The Lego Movie (2014)

★★★★

Directors: Phil Lord & Chris Miller

Release Date: February 7th, 2014 (US); February 14th, 2014

(UK) Genre: Animation; Action; Comedy

Starring: Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman

“Everything is awesome!”

Everything is also chaotic, bonkers and pretty hilarious too. The Lego Movie doesn’t hold back. It cracks the obvious gags when they’re hovering around. There’s a lot of shouting, screeching and wailing, and that’s not just from the children watching in the same screening as you. Engines are set to full-throttle from the off and remain that way. What’s left then, is this gigantic ball of merriment that sees it origins in a whole host of previous box office-busting successes, but one that also conjures up a few smart quips of its own. Truly abiding by its ‘Universal’ rating, The Lego Movie builds on the colourfulness, catchy riffs and outright pandemonium aimed at the young’uns, and ends up also divulging a witty, often reminiscent backbone for the oldies. So yes, everything is awesome.

Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is a middling construction worker who blends into his job and surrounding world as much as the next Lego figure. He abides by the bustling code of Lego life, a step-by-step process meticulously ticked off by everyone, a job designed to assist progress, and an anthem heralding President Business’s (Will Ferrell) seemingly glorious society. On the periphery though, there’s a menace, an evil at work. President Business has devious intentions, with sights set on using the ‘Kragle’ to glue the world motionless. Only the MasterBuilder can stop him, and maybe Emmet isn’t as ordinary as first perceived.

Unlike the mechanical and simple block-by-block creation style, The Lego Movie manages to deliver a well-rounded story with unimaginable scope. We’re bumbling around a fairly stagnant period of animation on the big screen, a time far removed from the Lion King’s and Shrek’s of cinema, films that combined humour and joy with underlying strands declaring positive living. The Lego Movie teeters on the verge of getting back there. For all its energetic prowess and funny moments, the film motions along a deeper, more satirical platform. One that denounces a lack of intuition and promotes difference. President Business — aptly named — embodies the proverbial symbol of power-hungry, corrupt domination. The addictive song “Everything is Awesome”, sung everyday all-day by the civilians of Bricksburg, is a means to an end for the evil overlord. It’s catchy for a reason, constructed by President Business to brainwash the masses. Yet there are those aware few fighting against the autocratic system, a misfit band of special, talented Lego warriors. This narrative works; it has meaning, evokes emotion and demands investment, even amongst all the surface madness and hilarity. The film trumpets variety against monotony and should be admired and applauded for doing so, perhaps even more so than for its many other accomplishments. Having said all that, it is interesting to consider how much authenticity this prevalent notion of non-corporate domination holds, when you take into account the film’s basis: a multinational, mega-encompassing, money-gorging branded toy.

Snappy comedy is one of the films main triumphs. A lot of the time you find yourself laughing not just on the back of current pop culture references (when Batman refers to Bruce Wayne as a “cool guy”), but also at the expense of historic political blunders — voting machines, for example. The gags are constant, relentless even, but their respective foundations are juggled around allowing a freshness to circulate throughout the film’s progression. On the odd occasion that a consistently fielded joke does become wearisome, writer and director duo Chris Miller and Phil Lord work hastily to replace staleness with another funny wisecrack, and very often that wisecrack is another jaw ache-er.

The dialogue is an audible sea of movie-innuendos, for the experienced and the novice. Aside from bountiful puns and hidden humours rewarded to tickle the quick-eyed (“Bob’s Kabob” is outstanding), we also get hilarious Star Wars absurdities and are showered with a number of popular superheroes — at one point proceedings take on a very Avengers’ Battle-of-New-York-like manifestation, with portals and whizzing machinery aplenty. Batman plays a significant role all through the film, and is probably the only running joke that slightly wears towards the end, which is a shame because Will Arnett does a tremendous job with the raspy Bat-voice, even if you’re throwing honey at the screen by the time the credits roll.

In fact, all of the voice-acting sounds terrific. Chris Pratt provides that exuberant bravado as Emmet, one that gradually pitches more assuredly as the film progresses. Emmet strikingly resembles another animated hero, Flick, both in characterisation and story arc. Similar to the A Bug’s Life protagonist, Emmet is an over-eager-yet-normal guy who possesses the willpower to do the extraordinary. Much like Flick, his apparently crazy, useless ideas are those that turn out to be crucial and imperative — the double-decker couch, for instance. On the contrary to Flick though, who was originally a spanner in the ant hole, Emmet tends to blend into his surroundings and therefore must ascend more than an echelon of innovation to save the day. Elizabeth Banks is zesty and strong as the voice of Wyldstyle, Emmet’s partner-in-heinous-prevention, a wickedness perfectly sounded loud and nastily by Will Ferrell as President Business. Liam Neeson is arguably the best of the lot though, his distinct raspiness toned down (or up) a tad to combat any Batman correlations. Neeson voices Bad Cop/Good Cop, but mainly Bad Cop, and provides a fair helping of humour as the Lego police officer carrying out President Business’s gluey work. A whole host of other names — from Morgan Freeman to Jonah Hill, and Channing Tatum to Cobie Smulders — add their choral airwaves to the very fun and easy-listening vocal front.

Visually, for the most part, the film succeeds too. It runs into a bit of a problem as events set sail across before diving under water. Up until this point, we’re fully engrossed in Lego-land where everything is constructed wonderfully of Lego pieces. The landscape accommodates those ever-noticeable spherical cogs, ready as always to ground an attached brick (a notion that goes over nobody’s head). Water, then, also runs and sprays as Lego parts, until the crew of saviours find themselves underneath the substance which then turns into a non-Lego, standard computer-animated sea. It’s a bit odd, and for a moment removes the viewer from the plastic world. In all fairness though, that’s nit-picking at its crudest and as a whole, the visual output explodes with colour, fluidity and life.

Based on a toy that encourages creativity and imagination, The Lego Movie upholds and listens to its own traditions rather than decimating them (à la the poor-tasting Transformers franchise). The film is controlled, uncontrolled chaos, a rapidly advancing and visually accomplished offering that sparks life into the animation genre. For over an hour and a half you won’t be able to keep the smile off your face, unless it’s to exhale another round of laughter.

Taken 2 (2012)

★★

Director: Olivier Megaton

Release Date: October 4th, 2012 (UK); October 5th, 2012 (US)

Genre: Action; Crime; Thriller

Starring: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen

For a moderately more age-wise gentleman — compared to that of an average action star — Liam Neeson carries out his fair share of ass-kickings in Taken 2. This would not be a problem on the following bases: the film in question is a comedy and/or parody of action, such as RED; Neeson gets lucky once or twice, perhaps via enemy mistake; Neeson has capable assistance… or at the very least, assistance. Unfortunately none of these three apply in Taken 2, and along with a far too coincidental and convoluted plot, the novelty of a 60-year-old Liam Neeson overcoming gang of thugs after gang of thugs has worn off a tad since 2008.

Set primarily in Istanbul and sometime after the events of its predecessor, Taken 2 sees Bryan Mills, his estranged wife Lenore and daughter Kim, once again the targets of a group of criminals led by the man whose son Mills killed previously. After the trio find themselves separated and hunted by the vicious mobsters, it is down to Mills to rescue his family and put an end to the terror they have suffered at the hands of the Albanian gang.

90 percent of the problems which Taken 2 faces stem from the derisory plot that the film is ungratefully saddled with. Firstly, it is far too coincidental. Suspension of disbelief is a key factor in enjoying a film, but when a film is trying to be taken (ahem) as seriously as Taken 2 is, there has to be a degree of realism surrounding it. Instead, a number of events just happen to occur at the correct time, without justification. For instance, near the beginning of the film Neeson’s character Bryan Mills just happens to find his estranged wife upset at her house after her partner just happened to cancel their significant plans a few moments before. Okay, perhaps this case of coincidence is just a one-off — it is possible, right? Fast-forward a few scenes and, separated by the Atlantic Ocean, Neeson is in the midst of leaving his wife and daughter a message on their phone when, out of nowhere, they appear behind him. When a film is delivering by way of captivating its audience, inconsequential issues such as these would not be brought to fruition in any way. Taken 2 struggles to live up to the pulsating levels set by the first film, and therefore the viewer has nothing better to do than be distracted by coincidence. Did I mention that Neeson’s daughter Kim, played by Maggie Grace, has a squabble with her father over the importance of driving lessons at the start of proceedings? No reason.

The film also fails to place its characters in sensible scenarios, resulting in not only the story feeling unrealistic, but also the characters being perceived as slightly hokey. At one point, Kim is throwing loud, destructive grenades around the busiest city in Turkey, yet somehow manages to draw very little attention to herself. For someone who got caught by criminals after hiding under a bed(!) in Taken, those are some hefty stealth abilities. The illogical nature of the plot is surprising as the writer, Luc Besson, also wrote the screenplay for the first film (in what looks set to become a series), where goings-on made sense and more often than not had a reason behind them. There are illogical and puzzling tendencies aplenty this time around though, including a scene involving apparent intentional friendly fire which, again, makes absolutely no sense when taking into account the opening few minutes of the film.

As mentioned just a moment ago, Taken 2 is written by the same individual who wrote the gritty, hard-hitting and pleasantly surprising Taken — Luc Besson. In Taken, Besson created a visceral story with simplicity and some of the most quotable dialogue in recent cinema history. In Taken 2, he has recreated Taken with very little of that peppered around the story. The novelty of the first film was the rebirth of Liam Neeson as an action star, and a pretty believable one at that. Sadly, this novelty seems to have vanished in the sequel and Neeson does not quite come across as affirming and in control as he did previously. That is not to say that he — nor any of the other cast members — are particularly poor in their roles, rather they all provide solid performances. This time around however, there is hardly anything memorable about their portrayals.

The film is not without some merit. The action scenes are efficiently choreographed and succinctly delivered throughout, providing just about all the entertainment there is to be had. An action film’s number one priority is to deliver enjoyable fight and chase sequences, and Taken 2 does that. It also looks terrific, with the contrast between the colourful wealthy parts of Istanbul, to the grey, gravelly sections of the criminal underworld, adding an immersing setting to the film. Director Olivier Megaton does not set out to make a bad film and in all honesty Taken 2 is not a horrible, unwatchable mess — nowhere near that. It just could have been a whole lot better.

It is fitting that the song played over the credits is one associated with a television advert, because Taken 2 essentially feels like an extended advert for Taken. At its very best, the film is little more than a run-of-the-mill action flick.

Towards the end, Liam Neeson rebuffs a question with, “Because I’m tired of it all.” Me too Liam.

Me too.

Credit: The Movie Mash
Credit: The Movie Mash

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

★★★

Director: George Lucas

Release Date: May 19th, 1999 (US); July 16th, 1999 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman

The Phantom Menace marks the beginning of the Star Wars saga, telling the story of Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice — or Padawan — Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) as they attempt to safely transport Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) from the planet Naboo to the imperial planet Coruscant in order to seek a resolution to trade barriers and disputes between planets. On their travels they meet a young Anakin Skywalker, whom Qui-Gon believes to be the person who will bring balance to the Force, a power threatened by the recently resurfaced dark Sith.

I really do think this film gets a bad rap. Yes, there are one or two ridiculous characters. Yes, the plot needs sharpening. But at the end of the day, this is only the introduction to the saga and more often than not introductory films are more light-hearted and carry less weight than their successors (take The Fellowship of the Ring and The Philosopher’s Stone as two obvious examples). By the same token, as I mentioned in my prequel (I told you it would get better), I have yet to see the original trilogy and my guess is that that has something to do with my somewhat greater appreciation of The Phantom Menace than those many more committed fans around the globe.

“You think i ruin the movie? Aww, poor you.”

What do I like about this suitably light beginning to the saga then? Well, just that. The films are likely to get darker as they progress (I know the next two do) and thus, for me, Lucas has made the correct decision in starting off in a more jaunty manner. Of course, in doing so he has created one character in particular that is despised amongst many fans. Jar Jar Binks (I always thought it was Ja Ja when I was younger) is the character in question, and I do agree that his presence is unnecessary and hurts the film to an extent. With childish phrases and at times incoherent ramblings, the character seems completely out of place — even in the light-hearted setting, which have mentioned a few times now. Do not get me wrong, childish is not always a bad trait, but in this instance it just does not mesh well enough with the rest of the film and the subject matter. Many believe the character merely represented a marketing ploy at the time of release — in terms of creating action figures etc. — and I think that is an argument worth considering. It could also be argued than the introduction of Anakin as a child here is unnecessary and that he should have just been brought into the saga as the older, talented-yet-cocky apprentice he is in Attack of the Clones. This is not as big an issue for me though and I do not think it hurts Anakin as a key character in any significant way going forward.

In terms of the plot and overall story, the film does come across as convoluted at times — the political background being the main culprit here — but again, that is not a huge deal for me as events were easy enough to decipher and, in all honesty, the political background is not really a significant factor in where the entertainment in this film lies. Parts of the narrative which did baffle me though were scenes such as Qui-Gon Jinn escorting the Queen back to the ship on the outskirts of Tatooine, only to then return to the city for Anakin — why not just take Anakin at the same time and save a trip? I did actually enjoy the pod-racing sequence, but it was a tad unrealistic in the sense than Anakin consistently had enough speed in his apparently lesser pod to catch his opponents. But that is just me nit-picking at things. All in all, the story is not bad as an introductory one.

Two good guys versus on bad guy? Something ain’t right here.

The visuals are tremendous in The Phantom Menace. Everything from the space traversing parts to the pod-racing scene to the final battle between the Gungans and the droid army is delivered with gusto and energy, whilst being visually alert and arresting at the same time. Lucas has become a sort of pioneer in special effects due to his efforts with The Phantom Menace, making use of new technologies and computer-generated imagery combined with traditional, original filmmaking techniques to create the various visuals on screen. The action sequences are also well constructed, with the fight between Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul standing out in particular.

This brings me nicely to my final topic of discussion regarding The Phantom Menace — Darth Maul. I really do think Darth Maul is an under-rated on screen villain. Played by Ray Park (a martial arts champion and stuntman beforehand), Maul not only sounds evil, but also looks like someone up to no good — his look was based on that of the devil. He does not speak very often — I would have preferred it if he did not spoken at all — and this adds to his unfaltering poise and heartless demeanour. A very capable villain to go up against the two heroes of the piece, Darth Maul is one of the film’s greatest successes in my eyes. Liam Neeson stands out amongst the remaining cast members, offering a controlled and likeable performance, and the likes of Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor portray their respective characters solidly. Was I the only one who did not realise that Keira Knightly played Sabe, Queen Amidala’s decoy? The more you know… or something like that.

So there you have it, my thoughts on The Phantom Menace. A very capable and suitably light-hearted beginning to the Star Wars saga, The Phantom Menace offers an energetic and entertaining introduction to the franchise as a whole as well as the now well-known and much-loved characters it encapsulates. Except Ja(r) Ja(r) Binks.