Friday, February 17, 2017

Lego Batman, John Wick 2, The Comedian, xXx: Return of Xander Cage Reviews


The Lego Batman Movie
Dir. Chris McKay
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When The Lego Movie opened in 2014, it seemed as though we'd reached the bottom of the barrel in terms of crass movie-marketing commercialism. It's one thing to make a movie about Battleship or a ride at Disney World, but a film literally about interlocking colored bricks!? What's next, the Lincoln Logs movie? Tiddledy Winks? In spite of the cynicism, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (21 Jump Street) managed to take a concept that at first glance seems anything but artistic, and crafted a surprisingly poignant film about conformity and childhood creativity, all while establishing a kinetic and joyously colorful sandbox world of practically unlimited visual possibility. Continuing the anarchic comic energy of its predecessor, The Lego Batman Movie further develops the "Lego Cinematic Universe" as an irreverent, ADHD-fueled micro-verse that charmingly emulates the feeling of playtime that we all experience as kids, but with the addition of being a genuinely well-conceived iteration of the Batman myth, lovingly spoofing the character with practically hundreds of rapid-fire jokes that, as a huge Bat-fan, made me want to re-watch it immediately.

Lego Batman presents the Dark Knight (Will Arnett), who first appeared as a supporting player in the first Lego film, as an absurdly "dark" and arrogant crime-fighter whose obsession with chasing after criminals has left no room in his life for human connection. After coming home from a big battle with the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) and his fellow villains, Batman retreats to his underground lair and reheats a plate of lobster thermidor left by Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) in the microwave, watching the plate spin in lonely silence. Despite his penchant for a solitary life, the Caped Crusader finally learns to work through his antisocial tendencies and family issues when two people force their way into his life: police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who wants to rein in Batman's vigilante ways, and Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), who Batman inadvertently adopts one night. Though animated, this Batman is strangely one of the most human I've seen depicted on screen, and it will make kids think deeper about the character, showing that you can still be lonely despite having success and money.

The Lego Batman Movie is a fantastic "spoof" movie, and one that could only exist as the inevitable culmination of decades worth of Batman pop culture. Every scene is literally packed with fun little referential nuggets that extend over Batman's whole career. Like the best "spoof" movies (Young Frankenstein, Shaun of the Dead), Lego Batman hilariously satirizes its subject while simultaneously holding a lot of reverence for it. With a screenplay attributed to five different writers, I got the sense that they were all on the same page when it came to this character and how he should be depicted, walking the line between a living parody (Lego Bats brags about his "9 pack" and shoots a "merch gun" at a group of orphans with logoed bat gear) and an actual, interesting take on his character (the lonely lobster-chomper).

This is also a truly beautiful-looking film. Its chaotic, neon-lit, rigidly geographic art style reminded me of the video game Geometry Wars, and I love the mock-crudeness of its animation. Back in the day there was a "Lego Movie Studio" kit that allowed kids to create stop-motion animated films with their own lego sets and characters, and these Lego flicks seem almost like the big-budget studio version of those same little movies. Characters move with a charming rigid blockiness and it's a lot of fun to see how certain Batman characters and locations are "Lego-ized" (the Bat Cave in particular is an amazing feat of animated production design).

I'll admit, when it comes to Batman I'm undeniably biased. He's been my favorite superhero since I was a kid and this movie was basically a treasure trove of easter eggs for Batman fans. But, that being said, the story and characters aren't bad either (even if it spends a little too much time reminding the audience of the importance of family), and there's a really zany, anarchic quality to this movie that shouldn't only appeal to the sugar-hopped kids in your family. I can't believe I'm saying this, but The Lego Batman Movie is quite possibly the best Batman movie since The Dark Knight!

Rating: A-


John Wick: Chapter 2
Dir. Chad Stahelski
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John Wick: Chapter 2 opens on an image of Buster Keaton, the silent film star notorious for his death-defying stunt work in comedy masterpieces like The General and Sherlock Jr., which couldn't be more appropriate. Both Wick films were directed by famous stunt coordinators, and say what you want about their simple, often illogical story lines, but they always deliver on the action front. John Wick, Keanu Reeves' "comeback," gave him an opportunity to show that he still has a penchant for kicking ass, using a mix of gunplay and martial arts that was as badass as you could get this side of John Woo. Chapter 2 luckily doubles down on the insanity of its predecessor, further embracing its comic book world and outrageous action set pieces, making this one of the rare sequels that I found better than the original.

Chapter 2 continues where John Wick left off. After revenge-killing all the crime lords responsible for taking his car and killing his dog (the one reminder of his dead wife), ex-hitman John Wick is yet again pulled out of retirement when a former associate approaches him with a blood oath he previously made. Wick is forced then to travel to Rome and do battle with a series of baddies as part of an international underground assassins' guild, which has its own rules, code of honor, and even its own economy in the form of gold coins.

While the actual assassination plot, like the first film, is pretty bland, the "world" of assassinry depicted in the Wick-verse is super cool. In this impossibly-heightened reality, seemingly 40% of the population are assassins and all eventually are after Wick for one reason or another. However, it's all in a day's work and never personal - one second Wick is in an intense, extremely choreographed shoot-out/fist fight with a bodyguard (Common), but when they drop into a "safe zone," they share a drink and give each other a professional head nod. This movie really emphasizes Wick's desperation and inability to escape a cycle of violence, interestingly linking him with heroes of old - not just western cowboys but with tragic greek heroes.

The action here is yet again top notch. Two set pieces in particular, one taking place in ancient catacombs and another in a hall of mirrors, are visually inventive and insanely fun despite their complete and unapologetic fetishization of guns. Keanu Reeves, a man in his fifties, proves that his best skill set resides in the action genre. He may not bring a lot to the table emotionally, but his reserved performance actually works for his character here, and his physicality during the fights is amazing considering his age.

This movie makes little sense on close inspection. The value of the aforementioned "gold coins" is totally unclear - 1 coin is spent both to make a hit on someone and also to buy someone a drink (that's either one expensive drink or one cheap death). It's also filled with mindless violence and is almost the equivalent of watching someone else play a video game with invincibility cheat codes - but you know, sometimes that's just what you need. As opposed to other macho action flicks, like the Fast and  Furious franchise, John Wick spends no time ogling women's butts or making its hero a sex machine, instead focusing its run time on fast-paced action and building on its kooky world of connected killers.

Rating: B


The Comedian
Dir. Taylor Hackford
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The King of Comedy is one of Martin Scorsese's best and most underrated movies - following a failed, delusional comedian Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) who kidnaps a talk show host in an effort to get his "big break." It's dark, hilarious and everything I wanted Taylor Hackford's The Comedian to be. In it, De Niro plays a similarly failed stand-up comic, Jackie Burke, who did get his moment in the spotlight as a character on a popular sitcom. However, decades later, now he's delegated to the status of a has-been, unable to crawl out from under the shadow of his past and re-invent himself. Things take a turn for the worst when he has to serve a sentence doing community service for accosting an audience member. While the story had the potential to be an interesting alternative portrait of a struggling comedian for De Niro, The Comedian is a cringe-worthy, uncomfortable, meandering, and unsatisfying film that feels like it wants to be the next "Louie," but in reality feels more like something Rupert Pupkin would have wrote.

The movie is like a loosely connected series of scenes following Jackie as he does various gigs and courts a much younger woman he works alongside during community service, Harmony (Leslie Mann). De Niro feels incredibly out-of-his-element as a stand-up comedian, and his jokes were completely unfunny and downright uncomfortable to watch. This worked for his character in King of Comedy because he was supposed to be unfunny, but here it was like watching a bad open mic where someone's dad tried to do comedy. The budding romance between Jackie and Harmony also felt weird in a Woody Allen sort of way. They're both adults, but the age difference was still jarring (for reference, Robert De Niro is 73, Mann is 44), and the connection did not feel genuine enough for me to buy it.

It has a cool, jazzy soundtrack, and Leslie Mann brings some surprisingly dramatic heft out of the pure dreck she was given, but The Comedian is just bad. It's so unfunny I wanted to bury my head in the ground like an ostrich, and it doesn't hit the mark dramatically either - really this was a waste of time for everyone involved.

Rating: D+


xXx: Return of Xander Cage
Dir. D.J. Caruso
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In the 90s and early 2000s, there was a particular spike in interest in extreme sports and "hard" culture. Tony Hawk was a superstar, Metallica was mainstream, and a bald, deep-voiced dude named Vin Diesel had just made his mark with The Fast and Furious. His follow-up vanity project was xXx, basically the "bad boy" version of James Bond for the extreme sports generation. Now, 15 years later, it's as if Vin Diesel never grew up. xXx: Return of Xander Cage is a movie stuck in this same time period. Diesel - now at "dad" age - looks totally silly doing insane stunts meant for a young man, and the film makes no effort to update its plot for the times. There's a refreshingly earnest, so-bad-it's-good quality to this movie that I can't pin my feelings on, but if you like mindless action flicks, this xXx sequel no one but Vinny D was clamoring for is actually a ton of fun and features a handful of amazing (albeit eye-rollingly illogical) action set pieces.

The story follows daredevil/ex-xXx operative Xander Cage, coming out of a self-imposed exile in the Dominican Republic after being tracked by CIA agent Jane Marke (Toni Collette). It makes little sense how she was able to track him easily when it seemed as though he was in hiding for 15 years, but I digress. They want him to recruit a team to recover a sinister weapon called Pandora's Box, the most macguffin-y generic "bad thing" I've ever seen in a movie, which can control every military satellite in the world. Xander chooses to recruit a ragtag band of thrill-seeking cohorts for a team that makes even less sense than Suicide Squad, in order to obtain the device which is supposedly being held by a group of four kung-fu, sharpshooting badasses led by Xiang (Donnie Yen).

I'm not going to lie, this was one of the stupidest movies I've ever seen. But it was the good kind of stupid. The kind of "innocent" stupid that puts a smile on your face. This third movie in the xXx franchise wholly embraces its silliness and pure campy escapism, and it's reflected in its action sequences: you get to see Vin Diesel skiing down a jungle mountain (didn't know that was possible), riding through a wave using a motorcycle that doubles as a jet ski, and skydiving through the air parachute-less away from an exploding airplane. But as prominently featured as VD's shiny dome is here, the real show-stopper is Donnie Yen, who brings a ton of charisma and amazing choreography to every scene he's in (his siege on the government building to get Pandora's Box is in the running for "Best Action Scene of 2017").

I'm also glad to see movies like this and Fast and the Furious employing diverse casts - it may just be a cynical money-making scheme from the studio to recoup lost money during its international release, but seeing Donnie Yen, Ruby Rose, Tony Jaa, and Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone fighting alongside each other in a major Hollywood release is a step in the right direction.

Sure, it has cringe-worthy one-liners, an asinine plot, the markings of "vanity project" written all over it, and so many holes in logic it could've been called Swiss Cheese: The Movie, but god help me I had a good time watching xXx: Return of Xander Cage.

Rating: C+


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