Throwback Thursday: “The Lego Batman Movie”; “xXx: Return of Xander Cage”; “John Wick: Chapter 2”

I haven’t liked a lot of the “2017” releases I’ve seen this year. I haven’t been to any festivals, and most of the indie releases were “2016” movies vying for awards contention. Most of what I’ve been watching has been studio dumps. However, there have been a few diamonds in the rough.

They’ve all been out for a while, so the reviews are short and not super polished, but I wanted to do a little #ThrowbackThursday so that you can have these movies on your radar!

 

The Lego Batman Movie

The Lego Batman Movie | Courtesy of Warner Brothers
The Lego Batman Movie | Courtesy of Warner Brothers 

The Lego Batman Movie isn’t the Batman movie we deserve, but it’s the one that we need right now.

No, really. We’re living in depressing times. We don’t need a depressing Batman. Nolan’s Batman was iconic for its darkness, but I think that Batman should generally be fun and campy.

The Lego Batman Movie agrees. As the first film in the “Lego Expanded Universe” (a phrase that makes me sad, but they’ve had a good track record thus far), The Lego Batman Movie capitalizes on the coalition between Legos and superheroes. Taking aim at the recent influx of superhero movies, Lego Batman is less parody and more direct reference, but utilizes cinematic language often employed by these films to make a plethora of jokes.

Executing a near flawless “Save the Cat” structure, the story follows Lego Batman (Will Arnett) as he deals with his ever-present loneliness. Although he saves Gotham City in a humorous, action-packed opening sequence and is adored by many, Lego Batman fetishizes and despises his self-imposed solitude. However, when he is forced to take care of his orphaned son (Michael Cera) and collaborate with the Gotham Police Department (run by Rosario Dawson), Batman learns the importance of teamwork and self-awareness. As far as character development goes, The Lego Batman Movie is probably the most dynamic Batman movie out there.

At face value, The Lego Batman Movie seems like the ultimate bourgeois concept. Batman is rich narcissist. Legos are expensive and mostly useless. It doesn’t help that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is an Executive Producer because RatPac-Dune Entertainment is one of the production companies. However, the use of Legos works to this film’s benefit in several ways.

First, there’s an immediate kid-friendly association. This allows for the movie to have an unabashedly silly tone. They are Legos, and not humans, so they simultaneously have more mobility as they don’t have to abide by the same rules of physics, and less mobility as they are more geometric. Humor is derived from the juxtaposition between these two ideas, and this Lego style exists as a seemingly new and exciting animation style.

Next, The Lego Batman Movie can use super-characters from a whole bunch of different universes, because they’re Legos and Legos have no boundaries. It’s not all that often that you get to see The Joker (Zach Galifinakis), Voldemort (Eddie Izzard) and Sauron (Jemaine Clement) all in one movie, but The Lego Batman Movie does it and it works.

Finally, there is a capability to (master) “build”. A big plot point in the original was for characters to be able to build the world around them. While there is much less discourse about this (and the “human” world around them), this ability is still present, which allows for the characters to conjure up exciting utilities while maintaining the frenetic pace.

While there is beautiful Lego cinematography and lots of wonderful action sequences, The Lego Batman Movie is first and foremost a comedy, and succeeds in extraordinary measures. Not a moment goes by where the film isn’t either making a joke or building to one. When watching in the theatre or with a group of friends, there is a near-constant laughter track. The jokes are silly yet the movie manages to deliver a heartfelt message by the end.

The Lego Batman Movie did everything I would have wanted a Batman movie to do, but I still don’t think I’d want to see another. The film threw all the chips on the table for this one, and I have no idea how they’d up the ante for the next one without seeming inconsequential. Even so, the movie doesn’t seem to go as far as its original. But regardless, The Lego Batman movie is the perfect amount of silly and exciting, and I’d love for live-action Batman to follow suit.

 

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

xXx: Return of Xander Cage | Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
xXx: Return of Xander Cage | Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

There are a lot of twists in xXx: Return of Xander Cage. The biggest one being that I liked it.

Quick: Think of the most clichéd action movie possible. Odds are it looks something like 2002’s xXx. If you were just to google that movie title, you’d find pornography. That’s not a bad comparison, because the original film is derivative, exploitative, and only briefly enjoyable. 2005’s xXx: State of the Union, starring Ice Cube, is somehow even worse. There’s no reason for there to be a third movie, except for the fact that Vin Diesel does what he wants. And thank goodness for that.

Early in the film, I jotted down in my notes that there was no way this film would pass the Bechdel test. So much of it seems to be centered around masculinity and the male gaze. Admittedly, Vin Diesel is the subject of much of the sexualizing, but there is an orgy involving Diesel and about 20 girls within the first 20 minutes. It’s so ridiculous it might as well be parody.

However, somewhere along the way, a strange thing happens. More and more female characters with real roles start appearing. Suddenly, there are more female assassins than male. And perhaps most astonishingly, not all the women are white. The narrative also takes a shift, where the villains switch from being a group of non-American terrorists, to the (white in presentation) United States government. And especially in today’s times, there’s something especially satisfying about a diverse group of patriots taking on the NSA.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage hasn’t gotten fantastic reviews, and I don’t understand why. To me, there’s not much that separates this from Deadpool or a more recent Fast & Furious movie. It’s exciting, but also humorous (it breaks the 4th wall constantly). It also contains my favorite cameo I’ve seen in a long, long time. The difference between this one and the originals are night & day. Xander Cage is back, and what a glorious return.

 

John Wick: Chapter 2

John Wick: Chapter 2 | Courtesy of Lionsgate
John Wick: Chapter 2 | Courtesy of Lionsgate

John Wick: Chapter 2 begins exactly how you’d expect it too. Wick (Keanu Reeves) already had his dog-murder revenge, and now he’s trying to steal his car back. However, instead of rolling with the lazy option – using this cat-and-mouse game as the framework for the whole film – John Wick: Chapter 2 just uses it as fodder for the intro. The actual plotline is much more exciting.

Going the extra mile and avoiding the easy route is one of the big reasons that the original John Wick was so successful. Stylistically, the sequel follows in its predecessor’s footsteps. There are very few quick-cuts, with many of the gun-riddled action sequences taking place in one take. There are quirky subtitles and Keanu Reeves delivers every line like it’s the most intense line in the world.

What keeps this edition from being a mere retread of the previous film are the constantly escalating stakes. In the original, there was a singular path that Wick had to embark on. Here, Wick is forced back in the game to complete one final job. However, this job results in a reward getting placed on Wick’s head, forcing him to fight for his survival as well as get revenge.

This franchise often gets praised for its fantastic world building, but all it does is create a group of eccentric characters and introduce them at various junctures of the film. Nothing makes all that much sense and the secret assassin currency DOESN’T SEEM TO BE BASED ON ANY SORT OF MONETARY SYSTEM. Riccardo Scamarcio plays Reeves’s main foil, Common battles with Reeve throughout and Ruby Rose appears in her third action film of 2017 (after the aforementioned xXx: Return of Xander Cage and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter; she is continually my problematic fave: although I always enjoy seeing her on screen, I wish they had gotten a deaf actor to play her deaf character…)

Of course, those who didn’t like the original aren’t likely to like this one. But those who enjoyed the original won’t be disappointed. This is also a great opportunity to introduce new audiences to the franchise. The action sequences are fluid and stylistically variant, but the movie also knows to not take itself too seriously. And not nearly as many dogs die.

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