LEGO Batman Easily Outduels John Wick and Christian Grey
Reviews of "The LEGO Batman Movie," "Fifty Shades Darker" and "John Wick: Chapter 2"
photo © 2017 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC
Few films defied my expectations as thoroughly as “The LEGO Movie,” the brilliant work of toy tie-in animation from 2014. Leading up to the film’s release, I scoffed loudly and often; a movie about building blocks? Where’s the plot? Where’s the humor? Unless this is just a 90-minute compilation of grown-ups stepping on oddly shaped toys in bare feet and swearing hilariously, I can’t see the point.
Then, of course, the film came out. And, as legions of viewers quickly learned, it was no mere commercial. “The LEGO Movie” was an unrelentingly hilarious commentary on the very nature of play, with surprisingly heartfelt elements and pitch-perfect performances from the likes of Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks and others — including, as Batman, Will Arnett.
Arnett’s turn as a self-obsessed, overconfident version of the Dark Knight was one of the highlights of a film packed with them; simultaneously satirizing the iconic superhero and boiling Batman down to his essential nature, the portrayal was both fun in its own right and a fine antidote to the increasingly dire Caped Crusader of the DC Extended Universe film series.
This being the age of the franchise, then, a spinoff was inevitable.
And it might even be a touch better than the original.
Arnett returns to voice “The LEGO Batman Movie,” alongside a loaded cast including Ralph Fiennes as Alfred, Rosario Dawson as Barbara Gordon, Michael Cera as Robin and Zach Galifianakis as the Joker. (The talent lineup is stunningly deep, with even bit parts filled by A-listers apparently eager to get in on the fun.) Hilarious bits appear at breakneck speed, from an exhaustive list of Batman’s foes to a sidesplitting meta-commentary on the character’s cinematic history.
Moreover, though, there’s heart to the tale. Something about reducing Batman to his broad signifiers allows “The LEGO Batman Movie” to comment very simply on the well-worn character’s fears and desires; somehow, at the same time as it is a gleefully goofy parody, the film is also a commentary on the perils of intimacy.
As such — and I mean this quite seriously — “The LEGO Batman Movie” ranks as one of the best big-screen appearances of Bruce Wayne and company. Sure, “The Dark Knight” is better; so is Tim Burton’s first “Batman.” But are any of the (many) other films featuring this character unquestionably better than this one? I’m not so sure.
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With humor, heart and unabashed fun, “The LEGO Batman Movie” is the best choice of the weekend for those seeking a Valentine’s flick. In contrast: With depravity, malice and unrelenting tediousness, “Fifty Shades Darker” is assuredly the worst choice for a date. Or any other purpose. The second film in the softcore pornography series (inexplicably masquerading as traditional cinema) sees Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, who really does try) quickly forgive Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan, a mound of high-end neckties pretending to be a human) for his myriad abuses and misdeeds from the first film. Reunited, the couple faces a new set of challenges, including Grey’s reluctance to deal with past traumas and the anger of his former victims. They also have lots of sex. (Truthfully, though, not enough sex to keep you consistently interested.)
The problematic nature of the relationship depicted in this series has been covered, exhaustively, by any number of writers much more qualified to comment. In short, though: Like its predecessor, “Fifty Shades Darker” presents an unquestionably abusive relationship as one of sublime romance, in effect normalizing disgusting and arguably criminal behavior. While many viewers are more than capable of seeing these moments for what they are, I fear for those who can’t or won’t; I don’t accuse too many films of being bad influences, but the “Fifty Shades” series is the worst we have. (And while this sequel is nominally about Steele trying to teach Grey better behavior, every act he corrects is accompanied by a worse one that he defends.)
Moreover, it’s boring as hell and dreadfully structured (remember that it’s an adapted work of fanfiction, after all). There’s simply no reason to even acknowledge this blight on our culture, let alone throw any more money at it.
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Recent advertisements for “John Wick: Chapter 2” have positioned the slick action film as counter-programming for “Fifty Shades Darker.” Too cool for the supermarket porn flick? See Keanu Reeves shot a small army instead! I can get behind anything that tries to detract attention from Christian Grey and company, though I can’t say “Chapter 2” is exactly must-see cinema either. Picking up immediately where the well-received original film left off, Wick (Reeves) once again tries to leave his life of crime behind; an old associate reminds him of an unpaid debt, however, and the fun begins. Both the sequel and the original have some of the best fight sequences in recent memory; blessedly, the camera captures these scenes with ample lighting and actual framing, in defiance of the rapid-cut, shaky-handed style recently dominant in the genre. What’s more, “Chapter 2” plays to the original’s strengths, adding more action and further exploration of the amusing criminal underworld depicted while giving Reeves fewer reasons to talk (always a fine idea). I’m not fully sold on this series, despite the raves of many of my peers; I think both films fall into hopelessly bland territory whenever no one is getting punched. But this one does improve on the original — and yes, it’s an infinitely better film than “Fifty Shades Darker,” so there’s that.
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The Montage: I’ll have more on the excellent “Just Films” documentary series in the March issue of PM, but before it can arrive in your mailbox, I want to be sure to plug the next film in the lineup. The documentary “Dreamcatcher” explores prostitution on the streets of Chicago by focusing on Brenda Myers-Powell, a former sex worker who now advocates for positive change in her community. The film will be followed by a panel discussion; pre-registration is required, and you can sign up here … The Oscar-nominated short films take over Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ cinemas this weekend. Don’t delay — the documentary selections will screen for three days only. Click here for info and showtimes … Two “pro-Valentine” selections (“Sabrina” and “When Harry Met Sally”) and two “anti-Valentine” selections (last year’s underappreciated “The Lobster” and “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf”) will run through the holiday at Row House Cinema. Click here for info.