Rough Night (Aniello; 2017)

I had some serious reservations regarding seeing this movie despite really liking the cast.  How many mishaps at a party comedies do we really need?  This looked to be a remake of Weekend at Bernies, The Hangover, Very Bad Things, Bridesmaids or any of a number of other more forgettable films along these same lines.  Plus, it has a title so rote and uninspired you have to wonder how good the writing can possibly be, and bad writing makes for a film which is D.O.A.  However, the other films coming out this week were Cars 3, talk about rote and uninspired ideas, and All Eyez on Me, which did interest me the most initially, but its complete lack of critic screenings in addition to some very bad word of mouth made me decide to take a chance on Rough Night.

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Rough Night is the story of Jess played by Scarlett Johansson who is running for state senate and whose wedding to Peter (Paul W. Downs) is impending, so Jess’ four closest friends from her college years played by Jillian Bell, Zoe Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, and Kate McKinnon throw her a bachelorette party in Miami complete with palatial beach house, cocaine, a stripper, and various penis shaped party favors.  When one of the five ladies accidentally kills the stripper, we find that each of the women has a good reason why they don’t want the police getting involved and so hilarity ensues as they try to dispose of the body in a manner no one can find it.

Rough Night‘s tone is all over the place.  We have sly humor as we see the juxtaposition of the wild party atmosphere of the bachelorette party versus the more cultured bachelor party going on back in Jess’ unnamed home town.  We have the over the top characterizations of the always horny and very open neighbors of the beach house played by Demi Moore and Ty Burrell.  Jillian Bell is also very much playing a stereotype more for laughs than character, but Scarlett Johansson, Zoe Kravitz, and Ilana Glazer give us some performances that toe the line between comic and dramatic, and McKinnon’s performance can go in any old direction depending on the scene and her mood.

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But, while the tonal inconsistencies do stand out like a sore thumb, I can’t say that they don’t work.  The film’s story does go all over the place.  The death of the stripper and the immediate aftermath isn’t played for laughs, and that actually gives the situation some gravity.  While the acting styles are all over the place, they all work for the character actress combination.  You look to Bell and McKinnon for the belly laughs, to Kravitz and Glazer for the smarter, more subtle comedy, and Johansson is the anchor that holds it all together.  It doesn’t work perfectly, some scenes such as a bit where Jess’ fiance panics over not being able to get a hold of Jess and decides he must get to her as soon as possible is completely out of character for everything we’ve seen earlier and is not funny largely because of this, but the tonal shifting works well enough that it seems to be the right fit for this particular film.

The rest of the writing in Rough Night is just as inconsistent as its tone, in a way.  We have one of the most worn out, mundane stories in existence with the raucous party gone wrong plot, and nothing about the story itself elevates it all above the banality of the premise, but the dialogue and the deft handling of the overused situations are actually very well done.  Each of the characters really is a character beyond just being a different level on the slapstick scale.  The lesbian and bisexual issues are handled without delving into stereotype and are nuanced, sensitive to the topic, but still absolutely hilarious.  McKinnon and Bell despite being the closest characters to caricature actually end up having very nice payoffs and we find there is a reason they acted the way they did which makes sense.  The only poor writing to be seen here is, again, with the character of Jess’ fiancee who never seems to have any consistent personality aside from the fact that he’s madly in love with Jess.

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Final verdict:  Rough Night is a mundane film, that fortunately manages to overcome its own mundanity much of the time.  The plot is nothing special in the least, and is ultimately completely forgettable, but the charm of the characters and the actors portraying them in addition to the snappy and often truly insightful dialogue make Rough Night a film worth seeing.  It’s not worth running right out and seeing it in the theater, however.  There is nothing about the visuals that would make this any better on the big screen, and while Rough Night is better than I imagined it could have been, it’s still nowhere close to a great film, so waiting for it to come to Redbox or Netflix is probably the way to go, except possibly for a group girl’s night.  Then the theater could be a blast.

War Machine (Michod; 2017)

While they have been making original films and television shows for some time now, Netflix seems to have decided that with budgets of up to $100 million dollars and stars like Will Smith and Brad Pitt that 2017 is the year they are officially throwing down the gauntlet in Hollywood’s direction and declaring themselves a real player in the business of blockbuster movies.  War Machine, starring the aforementioned Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon, is arguably the highest profile film to come from the DVD rental and video streaming service to date due to the star power on display.  Brad Pitt is most certainly the most recognizable name and only A-lister among the cast, but you will also see Meg Tilly, Griffin Dunne, Anthony Michael Hall, Topher Grace, and Alan Ruck gracing War Machine with their presence in more than just cameos throughout the film’s story.

It didn’t take long, less than ten minutes, for War Machine to remind me of two other films: The Big Short and Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb due to the tone it uses to handle the very important issue of the War in Afghanistan.  Its similarity to The Big  Short is no coincidence as these two films have the same producers and its similarities to Dr. Strangelove, unfortunately, do not continue throughout the entire film and disappointingly really only rear their heads when Brad Pitt and Ben Kingsley (he’s in the movie, too, as Afghani President Karzai) are on screen together.

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When I say it reminds me of them, though, it is only because of tone and what it is attempting to do, not due to quality.  I felt The Big Short was a flawed and overrated film largely due to its tonal inconsistencies and the way it tackled big ideas without making sure we understood the foundation of those ideas first.  It was like it tried to teach calculus without first giving us basic addition.  I applaud it for what it accomplished and even more for what it was attempting to do, but I just felt it was a little off the mark in succeeding in its mission.  War Machine doesn’t have the second problem The Big Short did, but the tonal inconsistencies which reared their head due to tackling deadly serious subject matter with humor are even more exaggerated here.  War Machine has no idea if it wants to be a satire or honest look at The War on Terror and that unfortunately makes for a film which can easily lose your attention.

The film starts with voice over for almost the entirety of its first eight and a half minutes, and it will continue to return to this voice over again and again throughout its running time.  We learn the reason for this is that we are hearing the voice of a Rolling Stone reporter quoting the text of an article he has written about General Glen McMahon and the information being given in the voice is pretty dense, but no matter how good and relevant the reason, a voice over is a crutch which makes for an experience far more dull than if we could learn the same information by watching the characters act and react to the situation around them.  We are also given some scenes with greatly exaggerated acting, situations, and dialogue early on in the film before ultimately settling on a more standard narrative which certainly contains humor, but if not for the opening would most likely not be labelled a comedy.  Finally, add the fact that the first battle scene doesn’t take place until an hour and a half into the film, and the average movie goer is going to have to battle a bit to keep their attention glued to War Machine since there are usually plenty of distractions going on at home where the movie is most likely to be seen.

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Which is sort of a tragedy, because while the movie isn’t quite sure what genre it wants to be and relies too much on talk over action, the rest of this script is incredibly insightful, important, and fascinating.   I have never seen a film so well describe the difficulties and absurdities of fighting a war against an enemy which doesn’t have a standard military nor even a country or distinct ideology as this one does.  The civilian governments have their goals, the military has theirs, and the Aghan citizenry has theirs, and none are spared from either mockery nor sympathy.  When all is said and done, War Machine does an amazing job at showing the nuance and complication of what’s going on in Afghanistan and why even those most intimately involved with it are confused.  How can you fight a standard war when killing your enemy just makes more enemies?  How can you convince people to trust you when you have to do it at gunpoint?  How do you even know who the enemy is when people in the same household can be working for and against you at the same time?

One of my favorite scenes in the film shows a low ranking soldier addressing the general during a speech he is giving the troops.  The soldier asks McMahon if it’s true that they are giving out a medal for restraint.  The general confirms this and explains that since the enemy don’t wear uniforms, can be anywhere, and don’t stand out among the general citizenry that its important not to use violence until its proven to be warranted.  The soldier then declares, “So, we are getting awards for not being marines?  I’m confused.”

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This difference in viewpoint between the military and civilians shows up all over the film, and is quite interesting in the relationship between McMahon and his wife (Meg Tilly).  When we first see them, they are also seeing each other for the first time in a very long time.  Their encounter is awkward and uncomfortable, they are acting like they think a married couple should act but seem to have forgotten how or even whether the other person truly is their spouse.  While this relationship does change throughout the course of the film and they do become comfortable with each other again over time, this opening scene between the two just adds emphasis to what we have been seeing the whole film whenever McMahon and his men interact with government attaches, reporters, and the like which is that military men and civilians have very different mindsets and don’t seem to be able to fathom what the other side’s motivations are.

War Machine also remains very up to date and topical with the way it handles the topics of the media and military relationship to the President of the United States.  Obama is constantly mentioned throughout the film as a seemingly uncaring shadowy figure who would rather not get his hands dirty with Afghanistan and leaves that up to his generals while the media and leaks to said media make for some of the more entertaining bits in the movie, but also in the end make up the bulk of the film’s message.  And, before I move on to my final verdict, I have to mention that if you don’t understand the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan after the scene in which McMahon is speaking to an Afghan father and his young son in their home after a skirmish took place there, then I would suggest psychiatric diagnosis to make sure you are not a complete sociopath.

Final verdict:  War Machine is a slow paced, tonally inconsistent story, but it’s one that you should make an effort to watch – and it will take a bit of an effort for most – due to its much stronger than usual understanding of all the major parties involved in our military actions in Afghanistan.  It’s all talk, very little action, but that talk is some fantastic, important talk.   After all is said and done, you will never be able to look at that Rolling Stone magazine cover with Lady Gaga wearing nothing but assault rifles as a bra as anything other than the perfect metaphor for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan again.

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (Gunn; 2017)

In 2014, Marvel Studios took a pretty big chance, which ended up having a huge payoff, in bringing us Guardians of the Galaxy, a Marvel property which was largely unknown even to comic book fans, let alone those who had never picked up a comic in their life.  In Guardians of the Galaxy movie fans got a fast paced space adventure with incredibly charismatic characters and just the right amounts of adventure and humor.  It was the best “Star Wars” movie since The Empire Strikes Back (I went there).  Three years later, and the Guardians are back, minus Groot but plus Baby Groot, except this time we already know and love these characters and are familiar with their schtick and how they fit into the Marvel Universe, so can Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 have the same impact as the original?

This time around, the characters are just as, if not more, charming as in the original.  Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (Star-Lord, man) is still the leader of the Guardians with Zoe Saldana as Gamora, his right hand bad ass assassin, Dave Bautista as Drax the overly literal Destroyer, Baby Groot voiced once again by Vin Diesel, and Sean Gunn and Bradely Cooper both working to bring weapons expert Rocket (don’t call him a Raccoon) to life.  Michael Rooker is also back as Yondu in an expanded role from the first Guardians of the Galaxy, and he deserves special mention as he and Dave Bautista are, in my opinion, the two true stand outs in the cast. Last time around, while the Guardians did ultimately end up as a complete group, there was still some definite pairing up going on with Quill and Gamora being one team, Rocket and Groot being a second, and Drax being the unfortunate fifth wheel.  This time around, the relationships are much more advanced with every character having quality time with each of the others and now very established ties to each other, making their interactions far more dynamic than the first time around – most of the time, but I’ll get to that in a few paragraphs.

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The visuals are of the quality we’ve come to expect from Marvel, with very proficient camera work and excellent special effects even if neither is ever terribly inventive.  The art direction on display, however, is definitely unique.  We are shown that the galaxy is a diverse place with equal parts ’60s psychedellia, dystopian grunge, and medieval retro pastiche making up its reaches.  The settings don’t always make a lot of sense, even within the confines of the story, but they are always creative and eye catching.  Even the opening and closing credits hold onto those creative and eye catching visual elements, with the opening credits being one of the most visually dynamic pieces in the entire film and a great way to open things up.

The script is well done with its dialogue being its stand out element.  The plot does have a few pacing issues unlike the first film, and the methods used to move it along can get a tad clunky, but overall it’s a story that does its job of drawing you in and raptly holding your attention, so even the few lulls aren’t obvious in the moment.  The dialogue, though, is the best I think has ever been written in a Marvel film.  Every single line is full of character, is crisp and entertaining, and this is by far the funniest Marvel film made to date with quip after quip, joke after joke, I was laughing so hard I had tears in the corners of my eyes for Guardian of the Galaxy, Vol. 2‘s entire running time, and I have never really found Marvel films quotable before despite how entertaining they are in general, but I’ve found myself wanting to quote many lines from this one, virtually biting my tongue even as I write this.

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This, however, leads me to the films largest flaw, and the flaw large enough that it keeps me from ranking it among Marvel’s best.  Can a movie be too funny?  The jokes are non-stop, one after the other, often verging into straight on slapstick territory, yet the film has a lot to say about familial themes.  Every character in the film deals with daddy issues on some level, with the exception of Baby Groot, and we see the Guardians and their various acquaintances playing the parts of a family unit in the film and all that entails.  It’s the point of the movie, showing when a family is at its strongest and when it can hold you back.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 has a lot to say about family, and it could say it well, except that it undercuts every serious moment in the film save one with a joke.  Sure the jokes work, but Gunn and the cast did not know when to let the humor go for a minute and let a poignant moment sink in.  I will say, though, that the part of me that’s more analyst and less film fan finds it fascinating that the movie’s main weakness is also its greatest strength.

To those who are wondering how this movie specifically plays into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and whether it can be seen without knowing much about the rest of the movies Marvel has created, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is practically a stand alone entity.  The only references to other films in the Marvel canon are to the original Guardians of the Galaxy, and even those are more character references and not needed to understand the story going on here.  The future world building that goes on in most Marvel films also seems to be absent here, though it is possible they are just more subtle about it than is often the case and we will see ripples from this movie in future Marvel installments, but importantly even if that is the case it is never distracting nor even obvious.  Anyone can see this movie without having seen another Marvel film in their life and still enjoy it just as much as someone who has seen every Marvel Studios movie to date.

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Final verdict:  Marvel films are always entertaining, they have yet to release an outright dud, and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, while not being one of Marvel’s greatest, is still excellent and continues the tradition of high quality we now have come to take for granted from Marvel.  While Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 may take the humor a bit too far at times, it is still Marvel’s funniest movie to date, never, ever letting up on the laughs while also giving us plenty of eye popping action taking place in eye popping settings.  You will be entertained, and you may even gain a little insight into family while you’re at it.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is highly recommended by yours truly, go make Marvel and Disney even richer than they already are, they keep earning it.

 

 

 

Free Fire (Wheatley; 2016)

The first thing you notice about Free Fire, the British film from studio A24 which is now getting a wide release after making its away around the world via the film festival circuit, is that it has one hell of a great cast.  Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, and Brie Larson are all three darlings of the independent film crowd and Brie Larson is right on the cusp of becoming an A-Lister with both action and serious drama credentials, plus Sharito Copley had his day when he showed he had some serious talent in District 9.  The second thing you notice is that after a short opening, the film is essentially one long gunfight, and the third thing is that there is only one setting in Free Fire‘s entire running length.

The premise of Free Fire is a simple one.  Justine (Brie Larson) has set up a meeting between some IRA members led by Chris (Cilliam Murphy) and a group of gun runners led by Vernon (Sharito Copley).  Despite a few hiccups, the meeting is going fine until one of the grunts on the gun runners’ team recognizes one of the grunts on the IRA’s team as someone he had a serious run in at a bar the night before.  Things degenerate quickly and we spend the rest of the movie watching them make quips and shoot at each other. That’s really about the entirety of the movie.

The great actors do are definitely on their game here, all giving charismatic, energetic performances to the level we’ve come to expect from this crew.  Unfortunately, that is all the good that can really be said about the film.  While the performances are excellent, the characters themselves have next to nothing to differentiate them, the dialogue they are given to work with is repetitive and generic and the situation they are placed in is ultimately fairly mundane.   This was actually a hard film to review since all there really is to say is that great actors give great performances, but there is absolutely nothing else of any worth on display here.

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That is, until I realized this is a perfect opportunity to talk  about how to recognize the director’s influence in a film by demonstrating an absolute failure on Ben Wheatley’s part in Free Fire (he is also co-writer on the film with Amy Jump, which may also explain a few of the failures).  The director is essentially the foreman or the manager on a film crew, overseeing every aspect of a film’s production even if he doesn’t directly handle any of those functions (though, he often can).  Therefore, the ultimate vision of what a film becomes lies squarely in the director’s hands, the tone, the themes, the style all come directly from the director’s vision of what he wants the film to be, and it is his responsibility to make sure everyone in the cast and crew understands and follows that vision.

Free Fire‘s first problem is that it has no idea what tone it wants to follow.  The lack of stunts, the single setting, and circumstances surrounding the action of the film suggest a gritty crime drama.  The quippy dialogue, the fact that people are shot over and over but never receive more than flesh wounds, and choices of music and a few exaggerated stereotypes suggest a comic tone.  If I had to guess, Wheatley was trying for a Tarantino or Guy Ritchie style film with witty dialogue, eccentric characters, and gritty action mixing to make a mixed tense and hilarious experience, but he never marries the styles together and ends up with a mess.  Even the actors themselves never quite get in sync with all their admittedly excellent performances seeming to come from different movies, Larson acts for an over the top action thriller, Copley is in a wry comedy, and Murphy gives a performance that belongs in a historical drama.

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The different acting styles are practically the only thing differentiating the character’s, though, that and their accents, so maybe it’s a good thing the different styles were so discordant.  Larson stands out as the only female character, but everyone else is dressed in a garish 70’s style outfit, most of them suits, most of them blue or grey, all the men have very similar facial hair, again garish 70’s style, and even the people he chose to cast look as if they could be related.  The only real stand out among the men is Armie Hammer due to his height, deeper voice, and slightly different hairstyle, all the others blend together to the point where you really have to concentrate to differentiate who is who, especially once the action starts.  This very well could be because of Wheatley’s vision, but if it was it was a poor idea, and if it wasn’t it was something he should have caught and put a stop to.

Those action sequences do seriously add to the problem of differentiating the characters as most of the film is done with hand held cameras (not shaky cam, though, fortunately) so the shots are close up too much of the time.  This means that we’ll see a character screaming and firing a gun with no idea where he’s aiming, or we’ll see an area around someone being riddled with bullets, but with no idea even which direction they are coming from let alone who is doing the shooting.  It’s rare that we are given any sense of perspective in Free Fire, and this makes for a situation where the tension is taken out of much of the movie as we have no idea what exactly is going on, so we can’t get excited about the events.

Finally, the script is the final nail in Free Fire‘s coffin.  Wheatly gave us witty dialogue, sort of, sometimes, but since any line could come out of any character’s mouth interchangeably the wit is lost since it has no real context, it’s just random funny things random characters say.  I’ve already mentioned the tone, but those tonal issues stem directly from a script which had an idea, but nothing else, and even that idea is fairly rote and mundane, so the complete lack of a solid tone just adds confusion to the drabness.

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Final Verdict:  I can only guess Free Fire came about because some high talent actors had a weekend free and someone wanted to take advantage of that, because aside from the performances everything this movie has to show seems like it could have been put together over a long weekend.  Cardboard thin characters, a mundane plot, no tone to latch onto, and hard to follow cinematography, art direction, and editing make for a film impossible to recommend.  There are critics out there who like it, so apparently there are those out there who see something in Free Fire I’m missing, and it probably is worth a rental or a view on streaming service some day because there are a few real gut level chuckles to be had here, but overall the only thing Free Fire has going for it is charisma, and that isn’t enough in my humble opinion.

 

The LEGO Batman Movie (McKay; 2017)

Batman has had a very long and storied history in cinema.  His first appearance on the big screen goes all the way back to 1943, but the Batman we know today really made his first appearance as a campy, not at all to be taken seriously character in the movie titled simply Batman in 1966.  This was a time when comic books were seen as purely for children, and the character Hollywood gave us was more comedian than vigilante in a likeness which winks so constantly at its audience its a wonder the Batman of today hasn’t taken on a permanent squint.  The 1989 film by Tim Burton also called just Batman gave us a more gothic representation of the character.  Not a comedian, but still not entirely serious, this Batman showed Hollywood that the character can be enjoyed seriously by older audiences, a lesson which they promptly forgot 6 years later in Batman Forever and threw entirely out the window in 1997s Batman and Robin, widely considered one of the worst films ever made.

Then, in 2005, along came Christopher Nolan with Batman Begins to show general audiences that Batman, and superhero characters in general, could be real three dimensional characters with honest to goodness depth and could do it without giving up the action heavy story lines which made the characters popular in the first place.  This was something fans of comic books and animated series had known for a long time, of course, and these fans were arguably the reason Nolan’s film was greenlighted in the first place, but the success of Nolan’s films would forever change how live action superhero movies were made.  Gone was the camp, the genre could now be taken seriously, and for the last 11 years it has been.

Superhero movies were making so much money for the studios that everyone was trying to start their own franchise, though with only Marvel studios having real success, and we were (and still are) so inundated with superhero movies that people are starting to get sick of them and everyone wonders when the superhero movie bubble is going to burst, and that’s when early 2016 brought us Deadpool.  Deadpool set so many box office records it proved that the public wasn’t as sick of superhero movies as everyone thought, they are just sick of the same old superhero movies over and over again.  While many credit Deadpool‘s success to its hard R-Rating, I don’t.  I believe that its success comes from its tone.  Deadpool was the first comic superhero movie to come along in a very long time.  Movies like Guardians of the Galaxy have a light touch and a definite sense of humor, but Deadpool was a sort of modern throw back to that Batman of 1966 in which nothing is sacred and the sense of fun is more important than the plot or themes.

Which now brings us full circle to The LEGO Batman Movie.

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It’s about time you got around to me!

The LEGO Batman Movie is very much a kid friendly version of Deadpool.  Yes, there’s a plot and that plot has a point, but what it really sets out to do is be fun.  If self aware humor annoys you, then this movie will, I’m afraid, but anyone who can still find a film that satirizes its own genre and audience entertaining, then I can guarantee a good time.  From beginning to end if there is something to poke fun of regarding the character of Batman, the superhero action genre, LEGOs, and the people who like these things, then the writers found a way to goof on it, and on many other pieces of pop culture which LEGO has the rights to, of which the number seems endless.

The spoofing is usually clever, always funny, but it never leaves the realm of child friendly.  The makers of The LEGO Batman movie know very well that their target audience is families, not children – families, and while it actually may make people think on things that could make them uncomfortable at times, yes, it does go to thoughtful places on occasion, it never presents anything in a way that you wouldn’t want a young child to see.  I’m guessing the only reason it has its PG rating, and not a G, is that it is a superhero movie, so cartoony violence is often used to solve problems, but it never goes to a place darker or meaner than a Looney Tunes cartoon.

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In comparison to the original The LEGO Movie, The LEGO Batman Movie seems to always fall just short, but only just.  The new big song,”The Batman Theme Song”, is funny, toe tapping, catchy, and will make you smile as you sway in your seat, but don’t expect it to get nominated for an Oscar like “Everything is Awesome” was.  The jokes come at a fast and furious pace and most are hilarious, but every once in a while they do miss their mark here.  The themes of friends being family do hit home and they give the movie a lot of heart, but they just don’t have the heart string tugging power of the themes of true family the first film had.  The LEGO Batman Movie tries to have the cake of The LEGO Movie and eat it, too, but it seems the recipe of the first movie was just a tad too rich to truly duplicate, but damn if The LEGO Batman Movie didn’t come close.

The animation of this film is one piece that may actually be slightly better than the first.  As amazing as some of the things the animators were able to do with LEGOs in the first film was, they learned and managed to up the spectacle here.  Flames burn everywhere, things freeze over, machines morph and twist, and the film is constantly lively and in motion.  They may not do all the “Hey, we’re in a world made of LEGOs” tricks they perform in the first film, but the ones they do manage are clever and look amazing.

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Final recommendation:  If you have young kids, this one is a no-brainer, treat them and yourselves to this one, though maybe at a matinee if at all possible to keep the cost down.  For the rest, whether to see this one or not rests highly on what you thought of the first film or how much of a nerd you are.  The constant references that can actually get incredibly deep into Batman lore are fast and furious and will cause a comic book geek to fall in love with what they are doing here.  If you loved the original The LEGO movie, you will probably enjoy this one, too, just don’t set your expectations quite up to that one’s level and you will have a grand time.  This really is a Deadpool for kids so if you think of it along those lines, you should be able to figure out whether this is a movie for you.

Sing (Lourdelet and Jennings; 2016)

Matthew McConaughey voices Buster Moon, a koala bear who owns the local theater and is doing what he can to return it to a state of profitability and respect.  Reese Witherspoon is a pig housewife who loves her family but often feels unappreciated.   Seth MacFarlaine voices Mike, a classically trained arrogant mouse who could use some lessons in humility. Scarlett Johannson is Ash, a teenage porcupine in a band with her boyfriend who disrespects her.  John C. Reilly is Eddie, Buster’s closest friend who wants to make an identity for himself instead of the one laid out before him by his rich family.    Taron Egerton is a gorilla whose father is a bank robber by trade, and Taron doesn’t want to follow in his footsteps. Tori Kelley plays Meena, a shy teenage elephant whose family wants her to realize that she is a talented person who deserves to be noticed.  All of these people meet when Buster decides the best way to revive his theater is through a live singing competition in which all these characters take part.  Does that sound like a lot?  Perhaps too much for a single movie to take on and do justice?  It absolutely is.

That isn’t even all the characters, stars, and story lines involved in this incredibly overstuffed animated feature which at its heart is really just an excuse for big name stars to sing some pop songs and make an easy paycheck.  Sing is the latest from Illumination, the company that has given us the Despicable Me films and The Secret Life of Pets from earlier this year.  Much like those films, Sing is an animated film which is fine for children, but nothing more than fine, and can entertain adults well enough that they won’t regret bringing their kids to the theater, but not so well that they don’t realize the entire length of the film they could be doing something much better with their time.

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Such as napping.

As someone who has been crusading against animation as seen as being purely for children for some time now, I still realize that there is nothing at all wrong with cartoons made with children as the primary audience, however, Sing is a film with an arrogrant crooner, a frazzled housewife with 25 children, bank robbers, and loan sharks as main characters.  It’s lessons are practically non-existent except to say such light themes as “you shouldn’t rob banks” or “mom’s can occasionally be cool”.  Add to that the fact that much of the humor is aimed squarely at adults, and you have a movie too simple and slight for an adult audience, but with characters and situations children won’t really get, and it’s impossible to tell who this movie is for other than people who just want to watch animals with celebrity voices sing overplayed and slight pop songs.

The animation is bright and colorful, another clue that the primary audience of the film is the younger crowd, and does definitely have a high level of charm.  There isn’t much remarkable about the visual style outside of this, however, as it has nowhere near the attention to detail seen in Zootopia, the creativity and artistry of Kubo and the Two Strings, nor the incredible talent on display in Moana.  It’s obvious this isn’t the animators first film, but it is still incredibly generic and not particularly memorable.

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The animators thought long and hard about each individual character, coming up with physical quirks and identifying characteristics for even the most minor of extras.

Sing is a movie that’s hard to recommend as anything other than something to keep your kids busy for a while or as background noise while you work on something which demands more of your attention.  There are too many stories going on for any to earn any level of even minor investment, lessons, themes, and allegory are non-existent, the characters are as generic as they can possibly be as is the plot, and the animation is eye catching, but little else.  The only thing which will entertain you is the music and the charm, both of which Sing does have in abundance, but while those can be enough to get a smile here and there, it’s not nearly enough to make this a movie worth visiting more than once, and even that once on Netflix or the like.

Rating:  4.0 out of 10

La La Land (Chazelle; 2016)

A reputation of Los Angeles is that it is the city where foolish dreamers go to come face to face with harsh reality.  In the pre-credit sequence of La La Land, we are shown a bumper to bumper traffic jam, then the music starts and the commuters are now getting out of their cars, singing and dancing making the best of a lousy situation.  A 1940’s style carefree fantasy meets with the reality of modern annoyance.  This is the glitz, glamour, and misfortune which makes up La La Land.

La La Land is the story of two people who came to Los Angeles because they have a dream.  Emma Stone plays Mia, a girl from a small town who wants nothing more than to become a big time actress, and Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist who has lived in L.A. his whole life and wants to start his own club so he can give the music he loves a resurgence in a world that has forgotten it for the most part.  The two meet and eventually fall in love, though it’s more obvious to everyone else, audience most certainly included, that they already love each other before they themselves realize it.  If this sounds familiar, it is meant to.  The brilliance of La La Land is not that it gives you an obviously brand new story the likes of which you’ve never seen before, but that it gives you an age old, well worn story with a twist that makes all the difference in the message it wants to say.  The 1940’s story and tropes mixed with a story taking place in the modern era is more than just a stylistic decision, it’s a metaphor.

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not actually real people.  They, too, are metaphors.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are two of my favorite younger working actors in Hollywood today, and I loved them both in this movie.   While Gosling gives an excellent performance and his electrifying chemistry with Stone is what makes the movie work, Stone’s performance is a true tour-de-force.  Her multi-layered performance makes the fantastic realistic and the surreal grounded.  When I say La La Land combines both the dreams and the reality the city is known for perfectly, a huge part of that combination realizes itself in Stone’s nearly perfect performance.  Even when her voice occasionally isn’t entirely up to snuff in a few of her more difficult songs, you think that it is more a choice than a weakness, that a break in her voice isn’t a mistake so much as a decision to have her character let her guard down for just a moment.  For his part, Gosling is also excellent, and he learned piano for this movie, and when I say learned I don’t mean he can plunk out a few notes to get through a scene, he gives some virtuoso level performances here.

The music and the musical numbers, of course, have to be talked about.  What we are given continues the metaphor impeccably, the jazz music and Fred Astaire style numbers mixed with modern settings, dance moves, and singing styles work on every level and elevate what was in danger of being cornball to gloriously creative, catchy, and invigorating.  Even the methods of breaking into song bring a new spin on the old, as occasionally, such as in the above mentioned opening scene, the characters do just break into a song and dance number out of nowhere, but sometimes the more modern technique of naturally breaking into song since many of our characters are musicians by profession is the method of getting into a musical number.  Both methods work, neither seems out of place, and this is a huge credit to director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) for being able to pull not only this tough balancing act off, but the balancing act which is this entire movie.

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Chazelle isn’t the only one who can balance.

The art direction and camera work in La La Land just add to the many other already impeccable elements in this film.  Linus Sandgren, the director of cinematography, captures the city, the stars, and the action at their most beautiful and gives us a true glamour piece while never forgetting that the movie is self aware enough to know that the glamour can be very much illusion and knows when to let the feeling that what we are watching is not altogether real sneak through at just the right times.  Classic musical filming techniques are largely on display here, but we also see some very stylized modern camera work, and a bit of what can only be described as live stage performance visuals, the camera doing what it can to capture what it would be like to be seeing this story in person.  All of this works, all is subtle, and most of all it all work to enhance the emotional core of what makes La La Land such an experience.

La La Land is not only a masterpiece, not only one of the best movies of the year, but it is one of the greatest love stories to Hollywood ever captured because it’s not just about Hollywood, but the entire human experience and one of the greatest musicals ever made.  The core of the movie is emotion, and you will run the entire of gamut throughout this movie.  You will be thrilled, joyous, awed, and you will have your heart stomped and beaten at times, as well.  But, once you are done with the emotional experience, you will also see that this was an incredibly smart and intellectual movie as well.  What La La Land has to say about chasing dreams is unlike what any other film before it has had to say, and the message is at once optimistic and grounding.  I recommend this film to absolutely everyone.  If you are the type who says they hate musicals, see this anyway, after La La Land you can then say you hate musicals except for this one.  It really is that spectacular that it will make converts.

Rating:  9.6 out of 10