21 February 2017

Film Review | The LEGO Batman Movie directed by Chris McKay

I never reviewed 2015’s LEGO Movie as, shortly after its release, I read a review that quoted the writer’s child, whose one-line offering encapsulated my own views far more concisely than I could have. As a huge fan of Batman and DC as well as LEGO, though, I’ve got plenty to say about this year’s LEGO Batman Movie. Truth be told, I’d been looking forward to it as much as T2 or even The Last Jedi.

The LEGO Batman Movie is far from being the brick-built Caped Crusader’s first on-screen outing, though. Since the original, straight-to-home video LEGO Batman movie (DC Superheroes Unite), he’s made countless home video appearances, mostly alongside his Justice League compatriots (and all conveniently to be found on DVDs displayed at the end of most supermarkets’ aisles, right next to The LEGO Batman Movie sets and minifigure packets), before playing a major – and arguably show-stealing role - on the silver screen in The LEGO Movie. Yet The LEGO Batman Movie is the first not only to properly showcase the ninety-year-old DC icon, but also to celebrate him, and everything that he is – and could never be. It’s as if all the triumph and tragedy of the Dark Knight has been distilled and exaggerated to such a degree that everyone from the three-year-old moviegoer to his reluctant granny will instantly connect with the character.

ROBIN: Wow! Does Batman live in Bruce Wayne’s basement? 
BATMAN: No, Bruce Wayne lives in Batman’s attic!

This movie’s Batman is, as he should be, a one-man crime-fighting machine. It’s also implicit that he lost his parents in his youth, but without LEGO having to terrify its youngest viewers with unnecessary flashbacks to their murder. The film even buys into the old DC conceit that “Superman is just Clark Kent in a cape, but Bruce Wayne is Batman’s mask” by literally having Batman don the cowl throughout the movie (unless Alfred forces him to take it off in order to masquerade as a playboy billionaire). Where the LEGO Batman differs from his comic book and counterpart though is in his attitude. For a man who “gets up at four in the afternoon every day to pump iron” so that he can keep the city safe, he’s bombastically selfish and arrogant – traits upon which most of the movie’s comedy is built. From his opening voiceover dissing Superman to his (priceless) claim of having nine abs and his willingness to use Dick Grayson as “expendable” cannon fodder, Will Arnett’s heavy metal, beat-boxin’ Batman is a study in narcissism. The man’s in the wrong trade - he’s practically a walking WWE promo.

Yet inside, he’s still the child that lost his parents. He throws actual tantrums rolling around on the floor (his “No, no, no, no…” perfectly in tune to the old TV series’ famous theme), gets put in time-out, makes himself laugh with childish passwords (“IRONMANSUCKS” and “ALFREDDBUTLER”), and eschews any meaningful connection to anyone to avoid the pursuant hurt. I love in particular the humorous insight that the movie offers into Batman’s – not Bruce Wayne’s, mind, Batman’s – home life. He gets in from “work”, slips into something more comfortable (still wearing his cowl, obviously), then sits down to laugh at a romantic film, which he seems to genuinely believe is a comedy. It’s brilliant. The film straddles the fine line between tragedy and humour dexterously, somehow portraying a tragic character as a hilarious one without really altering any of his core characteristics.

ROBIN: Kids call me Dick.          BATMAN: Kids can be so cruel.

On the hero side of the divide, most of the heart and humour is borne of Batman’s relationships with his bumbling ward, Dick Grayson (Robin), his loyal butler – and surrogate father – Alfred, and the newly-minted Commissioner Gordon… Barbara Gordon. The first admires him, the second loves him, and the third thinks that she’s better than him (and what’s particularly funny is, she actually is – just look at the stats she’s got to prove it!) Every scene manages to be both witty and insightful, making the audience laugh while progressing the narrative and, more often than not, making light of hitherto inviolate comic book lore. Take Batman telling Robin to use the “dark parts” of his [bright yellow, red and green!] costume to blend into the night, for instance - it leads into Barbara promptly spotting them both, reinforcing Batman’s ineptitude in her eyes. Similarly, Batman’s aggressive, unforgiving “encouragement” of Robin as he infiltrates Superman’s Fortress of Solitude leads into a delectable scene in which a devastated Batman finds the entire Justice League – not just the big guns, but Hawkman and Hawkgirl, Green Arrow, the whole lot of ’em – having a party without him.

Villain-wise, Seth Grahame-Smith’s narrative blossoms out of Batman’s crippling limitations as a human being – he’s even an inconsiderate adversary, it seems. Poor old Joker, who wants nothing more than for Batman to just acknowledge his status as the Dark Knight’s foremost foe, finds himself casually spurned in favour of the likes of Bane and Superman –“He’s not even a bad guy!” protests the Clown Prince of Crime – as the Caped Crusader likes to “fight around”. So unfurls a plot that sees the Joker willingly committed to the Phantom Zone so that he may return with a legion of horribles, all intent on putting Batman and his precious Gotham City to the sword.

An action-packed but thoroughly riotous mêlée ensues, and so Batman has to turn to his accidentally-adopted “son”; his war-dog of a butler dressed as the 60s’ Batman; Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon; and, best of all, all the scum and villainy of Gotham City in order to battle the Joker’s forces of darkness. And what a force they are - Voldemort, Sauron, King Kong, the Wicked Witch of the West, even the Daleks. Watching The LEGO Batman Movie made me realise how fortunate the kids of today are – they’ve got it made built. Yeah, they might have to put up with populism gone mad (specifically Brexit, Trump, and the wacky notion that a female Doctor Who is not merely “OK”, but somehow inevitable), but on the flip-side they get to see Batman fighting Daleks and enjoy some mind-blowing merch. The movie’s tie-in sets are impressive enough (my eldest daughter opted for set 7092: Catwoman Cycle Chase - not to get the Catwoman and Batgirl minifigures, but for the hilarious and endearing Robin, whom she seems to be half in love with), but the twenty-strong minifigure series is something else altogether. Lobster lovin’ Batman and Catman are joined by allies and adversaries both obscure and nefarious; like the film, it’s a celebration of ninety years of Batman – even the camp and concealed bits. The LEGO Batman Movie is less a film, more an event.

Building upon the spirit of 2015’s LEGO Movie, 2017’s LEGO Batman Movie takes the franchise to a whole new level. Photo-real animation brings to life a story that’s as surprising as it is funny, and as emblematic of both the LEGO and Batman properties as anything possibly could be. ’Twas surely for this film that the phrase “best of both worlds” was coined…

16 February 2017

Rants | The "News About Your Ticket" E-mail from the National Lottery's Cruelty Department

Waking up on a Sunday morning to an e-mail telling us that we’ve won the National Lottery is a surprisingly common occurrence in our house. Yet here we are, still not millionaires.

Rather than simply sending players an e-mail to advise them that they’ve won a £25.00 prize (just think what dastardly cyber criminals could get up to were they to intercept an e-mail telling you that you’ve got that sort of dosh on its way into your bank account…), instead the National Lottery send their players a cryptic message telling them that they have “some news” about their ticket from the previous evening’s draw, and that they are advised to sign in to their accounts as soon as they can for more information.

The first time this happened to us, I was convinced that we’d hit the jackpot. I spent hours trying to log into our account, but for some reason the page wouldn’t load. Eventually the penny dropped that the lottery is - technically - gambling, albeit gambling of an unrealistic sort, and as such the site was blocked by our parental controls, the password for which eluded me for a microcosmic eternity. Later that day, I finally managed to log in to our account to find out about our £25.00 prize. I was actually annoyed – no, incensed – that we were £25.00 better off. This preposterous, nonsensical, needlessly clandestine National Lottery notification system had left me beside myself with rage about actually receiving a minor windfall – something that’s almost universally considered to be “a good thing”. What should have been the cause for minor celebration soon became “another Cineworld”.

Since that day a few years ago, we’ve had around £200.00’s worth of £25.00 wins, the most recent of which followed last Saturday’s draw. Overall, that’s the equivalent of a week’s food and warmth for a family of four, a decent little smart TV for the bedroom, a top-tier LEGO set, a large Transformers Masterpiece or – if I were a smoker – three packets of cigarettes. And yet, every little win has felt like a digital slap in the face; it’s as if each £25.00 prize came attached to an invisible clown, whose mocking laughter drowned out anything positive that we could possibly have done with the extra cash.

National Lottery, you don’t need to e-mail me the details of the account that you’re paying our £25.00 into. You don’t need to include any information that could lead to any sort of cyber security breach. All you need to say is “We’ve got some news about your ticket from the draw on [date]. Congratulations – a prize of £25.00 has been paid into your bank account.” My reaction to such an e-mail would be along the lines of - “Get in!”, “Nice one!”, or - if I were feeling even remotely Alan Partridgey - “Back of the net!” To be clear, and for the avoidance of any doubt, that would be infinitely preferable to my involuntary response to your current e-mail.

Larger prizes, such as those with four figures before the decimal point, as opposed to overall, then yeah – a login might be prudent. But please, please, please - stop making us think we’ve won the damned jackpot when in fact we’ve not even won enough to pay for a modest meal out, because no matter how many times I get your accursed e-mail with its “news”, and no matter how absurd the odds of us hitting the jackpot are, there’s still always an unwelcome little pang of excitement that follows receipt of each cruel little e-mail – a pang that quickly blossoms into unbridled fury once I login and realise that you’ve done it to us again.

LEGO Ideas Review | 21304 Doctor Who

Many of the sets released under the LEGO Ideas umbrella have been exactly that - LEGO ideas dreamt to life by imaginative builders at home. They’ve uploaded their ideas to the LEGO Ideas website, gathered support, and then, upon gathering a quorum of supporters, LEGO designers have turned their idea into an on-shelf reality. However, when it comes to certain sets, “LEGO Ideas” is a misnomer. Every builder who follows Doctor Who has had the same impossible idea of making a LEGO TARDIS - but only one has managed to make the dimensionally-transcendental time and space machine materialise in building block form. This set is less a “LEGO Idea” and more a “LEGO Bloody Miracle”.

Subject as they are to the physical laws of a non-fictional universe, I’d always failed to shape LEGO pieces into a model bigger on its inside than its out. A labyrinthine, scaled interior could easily be built inside a blue box the size of most LEGO cities, just as easily as a minifigure-scaled police box could comfortably house a brace of minifigures - but little more. This left only a bitesize version of the TV producers’ approach: shove your minifigures into a tiny LEGO blue box, suspend your disbelief and pull ’em out again, finally setting them down in a separate interior. Not much fun, and not at all marketable.

An exercise in compromise as much as anything else, Andrew Clark’s wonderful creation stretches each of the above techniques as far it can to create a stunningly detailed hybrid model. The premise is inspired: you build a police box shell and a separate console room, opening out the former and attaching its sprawling form to the latter to create the illusion of a cavernous interior stretching out from the outer shell. Deft little flourishes like the inverted police-box detailing on the reverse of two of the TARDIS doors and the late Smith / Capaldi-era TARDIS wall on the opposing pair conspire to make the brick trickery pleasing, if still imperfect.

As I expected, the TARDIS exterior is my favourite part of the set - principally because it makes for such a stunning LEGO ornament. No part of the design has been fudged; each door panel is a separate component, there are no cost-cutting stickers to be applied, and two of the doors even open. Fair dues, they open outward, rather than inward; you have to take the top off and lift up at least two hinges to get them open; and, most significantly, they’re the wrong doors. Overall, though, it’s an acceptable trade-off when considering that the fully-opened capsule clicks comfortably onto the end of the console room’s ramp, giving us at least the illusion of being able to pass through the police box doors into the ship. As I can’t suggest a better alternative, it’d be more than a little churlish to complain.

The console room itself is just as well-thought-out and detailed, though inevitably it lacks the forceful impression of the iconic exterior, which, save for the addition and removal of the odd accoutrement has remained much the same for more than half a century. Again, for me it’s the little touches that sell it: a working lever, custom pieces printed with Gallifreyan symbols. The design even reflects the current console room’s multi-level layout, with stairs leading down to the rest of the ship.

The minifigures are a mixed bag, though. Matt Smith’s Doctor is the obvious standout as not only is he the spit of Eleven, but he also comes complete with a sonic screwdriver and fez. The latter doesn’t really work on his head, though, as it makes him look bald and leaves him with his alternative-expression face showing on the back of his head. This is especially frustrating as a custom-moulded composite hair and hat piece (as seen on many of the recent Disney and LEGO Batman Movie minifigures, for instance) could have remedied this. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is less recognisable, clad as he is in an awful shade of purple (I’d have preferred him in a dark hoodie with a guitar), and whilst Clara’s outfit is convincing, her hairpiece is anything but. The Weeping Angel, however, is sublime in its terrifying simplicity, and the Daleks are nothing short of perfection. I’d had reservations about their design before I’d built them as I’d thought that a custom mould would have been in order for creations of their calibre, but that would have been at the expense of the sheer joy that comes with putting a couple of Daleks together out of nothing but existing bricks.

Another delight of this set is its packaging. The glossy box, whilst still cardboard, is sturdy and can be opened and closed without ruining it - it’s clearly intended to be a keeper. Similarly, the instructions are far from flimsy and are adorned with facts and features about the TV series as well as the set’s designer. The only flaw is the lack of numbered piece bags, which is most unusual for a set of this size and makes the build more laborious than I’ve become used to.

This mostly enchanting set’s greatest weakness, though, is its timing: it’s very much a Capaldi-era set, just as you’d expect it to be as he’s the incumbent Doctor. For me, this is a real put-off as, despite a Herculean effort, I’ve been unable to find any love for the TV series since The Day of the Doctor aired. I’d have been much more thrilled with a “grunge phase” interior and the Russell T Davies Doctors than I would those I associate with the new series’ nadir, and I dare say that there are those who’d have opted for white roundels and long-scarved minifigures, given the choice. This isn’t a criticism of the set per se; rather an acknowledgement of the fact that it really only serves to whet the appetite for a fully-fledged LEGO Doctor Who range: incarnations of the Doctor alone could sustain a decent minifigure series, never mind the various alien ships and structures which have the potential to rival the standard-setting Star Wars range. Watch this (time and) space...

This set has now been retired, but can still be found online and in stores for as little as half its original RRP - which I why I finally gave in and bought it.