The LEGO Batman Movie


The Batmobile is getting a little bit crowded.

(2017) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Ralph Fiennes, Rosario Dawson, Siri, Zach Galifianakis, Jenny Slate, Conan O’Brien, Doug Benson, Jason Mantzoukas, Billy Dee Williams, Zoë Kravitz, Kate Micucci, Riki Lindhome, Eddie Izzard, Seth Green, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Jemaine Clement, Hector Elizondo, Chris Hardwick, Ellie Kemper. Directed by Chris McKay

 

After the breakout success of The LEGO Movie in 2014, it became clear that one of the reasons for that success was Will Arnett’s delightful portrayal of Batman. Completely clueless and a bit of a jerk, it became clear that he deserved his own movie.

The movie he got is a face off between Batman (Arnett) and the Joker (Galifianakis) but not in the traditional sense. Jim Gordon (Elizondo) is retiring as police chief and his daughter Barbara (Dawson) is taking over but the pragmatic Barbara has some questions. If Batman is such a great crime fighter, why is Gotham so overridden with crime?

For Batman’s part, he leads a lonely existence, dining alone at Wayne Manor while watching Jerry Maguire and laughing in all the wrong places. His faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Fiennes) reminds Batman/Bruce Wayne that he has a responsibility – for one thing, to raise the orphan Dick Grayson (Cera) that he had adopted. Batman, for his part, didn’t realize he’d adopted the boy, thinking it was a joke. Grayson discovers Bruce Wayne’s secret and takes on the costumed vigilante identity as Robin, much to Batman’s annoyance.

But Joker has a plan; to release all of the monsters from the Phantom Zone and overrun Gotham. What he really wants though is for Batman to admit that the Joker is his arch-nemesis which the Caped Crusader just won’t do. But he can’t take on all these villains at once. He’s going to have to put aside his ego and admit that he needs help.

The movie is very family-friendly; kids will love it and adults won’t mind it either. While the “family is important” message will resonate with adults, kids might find it a bit saccharine; kids tend to prefer anarchy and chaos when left to their own devices. The nerd brigade will like the infusion of various DC superheroes as well as monsters and villains from across the pop culture spectrum (curiously there are no Marvel superheroes or villains, at least none I can remember). Adults will appreciate the rapid fire jokes that keep the movie jumping, not unlike a ZAZ film from the 70s. However, like most movies that throw a lot of jokes into the mix, not all of them work. A lot of them hit the mark though, like the whole lobster thermador thing. While the satire of the comic book genre is spot on, McKay and his cadre of five comedy writers also skewer movie conventions with Arnett’s portentous voiceover as the movie opens “Black screen. All important movies start with a black screen.” And he continues, hilariously, as the various production company logos come on.

The animation is simple but effective and makes clever use of the LEGO bricks that make up the world. McKay, a veteran of Robot Chicken, knows how to keep the action moving and there are some pretty spiffy action sequences. It does fall apart in the final act when there are way too many monsters and it becomes hard to follow. The palate is a bit darker than The LEGO Movie but it is still bright enough to keep the smaller kids delighted.

I don’t think this is as successful as The LEGO Movie but that may well be because we were so caught off guard by that movie. The bar was a bit higher for this one and if it didn’t quite hit it, it came damn close.

REASONS TO GO: Equally fun for children and adults alike. A fresh view of Batman and at comic book superheroes in general.
REASONS TO STAY: The humor can be hit and miss.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some animated action and a few rude jokes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fiennes is the third Oscar-nominated actor to play Alfred Pennyworth.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deadpool
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dig Two Graves

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Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice


The sky weeps at a wasted opportunity.

The sky weeps at a wasted opportunity.

(2016) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Scoot McNairy, Callan Mulvey, Tao Okamoto, Brandon Spink, Lauren Cohan, Mark Edward Taylor, Michael Shannon, Ripley Sobo, Sammi Rotibi, Michael Cassidy, Harry Lennix, Rebecca Buller, Kevin Costner, Soledad O’Brien. Directed by Zack Snyder

I really wanted to like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I really, really did. I was hoping that this would set up the DC cinematic universe in the same way Iron Man set up Marvel’s. I was hopeful that there is room in the multiplex for competing comic book universes, just as there are on the newsstands. I was hoping for something that would make me eager to see more. Instead, I got this.

In the aftermath of Man of Steel, Bruce Wayne (Affleck) has gotten a mad on about Superman (Cavill). His Metropolis headquarters of Wayne Enterprises was destroyed during the battle with General Zod, although at the time he has no idea what’s going on and who is good and who is not. Friends of his die literally before his very eyes in a kind of 9-11 redux.

18 months later, the U.S. government isn’t quite sure how to handle Supes. Sure he comes in to save the day but often people die and buildings crumble as a result. After he rescues Lois Lane (Adams) from a terrorist cell which ends up with U.S. soldiers dead, Kentucky Senator Finch (Hunter) is calling for Superman to have some sort of oversight.

In the meantime, plots are afoot; Batman/Bruce Wayne is out to take our Superman once and for all; he’s too big a threat to be allowed to run free. However, Lex Luthor (Eisenberg) has some plans of his own – and they involve the corpse of General Zod (Shannon) and keeping the Son of Krypton and the Dark Knight at each other’s throats.

This is a very bare-bones explanation of the plot and doesn’t take into account all the little subplots that go on, some of which have to do with setting up the DC universe – and we get brief cameos of superheroes who have movies come out in the near future – although Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gadot) has a more extensive presence in the film.

The premise is a fascinating one – what responsibility do superheroes have to the general public that they’re trying to protect, and should there be oversight to their actions. It’s a theme that we’re going to see once again this summer in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War which will divide the Avengers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but while I suspect we’ll get a thumping good storyline from the Russo Brothers who did so marvelously with their own superhero films, Snyder displays his Michael Bay tendencies and turns this into a bloated, incomprehensible mess.

That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons to go see this, mind you. Affleck, the subject of much Internet fanboy venom, actually turns in an outstanding performance as Batman – maybe the best ever. Christian Bale always made, in my opinion, a better Batman than Bruce Wayne; Affleck carries both aspects of the character nicely.

I do appreciate that there is a larger-than-life quality to the film. While it isn’t Lawrence of Arabia, it does give us an idea that the events we’re witnessing are changing the world that the movie exists in. There are some definitely epic battle scenes between Batman, Supes and a to-be-named supervillain who shows up in the third act as a kind of special surprise guest.

But the movie is sooooo dark, both literally and figuratively. Nearly all of the movie takes place at night, particularly when Clark Kent takes off his glasses and Bruce Wayne dons his cowl which I don’t necessarily mind; it’s the tone which gets to be more of a problem for me. Snyder did a magnificent job with Watchmen which needed this kind of darkness but here it becomes almost burdensome. Both Batman and Superman are supposed to stand for something good, but they are almost as bad as the villains, often caring little for lives of people who aren’t necessarily close to them. Batman aims to kill Superman which doesn’t seem to be in character with someone who had forsworn lethal force; Superman also shows little compunction in sending non-combatants to their early graves.

Another misstep was casting Eisenberg as Luthor. One of the hallmarks of Lex Luthor in the comic books is that he’s completely ruthless, but clearly brilliant. He often has plans within plans, schemes that aren’t so easily discernible. He is nothing like the tic-heavy loon that Eisenberg plays, unable to complete a single thought when giving a speech at a charity ball. If Luthor is completely insane, he should at least be lucid and Eisenberg plays him as the unholy offspring of Mark Zuckerberg and Sarah Palin.

The pace is ponderous and at two and a half hours long, the movie gets a little bit monotonous. How many times can you see a building reduced to rubble before you start yawning? Maybe I’m a little jaded here, but shouldn’t superhero battles be more than just throwing people into masonry and punching their way through walls?

There are enough positive elements here to recommend the film somewhat, although I have to say that I was disappointed with it overall. I was hoping for something that would inspire me to submerge myself in a new cinematic universe but now I have almost no desire to see any of the ten or so films that are scheduled to follow this one, particularly if they are directed by Snyder who showed an absolute leaden touch here. I hope Suicide Squad can redeem the series and bring back some anticipation for the following movies, although at the moment I wonder if DC can bounce back from a debacle which may fill their coffers for the moment but long-term will render it much more difficult to get the attention of fans the same way Marvel has been able to.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck is a terrific Batman. Some spectacular battle sequences. A definite epic quality to the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Bloated and often hard to follow. Too bloodthirsty. Eisenberg as Luthor was a colossal mistake.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of superhero violence, and some suggestive scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gal Gadot is the first non-American actress to appear as Wonder Woman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Green Lantern

The LEGO Movie


You can get the Batmobile in any color, as long as it's black.

You can get the Batmobile in any color, as long as it’s black.

(2014) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Liam Neeson, Jonah Hill, Dave Franco, Charlie Day, Will Forte, Cobie Smulders, Channing Tatum, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Shaquille O’Neal, Keegan-Michael Key, Jadon Sand, Melissa Sturm. Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Okay, when you’re wrong you’re wrong and I was wrong. I thought that a movie about LEGOs, the plastic brick building set for kids, would be as cold and as soulless as the bricks they were essentially pimping – a 100 minute LEGO ad. Far from it, as it turns out.

Emmet (Pratt) is an ordinary construction guy, as innocuous as they come. He lives in Bricksburg, a dynamic town which is constantly building and demolishing then building again so it pays to be a construction worker. People don’t really notice Emmet and he doesn’t really have a lot of friends. Did I mention that Bricksburg was built entirely out of LEGO bricks?

People conform in Bricksburg. Everyone’s favorite TV show is Where Are My Pants? and everyone’s favorite song is “Everything is Awesome!” (which I have to admit is awfully catchy). Everyone knows their place and what they’re supposed to do.

But then Emmet stumbles upon the Piece of Resistance, a mysterious item the likes of which he’s never seen before. This gets the attention of Wyldstyle (Banks), a pretty ninja-like minifigure who also happens to be the girlfriend of Batman (Arnett). She takes Emmet to Vitruvius (Freeman), a blind seer who informs Emmet that he is The Special, the subject of a prophecy that states that The Special will save everybody.

You see, the ruthless and megalomaniacal President Business (Ferrell) intends to unleash a fearsome weapon, the Kragle, on the unsuspecting people of the various LEGO worlds – Bricksburg among them but including places like Middle Zealand (a suspiciously Tolkein-esque fantasy world), the Wild West and Cloudcuckooland which is kind of a disco rainbows and unicorns kind of place.  Only the Piece of Resistance can stop the Kragle and only the Special can wield it. Help will be given in the forms of Metalbeard (Offerman), a pirate who had to reassemble himself from scratch after an encounter with President Business, Superman (Tatum) and his clingy sidekick Green Lantern (Hill), the 80s spaceship-obsessed Benny (Day), the too-cute Unikitty (Brie) and Wonder Woman (Smulders). Chasing them is President Business’ evil henchman Bad Cop (Neeson) whose head swivels into a Good Cop mode, and an army of Micro Managers.

The question is whether Emmet is too ordinary and unimaginative to face down the bad guy. The answer is that Emmet has his own kind of imagination and surprisingly, it comes in handy when they need it.

Lord and Miller who surprised with better than I would have thought they would have been adaptations of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street show again that it is not smart to underestimate them. They are an imaginative pair of filmmakers with a terrific visual sense and a quirky sense of humor. They aren’t household names but after this one they may be the most sought-after animation directors in Hollywood. They certainly deserve to be.

The visual flair here is near-perfect; everything and by that I mean everything looks to be made of LEGO other than in a live action sequence that I don’t want to spoil. They are so creative with the bricks that even the ocean looks like moving bricks. Lord and Miller go for an almost stop-motion feel in the on-screen movements so at time you almost believe that rather than this being all animated on the computer (which it is) that someone went to the trouble and time of assembling everything out of LEGOs.

I will admit that I’m of a generation whose LEGO experience is pretty basic compared to what you see here. We didn’t have many of the special brick types and we had a limited color palate – red, black, white, yellow and grey. We certainly didn’t have the mini-figures – that came later. People of my age will probably find a good deal of the LEGO in-jokes flying over their heads.

But most parents and most kids will find this right in their sweet spot. Everyone, even those my age, will appreciate Arnett’s spot-on performance as Batman (who is a little bit of a prick) as well as Ferrell who gets a surprising scene at the end of the film that helps truly elevate the film. Pratt, best known for his work in Parks and Recreation, is appropriately upbeat as Emmet, also adding some unexpected depth by the end of the movie.

This is the kind of work that made Pixar great and given that Pixar themselves have been less-than-stellar of great, it is a bit of a relief to know that quality kids movies are still being made. Hopefully this movie – which is making some truly impressive box office hay in the first two weekends of release – will inspire Pixar to raise their bar, which they are fully capable of. I know it certainly is inspiring me to want to go out and build something with LEGOs which I imagine is exactly what the makers of LEGO wanted all along so I suppose it turns out to be a 100-minute advertisement after all.

REASONS TO GO: Appealing to both kids and adults. Terrific animation and creativity. Some nice vocal performances by Arnett, Pratt and Ferrell.

REASONS TO STAY: Those unfamiliar with the various LEGO building sets and animations may miss a good deal of the humor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some innocuous violence and a bit of rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character Vitruvius was named after a 1st century BC author and architect who wrote important volumes on the science of architecture. The word “architect” can roughly be translated as “master builder.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Monuments Men

Arthur (2011)


Arthur

Russell Brand and Greta Gerwig try to out-cute one another.

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Warner Brothers) Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner, Greta Gerwig, Nick Nolte, Geraldine James, Luis Guzman, Christina Calph, Evander Holyfield, Leslie Hendrix, John Hodgman, Richard Bekins, Peter Van Wagner, Charlie Hewson. Directed by Jason Winer

 

The thing about remaking a movie which has become so beloved as 1981’s Arthur is that the new version is inevitably compared to the original and usually found wanting. The thing about films like Arthur (the original) is that they tend to be viewed through the dewy-eyed lenses of nostalgia and their flaws overlooked.

Of course, some movies are just flawed from the get-go. Arthur Bach (Brand) is the son of the CEO of Bach Worldwide, a major investment firm run by his mother Vivienne (James). Arthur is the sort of guy tailor-made for the tabloids, constantly getting involved in one scandal or another, usually having to do with women (he’s single) or alcohol (which he drinks a lot of). He is watched over by Hobson (Mirren), his childhood nanny who drily and somewhat acerbically sees to his needs and fruitlessly tries to protect him from himself.

But there’s one scandal too many and investors are beginning to lose confidence in Bach Worldwide. To stop the bleeding, Vivienne proposes to have Arthur marry Susan Johnson (Garner), her extremely competent right hand and the daughter of wealthy Burt (Nolte) the builder from Pittsburgh. She and Arthur had a previous relationship which ended badly.

Needless to say Arthur is reluctant to agree until Vivienne insists that if he refuses, he’ll be cut off from his inheritance of $950 million  (why couldn’t they just have made it an even billion?) so Arthur, not one to give up his toys easily agrees. Trust me, he’s got a lot of toys from a floating magnetic bed to the Batmobile. Yeah, that one.

So then he meets Naomi (Gerwig), a beautiful and spirited tour guide – well, a non-accredited one but she’s working on it. Arthur gets immediately taken with her and begins to woo her, despite her impending nuptials. He knows he has to go on with his wedding, not just for the money but because Burt the builder is going to use a power saw on him if he doesn’t. So Arthur is left with an age-old dilemma; marry for love, or marry for money.

The new version follows the old very closely, with some minor differences. Linda (the Liza Minnelli character from the original) and Naomi are very different, with Linda being a bit brassier and a bit shall we say less shameless while Naomi is a bit more quirky.

The movie rests on a several factors – the most crucial is the likability of Brand. He’s done this type of role before, the addled rock star Aldous Snow in Get Him to the Greek and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Brand can be charming and is here for most of the show but to be honest, it’s hard to really be too sympathetic to a spoiled billionaire rich kid with mommy issues. In all truthfulness, Dudley Moore really made the part his and Brand doesn’t quite measure up.

Secondly, the relationship between Arthur and Hobson has to be strong, and it is. Sir John Gielgud won an Oscar for his portrayal of the stiff English butler who has an arch streak in him and a soft spot for his gentleman. Mirren is a distaff version of the part who is almost motherly towards her charge but with a Margaret Thatcher iron spine. She doesn’t get as many bon mots as Gielgud did (“I’ll alert the media” in response to Arthur’s announcement he’s taking a bath, a classic) and she doesn’t have the same chemistry with Brand that Moore and Gielgud had.

There is a good deal of crudeness here; the original was for its day somewhat crude in its depiction of drunkenness but this one exceeds the quotient that way and for no good reason. The overall environment for the movie – the middle of an economic downturn might not be a time where the general moviegoing public might be terribly sympathetic to the super-wealthy – might also have contributed to its lack of connection to the audience when it was released to theaters.

There is some charm and warmth here which does go a long way – Arthur isn’t a bad boy at heart, merely a spoiled one. Garner does some nice work as the cast iron bitch who wants to marry him for his name and no other reason, a role that strangely suits her, possibly because she also does the nice girlfriend so well.

As for snuggling up with your honey on the big romantic movie night, there are probably some better movies to put on the DVD/Blu-Ray/VCR if you’re of such a mind, but if you’re into extravagant romantic ideas, there are some here that might fire up your imagination.

WHY RENT THIS: The source material had a good heart which shows through here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Russell Brand is no Dudley Moore. Crude in places it shouldn’t be.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of alcohol use here (mostly by Arthur), some sexuality, a few naughty words (very few) and a couple of drug references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the movie Arthur’s father is 44 when he dies, the same age as the original movie’s director Steve Gordon was when he passed away.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and outtakes which give you a further appreciation for Brand’s skills as a comedian but nothing that really sheds any light on the making of the film. 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $45.7M on a $40M production budget; the movie was unable to recoup its production budget during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Princess Bride