REVIEW: The Lego Batman Movie

7 02 2017

Spoof movies largely do not exist American cinema anymore, or, at the very least, they do not reach a wide audience anymore. We’re about a decade removed from the heyday of the “Scary Movie” franchise and their ilk, which eventually went off the rails because they lost sight of what allows this particular style of humor to work. It’s ok to rib and roast, sure. But when they moved from playful lampooning to pointed lambasting, the jokes started feeling mean-spirited.

The Lego Batman Movie” arrives in the wake of last year’s “Deadpool,” another superhero movie that took potshots at its own genre. The “merc with the mouth,” however, decried too many tropes that movie itself lazily embraced. Meanwhile, the latest burst of creative building block energy affectionately sends up the Nolan Batman movies and gets in a few jabs at lesser-loved outings with the Caped Crusader. The film even satirizes his macho posturing by making him struggle with waiting for food to heat up and bungling which HDMI connection he must select to watch a rom-com. And dare I say, it’s even gently – albeit with a wink – progressive.

Writer Seth Graeme-Smith, along with a plethora of other credited scribes, embrace and lean into the necessity of juvenility for their target audience. Their embrace of simplicity leads to a work that achieves two different goals for two different age groups. Adults will recognize the common skeletal structure of the modern superhero movie from the writers scaling back the narrative’s scope to child-comprehensible (and appropriate) levels. We know the dramatic beats so well that we can predict them. So does “The Lego Batman Movie,” which has an uproarious, subversive twist at every moment when we catch wise.

This laughter at recognizable, perhaps hoary elements of the superhero flick does not discredit or disparage the genre. Rather, it reaffirms their power, and that’s why sharing it with incredulous younger viewers is such fun. For many, a physical Lego Batman might be the only version of the hero they know. Will Arnett’s parodic voice work provides a gentle introduction to the darker stories that surround the vigilante antihero. Combining his pitch-perfect embodiment of Batman’s essence with the boundless imagination of the animators and storytellers makes “The Lego Batman Movie” earnest family fun. Though it sounds contradictory to say a film can function as both a genre primer and a critique, director Chris McKay pulls it off. A-3halfstars





REVIEW: Kubo and the Two Strings

13 01 2017

It brings me no joy to make categorical distinctions like this … but I just don’t think the storytelling of Laika Entertainment is just not for me. First “Coraline,” then “ParaNorman, ” and now “Kubo and the Two Strings” have all left me grasping at straws and wanting for more. Dazzling and creative as their animation might look, the narratives and the emotions never have much of a hook.

Travis Knight’s film boasts a fairly common hero’s journey-style narrative, as the scrappy titular character goes on a search for magic armor that will fend off the evil spirits that hunt him down. Turns out, Kubo belongs to a fraught family tree where his main pursuers are actually his grandfather the Moon King (voice of Ralph Fiennes) and his aunts, the Sariatu Sisters (voice of Rooney Mara). Along the way, he must band together with allies who have been reincarnated as animals – his mother as a monkey (voice of Charlize Theron) and a beetle with a connection to Kubo’s deceased father (voice of Matthew McConaughey).

I’d rather not go too much into plot summary, which is admittedly all I have in the absence of any strong feelings one way or the other. To blather on and on about how impressive the stop-motion animation was can serve no good. These are admittedly among the hardest reviews to write: the ones where I just felt entirely neutral. Especially when everyone else seems to love it, but that’s reacting to reactions rather than the movie. Guess I’ll just continue in my position on the outside looking in at Laika love. C+2stars





REVIEW: A Bigger Splash

22 05 2016

ABS_1Sheet_27x40_MECH_03.04.16_FIN11.indd“Interesting.” It’s the catch-all phrase for critics and reviewers, simultaneously meaning everything and nothing.

The word is often used in place of legitimate commentary, an adjective appended to an observation meant to prove the writer has two eyes but not two minutes to unpack the greater meaning of something. It’s a judgment with no value system to back it up.

When used before a comma and a negating conjunction, the word grants faint acknowledgement to what others might perceive as a strength – only to obliterate that argument to shreds.

Now, having said all that, “A Bigger Splash” is ever an interesting movie. The term here is not applied liberally or lazily. The entire film, from David Kajganich’s script to Luca Guadagnino’s direction, falls perfectly into the realm of the “interesting.” They play with stock melodramatic character types, the exotic European travel subgenre and plot developments both predictable and borderline outlandish. Their slight revisions draw attention and intrigue, sure, but they never come close to shock and awe.

It’s just … interesting. Enough to justify the retelling of a familiar type of erotic quadrangle – and expend the efforts of four in-demand actors to do so. Enough to cohere the romance, the suspense, the quiet political backdrop and the behind-the-scenes of rock ‘n’ roll – albeit not without some creaky tonal swings. Enough to draw out engagement and entertainment. Just maybe not enough to drive anything home.

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REVIEW: Spectre

15 11 2015

Sam Mendes made a great Bond film with writers John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade in “Skyfall” because they embraced a tricky opposition between the past and the future.  Could the unabashedly old-fashioned spy James Bond survive in a more gritty, grey world without sacrificing his core identity? They found that the answer was yes by striking a balance between these two forces vying for the soul of 007.

The band gets back together for “Spectre” (plus an additional writer in Jez Butterworth, architect of many a frustrating script in the past two years) and finds themselves preoccupied by the same kind of debate. This time, instead of the fear of age leading to obsolescence, the anxiety stems from post-Snowden malaise.

When a government has the ability to do its dirty work with drones and collect information on all its citizens through their devices, who needs human intelligence likes James Bond? This question is being seriously debated outside the world of the movie, and kudos to “Spectre” for not ignoring the elephant in the room. But the way Mendes and the writers choose to resolve the tension feels rather disappointing.

They use this threat as an excuse to retreat to some of the most outdated aspects of the character. Womanizing abounds as Bond pity romances a grieving widow to extract a key plot point. And Bond’s reward for neutralizing a key opponent? The “Bond girl,” Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, immediately feels the need to let him take her to bed. Simply put, there is a way to let James Bond be the ultimate man that does not require denying women agency. “Spectre” does not care to find that way as “Casino Royale” did, justifying lazy misogyny because of a rather facile challenge to Bond’s relevancy.

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REVIEW: The Grand Budapest Hotel

3 06 2014

Just so we’re clear: I have no problems with auteurism.  For those of you who just saw a French word and panicked, I’m referring to a school of film criticism that looks for recurring patterns throughout the work of an artist (usually the director).  It can often be a very interesting lens through which to analyze a set of films, and auteurism has the ability to shine a light on filmmakers outside of the general circles of critical acclaim.

Like anything in life, the theory has a dark underbelly, and to me, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” represents the perils of auteurism run rampant.  The film is Wes Anderson’s “Django Unchained,” in the sense that it represents a moment of stasis in the progression of a great director.  Anderson is now more than a director; essentially, he’s a brand, expected by customers to deliver a certain consistency of product.

Put into the position of becoming a cinematic McDonald’s, Anderson takes the easy way out by providing an assembly-line reproduction of what he has already created to great admiration.  “The Grand Budapest Hotel” feels like a less vibrant remake of a film he’s already made – or, perhaps more accurately, it feels like all of them at once.  Despite being set in a semi-fictionalized interwar Central Europe, the world Anderson portrays seems reassembled from pieces of “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Darjeeling Limited,” and even “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Even more than Anderson’s last feature-length cinematic outing in 2012, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” takes his telltale stylistic flourishes and puts them to an exponential degree.  Every other take in the film had to be a tracking shot, so it seemed.  The cameos and other miscellaneous odd appearances by acclaimed thespians is now less of an amusing diversion and more of a distracting parade.  The off-beat characters feel less like quirky people and more like paper dolls traipsing around in the elegant house Anderson created for their frolicking delight.

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REVIEW: The Invisible Woman

28 01 2014

The Invisible WomanLondon Film Festival

I generally try to avoid Victorian-era costume dramas as I usually find them quite stuffy and more attentive to the threads of the clothes than the threads of the story.  I didn’t need a reminder of their mediocrity, but Ralph Fiennes’ “The Invisible Woman” provided one for me anyways.  For nearly two hours, I endured the screen as a runway for the fashions of two-centuries past while a story played out in the background.

Abi Morgan, writer of films as brilliant as “Shame” and as dull as “The Iron Lady,” veers closer to the latter with her script for “The Invisible Woman.”  The movie tells the story of Charles Dickens’ mistress, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones).  She’s supposedly the true love of his life and an inspiration to his work, but it’s hard to feel any affection for Ternan from Jones’ performance.

Jones is as inaccessible here as she was in the brutal ultra-indie “Like Crazy.”  Ternan shows little emotion throughout the film save a scene where she walks alone on an expansive beach.  Though her silence does reflect the Victorian social norms, it makes for a tough watch with such a distant protagonist.

Fiennes’ Dickens becomes infatuated with Ternan while she is little more than an attractive wallflower in the background of a theatrical production.  They carry out an extended affair in the shadows, as both must protect their reputations, him as a public figure and her as a lady.  I felt as if  “The Invisible Woman” was pulling me to pull for Ternan, but I ultimately sympathized most with Dickens’ matronly wife Catherine.

I guess maybe you ought to call me a Victorian with that set of morals pulling for the married couple over what might be classified as love.  If I admit it, can I stop watching movies set in that era though?  C+2stars





REVIEW: Skyfall

22 11 2012

2012 marks the 50th anniversary of James Bond’s first appearance on screen, and while Sam Mendes’ “Skyfall” doesn’t explicitly make you aware of that fact until the ending credits roll, the landmark loomed large over the entire film for me.  Perhaps I’m an extreme case as my consciousness of the anniversary was no doubt raised tremendously by all the celebrations of the franchise on the beach at the Cannes Film Festival.  But it’s practically impossible not to notice the filmmakers’ awareness of the superspy’s legacy and how the very nature of the character is being precipitously torn in two drastically different directions.

Funny enough, the two previous iterations of James Bond with Daniel Craig inside the carefully tailored suit reflect the two competing forces for the future of 007.  2006’s smooth “Casino Royale” saw a return to an old-fashioned, suave Bond that harkened back to the glory days of Sean Connery.  You know, when a Bond film could bring in nearly $600 million (adjusted for ticket inflation).  And then, 2008’s “Quantum of Solace” took Her Majesty’s finest in a dirtier, muddier, grittier direction that resembled a Jason Bourne movie.

The makers of “Skyfall” were faced a choice: classic or contemporary, timely or timeless.  The decision was sure to be scrutinized by critics and semi-notable bloggers like myself who realized the importance of the film in the James Bond canon.  Thankfully, Mendes and writer John Logan (who seems to be the one garnering the most credit for the final product) realized that the concepts are not mutually exclusive and found the most intellectually rewarding experience came from examining the interplay between these binary oppositions.  The result is a remarkably contemplative movie of how the nature of James Bond has been determined by the time in which he serves whilst some essence of British class always remains.

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