FilmSpace: The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part; Alita: Battle Angel; Boy Erased

Film critic Calum Cooper looks back on this week’s additional releases, including the delightful follow up to The LEGO Movie, a manga adaptation from Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron, and the well-meaning but unfulfilling Boy Erased.

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part – ★★★★☆ 

I have a unique relationship with 2014’s The LEGO Movie. Although I’ve been a film lover since my first viewing of Star Wars at 5 years old, The LEGO Movie was my very first review. This was partially due to my stingy attitude towards the film’s marketing campaign at the time. I was 17 and I thought I knew everything back then. I was proven so embarrassingly wrong when the film came out that I had to express how ecstatic and enlightened I was by the experience. The rest is history. Now the sequel has arrived in cinemas, and I’m pleased to say that everything is still very much awesome.

Set five years later, the LEGO world has become an apocalyptic wasteland, given the arrival of the Duplo invaders at the end of the last film. Our hero Emmett (Chris Pratt) remains optimistic, even if everyone around him, including his now girlfriend Lucy, aka WyldStyle (Elizabeth Banks), insists on brooding attitudes. One of the alien invaders arrives and abducts the Master Builders, including Lucy, Uni-Kitty, and Batman, taking them to the domain of her shapeshifting queen (Tiffany Haddish). Emmett sets off to rescue them, accompanied by the adventurer Rex Dangervest (also Pratt), who is meant to be a jab at Chris Pratt’s most successful roles, including Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World. Chaos, comedy, and touching sentiment await.

A smart move that the film pulls is how it takes what was essentially a last minute joke at the end of the first one and turns it into the deeper story. We now all know about the terrific twist at the end of the original – how everything taking place is all in a child’s imagination – which elevated the film to god-tier standards. In this one, the child is now sharing that imagination with a younger sibling (Brooklynn Prince of the fantastic The Florida Project). As such the film’s foundations concern two different imaginations clashing and trying to fit together, much like how two different worlds try to co-exist in the LEGO universe.

It’s a clever idea, and a great follow up to the high standards set by the first. It’s true that the flashes to the real world are perhaps a little too frequent. I worked out very quickly what the film’s main themes were going to be due to the frequency of these segments. But it still works in stellar fashion as it places the characters front and centre. The film is as much about how Emmett and Lucy grow as characters, whether it be shedding childlike innocence or embracing it, as it is about the sibling rivalry in the background. They, as well as the huge supporting cast of mini-figure parodies, are all such a delight to be around. You’re already invested if you’ve seen and loved the first, but the subtly sharp character writing swiftly reminds us why we loved them in the first place.

I went into The LEGO Movie 2 not nearly as cynically as I did with the original, but I came out just as enthralled. It’s like being on a rollercoaster that you don’t want to get off of.

There’s plenty of laughs and excitement on its plate too. It carries on the first film’s rambunctious, self-referential humour, to the point where it even takes swings at its own predecessor, such as a moment concerning Emmett’s hero complex despite Lucy technically doing most of the work. It’s not above mocking its own ridiculousness, while simultaneously owning it. There’s a big and diverse range of comedy on display, with plenty of blink-and-you-miss-it moments on top of that. Phil Lord and Chris Miller once again wrote the script. Their signature quick-fire wit blooms on screen, evoking jovial wonder and laughter, while maintaining the structural integrity of the characters and story skilfully. I’m convinced that these two together can do no wrong.

Also, I have to commend the sheer vastness of the film’s creativity. Imaginative is maybe too easy a word to apply to a world where literally anything can be made as long as you have the right bricks, but it’s still a good one. The animation is once again stunning, replicating rapid stop motion styles organically to recreate that hyperactive sense of kinetic energy. The worlds and environments are breath-taking in size and scale, but even smaller details, like the shape-shifting abilities of the alien queen, are a sight to behold. You feel completely immersed in this film’s universe, in the imagination of the siblings, obsessing over the fine details enthusiastically as the fun and jokes just keeping on coming. It has such childlike enthusiasm to itself, but a mature core underneath all the wacky creations and gargantuan imagination. It may not be as revolutionary as its original counterpart, but it’s certainly a worthy companion piece.

I went into The LEGO Movie 2 not nearly as cynically as I did with the original, but I came out just as enthralled. It’s like being on a rollercoaster that you don’t want to get off of. It continues its story and characters thoughtfully and excitingly, while remaining just as fun, just as hilarious, just as gigantic, and just as visually gorgeous as its predecessor. It has laughter and thrills to spare for children and adults alike, whether you’re still playing with LEGO or reminiscing on the nostalgia of LEGO, serving as the perfect family or solo outing to the cinema. I had a blast with it!

Alita: Battle Angel – ★★☆☆☆

The year is 2563, 300 years after an apocalyptic event known as The Fall, because the sooner we accept that our futures are hopeless the better. We are in Iron City, a rundown settlement where the people are essentially slaves to the hovering sky city of Zalem above. A bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz is searching a scrapyard when he comes across a broken cyborg with a human brain. He puts her back together on the body of a teenage girl, naming her Alita, a name with significance to him.

Alita (Rosa Salazar) has no memory of previous life. But she is awe-struck by the world and people around her. She also happens to be a nifty fighter, a skill which comes to her naturally for reasons she does not know. She eventually catches the attention of Vector (Mahershala Ali), a conniving man with ties to a mysterious persona known as Nova, who wants to use Alita and her gifts for his own nefarious purposes. Still new to the world around her, Alita juggles her love of the futuristic sport Motorball with kicking ass and uncovering Vector’s schemes.

Complete this sum and we get Alita: Battle Angel. An adaptation of a Japanese manga series, the film has been in and out of production for years, with James Cameron serving as writer and producer, and Robert Rodriguez as director. It’s a cool idea that has plenty to offer. But it’s consistently led down by poor creative choices. The end result is unfortunately underwhelming.

I make an effort to avoid spoilers, but there’s hardly anything to spoil now that I reflect on it. Once it ends, we realise that it disregards many of the questions it sets up, opting to explain them in a sequel, banking on its visuals and action to guarantee said sequel.

Let’s go over the positives first, for there are moments of greatness scattered within. Rosa Salazar makes an excellent lead. She is charismatic, inquisitive, and deeply expressive in her portrayal. She may not always have the best dialogue, but when she interacts with characters and the outside world, you genuinely believe it is her first time seeing this world. It may be a wasteland to us, but to her it may as well be Wonderland. The first 15 or so minutes of the film, when Alita is reconstructed and first ventures outside, is the best part of the film, largely due to Salazar’s performance. If this does become a franchise, as the filmmakers seem to be intending, then Salazar will captain it magnificently.

There are also some decent set pieces and exciting action scenes. I have some reservations about the technicalities, but the choreography is masterful. A particularly good sequence involves Alita battling a beefed up cyborg in the underbelly of the city. Even some of the detours into the game Motorball are captured to white-knuckled effect.

That being said, the presentation leaves a lot to be desired, and that includes in how Alita herself is digitised. While Salazar is still performing her own stunts and dialogue live, CGI has been applied to make her eyes bigger. A lot bigger. I get that they were trying to recreate the look of the manga, but the uncanny valley is strong with this. The eyes are enlarged so much, yet the effects look real enough. It’s hard to know where the computer ends and the human starts, or if there was even a human at all. It was incredibly distracting, especially since she’s the only person, human or cyborg, with this look. The eyes make her entire figure look like an inserted computer effect rather than a real person. If the aim was to make her stand out then they succeeded, but not in the ways they were intending I feel.

However, it’s the clunky script that sinks the film. The characters are only moderately developed and the narrative seems unfocused, jumping from Alita hanging out with her crush Hugo (Keean Johnson) to her fight scenes to odd segments of Motorball that threaten to turn the film into a sports drama. But it’s the dialogue that’s really tanks it. Rodriguez is an admirable director, but he has little to work with when it comes to Cameron’s redundant one liners of defiance or wonder as well as painful action talk during the fights. This includes Alita dropping an f-bomb to sound cooler right before blowing someone up. It’s a habit I’ve seen 12A films get into recently that greatly irritates me. Just because you can drop that one f-bomb doesn’t mean you should.

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Even the action’s presentation feels misguided, as enjoyable as it can be. When the film showcases fight scenes in wide and open environments, it’s relatively fun. But far too many take place in claustrophobic spaces, like offices or bars, with quick editing and misplaced cuts. They seem designed to make the scene seem more chaotic, but it just made the action hard to follow, taking away from the creative choreography. The wider action scenes allow more breathing room and range for the stunt-work and characters, whereas the smaller set pieces hindered them.

Yet the ultimate takeaway is how uneventful the film feels as a whole. I make an effort to avoid spoilers, but there’s hardly anything to spoil now that I reflect on it. Once it ends, we realise that it disregards many of the questions it sets up, opting to explain them in a sequel, banking on its visuals and action to guarantee said sequel. It’s frustrating that movies still see the need to do this, especially given how tightly written and paced this could’ve been as one film. As it is, it’s serviceable, but unremarkable, even among its cinematic brethren of live-action manga or futuristic dystopian works.

Alita: Battle Angel was better than I thought it was going to be, but it’s still merely okay. It does make me want to pick up the manga and give it read, yet that’s about where my enthusiasm ends. There may be pockets of appeal for certain individuals, but I found it underwhelming overall. If a franchise is launched, perhaps the sequel will turn out better. Perhaps. Only time knows the answer to such things.

Boy Erased – ★★☆☆☆

Boy Erased has the best of intentions at heart. It’s written and directed by Joel Edgerton, who also created 2015’s criminally underrated thriller The Gift, and he’s stated in interviews that he hopes films like Boy Erased get redundant quickly as society wises up to the harmful nature of its chosen subject matter. It’s clear what he’s aiming to accomplish, and I respect him for it. But the movie doesn’t pack nearly the punch it ought to have.

Part of the reason is because a recent release, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, addressed its central themes much better. Both films concern a homosexual character being forced to go to Gay Conversion Therapy, an extreme Christian group that attempts to teach them that their sexual preferences are some kind of sickness. There are some key differences of course, such as the main character of Boy Erased, Jared (Lucas Hedges), coming from a strong religious background himself, as his father is a minister, making the film as much about his parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) and how they change, as well as Jared realising that what the therapy group is doing is barbaric. It provides some interesting moments of drama and some insightful observations. But it feels emotionally lacking when all is said and done.

The reason why Cameron Post works is because of its fixed focus on Cameron herself. Delicately balancing dark revelations with light-hearted comedy, we really got a sense Cameron’s psychological conflict, and appreciated how she eventually finds her own inner strength via the companionship between her and the other campers. Even the teachers promoting their toxic agendas seemed like dreadfully misguided souls rather than villainous caricatures. In other words, the themes hit harder because we felt like we were watching real people.

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We don’t get this same feeling in Boy Erased. Although it does try to develop its characters, it goes about this in a rather disorganised fashion. Instead of watching Jared come to terms with his situation by reflecting on things that have happened to him with the group, he’s instead observing events that happen to other members of the group, such as a girl being put under malicious stress on stage or a boy going through some kind of mock exorcism. As a result, we never get a real sense of his character outside of what you’d expect from a film like this. The stuff between him and his parents is much more interesting because it directly concerns Jared, but it doesn’t take much priority until the last fifteen minutes or so. All of Cameron Post’s experiences directly affected her, whereas Jared’s doesn’t. It’s sort of like being dictated key plot points of a story rather than reading the story for yourself. You get a general idea of what’s going on, but it’s hard to feel the dramatic impact of it.

But let’s disregard Cameron Post’s existence for now. I still don’t think the film is especially sturdy with its narrative. Much of it jumps back and forth between a present timeline and events of the past, but it’s not always clear where the flashbacks fit in with one another. This is what Jared really has to reflect on, rather than the group’s actions, and they’re not handled all that well. Some of the scenes, including one moment in a dorm room that feels questionable at best and tasteless at worst, feel like they add very little, and others seem to go nowhere from what I can remember. Had the film been told chronologically I feel like we would’ve had a better sense of Jared realising his preference, his conflict, and his discovery of the ultimate truth. Instead, it feels all over the place, making Jared’s emotional arc scattershot, and the potential you could have gleaned from it squandered.

There are things to admire in fairness. The acting is very strong, the tone is fairly consistent in its seriousness, and Edgerton utilises some solid shots to evoke visceral reactions. Distance is used particularly effectively to create the sense that we’re being forced to watch all the unpleasantness. But the film lacks neither the grit nor the charm to fully convey its respectable morals. I understand the need for its existence, especially in a time where people in high positions of power somehow still believe in the need for Gay Conversion Therapy despite how obviously damaging it is. Yet, in my opinion, Cameron Post conveyed the urgency and cruelty of its subject matter in vastly superior fashion. I would advise seeking that film out instead.

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