Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:
"THE LEGO MOVIE"
Totally redefining product placement, this energetic, eye-popping 3-D animated comedy/adventure celebrates the childhood experience of creative play with Denmark's Lego interlocking plastic construction toys.
In the miniature city of Bricksburg, the benevolent wizard Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman) confronts power-hungry Corporate CEO President Business (voiced by Will Ferrell) with an ancient prophecy that a Special will someday arise to dismantle the rigid conformity that keeps its citizens confined to their respective realms.
Eight and a half years later, Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks), an anti-corporate Goth girl activist, enlightens lowly construction worker Emmet Brikowski (voiced by Chris Platt), who is an obedient conformist, repeating instructions like: always use a turn signal, park between the lines, root for the local sports teams, drink overpriced coffee and don't forget to smile. When he inadvertently stumbles upon the mysterious "Piece of Resistance," Wyldstyle misguidedly envisions generic Emmet as the master-builder leader, even though he isn't "the most important, most talented, most interesting and most extraordinary person in the universe."
Meanwhile, as Business plots total domination, using a secret super-weapon, his henchman, swivel-headed Bad Cop/Good Cop (voiced by Liam Neeson), is determined to catch Emmet, who's aided by Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) and other cohorts (voiced by Nick Offerman, Alison Brie and Charlie Day). There's also Lando Calrissian (voiced by Billy Dee Williams), Green Lantern (voiced by Jonah Hill) and Superman (voiced by Channing Tatum).
Screenwriters/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ("Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs") have created a cleverly satirical allegory, subversively filled with sight gags, amusing jokes, imaginative spectacles, a potent message and an unexpected plot twist at the conclusion. Plus, there are timely references to NSA surveillance, random public shootings, trigger-happy cops and erratic weather conditions. Inspiration comes from "The Truman Show," as a man suddenly begins to suspect that his perfect life might be manipulated, along with "Toy Story 2" and the "Star Wars" fantasies, among others.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Lego Movie" snaps together with an audacious, awesome 8, proving ordinary can be extraordinary.
Screened for the press in November, Jason Reitman's romantic melodrama sinks in a plot quagmire, proving that even the most seductively delicious peach pie goes stale when it sits on the shelf for several months.
Narrated by now-grown Henry Wheeler (Tobey Maguire), it recalls what happened over Labor Day weekend in New Hampshire in 1987, when precocious, then-13-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and his depressed, agoraphobic, divorced mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), encounter Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) on a back-to-school shopping trip. He asks them for a ride and a place to clean up since he's got blood on his shirt -- and there's more than an implied threat when he adds: "Frankly, this needs to happen."
So Adele takes him home and tends to the wound on his side. Frank says he jumped out of a window, but she soon learns that he's actually just escaped from prison, where he was serving a 20-year sentence for murder, and there's a manhunt to find him.
Then, what was originally a hostage situation inexplicably -- and improbably -- turns erotic as, during a three-day idyll, Adele seriously considers leaving with him for Canada, where they can make a fresh start in life together.
Based on a pulpy 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard, it's most memorable for Brolin's peach pie crust-making sequence. As he and Winslet knead dough, it evokes memories of Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore's far-better "Ghost."
Food stylist Susan Spungen ("Julie & Julia," "Eat, Pray, Love") was charged with making the bakery goods camera-ready and the actors look convincing. But, according to interviews, Brolin was so determined to acquire the necessary skill, that he created one juicy, homemade pastry after another, dutifully following the recipe in Maynard's book.
Screenwriter/director Reitman tackles this maudlin fantasy with gusto, filling it with flashbacks and telltale details -- in addition to the sugared peaches -- leading to a safe, if contrived, compromised conclusion.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Labor Day" is a soggy, often silly 6, a problematic choice for Valentine's Day.
"THE GREAT BEAUTY"
Visually dazzling, Paolo Sorrentino's Golden Globe-winning film is an extravagant odyssey through Rome, ostensibly examining the hedonistic lifestyle of Jep Gambardella, an acclaimed writer. Fittingly, his story begins at a bacchanal celebrating his 65th birthday. With hundreds of revelers romping around him, Jep confronts not only the camera but also his squandered years, devoted to being the sort of charming socialite who not only could throw the best parties but who could ruin other people's parties at will.
Forty years ago, Jep wrote a novel, "The Human Apparatus." He's lived on his literary laurels ever since, scribbling superficial celebrity profiles. "Rome makes you waste a lot of time," he explains. Dwelling in a sumptuous flat that overlooks the Coliseum, he surrounds himself with friends and admirers. Accompanied by a middle-aged stripper, Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), he attends fashionable events with the upper bourgeoisie, strolls along the banks of the Tiber, meanders through deserted palazzos and impertinently questions his mysterious upstairs neighbor.
Until, one day, a stranger appears on his doorstep, introducing himself as the widower of the woman who was Jep's first true love. Together, they commiserate about her passing as Jep is overwhelmed by nostalgia, evoking the film's opening quote from Louis-Ferdinand Celine: "Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength."
Using thematic imagery that evokes fond memories of Fellini's "La Dolce Vida" and "Roma," along with Antonioni's "La Notte," it's written by Umberto Contarello and director Paolo Sorrentino, who works once again with his charismatic "Il Divo" star Toni Serbillo, to create a pulsating, satirical portrait of a suave, world-weary journalist searching for his long-lost idealism while experiencing the exquisite sights and sounds of the glorious Eternal City, distinctively depicted by cinematographer Luca Bigazzi. Indelibly amusing episodes include a less-than-spiritual visit from Sister Maria (Sonia Gessner), a recipe-obsessed Cardinal (Roberto Herlitzka), and slavish devotion to a Botox technician.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Great Beauty," in Italian with English subtitles, is an elegant, existentially enigmatic 8, a magnificent meditation on opulence and decadence.