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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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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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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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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War on Everyone ****

war-on-everyone

Casual disregard at the extraordinary is the name of the game of writer-director John Michael McDonagh‘s black, black 70s-themed cop thriller comedy, War on Everyone, starring unlikely pairing, Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña as corrupt coppers in crime.

It’s Tarantino-esque twitterings between its leads while chaos ensues feels less than fresh. However, as much as Peña has earned his stripes playing hispanic cop roles on screen (take Mike in End of Watch), it’s seeing him bounce off man-tower Skarsgård’s loser character Terry in this that’s fascinating to watch.

Set in New Mexico, to cops, Terry and Bob (Peña) set out to blackmail and frame every criminal they encounter – police pensions (as we are always told) never really pay. Things get sinister as they try to fry a bigger fish. But just who should be afraid of who?

McDonagh’s film is ode to the 70s cop thriller era, with a broody and strikingly handsome Skarsgård – even when mashed up – evoking this decade’s style in full spirit. He also has the muscle car that refuses to ‘die’, just like a trusty petrol steed. Peña is the family-man cop again, but also the brains behind the operation – a slight twist to his usual police character. The thrill is not just the excellent and free-flowing rapport the pair has, but also being kept on tender hooks as to when the pair’s luck will finally run out.

The blatant ‘F* You’ sentiment is beautifully balanced throughout with the smaller things in life that are important. It’s like there is a damaged moral compass still guiding both, even when they are doing something wrong. Keeps us on their side throughout. However, this is no ‘New Mexico Robin Hood’ tale – this pair are robbing for their own gain. Things change though, when some of the ‘victims’ them encounter along the way change their perception for the better. The very end scene is really unexpected from where the film first starts. This is what is oddly ‘different’ about it compared with the usual damaged cop affair. There is a justice of sorts that wins our favour.

War on Everyone beats with the blackest of hearts, with good and irony born out of evil. The buddy journey with Skarsgård and Peña is an incredibly satisfying one too.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Sausage Party ***

Sausage-Party

Emphasis on the word ‘sausage’ usually sparks juvenile sniggers from most grown-ups. Seth Rogen capitalizes on this in his raunchy new adult animation Sausage Party – the mere name triggering winks and nudges. This is a Pixar p*** take laced with Rogen’s preferred brand of stoner humour. Those not avid fans of the latter can still catch some laughs, but might tired long before the riotous finale of filthy food porn commences.

Rogen is Frank, a hotdog who is desperate to get inside Brenda the bun (voiced by Kristen Wiig) when they finally leave the supermarket and go home with one of the ‘gods’ (us humans). They need to be picked off the shelf and taken outside to ‘the great beyond’. But disaster strikes when one female god goes shopping, leading Frank and Brenda on a journey back to the shelf while trying to avoid enraged Douche (Nick Kroll).

However, Frank soon learns the disturbing truth about what the ‘great beyond’ really spells for grocery products, backed up by his deformed sausage pal Barry (Michael Cera) who survives a close shave. Now Frank needs to convince the rest of the food population about their fate, before it’s too late.

Sausage Party is created by Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Jonah Hill, collaborating with Apatow disciples Paul Rudd, James Franco, Bill Hader, Danny McBride and the like, so you know the kind of film you’re in for, long before you ‘Get your fill’ (quoting the tagline). It’s pure filth, like consuming the dirtiest, calorific dish, awash with cheap ‘laughs’ at stereotypes along the way – Salma Hayek is horny Mexican taco Teresa, for example.

While it offers some crazy insights into the USA’s religious, racial and socio-political obsessions, Sausage Factory also prefers shock tactics to cultivating really clever puns consistently throughout that would have seriously sent up these American neurosises and Pixar’s cute character, coming-of-age adventures, where their world is oblivious to us. There are some seriously laugh-out-loud moments – just wait until the end crescendo, but F word-ing it in every sentence begins to wear thin, bordering on nauseating – and this is coming from a critic who is no stranger to a foul-mouthed rant.

It’s also hard to tell if Sausage Party wants to be taken seriously for its plethora of brilliant observations, as it just as quickly shies away when one of them becomes vaguely interesting, for fear of losing its infantile edge. That said the kitchen scene is a delightful Pixar-bashing episode, and a much needed highlight to break up the otherwise ‘samey’ plot of Frank et al trying to return to the shelf. Douche gets pumped ready for action but loses his spunk at the end; perhaps too much of a main plot distraction or an excuse for Rogen and gang to explore some anal humour? There was certainly a lot of fun had writing/ making this buddy movie, it appears.

Sausage Party goes off with a saucy sizzle and an outrageous bang but wilts at times along the way. If it wasn’t for the grand gang-bang finale boost, it would be a meaty disappointment left undercooked in places.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2015: Men and Chicken ****

men-and-chicken

In a sick twist that might have Darwinists uniting with the god-fearing out there, writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen (Adam’s Apples (2005)) places Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) once more in the midst of a darkly insane comedy, this time about ‘origins of man’. The title of Jensen’s latest penmanship, Men and Chicken, gives a small clue as to humans and animals being involved and throws up some interesting ideas about our gene pool along the way.

When Elias (Mikkelsen) and Gabriel (David Dencik)’s elderly father passes away, he leaves them a video to watch. To their shock, they find out he is not their biological father – their mothers they never knew. They are in fact half-brothers, and their real father lives on the remote island of Ork. Armed with questions, the brothers go in search of him, to discover he is a scientist and his des res is a remote, dilapidated sanatorium (over)run by their insane half-brothers, Franz (Søren Malling), Josef (Nicolas Bro) and Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) who live with a bunch of animals and favour violence as a way of dealing with family disputes. But where is Dad? An accident extends Elias and Gabriel’s stay, where the dark secrets of their family’s past are found in the basement.

This gloriously eccentric and near gothic farce has a hint of Psycho to it. It sets the whacky scene from the start with the camera panning down to ‘dad’s’ crotch as he’s delivering his video message. Introduced to Elias, a definite Asperger’s sufferer with a sex addiction (Mikkelsen in delightfully ghastly, against-type form), and Gabriel, an academic but socially inept worrier, the penny drops that something isn’t quite right. Just how are these two related – physical similarities aside? It’s time for a short road (and ferry) journey to fictional hillbilly Denmark.

The cast are exceptional, wilfully blending acts of politically incorrect humour and perversion with moments of wistful vulnerability in the most unusual coming-of-age comedy in a long time. Aside from the slapstick beatings – like something from a less than silent movie age, the funniest scene is more vocal. It sees the brothers sat around a dinner table in ‘last supper’ fashion, introduced to a Bible for the first time by Gabriel, acting like some crusader who plans to civilise his siblings. Here, Jensen pokes fun at interpretation of the holy book and use of it as a tool to separate man from beast, giving a devilishly simplistic account that’s sure to be controversial to some, but highly amusing to, say, Dawkins fans.

The quirky sibling activity actually serves as a bizarre bonding session, including the communal sleeping and badminton matches, where each brother has a key feature needed for the other’s development and social conditioning. The latter might be in vain but it’s all in aid of the grand reveal, the clues of which – with hindsight – are subtle characteristics of the personalities. This is highly hilarious and equally shocking to witness while captured by Sebastian Blenkov’s atmospheric and tonally significant cinematography.

Men and Chicken is an extraordinary dark comedy for those wanting pitched blackness and heaps of lunacy. Strip away social conditioning and religion, and ironically, while the insane might run the asylum their actions begin to appear explainable, even normalising, when compared to the outside world’s perspective.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Ghostbusters ***

Ghostbusters

When the dust settled after the controversial announcement that beloved 80s film Ghostbusters would return to screens in 2016 with an all-female lead – directed by feminist film-maker Paul Feig (of Bridesmaids fame), the next thing to make peace with was having his Bridesmaids stars, Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, in those familiar jumpsuits with proton guns chasing ghosts.

Indeed, to say this didn’t take a little getting used to at the start of watching the new reboot would be a lie. After all, Wiig and McCarthy come with great expectations and a presumed guarantee to provide big laughs. Their futile banter always raises a few giggles. In fact, it felt like watching the funny girls doing a Ghostbusters spoof, initially. However, the supporting roles from fellow Ghostbusters, the brilliant Kate McKinnon and equally great Leslie Jones are so strong that the new film has its very own personality and fun vibe, even though it had many nods to the original for fans, as well as cameos from the 1984 cast, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Annie Potts and Ernie Hudson.

The plot is much the same as the first: The usual ghostly activity begins brewing below Manhattan streets, leading to paranormal enthusiasts Erin (Wiig), Abby (McCarthy), eccentric nuclear engineer Jillian (McKinnon) and subway worker Patty (Jones) forming a Ghostbuster girl gang to stop the supernatural threat taking over their world.

There is a naturally funny quartet at the centre of this, which is what any attempted reboot needed. The original ‘silliness’ is still there, though it feels a little forced until the film finds its flow. The show-stealer is actually beefcake Chris Hemsworth as the girls’ eye candy and hapless ‘bimbo’ assistant Kevin. To say Hemsworth is funny is an understatement – further enhanced by the end credits, so stay put and watch, as well as to the very end for an exciting teaser for the next planned installment.

Co-writer Feig and his writing partner Katie Dippold of The Heat and Parks and Recreation fame) seemed to have taken the sexist online jibes onboard and worked them into the script, including a YouTube moment the Ghostbusters share over an online comment, “ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts” posted in response to their video. The biggest two-finger salute to the naysayers goes to Hemsworth in the traditional female ‘ditzy’ role, a highly entertaining role reversal that any sex will appreciate. By all means, none of this is ‘in-yer-face’ obvious either. There are loads of nods to other films and their iconic scenarios, helped by the casting of Andy Garcia, Cecily Strong and the like, so it’s an entertaining mix to pick through.

However, the main grievance is the distinct lack of ‘baddie’ here, with virtually no personality that they come and go without marking much of a mark. This is only saved by things like McKinnon’s excellent set-piece of gun-ho slaying of ghouls in an end showdown, a nod to Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, and a Stay Puft cousin on the loose. The effects also try to retain the 1984 production aesthetics, without surrendering to latter-day ones that have come on leaps and bounds.

All in all there is a feeling of something new in the air, but with a comforting dosage of nostalgia. Feig appears to have got most elements just right in the 2016 reboot, enough to provide a solid, spooky night out at the cinema.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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