The Lego Movie Sequel Disappoints, While Oscar Shorts Range From Rave-Worthy to RacistEXPAND
Warner Bros. Pictures

The Lego Movie Sequel Disappoints, While Oscar Shorts Range From Rave-Worthy to Racist

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part. Nothing feels more like a cash grab in Hollywood than a movie sequel. Usually, that means finding a way to bring back the same characters and actors and putting them in similar situations as the first movie and trying not to divert too much from the original’s formula. It often makes for a rather staid and safe movie-making experience. This sequel to 2014’sThe Lego Movie is no exception.

In the continuing adventures of Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) and Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), what once were surprises in the plot become predictable dramatic notes. An unrelenting fourth-wall breaking meta humor grows tiresome. A reliance on these lazy kind of jokes also betrays a lack of character building within the context of the film’s story, which tries to say something about staying in touch with one’s wholesome side despite scary experiences and cynical forces. Extend that theme into four endings, and you will find one restless audience where bringing your kids will test your own patience.

Writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller give up the directing helm to Mike Mitchell, the man behind a string of second-rate animated movies like Trolls and sequels including Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked and Shrek Forever After. When the film isn’t making self-aware asides to superhero movies, Mad Max and Jurassic Park, it features heavy-handed dialogue about how to grow up pure and true to one’s inner child. It all feels too grown-up to be genuinely precious, and the only moments of excitement arrive during brief brick-building action sequences or musical numbers that finally say more about the characters than the film’s slap-dashed, contrived dialogue. Opens wide Thursday, February 7. — Hans Morgenstern

Courtesy of ShortsTV

Oscar Nominated Short Films 2019: Animation. Animal Behavior, the first of this year’s Oscar nominees for Animated Short Film, posits the question: What if BoJack Horseman had no good jokes, absolutely no style, and nothing unique to say about the animals dealing with their emotions through therapy? Its disconnected attempts at humor veer between crass jokes and “timely” content like, uh, social media.

But the offerings improve from there, with all four additional works exploring familial ties in different manners. Bao and One Small Step come closest to each other, each about a child and their direct interaction with one parent. Bao is no less gorgeously designed than any other Pixar short, but there’s something especially enchanting (and shocking for many viewers, amusingly enough) about watching a mother grapple with her child growing up, as depicted through a dumpling who springs to life. By comparison, One Small Step features a Disney-like sense of imagination and fantasy, but its tonal shift doesn’t land as powerfully as it could have, ending up feeling like a light propaganda piece for space exploration as a career more than anything.

Late Afternoon explores common territory, that of an elderly woman dealing with a loss of memory, but does so in an intoxicatingly fluid manner. It’s a journey through time, memory, and emotion when all of those things exist out of reach, and the way scenes and colors fold into each other is just plain beautiful. But the best of the bunch, Weekends, juxtaposes two homes, exploring how a child navigates divorce, in both reality and his dreams. The short floats between amusing and haunting, focusing on the frustration of change and the comfort of familiarity, whether that’s a father blasting Dire Straights’ “Money for Nothing” on the radio or a mother trying to play Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1” on the piano. Opens at the Landmark at Merrick Park, O Cinema Wynwood, Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, February 8. It expands to the Cosford Cinema on Friday, February 15. — Juan Antonio Barquin

Courtesy of ShortsTV

Oscar Nominated Short Films 2019: Live-Action. The nominees for Live-Action Short Film this year at the Oscars are more than just a mixed bag; they’re as deeply problematic as the films up for top prizes. No, it’s unfair to saddle some of its better offerings like the riveting Fauve—which won’t be spoiled with a plot description but features gorgeous formal technique, child performances that actually work, and gut punches of emotion—with some of its most offensive.

Mother is the kind of short film clearly designed to get funding, a blandly shot one-take phone call between worried mother and abandoned son. If Marta Nieto’s performance wasn’t so strong, there’d be nothing here but a one-note concept, but it’s a promising lead-in to what will hopefully be a better feature. Marguerite instead delivers a full emotional arc in just as much time, rather lovingly showcasing two women, an aging woman and her nurse, connecting. It’s a shame there’s an overbearing score present throughout because it’s otherwise an undoubtedly queer work, navigating how female touch and gaze doesn’t need to be inherently sexual to be meaningful and cathartic for those who need it most.

This brings us to the representation we don’t need on screen: blackface. Skin is one of two damaging shorts in the lineup this year, quite literally beginning by humanizing a white family before sliding into a hate crime, an odd othering of its black victim and those who seek justice for him by using Mica Levi’s “Under the Skin” score, and the depiction of a white man, covered in full black paint, to make a stunningly stupid point about how racism affects everyone. Why say more when the word “blackface” should be damning enough.

Just as bad is Detainment, an absolute disaster that has true crime reenactment written all over it, only directed and performed by amateurs. It takes the murder of James Bulger, basing itself on interview transcripts and records and positioning itself as something groundbreaking, and turns it into an exploitative 30-minute drama; loudly painted, awfully edited, inconsistently shot, and unable to navigate drama in any meaningful capacity. It’s no surprise Bulger’s mother has criticized the filmmakers for their lack of compassion, and yet, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Academy, the most tone-deaf organization in cinema, ended up rewarding this empty garbage (or Skin, under the misguided notion that it's progressive in any capacity). Opens at the Landmark at Merrrick Park, O Cinema Wynwood, and Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, February 8. It expands to the Cosford Cinema on Friday, February 15. — Juan Antonio Barquin

The Lego Movie Sequel Disappoints, While Oscar Shorts Range From Rave-Worthy to Racist
Rafy / Orion Pictures

The Prodigy. “Jesus Christ, already?!” was a remark I heard among the crowd as The Prodigy’s opening scene ended on a carefully paced jump scare. So if that’s your kind of horror movie, then director Nicholas McCarthy has a flick for you. McCarthy, the director behind The Pact (2012) and At the Devil’s Door (2014), returns to theatrical movie-making following a low-key stint in television with something not wholly original but at least giddily constructed. Even if character motivations seem questionable (and what horror movie doesn’t have that), he at least never resorts to cheap tricks like cats jumping out from behind garbage cans. In The Prodigy, when something pops out from behind a panel under a sink, it’s legit disturbing.

Like so many movies before it, The Prodigy preys on that primal fear that parents have: not knowing who their children are. It’s been done many times before, sometimes better than others, and if you have seen Orphan (2009) you might recognize a similar plot. Taylor Schilling and Peter Mooney play parents to Miles (Jackson Robert Scott, who you may have last seen playing innocent Georgie Denbrough in It). Even as a baby, he displays quick learning skills. But with that intelligence comes psychotic tendencies.

Though the film does well with the jump scares, plus some smart camera placement, not to mention a series of brilliant match cuts at the beginning to clue the audience in on who Miles is, it fumbles a bit in the narrative category. The manner in which Jeff Buhler’s script unfolds allows for some long swaths of boring exposition that sap the tension out of the proceedings before the next fright. But if you want a movie-going experience that harnesses the power of the jump scare to the utmost, this is your flick. Opens wide Thursday, February 7. — Hans Morgenstern

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