Review: The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)

Everything is [still] awesome: The LEGO Batman Movie review

By Heather Nichols, Tawfik Zone Contributor

Editor’s Note: The delayed release of this review was entirely my fault, not Heather’s. This film is still in theatres in some locations. From the sound of it, you might want to check it out.

Courtesy of Bricks To Life

Right from the get-go you know you’re in for a treat when you sit down to The Lego Batman Movie. “Black. All important movies start with a black screen. And music. Edgy, scary music that would make a parent or studio executive nervous. And logos. Really long and dramatic logos.” Literally, this is how the film opens with Will Arnett’s bass Bat-voice speaking over the opening sequence, which even he acknowledges seems to go on for a really long time.

Similar to last February’s Deadpool, the film establishes a tongue in cheek approach to the superhero genre, finding itself in a happy medium between campy 1960’s Batman and Nolan’s neo-noir approach to the brooding Dark Knight. And no matter what your level of interest in Batman- whether you’re a fan of the comics, the games, the animated cannon, the various film franchises or Adam West’s version- Lego Batman gives a shout to all of them and essentially deems all of it as canon. I’m surprised I’m saying this, but they’ve managed to pull off a film that has something for everyone- so long as you’re interested in Batman of course.

Now most of you know I’m a fan of the superhero genre so my surprise may come off as a little odd. Let me explain, or rather just bluntly put this out there, the whole superhero thing has grown into a massive cash cow. When The Lego Movie came out, Batman was the scene stealer so they immediately green lit this movie after opening weekend (by the way, you don’t have to watch The Lego Movie before this one to understand it, only know that they are set within the same universe).

Courtesy of Moviepilot

My concern was this would easily be another cash grab sequel, which is still my biggest concern for Spiderman Homecoming after his appearance in Captain America Civil War. Thankfully I can say as far as Batman goes that fear is put to rest, but I’m still worried for Spidey. Especially after the rush job they did on the Andrew Garfield films but I’ll try to remain optimistic for this new one… So getting back to Batman, let’s break it down and talk about what makes Lego Batman so super special awesome.

First of all the movie doesn’t weigh itself down by trying to pass itself off a reboot or slow down the plot by constantly referring to the backstory. In fact this may be the only theatrical Batman film that doesn’t show Thomas and Martha Wayne getting gunned down in the alleyway outside the theater. Rather it makes the most subtle reference via a family photo where they are outside of said theater with a street sign for “crime alley” in the background.

As the trailer shows, the film is centered on Batman’s greatest fear, to have a family again after the loss of his parents. This has never directly been tackled in any other Batman story yet it has always been his driving force, even shown recently in the DC animated canon’s The Killing Joke when Barbara’s greatest frustration is that he never lets anyone get close.

Courtesy of Game Informer

It’s a great setting for a kid’s movie because it has a positive message.  At the same time it gives the older audience the benefit of knowing the source material so it doesn’t constantly stop to explain things, a problem that is rampant in many children’s movies is they often stop the plot to explain something which just messes with the pacing, a giant pet peeve of mine. (Other animation studios need to step it up and stop treating kids like they’re stupid.) Like seriously, kudos to the screen writers; they clearly were fans and knew what they were doing and executed it darn near perfect.

Speaking of the screenwriters (there are 5), they have thrown in so many delightful Easter eggs for the fans. One of my personal favorites happens early in the film. Killer Croc, one of the lesser Batman villains makes the statement, “Hey look I’m actually doing something.” The movie is full of these little lines that are just shouting out to the fandom, including thoughts that many have had such as how Gotham city is the most dangerous place in the entire world, and yet a plane full of explosives flies over, with no resistance or panic.

Of course the big question a lot of people have been asking, how does Zach Galifianakis do as far as playing the Joker. This is the first time this iconic character has really been the focus since the late Heath Ledger’s performance and while I do know that Jared Leto played him in Suicide Squad, that was more of a cameo, an appetizer rather than an entrée so I hold off on judging him for now and at the same point in time that’s a really hard comparison to make because both studios have a different interpretation of the character.

Courtesy of MovieWeb

Since this is a kid’s movie the level they were aspiring to would be more of a mix of Cesar Romero and Mark Hamill’s performances and while the character is written this way, Galifianakis brings his own unique flavor to the character. This Joker comes off as a fanboy portrayal, with details like asking Batman about their “ship.” Casual fans will take this as slang for relationship the rest of us who have read Batman fanfiction know there’s a little more to this so it becomes a double entendre. For the record I do not ship Bruce/Jack, nor do I ship Madlove (the name for Harley/Joker) but at the same time Batman and the Joker have this thing going on between them, I just don’t see the lust that other fans seem to infer. But that’s a subject I could devote an entire article to. Bottom line, it’s a good interpretation of the character that is PG friendly while still remaining loyal to the source.

Courtesy of The Verge

As for the other thing I really loved in the film, it delves into spoiler territory so if you’re good at inferring things leave now and go watch the film and then come back. If not, carry on. The beauty of these Lego movies is they remind us of being kids and playing with our figurines in the back yard. (I can’t be the only person who had Goku and She-Rah team up to help the Power Rangers take on the WWE, true story.)

Lego has the rights to certain characters and Warner Brothers has the rights to certain characters and that whole concept comes into play and it’s handled in such a fun way. I had to explain to mom what the “British Robots” were and at the same time a character in the film someone asks the Joker what they are and he responds with “go ask one of your nerdy friends.” All in all this movie was so much fun and I look forward to Lego Ninjago the movie; they’ve proven that they’ve got a pretty good team on board.

My next review is going to be a bit of a doozy so expect it later than the release weekend of the film. I’ll be tackling America’s interpretation of the anime classic Ghost in the Shell. Now here’s the fun thing, it’s one of those films/series I’ve meant to watch for years and haven’t gotten around to, so I’ll be going into the American one with little to no knowledge of the plot and little to no bias. From there I will view the original films and then the Stand Alone Complex series, and then I’ll write my review.

Take 5 Sarah Vaughan

Courtesy of National Jazz Museum in Harlem

Some singers can have all the formal training in the world and hit the right notes. Others, like Sarah Vaughan, can open her mouth and radiate divine and sassy otherworldliness. Though racism in the country and the conservatories barred her from her dream of studying opera, Vaughan, with her three octave range, had the power and the vibrato to match, even surpass any classical prima donna. Her baroque grandiosity and playful joie de vivre was clearly better suited for jazz where she was equally at home doing scat-filled bebop and searing ballads delivered as torchy arias.

She honed her piano and vocal abilities in church. Initially Vaughan entered herself in the Apollo Theatre’s Amateur Night as a pianist, where she did very well, winning second prize. As good as her piano skills were, her singing was her forte. When she reentered as a singer, she won top honor and scored a recording contract with Mercury Records.

Her warm, personable voice helped her become one of the most in-demand vocalists. Widespread success was a bit of a double edged sword as she wound up recording a fair amount of subpar novelty songs (like “Broken Hearted Melody,” which she later denounced strongly) with maudlin easy listening arrangements. However, she never entirely embraced being a jazz vocalist as she crossed over into other genres. (Some of her pop material like “Brazilian Romance” was quite good).

Later in her career, she boldly displayed her impressive range and cute silly humor in performances. While some critics found some of her later work to be heavy-handed, I found her to be at her best when she was at her biggest (though I will concede that she sometimes took it a bit too far with her rendition of “Send in the Clowns.”)

Although Vaughan chain smoked, boozed and feasted freely, you’d never know by listening to her sing. Her voice and her technique sounded more impeccable and effortless. If her hedonism didn’t tarnish her talent, it eventually got her body. After a year of struggling with emphysema, Sarah Vaughan died in 1990 at the age of 66. Here are five performances that represent her superhuman talent.

Easy Living

She performed several different, but wonderful renditions of this ballad. I like this version best because it’s the most playful (I love the way she delivers “but it’s fun”) and the most virtuosic. The way she slides from baritone to soprano is jaw dropping.

Sassy’s/Scat Blues

This entirely vocalese number demonstrates Vaughan’s brilliant ability to swing, belt, and sound bluesy at the same time whilst switching octaves in split seconds.

I Remember April

Although she more often sang vocalese, she was equally adept at fast paced scat as she does here with gusto. The pianist is also on fire.

Black Coffee

Even at in this minimalist, quiet rendition of this torch song, Vaughan conveys so much. Listen side by side with other versions by Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney and you’ll appreciate how special Vaughan’s voice is.

Bill Bailey

You can tell that Sarah Vaughan loved to perform, and her infectious energy rubs off on this Swedish audience who commanded to take not one, but two encores. Vaughan really works it out here.

Review: La La Land (2016)

La La Land: City of Dim Stars

By Adam Tawfik

La La Land, like every Oscar frontrunner is bound to face a wave of backlash. From its premiere at Sundance last January, La La Land was hyped, and hyped, and hyped by everybody, including the highbrow critics, the awards pundits, and the industry bigwigs. Around September, the unfiltered euphoria was challenged by editorials suggesting that La La Land was overrated. Closer to awards season as La La Land usurped prizes left and right, the criticism took a more pointedly aggressive turn.

Having seen it myself, I can understand the visceral reaction around this film. My experience was akin to eating a store-bought cake; in spite of my reservations to the fake vanilla and the stale batter, I still eat it for that taste of sugar. In the end, the aftertaste of artificiality lingers in my mouth and my mind. With La La Land, I was reasonably entertained in the moment, but its flaws resonated with me longer.

Although its over representation at the awards show is certainly annoying (considering that it ties for the same amount of Oscar nominations as my darling All About Eve), what really galls me most about La La Land is the overabundance of commentary of the behind-the-scenes technical challenges and all of the side by side comparisons of scenes La La Land and scenes from classic films that Damien Chazalle clunkily “paid homage to.”

The Bandwagon, 1953. Courtesy of cliqueclack.com

What makes the musicals by Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, and Astaire endure the test of time is their ability to be effortless yet superhumanly multitalented at the same time. Writer-director Damien Chazelle, a 32-year old Harvard graduate, conversely, slaps you in the face with his technical and film geekery. This approach inadvertently spotlights La La Land’s mediocrity, from the songs, the breathy auto tuned singing voices of the entire cast, the costumes, and worst in my mind, the negligible choreography which is one step above a beginners swing dance course. For this reason, La La Land lacks the magic spark that makes masterworks like Singing in the Rain and others dazzle. As Richard Brody sharply observed, “Chazelle strives to impress, to wow, to dazzle…[the numbers] close off the imagination rather than opening it. [And] The one thing that Chazelle seems to have little interest in is life.”

The only person to escape criticism is Emma Stone. I think that her “it girl” status of 2016 has given her this immunity. Richard Brody faulted Chazalle’s characterization of Mia, rightly pointing out that she is nothing more than a “cipher.” However, he praises Stone, dubiously claiming that “all the movie’s charm emerges from her performance.” Like with so many of the “it girls” of recent years- Jennifer Lawrence, Angelina Jolie, Keira Knightley, etc.- Stone is a watchable actress, but one with a decidedly limited range.

Courtesy of www.elantepenultimomohicano.com

As in Birdman, Stone proves that she can handle snarky comedy “one liners” well. She’s in her element where she can utilize her easygoing, sarcastic vibe to mock Seb (Ryan Gosling), who is an uptight, sullen self-proclaimer of “pure jazz.” She is considerably buoyed by Gosling’s intensity and moroseness, which compliments her light touch. With the exception of a montage where Stone amusingly auditions for a series of unsuitable roles, she lacks dynamism in her solo scenes. From the films I’ve seen Stone in, she doesn’t have a flair for grief and sadness. Like the Oscar bait monologue in Birdman, Stone in her “made for Oscar” number (“Here’s to the Ones who Dream”) overdoes the eyes and nostrils while her overall presence underwhelms as she strains to convey pathos.

It is an interesting aspect of current film criticism that male directors and male actors/characters are intensely scrutinized for faux pas’ while female counterparts’ flaws are cast under the rug. Much has been made (and to a degree fairly so) about Gosling’s “white savior” jazz appropriator and the way he supposedly “mansplains” jazz to Emma Stone (I think this is a bit overwrought). In an interesting perspective, Will Brooker argues that La La Land’s (evil) genius is that it symbolizes how 2016 is the year where mediocre hacks reign supreme. Brooker makes parallels between Ryan Gosling and Donald Trump:

“Ryan Gosling, who pluckily spent three months learning piano to play the protagonist, is the perfect hero in a year when the new president of the United States can take over with no training. His reality-show-standard song and dance routines are perfectly suited to this new era, when a mediocre businessman and second-rate television celebrity can become Commander-in-Chief.”

Courtesy of IndieWire

It’s true that Gosling isn’t a singer or a hoofer, but why is he faulted when Stone isn’t any better at either (and in my opinion she’s worse on both counts)? I agree that Seb is too cocky in his pedestrian opinions of jazz as well as in his actual ability as a musician.

At the very least Gosling overcomes the many shortcomings of his character by coming the closest to La La Land’s goal of combining the old movie cocksure naiveté with modern cynicism. Although Seb, as conceived by Chazelle, is problematic in many ways, at least he has a logical arc that Mia sorely lacks. We at least get a glimpse of Seb’s process as well as his (limited) ability as we see him in action. It is insinuated that Mia’s self-financed one-woman show is great, but there’s no way to gauge for ourselves as we don’t get to see it for ourselves. That doesn’t stop the film and Stone stridently instructing us to empathize with Mia’s heartbreak over the lack of attendance and her inability to pay her costs.

Courtesy of The New York Times

Seb’s trajectory from a struggling jazz musician to a keyboardist for his friend’s sellout electronica group (making $1000 a week) to the proprietor of his own jazz bar is wishful thinking. But Mia’s rise from barista to being discovered by an agent who was one of 3 people in attendance for the one-woman show who just happened to remember Mia several months after the fact, leading to a starring role with a script that will be based around her for a film in Paris, which makes her an A-list movie star is truly fantastical.

Certainly, Chazelle’s underwriting of Mia is a huge handicap, but in the end, Stone is wrong for the role because she is too mainstream, too trendy to be a credible underdog. Basically, the film assumes that we’ll root for Mia because Emma Stone is America’s Sweetheart; it seems to have worked as Stone is a shoo-in for Best Actress. Mia truly is the most entitled and undeserving character I’ve seen on film in a long while.

La La Land is the lucky recipient of a widespread nostalgia about the glamour and escapism of old Hollywood musicals, and from the fact that very few are knowledgeable of the movies themselves. In the long run, I do believe that La La Land will be contextualized correctly as another one of those lily-livered Best Picture winners that bested more original and innovative movies. (I guess it’ll make the Alternative Oscars relevant for years to come.)

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review

A fantastical dive back into J.K. Rowling’s universe of witchcraft and wizardry

By Heather Nichols, Tawfik Zone Contributor

Courtesy of ComicBookMovie.com

Courtesy of ComicBookMovie.com

I would consider myself to be a Harry Potter fan, albeit less intense then some of the other fans I know. Still, when granted an opportunity to attend an early screening of this film I jumped on it; however knowing I would have to review it I tried to watch it as a film student rather than through rose colored glasses.

Overall I’d say Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a whole lot of fun. The visual effects dazzle and impress, the score is wonderful and engaging. Also I actually like the main protagonist more than Harry Potter himself. I know, sheer blasphemy. Fans of the series, I’m sure you’re going to see this film and even if you’re not a fan of Harry Potter and you’re getting dragged into a screening by someone, so long as you like the fantasy genre I don’t think you’re going to have a bad time at all. If it was the nature of the main story being set in a school that was your main turn off or perhaps you were just too old for it when it came out, this story might still be for you.

The film is set in 1920’s New York City shortly after World War One. Eddie Redmayne delivers a great performance as Newt Scamander, a Magizoologist or one who studies magical creatures- you see where this is going. Scamander carries an enchanted case with magical creatures and circumstances lead to the case having an accidental switcheroo with ordinary man, Jacob Kowalski (played by Dan Fogler) who lets some of the beasts escape.

Courtesy of Warner Bros

Courtesy of Warner Bros

What sounds like your typical Saturday morning cartoon plot where they’ve got to go out and “catch them all” (obviously I’m referencing Pokemon here) turns into a much larger story where alliances are formed. However there is a grey line when it comes to morality that leads to it being more complicated than simply having a team of good guys versus a team of bad guys.

Yes, there is an overall big baddie, but this film touches some pretty dark subject matter when it comes to the subject of morality which we’ll talk about more in the spoiler section down below. Though while we’re at it, don’t take the little kids to see this one. Even though it is only rated PG-13, they’re not going to get some of the stuff in it and some of the other stuff might be considered disturbing.

The other notable actors are Katherine Waterson and Alison Sudol who play the magical Goldstein sisters. Sudol delivers a charming performance, reminiscent of the character of Adelaide in Guys and Dolls.

Courtesy of Warner Bros

Courtesy of Warner Bros

Waterson on the other hand, I’m not totally sold on. It could be because this film is just the set up for her character and she’s dealing with a lot of stuff, maybe upon a second viewing or with further sequels she’ll grow on me but overall her performance just felt the most underwhelming. Either that or maybe we’re just so used to seeing such confident, strong characters in the series such as Hermione and Professor McGonagall that she feels like a letdown. It’s also hard to tell if from the performance if the character is supposed to be fragile or a go-getter and like I said maybe she’s supposed to be that way, but the performance is just weird for lack of a better word.

I’ll wait to discuss other performances as well as specific plot points in the spoiler section since a lot of what I have to say about them will give away key elements from the film and I want those who are looking to avoid the spoilers to be able to do so.

For those who are concerned that this film and its projected sequel are just here to milk the franchise for more money- well you’re not wrong but in this case I’m willing to let it pass. Since the opening of Pottermore we’ve found out that Rowling wrote backstories for essentially every named character in the book. I’ve always been for using film to breathe life into that extended content, also I love fantasy visuals so I mean it’s one thing to read about a Hippogriff but then to see one rendered on a big screen is kinda awesome; they truly come to life as Fantastic Beasts, tee hee. We’ve come a long way since the Claymation effects in Clash of the Titans and the animatronic T-Rex in Jurassic Park.

Courtesy of slashfilm.com

Courtesy of slashfilm.com

Overall I give this film a high recommendation, though I’m pretty sure if you like Harry Potter you’re going to see it no matter what I say. I expect there to be mixed reception just like there is among the core film versus book series. Personally I’m holding off reading these books until the movies are out as I found I enjoyed the last four films more when I did that because I didn’t feel like things were missing. But I know some people like to do the opposite. To each their own. One thing I think people are really going to enjoy is the chemistry between the four main actors, especially Redmayne and Fogler.

I look forward to the future of this franchise. It has shown that it’s for adults with a good balance between comedic, serious, and the occasional melodrama because this film features adults and we get to see sexual tension more than we did in the Hogwarts storyline- though some fanfiction writers will tell you otherwise, good god the way some of them wield language like a sword, but if the sword was actually a phallus and their username is Sigmund Freud.

I really enjoyed Fogler’s everyman thrown into an extraordinary situation and the chemistry he has with Redmayne as I had said before, really is the heart of the film. They also flesh out their characters a whole lot with subtle gestures and a few lines here and there so I gotta give it up for the screenwriters who did a good job of “show don’t tell.” Fantastic Beasts excels where many fantasy films fail because it just goes with it, it doesn’t weigh the plot down with information, and it establishes the way magic works in a couple simple lines which is really refreshing.

SPOILERS       SPOILERS           SPOILERS

 

Alright kids, its spoiler time. When things get dark in this film they really get dark. Holy crap. The execution scene might possibly be the darkest scene we’ve had on camera in this series. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute of it, but wow talk about interrupting your “gotta catch em all” adventure for some ascended fridge horror. (Here’s a quick definition of what fridge horror is courtesy of tv tropes (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AscendedFridgeHorror).) So here we have the people governing over the magical world, the law, who are supposed to be the good guys- and their form of punishment is essentially being no different than the witch hunter group of Non-mag/muggles that are hunting after them. That’s messed up.

We also have some on screen child abuse. Ezra Miller’s Credence is played so well that he’s almost unrecognizable from the roles I’ve seen him in prior to this. He toes that line between broken bird and human grenade so well I really wish the Academy would give more acknowledgement to this genre and give him a nod for supporting actor. Another good performance comes from Colin Farrell, I really do like when he’s the bad guy- I’m not a huge fan of the twist that at least half the audience will see coming but I digress. He was good in this, and I’m going to miss him in the sequels.

I’m keeping the spoiler section short this time because I really want people to see the movie and enjoy it for themselves. Also since the story is being told through multiple films it’s still too soon to tell if certain payoffs are going to happen or if certain lines meant more than what they seemed to mean. Only time will tell. Fantastic Beasts is getting the Heather seal of approval.

Podcast: Alternative Oscars Episode 5 – 1953

The Tawfik Zone Alternative Oscars Podcast Logo

Hi everybody.

It’s been a long gap between episodes. My fault entirely. I’m thrilled to unleash our 5th episode of The Alternative Oscars Podcast. This episode, we discuss movies of 1953. We dish our thoughts on the five films nominated that year and then offer our nominees of films eligible in 1953 that we think are better.

What did you think about the Best Picture nominees? Or our nominees and winners? What would be your picks for 1953?