Friday, April 16, 2010

Movie Review: "Kick Ass"

To discuss "Kick Ass" properly, I'm going to need to venture into heavy spoiler territory at times. Consider yourself warned.

When I was growing up, superheroes were worth looking up to.

Superman was the iconic boyscout, helping the downtrodden and protecting the vulnerable. Spiderman was the geek kid in all of us, suddenly blessed with amazing powers and able to overcome his insecurities. Batman pursued justice by going to where the police couldn't.

All the heroes had a code. Stand up for truth, justice and the American way. With great power comes great responsibility. Even the Dark Knight had a code of conduct, refusing to brandish a firearm or kill a villain.

In "Kick Ass," the titular hero gives lip service to Spidey's admirable mantra. He then dons a jet pack, graphically mows down dozens of bad guys with a Gatling gun and fires a bazooka straight into a mobster's belly. This is after an 11-year-old girl has shot, stabbed, sliced and diced dozens of thugs and had her face beaten to a bloody pulp by the aforementioned mobster. Don't even ask what her parents think about this...after all, her dad trained her to fight. He also doesn't seem that phased when she uses language that puts sailors to shame, including uttering the two verboten "c-words."

"Kick Ass," from director Matthew Vaughn ("Layer Cake," "Stardust") is like someone put "Superbad," "Kill Bill" and "Spiderman" in a blender. It's a rather frustrating film to write about. From a technical level, there are some wonderfully fun and visceral action sequences. The film's earliest scenes have a real sense of wit and personality, it's populated with actors doing some truly fine performances and the premise itself is loaded with potential. But the film, based on a comic book by Mark Millar ("Wanted") is so obsessed with being extreme and edgy that it sabotages itself, drawing us out of the film with its vulgarity and carnage just when we're starting to enjoy ourselves.

Like I said, the premise is a lot of fun. High school geek Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is tired of being ignored by girls, mugged by crooks and suffering through his dreary existence. Sitting at a comic book shop with his friends, Dave wonders why no one has ever dressed up in tights and stood up for the oppressed. So he orders a hideous green scuba suit over the Internet and heads out to stop evil-doers as Kick Ass. His first time out, he's stabbed in the stomach and hit by a car. But a trip to the hospital, some metal plating and nerve damage that renders him impervious to pain, and Dave hits the streets again. One of these run-ins finds Dave facing down three thugs. Filmed on a cell phone and posted on Youtube, Kick Ass becomes a cultural icon.

But while Dave is playing superhero, others are training to be the real thing. Particularly Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) and his 11-year-old daughter Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz). Out to avenge his wife's death, caused by a vicious mob boss (Mark Strong), Damon dons a Batman-like outfit, calls himself Big Daddy and gets deadly vengeance. As purple-haired Hit Girl, Mindy has moves that would make Tony Jaa feel like an invalid, is a crack-shot with a pistol and has wisecracks that would make John McClane take notes. When we meet them, they are having some bonding time, as Big Daddy prepares Hit Girl to take a bullet in the chest. It's okay; after two more rounds, he promises bowling and ice cream.

It's a twisted subplot, but it's played for dry, absurdist humor. Ebert noted in his review that Cage is probably the only person who can make shooting a child funny and he's right. Riffing on the whole kids-as-vigilantes subtext that has existed in comic books since Robin donned his mask and cape, Cage and Moretz's scenes hit a smarter level of satire than the rest of the movie operates on. Cage plays Big Daddy as a nerdy, Ned Flanders-meets-Dirty Harry father figure and Moretz has a wit and timing that are past her age.

The scenes with Dave and Kick Ass are fun, particularly as he draws closer to the girl of his dreams (Lyndsy Fonseca), but only because she thinks he's her gay best friend. Dave eventually crosses paths with Big Daddy and Hit Girl and learns that he's out of his league alongside real-life heroes. But he finds a hopeful ally in Red Mist (Christopher Mintz Plasse), the son of the villain who's out to discover Kick Ass's secret identity. While a few bumbling McLovin' moments still come through, Plasse delivers some of his strongest work here, giving his character a tragic dimension as he seeks to earn his father's approval. Avid comic book readers will know where his arc is going.

The film tweaks not only comic books but superhero movies in particular, with the outlandish and uncomfortable costumes, physically-impossible stunts and breakneck, energetic action pieces. There are moments where the humor and excitement come together brilliantly and, in those moments, the film has an energetic fun and charge to it that fully realize the premise's potential. When Hit Girl dispatches a room of thugs, set to "Sesame Street"-style music, it's a vervy, visceral moment that carries a giddy thrill.

But when the action stops, Vaughn can't seem to settle on a tone for the movie. On the one hand, he seems attracted to the premise of "real-life superheroes" and loves showing Dave being pummeled by thugs and bleeding when he's cut. But the next moment, the mob villains are cartoonish thugs and Kick Ass and Red Miss are mugging for the cameras as they cruise the town. The tonal shifts didn't really bother me until a brutal sequence later in the film, when the movie turns surprisingly dark and grim, at odds with the film's earlier fun, satirical tone.

And I know, tonal shifts are not bad things. After all, "Kill Bill" shifted from giddy exploitation fest to dark Western, and I regard that as one of my favorite movies. And "Kill Bill" is likely going to be one of the films that this is compared to, based on its blood-letting and devil-may-care swagger.

But the difference is that Quentin Tarantino never set "Kill Bill" in anything resembling the "real world." Everything took place in some weird place in the director's brain, a mixture of movie reels and genres that resulted in a stylish, energetic romp where nothing was to be taken extremely seriously. "Kick Ass" posits the idea of "super heroes in the real world" and then becomes just as over-the-top as the movies it lovingly parodies.

And like I said, despite the tonal shifts, the film is well-filmed and acted. It can't be described as "style over substance," because there is a deeper mindset at work here.

Unfortunately, that substance is all-too-often revealed to be vile, as "Kick Ass" peppers its action with vulgarity and gratuitous gore. It has attitude to spare, that's for sure, but it's attitude and desire to be edgy end up sabotaging the film.

"Kick Ass" owes a lot visually and thematically to Sam Raimi's first "Spiderman" film. The color palette, the narration and the humor are all reminiscent of that movie. And as Dave considers being a superhero, we get the same sense of naivety and innocence that Peter Parker had. And then we get riffs on masturbation and constant use of the f-word. Hit Girl shows up and spouts the two aforementioned "c-words." It's as if Kevin Smith finally got his wish to write a superhero movie.

And yes, I'm mentioning that the obscenity offended me. I'm usually not offended by language in a film--heck, "Goodfellas" is one of my favorite movies. But I've always maintained that obscenity should be used if it showcases the reality or is true to the characters. Here, it's a stunt. It's the filmmakers, so intent on being "ironic," that they say "hey, remember how awesome Spiderman was? What if he said the f-word? Or masturbated to thoughts of his teacher?". When Hit Girl uses the vilest of the c-words, it's not because it underscores anything or adds anything to the character or world that Vaughn has created. Rather, it's just that the filmmakers think it's going to be edgy and talked about to have an 11-year-old girl say a word that most adults cringe at.

And yes, I've heard the criticism that people are spending too much time worried about the language and aren't as worried about the violence Hit Girl commits. But I understand the joke here--nothing she's doing is physically possible; Vaughn is having fun with the idea of a young girl outplaying violent thugs at their own game. Like the House of Blue Leaves fight in "Kill Bill" the carnage isn't too disturbing because it's so stylized that we realize much of it is not to be taken seriously. However, Vaughn never seems to know when the line has been crossed and often tiptoes too far over. It's all in good fun to see Hit Girl go hand-to-hand with the mob boss as an equal; it stops being entertaining when he starts pummeling her in the face.

And yet, the graphic nature of the violence also bothered me. In my mind, the appeal of being a superhero is to do impossible feats, save lives and be...well...heroic. Being a murderer never crosses my mind. There's always a chuckle when Spider-man ties up the bad guys in a web; there's something honorable about Batman keeping the Joker from falling to his death, allowing him to stay in a cell rather than lowering himself to his level.

In "Kick Ass," the heroes are not too bad with their fists. But when the third act pulls out the guns and knives, it becomes a bit less joyful and fun. I don't think gore is necessarily a detriment to action but here it's gratuitous and present for shock value. I'm sure some would argue that Vaughn is showing that "when you get hit in real life, you bleed"...but watch the carnage unfold and tell me if you really are seeing reality here.

Of course, when I was a kid my friends and I would pretend to be ninjas. And we'd pretend to slice and dice our foes. "Kick Ass" has that same juvenile quality to it. Rather than appeal to adults who can understand the joy in the initial idea and sort through the satire, it tosses in vulgarity and over-the-top violence to satiate teenage boys who think killing is fun and blowing people away is sweet. And don't try and tell me that the film is R-rated and those kids won't see it; this film's marketing--which portrays it as a fun, light comedy--has been squarely targeted at teens and even kids. Only its title gives the slightest hint that only older folk are prepared for what's in store.

And maybe I'm in the minority. After all, there was a very vocal group in the theater with me that broke into spontaneous applause on four separate occasions. Maybe I'm just old, or maybe I'm becoming more of a prude than I was in my early twenties.

Those things are all possible, but I think there's another reason. I recognized the glimmer of a story that could be told with fun, wit and energy. And on several occasions, "Kick Ass" achieves that promise. But then it succumbs to a desire to please the lowest common denominator, get cheap laughs from the "Superbad" crowd and toss gratuitous gore in to keep its "edge." The seeds are there for a great story; I'm sad to see it settle for this.

But hey, I'll keep my hopes up. After all, established heroes like Iron Man are still on the horizon for this summer. I look forward to them proving that heroes don't need to curse or kill to capture our attention. Till then, I'll remain a prude...I feel less guilty that way.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Movie Review: "Date Night"

"Date Night" is proof that smart casting can make the difference between an enjoyable evening at the movies and a wasted $20.

It's not like the premise is that novel. The suburbanites'-crazy-night-in-the-big-bad-city comedy may not be a staple, but it's definitely familiar to anyone who's seen "Adventures in Babysitting," "After Hours," "Blind Date," or "The Out of Towners." And director Shawn Levy doesn't do too much to inspire confidence, either. I may have defended the first "Night at the Museum," but the man is also responsible for the Steve Martin "Pink Panther" debacle.

It would have been so easy--and may have been tempting--to take this exact same script, with the exact same director, and plug in Matthew McCounaghey and Kate Winslet or Vince Vaugh and Reese Witherspoon and wind up with a trite, vapid and lifeless comedy. But by putting two very smart, very funny actors at the helm and then peppering supporting roles with equally talented castmates, "Date Night" actually overcomes a mediocre script to become a consistently funny and enjoyable night out.

Steve Carrell and Tina Fey star as Phil and Claire Foster, a New Jersey couple trying to balance careers and parenting. The kids wake them up at the crack of dawn, starting a cycle of chores, routines and obligations. By the time the couple gets some quiet time to themselves, Phil's snore strip is already applied and Claire's retainer is in place, not that they have the energy to do anything. They're not an unhappy couple, just busy. Their one weekly reprieve is a book club, where they look at their divorcing friends (Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Wiig) and wonder if it's ever possible that they could find themselves drifting apart and being just "really excellent roommates."

To keep the spark alive, Phil impulsively decides that on their upcoming date night they should skip their standard local steak-and-potatoes establishment and head out to a fancy Manhattan restaurant. They arrive to find the place booked and, when Phil hears a reservation going unclaimed, they pretend to be the missing couple. After a few glasses of wine, they're surprised to find themselves threatened in the alley by two thugs looking for the real couple, who are in possession of a flash drive (or, as Claire identifies it, "a computer sticky thing") being used to blackmail a gangster (Ray Liotta). If you're following me thus far, you've probably guessed that the Fosters spend their date night trying to evade the mob and find the missing flash drive. You probably don't even have to ask that whether or not their marriage will be strengthened as a result of this insanity.

It's always tricky when two talented and highly successful comedians team up. One usually ends up out-shining the other and the fight for laughs often derails any potential chemistry. So it's refreshing to see that Carrell and Fey have a fun rapport together, matching each other's wit without ever hogging the spotlight. Fey can find the humor in the most typical life moments--I particularly liked it when Claire frantically searches a computer for information, only to get stalled by the "rainbow wheel." Carrell plays Phil not as a buffoon, but as a smart, capable accountant terrified by facing things he only sees in movies ("He pointed the gun sideways! It's a kill shot!" he cries at one point) or emasculated by the ever-shirtless contact his wife goes to for help (Mark Wahlberg, whose few scenes are priceless).

As I pointed out before, this could have easily been another trite romantic comedy featuring good-looking movie stars giving reaction shots and otherwise sleepwalking through the plot. Carrell and Fey, however, are two very smart and funny individuals who excel and milking the humor out of ordinary life. I rarely felt that they were on autopilot; you can almost see their gears turning as they look for comic opportunities in every situation. Even a throwaway line like Claire's exclamation of "look, it's, from...Fergie" gets a big laugh because it's the perfect way a suburban mother would probably remember it. The two even get a few quiet moments together to discuss their marital stresses and manage to elicit some real tenderness and chemistry without grounding the movie to a halt. It's almost enough to make you wish the gunplay and car chases would disappear and we'd see the two in a smart, low-key comedy.

Thankfully, the leads aren't the only areas in which "Date Night's" casting director was thinking smart. Several supporting roles are also given to very funny, able comedians, which keeps the pace fast and funny. I've already mentioned Wahlberg as the always-shirtless stud Claire drools over, but James Franco and Mila Kunis actually steal the spotlight from Carrell and Fey as the couple Phil and Claire are mistaken for. They portray kind of a scuzzy, white-trash version of the Fosters, and watching Carrell and Franco bicker back and forth is good fun, and it made me remember just how great Franco is in comedic roles; I'm surprised he hasn't been cast in more since "Pineapple Express." Liotta and William Fichtner also make the most of their small roles. I was even happy to see J.B. Smoove--the best thing about the last two seasons of "Curb Your Enthusiasm"--show up as a terrified cabbie whose car ends up welded to the Fosters'.

The few action sequences are clearly filler and, honestly, drag the film a's funnier when Fey and Carrell are allowed to banter. I don't know if it's a compliment to say that Levy does his best when he simply stands back and lets the stars do what they need to, but that's what seems to work here. The film doesn't really break new ground or try to reach "Hangover"-levels of hilarity.

But that's actually kind of refreshing, particularly three weeks after "Hot Tub Time Machine" continued to try and out-raunch other movies. "Date Night" plays to the mainstream and its kind of nice to see a film getting some smart laughs instead of cheap guffaws. Is it a great movie? No, and I'd argue that both Carrell and Fey have been involved with better material (the best of "30 Rock" and "The Office" are often funnier than most movie comedies).

But sometimes you don't need greatness. Sometimes you just want to sit in the theater and have an enjoyable time that doesn't require your buttons being pushed or your sensibilities being offended. If the mark of a successful comedy is that it actually makes you laugh and recommend it to your friends, "Date Night" succeeds. Fey and Carrell will both go on to do much better work, but for now, you can enjoy this night with them without feeling guilty walking home.

To keep

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Gods Must Be Cranky

Clash of the Titans

Moviegoers who skipped Greek mythology in school can get something of a crash course at their local theater this year.

Just last month, kids were treated to an adventure of modern day demigods with "Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief." This week, slightly older audiences will flock to see the loud, special-effects-driven "Clash of the Titans." Even though both films take crucial liberties with the myths, they probably provide a reasonable excuse to avoid reading the texts on which they're based.

Of course, as wise adults know, the books are always better than the movies.

"Clash of the Titans" is no exception. A remake of the 1981 fantasy featuring Harry Hamlin, Laurence Olivier and a robot owl, director Louis Leterrier mixes and matches the most familiar Greek legends, throws in a dash of "300" and "Transformers"-esque action sequences, and combines them with a whole host of daddy issues to make a curiously mundane action flick. Subtracting the robot owl, save for a sight gag that lands with a thud, doesn't help.

It seems that in Ancient Greece, men have begun to rebel against the gods, toppling their statues and refusing to pray - in a prologue, we're reminded that it is the prayers of men that fuel the gods' immortality. Hades (Ralph Fiennes), god of the Underworld, convinces his brother Zeus (Liam Neeson) to unleash his wrath and tell the men and women of Argos that unless the young Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) is sacrificed, he will set the beastly Kraken upon them. Zeus, quite vexed that his creation isn't responding positively to his vengeful wrath, agrees.

The only hope to stop the gods is Perseus (Sam Worthington), the half-son of Zeus. Perseus was fished out of the ocean as a child and watched his parents and sister be killed by Hades. Rejecting his position as a son of the gods, Perseus agrees to confront the Kraken, taking a motley crew of Argonauts across the countryside, where they encounter witches, scorpions, Medusa and the Kraken itself.Typing that description up, I realize there's an idea for a fun movie in there. Greek mythology is something that has not been successfully done in Hollywood, and I'd love to see a film that takes the myths and has some fun with them. Unfortunately, "Clash of the Titans" is content only to tell the standard reluctant hero story and, despite its special effects and energetic action sequences, never really feels epic or spectacular.

Leterrier, who injected life and energy into "The Incredible Hulk" after Ang Lee's turgid take on the comic book, knows how to stage an action sequence. A protracted battle with giant scorpions has a few great beats and the final battle with the Kraken is suitably well-staged. The problem is that everything feels like it's been done better before. The scorpions might be cool, but my mind kept going back to the insanity of "Starship Troopers'" giant bugs. A sequence in a volcanic temple is fun to look at, but its staging is derivative of a much better, similar sequence in "Lord of the Rings." Medusa is a largely CGI creation, a snake without any of the sensuality or horror that make her such a memorable part of Greek mythology - it's harder still to enjoy when remembering how much fun Uma Thurman had with the same role just weeks earlier in "Percy Jackson." Even the Kraken fight, while fun to watch, will leave some viewers remembering when Johnny Depp and Kiera Knightley fought the same beast in one of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films.

I understand that many of our big screen epics owe a debt to Greek mythology and that these creations have been around for years. But for a movie about gods and goddesses and epic battles, "Clash" feels a bit standard and tedious. The action sequences are fun, to a degree, but there is no image or scene that makes our jaws drop, or moment where it feels our heroes are in real danger. There's no sense of wonder or awe; instead, it feels like Leterrier is content to remake "300," but with giant bugs and bloodless battles. When Optimus Prime is a more awe-inspiring creation than Medusa or the Kraken, you know the material just isn't working.

Much of that comes from the few non-action interludes, which never seem to capture consistent tones. Neeson and Fiennes chew the scenery up in Mount Olympus, but the characters are so poorly conceived that it's all for naught. Hades is a sniveling conspirator, and Zeus alternates between petty anger and unexplained compassion. The two do what they can with the roles, but there's not much to them, other than to sit in the throne room, debate and pontificate. And with today's special effects, no one wants to see a god pontificate.The human characters are a hodge-podge of faceless, underwritten mercenaries. There's some minor comic relief among the Argonauts, but none of them really have a character to play. Davalos mainly has to stand around looking pretty and endangered as Andromeda. Gemma Arterton ("Quantum of Solace") does what she can with the role of Io, Perseus' protector and - in this version - love interest. However, the role is so under-cooked that she is basically reduced to randomly appearing to provide exposition at crucial moments ... then again, maybe she's just the Greek chorus.

As for Worthington, I've yet to be convinced he can carry a film. I don't blame him for the fault of "Terminator: Salvation," but neither do I commend him for the success of "Avatar." Here, he plays the largely the same gruff, reluctant warrior as in the other films, alternating between looks of annoyance and befuddlement. He has a certain quality about him that hints at a true action star waiting to come out, but he's not given that moment here. Instead, we're treated to repetitive scenes where Perseus states over and again that "I'm going to do this as a god, not a man" or "I'm going to kill the gods," never thinking that, as a god, he probably has a better shot at killing Hades. He denies his demigod-ness so many times that I wanted Ernie Hudson from "Ghostbusters" to jump in the scene and remind him, "If someone asks you if you're a god, you say yes."

The result is a film that looks good and has some solid action sequences, but never achieves the scale it's aiming for. Leterrier can't convince his actors whether they should be over the top and chewing the scenery or play it as brooding, vengeful heroes. The film is not necessarily a mess, but just another mediocre, forgettable action film. Which is a shame, given the acting talents and the materials they had to work with.

One final note: "Clash of the Titans" is being heavily marketed as a 3D movie following "Avatar's" massive success. Don't believe the hype. The film was shot in 2D and given a 3D changeover in the last few weeks. The result is an awkward use of the technology, proving that without proper composition and editing that anticipates the process, it can look cheap, like watching a film through a View-Master. Leterrier intended for the film to be seen in 2D, and composed and edited the movie that way; the conversion makes 3D more of a distraction than with films like "Avatar," which were shot and composed with the technology in mind. If you have a choice, I'd probably suggest going to see "How to Train Your Dragon" instead of "Clash of the Titans." But if you must see "Clash," I recommend saving the money and going for the standard format. It might seem a mediocre way to see the film, but then again, consider the film.
Originally published in the April 4 edition of The Source,


About Me

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.