Now in Theaters: March 2017

The Oscars may be over and the nominees are gradually retreating from your local multiplex, but there are still a surprisingly large number of good offerings playing in wide release right now (plus, of course, some crap). Here’s a rundown of some of your options this week.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2

The original John Wick came out of nowhere and almost immediately placed itself among my favorite action movies to be released in the past decade, alongside the likes of DreddEdge of Tomorrow, both The Raid films and Mad Max: Fury Road. The action was kinetic and intense, the story was only as complicated as it had to be, the world-building was fascinating but stayed at the fringes and practically every frame looked like it could have been transposed from a graphic novel. John Wick came into the world confident and fully formed; while it may not have had a staggering theatrical run it gained new life upon its home release.

So how does Chapter 2 fare by comparison? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s bigger without necessarily being better. The scope has been greatly expanded as befits this film’s larger budget: there are more locations and characters, the body count is a lot higher, Laurence Fishburne shows up in a scenery-chewing bit part just because he can. The whole thing is still a ton of fun (and, correcting one of the few sins of the first film, doesn’t run out of steam at the end), but suffers a bit without being able to ride on the first film’s novelty.

One of the original John Wick‘s biggest strengths was its restraint in regards to telling its backstory: the depths of the Continental’s assassin underground was only hinted at, but viewers got the idea well enough. Appearing to lay the groundwork for a potential (and, given this picture’s box office performance, likely) Chapter 3, John Wick: Chapter 2 starts filling in gaps in the film world and, unlike the original, feels like it has some work to do. Also, event though I was not personally bothered it is worth observing that this franchise’s gun fetishism is starting to feel a little problematic.

It may suffer a bit given some consideration, but John Wick: Chapter 2 still plays well in the theater and, if you care about this sort of thing, absolutely deserves to be seen on the big screen. The bonkers gun-fu is still as fast and furious (and well-shot and -edited, too), and there are a few wildly creative action beats that merit the price of admission by themselves; if you liked the first John Wick there’s no reason not to show up for this one.

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE

Expectations are a tricky thing, but I can’t think of any film that blew them away more in recent years than The LEGO Movie. What could have been merely a crass promotional vehicle for a system of interlocking plastic bricks (and Warner Bros.’ stable of intellectual properties) was instead a manic, joyous meta-commentary on creativity and conformity (and a bunch of other things) with a surprising breakout appearance by LEGO Batman (Will Arnett). Could this small but potent comedic force steer an entire movie?

The short answer is yes, with some caveats.

In The LEGO Movie, Batman’s role was mostly to serve as a character’s insecure jerk boyfriend, (sometimes literally) crashing into and commandeering every scene he was in. In his own film LEGO Batman is still an oblivious force of ego, but he’s also revealed to be crippled by his solitude and emotionally stunted. This film gets the character of Batman as well as well as any of its flesh-and-blood cinematic counterparts, and mines that for comedy in a fairly brilliant first act.

As things progress the film begins to lose the thread, or at least run on LEGO autopilot. Even if this is only the second LEGO-related theatrical release, the brand’s sense of humor has been established on TV and in video games for years. The LEGO Batman Movie at times seems confused as to whether it’s about LEGOs or Batman without successfully splitting the difference. The interlocking-brick-based jokes are sometimes funny, but they get in the way an otherwise perfectly good Batman movie instead of enhancing it (particularly towards the ending). Without The LEGO Movie‘s fairly nuanced additional meta layer, the physics jokes sometimes feel overbearing.

Relatively cerebral criticisms aside, The LEGO Batman Movie mostly works well, and is more successful than most of the “straight” Batman films. Every corner of the frame is constantly crammed with detail; the big screen is a more useful ally to this film than you might expect (the IMAX release would have been justified, if only it hadn’t been released the same week as John Wick: Chapter 2, denying the large format-ready actioner the platform). Worth a watch.

 

GET OUT

Get Out is this year’s compulsory horror movie. Every year, there’s usually one horror movie that breaks out of its genre bubble and demands attention from the mainstream (The WitchIt Follows and The Babadook immediately come to mind), and Get Out confidently steps into this slot with its quick and sparing wit, foreboding atmosphere and searing social commentary. The film was written and directed by Jordan Peele of Keye and Peele fame, and marks Peele’s directorial debut. If Get Out is any indication, the wildly swerving genre plays of the sketch show have honed Peele into an assured and versatile filmmaker, and if this is his first I can only imagine what will come next.

If you managed to avoid the super spoiler-y trailers, keep doing that as they give away pretty much everything. For purposes of our discussion, I’ll say the story revolves around a black man who goes with his white girlfriend to meet her parents at a ritzy backwoods estate. Get Out tackles issues of modern race relations in America with as much bluntness as any film I can remember, especially for a mainstream-ish genre film. This is probably the first horror movie specifically about microaggressions.

There are jolts and the whole thing is scary enough, but the film’s real selling point is its deft navigation of tones between horror and comedy. Get Out is cognizant of its place in genre, with its trappings and audience expectations. “Get out” isn’t just a line of dialogue from the film, it’s what audiences are expected to be yelling at the screen. The protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), isn’t stupid and doesn’t make typical horror movie Final Girl mistakes. Another black character, TSA agent and Chris’s friend (comedian Lil Rel Howery) plays an able audience surrogate who provides most of the film’s comic relief but, smartly, is not overutilized.

As a rule I don’t like horror movies, but I saw Get Out twice on its opening weekend and it only improved on the rewatch. This is different and better than your typical studio horror film, and demands to be seen.

LOGAN

This is the X-Men movie I’ve been waiting for.

The complaint I usually lodge against tentpole superhero movies is that they’re way too big and sprawling for their own good, and many of the better ones succeed in spite of their needlessly large stakes (i.e. the first Avengers); however, many get dragged down by the weight of their accumulated nonsense (I couldn’t tell you what happened in X-Men Apocalypse, I mostly recall a bunch of debris flying around and some yelling).

Logan succeeds in part because it stays within a set of limits. It’s still a comic book movie so there are cybernetic limbs and mutant powers and clones and stuff, but Logan is grounded by a certain sense of reality and plausibility whose absence in the main X-Men films and most MCU films keeps their emotional currency at arms length. Running time notwithstanding, Logan is relatively compact in terms of its cast of characters, scale of action sequences and economy of storytelling. The film doesn’t waste moments, or overstuff them.

The fact that Logan is rated R is not immaterial. Blood and gore is of course not necessary for on-screen violence to be effective, but the visceral and grisly nature of Wolverine’s power set always felt a little neutered in a PG-13 setting (I mean, blades come out of the dude’s knuckles for chrissakes). Setting aside the home-release-only R-rated cut of The Wolverine, the level of violence exercised by the character feels thematically appropriate. To the film’s credit the violence is strong without being gratuitous or exploitative, ramping up considerably over the course of the runtime but not distracting from other important things going on.

For the first time in the franchise (and for Marvel-branded movies in general), this is a movie aimed squarely at smart adult audiences. If this is really how Hugh Jackman is going to hang up his claws, he’s gone out on the highest note possible.

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