the contrast with the free-thinkers of Athens, a city state of philosophers and scientists just trying out the concept of democracy, is shown, but sort of pushed to the background. By the film's end, the Athenians might as well be Spartans.
The action sequences are often terrific and water -- none of which was actually used -- is rendered very well, but overall the film lacks the grace of "300." It also is stopped cold midway by a ridiculous summit/seduction battle midway between Themistokles and Artemisia. The extras are worthwhile, particularly two of the four behind-the-scenes segments (total time 30 minutes) -- the ones dealing with the look of the films (shot in Bulgaria, by the way) and creating the naval battles. The feature of the real leaders and legends (22:52) is very interesting (the historical Artemisia was not killed in battle by the Greeks, and Themistokles ultimately ended up governing a Persian province, of all things). Also good is a 10:36 look at the Greeks' trireme warships (with three layers of rowers). The final two features are on woman warriors (12:22) and the actors training to become warriors (4:39). The film also is available in a 3D version. Grade: film and extras 3.25 stars
In the Blood (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 108 min.). MMA fighter Gina Carano owns the role of Ava that she plays here. Instead of some cheap, knockout action film, this is an unexpectedly satisfying actioner.
Ava, who has a history of domestic violence, is about to marry for the second time, despite the protests of the groom's wealthy father (Treat Williams as Robert Grant). Her new husband is Derek Grant, played by Cam Gigandet. There is real sweetness and chemistry between the two as they live out the first few wonderful days of their honeymoon on an unnamed Caribbean island. Then, they meet Manny (new standout Ismael Cruz Cordova) at a beach bar and he invites them to go dancing at a club (where violence breaks out between them and the men of Big Biz, played by Danny Trejo) and then to go zip lining (where Derek's line breaks and he is taken away by ambulance). However, Derek never shows up at the hospital. There are several days of Ava's desperate search for her husband, while she is accused by Robert of staging the kidnapping for Derek's fortune and she is disregarded by the local police chief (Luis Guzman). When Ava decides to take the investigation into her own hands, she becomes a force of nature, and is helped by Manny.
The action is satisfying and the world she has to work in is interesting. The zip line scenes are actually scary. The only bonus is a 19:20 behind-the-scenes look of the filming in Puerto Rico. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extra 2.5 stars
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 100 min.). Writer/director Wes Anderson has another winner in this star-studded film about the Grand Budapest Hotel, its legendary concierge Gustave H (a brilliant Ralph Fiennes, who is all formal one minute and bawdy the next) and Gustave's friendship with his new Lobby Boy Zero (outstanding newcomer Tony Revolori). The hotel is located in the mountains of the fictional European country of Zubrowska and the time is between the two world wars.
Much like one of those Russian dolls that contain smaller and smaller dolls, the film's narration starts with flashbacks within flashbacks. There is a prelude with a young girl reading a book about the hotel next to the statue of the author (played by Tom Wilkinson), who then starts narrating his experiences at the hotel in the late 1960s. In his flashback, he is played by Jude Law, and we see the young writer meet the hotel's mysterious owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner, Moustafa tells how he became the owner, and his flashback foes to the late Thirties, when he is played by Revolori. From then on, the film takes off.
A client/friend of Gustave's (and he made very close friends with all the elderly female guests of a certain type) dies ( she is played by Tilda Swinton) and leaves him a special, valuable painting, which her son (Adrien Brody) tries to keep from Gustave. However, he and Zero steal it instead. Eventually, Gustave is even accused of her murder. Then, he is pursued throughout most of the film by a military officer (Edward Norton). Willem Dafoe plays a cartoonish hitman, Jeff Goldblum is the estate lawyer and Saoirse Ronan is the pastry maker who captures Zero's heart. Harvey Keitel has an amusing cameo as the leader of a prison escape plan and Bill Murray plays a key member of the Society of Crossed Keys.
All in all, the film is an utter delight. It is very fanciful at times -- take the snowy downhill chase sequence that ends up on Winter Olympic-style courses -- as is Anderson's usual. This edition is short on extras, but Murray hosts a short tour of the town where they filmed (4:17). There are three vignettes (9 min.), which includes Wilkinson giving a historical slideshow; and three featurettes that include a making-of (18:08; an abandoned shopping center served as the hotel interior), a look at the cast (3:24) and a look at Anderson (3:46). I assume a Criterion edition with more extras will follow. Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 2.75 stars
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004, Criterion Blu-ray, R, 118 min.). In this Wes Anderson film, Bill Murray plays maverick oceanographer Zissou. He lost his best friend and partner Estaban (Seymour Cassel) during the making of his last documentary, so now his new mission is to hunt down the giant Jaguar shark that ate Esteban and kill it. Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) is asked to join the crew after the young airline copilot approaches Zissou with the story that his mother said Zissou might be his long-lost father becomes his seriously ill mother said so before committing suicide. Willem Dafoe plays Zissou's right-hand man, Anjelica Houston is Zissou's ex-wife Eleanor and Bud Cort is his accountant. Ned meets a pregnant British reporter (Cate Blanchette) who wants to profile Zissou for a magazine, and Jeff Goldblum plays Zissou's arch-rival and another husband of Eleanor's. One Portuguese crew member (Seu Jorge) does some fine covers of David Bowie songs. Oh, and of course, there are pirates.
The hefty extras include 10 Bowie covers by Jorge; a 15-minute making-of feature; a collection of drawings, sketches and photographs on the design; a 16-minute documentary shot by Intern #1; a collection of photographs taken during the filming; a 20-minute interview with composer Mark Mothersbaugh; seven brief actor interviews on their characters; a 17-minute Italian interview with Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach; nine deleted scenes; a 52-minute documentary made while the film was shooting; audi commentary by Anderson and Baumbach; a booklet conversation with Anderson; and, inside the cover, a cutaway view of the ship, The Belafonte. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 4 stars