The LEGO Batman Movie

In a movie that’s more fun than funny, The LEGO Batman Movie centers around Batman’s (Will Arnett) relationships: With longtime villain The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), with Robin (Michael Cera), with Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) and with Albert (Ralph Fiennes).

From all the live action Batman movies, particularly those directed by Christopher Nolan, we know that Batman/Bruce Wayne has an austere personality. Despite his wealth and luxurious surroundings, he is a private individual whose innermost thoughts are known to few.

The LEGO Batman Movie takes viewers inside Wayne Manor for a peek at Batman’s private life which includes an affinity for romcoms—one in particular. You may be interested to learn Batman enjoys eating Lobster Thermidor.

The film also touches on the rivalry between Batman and Superman (Channing Tatum) and a device Superman has that transports evildoers to the “Phantom Zone.”

The LEGO Batman Movie is ever kinetic with an abundance of energy and over-the-top effects including many explosions. As with 2014’s The Lego Movie, the depiction of characters both well known and unknown via Legos is exceedingly clever.

And, as with its predecessor, you don’t have to have spent time playing with Legos to appreciate The LEGO Batman Movie. Although, having watched my two sons and my grandson play with Legos for hours, I have a warm spot in my soul for these wonderful building blocks (and their accessories).

Whereas the earlier film ended with a heartwarming live action father/son interaction, the new release does not contain such warm and fuzzy emotion wrangling. The 2014 film exceeded expectations and delivered surprise after surprise. The LEGO Batman Movie does not outpace expectations but comes close to fulfilling them. As noted at the top, it’s fun if not overwhelmingly funny. (Although the four 12-year-old girls sitting behind me at my screening—and giggling often—might beg to differ.)

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The Jungle Book

Is it possible for a movie to feel like a classic, but also seem fresh and original? Even though that may seem like a contradiction, director Jon Favreau’s new version of The Jungle Book has both qualities.

This is classic Disney stuff. Well, yes, it’s a remake of the 1967 animated Disney film.

It has the elements we’ve seen in numerous Disney films and TV shows. Animals interacting with humans, angrily and peacefully. Cute kids (human and animal). Benevolent adults and threatening adults (animal and human). Absent parents (human and animal). Moments of peril—some a bit frightening—and moments of sweetness. A manipulative—in a good way– soundtrack that plays almost constantly.

And a wise voice-over narration. On the Wonderful World of Disney TV show, it was generally the folksy Rex Allen Jr. Here it’s Ben Kingsley, who also voices the Panther, Bagheera, a good guy who helps guide the young man-cub Mowgli (the amazing Neel Sethi) through his upbringing in the jungle. (Sethi is an Indian-American, born in New York City, and he is brimming with charm and acting talent.)

The animals look realistic and move believably, thanks to actors wearing motion-capture gear and rapidly advancing CGI technology. There’s a reason the credits say the movie was made “in downtown Los Angeles” and that’s the outstanding work of the tech crews based there.

Along with Sethi’s charm and athletic skill, the highlights of the movie are two of the characters Mowgli meets in his quest. Baloo, the bear, is voiced by Bill Murray (who sings Bare Necessities) and King Louie, a monster gorilla, voiced by Christopher Walken (who sings I Wanna Be Like You). They are big characters, physically, and they make a huge impact on the story.

Other voice talents who shine are Idris Elba as Shere Khan, the menacing tiger; Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha, the wolf mother; Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, the snake; and Garry Shandling as Ikki, the porcupine.

Clocking in at 1:45, The Jungle Book moves at a fast pace that will keep kids of all ages engaged. For those who might say, “Why did they need to remake this movie?—the first one was just fine,” let me suggest you go SEE the new version and you’ll understand why. The Jungle Book is not flawless, but it is an impressive, entertaining movie. (Spring for the IMAX 3D screening if you can.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Walk

The Walk is a technical marvel. The reality created onscreen—that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center are standing and a man is walking between them—is awe-inspiring.

Viewed on the IMAX screen in 3D—the recommend way to see this one—watching the recreation of Phillipe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) completing this real-life high wire walk is thrilling.

Back in the 60’s, Cinerama (with its 3-screens surrounding the viewer) was an immersive experience that caused some moviegoers to have slight motion sickness. Dramamine may not be necessary for The Walk, but if your acrophobia is acute, be prepared to be just a bit uneasy.

Surprisingly, The Walk also touches emotions. There’s the exhilaration of Petit and his crew successfully pulling off the stunt. There’s also the shared anguish we all feel for the buildings and their destruction on 9/11/01. Seeing the buildings standing tall in the distance during Petit’s narrations delivered from the Statue of Liberty recalls their prominence in the New York City skyline. It feels good to see the World Trade Center as it was before the attack.

Director and co-writer Robert Zameckis tells the story of a driven young Frenchman who plans and executes his amazing 1974 walk between the two buildings. Petit is a street performer who, at a young age, sees circus performers on high wires. He seeks guidance from Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) a veteran of the high wire. His team of “accomplices” includes romantic interest Annie (Charlotte LeBon), Jean-Pierre (James Badge Dale) and Jean-Louis (Cesar Domboy).

The best “true story” movies are the ones that create tension, anticipation and yes, suspense, even when the moviegoer already knows the outcome. A prime example is Apollo 13. The Walk is similarly successful in building up for 90 minutes to the big event, revealing the intense preparation and the recon work to scope out the buildings. In his 1974 walk, Petit was on the wire for 45 minutes. In The Walk, he is on for 15-20 minutes, but each moment, each step is fraught with perceived danger.

Go for the visual thrills, stay for the emotions. I dined at Windows on the World in the North Tower four months before the 9/11 attacks. I visited Ground Zero in Summer 2002. But even if you’ve never been to New York City, you felt the kick in the gut that the U.S. suffered that day. The computer-generated depictions of the towers in the film moved me.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the star of The Walk. But the World Trade Center plays a major supporting role.

Inside Out

Okay, Pixar is back. They’ve made a great movie again. Inside Out has many things to like and will appeal to audiences of all ages. Unless you are a total curmudgeon, you will be charmed.

The concept, in case you’ve missed the zillion or so TV ads for the film, is a trip inside a young girl’s mind where her various personified emotions face off with one another. It’s a fresh expansion of the old “devil versus angel” bit (fighting for control of a character’s conscience) we saw in numerous mid-20th century cartoons.

Inside the head of young Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) reside Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black). Riley’s preteen life is jarred when her parents (Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane) move from Minnesota to San Francisco.

Riley’s interior world features: a giant control panel where the five emotions interact, a huge repository of memories (each depicted by balls of various colors) and her islands of personality (representing family, hockey, goofball behavior, etc.). It’s a clever depiction of the many facets of thought that rule our brains.

Inside Out is funny early and late with touchy, feely stuff in middle and, naturally, toward the end. The film moves at an acceptable pace, though portions of the film’s middle section (when Joy and Sadness go deep into Riley’s psyche) become a bit tedious.

Among the voice actors, Amy Poehler as Joy is the film’s perfect anchor. Lewis Black as Anger takes full advantage of the many good opportunities to make his presence known. The others handle their roles adequately. Richard Kind gets silly while voicing Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong.

The cynical voices inside my head are urging me not to succumb to the sappy sweetness and manipulative storytelling of Inside Out, designed to diddle with my softer emotional side. But those directives are being drowned out by the upbeat voices that are encouraging me to give in to the gooey, warm, fuzzy feelings Inside Out evokes. This cool head trip requires no drugs to get you high. Welcome back, Pixar!

Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland should be a slam dunk. It’s Disney. It’s George Clooney. It’s Brad Bird (director). It’s nostalgia. It’s the future. But, like an errant jet pack, it goes off course.

Not to say that Tomorrowland isn’t entertaining. It is. But it could’ve been great. And, sadly, it’s just okay.

The concept has merit, but there’s just too much “business” going on and not quite enough real meat on the bones of this message movie. And, in case you don’t get the message, it is pounded into you: Yes, we have big problems in our world. But rather than complain about them, you should get busy solving those problems.

Frank Walker (George Clooney, with stubble) opens the film by talking about the future and how attitudes toward the future have changed since he was a kid.

A young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) is shown attending the 1964 New York World’s Fair and showing off the jet pack he’s invented. Nix (Hugh Laurie) nixes the device but young Athena (Raffey Cassidy) helps deliver him (and the jetpack) into Oz, um, I mean, Tomorrowland.

Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is busted while trying to sneak onto the grounds at Cape Canaveral. She finds a cool pin among her personal effects when her rocket scientist dad (Tim McGraw) bails her out. The pin takes her to Tomorrowland.

Upon her return, she visits a collectables store and asks the clerks (Keegan-Michael Key and Katherine Hahn) about the pin, thereby setting in motion a sequence that echoes Men In Black.

With guidance from Athena, Casey meets up with Frank Walker and they begin their mission to get back to where they once belonged.

Tomorrowland bogs down on more than one occasion in preachy dialogue. And for a PG-rated movie, there are a couple of things that might freak out a small fry—such as when a little girl is hit by a speeding truck. Oh, she bounces right up, but the shock resonates.

For those of us who’ve made a few journeys around the sun, Tomorrowland comes off as idealistic pap. We’ve rolled our eyes at futuristic visions for decades.

For the younger, bright-eyed optimists of the world, this great big beautiful Tomorrowland is manna from Disney heaven. If your cynicism level is zero, you’ll eat Tomorrowland up like warm gooey butter cake.

The Boxtrolls

 

The Boxtrolls is the best looking animated film to hit theaters in years. A combination of labor-intensive stop action filming and post-production CGI has brought forth a movie that’s filled with images of characters and settings that are brilliant in every sense of the word.

We are 20+ years into the Golden Age of Animation, which began with Disney megahit musicals (Aladdin, Lion King), gathered momentum with Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas and hit light speed with Pixar’s Toy Story. After those fallow decades when, because of TV’s less demanding visual needs, animators did their work on the cheap, studios began to deliver strong product and earned huge returns.

As has been shown over and over during this Golden Age, good looks and technical advances help the cause, but ultimate success still rests on a good story. Strong voice acting helps as well. The Boxtrolls hits the mark on all counts.

Boxtrolls are weird little creatures who live beneath the village of Cheesebridge. They come out at night and salvage junk to use in their underground lair. Because they wear boxes (and can hide within them, like a turtle in a shell), they are called boxtrolls. They may remind you in some ways of the minions in the Despicable Me movies.

A young boy called Egg (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright) mysteriously appears among the boxtrolls who raise him as one of their own. Egg leads the boxtrolls to their confrontation with Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) who is the town’s boxtroll exterminator.

Snatcher’s burning desire is to share in a cheese tasting with the town’s elite. He has, however, a cheese allergy and his physical reactions are displayed with hilarious effects.

Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning), daughter of cheese connoisseur and leading citizen Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), helps Egg expose the true nature of Snatcher’s work and reveal the good side of the boxtrolls. Other voice talents include Nick Frost, Simon Pegg and Tracy Morgan.

The Boxtrolls, co-directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, comes from the Laika production company, the outfit that produced Coraline and ParaNorman.

For fans of animated film, The Boxtrolls is a “must see.” All the creative work comes together beautifully in a movie that is filled with delights. Happily, the technology does not overwhelm the storytelling but, instead, enhances it. I’ll say it again: Brilliant in every sense of the word.

 

 

 

 

 

The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie is a pure delight! Colorful, clever and FUNNY! With a memorable song you might find yourself humming on your way home. And a story that springs from the dilemma that many Lego users face: do I follow the instructions or do I make my own creations?

The Lego Movie is my first “must see” film of 2014. Even if you’re a not a fan of silly stuff, you need to check it out for the visuals. Even if you never played with Legos or never had kids who played with Legos, the Lego movie will entertain you.

Emmet (Chris Pratt of TV’s Parks and Recreation) is an everyman Lego guy. But thanks to a series of unexpected events, he goes on a trip that’s almost as mindbending as Alice’s journey to Wonderland.

Emmet, through no effort of his own, is the chosen one, charged with derailing the plans of President Business (Will Ferrell) to glue everything in the universe together with something called “The Kragle.”

Along the way he meets a bizarre cast of Legos: a girl named WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks), Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson), Vitrivius (Morgan Freeman), Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Brie) and Lego pirate Metal Beard (Nick Offerman).

Other Lego characters seen briefly are Abe Lincoln (Will Forte), Lando Calrissian (Billy D. Williams), Green Lantern (Jonah Hill), Wonder Woman (Colby Smulders) and Superman (Channing Tatum) among many others.

The various Lego universes seen in the film are universally spectacular. And The Lego Movie‘s coda (whose content will not be revealed here) is sweet and touching.

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller shared directing and screenplay duties. The soundtrack is by Mark Mothersbaugh, best known as a founding member of DEVO, but also known for doing music for the Rugrats TV show.

\My first thought when walking out of the theater was: “I want to see it again!” And I will! Soon!

 

 

 

 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Strong enough for a man, yet gentle enough for a woman, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty almost feels like a chick flick. But it’s not a chick flick. Let’s just say this PG-rated film is light entertainment. You can take your mom (or even your grandma) to see this film and be assured she will walk out happy.

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) is a shy, wimpy guy with an amazing fantasy life. That fantasy life is depicted hilariously in several episodes in the first half of the film. The director of the film, also named Ben Stiller, changes direction in midstream and takes Mitty into outlandish adventures in his real life. (Okay, his on-screen real life.)

Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) is Mitty’s co-worker and romantic interest. She’s involved in Mitty fantasies, as is Mitty’s jerky new boss Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott at his smarmiest). Walter’s mom (Shirley MacLaine) provides her son with support and important guidance. MacLaine, as usual, is excellent and provides another reason to take your mom to this movie.

Maybe the best supporting player is Patton Oswalt as an online dating counselor, whose work as an unseen voice in TSLOWM is as strong as his brief onscreen scene.

Mitty is a photo editor for Life magazine, which is preparing to publish its last issue. Photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) sends Mitty a photo for the cover of that final issue, but Mitty can’t locate the pic anywhere within the package.

The quest to find that photo takes Mitty on a trek to exotic locales, where he does things he’s never imagined. Okay, he has imagined being part of outrageous events, but never thought he’d actually live them.

Stiller is charming as the nerdy nebbish. His adventures, both real and imagined, are fun to watch. Credit goes to director Stiller for giving us a film that looks good and leaves us with a feel good, upbeat ending. Wiig also brings wholesome charm to her role, which is more substantial that the caricature she plays in the current Anchorman film.

To make a solidly entertaining PG-rated movie for a grownup audience is rarely attempted in today’s world of edgy filmmaking and even more rarely achieved. Congrats to Ben Stiller the director and Ben Stiller the actor for delivering a movie that’s fun to watch without all the dirty business.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is sweet and cute. If you can handle that kind of thing, don’t miss it. And take you mother.

Planes

Planes is like Cars, but with airplanes. It’s not as good as Cars, but better than the forgettable Cars 2. I will admit that I missed the voice work of Larry the Cable Guy.

In Planes, Dusty Crophopper (voiced by comedian Dane Cook) manages to qualify for a round the world airplane race. Being a lowly crop duster, he is the big underdog. Do you think he might have even a tiny chance of winning?

As Brent Mustangberger (voiced by a famous sportscaster) describes the action (only once uttering the catchphrase “you are looking live…”), each leg of the race is a challenge for our feisty hero Dusty. But he always manages to hang on to fly another day. Along the way he becomes friendly with several other plane-toons and emerges as the favorite of fans around the world.

Just as Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) admired the crusty veteran Doc Hudson (voiced by Paul Newman) in Cars, so does Dusty look admiringly to WWII veteran fighter plane Skipper (voiced by Stacy Keach). Lightning had a romantic attraction to Sally (voiced by Bonnie Hunt) and Dusty has a smoldering affection for pink plane Rochelle (voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus).

Dane Cook is not on my list of favorite comedians, but he was a perfect choice for Dusty. Other voices in the cast include John Cleese, Brad Garrett, Terri Hatcher, Cedric the Entertainer, Gabriel Iglesias, Val Kilmer, Sinbad and as bad guy Ripslinger, Roger Craig Smith.

Planes is not particularly funny, but is a pleasant PG-rated amusement. While Planes will charm kids as much or more than Cars, I think Cars had greater adult appeal with its Route 66 nostalgia and remembrance of things past.

Is this the beginning of a new franchise? Well, yes. Planes: Fire and Rescue is being prepared for Summer 2014. And while Planes is not released under the Pixar nameplate, it is executive-produced by the man with a thousand Hawaiian shirts, John Lassiter. And that’s close enough for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despicable Me 2

Despicable Me 2 is sweet and funny. It’s perfect for all ages. In fact, the new one might even be better for the little kids than its predecessor. It’s rated PG, but I think the only guidance necessary from parents should come at the concession stand. (My suggestion: go easy on the high fructose corn syrup.)

Steve Carrell does a wonderful job as lead voice talent. His voicing of Gru, in an Eastern European accent that’s not exactly Russian, delivers a character who’s lovable, but still has a sinister side. Kristen Wiig demonstrates notable voice acting skill as Lucy.

Two notable differences exist between DM2 and the first DM. Gru was an evil villain who crossed over from the dark side and became a loving adoptive father in the first film. In the new one, he’s already a good guy (though one with a tempestuous streak). Also, DM2 has a greater quotient of inspired silliness.

Providing a large amount of the silliness are the minions, those small yellow capsule-like creatures who mumble mostly double talk and do the bidding of whichever leaders they have allegiance to. The minions, who seem to have multiplied like wet Gremlins since DM1, bounce and giggle like Teletubbies—good news for the four-year-old demographic. (The next movie in the series is actually titled Minions, due at Christmas, 2014.)

Also in the silly mode is the goofy fun the filmmakers have with 3-D effects, especially during the closing credits. As with DM1, you’ll want to hang around for a few minutes instead of dashing for the exits.

The movie’s plot involves Gru being recruited by the AVL (Anti-Villain League) to find out who’s doing some treacherous deeds. His AVL liaison is Lucy who points him toward the Paradise Mall. She also becomes his romantic interest! (Despite his success as a villain, Gru is revealed to have been a flop with chicks.)

Gru’s inklings suggest that a former villain colleague El Macho, now a respectable restaurant owner named Eduardo (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), may be the perp. (Web gossip tells of Javier Bardem and Al Pacino as having been earlier choices for the role, but Bratt does an okay job.)

Adding to the cute factor in Despicable Me 2 are Gru’s daughters who bring on the charm here just as they did in DM1.

The first Despicable Me movie made a quarter billion at the box office, finishing ahead of 2010 animated rivals Shrek Forever After and Tangled. DM2 should equal, if not exceed, that figure, based on good will carryover from DM1 and strong word of mouth likely to follow the release of this new one

Note that the 3-D business at the end doesn’t work quite as well on the home screen—an additional reason to see Despicable Me 2 in a real movie house. (But, remember, go easy on the high fructose corn syrup.)