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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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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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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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ***

The J.K. Rowling imagination is always a treat to witness on screen – and on the page, so this magical ‘prequel’ to the Harry Potter series was bound not to disappoint on a creative level and be equaling immersive.

Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne is English writer Newt Scamander, a socially awkward intellectual who arrives with ‘animal baggage’ in New York to source more species. However, he gets embroiled in sinister witch hunts – by ‘Muggles’ called ‘No Majs’ – and power struggles within the secret community of witches and wizards, seventy years before school-boy Harry Potter reads his book.

The more cynical might say the latest story is milking the cash cow that Rowling has made so lucrative. However, fans of her wizard world cannot get enough of the super imaginative existence, and this is again delivered in spades, along with some comedy moments.

The film also appeals to animal lovers and preservationists, with a couple of ‘innocents’ at the helm trying protect the former. Redmayne is perfectly cast, but as Newt spends a lot of time in mumbled reflection and social awkwardness, it is down to Muggle ‘comic’ sidekick Jacob (a great performance by Dan Fogler), who Newt unexpectedly gets entangled with at the start, to be our guide and re-enforce this ‘wide-eyed innocence’ the film so relies on to further enchant.

Rowling cleverly ties in real-world beliefs, with America’s witch trials in the 1920s, giving the story foundation greater significance. Hence, context, setting and cast are all commendably established, ready for the next in the film installment. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same affliction as the first Potter films, with a lot of the space dominated by trying to set up the pre-Potter world (of how it all began) – even to the detriment of the fantastic animals – that the film’s story gets a little lost.

That said as a festive family offering, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them has all the charm needed to make it a satisfying viewing – and a must-see for Potter enthusiasts, kind of like a history lesson in Potter origins.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Doctor Strange ****

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Any Cumberb*tch could have told you their idol Benedict Cumberbatch was on a higher spiritual level a long time ago. Indeed, the actor is famous for playing cerebral, influential men, so it’s no stretch of the imagination to find him a Marvel hit in the role of Doctor Strange.

When brilliant neurosurgen Dr Stephen Strange awakes from a serious car accident without the full use of his hands, he tries to find every means possible to recover, even pushing away support from fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), an old flame. His inability to accept his current predicament leads him on a journey to Nepal to find ‘The Ancient one’ (Tilda Swinton) who has helped another man make a full recovery.

As a man of science Strange finds it hard to take her advice and is skepitcal about the ‘magic’ of the mystic arts she performs. Little does Strange know that this newfound power will not only save his life, but also the whole world’s from the dark forces set to crush and consume Earth, under the command of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of The Ancient One.

Co-writer/director Scott Derrickson and team have brought the intriguing Steve Ditko character to life, helped by some excellent casting in Cumberbatch who is as egotistical and narcissistic in the role as he is very funny. There is a superb script to enjoy and some genuinely hilarious retorts, as Strange tries to navigate this magical new world with sarcasm and scientific doubt.

Swinton adds the gravitas required for a key spiritual teacher and is faultless as she is vulnerable in the role – and equally amusing. However, it’s Strange’s quips at the expense of po-faced librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) that steal the main laughs – the running joke being that the ex-surgeon thinks he is a funny man when clearly he is an acquired taste.

McAdams also gets in on the laughs to relieve her character’s tense interactions with ‘spiritual’ Strange upon his return, and can be counted on for a solid performance in everything she does. There is also an assured turn by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, another pupil who rejects the use of the dark powers in healing others.

Hannibal actor Mikkelsen fails to disappoint yet again as the bad guy, with his steely gaze intact and laudable focus on the mission. The film’s fight scenes are also very well choreographed, with a good balance between action and character development throughout.

Derrickson’s mind/eye-bending set, like something from Christopher Nolan‘s Inception, keeps the fantasy morphing and fresh as we navigate it’s Esher-like space before entering another plane. The effects are highly impressive, as is the creativity poured into them – just witness skeptic Strange’s first experience through the astral plane, which is like riding a psychedelic rollercoaster.

Doctor Strange makes for a promising entry into the Marvel world for the uninitiated – and stay to the very end of the credits for both sneak peaks of what’s to come, involving other Marvel heroes. Some of the slower parts of the film go unnoticed because Cumberbatch always commands a presence and is immensely enthralling to watch.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Ben-Hur (3D) **

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Ben-Hur (1959) was a true Oscar-winning epic (eleven in total), earning the epitome “bigger than Ben-Hur” for any movie since made to be compared against. These are mighty shoes indeed to fill for any studio willing to step up to the challenge. Enter Paramount’s 2016 remake into the Roman arena.

Although like-titled Ben-Hur (2016) strives to capture the grandiose thrill of the infamous chariot race, it needed to be bigger, “much bigger than Ben-Hur (1959)”. It ought to hang its head in thin imitation shame, regardless of how much its leads, Jack Huston (as Judah Ben-Hur, the embattled Jewish prince) and Toby Kebbell (as Messala Severus, the aggrieved Roman officer) try in vain to be larger-than-life screen actors than they are.

The 2016 film needs a cast with gravitas, long the lines of Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. In fact, re-recruit the leads and director (Russian Timur Bekmambetov of Wanted fame). The only one who can stay is dreadlocked Morgan Freeman as horses betting man Ilderim, complete with that ever gleefully naughty twinkle in his eye, who always commands an impressive screen presence, doing very little for his paycheck here.

For those not au fait with the plot, Ben-Hur from Jerusalem (set in Jesus’s time on Earth – played here by Rodrigo Santoro) is from a wealthy noble family who takes in an orphaned Roman boy called Messala Severus and raises him as its own. The competitive boys grow up together, but an accident spurs an older Messala to leave the family home and join the Roman Army to prove his worth.

Years later, Messala, now a high-ranking Roman Army officer returns by Pontius Pilate’s side (played by Pilou Asbaek of A Hijacking fame), riding through Jerusalem. Ben-Hur is warned in advance by his adopted brother to stop any possible threat to the Roman visit from those who opposed Roman rule. But an attack on the party results in Ben-Hur being falsely accused of treason by Messala.

Ben-Hur is banished to be a gallon slave for five years, but a terrifying fate sets him free. A chance meeting with horse dealer Ilderim puts him in a position to seek revenge by competing against his estranged adopted brother in a chariot race, hosted by Pilate. Only one man can win – and survive.

The latest incarnation lacks the real passion and strife of the 1959 film, though it has plenty of more gore to elevate it above a tame Sunday-School educational affair. The religious aspect is very much present, complete with a physical Christ and crucifixion. To be honest, Santoro’s presence just sparks suppressed giggles in the context of things when he appears, rather than deity awe.

Huston is not hungry enough for revenge like Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur was. He’s certainly not happy being in the midst of Bekmambetov’s shipwreck of special effects, but he just seems a tad ‘unfazed’ by his brutal experience to be convincing – and no amount of muttering words of encouragement helps either. That’s not to say he won’t win some fans battling all elements in this. He does give the part as much as he can.

Kebbell fares better. He has the appropriate petulant scowl needed. However, like his brother in arms, Huston, he is even less convincing in terms of sheer strength needed to be a true chariot racer in the arena. This is meant to be a very physical film, in terms of action and effects. It just feels like latter-day CGI – which Bekmambetov does have an aptitude for in previous work – does not do this project justice. In fact we’ve been thoroughly spoilt by CG in action films to the point where we expect characters defy gravity most of the time, as is the case here.

Bekmambetov and scriptwriters Keith R. Clarke and John Ridley have taken Lew Wallace’s novel and flattened it, rather than given it a new lease of life for a latter-day audience. Yes, Christianity is still a major factor, but showing Jesus does not seem to add anything messianic, really. They needed to go with their convictions, full throttle down the religious route, rather than flimsily injecting it, for fear of putting off less faith-led latter-day audiences.

Ben-Hur (2016) is still consumable – if you haven’t seen the 1959 powerhouse version – as the two leads try their damndest to command a real screen presence. However, the film itself lacks spirit. Bekmambetov’s subdued cinematography does make the whole affair feel rather ‘televised’, rather than like an old-school, silver-screen epic, which is a crying shame with such iconic material. Is it a case of biting off more than the studio can chew?

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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War Dogs ***

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If War Dogs, The Hangover director Todd Phillips‘s new war dramedy is meant to entertain in his distinctive bromance-worshipping way, then it serves its purpose as it follows the highs and lows of a volatile male-on-male relationship. Indeed, it does rely heavily on its stars Jonah Hill and Miles Teller’s chemistry, plus a generous dollop of Hill expectation as the actor has made ‘cuddly’ sociopathic characters his new forte.

David Packouz (Teller) is a male masseuse for the rich who is trying to get enough money together before wife Iz (Ana de Armas) gives birth. When he sinks all their savings into a stock pile of luxury cotton sheets and fails to sell these to Miami’s old-people’s homes, his unlikely ‘saviour’, unscrupulous old school chum Efraim Diveroli (Hill) appears on the scene with a proposition that could make him rich quick.

David can join the small-time arms trade and become a ‘War Dog’ like Efraim, looking for the crumbs – small arms contracts touted online by the US Government – and bid on them. As the money starts flowing in, the mother of all arms deals comes up – a 300 million dollar contract to arm the Military to the teeth in Afghanistan. That’s when the problems begin and the whole operation unravels, as the War Dogs must rely on elusive, Grade-A War Dog, Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) to get a shipment out of Albania.

As the story goes, this is Hill as Efraim’s big moment, his very own The Wolf on Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort, completely absorbing with his maniacal, high-pitched laugh that both delights and disturbs. Hill ought to be commended for making the film bigger than it actually deserves to be. We never like his character and are waiting for him to do the dirty – well, we get told he will throughout. However, we do relate to the lure of his naked ambition. In fact, his character is far more intriguing than Teller’s, even though we are forced to believe the latter; David is our constant narrator and seems to get into more bother in the plot. Teller does as great a job with what he’s got to work with.

The film does miss a trick in being blacker than it is, merely dabbling in the dark side but swiftly returning to safety when the central rocky bromance waivers. We are meant to care about this relationship, even though we don’t quite buy it. Even Cooper’s shady middle-man arms dealer is just not threatening enough to give the film more of a sadistic edge it needs. Ironic, as at the start, David has a gun pointed to his head, setting up the high stakes of the dangerous war game they are in. We never get a real sense of that, which is a shame.

That said there is an infectious, erratic ‘goofiness’ to all the boys’ dealings that totally entertains, like two young city traders dabbling in dealings way over their heads. It tries to be a mix of The Lord of War, The Big Short and a Scorsese gangster buddy film, without really delving into what actually makes the characters tick – apart from the money. Indeed, even de Armas is left hanging, supposedly our moral compass but going off piste all the time – one minute appalled by David’s new business venture, the next supportive as it pays the bills. She just comes across as the typical, irrational (try gullible) new mum, all hormonal, and hardly a decent female character worth remembering. At least The Wolf’s Margot Robbie character doesn’t lie down and take it from her Wall Street rogue.

War Dogs is far from perfect and a wannabe imitation of a Scorsese film it aspires to be – queue the characters’ references throughout. However, Phillips has started ‘something’ of interest here, if he can just combine his skill of crafting bromances with a more developed and pitch-black comedic script in the near future. For now, there are enough laughs with Hill and Teller in action to make War Dogs highly watchable – especially Hill, plus it raises some interesting talking points of global government corruption. This is hardly shocking, but will have you shaking your head all the same at the cost of the ‘war business’.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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