The Lego Movie: movie review

April 2nd, 2014 by Sam Downing

The Lego Movie

A Hollywood Lego movie sounds, in theory, like an unforgivably terrible idea. And yet Hollywood’s The Lego Movie is far from unforgivably terrible. The film industry is shamelessly gross at spinning brands into movies, but here’s at least one instance where that method has paid off.

Part of The Lego Movie’s charm is surprise that it is actually good. No one expected this to be good when it was first announced, right? We all pictured Hollywood hacks being like, “Hey, it’s Lego. Kids already like it. Let’s tack on some shit-baked story about loser characters and go get drunk.”

The Lego MovieInstead, writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller* have had a good think about what makes playing with Lego (or “Legos”, as some awful Americans would have it) so popular. You can do anything with plastic Danish bricks that are excruciating to tread on, and that anarchic, limitless fun is the foundation of their movie.

(*Who, it turns out, are also responsible for Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street, two movies also a lot better than anyone expected.)

The world of The Lego Movie brims with imagination. Opening scenes set in a massive city of Lego bricks have the kind of toy-rich detail that would have set my hair on fire if I’d watched this as a 10-year-old. (Happy to report that none of the actual 10-year-olds at the screening I attended spontaneously combusted.) The rest of the film jumps from world to world – Wild West, space, some sort of cuckoo fantasy land – and each is as glorious as the one before it.

The look of the whole thing is just terrific – the CGI has a stop-motion animation quirk reminiscent of those many charming Lego YouTube videos, or that old TV series no one but me seems to remember:

The plot itself is predictable and pretty stupid: something about a minifig everyman named Emmett (voiced by Chris Pratt) who stumbles across the “Piece of Resistance”, a Lego brick that will save everyone from an evil plot masterminded by the conformity-loving, unsubtly named villain “Lord Business” (Will Ferrell).

(The irony of a massive global business demonising a businessman is not touched upon.)

Elizabeth Banks stars as Wyldstyle, the intentionally-ridiculously-named Strong Female Character and requisite love interest. (Chastely innocent love interest, FYI. This is a children’s movie.) Lego Batman (Will Arnett) also features heavily, as do plenty of wildly cheesy jokes that kids seemed to get a big kick out of.

What’s interesting about the plot is how meta it is – the climax almost plays like a kiddie version of a Charlie Kaufman film. Yes, there’s the predictable “good triumphs over evil” finish, but the film concludes with a genuine, heartfelt, layered reflection of what makes Lego so great in the first place. Without giving the ending away, it’s actually crazy. It’s even crazier that it works as well as it does.

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, Helen Fielding: Book review

January 15th, 2014 by Sam Downing

Bridget Jones: Mad About the BoyHow comforting that, after all these years, Bridget Jones is still an idiot.

Now in her early fifties, she’s grappling with raising two very sweet but very boisterous children (an early scene in which the kids are making horrific messes from both ends of their body could be marketed as an alternative form of contraception), and learning the complexities of social media. (Am smugly pleased to point out that, as far as I’m aware, she never gains more Twitter followers than me.)

And she’s single. Again! Her one-true-love Mark Darcy is (horreur!) dead, killed by a landmine on a valiant mission to South Sudan. Which conveniently frees Bridget up for wacky and embarrassing hijinks (almost all of them self-inflicted) as she starts dating again – but which more conveniently adds much-needed depth to the book, as grief and sadness for Mark wash unexpectedly in and out of her everyday life.

Several reviews of this book deem it not v gd – some so harsh you’d think it was a horrifically unnecessary sequel in line with Sex and the City 2. Maybe those reviews softened me up, lowered my expectations – but Mad About the Boy is not a bad book. It’s a Bridget Jones book! It’s exactly what you expect from a Bridget Jones book! It’s hardly groundbreaking (for example: the older-woman-dating-younger-men thing is more well-worn than a serial dater’s most comfortable pair of Spanx) but it’s light and frothy and fun. I read Bridget Jones’s exploits because she is a charming idiot, and in Mad About the Boy she is a very charming idiot.

The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster: Book review

January 10th, 2014 by Sam Downing

The New York TrilogyI don’t remember how I first found out about Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy – it just sort of stumbled onto my reading list. Which is appropriate, because this is one of the most mysterious and baffling books I ever read.

There’s no easy way to describe the Trilogy, which is sort-of-but-not-really a spoof of detective novels overlaid with a navel-gazing exploration of identity and what fiction is and how it intersects with reality. Sort of. But not really. The first instalment, City of Glass, follows a writer who assumes the identity of a private detective named Paul Auster (yeah) and becomes obsessed with tracking a creepy client’s even creepier father. Book two, Ghosts, is about another private eye, Blue, who also becomes obsessed with a case – watching a man called Black. And part three, The Locked Room, is about a writer who unwittingly takes over the life of a friend.

Reading the trilogy is kind of like watching Lost – for all that TV drama’s (many, many) flaws, at its best it summoned up a sense of foreboding mystery, that something dark and deep and important lurked below its surface. The Trilogy evokes that same feeling of ominous, “What the fuck is going here?” wonder. As everyone in the world knows, Lost failed (terribly, horribly failed) at tying it all up into something at the end. But The New York Trilogy succeeds, and it probably succeeds because it doesn’t attempt to boil everything down into a straight-forward explanation*. (“They’re all in the afterlife!”) It just presents a conclusion that is as oblique and utterly batshit as everything that came before it. You either buy it or you don’t; I bought it.

*In fairness to Lost, though, the Trilogy doesn’t have reams of characters who each need their own semblance of a farewell – which probably makes its opaque ending more palatable.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Movie review

December 26th, 2013 by Sam Downing

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings is a spectacularly realised saga that’s even more impressive for the scale of its ambition: to tell a grand, epic story on film, which it (mostly) does (when it’s not swaddling itself in sentimentality). Remember how compelling The Fellowship of the Ring was the first time? I saw that movie four times in the cinema and countless times after on DVD.

I can’t imagine watching any of The Hobbit films more than once, ever. Not because they’re terrible: The first installment, An Unexpected Journey, is fine, and its sequel, The Desolation of Smaug, is also fine. It’s just that the ambition of these films feels less “let’s tell a story” and more “let’s make a ton of money stretching an uncomplicated story across three unnecessary films”.

If you’re a Middle-earth diehard and/or you don’t care about any of that, great, good for you, you will enjoy this a lot. But a sense of gross cash-grabbing cynicism hangs off Smaug like the creepy giant spiders that have spun their webs across Mirkwood. Sure, yes, Hollywood is a business and every blockbuster is made to make money – but The Hobbit franchise’s naked greed is actually revolting.

Because J.R.R. Tolkein’s Hobbit book is so slight you could literally read the whole thing in the time it takes to watch a single part of its film adaptation, Jackson and co. have made significant additions to its plot. Smaug picks straight up from the first film, in which the 13 dwarves, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) made barely any progress on their quest to the Lonely Mountain to boot out Smaug the dragon (voiced by Tumblr’s favourite actor Benedict Cumberbatch).

To move things along a bit, the party takes a shortcut through the spider-infested Mirkwood while Gandalf goes off to investigate some spooky Necromancer we’re meant to pretend we don’t know is Sauron. The travellers are rescued then imprisoned by elves, including princely Legolas (Orlando Bloom, who spends most of the film looking fiercely irritated by his contact lenses) and his subject Tauriel* (Evangeline Lilly), a badass he has a crush on.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug(*Tolkein avoided female characters like orcs avoid Sting, but Tauriel is one of the few inventions this bloated film actually needs: She’s its only major female character – in fact she’s the only female character, period, which is not a menstruation pun. Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, An Unexpected Journey’s only lady, appears only for a moment. Of course Tauriel is manouvered into a love triangle with Legolas and one of the dwarves; this doesn’t bother me because it’s sexist to give the only lady a love story, or whatever, but because it’s yet another unnecessary plot. And as if a warrior elf hottie would fall for some smelly dwarf anyway.)

The travellers escape the elf kingdom by riding in barrels down a river in a great sequence that will probably make a great theme park ride some day, and they befriend a handsome outsider named Bard (Luke Evans), who smuggles them into a village near Smaug’s hideout called Laketown, where they meet a dumbass mayor (Stephen Fry) who cuts some deal with them – I’m fuzzy on the details because I slipped out to visit the men’s room* – and then they trek off to the Lonely Mountain, where the dwarves throw a tantrum and quit the whole journey because they don’t immediately find the doorway in, but luckily/conveniently, Bilbo finds it, and then he’s sent in to burgle the dragon’s lair (which was the whole reason he was dragged along, remember?) and find some important dwarf stone (which is the key to this whole quest, remember?) (actually I didn’t remember anything about that stuff, but luckily there is lots of exposition, so much exposition), and then Bilbo actually meets Smaug when the dragon emerges from under his treasure pile, and then some more stuff happens, and then…

(*One does not simply watch a 17-hour film without taking bathroom breaks, though it says a lot about Smaug‘s plot that you can skip scenes to pee without missing anything important.)

Whew. There is a lot going on in this movie. It leaps from scene to scene, so it’s never boring. It’s just… pointless. What is all this story for? What is it labouring towards? What does it service aside from this bloated franchise? There’s another film to go after this one? Jeez.

This feeling is most obvious in the climactic, 20-minute scene (spoilers ahead!) depicting Bilbo and the dwarves escaping Smaug’s lair, with the fire-belching dragon chasing furiously after them. They all run around! They all pull ropes! They all ride mine carts! Except it’s not really clear why anyone is doing any of this, because there isn’t any reason for it except to fill screen time.

The story of The Lord of the Rings had purpose. The story of The Hobbit just has… dwarves. So, so many dwarves, whose quest no one cares about and who blur into one and rarely stand out from each other. (“Hey, it’s that red-haired dwarf again. Oh – and another red-haired dwarf next to him? There are two red-haired dwarves in this I guess?”) Despite being the franchise’s title character, Bilbo disappears in among the dwarves and hardly matters for long tracts of the film. Who needs a magic ring to make someone invisible when you can pull of the same trick by burying them in hours and hours of unnecessary storylines?

Previously: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

American Hustle: Movie review

December 13th, 2013 by Sam Downing

American Hustle

Immediately after watching American Hustle, I said to my friend: “Well, that was… fine.” He replied: “It was, and I never want to see it ever again.”

Which pretty much sums it up. (End of review!) American Hustle is not a great movie. It’s not a bad movie. It’s just an unremarkable one.

Sporting a flabby and not-especially-appealing belly (maybe as a symbol for the whole film?) and a combover, Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a 1970s conman who’s clever enough to know his limits. Working alongside his lover Sydney (Amy Adams), who poses as an prime Englishwoman with vague banking connections, he targets small-time victims and reaps modest rewards.

Then they’re busted by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious and arrogant FBI agent who exploits their cunning to go after bigger fish. DiMaso’s first mark is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a New Jersey mayor willing to do some dirty deals if it means he can ultimately do good for his community.

As Polito’s connections to crooked senators and the Mafia become clearer, a manic DiMaso raises the stakes of his operation and entangles Irving and Sydney in both increasingly dangerous hijinks and convoluted love quadrangles.

Tied up in all of this is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, aka my future best friend and definitely not your future best friend), an unpredictable big-mouth who serves mostly as comic relief.

American HustleThe story isn’t gritty or compelling enough to make it a satisfying, Goodfellas-ish underworld movie. But it isn’t wacky enough to make it a satisfying, Oceans 11-ish heist movie, either.

Hustle isn’t really enough of anything. It’s kind of funny, but not especially funny. Lawrence scores most of the good lines — dubbing her new-fangled microwave a “science oven” — and Louis C.K. is sort of amusing doing his Louis C.K. thing. It’s kind of retro, but not remarkably retro. Cooper has a perm, and Adams and Lawrence wear lots of open-down-to-the-navel ’70s blouses. (More like American Bustle, am I right fellas?) The performances and direction are solid, but nothing about it seems outstandingly strong.

It’s watchable without ever being engaging. This is the kind of film that will probably dominate this year’s awards season by virtue of its pedigree (yep), which we’ll all have forgotten about by this time next year.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Movie review

November 22nd, 2013 by Sam Downing

The Hunger Games Catching Fire
First things first: Jennifer Lawrence is amazing and brilliant (and my future best friend, so back off everyone please). So of course she is amazing and brilliant reprising her role as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire. Lawrence is so effortlessly charming and charismatic in real life it’s easy to forget she is just as effortlessly charming and charismatic onscreen: Her Katniss is angry and strong but vulnerable, her line readings are surprising, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing this character. Catching Fire would not be as good as it is without her.

(Some spoilers lie ahead.)

But! Even putting Lawrence aside, this is a good movie – better than its predecessor. The stakes are higher, the plot is bleaker, and the horror of the world Katniss lives in isn’t just confined to an arena where teenagers murder each other for sport.  Fresh from her victory in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss is closely watched by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the ruthless leader of the oppressive Capitol. He suspects – rightly – that she’s growing into a symbol of hope for the downtrodden masses out in the districts. Pissed off that Katniss outfoxed him when she tricked her way out of killing Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in her first games, Snow orders her to act as a tool for his regime.

Katniss, furious but terrified of what Snow will do to her loved ones if she acts out, obeys. But that hope she offers is too potent for even her to call back, so Snow invents a way to get rid of her: He’ll serve up her and her fellow victors to compete in the 75th Hunger Games, a “Quarter Quell” that promises to be even more cruel and brutal than usual.

The resulting spectacle gets a lot of things right. The games don’t even kick off until well into the film – after we’re on board with what a desperate and horrible Katniss situation has been thrown into. When they begin, the action is brisk and thrilling and dangerous. Deadly fog! Deadly monkeys! Deadly lightning!

The Hunger Games Catching Fire

But Catching Fire inherits a lot of problems from both its cinema predecessor and the book it’s based on. Like the first Hunger Games movie, the violence is blunted and brushed aside – characters are gruesomely dispatched without much of an impact – and Liam Hemsworth, as the third point of Katniss’s love triangle, is still given barely anything to do. (I think he’s unfairly criticised for his wooden presence in the Hunger Games movies, when it’d be a struggle for any actor to make much out of such a brief, nothing-y character.)

And, like the book, the film’s ending is something of a letdown. The big twist feels unearned, the plot machinations muddled and never properly explained*, and the climactic cliffhanger – which in the book at least had a bit of heft – is pretty limp, especially coming so soon after the spectacular, fiery destruction of the Games’ tropical arena.

(*I still have no idea exactly what Beetee, played by Jeffrey Wright, was planning to do with that loop of wire.)

The Hunger Games Catching Fire poster

But everything that comes before it is so well executed (no pun intended, I swear). Lawrence deserves kudos for elevating the film well above its script, but she’s helped out on the heavy lifting by returning supporting cast members Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci. (Banks’s Capitol publicist Effie Trinkett has a lot going on behind her veneer of make-up, while Tucci deserves a specially created Oscar for Best Performance as a Campy Beady-Eyed TV Host.)

Of the new cast, Sam Claflin is a much better choice than I thought he’d be to play Games victor Finnick Odair – his smug, elfin face suits that character perfectly. (On the downside he is only shirtless in one scene. One! For only like 15 seconds! What even is the point!) And Jenna Malone is a standout as Johanna Mason, who’s unafraid to declare how pissed off she is that she’s been called back for another Games.

It’s possible Catching Fire will be the last good Hunger Games movie: The third instalment, Mockingjay, is by far (by far) the weakest of the books, and it’s impossible to say yet whether needlessly splitting it into two films will make it even worse. But, it’s possible the movies will iron out the book’s kinks into a clearer (and even grimmer) story than the novel. If they can pull that off, it’s really going to be something to see.

Advent and Anarchy, James Treadwell: Book review

November 9th, 2013 by Sam Downing

Advent, James TreadwellIf old magics returned to the world, civilisation would collapse. That’s the premise of James Treadwell’s Advent trilogy, a bleak and gripping take on what happens after a centuries-old mage is resurrected in a remote part of Cornwall.

(No wonder the witches and wizards in Harry Potter worked so hard to keep magic secret from us Muggles.)

Troubled teenager Gavin has been haunted since childhood by a spectre he calls “Miss Grey”, who no one else can see. He’s one of the few people who can perceive the remnant shreds of magic left in the world – so of course everyone believes he’s crazy. At the start of Advent, the first book in the series, his parents finally tire of his antics and ship him off to stay with his eccentric aunt at Pendurra, a crumbling Cornish mansion.

Gavin arrives at his new home just as things start to go south. His aunt, Gwen, has disappeared. Hellish beasts stalk the estate. A dark plot is unfolding. Treadwell’s story is slow and dense, but he builds the tension and dread into a spectacular climax as magic is unleashed back into this corner of England.

Anarchy, James TreadwellInstalment two, Anarchy, begins several months after the events of Advent, as the reawakened magic starts to take hold of a world that can’t yet understand what the hell is happening. This book is even slower and denser than its predecessor – and weaker. Much of the story revolves around new characters – including Goose, a Canadian mountie, and Gavin’s mother, who desperately tries to reunite with her son as magic rips Britain apart – whose connection to Advent emerges at an often frustrating pace. Anarchy eventually ties most of its threads together, but the ending is so obscurely written that it isn’t entirely clear or satisfying.

That said: When Anarchy achieves full momentum, it’s unnerving and unpredictable. Treadwell’s series makes a convincing argument that society – its laws and its systems – only works because everyone believes it works. When that faith is knocked away, the whole illusion falls apart. If fantasy does ever become reality, we’re all screwed.

Penises are weird

November 9th, 2013 by Sam Downing

No one you see naked in a public change room is ever anyone you’d want to see naked. The other day at the gym there this naked guy striding around the change room with this real sense of urgency. “I must get to the sink naked! I must get to my locker naked! I must make everyone see how naked I am!” There is literally nothing you can do in a gym change room that is more important than putting on underwear. I see a lot of peen in the gym locker room. This is not a good thing. My mutant power is walking in there just in time so see some old guy’s weird junk. Penises are weird looking, right? Like if penises had never existed, and some guy invented penises, everyone would be like: “What is that thing? What are those ugly bits dangling under it? Why the hell is it doing that? … Yucky.” I think it’s funny when gays go on about how weird vaginas are. Sure, vaginas are weird. But… have you guys seen a penis? Jeez. I guess no one looks at a dick objectively because any time you’re looking at a dick you’re steamy and aroused and you don’t notice it looks like some skinned deformed rodent lizard. The human sex drive literally evolved to make us forget how hideous all our genitals are.

The worst part about being single

October 20th, 2013 by Sam Downing

… is that no one believes you when you tell them you are fine not being in a relationship. Because everyone wants to be in a relationship, right? “What’s your situation right now?” a friend asked me the other day. I said I’m not seeing anyone, and I’m not that interested in finding someone to see. I feel like the reaction I got was: “Oh, suuuuure… ya desperate loser. Go die alone.” I mean, I’m not anti-relationship or anything. Relationships have their benefits. One recent Friday night I was on the couch with only a glass of wine for company, watching a kids’ movie from the ’80s about a sexy cartoon unicorn. Keep in mind I am a 30-year-old, financially independent man who lives alone. And it occurred to me that having another adult around might make sexy unicorn times slightly less pathetic. Very slightly.  But even though I’m single, I do have romance in my life. I don’t mean to brag but on my way home from work the other evening, I was coming out of Kings Cross station when I made eye contact with a homeless woman crouched in the curb. As our gazes met, she started sobbing. It’s the little things that count.

The Long Earth and The Long War, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter: Book review

September 23rd, 2013 by Sam Downing

The Long Earth, Terry Pratchett and Stephen BaxterOne day, humanity makes a stunning discovery: There are parallel universes neighbouring ours, stacked next to each other, stretching out to infinity, each one holding an Earth that is more or less identical to ours. Humans can step out of this world and into the next almost at will. Overnight, society is transformed by this new “Long Earth”.

The Long Earth and its sequel The Long War are structured entirely on that premise – and what a premise it is. It’s simple, with the kind of deceptive simplicity that cracks your skull open and makes your imagination blaze. Authors Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s imaginations are incandescent: Both books in this series are bursting with digressions and musings and speculation about the big and small effects that the Long Earth would have on humanity.

The premise is so huge, so ambitious, that it’s almost a struggle to build anything as closed as a plot around it. Long Earth is structured around Joshua Valiente, a natural “stepper” – unlike almost every other person, he doesn’t need a special device to hop from one Earth to the next – who has explored more of the Long Earth than most. He’s recruited on an expedition to explore the vast extent of the Long Earth by an eccentric supercomputer known as Lobsang, and the pair turns up some of the Long Earth’s mysteries as they traverse it in an airship*.

(*Remember the golden rule: Pretty much anything with airships in it is, by default, cool.)

The Long War, Terry Pratchett and Stephen BaxterIn Long War, which picks up several years after Long Earth, the weakness in the story become even clearer. The characters are mostly a benign lot (if you’ve read a lot of Pratchett’s stuff many of them will feel familiar to you) and none of their individual stories are especially interesting or surprising. Various threads follow the tensions between humans and other intelligent species residing in the Long Earth, a Chinese expedition into far-flung worlds, and Lobsang’s continued meddling. But there’s never a sense that everything won’t work out OK, and eventually, everything does.

But it’s testament to the strength of that remarkable central idea that the series is never boring. Pratchett and Baxter wander off on side quests exploring the social and economic effects of infinite Earths, which are often so intriguing it’s sometimes it’s disappointing to be gently steered back to the main plot.