Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Review

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With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, writer/director James Gunn seemingly enters a no-win scenario. His 2014 original wasn’t just a surprise smash hit, but a pop culture cornerstone. By both embracing and thumbing its nose at the sci-fi/fantasy tropes that have burned many potential blockbusters, a la John Carter or Green Lantern, to the ground, it managed to capture a special kind of magic that has essentially turned it into this generation’s true heir to Star Wars. How do you follow that up? Most returning directors might have simply opted to just dial up the bells and whistles and coast on the same formula from before, but James Gunn isn’t most directors. He genuinely cares about these characters and refuses to let empty spectacle overwhelm them.

Gunn seems to think that the Guardians need a little time to work on themselves. Instead of relying on the infectious chemistry that made the first movie sing, he opts to splinter the ensemble into smaller groups in order to give them each more intimate arcs. We have Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finally meeting Ego (Kurt Russell), his long lost father who just so happens to be a celestial being with his very own planet. Lucky break. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) finds herself forced to confront her bitter relationship with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) are kidnapped by a group of Ravagers and find themselves having to work with Yondu (Michael Rooker) to escape.

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This more loose structure could have easily turned this film into a hot mess. However, Gunn has done a fantastic job of keeping all of these stories grounded in the same theme. These are all broken, temperamental people looking for a greater sense of purpose. While we saw them find friends in the first one, we get to see them find themselves here. All of the characters, except for the sidelined Drax (Dave Bautista), are given really rich arcs here. While some of them land better than others, it still makes for a story with a lot more meat on its bones.

We get to see Peter’s goofy bravado start to untangle when he’s faced with the man he’s been searching for his whole life. His dynamic with Ego is surprisingly tender, with Pratt and Russell nicely navigating some moments that could’ve easily been sappy. While Pratt does find himself struggling later on with some of the heavier moments, his pure movie star charisma ends up pulling him through. However, the highlight is easily the Rocket/Groot/Yondu story. Rocket is still by far the most compelling member of the group, and his ferocious bitterness is put under the microscope here. Watching that volatility play off of Yondu’s even shorter temper makes for some of the film’s best moments. Drax and Groot do end up suffering a little, though. While Bautista gets a lot of fantastic one-liners, he’s mostly just waiting around for the third act to start with the also fairly under developed Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Baby Groot is certainly cute but ultimately feels like a bit more of a marketing scheme than anything else. He’s never given anything especially funny to do, the running gag of him having to have everything explained to him wearing thin very quickly.

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Even though all of this character work is fantastic, it’s occasionally undercut by Gunn’s on the nose writing. He has a tendency to tell instead of show, which really starts to hold things up whenever we focus on Gamora and Nebula. A great deal of what we learn about these two is through long diatribes that would have been a lot more powerful if we could actually see what they’re talking about. Instead, the two of them mostly just shout lines at one another, making what ultimately happens between them fall flat. This wonkiness spreads into all of the stories at some point or another, which does undercut them a bit. Fortunately, the quirky humor that everybody fell in love with is still here in full force. It’s a film that isn’t afraid to make fun of itself, which makes some of the flat emotional moments go down smoother.

While Gunn was dipping his toe into directing a blockbuster last time, he cannonballs into the pool here. He has an incredible eye for action sequences, masterfully using every part of the frame for maximum chaos.As the Awesome Mix of 70s/80s pop hits blares in the background, we get to know these people through how they fight. There’s a genuine sense of madcap joy that makes it all incredibly dynamic. The vibrant colors and compositions feel ripped directly out of a particularly psychedelic comic book, with a couple moments that are hallucinogenic enough to make Dr. Strange blush.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t nearly as tight a package as the first film but in many ways, it’s far more ambitious. It manages to shuffle a massive cast, giving most of them something significant to work with. The irreverent tone and humor is all still there, even if our characters are slowly starting to mature. It’s the kind of movie that Marvel Studios would do well to focus more on. A singular story completely unconcerned with building to future movies that instead focusses on evolving what we already have. Only time will tell how these A-Holes will interact with Avengers, but for now, their cosmic space opera is by far the most entertaining wormhole to enter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Rating: A-

Free Fire Review

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We’re all familiar with the typical climax of a crime film. After a long period of build up, with animosity slowly growing between two or three criminal rings, everything combusts into the entire cast riddling each other with gunfire. If we’ve had a good time along the way, this brutality is incredibly satisfying. Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire poses a fascinating question. Can this climatic blowout carry an entire film on its own?

The story takes place in 1970s Boston, observing a arms deal go down in an abandoned warehouse. The buyers are a group of Irish Mobsters lead by Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) and the sellers are a guild of collected businessmen headed up by Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Ord (Armie Hammer). In the middle of everything is Justine (Brie Larson), the intermediary who is being leered at by both sides. Eventually, the tension and toxic machismo bubbles to the point of violence and thus begins an extended firefight that takes up the majority of the run time. 

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Ironically enough, the proceedings are at their most compelling before the bullets start flying. The screenplay, written by Wheatley and Amy Jump, does a fantastic job of economically establishing who these people are. We learn so much by simply watching how each one handles the tension and anxiety around them. Some of them lead with volatility and anger, others with common sense and a few with flat out insanity. It’s a fantastic first act that plays like a fusion between the ticking time bomb sequences of Quentin Tarantino and the harsh dialogue of Martin Mcdonagh (In Bruges).

It certainly helps to have a stacked cast of charismatic actors to keep things moving along. While everybody in the ensemble pulls their weight, the stand-outs are easily Copley and Hammer. Copley is always at his best playing unhinged loons that could explode at any moment and here he’s given a chance to take that to a borderline cartoonish extreme. That could easily come off as over the top in the hands of a lesser actor but Copley makes that hysteria feel utterly natural. Meanwhile, Hammer thrives as the disturbingly caustic Ord. He’s astonishingly collected as if this is just another day on the job to him. The only one who does get a little bit lost in the shuffle is Larson. The objectification that Justine is forced to deal with is a delightfully skeevy element that isn’t played with as much as it could’ve been. As such, she spends most of her screen time simply telling everybody to calm down, with only a couple moments to really stand out on her own.

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Wheatley intentionally disorients both his characters and audience through the sheer chaos of it all. As the skirmish rages on and our combatants sustain more critical injuries, we start to loose track of where everybody is and even who’s side certain people are on, which is even acknowledged at one point. Every bullet impact feels painful. We practically get infected ourselves watching the wounded crawl on the ground. While this makes for an extremely visceral experience, it ultimately becomes a little numbing as it goes on. There’s only so long that the novelty of these guys take pot shots at each other lasts before it starts to get repetitive.

Free Fire is essentially an ultra-violent stage play, a powder keg that revels more in the explosion then the burning fuse. It gleefully gathers a group of dynamic performers and challenges them to develop their characters through action and reaction. However, it ultimately feels like the second half of a great movie. If we had been able to spend more time with these characters before they enter the warehouse, the lengthy battle between them would have served as one massive payoff. As it stands, this is a b-movie with a-level talent, craftsmanship in search of a stronger story. That said, it’s certainly an ambitious piece of filmmaking that is well worth locking and loading for.

Rating: B

Ghost in the Shell Review

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Rupert Sanders’ adaptation of Ghost in the Shell raises a rather puzzling question. Should we allow criticism of egregious Hollywood whitewashing to completely overpower a genuinely good movie? Sure, it’s easy to dog pile onto trash like Exodus: Gods and Kings or Prince of Persia when they bring absolutely nothing else to the table, but that’s not the case here. While certainly uneven, Sanders’ film makes an admirable effort to be more story driven and intellectual than most modern blockbusters while still delivering some deeply immersive eye candy.

The story is set in a future where cybernetic enhancements are a part of everyday life. The line between human and machine is starting to get a little blurry, with most people being a bit of both. The brain of Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson), has been put inside something called a “shell” after her body was destroyed in a terror attack. Remembering only fragments of her past, Killian is placed into an experimental counter-terrorism unit called Section 9. She and her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk)find themselves facing off against a mysterious hacker named Kuze (Michael Pitt) who has begun to stage assassination attempts on several of Section 9’s key players.

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There’s a surprising amount of reflective moments spent with Mira as she tries to get a grip on her humanity. The characters take the time to have conversations about the nature of the world they are in and even though the screenplay occasionally falls into some pretty clunky expositional dialogue, we’re still given a lot to chew on. The mystery itself is fairly compelling as well, with Pitt’s Kuze proving to be a sympathetic foil for Mira.

Johansson anchors everything rather nicely with her subdued performance. Mira is a literal killing machine who’s humanity is a glitch, something that certain forces hope will be completely wiped away one day. There really isn’t a place in the world for her, and Johansson nicely rides the line between robotic stoicism and internal pathos. Since the city we find ourselves in is so far beyond something we can fathom, we feel as displaced as she does. The supporting cast, which actually features more Asian actors than the marketing indicates, is largely solid as well. Only Juliette Binoche, playing the doctor who put Mira together again, is a little weak. Her character is supposed to have a major emotional impact on Mira, but Binoche’s performance is so tuned out that it doesn’t really register.

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The creative team here may have created what may be the most fully realized cinematic cyberpunk world since the original Blade Runner. Most films of this type will shell out some cash for the sweeping shots of the futuristic city but get lazy once we’re on the ground. Here, even the most minute details of any environment are given a new spin. This world may have the skeleton of ours but the way that it’s inhabitants carry out mundane tasks feels entirely alien. There’s so much going on the background of each shot that one may not even notice on a first viewing. It demands to be seen on the big screen in order to soak in as much of it as possible. Even when the story starts to have its shortcomings, the film is so wonderful to look at that it keeps up the momentum.

Saunders’ direction seems to take heavy influence from the early work of Zack Snyder, particularly in the action sequences. Meticulous attention is paid to framing to ensure that each shot looks like it was ripped out of the manga. He even uses slow motion to very similar effect, highlighting the most brutal blows which typically involve folks being thrown through the air. However, he doesn’t quite have the same flair that Snyder showed in 300 or Watchmen. All of the strongest battles are at the beginning of the film, while the ones in the second and third act fall a little flat. The final battle, in particular, is a colorless mess that feels like watching glasses free-3D with a blindfold on.

Unfortunately, Saunders seriously undercuts a great deal of this solid work with an absolutely catastrophic reveal in the third act. Without giving anything away, the film attempts to address the white-washing and it utterly backfires. In fact, what we learn ends up literally embodying what people in minority groups feel Hollywood does to them. It’s an astonishingly tone-deaf revelation that turns a film that was overcoming the controversy it created into a startling case for why studios still need to be held accountable for these casting decisions.

Ghost in the Shell comes agonizingly close to being good enough to wipe away the controversy it has perpetuated. Up until it swerves out of control in the third act, it’s one of the more ambitious and enjoyable Hollywood blockbusters in some time. It brings us into a different world in a way that few films bother to do, which is certainly reason to check it out regardless of its flaws. However, I suspect that when Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 opens later this year, this film may have to slink back into its shell.

Rating: B

Beauty and the Beast Review

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Even as somebody who has still yet to see the original 1991 Beauty and the Beast, something seems fishy to me about Bill Condon’s brand new flesh and blood version. From the very first scene where our arrogant prince (Dan Stevens) rejects the wrong witch and gets transformed into a beast something rings inauthentic. It is as if this movie murdered the original and is now wearing its skin, parading out in public as it tries to convince everybody that it’s still the person they remember. It’s all a bit scummy, really.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Belle (Emma Watson) is the black sheep bookworm of a small French village dreaming of bigger things. When her father (Kevin Kline) goes missing, she discovers they he’s been captured by the aforementioned beast and sacrifices herself so that he can return home. Under the care of the beast and his group of enchanted household applian – –

wait…you have heard this one? Ok, I’ll stop.

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The lifeblood of Beauty and the Beast ultimately lies in whether or not the romance between Belle and her hairy liege ends up working. It’s a relationship that’s been so normalized by pop culture but on paper, it’s pretty strange stuff. That’s exactly how it comes across in this version, strange. The beast’s transition from rabid rage machine to kindly bookkeep feels entirely too rapid. We never see why Belle could think of him as any more than a friend and a reluctant one at that, considering that he, you know, kidnapped her. It certainly doesn’t help that Watson is as dull as dishwater here. While she’s certainly proven herself a more than capable actress in her post-Harry Potter career, she seems terrified to inject her Belle with any personality that isn’t written on the page. As such, she has little to no chemistry with Stevens, who only fares a little bit better. While he certainly has the screen presence and the deep, resonant voice that the beast requires, his performance gets buried under an atrocious CGI design that never feels the least bit intimidating. He looks like he’d be more at home in Land of the Lost than $160 million dollar movie.

Fortunately, the supporting cast is much stronger. Luke Evans is having the time of his life as the bravado fueled Gaston, who is only bolstered by genuinely hilarious interplay with Josh Gad’s LeFou. When these two are on screen, we see hints of the boisterous musical extravaganza this movie could have been if it wasn’t so concerned with being somber whenever Belle and the Beast are on screen. Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen are also quite a bit of fun as Cogsworth and Lumiere, even if McGregor is constantly fighting against an atrocious French accent. Although, it’s hard to fault him for trying, which is more than I can say for the rest of the cast. Seriously, if French actors are on the Hollywood blacklist, can we just set the next “French” musical in England?

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Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) certainly knows his way around a musical. The numbers here are elaborately choreographed and well sung for the most part.  Each song establishes its own unique aesthetic, from Gaston’s bouncy barroom to Be Our Guest’s Bollywood esque light-show. Condon’s camera captures most of the action in wide takes, even if some of the editing is a little fast. However, the pacing of the musical numbers is thrown off with the addition of four new songs, all of which are rather melancholy and bland.

Unfortunately for Condon, this may be the ugliest looking big budget movie on the market. The character design, in particular, is borderline terrifying at times. They possess none of the vibrance and charm of the original animated versions, proving that some characters just don’t translate to live action. Watching a real life candlestick with a face bounce around the screen is consistently off-putting, establishing a constant sense of disconnection from the characters even when the writing occasionally brings some charm out of them.

While Beauty and the Beast is slavishly devoted to the film it is trying to emulate, it still feels like a tonally confused mess. It bounces back and forth from a dour romance to an enjoyable romp and ultimately undercuts both. While there is certainly potential for these Disney live action remakes to be worthwhile, they’re going to need to veer more in the direction of Jon Favreau’s adaption of The Jungle Book. That film was bold enough to create its own version of the story while still recapturing the essence of the original. Meanwhile, Condon’s film is limply crafted and terrified of taking risks. Sure, Belle and the Beast go through the motions and dance in the ballroom at the end but if you’re looking for a reason to get them there, you’re out of luck. It’s a tale as trite as time.

Rating: D+

Early Review: Logan

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There’s a moment in Logan where our three super-powered leads are sitting at a dinner table with some new friends. There’s nothing flashy going on, just a conversation between six people. A chat that feels like it could be found in any home, with a warmth and sense of humor that feels entirely unwritten. One might even forget it’s an X-Men film for a moment. This quiet maturity is what makes the film that James Mangold and Hugh Jackman have crafted here such an astonishing addition to the genre. This is a fiercely passionate labor of love to Wolverine that delivers a devastating character study and a savagely violent action spectacular in equal measure.

We find ourselves in the mid 2020s as we meet a very different version of our old pal Logan (Hugh Jackman). He’s become a withered shell of himself with a body that’s finally starting to break down due to a depleting healing factor. He spends long days caring for Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who now suffers from a deadly form of dementia that often endangers those around him. However, life throws a wrench in this lonely cycle when Logan finds himself stuck with Laura (Dafne Keen). She’s a young mutant with very similar knife brandishing skills who finds herself on the run from an evil group of scientists who have been experimenting on children to create soldiers. Thus begins a blood-soaked road trip across America to get Laura somewhere safe.

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Mangold crafts a harsh environment that lives outside of the other X-Men films. Those stories have all been distilled into exaggerated comic books now, leaving Logan and Charles in a world that has passed them by. The days of refined private schools and slick black suits are long gone. We’re deep in the gills of middle America, often drenched in the hot sun. This restrained look not only calls to the aesthetics of classic westerns and road movies but provides us with an intimate setting in which we really get to see these characters as human beings.

After spending seventeen long years creating this iconic version of Wolverine, Hugh Jackman sends himself off with the strongest performance he’s delivered in the entire run. Covered from head to toe in cuts and bruises and practically cracking a bone with each step, this Logan is sick and tired of surprising his rage. He’s not just world weary, he’s flat out cynical. Jackman sells all of this while still remaining likable, largely through his interactions with Xavier and Laura. Young Dafne Keen is a revelation in one of the most ferocious roles ever given to a child. Acting mostly with her eyes, Keen infuses every moment with pure intensity. We see her tear apart grown men throughout this entire film and it never once comes across as silly. If anything, it’s just flat out vicious. Her chemistry with Jackman comes from a complete lack of coddling. She’s as worn down and tough as he is and watching the two of them both irritate and protect one another makes for a very compelling dynamic.

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However, Patrick Stewart runs away with this film with a powerhouse turn as the ailing Xavier. We see the man with the most powerful mind in the world slowly start to fade away. He’s so viscerally overwhelmed with everything around him and it’s heart-wrenching to watch. Although Logan has become his caretaker, he can only see a son. Before he dies, Charles is desperate for Logan to find some semblance of inner peace. Even in this fragile state, he is still as caring and kind a man as ever, albeit with far less of a filter. It’s a performance worthy of awards consideration, often acting as the film’s central heartbeat.

All of this dramatic heft only fuels the deliciously violent action sequences. Finally, we are given a Wolverine who severs limbs first and asks questions never. This is the rabid berserker that this series has always teased but never fully delivered on. He and X23 are human wood-chippers, gutting anybody who so much as looks at them wrong. None of this brutality feels showy, either. Mangold makes every cut and blow look searingly painful, even when his camera does occasionally get a little bit too kinetic to fully catch everything going on. However, the film does throw in a rather goofy element late in the second act to bolster the violence and it throws a major wrench into the otherwise very consistent tone, even undermining a couple of key emotional beats. It’s not quite as bad as the robot ninja from The Wolverine but it’s certainly in the same ballpark.

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Logan is not only a thrilling send off to one of the silver screen’s most iconic superheroes but a reminder of when the superhero genre needed to be ambitious and risky to succeed. It is never concerned with being a piece of a universe. We’re living in this moment with these characters and telling a satisfying story now, not later. It’s by far the most engaging comic book drama since Captain America: The Winter Soldier but often feels more at home with movies like Unforgiven or Hell or High Water. Some unlucky S.O.B. will inevitably inherit the adamantium  claws sooner or later, but if Logan proves anything, it’s that Hugh Jackman is and will always be The Wolverine.

Rating: A

John Wick: Chapter 2 Review

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In September 2014, I laid eyes on the poster for a goofy looking Keanu Reeves movie called John Wick. “Here we go,” I thought “it’s 47 Ronin all over again.” Surely it would be another flop in Reeves’ unfortunate attempt at a post-Matrix career. Well, I’m not exactly known for being Nostradamus. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s film ended up being a symphonic opera of bullets, blood, and brutality. It established a neat underground world of suave and dignified hitmen while re-instating the astonishingly physical Reeves as a virtuoso action star who literally threw himself into every stunt. Now, Stahelski has gone solo in facing the high expectations that come with following up a cult hit. Mr. Wick’s blend of John Woo and James Bond is no longer a surprise, so it is now up to the story to match up with the action sequences.

We pick up almost immediately after the first film. Our favorite bullet blasting ballet dancer has just gotten his car back and is finally ready for some R&R with his new nameless dog. However, serenity is short-lived as Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a figure from John’s past to whom he owes a blood oath comes back into the picture. He asks John to assassinate his sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) so that he can take her seat on the hitman council. John initially refuses, but after Santino takes a grenade launcher to his house, he becomes a little more flexible. Naturally, things don’t quite end up that simple, with this mission eventually pitting Wick against virtually every hitman/woman in the world.

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The original film got a ton of mileage out of a very simple premise. Boy gets dog, boy loses dog, boy kills everybody even remotely responsible for taking dog. This second chapter is a bit more convoluted and as a result, takes a little while to get going. After the beautifully ridiculous high stakes round of bumper cars that kicks the film off, things slow down for a while as we wait for all the pieces to fall into place.

As we wait for the action to kick into high-gear, Reeves has to carry things a bit more with non-violent performing, which is rarely a good choice. While he was equally emotive and intimidating last time around, a lot of that came from not giving him a great deal of dialogue. He has a great deal more here and a lot of it is a little weak. He never enters Parenthood or Dracula territory but he’s a lot less imposing when he’s forced into conversation.

A great deal of the mystique that the first film established gets whittled down in this first half. We find out a lot more about The Continental hotel and the way the whole assassin society functions and frankly, it benefited from being mysterious. That isn’t to say that what we see is bad. In fact, a great deal of it draws from some of the best elements of Connery era Bond films. However, a few of the new world-building tidbits and characters are pretty silly, and not in the self-aware vein that the returners from the first film (Ian McShane and John Leguizamo) were. Laurence Fishburne, in particular, embarrasses himself in an overtly hammy performance as the leader of a branch of assassins that pretend to be homeless people. I wish I was making that up.

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All of these flaws might have sunk John Wick: Chapter 2 into disappointment territory if the monumentally stylish action didn’t return in full force. Fortunately, Stahelski does his best to somehow up the ante from the original and succeeds for the most part. We get plenty of the perfectly filmed, headshot ridden shootouts from before but Stahelski isn’t satisfied to stop there. The second half of this film is comprised of one insane moment after another. Several hand to hand combat scenes between Reeves and Common, who plays the most vexed assassin on Wick’s tail, just might break a couple of bones in the audience. In fact, every hitman on hitman confrontation is a stone cold stunner, with Stahelski taking full advantage of the environment, weapons and different physical capabilities of Wick’s opponents. It becomes the assassin war movie that Wanted could only dream of being.

Reeves really starts to shine in these sequences. His dedication to the stunt work is nothing short of inspiring. You can tell he’s had years of martial arts training and knows how to handle a gun. A great deal of time is spent establishing Wick as a deity of violence and Reeves gives us that in spades. The work he puts in is what allows Stahelski to create such amazing action, as he never has to cut away to hide a stuntman.

John Wick: Chapter 2 largely lacks the simplicity and spontaneity of its remarkably robust predecessor. It grinds under the weight of everything it’s trying to establish and while the enhanced world building is certainly appreciated, it doesn’t always work. However, Stahelski does deliver enough stylistic carnage to largely mute those flaws. By the time the climax hits, we’re as invested in the world of Wick as we were before and a solid final cliffhanger hints at a promising first installment. It’s not the instant classic that came before but it certainly earns a few gold Continental coins in its own right.

Rating: B+

The Lego Batman Movie Review

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As Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump belts out what might be the greatest Batman theme of all time over the visually electrifying and hilarious opening sequence of The Lego Batman Movie, one thing becomes clear. This is a deliriously infatuated Valentines Day love letter to DC’s iconic self-proclaimed frontman. When we’re watching this astonishingly narcissistic version of The Caped Crusader, it’s an amalgamation of almost eighty years of comics, cartoons, and films. Bruce Wayne has had some incredible victories and catastrophic failures over all that time and this movie revels in poking fun at every single one.

We find Batman (Will Arnett), who is totally not Bruce Wayne, in a bit of a personal rut. Sure, he’s foiling bad guys left and right, but his lobster thermidor fueled evenings are starting to feel a little lonely. He refuses to let anybody crack his smoldering masculinity, though, which makes it a little difficult for his new adopted son/sidekick Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) to feel appreciated. Meanwhile, The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) is plotting the destruction of Gotham city in classic fashion, desperate for his foil to see him as his arch-nemesis.

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The original Lego Movie by Phil Lord and Chris Miller had an astonishingly dry wit for a kids film and that is back in full-force here. In its first act, The Lego Batman Movie is a comedic end-zone dance. It’s a beautiful balance of loving jabs at the history of the character and sharp satire of the way the general public sees him. Not even the foreboding studio logos of the Nolan era get off scot free. This Bruce Wayne is one hundred percent the brooding orphan who punches mentally ill people and the script never shies away from acknowledging that. Arnett fully commits to this absurdity and practically everything that comes out of his mouth hits. It practically breaks the sound barrier of comedic momentum, for a little while.

Unfortunately, things grind to a halt as soon as we get into the Bat-Family story-arc. Michael Cera’s Robin is beyond grating. We see the extent of his “adorable” goofy child routine within five minutes of him being on-screen and he never evolves beyond that one joke. Rosario Dawson’s Barbara Gordon is about as flat as Cera, albeit with a little more depth. When they come into the picture, the film becomes less about poking fun at Batman and evolves into a fairly standard Bat-Family story that just so happens to be a comedy. That isn’t to say that there isn’t anything enjoyable going on. Galifianakis’ adorably insecure Joker is a hoot whenever he appears and Ralph Fiennes is such a genuinely solid Alfred that you’ll wish that he were playing opposite Ben Affleck as well. It just cannot carry the pace it establishes early on, eventually indulging in standard animated movie tropes with the absurdist humor becoming dizzying after a while.

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However, even when the story and comedy get a little flat, the visuals are extraordinary. Director Chris McKay and his animation team deftly carry on the manic aesthetic that Phil Lord and Chris Miller established in the original Lego Movie. Every frame is jam-packed with small touches that won’t be caught on the first viewing. It really feels like each set was built with the gleeful hands of an overstimulated child. It all really starts to kick in during the frenetic fight sequences, in which the animators take full advantage of everything an animated Batman is capable of. The characters are always moving as they leap through the air, avoid gunshots with silly “pew pew” noises and build weapons mid-battle. It’s a wonder to behold, even during the film’s third act which starts to over indulge in action.

Lord and Miller’s Lego Movie was not only a strong comedy but a sharp social satire to boot. Batman was certainly one of the funniest characters in that story but he was also very much a supporting player. The Lego Batman Movie very much feels like a spin-off. It doesn’t have nearly as much to say and the character who felt so fresh before does start to wear out his welcome. Chris Mckay is an alum of Robot Chicken and his film very much plays like a cleaner version of one of those sketches. However, the key to that show is brevity, which begs the question of if this would have been a stronger film if it had only clocked in at thirty minutes. However, it’s never anything less than enjoyable even in its weakest moments and the adoration for the Batman lore is on constant display. I’d certainly rather see a Justice League made out of these blocks than flesh and blood. Take from that what you will.

Rating: B (atman)

Split Review

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For years, the once great M. Night Shyamalan subjected audiences to bloated, tone-deaf, time-wasting efforts. Then, all of a sudden, he pumped out The Visit.  This scrappy, micro-budget black comedy about a couple of rather unsettling grandparents was just what the doctor ordered, introducing us to a Shyamalan who seems to have finally gone back to his roots. Split largely follows that same model, albeit with much darker subject matter. It certainly has a couple powerhouse actors in James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy to its name. All the pieces are in place, which makes it all the more disappointing when Split reveals itself to be an absolute mess.

The story follows Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), three teenage girls who find themselves in a horrific pickle. A man named Kevin (James McAvoy) has abducted and confined them to a small cell in a mysterious fortress. However, Kevin isn’t your average girl-snatcher. He’s a man with 23 different personalities living inside of him, each with their own motivations and relationships with the others. They seem to have taken these girls for some kind of ritual involving ‘The Beast,’ a mysterious 24th persona that the others seem fearful of.

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Shyamalan has set up a very ambitious story here but seems unsure of exactly how to tell it. This becomes an entirely different movie from scene to scene. It’ll go from being a tense abduction thriller to a goofy comedy, to a therapy training video within the span of five minutes. It could be argued that the disjointed structure could be to reflect what’s going on in Kevin’s head, but that never quite comes across. Shyamalan’s writing is so obtuse and vague that nothing grounds this story. None of these characters except Casey feel like real people. They’re either props for McAvoy to play off of, or plot devices to give the audience blatant exposition. We spend a great deal of time with Kevin’s therapist Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) as she explains Kevin’s disorder to other unimportant characters. There’s even a sequence straight out of Lucy where she is literally giving a ham-fisted lecture on the subject. It’s a film that wants to throw the audience for a loop sometimes only to spoon-feed them at others and the balance never gels.

James McAvoy is one of the finest character actors in the business and he throws himself into Kevin’s many alter-egos with complete conviction. He’s juggling different accents, mentalities, and agendas and does a good job at making them all feel really unique. Even the subtle contortions of his face make all of the difference between the obsessive-compulsive Dennis and the infantile Hedwig. However, Shyamalan never holds McAvoy back. It’s such a constantly showy performance that eventually he goes from being a creepy force of nature to complete cartoon character. It gets a little embarrassing to watch McAvoy devour the scenery after a while. On the flip-side, Anya Taylor-Joy continues her streak of fantastic horror movie turns. While her character is given an overwrought backstory that seems manufactured for shock value, she gives a wisely restrained performance here. She’s so damaged that she can relate to Kevin on some level and watching her try to act as his interpreter and confidant leads to the film’s strongest moments. Meanwhile, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula make no impression at all, while Betty Buckley tries her best to bring some gravitas to a trite cliche of a character.

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While Shyamalan’s script is a hot mess, his direction does manage to keep the film afloat for a little while. This is the most restrained he’s been behind the camera for some time. Employing Mike Gioulakis’ (It Follows) masterfully claustrophobic cinematography, he works with the location to build the tension. Every room in this lair feels like it leads to nowhere. We’re as trapped in here with Kevin as these girls are. It’s actually surprisingly light on horror set pieces, opting more for character moments, which is a strong notion that would work great if the narrative was stronger.

For a while, Split is watchable if nothing else. It all seems to be leading to a payoff that would make or break the entire thing. Then, the third act arrives and completely combusts everything that came before. We’re treated to a ludicrous, left-field reveal that completely betrays the restrained tone that the rest of the film had been building up. It’s not only laughable in its own right but then pulls a set-up right out of its behind that feels insultingly cheap. Obviously, to go any further into it would ruin it, but the third act ultimately struck this movie down into being a flat-out failure.

I admire Shyamalan for trying to do something different with Split. For all of its faults, its a rather uniquely styled film. That said, it also completely defuses any of the tension by being so over-the-top. McAvoy’s commitment to the role ultimately ends up being a major weakness as Keven enters caricature territory. It’s a competent mess for a while but then the abysmal third-act brings it into the realm of complete trash. I’m rooting for Shyamalan and I believe that his new approach to filmmaking will lead to a film that is as great as he clearly hoped Split would be. However, he may want to stick with a story with one coherent personality to get there.

Rating: D+

Lost In London Review

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It was a December evening at the movies like any other. The audience is waiting for the film to start, completely tuning out the Fathom Events promos that run before. All of a sudden, Woody Harrelson pops onto the screen to make a major announcement. He has decided to shoot an entire film in one take and live stream it for audiences around the country. This would be an insane proposition for any director, let alone an actor who is making his first go behind the camera. It was a cinematic high-wire act that I just could not resist. I felt genuinely nervous for Harrelson as Lost in London was about to begin but now that’s it’s all over I have to say – –

He did it.

The film is a semi-autobiographical comedy in which Harrelson plays himself during one of the worst nights of his life. After a performance of a play that he’s not enjoying being in, his wife Laura (Eleanor Matsuura) finds out about a sex scandal that he’s been caught in. Furious, she leaves him alone in London for the night, agreeing to meet with him at midnight to talk things over. Harrelson then falls into a never ending string of disasters as the evening wears on, some of which involve Owen Wilson who has grown tired of his longtime friend’s attitude.

Harrelson has done an astonishing job staging this film. They could’ve easily made this a one room bottle film and have achieved the same goal, but instead, we visit 24 locations through one extended take. We go from restaurants to nightclubs to jail cells and everywhere in between and it feels seamless. This smoothness is all the more impressive considering that most of the sets are in and around one building, as it never feels like we’re being manipulated to hide production transitions. The actors hit most of their marks perfectly, with only one major flub that was only noticeable after the Q&A with Harrelson and his crew. The only major issue is the audio. Since we’re constantly transitioning from inside to outside, each setting has a different resonance. We have sequences inside a massive auditorium that are a bit echoey and traffic in the moments outside that make some of the dialogue inaudible. However, this only becomes a major problem every so often, as the majority of the film takes place in locations where the crew does have control of the audio.

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All of these theatrics would grow stale rather quickly if the film itself wasn’t up to snuff. Fortunately, Lost in London is a biting and often hilarious look into the way society views celebrities, and the way they, in turn, see each other. Harrelson turns all of the story’s guns on himself and gives a strong performance in the process. We find him in a place where he’s not quite a ‘has-been’ but certainly not a major star either. Being in that in-between spot drives him insane and we can feel that frustration pouring out of the screen. Wilson’s relaxed delivery is the perfect counter balance. While he’s not in the film a great deal, the relationship the two of them establish leads to the film’s sharpest moments. It’s hard not to get a few belly laughs out of Harrelson constantly poo-pooing Wes Anderson out of jealousy.

At one point in the film, Harrelson is confused for Woody Allen, fitting considering that his writing often mirrors the sardonic tone of Allen’s strongest work. Every character has so much to say and it’s flying out at a mile a minute. At times it does feel play-like, with gaggles of extended monologues that occasionally enter into ponderous territory. However, the dialogue is so detailed that we get a really strong sense of who even the subliminal characters are, and British character actors Peter Ferdinando, Martin McCann and David Avery revel in chewing up the scenery. This certainly isn’t a subtle film, but there are quieter, more character-driven moments that break up the more theatrical elements.

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Lost In London is one of the only ‘all in one-night’ films that feels like it actually could happen within that short space of time. There is not a wasted second here and it often scores huge laughs as a result. It feels like a scrappier cousin to Birdman in both style and content while still establishing a voice of its own. It’s hard to say if the film will attain a following now that the gimmick has been carried out, but with some cleaning up of rougher technical elements, it certainly has a shot. Harrelson shows great potential as a writer/director and under a more conventional format, he may just make a great film one day. For now, he just has a pretty good one that still presented us with something we’ve never seen before.

Rating: B+