This week I thought I’d step aside and let somebody else contribute to albertnet. In this post, the film critic Maynard Steele reviews my stop-motion animated movie, Lego Dude vs. Dinosaurs Run Amok. Here is the movie:
Movie Review – Lego Dude vs. Dinosaurs Run Amok
Making movies is one of those vocations that doesn’t require any specific education or credentials. Many is the actor who, after achieving fame and fortune, tells a fawning magazine, “What I really want to do is direct,” and then proceeds to do just that. And sometimes a director has no film background whatsoever, such as James Cameron, who was an English major until he dropped out of college to become first a truck driver, then the second highest-grossing film director in the world.
It would seem wise for an industry outsider making his or her first film to start out with something simple. Top-grossing director Steven Spielberg began his career with Duel, a very basic action movie about a psychotic tanker truck driver terrorizing an innocent motorist. For Cameron, it was Piranha II – The Spawning, which was about flying piranhas attacking people. Both directors waited until they had more experience before getting all film-school-y.
At first glance, the debut movie from blogger Dana Albert looks like a safe bet: a basic action movie about dinosaurs attacking a motorist. But from the opening frame of the film, we see that Albert is trying to achieve a level of sophistication that a motion picture newbie would be wise to avoid. His camera fixes its attention not on the action itself, but on the stage set where the stop-motion animation is done. A weak voice-over from Albert, mumbled and ineloquent, gives us some background on the making of the movie. This “meta-film” movie-within-a-movie device has stymied far better directors than Albert. For example, Joe Wright’s recent Anna Karenina featured a stage set where we viewers, as though in the audience at a play, watch the action unfold. Why not immerse us in Tolstoy’s world, like the novel does? Such added artifice almost never works, and is particularly weak in Albert’s film.
There’s also the matter of the medium chosen for this film. When bloviating to the press, Albert has claimed that his decision to use stop-motion animation for Amok was a simple matter of budget: he couldn’t afford live action special effects or CGI. But I’d guess there’s more going on here: I think he secretly hopes reviewers like me will compare him to such icons as Bertolt Brecht, who used absurdly basic props (e.g., a cardboard box labeled “sleigh”) to keep his stage play audience at an intellectual distance from the drama, to ensure that their rational, critical minds weren’t subverted beneath emotions and strong association with his characters. Only a desire to ape this kind of device could explain Albert’s use of crude plastic dinosaurs and Lego in his film. It’s a cheeky move, considering the vast intellectual gulf between geniuses like Brecht and mere hacks like Albert.
That said, the action in Amok unfolds crisply and the camera-work—this was shot using a handheld Motorola Droid—is efficient and unfussy. Albert’s collaborators, other first-timers including his two daughters and his mother, do a great job with characterization. (Different dinosaurs were manipulated by different hands, and it shows.) Most of the movie was gratifying to watch. Seeing the dinosaurs rallying to flip Lego Guy’s car over on him, I found my pulse quickening dramatically; I haven’t had such a satisfying visceral response to cinematic violence since the restaurant assassination scene in The Godfather. Small details like the way Lego Dude’s arm thrashes wildly as he’s pinned under the car are either a tribute to, or subconscious imitation of, something from a Sam Peckinpah movie.
All of this might have helped me forgive the weak start to the film, except that at the very end, Albert again inserts another blatantly artificial effect: a giant human hand appears, its finger pointing at—what? The answer is, who cares? This kind of abrupt rupture of scene is doubtless meant to recall other, greater works in which the creator shows his hand, dissolving the world of the narrative. Albert, who wrote his college thesis on Vladimir Nabokov, may well have had Bend Sinister in mind, in which the ill-fated main character is rescued by the author: “Just a fraction of an instant before another and better bullet hit him, he shouted again: You, you—and the wall vanished, like a rapidly withdrawn slide, and I stretched myself and got up from among the chaos of written and rewritten pages….”
I can’t help but think how much better Amok might have been with some tighter editing. Normally there is a post-production process, involving focus groups, that ensures a film doesn’t overly indulge a director’s vain artistic flights-of-fancy—but in this case the producer was the director’s mother, who probably couldn’t bear to oppose her son. A briefer, leaner Amok might have worked as a straightforward action flick, with the film-school shenanigans held out for the “Director’s Cut” DVD.
At the same time, I have to concede that something would be lost through such a revision. Clearly Albert had something serious in mind with this movie. Beyond the crowd-pleasing gore lurks a subtle didactic message that lingers beyond the cheap thrills. Could we surmise from the film’s shortcomings that this greater meaning is accidental? No, it’s intentional, and we can tell this, oddly enough, by the film’s MPAA rating.
Your typical action movie is PG-13. That rating, more than any other, brings in the teenagers, who are the darlings not only of Hollywood but practically every other industry as well. PG movies strike teens as lame, which is why they’re an endangered species; teens need to know a film will be edgy. (Before the PG-13 rating, George Lucas fought to have Star Wars rated PG instead of G, for fear it would be thought of as square.) And yet, Albert campaigned vigorously, and successfully, to have Amok rated G!
Why would he do this? Is there precedent for a violent movie getting a G rating? In fact there is: the 1972 sci-fi flick Silent Running. Though it’s not a hugely violent movie, every single human character is killed. The main character, Lowell, objecting to the planned destruction of the last flora from earth, housed in spaceship-attached greenhouses, murders the entire crew—bludgeoning one to death with a shovel—and then kills himself. Only the plants survive (and a few robots). Why the G rating? The MPAA must have decided that the environmental message was just too important to withhold from any part of the moviegoing public. (Environmental ethics aside, I think it was actually the piped-in Joan Baez music that drove Lowell over the edge.)
Albert also has a message to impart, to as wide an audience as possible. Through his Brechtian machinery, Albert asks the audience to draw back, detach from the bloodlust, and reflect on what he’s seen. What really happened here? At first blush, it seems the simplest of plots: a car crashes into a dinosaur, and several other dinosaurs converge on it and kill the driver. But how and why does the driver crash his car?
Watch again: there’s a passenger on the back, lacking not just a seatbelt but a seat, who falls out and lands grotesquely on his back. This distracts the driver, who—panicking—actually takes his hands off the steering wheel. This is why he veers right and plows into the stegosaurus. He’s immediately attacked by a dinosaur to our right, who might just be hungry, but the other dinosaurs—witnesses to this driver’s incompetence—are clearly retaliating when they roll his car up on him.
Are we supposed to identify with the motorist, or the dinosaurs? For my money, it’s the dinosaurs. The movie satisfies because so many of us—as pedestrians or bicyclists—have felt so vulnerable when a car has endangered us … but what if we were giants and could slake on our basest thirst for revenge? In his blog, Albert is fond of mentioning the “lizard brain,” and what better manifestation of it than the actual walnut-sized brain of Thunder Lizard? The dinosaurs get to carry out the retaliation we only dream of.
And yet, there’s always that pulling back, that emotional detachment Albert builds in to the movie. He’s telling us yes, enjoy the revenge theme, but then remember your essential humanity; we had a little fun here, but only giant lizards are allowed to kill. And there’s more to it: he’s inviting us to watch again, and look more closely. What else do we notice about the film, upon repeated viewings? Did you catch what happens to the passenger, whose fall started the violence in motion? Apparently unhurt, he gets up and flees the mêlée! The cause of the crash, the flailing of the arm, the flight of the passenger—we don’t see these at first, just as drivers see so little of what’s going on around them. It all just happens too fast, which is why we should all drive slower and try to pay more attention. And that, we realize, is the central message of this film.
Why not just say so, then? Well, Albert has, but words can be so easily ignored. Surely Albert has chafed at the limitations of mere text, and nobody likes a high-handed lecture or public service announcement. The brazen fun of Amok—its rapture of violence—transcends the limitations of priggish, didactic works. Notwithstanding its art and subtext, Lego Dude vs. Dinosaurs Run Amok is an action flick at heart.