by Steve Habrat
Almost any movie buff can tell you that January and February are far from the most exciting movie months of the year. Outside of a few Oscar nominees finally receiving the wide release treatment, audiences are stuck with—and astonishingly flock to—clichéd comedies, cable-channel action movies, vapid romantic comedies, and stiff horror movies that should have remained in their coffins. It’s extremely difficult to find a diamond in the rough, but every so often, one shimmering winner shines brightly through the piles of garbage. This year’s diamond in the rough is The Lego Movie, a rainbow explosion of sugary visuals and Adult Swim humor tailored for those far too young to know what Adult Swim is. Refreshingly weird, fast paced, and quick witted, The Lego Movie is an animated jewel that almost demands to be seen twice just so audience members young and old can appreciate the clever script from directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. It’s also a hallucinogenic tribute to soaring superheroes, pop culture icons, and cinematic classics that audiences have all come to know and adore over the years. Did I mention that it boasts an A-list cast enthusiastically lending their voices to these little plastic wonders, and that it also sends a wonderful message to children about the power of imagination?
The Lego Movie introduces us to everyman Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), a happy-go-lucky construction worker who always follows his instruction manual for conforming to the world around him. Despite Emmet’s best attempts to fit in with the rest of the citizens of his Lego world, the bouncy little guy always seems like the odd man out. One evening, while leaving work, Emmet spots a mysterious girl called Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) snooping around the construction site. As Emmet goes to approach Wyldstyle, he slips down a hole in the ground, and comes face to face with a glowing red brick called the Piece of Resistance. Entranced by it’s beauty, Emmet attempts to touch the Piece of Resistance, but when he does, he passes out and wakes up in the clutches of Bad Cop (voiced by Liam Neeson), who is the muscle for Lord Business (voiced by Will Farrell), the sinister president of the Lego world. While being interrogated by Bad Cop, Emmet learns that the Piece of Resistance has attached itself to his back, and that Lord Business possesses a weapon called the Kragle, which is capable of freezing the entire Lego universe. Emmet is soon rescued by Wyldstyle, who takes him to meet the Master Builders—a group of heroes capable of building anything they can dream of. Among the Master Builders are a wizard called Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman), Batman (voiced by Will Arnett), the pirate Iron Beard (voiced by Nick Offerman), the overly positive Princess Uni-Kitty (voiced by Alison Brie), and ‘80s spaceman Benny (voiced by Charlie Day). It is with the Master Builders that Emmett learns that he is the “Special,” the one who can save every man, woman, and creature from Lord Business’ evil plot.
The Lego Movie’s hyperactive style and rapid-fire jokes will mostly certainly turn off viewers who aren’t open to this sort of thing. But for those willing to open their imagination to what Lord and Miller have thrown up on the screen, the rewards will stretch far beyond the film’s runtime. It’s almost a given that children will be powerless against its 200-mile-per-hour pacing and the barrage of characters both old and new zipping across the screen, but the filmmakers don’t forget about the parents or those (possibly inebriated) audience members looking for a hearty dose of artistic vision. Adult DC Comics fans are sure to have just as much fun as the kids as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern flash across the screen and cleverly poke fun at themselves, while Star Wars fans will certainly have a chuckle at one joke that flickers with Family Guy’s sense of humor. For those who spend their evenings in a marijuana cloud watching Adult Swim, the film’s bloodshot psychedelics and self-aware jabs will have them doubled over in their seats as trippy graphics and sly pop culture references leap out in 3D and call upon the spirit of Seth Green’s dementedly anarchic Robot Chicken. This strange brew may sound like an acquired taste, but rest assured when I tell you that there is a brilliant last act twist that helps this dizzying concoction of caffeinated inspiration go down smoothly.
When it comes to discussing the The Lego Movie’s wide array of characters, there is a long line of A-list actors lending their vocal chords to these little marvels. Chris Pratt brings his man-child charms to Emmet, our everyman hero who proudly stands behind his idea for a double decker couch. Will Arnett lends his gruff voice to Batman, growling the expected “I’m Batman” line with an extra sprinkling of cheese. He’s easily the most fun character of the bunch, mostly because he’s so overly confident even when he’s botching his batarang throws. Elizabeth Banks makes Wyldstyle an instant plastic sweetheart with a rough and tough side. Little girls in the audience are sure to adore her as she flips, spins, punches, and kicks her way through an army of robotic bad guys. Charlie Day screeches his way through the role of Benny, the ‘80s space man who desperately wants to build the crew a retro rocket ship. Alison Brie’s coo and unpredictable mood swings make Princess Uni-Kitty downright hilarious, as she is in constant turmoil with her excessive positivity. Morgan Freeman offers his trademark vocal talents to Vitruvius, a wise but slightly spaced-out wizard with eyesight complications. Will Farrell brings his maniacal cackle to Lord Business, snarling playful threats to our heroes and his endless supply of henchmen. Liam Neeson rounds out the main cast as Bad Cop, the hushed muscle of Lord Business who will suddenly unleash his peppy side.
While The Lego Movie’s razor-sharp sense of humor makes it an instant winner, the real refresher here is the amazing animation that offers a nice change of pace from the computerized creations from Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks. Though the characters and the world around them are brought to life with CGI magic, the film never truly looks like it was brought to life with a computer program. It looks like we are watching a stop motion miracle—a toy store Lego display that has suddenly leapt to crude life and started interacting with us. The filmmakers don’t forget to smartly call attention to the Lego figurine’s flexibility limits, most memorably with Emmet’s hysterical jumping jacks that he starts his day out with. The constant swirl of colors, characters, and action is all brought home with a thumping title track called “Everything is AWESOME!!” from Tegan and Sara, an indie rock duo who provide a electronic dance track that is sure to be an instant favorite in your family. Overall, with so many animated features struggling to win the hearts of both adults and children, The Lego Movie stands tall as a shining example of how to appeal to all ages. It dares to get a little weird, a little wild, and a little satirical, but it does it with plenty of heart and intelligence, sending an enduring message about the power and importance of imagination.
by Steve Habrat
After Joel Schumacher and the money hungry Warner Bros. put the final bullet in the Batman franchise in 1997, the character lay dormant for many years at the studio, sitting on the shelf collecting dust. Every so often, rumors would emerge that the studio was trying to get a Batman project off the ground but you knew nothing would come of any of these rumors. There were also whispers of a Batman/Superman mash-up but that was also unlikely due to how long Superman had been sitting on the bench. Plus, if you even mentioned Batman in a normal conversation, it was followed up by laughs and eye rolling. Then the news came that upcoming filmmaker Christopher Nolan, the director of solid but small thrillers like Memento and Insomnia, was planning to reboot the Batman franchise and take it back to its darker roots. This was glorious news to anyone who was a Batman fan. In 2005, the world was graced with Batman Begins, a darker, meaner, and deadly serious adaptation of the Dark Knight that stayed furiously true to the DC comic book origins of the character. Audiences were a bit hesitant to flock to the film at first but as positive word of mouth leaked out, Batman Begins slowly became a big hit. It was a hit that made up for the Batman & Robin atrocity while also proving to both mainstream audiences and Batfans that there is still plenty of life (and brains) in this masked vigilante. It was untapped potential that the world would be starving for, they just didn’t know it yet.
In the wake of the death of his parents, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Played by Christian Bale) travels the world to study the behavior of criminals. He is soon detained in Asia where he meets the mysterious Henri Ducard (Played by Liam Neeson), who works for a shadowy organization called the League of Shadows. Ducard promises to train Bruce in ways of battling crime and if he can make it through the grueling training, he can join the League of Shadows, which is led by the equally peculiar Ra’s Al Ghul (Played by Ken Watanabe). Bruce makes it through his training but as he discovers the sinister true intentions of Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows, he escapes and heads back to Gotham City, where he is reunited with his faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Played by Michael Caine). Once he lands in Gotham, Bruce reveals to Alfred his master plan for saving Gotham City, which is gripped by organized crime and corruption. Bruce also tries to work his way back into the family company, Wayne Enterprises, which is slowly deteriorating at the hands of slippery CEO William Earle (Played by Rutger Hauer). Once back at Wayne Enterprises, Bruce meets longtime family friend Lucius Fox (Played by Morgan Freeman), who shows Bruce a number of prototype weapons that were shelved by Wayne Enterprises. With access to a slew of nifty gadgets and Alfred and Lucius on his side, Bruce puts together his alter ego that he plans to use to strike fear in the criminals of Gotham City. He also begins trying to form an alliance with Sergeant Jim Gordon (Played by Gary Oldman), the last good cop in Gotham City who hasn’t given in to corruption. With all the pieces in place, Bruce hits the streets as the masked vigilante Batman and his war on injustice begins.
Throughout the two hour and twenty minute runtime of Batman Begins, director Nolan breathlessly explains all angles of Bruce’s transformation into Batman. Both Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher failed to ever really explain where Bruce was getting all these snazzy vehicles and these high-tech weapons to battle the evildoers of Gotham City, which was always a bit frustrating to me. Furthermore, how did he ever get so good at being stealthy and how did he get so powerful in a fistfight? Nolan covers all of that and more, which was incredibly exciting as a fan of Batman. We also get a psychological look at Bruce Wayne, who is consumed and driven by fear and anger, emotions that he is taught to control. He blames himself for the death of his parents, angry that he got scared in the theater that fateful evening. Fear is ultimately the theme of Batman Begins, with Bruce’s father Thomas (Played by Linus Roache) explaining, “all creatures feel fear”, wise words that would lead Bruce to create Batman. Nolan uses this theme of fear to reflect our post 9/11 world, where American citizens are gripped by the fear of terrorism and attacks by rebel organizations that lurk in the shadows. He goes on to reinforce the idea that fear can be one of the most powerful weapons on the face of the earth, more powerful than bullets, bombs, fists, or roundhouse kicks. Entire cities can collapse through mass panic, a heady idea for a summer blockbuster.
With the psychology and reflection of a world gripped by fear firmly in place, Batman Begins can focus on the performances, particularly Bale’s Bruce Wayne. For the first time, a Batman film actually puts the most emphasis on our conflicted hero, who grapples with his identity once he pulls the cowl over his face and begins his never-ending battle. Bale is a whirlwind of emotions from the first time he is on the screen. He suffers from nightmares of a traumatic childhood event that sparked his fear of bats. We see him consumed by vengeance and anger as he contemplates assassinating Joe Chill (Played by Richard Brake), the man responsible for the murder of his parents. He coldly shuts out the affection of Alfred, who desperately tries to reach him before he disappears on his quest to study criminals. His metamorphosis under Ducard is equally gripping as Bruce learns to control his emotions, a discipline that paves the way for the awakening of Batman. This exploration of the character goes on for slightly over an hour before Bruce finally unleashes his alter ego on Gotham City but you will never once find yourself clamoring for the Dark Knight to finally emerge from the shadows. Nolan said that he wanted us to really care for the man behind the mask and he absolutely meant it. Once Bruce becomes Batman, he also has to become the reckless playboy for the paparazzi, a third side to a character that already has two interesting faces. With the reckless playboy, Bale really gets to let loose and have some fun, but the pain and longing creeps in.
Then we have the supporting players who compliment Bale quite nicely. The second best here is Michael Caine’s Alfred, who has looked after Bruce ever since they buried Thomas and Martha Wayne. He is an authority figure, coming down on Bruce after he witnesses a destructive chase between Batman and Gotham police department. We also have Lucius Fox, a gentle “Q” who looks the other way when Bruce asks him to show him the Tumbler, a heavily armored tank prototype that becomes the Batmobile. The best exchanges in the film are between Bruce, Alfred, and Lucius. Gary Oldman’s Sergeant Gordon also gets the proper attention that his character deserves, which was a huge relief for Batfans disappointed with the way Pat Hingle’s Gordon was handled in the previous films. Oldman really gives a reserved performance that ranks as one of my favorite in Batman Begins. The love interest here is Rachel Dawes (Played by Katie Holmes), who has caught quite a bit of criticism for her performance here but I fail to see where she is so bad. She only becomes the damsel in distress one time throughout the film, a strong gal who holds her own when one of the film’s main villains bears down on her. The bad guys here are Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow (Played by Cillian Murphy), mob boss Carmine Falcone (Played by Tom Wilkinson), and a figure from Bruce’s past that I won’t reveal here if you have never seen the film. Murphy’s Scarecrow is a real weasel of a villain, one who really uses fear to manipulate and intimidate. Wilkinson’s Falcone is a nod to Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27, a snarling mob boss who controls the law in Gotham. There is also the superb Liam Neeson as Ducard, a father-figure mentor who hides a devastating secret that will rock Bruce’s world.
Batman Begins is heavy on the human drama and the raw emotions but it also delivers plenty of thrilling action to satisfy the summer movie crowd hungry for explosions. An extended car chase will get the adrenaline flowing and a massive prison break that unleashes hundreds of psychos into the streets of Gotham will have you holding your breath. There are plenty of twists and turns in Batman Begins that will keep you guessing about certain characters, with a slow build plot of destruction that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand at attention. The film is relentlessly dark, disturbing, and violent, with plenty that will terrify the children who will want to see it. Batman Begins does come with a few flaws, mostly in the way that Nolan cuts his fight scenes. They are marred by a strobe light approach that makes some of the battles incomprehensible, which was slightly disappointing. Flaws aside, Batman Begins is still an absorbing, chilly look at Batman’s rise, our post 9/11 jitters, and the psychology of a hero. It restores honor to the Batman name and makes fans everywhere proud to stand behind the Dark Knight.
Batman Begins is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you are looking for a review of the 3D converted re-release of George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace, you won’t find it here. I don’t feel the need to shell out thirteen dollars for a film that wasn’t filmed in 3D but rather converted to milk more money out of fans. The re-release and my recent purchase of the Blu-ray set has pushed me to revisit the saga in crystal clear HD and I must say, it does look remarkable, but a pretty picture does not make a great film, folks. Lucas, a master showman when it comes to special effects, lost the magic that his original three films had and instead, his new trilogy consisted of countless CGI backgrounds, aliens of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and relentless rubbery action scenes. What made the original three Star Wars films such a success was that they heavily relied on the tale that was told. The characters didn’t seem to have coached interaction, but rather sincere emotions. With The Phantom Menace, Lucas showed us that he had lost control and had instead focused more on creating and selling toys than creating and selling a timeless tale that would extend across generations. But, I will also admit that I found The Phantom Menace to actually be the best of the new Star Wars films. Believe it or not.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… The evil Trade Federation led by Nute Gunray has set their sights on the peaceful planet of Naboo, which they aim to invade. When two Jedi Knights, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Played by Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jin (Played by Liam Neeson) are sent to negotiate the blockade issued by the Trade Federation. Upon their arrival, the evil Darth Sidious (Played by Ian McDiarmid) orders that the droid army kill the Jedi. They nearly escape and find themselves on the planet of Naboo, where they befriend an irritating Gungan creature named Jar Jar Binks (Played by Ahmed Best). Jar Jar Binks takes them to the capital Theed, where they rescue Queen Amidala (Played by Natalie Portman) before the Federation can take her. They narrowly escape (again) and then find themselves on the planet Tatooine, where they befriend a salve boy known as Anakin Skywalker (Played by Jake Lloyd). As their friendship grows with Anakin, the Jedi begin to sense that the Force is strong with the boy and that he should be trained as a Jedi. Soon, they find themselves being tracked by a gruesome horned Sith known Darth Maul (Played by Ray Park), who aims to kill the Jedi. The Jedi must also convince the underwater Gungan city Otoh Gunga to help the people of Naboo and aid them in retaking their planet.
The Phantom Menace does achieve the task of opening a door to another galaxy, one that leaves us asking, ‘what will Lucas think of next?’ It really is incredible taking all the creativity in and waiting for little cameos from classic characters. Yoda shows up, R2D2 is in the mix, and, heck, so is Jabba the Hutt for a brief period. The new characters that are introduced are largely wooden in their performance, which is surprising due to the cast of players Lucas has at his disposal. Liam Neeson does the best job with the clunky script that Lucas provides. He is compassionate, kind, and when need be, totally kick-ass. He is a wise father figure for both Obi-Wan and the probing Anakin. McGregor also plays his character the best he can, resisting the constricting grip of Lucas every chance he gets. He’s the true gung-ho hero who is up for an adventure, which is, after all, why we are visiting this far away galaxy.
Natalie Portman also does a stand out job as Queen Amidala, the monotone and ornate ruler who surges with life once Lucas takes us to Tatoonie. Lucas had the good sense to not make her a complete damsel in distress. When she is handed a laser pistol, she fires back at the frail droid army who are persistent in their attacks. The true annoyance comes in the form of young Anakin. Lucas clearly had absolutely no idea how to make a connection with Lloyd and furthermore, how to guide him in a convincing performance. Every single line he utters seems like Lucas is telling it to him through a megaphone just off camera. The young Lloyd also suffers due to there being basically being nothing for him to actually interact with.
The true reason we watch a Star Wars film is to escape for two hours and loose ourselves in the inspired characters of his space opera. Lucas does provide some seriously cool creatures to bug out at. One of his neatest is Darth Maul, a relatively quiet Sith with black and red tattoos covering his face and a collection of horns atop his head. Lucas always has dreamed up interesting foes for our heroes to confront and Maul nears the top as one of the best. He is mysterious, acrobatic, and murmurs only a few lines of dialogue. I also took a liking to Darth Sidious, the throaty and flaccid evil emperor who would appear in flickering transmissions. But the show belongs to the one-man killing machine Maul, who faces off against Qui-Gon Gin and Obi Wan set to John Williams’ epic score. The battle between the two Jedi and the Sith is without question one of the best lightsaber battles the saga has.
The Phantom Menace does have its fair share of negatives. The film tries to appeal more to a younger audience rather than the diehard fans, which leads to Lucas adding heavy doses of comic relief and little in the way of true sinister moments. There is a scene where one character is cut in half but it is far from graphic. Lucas gives stale one-liners to Anakin, who has zero comedic timing. Once again, I honestly feel that this is a reflection of the dry personality of Lucas. The other dreadful addition is Jar Jar Binks, who is more infuriating than funny. His character relies on slapstick to cut the tension, but what Lucas forgot to add was the tension. His droid army is supposed to strike fear in our hearts but the Jedi cut through them like paper thrown at them by a baby. The droids almost come close to cute, something a villain should never be. You’ll also find yourself cringing at some of the most poorly written dialogue of all time.
The adventure spirit is alive and well in The Phantom Menace, which narrowly saves it from being downright appalling. For those who follow the saga closely, there will be much to complain about but Lucas will certainly do some right by you. That right comes in the form of classic characters, an expansion on the iconic John Williams score, and an incredibly awesome climatic lightsaber duel. But it is the countless fakery that ruined the new trilogy of Star Wars films. There was such a heavy focus on the merchandise that could be pushed onto kids that it becomes maddening. Many film professors, intellectuals, and brainwashed film students criticize Star Wars for lacking depth. We know what to expect when watching one of these films and that is creativity and thrills. I certainly don’t go in expecting to see a political satire. I go in for the eye candy and The Phantom Menace delivers on that. It just a shame Lucas went overboard with the sugary visuals. Overall, the Force was strong here but sadly, it wasn’t strong enough to make something great.
Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace is now available on Blu-ray and is currently playing at your local theater in 3D.