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.

The Lego Movie film posterCREDITS
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.

RED (2010)

At some level this is an unlikely franchise — it’s basically just an excuse for lots of quite famous actors to have a bit of fun and, for many of them, to do the kind of action film they don’t generally get to appear in — but as both this and its sequel RED 2 (2013) show, actors having fun can sometimes, very occasionally, translate to an enjoyable cinematic experience for the audience. It may not be thought-provoking or particularly original, but it’s good to pass a few hours with some laughs in the company of some pleasant people.

The key, of course, is the cartoonishness, and as with so many recent films, this one is based on a comic book. There are plenty of big action setpieces, but it’s all in aid of a very self-consciously old-fashioned story — something to do with the participants in a secret mission in Guatemala in the early-80s that went catastrophically wrong all being killed off to protect a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, which pulls us into that Cold War world of po-faced 1980s films like Salvador and Missing (one of the participants in that secret mission is played a familiar character actor from the 80s, James Remar), but with a comic cartoon spin. It’s a different way of lightly setting out the collusion of the US executive and military (not to mention the Soviets, who also show up here) with shady Latin-American governments in that era to further their own interests, the application of the military-industrial complex so familiar from, say, Oliver Stone’s films.

The cast is dominated by character actors, including Helen Mirren very much playing against type just by being in this genre (and no doubt she took the gig for the chance to do the action scenes), but also Brian Cox as a camp Russian spy, Karl Urban as an impetuous young CIA agent, and John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman as Willis’s fellow retired spies (“Retired, Extremely Dangerous” is the acronym that gives the film its title). There’s also a small role for Ernest Borgnine as an archivist, linking the film to the 1980s via a different route (Borgnine was a central character on the very much espionage- and military-obssessed, but rather less comic, Airwolf TV series). However, it’s the (comparatively) younger actor Mary-Louise Parker who walks away with the film as the viewer surrogate, Sarah, a regular woman holding down a job at a pension fund call centre, who coordinates a vast array of facial responses and sarcastic rejoinders to the ridiculous situations she’s put in. Some of these skirt all too close to a non-cartoonish world — as Frank, the main character, Willis breaks in rather creepily to Sarah’s apartment and kidnaps her (for her own safety), but the writers don’t shirk away from the implications of this (it’s not played as any kind of romantic gesture that will lead to their falling in love), and I think it’s handled as well as it could be, all things considered. For the most part though, Sarah has the upper hand even over the trained professional killers.

Already this year I’ve seen too many big blockbuster films that are filled with effects and whizz-bang boys-own nonsense but seem like joyless money-making enterprises (I’d say they were made more by accountants than filmmakers, but that’s too much of a cliché — I know some accountants and they’re lovely and interesting people, so I fear its the filmmakers’ fault). I’m hardly claiming that RED is not a money-making enterprise at heart, but at the very least it’s not joyless. It’s fun, and while thought-provoking moral conundrums can be nice, sometimes all you want from your summer blockbuster (or home video rental) is a bit of fun.

Director Robert Schwentke; Writers Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber (based on the comic book by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer); Cinematographer Florian Ballhaus; Starring Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Tuesday 9 November 2010 (and on TV at home, London, Sunday 11 August 2013).

Now You See Me (2013)

Magic and cinema have always seemed to be a good fit, though the kinds of things that will impress a crowd in the live setting are obviously different from those depicted on screen; after all, we flatter ourselves that we understand a little bit of how image makers can manipulate reality. Movie magic depends on a different alchemy, and unfortunately it’s one that the makers of Now You See Me aren’t quite up to providing, though for the most part it’s a jolly ride.

The story introduces four illusionists with different skills: Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), whose chief skill appears to be supercilious smugness; Merritt (Woody Harrelson), a louche ‘mentalist’, very good at reading people; Henley (Isla Fisher), an escapologist; and Jack (Dave Franco), whose expertise I’ve already forgotten. They are recruited by a shadowy hooded figure into teaming up as the Four Horsemen to engage in a series of high-profile robberies, redistributing their filthy lucre from banks and insurers to others in society who are less fortunate. Obviously this becomes a cue for the movie to drop all kinds of hints and misdirects as to who this mysterious arch-manipulator might end up being. Is it Michael Caine’s insurance magnate? Morgan Freeman’s embittered ex-magician turned internet debunker of magic acts? Grumpy federal agent Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) or his mysterious French partner Alma (Mélanie Laurent), both of whom are in hot pursuit of the four?

The movie is breathlessly propulsive in its forward momentum, staging grand magic acts on a variety of stages (from Las Vegas to New Orleans to New York), car chases, heists, breathless pursuits across rooftops, and the like. However, these amount to mere parlour tricks for distracting the viewer’s attention, much as in Star Trek Into Darkness or Olympus Has Fallen (my other candidates for silliest film of the year, comparisons which will either be heartening or depressing depending on your own point of view). Director Leterrier’s style appears to be never letting the camera stay still. There are swooping crane and helicopter shots interspersed with dizzying spins around actors. At the very least it is disorienting, at its worst it can just be confusing. The script at times doesn’t reach much further, and there are supporting characters whose dialogue is entirely formed from crime film clichés, which would be a Godardian provocation if you didn’t suspect they’d just run out of ideas.

What is a bold provocation is making your four leading characters so unlikeable; indeed, Laurent as the French detective is probably the only sympathetic character in the film. Perhaps all illusionists are similarly cursed, but I suspect it’s a side effect of having to play tricks on people for your livelihood. For the film this could have been a fatal flaw, but for the protagonists’ crimes being against an even less sympathetic group: financiers. Thankfully, too, the actors bring some big screen charisma to these cast-offs, and there’s occasional delight in their ability to get one over the gruff Ruffalo and the incompetent forces of the state.

It’s a difficult trick to perfect: taking your time and money and making you thankful for that, and I can’t say Now You See Me entirely succeeds. And yet, whatever its drawbacks, I did enjoy it. It may not linger in my memory for very long, but there are worse ways to pass a few hours.

Director Louis Leterrier; Writers Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt; Cinematographers Mitchell Amundsen and Larry Fong; Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 17 June 2013.

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

There is already a vast body of action films stretching back quite some time which imagine the various threats to the United States and how they will be (inevitably) overcome by the power of a lone individual and a massive armoury of weapons. Even this film is only one of two this year about the White House (aka “Olympus”) itself being taken over by terrorists. Sometimes it feels as if every possible permutation of scenarios has already been played out in the movies, and so the strong resemblances that this film has to Die Hard (1988, and still a high-water mark in this kind of enterprise) are difficult to overlook.

We know for example that our lone individual (Gerard Butler in this case) will be a bit of an outsider from the corridors of power (in this case due to an unfortunate accident earlier in his career as a Secret Service agent). We know that once he’s at the centre of the storm, he will be initially tested by a misguided authority figure sending his troops on suicidal missions while the aforementioned lone hero is sidelined and only able to offer Cassandra-like prophesies of doom. We know that the villains will be almost preternaturally prepared for all possible outcomes for the majority of the running time (also exceptionally well-funded and organised given their North Korean origins), and will have no compunction in sacrificing their number where required. Plus of course there will be the sentimental sub-plot putting everything at threat, in this case the matter of the President’s son abandoned somewhere in the building. Add to this a good helping of hokey jingoistic nonsense, with some footage of a burning and bullet-ridden Stars and Stripes flag fluttering to the ground (in slow-motion so you can properly appreciate the symbolism), and you have the basic plot.

Of course, nobody goes to action films like this expecting subtle geopolitical analysis, and as someone who has quite enjoyed the occasional retrogressive thrill at the moronic excesses of the action genre, in some ways I prefer it when they just drop any pretence to being up-to-date (my favourite of recent years was Salt [2010] with its unreconstructed Soviet-era baddies). So by having North Korean villains the filmmakers almost approach topicality, though I’d argue they come closer to blatant racism, not to mention leaving plenty of unanswered questions. The terrorists aren’t allied with the North Korean government, but instead are renegade agents (very well-funded for such a poor country) who have infiltrated the South Korean delegation, without somehow becoming known to that government. Their chief demand is the withdrawal of US troops from the 38th parallel, apparently to allow some kind of takeover of the peninsula, which is always just assumed will happen. They are also almost entirely without any individuating character, many dressed in face masks, and all executed very perfunctorily as required; only the leader (played by Rick Yune) has any significant presence in the film but to even call his character one-note would be to do a disservice to monotony.

That said, depth of characterisation is not a noted feature of the action genre, and I can’t deny that there are plenty of visceral pleasures to be had in the propulsive forward momentum of the film. Whatever the failings of the by-numbers script, it’s all directed with a tight clarity of focus which almost manages to efface the essential blandness of its hero (even Jason Statham in the similarly retrogressive, but in most ways superior, Parker has more personality). Moreover, there are around the edges of the film plenty of excellent character actors (Aaron Eckhart as the buff President, Morgan Freeman as the stentorian Speaker of the House, Melissa Leo as the Hilary-like Secretary of Defense, Angela Bassett as someone so underwritten I have no idea who she was actually supposed to be, but Wikipedia tells me she plays the head of the Secret Service), who are all let down only by lacking much in the way of characters to play.

Having then plundered the Hollywood costume box for villains, character actors, explosive special effects and impressive weaponry, the resulting assemblage is certainly passingly entertaining. It just lacks a few of those things that to me make a film really worthwhile, like coherent characters doing coherent things in a way that’s not essentially hateful. And because I am an eternal optimist with an unfortunate soft spot for filmic violence, there’s no reason why an action film shouldn’t be able to achieve such humble objectives.

Director Antoine Fuqua; Writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt; Cinematographer Conrad W. Hall; Starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 21 April 2013.