The LEGO Batman Movie

February 10, 2017 by  
Filed under Brian, Reviews

Starring: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson
Directed by: Chris McKay (TV’s “Robot Chicken”)
Written by: Seth Grahame-Smith (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”), Chris McKenna (“Igor”), Erik Sommers (“Spider-man: Homecoming”), Jared Stern (“The Watch”), John Whittington (debut)

Learning, post-screening, that “The LEGO Batman Movie” director Chris McKay cut his stop-motion, pop culture incisors on three-seasons-and-a-movie of “Robot Chicken” feels something like — if you’ll be a peach and pardon the simile — the final piece clicking into place in that pixel-y, scale-model-ish helicopter/racecar/pontoon boat/Millennium Falcon you’ve been coaxing into being from a puddle of disparate, primary-colored, plastic Danish peg-bricks.

That is: It fits. It makes sense. It was always there, formless yet undeniable until it was made explicit and you uttered a sotto-voce “of course!” It’s what Lego Oprah (surely that exists) might call an “Everything is Ahawesome” moment. (Good gravy. No more Lego puns for me.)

It explains, in other words, the palpable kinship in sensibility between the incumbent Bat-comedy and the wryly frenetic Seth Green brainchild, which strobe-lights references both broad and arcane at its adoring viewers with the stamina and breakneck pace of a Gatling gun manned by a circa-’90s Dennis Miller.

In case this sounds like a complaint: It isn’t. For one thing, if “Lego Batman” feels something like kissing cousins with “Chicken,” it feels even more unmistakably and specifically at home (by purposeful design, certainly) with its record-breaking, Chris Pratt fronted forebear, “The Lego Movie” (on which McKay served as editor and animation co-director, among other credits). Fans of the latter, thus, should find much to enjoy here. For another thing, it’s replete with more than enough fond-and-loving nods to Batman’s greatest hits (Burton/Keaton, Nolan/Bale, et al.) and deep cuts (Killer Moth? Gentleman Ghost? CONDIMENT KING?) — as well as to pop culture at large — to satisfy Batman casuals, diehards, and don’t-cares alike.

As the film opens, we’re re(re-re)introduced to our iconic, mildly bell-shaped, adorably Byronic antihero (Arnett): He broods, raps cavalierly at the fourth wall, raps (and beatboxes) and thrashes on electric guitar, and saves the city in a stunning pyrotechnic display of superheroic prowess without so much as breaking a shiny yellow sweat. And: He never takes off the cowl. Figuratively, at least, but pretty much literally, too. At home, he absently microwaves lobster thermidor, pads through cavernous, echo-chamber hallways, gazes wistfully at pictures of his parents when he thinks no one’s looking, and otherwise generally worries manservant/father figure Alfred (voiced by Ralph Fiennes, in apparent and much-appreciated observance of my deeply held personal belief that Ralph Fiennes should be in everything, please), who wants nothing more, in keeping with canon, than for his ward to lighten up and let people into his hermetic, kevlar-insulated world. Enter Richard “Dick” Grayson: uncommonly spry orphan, megawatt-candlepower Pollyanna, recent adoptive-son-via misunderstanding to billionaire Bat-beard Bruce Wayne, and soon-to-be alter ego of pantsless ur-sidekick Robin — limned, in a stroke of mad casting genius, by Michael Cera.

“The Lego Batman Movie” is at its best and most brilliant in these moments of winking, hyperbolic-yet spiritually-reverent adaptation. The characters we know like family, the tentpole relationships that have been hewn in granite for decades, are giddily skewed and exaggerated here, but are also yoked to the thrust and load-bearing theme of the tale: No Batman is a Bat-island. (Or, if you like, a Batcave beneath the surface of a Bat-island.) As did “The Lego Movie,” “Lego Batman” creates fruitful comedic juxtaposition by imagining The World’s Greatest Detective as a whiny, moody, braggy, dim, nigh-pathologically self-absorbed virtual adolescent who happens to be a superhuman athlete and crime-fighting savant.

Wisely, though, the film digs deeper to suggest the roots of this Big-style emotional stunting: Bruce is, in many ways, just a well-muscled kid who misses his parents. Alfred, ever of sage word and furrowed brow, a sea of tough love restrained by propriety and diction, struggles to shepherd his Herculean middle-schooler: In one of the cleverer bits divulged in trailers, he places a parental lock on the Batcomputer. Robin, traditionally conceived as a youthful, bright counterpoint to the “Dark Knight,” is here pushed to 11-and-then-some: He communicates in giddy squeals and effervescent ’80s pop songs and takes the world in guilelessly via Coke-bottle lenses that turn his eyes into saucers.

The most inspired mutation, though, is in Batman’s relationship with Zach Galifianakis’s Joker. Under Lego’s watch, the well-documented “you hate me but you need me,” intertwined-fate, two-sides-of-the-same-coin trope is writ flatly and unapologetically as an “An Officer and a Gentleman”-style “why won’t he let me in” movie romance, to the point that, when it resolves, you almost want Bats carting the Clown Prince off in his arms to the silky-gravelly strains of Jennifer Warnes and Joe Cocker. It’s one of those moves, an idea so simple and immediately, obviously right that you can’t believe you haven’t seen it before, or that you didn’t think of it yourself. Well played.

There were brief moments in which I found myself drifting. The story progresses logically and well, and even drew tears from me at certain points (it gets sweet, and I’m a crier), but “Lego Batman” is so engaging when it’s poking practical, affectionate, self-aware fun at the monolithically established Bat-Universe that I found myself wishing for a companion version of the film that eschewed plot and emotional resonance and cohesion and character growth and just let its writers loose to “Robot Chicken” jokes at me for 106 minutes. Still, McKay and company do an impressive job of weaving the thing into a working, breathing, family-friendly cautionary tale about overcoming pain and fear and letting oneself love and be loved again. (Again: I cried. At “Lego Batman.”)

And again, the writing, concepts, and casting are so smack-your-face fantastic at times (Jenny Slate as Harley Quinn!) and so warmly considerate of its fan base (Billy Dee as Two-Face!) that I’m eager for a second viewing. My viewing partner, an enormous “Lego Movie” fan, didn’t dig this outing as much, and I don’t know that I’d necessarily call it a perfect movie, but there are lots of things about it, particularly as a Bat-fan, that I love and appreciate to an extent that, frankly, I want to hug them and never Lego.

(Last one.)

Top Five

December 12, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union
Directed by: Chris Rock (“I Think I Love My Wife”)
Written by: Chris Rock (“I Think I Love My Wife”)

As a stand-up comedian, Chris Rock has had a long-lasting and strong career at the top of the food chain, selling out theaters and arenas and picking up awards for his specials. He has also had a great run on TV, with his successful HBO series, “The Chris Rock Show,” which also won Rock an Emmy. The one area Rock has yet to conquer is films where Rock’s two writer/directorial efforts have been met with poor critical reception and a matching box office total. With “Top Five,” however, Rock takes a strong leap towards capturing the essence of his stand up and talent for the big screen.

As a comedian who became a comedy film star, Andre Allen (Rock) no longer feels funny and wants his fans to take his dramatic work seriously. On the precipice of his wedding to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) and the big weekend opening of his new dramatic film, Allen begrudgingly agrees to an interview with New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (played aptly by Rosario Dawson) and finds himself unexpectedly opening up.

Though it isn’t exactly based on his life or career, it is easy to see how the concept of “Top Five” can be one shared by a comedian boxed into the genre and the pressures that go into having to be “funny” at all times. The films finest moments are when Rock goes off on tangents with bits of dialogue that sound stripped directly from a stand up act. Larger than life scenes like Rock’s retelling of a story of a crazy promoter in Houston played wonderfully by an energetic Cedric the Entertainer or a cameo filled bachelor party (including a Jerry Seinfeld cameo that is equal parts the most and least Seinfeldian thing you’ve ever seen) are sharply written and laugh out loud funny.

Once you get down to the deeper elements of the story, however, the façade begins to crack and the narrative can’t stand on its own. The film revolves around an ongoing interview, but the actual interview itself never seems to take place and the relationship that forms is never worth investing in. Rock also fails to provide any real commentary into the struggles of being a comedic actor who wants to be taken seriously or have his public perception adjusted, reality TV or the trappings of fame and expectation. There is also the case of the films title which is a reference to an omnipresent “Top Five Greatest Rappers of All Time” list that Rock likes to ask people. It’s a throwaway plot point that means nothing integral to the film itself, which makes the decision to title the film after it baffling.

“Top Five” as a complete piece is a bit of a frustrating experience. Make no mistake, when the film’s comedic moments hit, they hit hard providing big laughs. For all of its strong comedy, however, the film feels more like a collection of loosely connected vignettes, both comedic and dramatic, where none of the other plot points or writing clicks in a meaningful way. The film is at its most fun when Rock gets to let loose with jokes, be himself and parade out his cavalcade of comedian friends. Fortunately for Rock, there are enough of these moments to make “Top Five” an enjoyable watch and an undeniable step forward in the world of filmmaking.

Gimme Shelter

January 24, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Vanessa Hudgens, Brendan Fraser, Rosario Dawson
Directed by: Ron Krauss (“Amexica”)
Written by: Ron Krauss (“Amexica”)

No one is blaming actress Vanessa Hudgens for trying to separate herself from the fluffy roles that made her famous during her more formative years. She, along with fellow Disney princess Selena Gomez, was able to put some space between her and her tween fan base last year when she starred as a scantily clad criminal in “Spring Breakers.” It’s a routine other actors have tried before, all with varying success. Think Macaulay Culkin in “The Good Son” or Dakota Fanning in “Hide and Seek.” Even Molly Ringwald went to the dark side in “Malicious” after playing a slew of goody-two-shoe characters in the 80s.

While Hudgens has been working on her transformation for only a couple of years (she was also in the unwatchable “Sucker Punch” and “Machete Kills” where she tried some “edgier” roles), she still hasn’t found a character written well enough for anyone to take real notice. Unfortunately, the same can be said of her starring role in “Gimme Shelter.” In the film she plays Agnes “Apple” Bailey, a pregnant teenager who leaves her abusive mother (Rosario Dawson) in search of her estranged father (Brendan Fraser). When things don’t go as planned on account of her bad attitude, Apple finds sanctuary in group home for pregnant teens with the help of a caring priest (James Earl Jones) and a shelter caretaker (Ann Dowd) who guide her.

It’ll take more than a choppy haircut, baggy clothes, a neck tattoo and other unrecognizable features for audiences to believe Hudgens can lose herself in a role like this. She does her best with what she is given, but with as script as inauthentic and blatantly heavy handed as the one director/writer Ron Krauss offers up, Hudgens has nowhere to go emotionally. In fact, the only real change we see in her character is when more makeup is applied to her face after each scene in the third act to give some kind of false impression of resurgence and self-confidence.

There’s nothing in Apple’s life that should lead audiences to even imagine she is going to be alright. Are we to believe the girls she spends such little time with in this facility have done enough to help her see the error in her ways? Is Krauss trying to say that since God has her back, nothing bad can happen to her? The fact that Krauss is masking Apple’s personality with a host of weak relationships she creates during this pivotal time in her life makes her journey feel all the less affecting. Without Dawson mugging for the camera and Fraser emoting some ridiculous facial expressions, “Gimme Shelter” would be an empty vessel.

Trance

April 12, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: James McAvoy, Vincent Cassell, Rosario Dawson
Directed by: Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”)
Written by: Joe Ahearne (debut) and John Hodge (“The Beach”)

Though his movies are well known and his reputation as an impressive filmmaker is planted in the world of cinema, director Danny Boyle has never quite had a huge audience for his work. In fact, only one of his movies has ever crossed the $50-million box office threshold, and only three have crossed $20 million. Of course, that all changed when Boyle orchestrated and directed the opening ceremony for the 2010 London Summer Olympics, which was watched by an estimated 900 million people around the world. After being at the helm of an event watched by nearly a billion people, Boyle returns to his roots with another low-budget independent feature. In his follow-up to the stunning multi-Oscar nominated 2009 film “127 Hours,” “Trance” (which was actually filmed before the Olympic ceremony planning, shelved, and finished post-Olympics) is Boyle’s take on a psychologically skewed art-heist film.

In “Trance,” art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) helps to orchestrate a heist of an expensive painting. In the middle of improvising a double-crossing scheme, Simon suffers a blow to the head by ring-leader Franck (Vincent Cassell) and suffers amnesia. Unable to remember where he hid the painting, Franck enlists in a hypnotherapist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) in an attempt to figure out where the priceless painting was stashed. Elizabeth discovers Simon is in trouble and from there, relationships, motives and greed begin to emerge.

The performances in “Trance” are fine, but nobody particularly stands out. McAvoy is the best of the bunch, as he gets to play a wide variety of emotions. With Cassell, you get an above average version of a very typical crime villain. Dawson brings an overt sexuality to the role, which is laid on pretty thick by Boyle. Ultimately, it serves no real purpose other than to unnecessarily complicate relationships between characters. Strangely enough, while they all have pretty good on-screen chemistry, their relationships within the movie are poorly written and difficult to buy into.

Screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge along with Boyle perhaps overload on confidence, expecting the audience to care about the eventual end point of the story. The problem is that while the half-cooked plot lines are left hanging, there is no suspense or curiosity attached to them. Though there are themes of greed, trust, and obsession, which linger throughout the entirety of the film, the script as a whole feels incredibly unpolished and haphazardly thrown together. The presentation of hypnosis throughout the film requires a suspension of disbelief and even then is still extremely far-fetched. For a director who has such a distinct visual style and flair, even the look of “Trance” fail to impress. Sure, there are some neat camera angles and shot compositions but certainly nothing that could be considered a unique stamp for Boyle.

While “Trance” starts with an interesting premise, it eventually collapses on itself after an exhausting series of underwhelming twists that takes entirely too long to develop. Even after a drawn out, overdramatic expository scene, which explains nearly everything, there are still narratives turns in what seems like a never-ending loop of penultimate endings. Instead of being a thoughtful and challenging suspense film, “Trance” is unnecessarily confusing and akin to being given pieces to a puzzle that you just want to give up on halfway through.

The Zookeeper

July 15, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb
Directed by: Frank Coraci (“Click”)
Written by: Nick Bakay (“Paul Blart: Mall Cop”), Kevin James (“Paul Blart: Mall Cop”), Jay Scherick (“Norbit”), David Ronn (“Norbit”), Rock Rueben (debut)

Deep inside the ferocious land of Hollywood, grazing around the talent pool like a fat warthog at a watering hole, a stumpy beast hunkers down waiting to pounce on the first screenplay too weak to defend itself. His eyes dart back and forth as other more agile predators pick off the meatier prey one by one. Suddenly, the creature gets his chance. A scrawny script has been separated from its herd and is helpless. Within seconds, the brute leaps from his squatting position and takes aim. His broad calves push him forward for the kill, but it isn’t meant to be. His feet are caught in the brush and he lands on the ground with his face in the mud.
 
This is what the narration might sound like if the Discovery Channel featured a Kevin James Week.
 
Unfortunately for audiences, James, best known for the TV series “The King of Queens,” which ran for nine seasons before ending in 2007, gets his paws wrapped around more flimsy screenplays than anyone who likes to laugh would hope.
 
Despite his terrible movie choices over the last four years (“I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “Grown Ups”), James is as harmless as a collection of chubby cherubs, which is one reason he continues to get second-rate roles in comedies like “The Zookeeper,” another dismal product from Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Production Company (AKA Rob Schneider’s meal ticket).
 
Directed by Frank Coraci, who delivered one of Sandler’s best movies with “The Wedding Singer,” “Zookeeper” takes a page from another James flick, 2005’s “Hitch.” Instead of taking dating advice from Will Smith, however, James, who plays insecure lead zookeeper Griffin Keyes, is schooled in the subject of love by a zoo-full of chatty wildlife. Voice work includes Sylvester Stallone as a discerning lion, Nick Nolte as a depressed gorilla, and what sounds like a constipated Sandler as a capuchin monkey.
 
Although it might sound like another wannabe “Charlotte’s Web,” the talking animals don’t make up much of the story, which centers on Griffin trying to win his materialistic ex-girlfriend back. In one unfunny scene, a wolf explains that a male mammal must mark his territory to get the female species’ attention. Acting like even more of a numskull and for no particular reason, Griffin relieves himself in a potted plant at a dinner reception as if the advice was actually useful.
 
Let’s just hope James stops pissing on things long enough to realize his film career is already sufficiently soaked.

Seven Pounds

December 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson
Directed by: Gabriele Muccino (“The Pursuit of Happyness”)
Written by: Grant Nieporte (debut)

In “Seven Pounds,” debut screenwriter Grant Nieporte and “Pursuit of Happyness” director Gabriele Muccino keep the audience in the dark for so long, there’s no way to find middle ground between the lagging story and its foregone conclusion.

Will Smith plays Ben Thomas, an emotionally distraught IRS agent who killed seven people, including his wife, in an automobile accident, and vows to make amends for the pain he has caused. His plan: Ben will commit suicide, but not before finding seven people and “drastically changing their circumstances” by giving them something they need.

For example, when he meets Ezra Turner, a blind meat salesman, Ben decides after his death, he will donate his eyes to him. For a kid with leukemia he sees at the hospital, Ben donates bone marrow. A love interest presents herself to Ben in the form of Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), who is in dire need of a heart transplant (cue Ben’s giving nature).

It’s fairly obvious where Muccino wants to take this and has no shame in being so blatant about it. Smith is a talented actor, but in “Seven Pounds” he lays it on thick and the performance ends up too schmaltzy for its own good. Scenes of Ben thinking while staring out into the ocean, thinking while showering, thinking in the rain, thinking in the grass, are contrived. Smith is trying way too hard for an Oscar here and it shows. Any real emotion should have come from the relationships Ben creates (even from afar) with the people he plans on helping. But there’s really only time for Dawson’s character and everyone else ultimately ends up on the backburner.

Instead of “Seven Pounds,” a reference to William Shakespeare’s “A Merchant of Venice,” Nieporte and Muccino should have aimed for a couple of ounces and not spread themselves so thin. But reach they do and try giving us something profound to think about.  It’s not so much thoughtful as it is apparent and improbable.