To love oneself, said an Oscar Wilde character, is the beginning of a life-long romance. The Lego Batman Movie is an orgy of self-love between cinema and cinema — new cinema romancing old — which also spoofs the orgy of self-love between Batman and Batman. The masked crusader is a loner; loners are damaged narcissists; and that’s the comical psycho-geography in Lego Gotham City and Lego Wayne Manor, as this sequel to The Lego Movie again takes the word “ego” and puts the ’ell into it.
It’s easy to satirise self-built, self-mythologising superheroes when (a) they’re literally “built” (from plastic parts) and (b) the self-adoring mythology is all around us as film and pop-culture merchandising. It’s a joined-up world; shop there now. The made-for-this-movie memorabilia are on sale at toy stores as we speak.
The film itself is a cheery hoot and clever with it. Adults can take the kids, or kids can take the adults. Our hero is voiced by Will Arnett, in the macho-portentous vein of those hoarse whisperers who overvoice movie trailers. For fugal variety there are also silver-voiced Brit Ralph Fiennes (butler Alfred), a plangently wheedling Zach Galifianakis (Joker) and Rosario Dawson’s mezzo-toned Commissioner Gordon, daughter of the old one.
They all become part of this Batman’s warrior world — and eventually his family manqué. “For a loner, Batman, you seem to like movies about relationships,” quips the Joker, riffling through the Serendipity and Jerry Maguire DVDs when he and his hench-folk briefly crash the Batcave. That’s bachelordom for you. When not watching the Cruise/Zellweger “you had me at hello” moment in his private theatre, this Batman is solitarily microwaving a lobster thermidor. The silent seconds, as the spinning plate’s shadow roams gigantically around the Bat-kitchen, are the funniest visual gag in the film.
Elsewhere and later, there is slam-bang colour and action, with duels in the sky, deafening showdowns, and truth, justice and mayhem the comic-book way. Chief screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) can’t always leaven these with wit. And the Lego motif is less funny and ubiquitous than in movie one, where even clouds and oceans were made from play-bricks. But there’s a good Lego King Kong, if you wait. And what’s wrong with a film that ends up repudiating lone vigilantism to champion community and surrogate-family vigilantism? (If I got that message right.)
Meanwhile, outside of the Batcave...
There is a self-satisfied preening to 20th Century Women — its adorable bohemianism, its “all human life is here” Altmanism — that began by driving me up the wall. But what goes up must come down. My interest trickled slowly back, like the down-drips of freshly applied paint. And isn’t that what writer-director Mike Mills wants us to be? Part of his mural of a time? The 1970s?
The film is a fictionalised homage to Mills’ mum, born to penurious times but growing into the age of peaceniks and prosperity. (Mills’ debut movie Beginners was about the coming out of his gay dad, played by Christopher Plummer.) Annette Bening, with lovably unkempt hair and face-creasing smiles, has charisma in overload as landlady Dorothea, bestowing benison on her boarding-house lodgers. A single mum with an only son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), she is also momma hen to the flame-haired hippy photo-grapher (Greta Gerwig), the macho potter and handyman (Billy Crudup) and Jamie’s zonked nymphet girlfriend (Elle Fanning).
Nothing much happens, which means lots of small things do. Fleeting sex, nights on the town, mild incursions of urban violence. Plus hectares of household talk about life and love, hope and despair: “Don’t mind her,” Jamie says of a Dorothea waxing garrulous, “she’s from the Depression.” Ultimately, though, who minds where she’s from? Eras and generations mingle productively in this film. It’s a social-historical mural that exists in flexitime, where America the Beautiful is an eternal and unassailable dream.
A kung fu epic (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a Jane Austen adaptation (Sense and Sensibility) and a gay modern western (Brokeback Mountain). Ang Lee will try anything. In Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk that unfortunately includes our patience. The vivid and visionary tale of an Iraq soldier’s homecoming, based on Ben Fountain’s novel, drowns in an ill-conceived “immersive” technique. We’re gasping for air: the plain air of a plain style. Instead we get 3D plus 60-shots-per-second, the process that gives a creamy, flicker-free immediacy, like live TV gone eerie.
Accordingly Billy (newcomer Joe Alwyn) and his platoon mates — flown from the frontline into a night’s glitzy hullabaloo at a celebration ballgame, where crowds will cheer, fireworks will explode (mind that PTSD!) and a sleazy tycoon will offer them a film deal — get their culture shock delivered as if by ritzy courier van. If you don’t believe there is such a thing as a “distancing intimacy”, try this. Try also a weird, waxy-featured Steve Martin giving his worst performance in memory as the movie deal magnate. Lee provides him with a couple of bulging, leer-at-the-camera close-ups that would fail a student in the film-school exam.
Fences is a filmed play that never seems anything else: a yatter of life or death, directed by Denzel Washington from August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning 1983 play. Washington plays the blue-collar Pittsburgh patriarch lording it over his African-American family. The speechifying starts straight in, during this ex-baseball player and his co- workers’ morning garbage collection round, and never stops.
Extended sporting metaphors abound in the backyard bust-ups about love, infidelity and crumbling family life. “We’re not talkin’ about baseball!” Viola Davis as Mrs Denzel finally says, echoing the audience’s exasperation. The piece may have worked on stage. It’s Strindberg in the American boondocks (The Father plus The Dance of Death), with working-class tropes and preoccupations the rhetorical building blocks. But coming out of the two-hour film, even with strong performances from the leads, your ears are still ringing with the dinned-out verities long afterwards.
Alma Har’el’s LoveTrue is a documentary which isn’t one. Its executive producer is Shia LaBeouf, that antic cub star usually found near the confluence of indie and mainstream cinema (Nymphomaniac, American Honey). If alarm bells ring in your head, let them. Har’el mixes fact with fiction, or “dramatic reconstruction”, while intercutting three whimsically connected stories of love against the odds.
Watching the movie is like wandering into one of those California shops where they sell zodiac jewellery and books on witchcraft and holistic cooking. Har’el’s logic is associative. Her sorcerer’s weft of story-spells spans the handsome blond surfer discovering his son is not his own, the virgin turned pole-dancer with a disabled boyfriend, and the black religious family wrestling with a scoundrel dad. If these linkings sound tentative or random, try the editing: reality spliced with surreality, drama with (enacted) psychodrama, real and fake “home movies”.
Post-truth? Maybe it’s pre-truth. It’s a perversely hypnotic film either way. It might have been born in some hippyish dawn of precognition, where what feels like truth may in some mystical measure partake of it.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times.Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017