Review of The Lego Batman Movie

Image result for Lego batman movie

3 stars

“Lego Batman” a funny, clever send-up of DC comics

Like the first “Lego Movie’, “Lego Batman” is funnier and better than it has any right to be. Both films are meta, manic and over-the-top, yet in a way that works for them instead of against them. Both films have a crazy, loopy energy, that works in the service of their observational wit and charm. Lego Batman was one of the minor, yet funniest characters in the first “Lego Movie”, and here he is used brilliantly, and the film had me smiling or laughing the whole time.

The voice work is phenomenal. Will Arnett, who did the voice of Lego Batman in the first Lego Movie, is hilarious here, channeling Christian Bale’s Batman. Ralph Fiennes plays Batman’s (or Bruce Wayne’s) butler, Alfred. The plotting is pretty much all over the place, and goes in all sorts of crazy directions, which is part of why it is such crazy fun. The film has about 3 different subplots.

To begin with, Batman goes to Gotham’s winter gala as Bruce Wayne, and when he is there, Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon announces her plans to eliminate Batman from the Gotham police department, because he has not successfully caught any bad guys. Bruce Wayne is offended by this change, and he defensively argues against this, making it clear that he is Batman, without actually saying it. The Joker, though, abruptly takes over the gala and Batman feels like he really cannot save Gotham. One of the funniest parts of the film is the Joker telling Batman that he hates him, and desperately  wanting him to reciprocate, and say “I hate you too”. Batman, though, has so much trouble with relationships that he cannot even come up with this simple response.

Batman also visits the local Gotham orphanage regularly, and he accidentally agrees to adopt an orphan named Dick Grayson, voiced with great comic energy by Michael Cera, later renaming himself Robin, and becoming his adoptive father’s sidekick. Eventually, even non-comic book villains, like Lord Voldemort, the Wicked Witch of the West, and the Lord of the Rings are out to attack Gotham. The eventual climax is logical and even kind of brilliant.

So many of the pop-culture references and jokes made me laugh so hard that  I could easily forgive the jokes that were not as funny. Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” was used so cleverly throughout the film, that I will never think of the song the same way again. The same goes for “Jerry Maguire”, which Batman liked to watch in his house by himself, and laugh at lines like “You had me at hello”,  while eating popcorn. For how profoundly silly the whole film is, its attention to detail, and highly imaginative, fully realized world, is remarkable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review of Jafar Panahi’s Taxi

3 stars

“Taxi” an interesting Iranian sociological stunt

In the first Jafar Panahi film that I watched, with the meta title “This Is Not a Film”, Iranian director Panahi is on house arrest for twenty years by the Iranian government, and he is mostly pacing around his house, talking about how bored he is and apparently trying to kill time. While it may have made some good points about Iran’s oppressive government, it was not very interesting. In fact, the film’s backstory was much more interesting. Panahi filmed himself on an iPhone, then put his footage onto a flash drive smuggled inside a birthday cake that was sent to the Cannes Film Festival. This whole process could have made a fascinating double-meta documentary.

I did not see “Closed Curtain”, Panahi’s following film, but “Taxi” is an interesting semi-documentary, in an even more confined space than “This Is Not a Film”. Until about the last scene, Panahi makes a point to never get out of the cab that he is driving. Basically, Panahi picks up a diverse assortment of passengers, posing as  a cab driver. Despite being more confined than “This Is Not a Film”, “Taxi” is much more interesting and insightful.

“Taxi” is somewhat messy and meandering, since some of the actors are non-professional, and sometimes Panahi’s stunt comes off as contrived and stagy. The first scene is fascinating, showing two passengers in Panahi’s cab with two conflicting, yet familiar sounding, political ideologies. The man in the front recounts a story of a friend who got the tires of his car stolen and replaced with bricks, and says the guy should have been hanged; the woman in the back seat (which I assume was intentional) basically tells him that the man who stole the tires should have been helped instead of punished. They have an intense, fascinating, and somewhat petty argument that gives a taste of how social relations are in Iran.

Later in the film, Panahi picks up his daughter from what seems to be an arts school. She is about ten years old, and is taking a film class. Her film teacher tells her the rules of making a distributable film; she tells her father what the rules are, and this interaction speaks volumes, given Panahi’s trouble with the government for the films he directed. One of the caveats that stuck out to me was “no sordid realism”. His daughter finds this confusing, pointing out that people should not do things that they are not willing to show.

The “taxi” in the film seems metaphorical for Panahi’s confinement,  showing how he can leave the confinement of his own house only to be even more confined in a taxi. The passengers are like his glimpse into the Iranian zeitgeist, only hearing bits and pieces, but never getting the full story. There is much to be said for the craft and thought that has been put into this film, especially given the small space Panahi had to work with.

 

 

Review of Best of Enemies

4 stars

“Enemies” a fascinating, poignant, profound documentary

The masterful documentary, “Best of Enemies”, is about the televised debates between Democrat Gore Vidal, and Republican William F. Buckley. They were shown on ABC in 1968, when ABC was considered a dumping ground for lesser programming such as “The Flying Nun”. Their debate would hopefully give ABC more credibility, and it happened to revolutionize television forever.

“Best of Enemies” shows why documentaries can be so much better than fictionalized accounts when it comes to insights into human nature. Both Buckley and Vidal were so much more than they seemed, and this documentary showed their nuances and human complexities more than any fiction account probably ever could.

Buckley and Vidal seemed to have so much in common that their differences were practically an irksome disappointment. They both went to boarding schools, they were both writers, and both had an elevated, aristocratic manner. Yet, it was mostly their sociopolitical views that divided them, and created so much personal animosity between the two.

Since ABC was suffering from a creative void, the network executives thought it would breathe new life into the channel and give it a ratings boost, if they had two people from opposite ends of the political spectrum debate each other’s views; essentially, the verbal equivalent of boxing. Buckley already had his own show, called “Firing Line”, where he debated his guests, who were just about always Democrats.

Buckley and Vidal had a total of 10 televised debates, and there is a point toward the 8th or 9th debate, where they both cross the line into name-calling. I will let you see for yourself, but at that point in the film, their overboard insults truly got under my skin. Gore and Bill were articulate and intelligent in a way that most TV personalities, these days, are not, yet when they needled each other enough, their worst sides would spill out.

Though Vidal and Buckley had their flaws, and were both smug in a way that just about every political commentator nowadays is, the film shows their humanity. I found it rather tragic when it is recalled that when Buckley was older and he was on a talk show, he was shown a clip of the name-calling feud between him and Vidal, and I could sense how ashamed he was, saying “I thought that tape had been burned.”

Following the debates, Vidal and Buckley wrote what could basically have been called smear articles about each other in Esquire Magazine. They went back and forth with lawsuits, and one can sense that on some level they enjoyed this back-and-forth feud. Gore Vidal, though, like Bill Buckley, seemed to hide his insecurity with cold wit and sarcasm. These two men deserved each other.

Whenever I see a documentary like this, I wish there would be more documentaries this great, that explore human nature and behavior in ways that fiction cannot. This was truly one of the best films, of any genre, of 2015.

 

Review of The Duke of Burgundy

3 stars

“Duke” a trippy, kinky romance

What ultimately works in the strange, somewhat slow lesbian drama, “The Duke of Burgundy” is the chemistry between its two female leads. It is kind of fascinating how the focus of the film is not on lesbianism or S&M, but the pure heat and sexual attraction between the two women, Cynthia and Evelyn, played yet underplayed with breathy eroticism, respectively, by Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiarra D’Anna.

Cynthia is a professor of butterflies at what seems to be an entomology school in the woods. Evelyn is one of her many female students; she is also her maid and her submissive. The only real characters in the movie are Cynthia and Evelyn, yet the cast is all female.

It is striking how the film is directed by male director Peter Strickland, yet in less sensitive directing hands, male or female, the film would have become an utterly silly lesbian fantasy. Sidse Knudsen, who I have never seen in a film before, is amazing as a sexy Mrs. Robinson type, who is a truly tragic mess beneath her cold and playful exterior.
By the clothing and hair styles of the women, I would guess the film is set in the mid ’60’s. The whole film is stylized to an extreme degree. There is no mention of the time period, yet the filming style, the soundtrack, and the opening credits are all perfectly retro.

The more I think about it, the more I admire the craft, imagination, and ambition that has been put into the film. I will admit, though, that sometimes the film’s reach exceeds its grasp. A fantasy that Cynthia has toward the end is a little too trippy, and the butterfly metaphor wears a little thin after a while. I probably do not have the whole film figured out yet, but it is to be sure the kind of movie I would want to go back to multiple times to dissect its meaning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of Chiraq

3 stars

“Chiraq” a weird, over-the-top spectacle

Spike Lee’s “Chiraq” is surreal, meta, and over-the-top. I admire the whole film for its boldness of vision, even if it is not always pulled off well. When it works, it is a wonder to behold. For all the stylistic flourishes in the film that do not work, there are many that do. The film begins with a breathtaking image of the United States split into thirds of red, white, and blue, and guns and rifles making up the states. This works despite its heavy-handedness, mostly because it is creative, and it got my attention.

The film is based on the classic Greek comedy, “Lysistrata”, and updated to the present day in Chicago. It keeps the characters names, and its fourth-wall-breaking narrator, played by Samuel L. Jackson. The main female protagonist is Lysistrata, who is in a relationship with a rapper with the stage name Chi-raq, played by Nick Cannon. Lysistrata gets the idea from a neighbor played by Angela Bassett to go on a sex strike and round up all the other heterosexual black women in Chicago to strike with her, until the men stop shooting each other.

This premise does not translate seamlessly to modern America; I would even say that, as a resident of the Chicago area, with the exception of some shots and references, the film did not give me a strong Chicago vibe. It kind of felt like it could have taken place anywhere in America, and this is probably because Spike Lee is not from Chicago. With Spike being a Brooklyn native,  I got more of a sense of place and location from films he directed like “25th Hour” and “Do the Right Thing”. This is because a) he is most familiar with NYC and b) Chicago, at least for me, has never been as conspicuous on film, as cities like NY or LA. Despite this, Chi-raq worked somewhat as a stinging commentary on race and violence in America as a whole, even if Chicago may have been a generic backdrop, that served little purpose besides its provocative nickname.

One of the things about the film that works surprisingly well is that it is spoken in iambic pentameter. The dialogue mostly rhymes, and after a while, I was having fun guessing and anticipating the characters’ rhymes.  A rhyme that worked especially well was “strike” and “dyke”.

Another powerful aspect of the film is John Cusack, as the compassionate Mike Corridan, based on Chicago’s Rev. Mike Pfleger; he has a deeply moving scene, where he preaches to a black congregation about their “self-inflicted genocide”. This scene may be the best piece of acting that John Cusack has ever done.

“Chi-raq” may be somewhat bloated, with a reach that exceeds its grasp, and it has moments that are so over-the-top that I just had to cringe. Yet, what does work has a sort of go for broke power that, by the end, left me haunted and shook up, and feeling like I saw an imperfect, yet vital piece of cinema.

 

 

 

 

Review of Brooklyn

2.5 stars

“Brooklyn”, a lush yet overly sentimental fairy tale

“Brooklyn” would have benefited from a hefty dose of understatement. Just about all the characters are well-meaning, and the film does not try to be edgy, which is fine. Yet, the excess of emotion just about suffocates the film. It tells the story of a young Irish woman named Ellis (Aylish), played fantastically by Saoirse Ronan, who needs to find work, and is offered a job in Brooklyn by a kindly priest, Father Flood, also played very well by Jim Broadbent. When Ellis arrives in Brooklyn on a boat, she goes to live at a boarding house, with about three other girls, who eventually warm up to her. The woman who runs the boarding house is played by Julie Walters, and she is taciturn and strict, yet we can tell that she cares deeply for all the girls that live there; honestly, the movie could have used more of her rough complexity all around.

Ellis goes to an Irish dance with her boarding mates, and she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a young Italian man who goes to Irish dances because he likes Irish girls. The two of them hit it off pretty fast, and they become a steady couple. Tony brings Ellis over to his house to have dinner with his family, and his little brother tells her that the Italians don’t like Irish people, one of the reasons that all the police are Irish and they let Italians get beat up. This anecdote had racial undertones, even with how casually it was told, and could sort of be connected to today’s current events. It

In the second half of the film, Ellis’s sister dies, and she returns to Ireland. When she is back in Ireland, she meets another man, named Jim Farrell (Domnhall Gleeson) who she is slightly tempted by, and while I was unsure if she would go back to America, her dilemma lacked urgency. This was mostly because the two men she liked to varying degrees, were severely lacking in charisma. They were both sweet, but they did not have a lot of dimension as characters, and they were a little too bland for me to become deeply invested in.

Toward the beginning, there is a lovely scene where Ellis is serving food at a homeless shelter, mostly for Irish veterans, with Father Flood. This scene works because it depicts Ellis’s patience, good will, and empathy. It was also very moving when the Irishmen started singing an Irish folk song together. It was a bit of a cliche, but it showed how even with just about everything lost, the men could still be brought together by their music.

“Brooklyn” has beautiful landscapes, as Irish films usually do, and the cinematography is stunning. Yet, too much of the time, the film is schmaltzy, with an overload of emotion. In scenes where people shed tears, especially, the director should have yelled cut earlier. The emotion, at times was too on-the-nose, and I usually get exasperated in movies when people cry for extended periods of time. Saoirse Ronan did give a good performance, but she could have underplayed her character, and been less weepy; this is the reason Julie Walters is such a great character, never going too far emotionally.

I can understand the Oscar buzz for Saoirse Ronan, yet I think the film is not worthy of all the praise it is receiving. When Ellis gets on the boat to Brooklyn, the music is over-the-top emotionally, and was not necessary. There is a woman that Ellis meets on the boat, who is only in about two scenes, and she strongly resembled Maureen O’Hara. She was just as charming as her, too. I could easily imagine this same story being told in the ’50’s with O’Hara. It is old-fashioned and unabashed in its sincerity. I liked bits and pieces of the film, and it was not an uncomfortable sit by any means, yet I wanted more insight and commentary on the immigrant experience, as opposed to just a harmless fairy tale.

 

 

Review of The Gift

 3 stars

“Gift” a searingly tense, chilling thriller

“The Gift” is about the unraveling of a marriage between a couple named Simon and Robyn, played very well by Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. The sinister interloper of their marriage is Gordon, also played very well, and menacingly, by Joel Edgerton, who is the director of the film. For much of the movie, though, we are not sure who is at fault; Bateman and Edgerton have dark secrets that will be not spoiled here but are fascinating, disturbing and logical.

The film starts with Bateman and Hall buying a new house in LA. Even in this first scene, they seem a bit uneasy together. When Gordon, or Gordo, as he was called in high school, runs into them, Simon does not remember him at first, and tells Robyn walking away that the conversation was super awkward. The next day, Gordon drops off a bottle of wine. Robyn pities him, and wants to give him a chance, so she invites him over to their house for dinner.

The dinner is somewhat awkward, making it seem like Gordon was jealous of Simon in high school. Simon reveals to Robyn that they were not even friends in high school, and Gordon’s nickname was “Gordo the weirdo”. Simon was class president in high school, and according to Gordon, he could get anything he wanted, and one of his expressions as class President, was “Simon says”.

“The Gift” is quite scary at times, but not in the conventional sense; it is chilling, foreboding and ominous, keeping us on the edge of our seats, so that even some of its more outlandish twists and revelations are quietly shocking. Some of the most terrifying scenes in the film are when Robyn is walking through the house, feeling paranoid and unsure, and the audience shares her fear.

In one scene, where Simon and Robyn are having dinner with their new neighbors, he tells them Robyn is too nice, and she gives people too many chances. This shows throughout the film, making Robyn seem like a bit of a pushover. In this sense, Robyn is a compliment to Simon, who is skeptical of everyone’s motives. Simon, though, is a more complex, fleshed-out character than Robyn.

On a deeper level, the film is about a battle of wills between Simon and Gordon, both overly concerned with their masculinity and their social status. Gordon is traumatized by something that happened to him in high school, and Simon feels threatened by the advances that Simon has made on him and his wife. They are both right to feel this way, yet not right in how they act on their impulses.

Toward the beginning of the film, “The Gift” may be a little too heavy on its foreshadowing and metaphors. Some shots are lingered on a little too long for effect, and one of the first shots of Bateman breathing behind a glass door to Hall, is a little too obviously a metaphor for their relationship. Nevertheless, all three of the actors play off each other with palpable tension, making the film riveting to watch, right up to its jaw-dropping final twist.