Review: “Lego Batman” is endlessly funny, sweetly sincere

 

Perhaps Hollywood really is at the point where Lego-ified franchises understand their characters better than their grounded, live-action counterparts. “The Lego Batman Movie” certainly makes that case.

And if we are at that point, moviegoers had best get comfortable with seeing more and more of their favorite cinematic icons get the brick treatment, if these films continue to be as smart as they are hilarious. If the success of last year’s “Deadpool” relied on taking jabs at itself, “Lego Batman” is a total onslaught of self-deprecating humor.

The concept would have been ridiculed a few years ago, yet here we are. Nine years after receiving the best big-screen version of the Bat in “The Dark Knight,” and less than a year removed from washing the sour taste of “Batman v. Superman” out of our mouths, we have the delightful and delightfully self-aware “Lego Batman Movie.”

A spinoff of a breakout character from the breakout animated hit from 2014, “Lego Batman” is hyper, overattentive little brother to “The Lego Movie,” a whirlwind of everything that universe has to offer (and indeed, beyond the realm of DC Comics) that dares to step out from its big brother’s shadow.

A year after being confused and frustrated by “Batman v. Superman,” “Lego Batman” comes along and shows that some in Hollywood still understand the brooding superhero.

As much for adults as it is for children in both humor (a surprising amount of which is very mature) and substance, “Lego Batman” dwells on the lonely aspect of the hero’s life – the quiet contrast to the colorful high of fighting Gotham crime. With his own theme song to boot, of course (though it’s nowhere near as euphoric as “Everything Is Awesome”).

The film boasts an incredible array of actors lending their voices, including Will Arnett as Batman, Michael Cera as the innocent and untested Robin, Zach Galifianakis as a creepily sentimental Joker, and, in a particularly entertaining “cameo,” Siri as the Batcave’s computer.

They all perform to charming effect, even when there seems to be so much happening that it’s hard to catch some of the most memorable one-liners. This movie is chock-full of them, but so much of its success relies on the endless stream of Easter eggs and references that it never feels like its overbloated with them.

lego-bats

You don’t have to be world’s biggest Batman fan to catch them, either. There are jokes for fans who are only familiar with the most recent films, the entire universe, and everything in between The film doesn’t discriminate, and it demands multiple viewings to catch all the gags.

You’d probably want to watch a second time anyway, that’s how charming the movie is. Though perhaps not as contemplative as “The Lego Movie,” “Lego Batman” is just as fun, and even more bombastic. The less you know about the plot – especially the constantly surprising third act – the better the experience will be.

Arnett’s Batman is 100 percent aware of how awesome and fun he can be; in other words, he’s completely in on the joke. The movie embraces the character’s history in that way.

Even before we see anything on the screen, as Batman proclaims in a darkened theater that “All important movies start with a black screen,” we know we’re in on it too. And it’s a wonderful joke to be a part of – sincere, thrilling and oh so awesome.

 

“The Lego Batman Movie” is rated PG for rude humor and some action 

Starring: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes

Directed by Chris McKay

2017

 

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Review: Doctor Strange’s visuals overshadowed by strong characterization

The Marvel Cinematic Universe – the entire superhero genre, in fact – is at a bit of a crossroads. Watching characters like Iron Man, Captain America and, soon, the third different Spider-Man this century grace the big screen has become a regular event seemingly more common than teen novel adaptations.

It’s led to a bit of an oversaturation of the same thing over and over, and Hollywood knows it.

As a result, just when we think we’ve seen it all, along comes the R-rated “Deadpool,” the fresh “Guardians of the Galaxy and the ambitious “Captain America: Civil War” to reshape how the genre can take advantage of the film medium.

The production of “Doctor Strange” takes that philosophy to heart, with excitement having been stirred about its “Inception”-influenced visuals and the introduction of Benedict Cumberbatch to the MCU.

And so we get Marvel Studio’s first feature-length debut since “Guardians,” and it turns out to be, in many ways, not your run-of-the-mill MCU flick. At this point, that’s a great thing. The action teases to be some of the most immersive we’ve seen from a superhero movie in years, and Cumberbatch is an immediately welcome addition as the selfish doctor-turned-magician.

It’s a tantalizing start to a film that, after about two hours, fails to deliver on its promise of being a totally fresh experience. It’s clearly an origin story, but in trying to be something different in terms of aesthetic, it ends up an underwhelming and familiar experience.

“Doctor Strange” is formulaic to a fault in terms of its narrative – there’s simply too much recycled material – and an overreliance on its visuals. It’s clear that it is functioning on the gamble that its special effects take a revolutionary turn. But while for the first time in a long time I found myself wishing I was watching in an IMAX theater, the film’s Rubik’s cube-on-LSD set pieces don’t necessarily mess with the plot in a seamless way.

Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE..Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

In fact, the film explicitly introduces a pretty big loophole that essentially erases any sense of stakes that could be suggested when seeing a city literally being folded unto itself. What we see onscreen almost seems to reflect just how muddled the bigger MCU narrative has become with the addition of film’s lore.

As far as the elephant in the room, yes, the role of Brit Tilda Swinton in an environment clearly evoking an Asian aesthetic sticks out like a sore thumb. Swinton is fine as a Supreme Powerful Do-Gooder, but it feels out of place and inappropriate of Marvel Studios to utilize imagery, architecture and even other characters of Asian origin without going the full distance with arguably the film’s most important persona.

Despite its weak direction, there is some new material that “Doctor Strange” brings to the table. For a movie universe with seemingly so little attention in the prospect of finality, death is a major theme here, as is its inevitability.

Also, Strange himself is a decidedly morally ambiguous character, with a sense of arrogance that isn’t simply replaced with heroism the first time he dons the cape. Instead, the audience welcomes a more dynamic internal journey.

Dare I say it, Strange’s characterization is actually more fascinating to witness then when he engages in what amounts to not much more than combat with glorified metaphysical scepters and weapons, using the very concept of time itself to defeat a villain it doesn’t seem like he has any business even confronting just an hour and a half after first discovering his powers.

For all intents and purposes, the MCU has backed itself into a corner with “Doctor Strange,” a film that suggests powers and abilities that can bring an end to any plight the beloved Avengers might face. Here’s hoping the studio is aware of that fact, and has thought far enough ahead to make Strange’s future adventures more memorable.

 

 

Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams and Benedict Wong

Directed by Scott Derrickson

2016