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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Suicide Squad


Wanna come out and play?

Wanna come out and play?

(2016) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman, Cara Delevingne, Jay Hernandez, Jai Courtney, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Karen Fukuhara, Adam Beach, Kenneth Choi, Alain Chanoine, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Common, Jim Parrack, David Harbour, Shailyn Pierre-Dixon. Directed by David Ayer

 

There are those who maintain that a hero is nothing without a memorable villain to oppose him. That’s largely true; what would James Bond be without Blofeld, Holmes without Moriarty or Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader? We usually see things from the hero’s point of view but rarely do we get a glimpse into the world of the super villain.

Following the events of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the American government is extremely nervous. What would happen, posits Amanda Waller (Davis) who works for a shadowy intelligence agency, if Superman had instead of saving the world decided to destroy it? Who would stop him? Waller has an idea, one that is magnificent in its simplicity and alarming at its utter amorality.

She “recruits” (i.e. forces) several super villains locked up in the Belle Reve black ops prison in the swamps of Louisiana to form up a team to take on certain situations which are essentially hopeless. Situations in which the superheroes that are out in public (which are essentially Batman (Affleck) and the Flash (Miller) at this point) shouldn’t be risked as they aren’t exactly expendable. These guys are exactly that. Waller knows that and at the same time, she knows they have nothing to lose by running. She has a solution that recalls The Running Man to a certain extent but absolutely doesn’t say anything particularly nice about the woman.

And who are these guys? For one, there’s Deadshot (Smith), an assassin for hire who never misses with any firearm you give him. Then there’s Harley Quinn (Robbie), the deranged ex-psychiatrist who is now the Joker’s (Leto) girlfriend but who is a formidable opponent of her own. Then there’s Diablo (Hernandez), a gang banger who can shoot flames in any direction but when his powers caused the death of his wife and son, is attempting to reform and has vowed to never use his powers again.

=Add to that list Killer Croc (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a horribly mutated man who is half man, half crocodile and eats people when he gets the chance. Then there’s Enchantress, a demonic spirit that has possessed archaeologist June Moon (Delevingne) and possesses incredible magic powers, Captain Boomerang (Courtney), an Aussie thief whose weapon of choice is a boomerang that he is absolutely deadly accurate with. Finally there’s Slipknot (Beach), whose ability to climb any surface makes him a useful scout.

Overseeing these representatives of the lunatic fringe is Captain Rick Flagg (Kinnaman), a Navy SEAL who just happens to be Professor Moon’s boyfriend – and who is himself tough as nails. Having his back is Katana (Fukuhara), a Japanese martial artist with an enchanted sword that captures the souls of its victims – which include her husband among their number. Katana is able to communicate with the spirits in the blade, including her late hubby.

They are battling a mystical opponent who wants to essentially open a rift in the dimension that will end civilization as we know it. The problem is that the Suicide Squad as they have come to be known as don’t really give a rat’s tush about civilization. If they can stop fighting amongst themselves, though, they might just come through of it alive. The odds are not good for either however.

Let’s be blunt to start out; the DC Extended Universe (what they call their cinematic division) has not had the kind of success that Marvel has and the critics have absolutely excoriated this movie. Now, I will be the first to say that DC’s cinematic path hasn’t caught on for a reason; in trying to duplicate the tone of the very successful Dark Knight trilogy of Christopher Nolan. You’ll notice that the Marvel cinematic universe is anything but.

But is this movie really that bad? I don’t think so…for one thing it’s entertaining as all get out. Ayers is a director who has a very fine eye and a well-developed story-telling sense. He also knows how important it is for there to be fun in the equation, and there’s lots of great by-play between the characters and a lot of humor injected into the script.

He also has a helluva cast. Smith, one of the biggest stars in the world, has rarely been better than he is here. Yes, his Deadshot is one of the more developed characters in the film, but Smith gets to play a villain who has some human qualities as well (he’s absolutely devoted to his daughter, played by Pierre-Dixon for one). He also shows the kind of leadership skills shown by Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers in the Marvel Universe. The DC Universe sorely needs that.

Robbie has almost as much time in the movie as Smith and her Harley Quinn took a different path to the silver screen; Harley Quinn didn’t initially come from the comic books but from the television animated shows. She went from there to the comic books which she became something of an icon, particularly to female comic book fangirls. Robbie fills the role well; while some have groused that the character has been overly sexualized here (including Robbie herself), she turns in an intense performance, particularly since she has to go up against Oscar winner Jared Leto as her boyfriend/abuser the Joker.

Leto has been very vocal in his disappointment about what the role turned out to be, and in all fairness the Joker was never supposed to be a central character here. However, it stands to reason that you can’t really have Harley Quinn with Mr. J; it doesn’t work. His take on the Joker is a lot different than that of Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger or even Cesar Romero. Not better, not worse, just different. I liked Leto’s Joker just fine; he’s supposed to be unpredictable and Leto certainly makes him that. He isn’t nearly as menacing as Ledger’s Joker, nor as twisted as Nicholson’s. However, this Joker is wilder, more untamed than either. It is a good interpretation.

There are a lot of special effects, particularly involving the mystical vortex thingy that the Big Bads are creating. There are an awful lot of trans-dimensional vortices in superhero movies as of late and as those sorts of things go, this one is no worse nor any better than most. It just isn’t all that impressive; neither are most of the practical effects. Also, there are moments when the plot gets a little bit, ahh, thick. I found it a touch confusing at times and perhaps more casual comic book fans might feel the same.

Otherwise, I enjoyed the heck out of the movie. These really aren’t the A-list of DC villains (although the Joker is present) but some of the mid-level guys. Quinn and Deadshot both look like slam-dunks coming back for more cinematic superhero goodness. And all things considered, this didn’t do the DC Extended Universe better; it might well be the best of the three that have appeared so far, at least in my book. However, it still isn’t slam dunk enough to really elevate the franchise into a place where I’m actually excited about it. Maybe Wonder Woman will bring that to the game.

REASONS TO GO: There is excellent interaction between an excellent cast. Smith is at his very best here. Brings some of DC’s lesser villains to light.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects are unimpressive. The story is occasionally confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: As you’d expect, plenty of violence and superhero action, some sexually suggestive material and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harley Quinn’s baseball bat was given to Kevin Smith to thank him for hosting the TV special Dawn of the Justice League shortly before this film came out.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deadpool
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Gleason

The Dark Knight


The Dark Knight

Batman heads towards Sturgis, not realizing he's about to have the crap kicked out of him by 100,000 bikers.

(2008) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Eric Roberts, Nestor Carbonel, Cillian Murphy, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Ritchie Coster, Anthony Michael Hall, Michael Jai White, William Fichtner, Ng Chin Han.  Directed by Christopher Nolan

Most of us have light and darkness within our souls in equal or near-equal measures. There are few of us who are truly evil or completely good. In many ways, those sorts of personalities are aberrations, mutants that deviate from the norm. For most of us, that darkness and light are constantly at war as we strive to do the right thing…or the easy thing. For some of us that war ends in victory; for others, crashing defeat.

A bank robbery of a bank that launders money for the mob sets a chain of events in motion. The gangs, once completely in control of Gotham City are on the defensive after Batman (Bale) has largely cleaned up crime. They are approached by The Joker (Ledger), who offers to kill their nemesis for half of their funds, which their Chinese accountant Lau (Han) has transported to Hong Kong for safekeeping. The crime lords turn down the Joker’s generous offer, with one of them, Gambol (White) putting a bounty on the Joker’s head. That doesn’t end so well for Gambol and his gang is taken over by the Joker.

Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Oldman) and Batman decide to bring in the new crusading District Attorney Harvey Dent (Eckhart) on board their attempts to bring down the mob once and for all. Dent is dating assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal), who was the childhood sweetheart of Bruce Wayne, Batman’s civilian alter ego. While that raises Batman’s hackles somewhat, he realizes that Dent is the city’s great white hope and the best chance for him to retire the Batman cowl and live a normal life.

Batman captures Lau in a spectacular and daring raid in Hong Kong, allowing Gordon and Dent to arrest the mob en masse. The Joker announces that until Batman reveals his true identity, he is going to kill somebody in Gotham and he makes good on it, murdering the police commissioner and the judge presiding over the mobster’s trial. An attempt to murder the mayor is foiled by Gordon who is apparently killed in the process. Wayne decides to reveal his secret identity and is about to do so when Dent announces that he is the Batman, prompting Dent to be put into protective custody. The Joker goes after him and Batman rushes to the rescue. The Joker is captured with the help of Gordon, who had faked his death.

It turns out however that Dent was captured after all as was Rachel. The two of them have been taken to buildings on opposite ends of town, and are set to blow up at the same time. While the police and Batman race to rescue both Dent and Rachel, events are set in motion that will change the lives of Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent forever, transmute friend into foe and change Batman’s image in Gotham City from Dark Knight to something far more sinister.

This was the movie that owned 2008 and to a large extent the ripples of its success still rumble through Hollywood and influence the way movies are made. For many, this is not only the best comic book movie ever made; it’s the best movie period. I can certainly see their point.

Nolan made a movie that is all about choices and that war between good and evil in all of us. The best of us can be pushed towards darkness under the right circumstances. Nolan seems interested in seeing how far the breaking point is for a good man and his interest in this is seen through the eyes of the Joker. It’s hard to even comprehend, but our avatar in the movie is the villain and most of us don’t even recognize. That is an act of filmmaking genius in my book.

What helps pull it off is a performance for the ages by the late Heath Ledger. By now most everybody knows that Ledger died shortly after filming completed of an accidental overdose of prescription medicines and would win nearly every acting award posthumously for his work here. There are those who felt that it might well have been a sympathy vote but even had Ledger not passed away he would have deserved every accolade. His Joker is complex, insane yes but not a caricature – this is a real flesh and blood madman who is equal parts brilliant to equal parts insane. He is the center of the movie even if he’s not onscreen for much of it. His presence is felt in every moment of the film and when he is onscreen, there is no doubt that Ledger is the center of audience attention.

It also helps that nearly every other performance in this movie is outstanding. Eckhart’s craggy good looks make him the all-American hero, from dimpled chin to brilliant smile making his fall all the more wrenching. Gyllenhaal, who replaced Kate Holmes in the role (she inexplicably gave up the part to work in Mad Money with Diane Keaton and Queen Latifah…huh?) is much sweeter and more down-to-earth, making her a better fit than the fidgety Holmes. Freeman and Caine are also terrific, playing both ends of Batman’s moral compass. Oldman gets to play the hero, something he rarely gets to do (although his Sirius Black performance in the Harry Potter film might bring more of those roles his way).

Bale is the lead role here but to be quite honest he isn’t the focus. It takes a generous performer to allow his cast mates to shine, particularly when you are the de facto lead but Bale did that here, stepping out of the spotlight (or the Bat-Signal more appropriately) to become a part of an ensemble more than the heroic lead. It’s a gutsy move by both director and star and it pays off in spades.

The movie has an epic sense to it as well as a sense of tragedy which elevate this above the usual popcorn fare. The excellent script, by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, is almost Shakespearean in its scope. Those who denigrate comic books and the movies based on them as childish and one-dimensional would do well to watch this movie. These are characters you care about that have problems you can relate to in a setting that’s grand and larger than life.

The Dark Knight proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a big popcorn movie can be intelligent and daring as well, and still make box office bucks. It establishes Nolan as one of the great directors working today. A sequel is currently being filmed as of this writing for release in July of 2012 and barring a complete meltdown will likely be the Big Kahuna in terms of box office next year. If it’s half as good as this movie was, it will earn that title proudly.

WHY RENT THIS: Ledger’s performance is one of the greatest ever on film. Tremendous action and a great story make this one of the best comic book movies ever made.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many characters create too many subplots.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the violence is awfully intense and the Joker can be extremely disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Batman movie that features none of the following elements – Bruce Wayne in a tuxedo, Wayne manor or live/CGI bats. It is also the fourth movie to bring in a billion dollars in worldwide box office, and the first comic book-based movie to win an acting Oscar (Heath Ledger for Best Supporting Actor).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The 2-Disc DVD set includes some promotional viral videos of various cast members in characters being interviewed on a faux news program about the notorious Batman. There are also some featurettes on the Blu-Ray that cover the gadgets Batman uses as well as examining the psychology of Bruce Wayne.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1B on a $185M production budget; the movie was a ginormous blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

TOMORROW: Mammoth