The Lego Movie (2014)

I’m going to do a thing I don’t usually do, and I’m going to draw your attention to my rating. I’ve given this film three-and-a-half stars, because that’s the highest I’ll go for a film that is essentially a feature-length product placement. There are few movies I’ve ever seen in which cross-promotional brand awareness is more hard-wired — not even Cast Away (2000). It’s in the title, it’s in every frame, and it’s even in the overall theme: Lego™ can free your childhood imagination, and allow you to do whatever you can imagine (though I’m not sure this configurability extends to every product in the Lego back catalogue). What makes it better than just a mere advert, though, is the script, which is witty and, crucially, very funny.

It also helps that as the voice of the central character, the construction worker Emmet, Chris Pratt is very good. He hits exactly the right tone of someone who is happy to conform to rules, playing up to the same simple-minded everyman he portrays in, for example, TV’s Parks and Recreation, but with just enough self-awareness to see his limitations, and respond humorously to challenges to it. Elizabeth Banks as Wyldstyle is the woman who makes him realise that there are more ways of dealing with the world, while Morgan Freeman is of course an elder (Vitruvius) who dispenses sage advice.

The setup starts all very broadly, with the deranged Lord Business (Will Ferrell) stealing a powerful weapon from the clutches of Vitruvius, which allows him, now re-branded as President, to rule over a conformist world that sticks to his single-minded vision. But things quickly move into more interesting comic variations and imaginative reconfigurations of this world. We get Liam Neeson’s Janus-like Bad Cop/Good Cop, Will Arnett’s snarky Batman, and a perky rainbow character verging on the psychotic (almost predictably voiced by Alison Brie, again channelling a TV role, Annie from Community).

It’s all very broadly pitched, but the humour is knowing and self-referential enough that I also found myself wondering if kids would get it. We’re very much in the same nostalgic 80s ballpark as Wreck-It Ralph (2012), another slyly knowing children’s animation. What’s impressive is that all this plays out while the animation remains solidly based on the original plastic creations. Expressiveness comes from the animated mouths and the talents of the voice cast. Everything else is resolutely stop-motion in effect, if not creation (I’m fairly certain it’s CGI). And then there’s a late introduction of a surprise (but not, in the end, surprising) twist that really brings home the pathos — and, for those of us so afflicted, a few tears.

In the end, it’s a warm and impressive film with an unforced religious allegory, a bit of shmaltz and, importantly, enough strong and inventive gags crammed into every scene, that you almost forgive it its baldly capitalist pedigree.


© Warner Bros. Pictures

PREVIEW SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller | Cinematographer Pablo Plaisted | Starring Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman | Length 100 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 9 February 2014

My Rating 3.5 stars very good

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Role Models (2008)


FILM REVIEW || Director David Wain | Writers David Wain, Timothy Dowling, Paul Rudd and Ken Marino | Cinematographer Russ T. Alsobrook | Starring Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Elizabeth Banks | Length 101 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 4 January 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Universal Pictures

I may have had a little bit of trepidation going into this comedy, mainly because it looks like something that could so easily be so badly (and unfunnily) generic. The premise — two rather childish men, to avoid jail time, are sentenced to community service, which involves mentoring two fatherless misfit boys; hilarity ensues — could fit easily into the oeuvre of, say, Adam Sandler or Vince Vaughn without any problems, and I’m not the biggest fan of the resulting ‘hilarity’ in those situations. However, it turns out that Role Models is for the most part pretty well-judged, and most importantly it has laughs. I’d say it fits in most clearly with the gently ‘bromantic’ comedy of, say, Judd Apatow along with the improvisational work of Will Ferrell et al. (which of course is rooted in SNL) — and Paul Rudd is an actor who has successfully worked at all levels of American film comedy over the last 20 years.

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Kiseki (I Wish, 2011)

This is a short review, as again I’ve let myself get behind in my write-ups at this busy time of year…


FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Hirokazu Koreeda | Cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki | Starring Koki Maeda, Oshiro Maeda | Length 128 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 16 December 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Gaga

I think it’s clear at this point that Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda likes to make films about kids and their families, like a rather more sensitive rendering of the themes of earlier Steven Spielberg movies. His Like Father, Like Son was one of my favourite films at this year’s London Film Festival, and this previous film (only released in UK cinemas earlier this year) is also a delight. Both films feature families split apart — in this case by divorce — but I Wish takes the children as its protagonists, lending it also a sense of real child-like wonder.

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Nebraska (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Alexander Payne | Writer Bob Nelson | Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael | Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb | Length 115 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 9 December 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Paramount Vantage

My take on Alexander Payne’s films that I’ve seen is that they lament the way that masculinity is threatened or is in decline. Maybe that’s too simplistic, but they always seem to me to be very male-centric films. With Nebraska, the decline on show is very much physical, dealing as it does with the stooped and broken figure of 80-year-old Walt (played by Bruce Dern) trying to collect the million dollars he believes he’s won in a sweepstake. He’s abetted on this quest — very much reluctantly — by his son David (a hangdog Will Forte), and together they move from Montana to Nebraska, trailing back through Woody’s own family history. Still, whatever the pleasures of these two characters (and both are very well-acted), for me the film’s highlight is Woody’s cranky wife Kate (June Squibb), who is unconstrained in her criticism of both her husband and son, and their foolishness.

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LFF: Soshite Chichi ni Naru (Like Father, Like Son, 2013)


BFI London Film Festival 2013 FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Director/Writer Hirokazu Koreeda | Cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto | Starring Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Yoko Maki, Riri Furanki (as “Lily Franky”) | Length 121 minutes | Seen at Renoir, London, Tuesday 15 October 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© GAGA

I think this was my favourite film in the London Film Festival this year, but I’m finding it difficult to write much about it. In part, that’s because this delicate story of parents discovering that their six-year-old son was switched at birth is precisely that: delicate. It takes an inherently melodramatic conceit and really focuses in on the emotions of the father, Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), as he tries to come to terms with the situation. He is a hard-working banker who loves his son but has not been greatly involved in his life; his family have prompted him to believe that bloodlines are very important, so when he discovers his ‘real’ son is being raised by a poorer couple with several other children, he feels he needs to ‘rescue’ him.

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Man of Steel (2013)

Zack Snyder is not a name to inspire great confidence in filmgoers (at least not those I’ve talked to). I’ve only actually seen one of his directorial efforts, and I may be in a minority in quite liking Sucker Punch (2011). That was a film which seemed to depict its abused characters coping with and overcoming their traumas by reconfiguring them as video game challenges; it may not have been entirely successful, but it was a very interesting concept. There’s plenty of trauma in Man of Steel, too, but mostly on the audience’s part. The film itself seems curiously shorn of any human emotion, at least by the time it reaches its absurdly overextended denouement.

A key moment for me in this respect is a kiss shared amongst the crumbling detritus of a ravaged Metropolis, a falling skyscraper barely enough it seems to get the two to break off their kiss to take a look. It would be a moment of bathos if I could rouse enough emotion to care about anyone by this point, but after half an hour of mechanised (and curiously bloodless) destruction, there’s little empathy left in me. If this and Marvel’s The Avengers last year are anything to go by, American blockbuster movies seem to revel in destroying their cities, which is a curious place to be all things considered.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. The first half of the film concerns itself with the origin story and is (relatively-speaking) fairly low-key and interesting. Most filmgoers are probably aware of the basics: how Kal-El is sent to Earth from the dying planet Krypton by his father Jor-El, pursued by General Zod and his gang of usurpers; how he grows up in rural Kansas as Clark Kent, only slowly growing to understand and control his special powers; how he meets and falls in love with intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane. If there’s a sense that some of this is superfluous for most viewers, it’s nevertheless welcome if only for its calmer tone and pacing.

It’s never far from the surface that the Superman mythology is a thinly-coded Second Coming allegory, with Kal-El/Clark as a specifically American Messiah; he even has a scene of questioning doubt in a church at one point. As his father, then, Russell Crowe does a good job as a calm centre of Krypton’s benevolent patriarchal power, matched by Kevin Costner as Clark’s human father, even if a lot of his role involves staring off into the middle-distance and mouthing moral platitudes. Nevertheless, Costner’s a master at this kind of thing, and does it well.

These snippets of his rural upbringing are interwoven as flashbacks in what has largely become a peripatetic existence for Clark, as he shows up in enough different places to pique the interest of reporter Lois Lane. The way this unfolds all feels rather perfunctory, and Amy Adams, although likeable as an actor, has little to work with here. It’s not, in truth, a great film for actors of subtlety and imagination. Michael Shannon, for example, plays General Zod, and though he may have had some great roles in his time, Zod seems to require little more than shouting and glowering, a waste of Shannon’s more acute talents. Luckily, this helps the blandly attractive Henry Cavill to impress more as the titular hero. In a film where actorly insight has been pushed into the background, looking the part becomes more of an asset, and Cavill with his chiselled jaw and impressive physique certainly does do that.

I’ve already mentioned the way that by the end, the film seems to lack a sense of humanity: it’s a dour and serious film, dark and brooding without much in the way of levity or humour. This certainly sets it apart from the earlier film series with Christopher Reeve, and may point to the involvement of Christopher Nolan, whose Dark Knight franchise similarly ‘rebooted’ the Batman story, kitting out its world in cold, hard metallic surfaces and glowering darkness. But Batman is an anti-hero at best, where Superman is supposed to embody all the best of humanity. By the end, I feel as a viewer like Laurence Fishburne’s newspaper editor, watching impassively at the filmic destruction all around. Perhaps he feels unable to move from his window (though he does, at length) because he too is wondering where it all went wrong.

This is undeniably a visually impressive film, but at some basic level it has gone awry. I am left cold by its cold surface textures, and there’s little to convince me that any of the characters have any heart. And for a film about a character embodying the best of human nature, that’s a real failing.


© Warner Bros. Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Zack Snyder | Writers David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan (based on the comic book Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) | Cinematographer Amir Mokri | Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe | Length 143 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay [2D], London, Wednesday 19 June 2013

My Rating 1.5 stars disappointing

Mud (2012)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Jeff Nichols | Cinematographer Adam Stone | Starring Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon | Length 131 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 14 May 2013 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© Lionsgate

There’s something about all those signifiers of a ‘coming of age’ story that can really raise my hackles when watching a film. The idealistic young kids coming up against the harshness of their parents’ world, the fumbling and humiliation of young love, the wistful voiceover recalling an earlier time of life. Well at least that last isn’t in Mud, and I will concede that the ‘coming of age movie’ clichés don’t totally overpower the story, but the richness and wonder of the opening isn’t really sustained throughout the whole film.

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Nord (North, 1991)

This series, of which this is the second instalment, is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. As ever, you’ll notice my dust-gathering DVD collection includes a lot more European arthouse films. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.


FILM REVIEW: Movie Lottery 2 || Director/Writer Xavier Beauvois | Cinematographer Fabio Conversi | Starring Xavier Beauvois, Bernard Verley, Bulle Ogier | Length 92 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Sunday 5 May 2013 || My Rating 2 stars worth seeing


© Forum Distribution

There’s a lot of empty space in this debut feature from the director Xavier Beauvois, who is most well-known for the contemplative monastic drama Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men, 2010). The contemplation in this early work is altogether less divinely-inspired, unless it’s by the deities of ancient Greece, who seem to preside over this drama of a family falling apart under the strains of the father’s alcoholism. The empty space is the setting of the title, in the grey industrial North of France, around Calais where the director himself grew up. It seems to suffuse every scene, not least because so many unfold in extreme long shot, with the actors as small presences against the terrain.

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The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Derek Cianfrance | Writers Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder | Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt | Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn | Length 140 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 25 April 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Focus Features

I get the feeling that this is a film that’s a bit in love with itself, though I do tend to get that feeling whenever a running time greatly exceeds two hours. Thankfully, the extra investment of time is largely borne out by what’s on screen, with a few caveats that made me feel if anything that maybe a bit of extra time was needed. Maybe it should have been a mini-series. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a film of three distinct acts, the first two separated by a fairly short period of a year or two, the third taking place 15 years later. The central characters are Luke (played by Ryan Gosling) and Avery (played by Bradley Cooper), as well as their respective sons. Riding as a motorcycle stuntman in a travelling carnival show, Luke learns early on that he has a son with Romina (played by Eva Mendes), but when he tries to do what he thinks is the decent thing she resists his advances (she has already moved on), and he gets sucked into criminality. Avery enters the story later as a cop who gets mixed up in their relationship, and 15 years later their sons have to deal with the fallout. That’s really as much as I can say without giving away too much of the plot, but it’s essentially a ‘sins of the fathers’ scenario with added layers of class angst and existential yearning.

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