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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The Hangover III **

If your idea of humour is a giraffe causing chaos on a motorway then continue… If, as Phil (Bradley Cooper) puts it, “what am I watching?” soon pops into mind, revisiting the Wolfpack on another trail of carnage may make you wish you’d stayed at home. In episode III, writer-director Todd Phillips tries in vain to rekindle some of the bromance of the first, with nods to moments in the first and second, as well as emphasis on the importance of good friendships. Sadly, this sorry saga offers one of the most farfetched story lines of the lot, with John Goodman attempting to pass as a baddie being less than convincing.

After Alan’s (Zach Galifianakis) behaviour gets more erratic and his family arrange an intervention, Phil (Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) volunteer to take their mate to get help. But on the way, the Wolfpack come a cropper with some bad guys who demand to know the whereabouts of Mr Chow (Ken Jeong) who has ripped them off. Taking poor Doug once more as collateral, gang leader Marshall (Goodman) gives them three days to find the ‘international criminal’ Chow or Doug bites the bullet.

The first film worked because it was clever in reversing the unravelling of events – in a sense it goaded us into finding out more and sticking with the outrageous to unveil the clues. The icing on the cake was we thought we’d got the whole picture only to be treated to some more during the end credits. The main problem with this film is the same as the second one: emphasis on Alan’s character to provide the majority of the laughs, especially as playing on his obvious disabilities in the second came across with mixed reviews and uncomfortable laughs. That’s not to say that Galifianakis does not play Alan with a lot of innocent charm and appeal that it’s hard not to endear to him, but it’s a tough call to drag this out over an entire course of another film. Indeed, Alan does do a bit of growing up in this and all comes good in the end, with a little bit of help from Melissa McCarthy who is wasted in this.

Phillips also tries to cash in on Mr Chow, the foul-mouthed little fellow from his first two films who has (somehow) now become Alan’s best pal. His short bursts of screen energy to match his crazed behaviour worked with the first, but being exposed to him for longer periods waters down his shock tactics in one of the daftest plots that we’re supposed to subscribe to. Even his potty mouth is not as funny this time.

With two of his characters losing their original appeal, there’s not much for Phillips’ other two (as Bartha is hardly used in this too) to cling to for laughs. Admittedly, it is a chance for Cooper fans to coo over their blue-eyed boy – and there are also some very strange male attraction references insinuated and peppered throughout that go nowhere. Even the reappearance of Heather Graham as Stu’s stripper ‘missus’, Jade, from the first film is shortlived and rather pointless in fact.

It all boils down to a very miserable finale to the ultimate party that ends where it began. It’s like being in the company of a once cool bunch of dudes who have run their course and worn themselves out. The funniest part is after the end credits that propels you straight back to your very first feelings watching the original film and the fun had at witnessing the pieces of the puzzle fit together. The trouble is you have to pay your money to sit through the former. That said it’s warmly nostalgic to say goodbye to the guys but it’s anyone’s guess if they’ll be back – preferably in a far better written scenario.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Campaign ***

Jay Roach’s new comedy is more in the vein of his slapstick work of Meet The Parents/Fockers and Austin Powers, so those expecting a clever political satire ridiculing the recent Romney and Ryan shenanigans, say, of current US politics will be mildly disappointed. However, there are enough subtle undertones to admire and to suggest writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell and leads/producers Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis have more than studied the absurdity of being in a political spotlight, spilling over into personal life. And there are some immensely funny gags too, within a constantly funny premise.

Ferrell plays the sleazy, bed-hopping Cam Brady, a long-term congressman and family man of the North Carolina district. After an unfortunate evening phone to the wrong party, his popularity takes a nosedive. Two nefarious and filthy rich CEOs, the Notch Brothers – played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow, see their chance to gain influence over the district and expand their empire under dubious means by putting up a rival candidate in the effeminate buffoon and local director of the local Tourism Centre, Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), in order to oust Brady. What begins as an easy road to victory for the congressman becomes a political battle of wills and dirty politics.

Ferrell and Galifianakis are guilty of playing to type in this, so nothing new there. However, there is still a lot of enjoyment to be had, and the comedy pair really act out the two primary gags – one involving a baby and a dog and the other a cow – exceptionally well with expert timing. Their choice of over-milking the acting pudding is perfect in such an farcical political environment, highlighted by a battle of muck throwing over a child’s publication, right down to the obvious sex scandal moments, which some may see as producing easy frat-boy laughs, but are still all very relevant in such an hotbed arena.

Perhaps the film’s main weak spot is trying to make both opponents agreeable, regardless of the outrageous antics. Although the film sticks to safe territory, never painting anybody in politics as a purely black or white in character, this does result in a tame, cosy ending. Part of the problem is the under-use of Aykroyd and Lithgow as the true ‘villains’ in the piece who never get enough screen time for us to truly realise their dastardly, scheming plans and cutthroat tactics, so when the chips are down in the end, it all feels a little flat.

That said the comic pace and timing is never tiresome, and there is still much ludicracy to revel in, seeing Ferrell and Galifianakis mock another class of folk who more than deserve it. In summary, The Campaign has not got enough of a political bite but it more than makes up for this with its ridicule of the insignificant elements of the political campaign trail.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Puss In Boots ****

Shrek’s journey has been one of highs and lows, and was running out of interesting places to go that even Shrek the Third director Chris Miller would agree with. Concentrating on another of Shrek’s travelling companions was always going to be a tall order; making a supporting character stand alone in a film can go either way. Miller and co have definitely succeeded with Puss in Boots in the new 3D film of the same name, tapping into the older audience’s nursery-rhyme nostalgia while putting the ‘cool’ back into the time-old stories for the newer generation.

Long before he even met Shrek, the notorious fighter, lover and outlaw Puss in Boots (voiced by Antonio Banderas) was an orphan then a criminal then a local hero after an adventure to track down some magic beans and the Golden Goose with tough, street-smart Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and criminal mastermind Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis).

Puss in Boots is a hearty hoot with a fairy-tale twist created by feline experts who should count themselves as having got the cream and wiped the floor afterwards with other family animations out there at the moment. Puss is certainly one hell of a fun kitty to watch who revels in his lead role, stepping out of the shadows of Shrek. He gets a chance to reveal his full personality in this, all within a neat 90-minute run-time with some well choreographed action that makes full use of the 3D technology in the sword fights.

Banderas and Hayek conjure up as much sexy Latin charm in their hilarious sparring that a U-rated film can allow, enough to get things sizzling for those old enough to understand, while, thankfully, coming across as playful, squabbling kitties to those too young to know. Banderas’s Puss shows a more vulnerable side in this to his dashing, arrogant self, aided by a purposeful but brief back-story with Humpty Dumpty that balances misfortune and humour in equal, satisfying measure, as not to be over-sentimental. This also serves as Puss’s raison d’être for his spectrum of feelings for his egg-headed friend who betrays him and his subsequent redemption.

Hayek is the confident one to Puss’s self-deprecating side that marries very well in the confrontations – the old ‘opposites attract’ rule. Watching these characters interact is an absolute thrill and creates the film’s high-spirited, often frenetic energy. These ‘meeting of the minds’ moments are wonderfully interrupted by acutely observed feline antics, including the paw-grabbing light trick that is absolutely hilarious after some intense, suave patter.

In contrast, Galifianakis’s vocal performance as Humpty Dumpty adds a child-like innocence to proceedings then changes and becomes self-centred and greedy in nature. Humpty for the kids is like the school bully, hurtful but actually hurting and with more to lose. Galifianakis is a chameleon of charm and menace and an odd, welcoming distraction from the Latin amore at times. It’s this compelling trio of variable characters that make the film so strong in character concept. With Neanderthal-like criminal heavies Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris) on their case to shake up events, and a Godzilla-like Golden Goose rampaging through the town at the end, Puss in Boots is a well-crafted, well-intentioned romp through fairy-tale land – even if there are a couple of continuity gaffs some might spot, for example, the weighty golden eggs becoming as light as the chick’s feather back at camp.

Chaotic yet beautifully arranged, sensuous yet innocent, Puss in Boots is a fun-packed treat full of delightful, detailed contradictions and touching tales with a manageable-sized cast that you get well acquainted with and fully enjoy. Cat lovers will be in kitty heaven.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Hangover Part II ***

The wolf pack is back in another pickle, having not learned their lesson last time, it seems. What is it with weddings that it brings out the worst in Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and Doug (Justin Bartha), resorting them to drink themselves into oblivion and make amends afterwards in the most fantastical ways? The exact same formula is adopted in Part II as in the hit 2009 film, so much so, that the guys make constant (sometimes tiresome) references to the previous, epic Vegas stag do to emphasise this and fuel interest in the mayhem to follow. Indeed, film-makers Todd Phillips and co make no apologies for being creatures of habit and sticking to what worked for them before.

That said, and even swapping Vegas for Bangkok, which gives this film its colourful, seedy and far darker edge, the latest edition will divide the fan camp. Like Marmite, you’ll love it or hate it.

This time, it’s Stu’s turn to get hitched to stunning fiancée Lauren (Jamie Chung). Appalled by his cozy ‘bachelor breakfast’ suggestion, ringleader and ever-the-big-teen Phil decides Stu needs to be sent off in style. Reluctantly, Stu agrees to this and to inviting man-child and trouble-magnet Alan to come along to Thailand for the ceremony. However, Alan feels highly protective over his ‘wolf pack’ of friends, and doesn’t like another male – Lauren’s teen prodigy brother Teddy (Mason Lee) – joining the gang and spoiling the equilibrium. After a pre-wedding dinner and some awkward speeches in the stunning Thai beach resort, the friends and Teddy venture down to the beach for one last drink: Cue squalid, trashed Bangkok hotel room, missing friend, and a serious case of déjà vu… “It happened again?” says a bleary-eyed Phil – you bet.

Whereas the first film was somewhat a goofy but charming state of affairs, Part II goes all-out for boorish shock tactics (LOTS of male genitalia), coupled with an uneasy tragic sentiment – even in the first nightmare hotel scene that could just be because underground Bangkok is suitably ripe for the debauched taking.

The new setting also enhances Alan’s obvious mental health issues, which seemed more endearingly quirky than worrying in the last film, and which for the most part are still humorous in this, thanks to Galifianakis’s timing, but are also woefully uncomfortable to watch sometimes; it’s like mocking the mentally-challenged person when other laughs can’t be found elsewhere. It’s only Helms as Stu doing his usual OTT freak-out routine, reminiscent of a crazed tooth-baring horse, and pleasing-on-the-eye Cooper as pretty-boy Phil trying to use his brains to keep hold of the situation that refocus your attention on the urgency of the latest ‘missing persons’ puzzle facing them. Bartha was absent for most of the last film, but seems more deplorably wasted as a character here, merely present to field phone calls back at the resort.

But it’s Ken Jeong’s beefed-up return as Mr. Chow at the very start that will divide opinion from the word go. Admittedly, his offensive remarks provide some glory moments, and he gets a lot of the laughs in some of the crazy set pieces – such as a car chase. However, his is an increasingly arduous character, especially the appearance of his non-existent manhood – again – that was shocking in the first film (as how could anyone be that small), but prompts reactions of ‘put it away, please’ in this. In fact, like an excitable stag, Phillips goes overboard with the ‘spanking the monkey’ joke – who replaces the misplaced baby in the last film and gets many laughs of its own – that it feels like being on a stag do that’s wearily running out of steam.

Part II also throws up every Bangkok cliché you can possibly think of, so that the film-makers get the full value out of shooting in the place – which was harsh in itself with lots of cast and crew sickness about that’s evidently reproduced in the film. After all, the original film’s hook was discovering what was going to happen next, but as this film blatantly follows the same path, it’s just seeing how they’ll recreate the gags in Bangkok. Even Mike Tyson’s much-publicised second cameo takes away the wow factor at the very end. And Mel Gibson’s absence as the tattoo artist, Tattoo Joe, now played by Nick Cassavetes, proves brief and forgettable. Only the tour-de-acting-force that is Paul Giamatti as Kingsley (shalln’t give the game away by describing his character) is really only felt for a brief moment, then fizzles out into the ether.

To be honest, although newcomers to the franchise could watch this as a standalone, you really do have to have seen the first film to fully get the gags and the constant references – or it’s like being absent on the last stag do and missing all the in-jokes, but feeling you have to laugh anyway. However, as a weekend group outing, Part II serves its purpose and still has some memorable moments and the classic photomontage at the end, which is far more outrageous than the first.

Whether “Bangkok has you” depends on your mindset at the start of the journey. If you’re with the boys and fully onboard for another manic adventure, this film hits a weak spot that craves for more of the same – especially as it constantly promises you such. And there are lots of crazier moments to feast on and giggle at – the funniest being right at the end and totally subliminal, involving Alan and a speedboat in the background. If you feel cheated by the lazy formula of copying the old, it’s a long, sweaty, dirty road to being proven right about the inevitable outcome. After all, it has to have a happy ending – even in the darkest hours of Bangkok.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Due Date – 3*

A new buddy comedy from The Hangover maestro Todd Phillips sounds like one to watch, especially with the former hit’s cuddly star Zach Galifianakis in the frame again. And it is, in many respects, because this safe bet for Phillips dishes out the genre’s formulaic mix of chaotic sketches, emotionally revealing moments and morals aplenty.

It also delivers great chemistry from its leads, Robert Downey Jr. and Galifianakis as unlikely travel companions with a goal to get from A to B with the least amount of trauma possible. Well, a little bit of collateral damage is vital to maketh the movie. But much as this has been described as the poorer man’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles (substitute Thanksgiving for an imminent birth, Steve Martin for Downey Jr, and John Candy for Galifianakis), Due Date is still an entertaining and contemporary version with enough heart and commendable acting to last its distance.

Downey Jr is highly-strung architect Peter who’s trying to get home to his heavily pregnant wife, Sarah (played in a fleeting few scenes by Kiss Kiss Bang Bang co-star Michelle Monaghan), who is about to go into labour at any moment. Unfortunately, due to Peter’s temper and one particularly provocative passenger called Ethan (Galifianakis), the pair joins the ‘no-fly’ club, and have to resort to putting up with each other’s company in a car (initially), driving across country to L.A. in the nick of time.

The laughs are uneven, and there are the obvious ‘eyes-roll-to-the-ceiling’ clichés. But on the whole, the Downey Jr-Galifianakis bromance works an absolute treat, as they each play their own brand of quirky insanity off one another in the film, with both having their moments to play ‘deadpan’ then ‘loopy’ at different stages throughout.

Galifianakis easily slots into his imbecile man-child role again, but with a camp little mince and a trophy dog this time – Ethan’s sexuality is never fully revealed, though he’s going to Hollywood to become an actor; go figure. Downey Jr is both the instigator and the mirror for all goings-on in a role that seems practically effortless for such a versatile actor. It’s undoubtedly the Downey Jr-Galifianakis pairing that holds the attention until the very end; the trouble is the ending disappointingly fizzles out, like a duff Bonfire Night rocket, prompting a ‘that it?’ response when the end credits roll.

Is it enough to say this type of film is about the leads’ chemistry, and not the fairly obvious plot line? It could be argued, yes it is, but with ‘seen-that-a-zillion-times-before’ déjà vu moments, like getting in trouble with the law and going on the run in a clapped-out vehicle, it could be argued that Phillips got lazy and unimaginative, or on the other hand, he simply delivers what we’re eagerly expecting. The bodily functions scene is amusing but tired, as are a few other scenarios. But the biggest and unexpected laughs come from a Peter moment with a brat kid of the local drug dealer (as ever, brilliantly depicted by Juliette Lewis), and the ‘drinking Dad’ car discussion, said in all frankness that is hilarious – Jamie Foxx plays a fairly unremarkable cameo, here, but makes for an injection of tasty eye candy.

Due Date is not quite fully hatched, and could have done with a little longer incubation period and character development to enhance some of the potentially intriguing scenarios. What’s also shameful on Phillips’s part is all the great comedy talent (Lewis, Foxx, Monaghan and Danny McBride) that could have been put to better use. That said Due Date offers a fascinating screen partnership in Downey Jr and Galifianakis, making up for any lack of originality in plot. It certainly isn’t The Hangover, but it’s like the mild hangover from The Hangover after-party success, and an enjoyable stopgap until the sequel arrives next year.

3/5 stars

By L G-K