Sunday, April 25, 2010

Movie Review: Kick-Ass

Remember those people that always said that you should never be the hero? They never told you why: because you might get knifed repeatedly before being mixed up with a bazooka and some samurai swords. Thank you for that valuable lesson, "Kick-Ass."

All joking aside, "Kick-Ass" is a grand new addition to a genre of meta satire where the story becomes both satire and the subject in which it is actually satirizing (on purpose, of course).

The subject being satirized in "Kick-Ass" is a hybrid of the worlds of both comic books and movies. In order to dive into this world, "Kick-Ass" uses Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson). Dave is the archetypal comic book hero pre-transformation: he's a nerdy teenage outcast with girl troubles. Dave escapes his miserable, almost meaningless existence through an extreme comic book obsession.

Dave's obsession goes a little too far when he believes being a hero is as easy as putting on a costume, so he sets out to rid the streets of crime. Despite becoming a pop culture phenomenon, his super hero name is Kick-Ass not because he wins every fight but rather because he always seems to get beaten to a pulp.

"Kick-Ass" has what is almost two interwoven plots. The two plots serve as the two separate films "Kick-Ass" strives to be: a comic book movie, and a comic book satire. Dave's transformation into Kick-Ass serves most of the film's satirical moments. These moments serve to tell us that the great heroes such as Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman were kept flat on the page for a reason. These heroes served as fantasies for a reason. That reason is that they're not supposed to exist in reality.

There is another part of "Kick-Ass" that always remains funny, yet also tries to be like a true comic book. The film gives us the dynamic duo of the young, foul-mouthed, and very skilled Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) and her weapon-loving father Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage). Wherever they fight crime, they leave an extremely gory trail behind.

"Kick-Ass" has generated a lot of controversy for its sometimes less-than-serious look at ultra violence. To simply dismiss it as a product of violence-loving culture would be to totally miss the point. "Kick-Ass" comments on a society enamored by superheroes and explosions by in a way, becoming a very product of it as well. For example, Hit-Girl's shocking fighting techniques might produce laughter. This isn't because the act of murder is supposed to be funny but rather because these moves are all carried out by such a young child. One of the most important rules of comedy is breaking away from the expected. Then again, the often humorous view shows how little the characters understand reality.

Not all of the violence in "Kick-Ass" is pure humor. Director Matthew Vaughn has a Tarantinoesque ability to balance out over-the-top violence with much more realistic (and even dramatic) violence. Nobody gets injured and then heals instantaneously. Vaughn never neglects to remind the audience that in the end, these are just a bunch of inexperienced kids fighting people with guns.

"Kick-Ass" is supported by a flawless cast. Johnson creates a neurotic persona so awkward that it manages to rival the reputation for awkwardness created by co-star Christopher Mintz-Plasse. It was nice to see Nic Cage actually acting for once, or better yet actually playing a character fine-tuned to his own personality. He's had too long of a streak playing characters abusing women while wearing a bear costume.

Of all the cast, the biggest standout was the most inexperienced actress. Moretz handled such a gutsy role with such gusto. She gave off the sort of ease and believability that only a pro could ever pull off. Despite having such a small role, Moretz turns Hit-Girl into the funniest and most memorable character of the film. She's even worthy enough of her own spinoff.

The reason that "Kick-Ass" is my favorite film so far this year is because of how courageous it truly is. In this day, it's hard to make a movie that truly feels daring, that feels as if societal norms were broken in order to make it. "Kick-Ass" is that rare film that seems like a shock that anyone ever produced it. It contains violence that is at times uncomfortably gruesome and at other times uncomfortably funny. It even uses a four-letter word that is still taboo to say.

Yet, the film is never shocking for the sake of shock value. It is shocking because it earns the right to be shocking. It's shocking because parts of it feel like the kind of story you'd hear on the local news at 11, and then later watch it become a YouTube phenomenon. It's daring in both its hardcore violence and its storytelling. Vaughn carefully balances both realism and jet pack absurdity into one film. It's stylish and ridiculous at the same time.

In a world where people can watch movies on laptops and phones, "Kick-Ass" feels like the kind of film that was made to be see in a theater. Its unique story is worthy of a variety of responses. One scene can make some happy, and others angry. It's also shot well, and contains some humor that works best in collectivized laughter. "Kick-Ass" has something to say and something to give. It's both a disturbing look at the world, and a hilarious comic book fantasy. Genius couldn't have come in a more stylish, more fascinating package.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Temporary Vacancy

It's that time of year again. This time around, I'll be heading south of the border to Peru until the 25th. While I'm there, I will not have access to either internet or a movie theater. That means this site will be vacant for the time being.
Unfortunately, this means I won't be able to get an opening weekend review of "Kick-Ass" or another of that copy of "La Dolce Vita" that's been sitting on my shelf for far too long. And I also promise to reboot "That One Scene" and finally write a review of the best comedy currently on TV, "Modern Family." I hope some of you have made an effort to go see either "Greenberg" or "Hot Tub Time Machine." Or better yet, both.
In the meantime, I hope you'll enjoy everything else my blog has to offer until I return. Until that happens, I say, happy moviegoing.
For a little extra film-related entertainment, check out this trailer for a recent film called "Birdemic." It's awful beyond any level of the imagination yet, it's so watchable at the same time. Something tells me that "The Room" has finally caught on:

Monday, April 5, 2010

Movie Review: Trainspotting

At this point, I should not be surprised to see a Danny Boyle film that starts and begins with action. Or, in the case of "Trainspotting," begins in the middle of action. That's the pace of the film, the mood of the film, and the setting of the film, all introduced in a few short seconds. If you can't keep up, you were never meant to watch this film. If you can, be prepared for one of the most rewarding viewing experience you might ever have.

"Trainspotting" was the breakthrough film of the energized British mind of Danny Boyle, perhaps best known for "Slumdog Millionaire." Here, the slums of Mumbai are replaced by the drug scene of Edinburgh, Scotland. Boyle focuses on a small group of heroin addicts, who live as a small, twisted, alternate family.

The circle of friends include the timid Spud (Ewen Bremner), honest Tommy (Kevin McKidd), almost pensive Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), borderline psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle), and Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor). Renton is the film's central character. The film mainly follows his quest from junkie to ordinary man. His conflict is to make it to sobriety without being pulled back into the past.

"Trainspotting" proves that Boyle brings a level of energy and thrill to cinema that few directors nowadays can match. He can achieve this high level of energy simply by tilting a camera, or adding a little light to a room. It might just be a way to shine a little bit of hope into a hopeless world. However, this doesn't mean Boyle is attempting to beautify horror. He never justifies his characters' actions. The film is meant to portray the world inside the mind of a heroin addict, and maybe one person might just beauty in their own mind where others see trash.

Boyle will always remain in my mind a brilliant visual director. He just truly knows what a good image would look like. And while some visual directors opt forr long stretches of silence, Boyle can let soliloquies run long over stunning images with no sense of distraction. Both of these things make one of those combos that just inexplicably work so well together. Boyle is the rare director who can be in-your-face without being annoyingly intrusive.

While Boyle is overwhelmingly a visual director, he still can stay in touch with emotion. Through many odd, trippy sequences, Boyle explicitly shows the inner workings of a drug experience. Then, he shows how these experiences have the power to dehumanize and tear people apart.

Of all the characters in the large ensemble of "Trainspotting," Renton is without a doubt the most important, and the most deep. He is the one character the audience can cling onto emotionally because he is the only one seems to have the ability to change. Renton is extremely dark; he rejects every aspect of materialism along with his own heritage. He doesn't seem to do drugs out of addiction but rather out of the pure thrill of life. He definitely adheres to the quote that opens up "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas": "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man."

The inner pains of Renton are brought out by the outstanding performance of McGregor. He disappears into his role and never steps out of it. He shows an untrustworthy inner demon. Yet, his capacity to change is utterly believable.

Some might compare "Trainspotting" to a modern film about the effects of drugs such as "Requiem for a Dream." However, I will instead compare it to one of cinema's greatest masterworks: "A Clockwork Orange." I am not saying "Trainspotting" is as good as "A Clockwork Orange," but I can feel that Boyle was trying to emulate Kubrick's classic and he does so well. The large white walls that engulf characters, the aloof parents, and the endless graffiti feels totally reminiscent of the world of Alex DeLarge.

Like "A Clockwork Orange," "Trainspotting" is about the possibility or impossibility of change in a world that's in a constant state of moral decay. This is a film that tells the typical anti-drug fable with a hip new eye. Sometimes that's just what the greatest movies are, they ones that tell the stories we've heard millions of times before and makes them brand new. Oh, and in the case of "Trainspotting," simply brilliant.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Movie Review: Greenberg

Sometimes when you're angry at the world, it's not the world you should be angry at, but rather, at yourself. It takes a lot to portray subtle self-loathing. "Greenberg" does just that.
Despite what you may think, "Greenberg" is far away from being a comedy. Yet with a director like Noah Baumbach, there are still traces of humor in the air.

Another surprising thing about "Greenberg" is that it's title character, and the one seen on every poster, is not quite the main character. Who may be our real protagonist (or in my view, the first protagonist), is the character seen first in the movie. The first protagonist is Florence (Greta Gerwig). Florence is the nanny of the Greenberg family. She has potential but barely utilizes it. She seems pretty content with herself.

As the Greenberg family heads on vacation, the father's brother Roger (Ben Stiller) comes to stay at the house after having recently been let out of a mental hospital. He's not actually insane, he can just act like it sometimes.

With "Greenberg," Baumbach leaves his hometown of Brooklyn and replaced it with sprawling, smog-crowded Los Angeles. While the characters of his film "The Squid and the Whale" could seem so distant even though they were always so close, the characters of "Greenberg" seem so incredibly distant both physically and emotionally. Baumbach is a great director in utilizing setting for substance. He uses it not only to show emotional distance but also to later disprove the practicality of Greenberg's lifestyle, which is a philosophy of doing absolutely nothing.

Baumbach has also proved himself an excellent director by pulling off the littlest things with such great care. He has a few excellent shot choices that last just seconds yet are still effective. One of those might be that directly behind the ears shot of a dog walking, with the afternoon light glowing down overhead. Baumbach can also pick an excellent soundtrack.

Oh, and he's a fantastic writer. He's a lot like a Wes Anderson clone, in a good way. He excellently tackles egotism by showing certain people's self-centered lives in relation to the world they inhabit. Most directors might portray narcissism through a first person perspective, but Baumbach is too creative for stooping to that.

Baumbach achieves this by telling the story loosely from Florence's perspective. I say loosely because she doesn't inhabit every scene and we don't even get narration from her. She's never as developed as Roger yet she always seems to be an overwhelming presence in the film. He even manages to balance out her own presence by adding in the perspectives of the other people involved in Roger's life. That, there, is how you can develop a full cast of characters in under two hours.

Even with the varied cast, and even with a different title character, I am always drawn back to Florence. This is mostly because of Gerwig's performance. She's been in so little before this but I already think she deserves an Oscar nomination. Her character is made up of awkwardness and quirks. Yet, she avoids turning Florence into an M.P.D.G. (manic Pixie dream girl), and instead turns her into someone filled with deep pain that we'll just never understand. Sometimes, she feels almost too real to be acting.

Then, of course, there's Stiller. It would be dumb to say that this is his big triumphant foray into dramatic acting. Frankly, his performance as Greenberg is very similar to his performance in "The Royal Tenenbaums." I mean nothing negative by saying this. I think though what Stiller's performance here proves is why comedians are perfect for drama: the most important things in life are usually just too funny to take seriously. For example, Adam Sandler took all the rage he used for laughs in "The Waterboy" and just made it more serious in "Punch Drunk Love." Stiller is always funniest when he is portraying unexplained narcissism and resentment. Here, Stiller is doing what he's always done in movies such as "Zoolander," "Tropic Thunder," and even "Heavyweights." This time, it's just shown from a more mature angle.

What I also enjoyed about "Greenberg" is how Baumbach connects these two characters. They both just seem to be two parts of the same person. However, a little more depth is given to Roger. He is such an unlikeable character. He projects the kind of hatefulness that only an antagonist should show. Baumbach never attempts to justify his actions, but just simply show he might just learn and become a better person from the terrible things he does.

"Greenberg" is a great redemption story because a character is shown who truly needs redemption more than anyone else. However, the world around the character is never shown as being moral or flawless either. Everyone is equipped with their own set of problems. When everyone is dragged down to the same level, it is then that sympathy can be felt for an unlikeable character.

With "Greenberg," Baumbach shows that he's a great story teller simply because he can take the right story, and utilize it in the right way. A good film isn't just about the story, but about how that story is handled. When it comes to turning narcissism into self-hatred and cliches into originality, look no further than the creativeness of this fine auteur.

If You Liked This Movie, You'll Also Like: The Squid and the Whale, The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, The Graduate, Rachel Getting Married, Sideways