The Lego Movie (2014)

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It’s fair to say that, where the box office is concerned, toy-franchises and tie-in movies really don’t mix. Battleship, G.I. Joe, Mars Attacks!: all of these bombed, critically and commercially, largely because they lacked the heart, invention and imagination to make anything more than a glorified feature-length toy commercial.

Luckily for the folks behind The Lego Movie, they hired Phil Lord and Chris Miller, a directing team who have developed an exceptional knack for crafting witty, imaginative hits out of unexpected sources like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street. And they’ve worked their magic once again to turn The Lego Movie into one of the most delightfully weird movies you’re likely to see. Ever.

It’s certainly one of the funniest. Lord and Miller throw-out odd one-liners (“And it’s true. Because it rhymes.”), pop-culture references (“We’ll wing it. That’s a Bat-pun.”), and take pot-shots at corporate America (one of the main themes is how homogenization stunts creativity) with a childish alacrity. They posit a world of organisation and clockwork precision in which everyone watches the same sitcom (Where are my pants?), endlessly sing the same generic pop-anthem (Everything is Awesome!), and where everyone follows handy instruction manuals on how to fit-in – a sly wink to Lego’s own imagination-sapping instruction pamphlets.

The only one who doesn’t fit-in, no matter how hard he tries, is an optimistically lonely construction worker named Emmet (Pratt). He’s pretty unremarkable, and, though he follows life’s instructions with a peppy enthusiasm, there’s nothing special that makes him stand out from the crowd. Obviously, that all changes when he somehow becomes inextricably glued to the Piece of Resistance, a prophesised widget that marks Emmet as the special master builder who is destined to stop the megalomaniacal Lord Business (Ferrell) from unleashing the ‘Kragle’ and ridding the Lego-verse of all creativity.

This relatively simple set-up is used as a jumping-off point for the directors to run wild with their imaginations, dreaming-up increasingly fantastical sequences that encompass a range of genres. Sci-fi, pirates, westerns, and spy-thrillers are all given the Lego treatment as the plot pulls in a hodgepodge of characters such as Batman, Gandalf and a random spaceman with a cracked helmet (what’s his name again?). It’s absolutely bonkers, but enjoyably so.

At times the chaos does become a little bit too much as the directors try to cram in so many bizarre ideas that the plot becomes difficult to follow. Yet, Lord and Miller manage to pull it back by grounding all the madness in a hefty dose of sentiment. The message behind Emmet’s zero-to-hero story is that everyone has the ability to become whatever they want to be and that life should not be constricted by rules and regulations – something which, as cynics would have it, nicely fits-in with Lego’s core marketing message.

The supporting cast is also excellent. Will Arnett often steals scenes as Batman, a dark, brooding artist and Emmet’s principal love rival. Liam Neeson adds frustrated chair-kicking to his particular set of skills as the Good Cop/Bad Cop. And Will Ferrell makes a good villain as the nefarious Lord Business, complete with extendo-legs.

By embracing the retro clunky-look of the toy in animation, Lord and Miller have built a wildly imaginative and witty piece of work that still manages to embrace the cross-generational bonding that Lego continues to engender in families across the world today. Now that’s how you successfully turn a toy-franchise into a movie.

Runtime: 100 Minutes         Genre: Animation/Comedy  Released: 14th February 2014

Directors: Phil Lord, Chris Miller     Writers: Phil Lord, Chris Miller

Cast: Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks

Click here to watch the trailer for The Lego Movie

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TV Review: True Detective

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have watched True Detective – episode one

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Ever since those pesky Scandinavians rocked up and ushered in a ‘golden age’ of crime drama with the likes of The Killing and The Bridge, it seems that every week has welcomed a new tale of unsettling melancholy, suffocating atmosphere and flawed heroes who, like the nightmarish murders they investigate, hide an inextricable mess of horrors within. The Returned, Southcliffe, Broadchurch, and Hannibal are some of the main culprits, but now we can add True Detective, a dark, quietly disturbing slice of purgatory, to the growing list of reasons to sleep close to a baseball bat. With the light on. Clutching a nice cuddly teddy-bear.

The plot, of course, centres on two cops (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) as they investigate a spate of murders across Louisiana in 1995. The body of former prostitute, Dora Lange, is found posed in worship to a lonely tree, blindfolded and wearing a crown of antlers, with a satanic symbol painted across her back in a style redolent of Hannibal’s ritualistic symbolism. A twig latticework, known as a devil’s nest, is found near the body. All signs seem to point to this being the work of a serial killer, and sure enough, another latticework is soon found in the dilapidated playhouse of a girl who went missing five years earlier.

True Detective plays like a harrowing morality play dressed in a mesmerizing cinematic aesthetic as writer Nic Pizzolatto uses the familiar tropes of the genre (weird murders and two polar opposite detectives) to lure us into the story before hitting us with a deep, painful exploration of character and morality. As such, the lead performances are vital.

Much has already been said of Matthew McConaughey’s renaissance (a transformation from rom-com meat-bag to possibly Hollywood’s best working actor), but anyone who still needs convincing of his talents need only witness his unsettling performance as Rusty Cohle.

A barely-functioning addict with a penchant for expounding dark philosophies, Cohle is already a long way down the path to destruction when we meet him in 1995, meditating beneath a cross in his vapid apartment, his wife and daughter lost to him along with his faith in humanity: “I think that human consciousness was a tragic misstep in human evolution.”

His partner, Martin Hart, isn’t much better-off either. On the surface a charming, all-American family-man, Hart hides his insecurities and philandering ways behind a vale of Christian values. The narrative is built around their odd couple pairing with their road-trip bickering only adding to the sense of unease.

The twist, though, is that the plot is unusually split into two strands. Alongside the 1995 investigation, Cohle and Hart are being interviewed in 2012 by detectives re-opening the case. It’s clear the intervening years have not been kind to Cohle. His demons and addictions look to have finally beaten him and McConaughey’s Dallas Buyers Club weight-loss gives Cohle the weightless, soulless look of a man waiting for the persecution of life to end. As for Hart, he’s still keeping up the gregarious every-man routine, but you get the feeling it’s less believable 17 years on. We learn that Cohle and Hart’s relationship drastically deteriorated in 2002, a subtle twist that pulls focus from the murder as we begin to ask: what happened in the intervening years to destroy these two men?

There’s an air of Southcliffe and Top of the Lake in the way that Cary Joji Fukunaga shoots Louisiana as a character, lingering over the derelict, decayed aspects of its mystical bayou to create an eerie, so-heavy-it’s-palpable atmosphere. Its southern gothic undertones (religious imagery, violent actions and troubled characters) make it feel like we’re slap-bang in the middle of a Cormac McCarthy novel. T Bone Burnett’s pulsating soundtrack of echoing drum beats only adds to the feeling that we’re trapped in some kind of hypnotic purgatory.

What’s even better is that True Detective is an anthology series – a second series would focus on a whole new plot and set of characters – which means that Pizzolatto is free to do whatever he likes these characters. Anything could happen, so expect more than a few gob-smacking twists to befall Cohle and Hart before the eight episodes are through. It all bodes well for True Detective, a pulsating, melodic, frightening crime-drama. Now, I’m off to spend the rest of the week hiding under my bedcovers alternating between sobbing and dry heaving. 

Click here to watch the trailer for True Detective

TV Review: Doll & Em

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have watched Doll & Em – episode one!

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It’s no surprise that HBO has already snapped up the American distribution rights for Doll & Em, Sky Living’s highly-rated new comedy, being as it shares the same low-fi-realism aesthetic, relationship-driven plot and slightly self-centred characters as the networks other hit comedies Girls and Looking. Though, whether it’s deserving of such exalted company remains to be seen.

The show’s simple premise is delivered in bright opening montage. Em – Emily Mortimer playing a sort-of version of herself – is a successful actress strutting the red carpet in LA with Bradley Cooper (minus the American Hustle Jeri curls, unfortunately), only to be interrupted by her tearful best friend who has been left devastated by nasty break-up. And before we know it, Doll has touched down in LA to slosh about drinking red wine on Em’s sofa. Oh, and to work as her personal assistant, because friends working together always goes well. But from this simple set-up emerges a thoughtful portrayal of female friendship, albeit one that needs to find its teeth.

What works so well here is how co-writers Mortimer and Dolly Wells observe and send-up the intricacies of female friendship, playing-on on their characters co-dependent need for compassion, understanding and positive reinforcement. Em can always be relied upon to deliver a well-timed “you’re so brilliant” to lift the incredibly gauche Doll, who spends most of the episode careening from one calamity to the other. This is where Mortimer and Wells’ real-life friendship comes in handy. They’ve been friends since their early childhood and shared a flat as jobbing actresses during the mid-90s, and their effortless compatibility adds some much needed authenticity to what is a purely relationship-driven comedy.

All that’s missing is a little more humour and a little less-clingy cuddling over ice cream. It’s clear that the humour should be derived from the awkward moments that occur when the differences in status between Doll and Em become all too apparent. The best scene of this opening episode comes when Em is in her trailer trying to prepare for a scene and Doll insists on teaching her how to cry on cue (it involves a horrific story about the death of her father), wonderfully exemplifying just how different these two characters really are.

Unfortunately, scenes likes this are all too infrequent meaning the story often feels a little flat. Things should step-up a notch next week, however, when the two find themselves competing for the attentions of a man neither of them actually want. Until then, this episode has laid the ground work for a keenly observed comedy about modern female friendship that could yet be deserving of its place alongside HBO bedfellows Girls and Looking.

Click here to watch the trailer for Doll & Em

TV Review: Babylon

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have watched BabylonImage

When most people think about Mark Duggan, Plebgate and the looming Hillsborough enquiry the idea of a comedy-drama about how the Metropolitan police tackle public scandal is not the first thing that comes to mind, but that’s exactly what Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the indefatigable geniuses behind Peep Show and Fresh Meat, have done with Babylon, an off-beat satire set in the Communications offices of Scotland Yard.

For a cop show this is decisively short on crime solving, in fact there’s nary a detective insight during the feature length runtime, with Babylon coming across as more of a police procedural The Thick of It, poking fun at senior officers’ shameful publicity posturing (battling the Mayor over credit for a reduction in gun crime), rather than a British Brooklyn Nine Nine, which likes a regular turnover of jokes and a neat resolution to a crime.

The plot centres on Brit Marling’s PR guru Liz Garvey, who’s tasked with giving the Met a public image face-lift and bringing transparency to the force. Only the higher-ups, like James Nesbitt’s Chief Constable Richard Miller, don’t like to give-out specifics; in fact, they spend most of their time trying to obfuscate the issue to the point where even they don’t know what’s going on. Matters are further complicated when her first day descends into utter chaos as news of a lone gunman terrorizing the capital rapidly escalates beyond all control.

But it’s the Met’s constant scrapes with the world of modern communications that causes Garvey most grief; twitter feeds, rolling news and cameraphones proving to be a ubiquitous thorn in her side, constantly pulling attention from any attempts to identify the sniper.

The show packs a lot into its 90 minute runtime, stretching the plot’s focus to all areas of the police force – monitoring a political protest, an armed officer returning to duty after a fatal shooting, a team of uniformed officers trying to keep it together in front of a documentary filmmaker – which sometimes works to its detriment as events starting to become muddled halfway through.

The off-beat moments of biting satire come with a heavy-dose of drama, with Babylon tackling the kind of high-stakes situations that suit director Danny Boyle’s kinetic style. Boyle wastes no time in stamping his trademark thumping rhythm on the action, kicking off with a late-night raid that switches between hand-held, night-vision and cameraphone angles, and ends when police taser a half-naked man and his dog.

Brit Marling puts in a confidant turn as the idealistic new Director of Communications, taking no time to settle in as she sets about asserting her authority over her male colleagues with her quick-wit: “a big slice of gun crime reduction pie.” However, Babylon also boasts an impressive British ensemble, including the brilliant Johnny Sweet as a hapless Superintendent who can’t help but steal every scene he’s in with lines like: “Five [shootings] sounds like half of ten, whereas four is… closer to two.”

The feature length runtime is a shade too long, causing some of the tension to dissipate in the middle, and it could’ve done without the suggestion of a budding romance between Garvey and Nesbitt’s Miller, which feels like a tired and unnecessary genre trope. Otherwise, it looks like Baines and Armstrong have yet another hit on their hands with this timely satire that only serves to strengthen their reputation as the best writers in UK television.

Click here to watch the trailer for Babylon

TV Review: Salamander

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have watched Salamander

Over the last few years BBC4 has built a reputation as the fearless champion of subtitled northern European dramas, such as The Bridge and The Killing. But Salamander, the latest to fill BBC4’s hallowed Saturday night slot, marks a stark departure from the infectious plots, gruesome murders and grey soaked milieu of the Scandinavian drama, ditching these gloomy tropes in favour of a light Belgian conspiracy thriller.

Things kick-off with a gripping swoop on a private Belgian bank, where a clever gang of thieves raid the safety deposit boxes of Belgium’s elite. But instead of targeting that vast sums of wealth unquestionably stored there, the sneaky plunderers are after the dirty secrets of the rich and powerful; the kind of dark revelations that cause one victim to immediately commit suicide upon hearing the news. The rest of the ‘wronged’ instruct the bank to instigate a cover up, lest a police investigation direct undue attention to their luxuriously filthy laundry.

Unfortunately for them, but thankfully for us, that’s when relentless Chief Inspector Peter Gerardi comes snooping around, following up on a dodgy tip-off from a typically boozy informant – do the police only recruit informers from Alcoholics Anonymous?

Gerardi keeps with gritty-TV-cop-tradition by seemingly ending every utterance with an exasperated “dammit” to signify his bitter anger, something that comes all the more frequent when his superiors, under the bank’s powerful influence, block his investigation. Suspended from duty, and with his family placed under constant surveillance, Gerardi turns Jack Bauer, operating on the run and outside the law, but all in the name of an almost saccharine notion of justice: “For me murder is murder, regardless of who’s behind it.”

Salamander deliberately avoids the kind of dark, insidious plotting The Bridge revelled in, opting instead for a lighter form of entertainment. This not only means that scenes take place in actual daylight, but that we are also treated to a pacey plot with plenty of action, such as a slaloming car chase and a tense stand-off, that makes for a pleasing dose of Saturday night entertainment.

All that’s missing is a little more human drama and depth of character, which here only extends as far as making Gerardi moody and beardy. There’s potential to explore how secrets can eat away at a person and affect their actions, which could add more tension and impetus to action that occasionally feels tired and motionless, but all we get is brief clandestine meetings in stately offices – the bank’s influence stretching all the way the high-ranking politicians.

Much like how Hostages was crushed by comparisons to Homeland because they shared Israeli origins and a Channel 4 home, Salamander may struggle to escape the shadow of its more complex Scandinavian neighbours. Until that day comes, however, we can all enjoy an exhilarating conspiracy thriller; it’s a nice change of pace after so much northern European gloom.

Click here to watch the trailer for Salamander

TV Review: The Bridge – Series Two

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have watched The Bridge – Series TwoImage

For those who haven’t spent the last five Saturdays devouring the second series of Scandinavian crime-drama The Bridge, which concluded on BBC4 last night, you need to embark on a ten-hour iPlayer binge, pronto. The Swedish/Danish co-production, in which two detectives from either side of the border partner up to solve an increasingly complex series of gruesome murders, is simply the best thing on telly right now.

Partly this is because the setting is incredibly beautiful, especially the eponymous Øresund Bridge which always seems to be ominously shrouded in mist – this, along with the icy blue hue that bathes every scene, greatly adds to the inescapable sense of foreboding. But it’s mostly down to Sofia Helin’s fantastic performance as brilliant cop meets autism sufferer, Saga Noren.

Invariably upfront and honest, Saga’s difficulty in understanding what is socially acceptable is actually what makes her such a compelling character, allowing her to ask the kind of uncomfortable questions, like if a man’s dead daughter worked as a porn star, that more ordinary cops like Martin would shy away from. But there is far more to Saga than asking inappropriate questions and unabashedly stripping off in a busy office when she thinks her shirt is too smelly, and in series two we are treated to a more vulnerable side to Saga.

Over the course of the series we learn more about Saga’s difficult upbringing involving a sister who committed suicide and a mother who suffered from Münchausen syndrome. We also get to witness Saga embark on her first proper relationship when new boyfriend Jakob moves in, something which provides rare comedic moments as Saga tackles the relationship in her own way, escaping to a hotel when she needs her space and asking for sex when his mother is in the next room. These glimpses into her personal life add a subtle sense of vulnerability making her far more engaging than a simple socially oblivious detective, and it’s quietly devastating watching her reaction to the end of her relationship: “It’s sad I failed as a girlfriend.”

Saga is paired up with Danish detective Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), who is carefully attempting to re-build his life and marriage following the death of his son, August, in series one. This mostly consists of visiting August’s killer, Jens, in prison to torture him with old case files and takeaway coffee. As a fairly ordinary man, Martin is our entry point into Saga’s world, often acting as the audience’s shocked, dissenting voice to Saga’s social faux pas. What’s interesting about their relationship is that it’s one completely devoid of sexual tension. Even with serial-humper Martin on the scene, there’s never a suggestion that their relationship is anything more than platonic. They simply seem to compliment each other perfectly, with many of the series’ highlights coming in the frank, open conversations they share during regular jaunts across the bridge in Saga’s hideous vintage Porsche.

Obviously, there’s a crime to be solved and, as is always the case with Scandinavian dramas, it’s an excellent example of how to maintain tension during a slow burn reveal. It all starts when a ship runs aground beneath the bridge and is found to be carrying seven dead bodies. This is one of many attacks orchestrated by a quartet of animal masked wearing eco-terrorists who are offing as many people with corporate fruit baskets laced with a new strand of the pneumonic plague.

There’s a shade of the Truth Terrorist in their Bob Dylan-inspired YouTube videos, but the group is not the big bad of the series. True to form, the writers keep the audience guessing and our suspicions fall on everyone from cancer-stricken business woman Victoria Nordgren and her pervy brother Oliver to Caroline’s weirdo husband who desperately wants her to have breast implants so that he doesn’t have to shag her sister anymore. Of course, the real culprit is the one person we never suspect, or even really notice, as the plot builds to the big finale, or graduation as the still unknown Mother of Three calls it, that somehow manages to pull all these seemingly unconnected plot strands together into a satisfying, and plausible, conclusion.

Series two of The Bridge is beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and features the kind of dark, twisty-turny plot that only Broadchurch has come close to matching in this country. With series three already confirmed, and this series ending on a dramatic cliff-hanger with Martin’s life taking yet another turn for the worst, there’s seemingly no chance of the Scandinavian invasion of our screens losing pace any time soon.

Click here to watch the trailer for The Bridge – Series Two