The Lego Batman Movie ****

For those worried the Batman might lose his clipped, gravel-toned, conceited edge after the success of The Lego Movie (2014), fear not: Will Arnett gives his little black-clad Lego character an even bigger presence once again in an equally funny but far darker film, The Lego Batman Movie.

Bruce Wayne – aka Batman – must deal not only with Gotham City’s criminals and arch enemy The Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), but also a new police commissioner (Barbara Gordon, voiced by Rosario Dawson) with different ideas to his own crime-busting and an orphan child he ‘forgets’ he’s adopted (voiced by Michael Cera). Is Batman going soft in his old age, and will he and his long-suffering butler and ‘surrogate dad’ Alfred (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) finally get the family unit they crave?

While Batman revels in his notoriety on screen, DC and Marvel aficionados are thrilled by the blatant mockery of the Batman-related characters from over the years, accumulating in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight versions (for example, Bane). While the first half hour of the film is sheer glee for the adults, the kids are equally thrilled by the whirling colour, jarring movement and crackers pace as they see the Lego come alive. It’s a win-win for family entertainment this half term.

However, be warned: there are some very dark moments and characters in peril that might upset younger viewers. That said everything else is fairly tame, as expected with Lego, so there is no guts and gore, but little bricks flying all over the place. Kids will always love the explosions and mayhem, as adults marvel at the evolving creativity in front of them. A lot of the best lines are in the trailer, such as why does the flying Batmobile only have one seat? Answer: last time Batman checked he only had one butt. However, there are plenty more scattered around the film to enjoy, so you are either continually smirking or laughing throughout. That’s not to say there are not flatter moments where the same jokes are over-peddled, having seen their sell-by date, but the momentum is so erratic, you are propelled onto the next scenario to truly care.

Also, from a family perspective, there are morals aplenty to subconsciously be embedded in your little one’s psyche. This film is all about the importance not only of family and not being able to do it all on your own, but also (eventually) mutual respect – so important in today’s political environment. However, you don’t feel like you’re being bombarded with condescending messages like in some Disney flicks to the point of nausea. Little orphan Dick – who becomes ‘pantless’ Robin – is so adorably chirpy and excitable that you can’t help but be swept up in his gratitude as Batman gives him a chance in life. Of course, there are lots of delicious moments to savour as Batman tries to adapt to fatherhood while Alfred tries to control his ward’s inner child – cue wrong PC password moment that will have you rolling your eyes in recognition and in stitches.

The Lego Batman Movie is a Lego rollercoaster of a ride with highs and lows, and perhaps too many characters than it can handle on one screen and use to full comedic potential. Nevertheless, it is a marvel of an animation with a good pounding heart – plus you’ll all be quoting Batman in Arnett’s gruff tones for days to come.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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BFI LFF 2016: Prevenge ***

Alice Lowe was the writing/acting force behind the incredibly dark and murderous comedy Sightseers, directed by Ben Wheatley that sent excitable ripples through BFI LFF in 2012. The format here for new slasher-comedy Prevenge is not much different in terms of style. It’s another great showpiece for Lowe’s acting talents in a directorial debut, while boldly using the serious subject of antenatal depression as its emotive vehicle.

It also helps that Lowe was pregnant at the time of making Prevenge, rendering it a highly intriguing exploration for those with any such experience of this illness. By using the jet-blackest of comedy, Lowe draws much-needed attention to the condition, forcing us to confront its reality – very astute filmmaking indeed.

Lowe plays pregnant Ruth, virtually full-term but grieving a life-changing event that gradually comes to light. Along the way, she encounters an array of prejudice from a variety of people, dealing with it in her own murderous way, supposedly spurred on her unborn child’s voice from within.

Sometimes the touchiness subjects are best dealt with comedy. Lowe guides us throughout this tricky terrain with her usual deadpan, vacant stance, turning everyday remarks ‘those with child’ encounter into the ridiculous and hence, justifying Ruth’s reactions. The first couple of vile victims get their ‘just desserts’, with the inappropriateness of the opening scene dialogue only (brilliantly) registering after a minute, much like in a real-life abuse situation where disbelief turns to horror then to anger at being made the unwilling recipient.

Lowe never allows us to pigeon-hole Ruth quite so easily though, keeping her varied and unpredictable – the only given is she’s finding pregnancy tough and will have her baby girl in the end. Ruth is both entertaining as she is shocking in behaviour. Lowe nails the internal thoughts any expectant mother has had when faced with ‘sympathetic’ healthcare professionals and those believing motherhood is a woman’s natural urge. This is where Ruth’s character lays the vital foundations for us to empathise with her. She is consumed by grief and feeling alienated, walking alone towards the inevitable in a comatose state. These are powerful character traits that could have been further explored though.

The production values do place Prevenge in the low-budget, B-movie bargain bucket, and while favouring sobering muted tones and unfocused camera moments to reflect Ruth’s state of mind, also dwell too much on some of the kills as to lessen the of the significance of the illness Ruth is displaying. Lowe only manages to claw this back by getting some superb acting moments out of her supporting cast – such as Jo Hartley as Ruth’s chirpy midwife, even though most characters are painted as caricatures on the whole. Yet the unpolished production values also serve well to mirror an imperfect mental state, so it’s questionable whether any other way (and bigger budget) would have worked better.

Prevenge is a fascinating take on the female killer, as society still battles with – and disbelieves that – women do kill. Antenatal depression might give the intent and some might question using this subject in a nonchalant way, but only by Lowe’s bold filmmaking does it become accessible and open to debate. Lowe delivers an entertaining and thought-provoking directorial debut in her own unique style that could have gone deeper, but that can only be praised and built on in her next project.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2016: La La Land *****

As a slice of cinematic bliss goes, you can’t get better than Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle‘s latest musical offering, La La Land. Full of the joys and melodrama of the golden age of Hollywood, it’s a love story of various passions set in La La Land, but with sobering modern sentiment. It isn’t all happiness, but laced with moments of harsh reality. That said it is beautifully stylish and whisks you up in the lure of Tinseltown. It also puts a very flattering spotlight on its leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, so no surprises there have been nods and awards a plenty.

Gosling is Seb, a passionate jazz pianist who is a total purist but keeps getting the ‘bread and butter’ gigs that cramp his style. Stuck in an LA traffic jam, he briefly meets his destiny, Mia, played by Stone, who is an aspiring actor with a barista day job in the heart of Warner Bros Studios movie set land. She almost gets to taste the sweetest of acting success, only to miss out every time. Another chance encounter sets the pair on a course to romance, but can it survive the pressures of their own true passions, jazz music and acting?

La La Land plays out like a dream from the start, without being overly schmaltzy. This is thanks to the reality check it injects when things get a little too cosy. It’s an ode to the likes of the ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ era of cinema, complete with a similar dance number in the Hollywood Hills. It’s infectious and causes a good deal of toe-tapping and knee-jigging, without the need for its leads to burst into song all the time. There are respites of pure, vibrant jazz to enjoy that attempt to educate us – like Seb tries to do with Mia in the story. In that respect, it’s a highly sensory and all-inclusive film, whether you like musicals or not.

Gosling and Stone rift off each other superbly – and not just in song and dance, but actually the comedy moments: Mia teases Seb about his imposed choice of music gig to make ends meet. This gets sourer as the relationship progresses and careers take off, adding a very intriguing story arc that gradually creeps up on all and becomes totally consuming.

The overriding feeling of the film is of living in a parallel universe to your dream that’s within reach but just out of grasp too. It’s that lack of actual control that really resonates for anyone watching, especially when we are forever told about making bright new beginnings happen with each New Year that arrives. The film cleverly has you reassessing your life without knowing it and without patronage, making it all the more poignant and affecting.

It’s not perfect. There are brief moments of banality, pockets of the film that are easily forgotten weeks after viewing. However, La La Land offers a kind of therapy in a cold, unsure world, a guaranteed spiritual boost. It’s a film you will remember for how it made you feel, rather than for any meaningful storyline, especially with the haunting piano solo by Gosling’s Seb at the end. The fact that there’s nothing quite like it at the box office at the moment also makes it a wonderful alternative too, with no special effects (alright, we know Gosling and Stone can’t actually fly), no animation, no widespread urban destruction, just ‘staged reality’, one of La La Land’s most compelling contradictions.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Why Him? ****

Want to be entertained in a Meet the Parents / Father of the Bride kind of way this festive season? After all, for many of us, spending time with the ‘outlaws’ is happening right now – and for some, for the very first time. Why Him? from the former comedy’s screenwriter, John Hamburg, is just what you need. It also stars Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame in the lead comedy role that would suit Steve Martin any day.

Ned Fleming (Cranston) is invited to Silicon Valley to meet his daughter Stephanie’s (Zoey Deutch) new beau Laird (James Franco) and spend the holidays with them. Trouble is, Laird is a boundaries-less bundle of unpredictable energy, but a successful gaming software whizzkid. As old-school meets new tech, the sparks fly, but are Ned and Laird actually two peas in a pod?

It’s easy to dismiss this comedy from first glimpse of the snappily edited trailer. It does look like many other family-feud storylines. However, it has Cranston in superb comedy flow, plus hilarious set-ups that are allowed to fully ripen for full funny effect: Take the ‘space-aged toilet misunderstanding’ moment between Ned and Keegan-Michael Key as Laird’s advisor Gustav – often in The Pink Panther Kato style, as referenced in the script.

Utter silliness is still the order of the day, and some might be put off by the presence of two decorated members of the Judd Apatow film-making gang – this stars Franco and is co-written by Jonah Hill. That said there are some very astute observations about the fear of being ‘left behind’ in the tech race and in business in general, plus generation-gap differences that make the writing more superior to former comedies, rather than adopting the Apatow man-boy/stoner humour – even though this is in there too.

You do have to first buy into Franco in fine stoner form for all this to work, which prompts an initial eye-rolling reaction. However, his being judged by ‘Walter White’ is delicious to behold. Another gem is Will and Grace’s Karen – squeaky voiced toned down. Megan Mullally plays Ned’s wife Barb who tries to go with the flow and embraces new experiences. However, she is not merely the usual, coy ‘mumsey’ character that these comedies lazily add in, rather a comedy force to be reckoned with in each scene. That’s the beauty of this comedy; all the characters are strong individually.

Why Him? is obvious in its story direction – totally predictable in fact. The skill is how well it gets there and produces ample belly laughs to really enjoy along the way. For Cranston fans, it’s a world apart from Walter and even Trumbo, but it shows this great actor’s chameleon acting skills, and is another highly entertaining offering in the mix.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Monster Trucks (3D) ***

Don’t be fooled by the title; this is where machine and beast meet, not the kind of engine-driven trucks seen at Santa Pod and the like. Once you get your head around WHY such a monster would want to bed down within a clapped-out old pick-up, the daftness that is Monster Trucks is replaced by a certain fondness for the squid-like animal within, which the kids really do grow to love – once they’ve finished jumping out of their seats at its initial introduction.

Like any teen, Tripp (Lucas Till) is desperate to escape his small-town life and builds a Monster Truck out of scrapped cars at his local garage where he works part-time (run by Danny Glover’s character). An accident at the town’s oil-drilling site causes a ‘monster displacement’ and results in one taking refuge inside Tripp’s truck.

This oil-guzzling creature becomes an unlikely asset and friend to Tripp who makes it his mission to get the creature home – helped by Tripp-infatuated school chum Meredith (Jane Levy), after the oil company ‘baddies’ led by arch villain Rob Lowe‘s character try to prevent the beast and others like it returning to the lucrative, oil-rich drilling site.

This action-filled family adventure plucks at the heartstrings in many ways, unashamedly so too. We do sympathise with Tripp’s difficult family situation and immediately understand the developing bond between him and the monster as both needs protecting in their own special ways.

There is a lot of fun to be had while the film-makers berate greedy oil barons and America’s obsession with mining the liquid gold stuff. In a way, it’s a family adventure for the avid/budding environmentalist, with the mantra of ‘look at the damage caused by fossil fuels’ running right the way through, while strangely, worshipping petrol-head heaven in action.

For smaller kids, it has all that is needed to entertain; monsters, speed, trucks and chases, and the story is more than clear to any under five (as in my son’s case), especially as ‘Crank’ – as the monster is named – returns in The Abyss-style glory at the end. It is simplistic to the point of tedium for adults at times, but watched with small folk, can be quite exhilarating to experience together.

Monster Trucks is nothing profound – in fact, as to alerting young minds to environmental issues go, all-time classic WALL.E beats hands down. However, it does things in an immensely fun and loud fashion and in a way that kids will instantly connect to, guided by a young, good-looking hero-of-the-hour in Tripp. In an unexpected twist, it may just prove to be a school holidays’ box-office hit.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Passengers ***

Described by some as a ‘love story in space’, director Morten Tyldum’s new and hotly anticipated sci-fi action thriller Passengers throws up some interesting concepts at the start but falls short of further exploration. It is certainly slick to encounter and has a good chemistry in its leads, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, considering the appalling circumstance they come to be known to each other.

When passenger Jim Preston’s (Pratt) hibernation pod accidently opens 90 years too soon into a 120-year journey to another planet, he finds he is all alone on an auto-piloted ship. Panic turns to him making a life or death decision, and a romance with another passenger, Aurora (Lawrence). However, as the ship begins to malfunction and Jim’s secret comes out, it is up to them to rally together and save the voyage, ship and the lives of thousands of passengers on board.

The concept of being lost in space is a ripe and creepy one that feeds on our fears and curiosity of the greater beyond ‘up there’. Tyldum’s story plays on this nicely from the start, with Pratt our competent leading man demonstrating how to kill time while trying to figure out how to survive his dilemma. It is his only real time to shine in the film as, as soon as Lawrence is awake, the focus is on her and her complete screen dominance.

Again, Passengers demonstrates that whatever Lawrence is in, she steers the project, with the camera loving her and her every move, completely casting a shadow over Pratt. Even Michael Sheen as android bartender Arthur – like some sci-fi The Shining extra – upstages Pratt in their scenes. This is no fault of latter, only we are supposed to empathise with Jim. However, as he does something so despicable – bordering on stalker-ish, it is very hard to. Hence, here lies the conundrum and an apparent plot weakness. That said, what Jim does do makes you question how you would react in the same situation, so in an unsettling sense, it is also thought-provoking.

As the action ramps up – and Laurence Fishburne makes a brief appearance to help in the salvation, the idea of trying to establish control over your situation is an intense one that propels the story forward. The credibility of proceedings does leave you frowning as to how two passengers with limited knowledge could save such a ship in the timeframe given and defy the laws of science. Therefore, there is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief involved to allow you to enjoy the action scenes.

Passengers has some great ideas to ponder over and a good-looking cast. The ‘love story’ is a little titillating to show off how fine the two leads are. However, it needed to get its facts a little straighter and pay more attention to its plot scenarios to truly propel it into the big league of sci-fi memorabilia, which is a shame as there is a lot to chew over in it.

3/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Office Christmas Party ***

We all have them, some more eventful and memorable than others. This is just an excuse to showcase one of the wildest ones, surrounded by a film ‘plot’ about corporate meanness (festive redundancies etc) and Christmas spirit. Office Christmas Party has the staple offering of comic heavyweights Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Kate McKinnon and Rob Corddry who between them provide enough gurns and giggles to keep us entertained. Short of that there is nothing new to be had.

When uptight CEO sister Carol Vanstone (Aniston) threatens to shut down a failing branch of an IT firm that was run by her late father, her laid-back brother and party animal Clay (T.J. Miller in true ‘bogus’ hippie style) decides to throw the ultimate office Christmas party to woo a big client in town – and keep up his supposed office popularity.

Carol has forbidden any festivities, but Clay orders in excess. The night plays out well, until Sis gets wind of it and the VIP guest over-indulges. The party gets way out of hand, but in the haze of a hangover and complete destruction, a solution to all their problems arises, thanks to a little office camaraderie.

Aniston puts her best assets on show. Bateman is the reasonable man trying to resolve the situation. McKinnon channels her inner Ghostbuster eccentricity into a rigid façade crying out for release. And Corddry plays the angry man – again. So far, nothing is new.

The ‘saviour’ of the story is not Bateman as usual though, but the stunning Olivia Munn as programming whizz kid Tracey, fulfilling every geek’s wet dream and proving that beauty, brains and a killer sense of humour can co-exist in one screen goddess. In fact, this is very much a tale of female dominance, which is surprising to admit (without getting any deeper either), considering the party depravity. It even includes an unhinged female pimp, played by Jillian Bell.

The plot really isn’t up to much, so go along to Office Christmas Party with just that in mind – like being invited to the most outrageous do for 2016, without tasting a drop of beverage on offer. Every party has its characters, which fuel the memories – as this bunch do. Even though it will all be a haze in a month’s time as to what actually happens here, there was less of a sore head after watching, and more a cracking good time had that you can walk away from, without much consequence.

3/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Moana (3D) ****

We are getting quite used to strong animated female leads, and Disney’s latest hum-along entitled Moana – the name of the heroine in it – is no exception. She is headstrong, smart, courageous, adventurous and naturally, pretty. What makes her and her adventure more intriguing is the mythology surrounding the tale that anyone can enjoy, with songs that are emotive and toe-tappingly catchy, rather than pure schmaltz.

A terrible curse is triggered after a greedy Demigod called Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) steals a precious stone, causing all islands in the region to slowly perish. When the curse finally reaches Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho), an impetuous Chieftain’s daughter’s island, she answers the ocean’s call to seek out Maui and put things right.

Moana is a blaze of colour and a cool refreshing summer breeze on a chilly December day, with exotic island settings and characters that entertain all age groups. It also has enough subtle jokes for adults, rather than overkill of tedious ‘nudge, nudge, wink, winks’ that have to be explained in the darkness of a cinema as to why mummy or daddy is in a fit of giggles when something clearly unfunny has happened to small eyes.

Moana is also justified in her scolding nature at times, especially with the immature Maui, rather than damn right condescending like some other ‘Disney princesses’. She is very practical and full of wanderlust, which is infectious – though Disney can’t resist drumming home the ‘listen to yourself and follow your dreams’ mantra it survives on. Still, what’s wrong with that?

Again, the 3D is irrelevant for kids too young to keep their glasses on. The magic is in the colourful storytelling, the mood-raising songs and the fun characters that all have their minute of fame and purpose. There is even a Bowie-esque number by a crab that thrills.

Moana merchandise is in the shops, ready for Christmas. However, this time, you don’t resent the hard Disney sell as Moana is a role model any parent would actively encourage their offspring to have.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Bad Santa 2 *

We’ve been waiting for a festive sequel for over a decade now, where we can gleefully revel in Billy Bob Thornton’s sozzled loser Santa telling kids harsh life truths once more. However, we don’t get to enjoy every adult’s favourite wicked St Nick this time for a number of reasons – and it’s not actually Thornton’s fault.

This time, Willie Soke (Thornton) is about to put himself out of his miserable existence when another opportunity arises to make a crooked buck, thanks to old sidekick Marcus Skidmore (Tony Cox). Willie is reluctant at first because his former ‘diminutive’ partner in crime tried to top him last time, but the loot is too great to miss out on.

The hapless pair decides to rob a charity, but there’s only one hiccup; Willie will have to play Santa again. Also, Willie discovers it’s all his jailbird mother Sunny’s (Kathy Bates) idea – who he has never liked much. Can he put their differences aside and don the red suit to get to the prize?

Robbing a charity at Xmas is a risky plotline to start with, especially trying to make it seem ‘hilarious’. However, as wrong as that sounds, the biggest single issue is everything done to excess in this. There is too much swearing, too much shouting and too much Bates. Indeed, Sunny is meant to be as appalling as her offspring, but she dominates proceedings, and when she locks horns with Marcus, it’s a competition to be the meanest, ugliest character in the room, making Willie almost a saint. In fact, Willie is drowned out in the furore, so we don’t really get to hear him spout his poison.

Also, the Thurman Merman ‘man child’ character – who is much older and dumber and still played by cuddly Brett Kelly as in the 2003 film – just does not work this time around, short of squeezing a tear out of Willie. Thurman’s wide-eyed innocence in the original flick brilliantly contrasted with Willie’s nastiness. In this film, not only is he an afterthought, but an embarrassing attempt by the writers at rekindling the magic.

Christina Hendricks as pushover glam charity owner Diane Hastings must be a good sport as she merely fulfills all her fans’ Xmas wishes here by being a horny, busty conquest for Willie – and little else.

Bad Santa 2 is bad, and for all the wrong reasons. It’s definitely the biggest box office turkey this festive season, sadly, a shame as Thornton is very much still Willie in spirit.

1/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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