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Movie Review: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Sometimes sequels are lazy cashgrabs, (especially animated sequels– looking at you, Cars movies!) but the followup to the movie everyone thought was going to be terrible but was actually groundbreaking and amazing is almost equally as… um… “awesome.”

I say “almost” because it’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube for the original conceit of the movie: that the Lego toys (and our characters) exist in the real world in a suburban basement somewhere in what was an extended metaphor about capitalism, fascism, consumerism, playing with your toys, and having childlike wonder and fun with them.

Having expended that creativity in the twist ending (and further exploring it in both the Lego Batman and Ninjago movies), the only answer in the sequel is to double down on what else worked so well in the first — humor, songs, childlike anarchy and imagination — and move forward. While this isn’t quite the revelation the first one was, it’s still easily the best movie of 2019 (so far).

Our story begins where the last one ended (literally) with the arrival of Duplo aliens from the “Sistar” system. Now 5 years later, the aliens continue to come and destroy anything that our heroes build in the former metropolis of Bricksburg, which is now a Mad Max style apocalyptic wasteland, complete with broken Statue of Liberty!

However, this doesn’t dampen the spirit of Emmett (Chris Pratt) who continues to think everything is awesome. The more cynical realistic Lucy / “Wyldstyle” (Elizabeth Banks) along with Metalbeard (Nick Offermen), Benny (Spaceship! Charlie Day), UniKitty (Allison Brie), and Batman (Will Arnett) rule over the city protecting it from incursion and destruction. But Emmett starts to have dreams of an upcoming “Mom-ageddon” where all the Legos are put into storage forever.

When one day a mysterious spacewoman named General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz) shows up to “invite them all to a wedding,” she kidnaps all of our heroes except Emmett and takes them to the Sistar system. Our optimistic construction worker then has to travel into the great beyond up the staircase and to the new galaxy to rescue them.

On his way he encounters Rex Dangervest (also Chris Pratt in a dual role) whose super awesome spaceship is piloted by Raptors. Rex is super hardcore, which gives him not only “master builder” powers but “master destructor” powers. The two new “vest friends” plan to disrupt the wedding ceremony between Queen Whatevra Wa’Nabi (Taraji P. Henson) and Batman as it is the final sign of the Momageddon.

That plot doesn’t really do the film justice however, because there is so much more going on at every level. The film is infused with joyous songs. The infectious conformity anthem of “Everything Is Awesome” is one-upped by a song literally meant to brainwash our heroes by claiming that “this song’s going to get stuck inside your head.” And it really does.

In “Gotham City Guys,” Queen Whatevra seduces Batman in what is perhaps the funniest sequence in the film for comic fans as she plays on Batman’s insecurities and rivalry with a certain Kryptonian. This is also a good time to mention that Jason Momoa and Gal Gadot also both appear as their DCEU characters in some truly excellent cameos. But don’t worry– Green Lantern is still played by Jonah Hill from the first movie! (What, they were going to get Ryan Reynolds?)

Returning musical champs The Lonely Island also make an appearance singing a song about how cool the credits are– which definitely make you want to sit through the credits. And Queen Whatevra channels evil Disney anthems like “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” “Be Prepared,” and “Mother Knows Best” singing a song all about how she’s definitely definitely definitely not evil, she promises.

What really makes this film work are the multiple layers of meaning. And for this discussion I will have to delve into minor plot spoilers, but not ones which adults wouldn’t see coming from a mile away in a kids movie. Of course as adults we recognize that the “Sistar System” is actually ruled by the sister of the young boy we saw in the first film.

What is actually happening in the war between Bricksburg and her system is sibling rivalry played out large. An older brother feels that his little sister is breaking and stealing his toys (which he’s not wrong about by the way). And a little sister just wants to play Legos with her older brother. Taking in stride the meaning of the first film, we see the son becoming his own father: demanding the conformity to his type of play and excluding those who won’t play along.

And we also have the eponymous Mom of the Momageddon (Maya Rudolph) who is doing what moms everywhere do: if you can’t play nicely with each other, then I’m going to have to take away the source of the conflict (the offending toys). Again, these are minor spoilers, but they’re also pretty clear to adults who read between the lines of the early plot and who are aware of the conceit of the first film. Also, let’s take one moment here and point out how amazing Maya Rudolph is. She is the shining star at the center of this film’s universe, bathing everything in a warm glow at the perfect intersection of awesome, funny, and super serious. She’s the perfect mom.

There’s also deeper message here that emphasizes the original (covert) feminism of the first Lego Movie, even directly pointing out that Lucy was the one who did most of the heroic things but Emmett is still seen as the leader and the hero. But this film is implicitly making the case for opening up the toy box for everyone, and not just everyone in general, but specifically for young girls. It should also be noted that the central players of the Sistar galaxy are also voiced by women of color (Haddish, Beatriz) — another implicit demand for playing with everyone.

Gatekeeping is endemic in our fan culture, and nowhere is it more apparent than among self-professed fans who seem most intent on keeping women out of the fandom. The same mentality also infects the toy aisle of your local favorite big box store, which is still one of the most unnecessarily gender-segregated areas left in America.

The idea that Legos and building sets are only for girls, and therefore we have to create special gendered Legos for them is as silly as it is retrogressive. And yet, Lego has done just that, haven’t they?

The strongest message that we got at the end of the film is simply to play with one another, and allow different forms of play and imagination to work together. Spoiler alert: when the brother and sister stop fighting, they create a beautiful new Utopia for the Lego heroes from both universes to live in.

There’s another great moment near the climax of the third act where “Everything is Awesome” is turned on its head and Lucy starts singing how everything’s not awesome, but it can be if we all work together and put aside differences and misunderstandings. Essentially, it’s a message to not go Hard AF at each other, because all that brings is destruction and unhappiness.

There couldn’t be a better lesson for 2019, and this was made all the more poignant when I saw this film at a critics preview screening the same night as the State of the Union speech. Everything’s not awesome, but there’s a way forward if we can hope and dream of a better world and work to bridge misunderstandings in order to confront the real evils that exist out there.

Note that this isn’t some mealy-mouthed centrist plea for bipartisanship or something of that nature. This is more of a plea to an increasingly fractured left and center who can so easily fall into the traps of purity tests or even engaging in ridiculous activities like re-litigating the 2016 primary.

One of the biggest lessons of this Lego movie is the fight about who started the war between Bricksburg and the aliens. “You started it.” “No you started it.” It’s the oldest, childish argument in the world, and it’s time to move past things like that to help make our world a better place.

The film is also incredibly funny, with jokes coming a mile a minute. You will want to re-watch several times, and maybe see it out of the theater because you are laughing so hard you will miss the next joke. There are beautiful and hilarious Easter eggs and callbacks to the previous film, but nothing that presents a barrier to anyone who didn’t see it.

The character designs and animation also continues to be astounding. Freed of just following the instructions from the first film, so many of the designs are just built on anarchy and imagination which makes them incredibly fun and toyetic. I left the theater and immediately went online to look to see if I could buy a UniKitty battle cat. Luckily I can, along with numerous other sets that I would probably have to take a second mortgage out to be able to afford. There’s also an amazing “Battle Ready Batman and MetalBeard” set for those who might gawk at playing with “girls toys.” (Did you not get the memo?)

The film does bog down a little bit in its second act, but it more than makes up for it with an amazing ending. The spirit and morality and hopefulness of this film make it something that will make you happy and want to play with your toys and hug your kids.

Everything’s not awesome, but it can be if we’ll listen to The Lego Movie 2.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect 3

Pitch-Perfect-3-poster last callThe newest installment of the Pitch Perfect franchise about college a capella competition and the fictional Barden Bellas finds them mostly retreading greatest hits and tapping into the formula that has made the previous two films so charming, but it ends up a little flat in key places.

They simply can’t top the zaniness of part two, making this seem a little more lackluster. It’s still the Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson show, although the film does try to give some extra time to heretofore less explored characters, to varied effect. But the film’s central conceit of “getting the band back together” for a nostalgia-fueled USO tour just doesn’t work except seemingly as a backdrop for our stars to travel through Europe. All of our characters seem to have the same problem– life isn’t working out exactly as they planned one year out of college. While this seems a decent commentary on the plight of the entire millennial generation, it just isn’t interesting enough to sustain itself.

It shines best, as in previous films, in the lavish musical numbers the Bellas put on, this time joined by an all-girl rock group names Evermoist (yes, really), and alt country band Whiskey Shivers plays a group called Saddle Up. All of them are “competing” for a spot to share the stage with DJ Khaled (played unconvincingly by himself) in a final show, and here’s the real showstopper: Khaled is a black hole of charisma, and every moment he’s on screen the film grinds to a screeching halt.

Another problem lies in a strange side-plot involving Amy’s father, played by John Lithgow with a not-quite convincing Aussie accent. Apparently he’s an international arms dealer trying to reunite with his daughter. This allows for a strange third act where Rebel Wilson gets to play action star while the rest of the Bellas perform Britney Spears’ “Toxic” to distract him. It’s fun, and it’s good to see Wilson stretch herself as an actor, but it’s strangely off-tone and just doesn’t work as part of the larger film.

Matt Lanter (Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Timeless) also shows up as a military officer assigned to escort the Bellas, and ends up being a romantic interest. Lanter personally is fine (and indeed charming), but his character has nowhere to go. What’s really missing from this are some of the more interesting male foils from previous films (Adam DeVine, Flula Borg, and Ben Platt. . .  oh, how we miss you, Ben Platt). This was obviously a deliberate creative choice to focus on our female cast, and I applaud that. But compared to their previous films, Lanter and Lithgow just sort of take up space. DJ Khaled takes up negative space and drags the entire movie down.

And, as with all of the movies, I can always use more Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins.

Fans of the franchise will likely enjoy this movie– its script is still chock-full of jokes and the musical numbers. . . err. . .  hit all the right notes. It’s too bad the entire package is not quite as good.

2.25 out of 5

TV Review: Moonbeam City S1E1 Mall Hath No Fury

MoonbeamCityWatching Comedy Central‘s brand new animated show Moonbeam City was the only rational reward for my enduring the Republican debate. Note: this show is not rational.

Moonbeam City which debuted Sept 16th is an animated comedy made by Titmouse studios, the folks who do animation for The Venture Brothers and other beautifully made cartoons.

The premise: vain, inept, corrupt police detective, Dazzle Novak is set loose on an 1980’s styled dystopia of starving poor people, dogs on cocaine and malls as far as the eye can see. The visual style is a mix of Patrick Nagel and Lisa Frank — which is very fashionable once more.

On the surface, that sounds a bit like Archer. Both shows feature pretty people making vague attempts at fighting “bad guys” while being mean to each other. Both use limited animation that’s highly stylized, visually attractive and so well designed as to make the viewer forget that the show is only using limited animation. Both take place in an ambiguous past/present.

But the show actually has a lot in common with totally absurdist cartoons like Aqua Teen Hunger Force or Sealab 2021. The plot is almost Dadaist. Some of the jokes landed and some of the jokes didn’t. Some of the jokes were so far out of left field that I would have assumed this show was on Adult Swim after midnight, not Comedy Central at 10:30pm.

But should you watch it? Probably!

Rob Lowe‘s voice acting was simply fantastic. He has the makings of a voice acting star. The sultry voice Elizabeth Banks uses as Dazzle’s police chief Pizzaz was unrecognizable to me at first and totally right-on for the role. I also want to wear everyone’s outfits. And there are Kate Bush and Diamda Galas jokes.

I’ve been anticipating this show since I saw unfinished clips of it at last year’s New York Comic Con. I had high hopes and I still do! Much like its lead Dazzel Novak, if nothing else, at least Moonbeam City is pretty to look at.

Watch it.