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

Advertisements




REVIEW: The Hangover

20 08 2016

When I started writing this site over 7 years ago, it was the summer of “The Hangover.” This comedy sensation that came out of nowhere spawned Facebook wall posts and bumper stickers (remember those?) by the dozen. Lines entered the cultural lexicon at an unprecedented rate. Amidst 2009’s pretty great lineup of studio and indie entertainment, this was a film you wanted to go back and see again.

Obviously, much has changed since then. The original sensation went onto inspire a blatant cash-grab carbon copy sequel, and when director Todd Phillips and the Wolfpack tried to change courses for a third film, no one seemed to care anymore. By that point, Bradley Cooper reemerged as an Oscar-caliber actor, Ed Helms got bumped up the big desk at TV’s “The Office,” and Zach Galifianakis’ career began to sputter out doing similar schtick. Todd Phillips has only just returned to the directors’ chair, and unsurprisingly, he’s doing a bit of a career pivot of his own a la Adam McKay.

But do all these transformations do anything to diminish the original? Does “The Hangover” deserve to sit on such a high pedestal? Have all the rip-offs and imitators it spawned tarnished the sheen? Or, perhaps a bigger personal question for me … is the film so great because it came out around my 17-year-old summer? (A recent article on The Ringer made a pretty compelling case for why that year seems to always stand out when polling people’s favorite summer movie season.)

I rewatched start to finish the film for the first time in several years; I specify because I watched five to ten minute snippets constantly for the year or two it dominated HBO airwaves. The short answer – yes, it still holds up. Years later, “The Hangover” is one of the few comedies that can generate chuckles and belly laughs from home.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Birdman

29 08 2014

Telluride Film Festival

I hardly think it counts as a spoiler anymore to say that “Birdman” (sometimes also credited with the title “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”) is edited to make the majority of the film appears as if there are not edits.  This does not, however, mean the film is intended to give us the illusion of unbroken action.  Breaks in time and space are quite clear, yet the effect of the long take remains.

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, as he would now have us call him, achieves the herculean feat of collapsing a timeline of roughly a few weeks into pure continuity.  He’s less interested in continuous action as he is a continuous feeling or sensation, an invigorating break from the oneupmanship that seems to come baked in with long-held takes.

Waiting for a cut or edit in a shot is like waiting for pent-up tension to be relieved, an indulgence Iñárritu refuses to grant.  (Leave it to the man who gave us the debilitatingly bleak “Biutiful” to make us writhe.)  “Birdman” follows Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson, a former blockbuster superhero star, attempting to win back his legacy in a flashy Broadway play.  He has struggles aplenty, both with his inner demons and the cast of characters around him, and the film certainly does not shy away from trying to replicate his anxiety in the viewing audience.

This is not just pure sadistic filmmaking, though; Iñárritu’s chosen form matches the content of the story quite nicely.  The film feels consistently restless and anxious, and not just because of the consistent drumming the underscores the proceedings.  These sensations are contributed to and complimented by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography.

After his work on “Children of Men,” “The Tree of Life,” and “Gravity,” it’s a wonder Lubezki had any surprises left in store.  “Birdman” may very well be his most accomplished  cinematic ballet to date, though.  There’s an art and a purpose to every position occupied or every shot length employed.  Pulling off some of these constantly kinetic scenes must have required some intensely detailed blocking with Iñárritu and the cast, but the level of difficulty makes itself apparent without screaming for attention.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Are You Here

21 08 2014

Are You HereBack in February, I got to see Matthew Weiner’s directorial debut at a special screening in Winston-Salem, NC, where the film was shot.  This event came about halfway between when the film known as “You Are Here” premiered to unanimous pans at TIFF and its eventual quiet theatrical/VOD rollout as “Are You Here.”

The film might have been recut some since that screening.  The level of retooling needed to save what I saw, however, requires change on a far greater scale than inverting the first two words of its title.  The film was a sloppy combination of slacker comedy, family melodrama, and improbable romance, a problem that is likely rooted in Weiner’s script.

It’s fruitless to size “Are You Here” up against an episode of”Mad Men” (the series Weiner created to the tune of all the Emmys) since the two aren’t even in the same league.  It might even be generous to say that the film is comprised of discarded ideas he had in the “Mad Men” writers’ room.  Better for his show’s legacy that he managed to put all the clichés on the silver screen instead of the small screen, I suppose.

Amy Poehler does redeem the film from being a complete trainwreck with a layered performance that gives her more dramatic depth than ever.  Her character, Terri, has lived by the rules and expects to reap the lion’s share of her father’s inheritance over her aimless brother Ben (Zach Galifianakis).  And whenever she gets screwed over by the will, it forces her to reexamine her values and priorities.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: The Hangover Part III

17 06 2013

Two summers ago, I expressed my frustration with the inertia of the “Hangover” franchise in my review for the carbon-copy sequel.  I wrote, “‘The Hangover Part II‘ is like breathing in airplane air.  Recycled, stale, but better than not having air to breathe at all.  In essence, it gives you exactly what you expected – and nothing more.”  Had I known yet another follow-up was in the pipelines, I would have begged the question, “Is it too much to ask for something different?”

In which case, I would never have been so unhappy to have a movie give me exactly what I asked of it.  “The Hangover Part III” is definitely not the same as its predecessors.  But lest we forget, change is not always good.  In this case, it’s just kind of depressing to see how fast and hard a comedic sensation can fall.  The series’ legacy will now likely be one of a studio that took a truly original concept, hackneyed it to the point of annoyance, and then besmirched its name entirely.

In fact, it’s hard to call “The Hangover Part III” much a comedy at all.  Sure, there’s the occasional clever quip, but the writers’ new plot structure forays the series into a new genre entirely.  It’s essentially a chase film, an action-thriller that squeezes out a laugh every once in a while.

The so-called “comedy” of this installment is lazy and, quite frankly, offensive.  The nuance of the original “Hangover” is long gone, replaced here by cheap gags that are above the most immature of middle schoolers.  All “The Hangover Part III” has to offer is homophobic humor, offering up gays as objects to be ridiculed.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: The Campaign

7 08 2012

Political satires are no cakewalk, and they require keen insight to even get off the ground.  “The Campaign,” perfectly released into the silly season of a Presidential election year, is a pointed sendup of the antics of a post-Citizens United world where money can flow into elections like lava.  The message of writers Chris Henchy (who I still won’t forgive for “Land of the Lost“) and Shawn Harwell comes across loud and clear, although it lands without the strength of Will Ferrell’s punch that socks a baby.

While the satire may be sharply pointed, its impact is severely dulled by crude, sophomoric humor that is far beneath the intelligence of the ideas being expressed.  It stoops to pretty low lows – I’m talking like barely above the horrendously offensive “The Change-Up” – to provide entertainment for the masses … because heaven forbid they actually tried to level with moviegoers and not treat them like children!

Sadly enough, politicians have been providing enough inappropriate fodder for humor through gaffes and just plain idiotic behavior.  For example, in the summer of 2010, a joke where Will Ferrell’s cocky incumbent North Carolina Congressman Cam Brady sends a salacious picture to a mistress on Twitter, it would have just been laughed off as something Frank the Tank would have done in “Old School.”  Now, it’s a boneheaded move ripped from the real-life disgrace of Representative Anthony Weiner.  You stay classy, Washington.

Nevertheless, the jokes aimed straight at the heart of our nation’s capital are few and far between in the movie.  The means employed to achieve the ends of “The Campaign” distract from the real lunacy it’s trying to expose to the audience.  The fact that a few billionaires can put their puppet into play for a seat in the House of Representatives with just a few checks and a political consultant who knows what polls best in every category is probably not even that far-fetched a thing to happen off the screen.  They could probably even do it with somebody dumber than Zach Galifianakis’ Marty Huggins, the pug-loving village idiot!

No one is going to come out of “The Campaign” talking about the antics of the corrupt; they are going to come out talking about the antics of the comedians.  The movie becomes about what ridiculous lengths Brady and Huggins go to – and they go to ridiculously taboo extremes – in order to beat each other, not about what ridiculous system allowed this situation to become feasible.  It’s the billionaires, stupid.  While we’re on the topic of political slogans, the buck starts here, there’s nothing you can believe in, and no they couldn’t.  C+





REVIEW: Puss in Boots

7 03 2012

We’re all allowed some major guilty pleasures, aren’t we?

So sorry that I’m not sorry about loving “Puss in Boots.”  I’m well aware that it’s a shadow of DreamWorks Animation’s heyday of “Shrek” and “Shrek 2” (which introduced the titular character).  And it’s still no Pixar.  But the day that there’s something wrong with having a good laugh at clever wordplay and situations is a day I don’t want to see.

I was busting a gut throughout the movie, and it wasn’t even in spite of myself.  It’s delirious fun through and through, reclaiming a shrewd wit that seems to have eluded this studio’s movies for the past few years.  I’ll admit that I had my doubts about a spin-off, even if it was based on one of my favorite “Shrek” characters.  Yet once the movie began, all my doubts were put at bay and I was enjoying the movie like I was five years old again.

Antonio Banderas’ thick Spanish accent once again brings that sucker punch of spirit to the character of Puss in Boots, no longer a marginalized sideshow (can anyone say Mike Myers’ Shrek was their favorite character in the series?) but headlining a prequel to the action.  I must say, he makes a good case that DreamWorks should have spent ten years and four movies focused on him.  Trotting from pun to pun and one twisted-off fairy tale character to the next, he brings a laugh and a wide-faced grin with him wherever he goes.

Whether it’s romancing Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), a perfect romantic foil, through dance battles or attempting to decode the mysterious motivations of Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis in some truly inspired vocal casting), his adventures are a blast as he pursues the golden eggs at the top of Jack’s magic beanstalk.  The story never feels like something we’ve seen before, a remarkable feat for a franchise entry.  “Puss in Boots” really is just rollicking good fun for some reason.  I could spend more time trying to figure out what exactly that reason is, but I’d rather just let its silliness be and accept the mystery.  B+