Friday, December 20, 2013

THE DESOLATION OF TOLKIEN: Peter Jackson Creates a Derivative Mixed-Bag in The Desolation of Smaug.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens with director Peter Jackson appearing in costume in the city of Bree. Staring directly into the camera, he takes a loud chomp off of a carrot (bookending a similar seen from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), and marches off. While this seems on its surface to be a tongue-in-cheek homage to Alfred Hitchcock, his manner and presentation takes on a meta-textual feel as if declaring "This is MY house". The rest of the film seems to cement this assertion.  
The first entry in this bloated trilogy (more on that momentarily), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), served as an entertaining, if very uneven, prologue. With all the particulars out of the way, Desolation moves at an almost frantic, though uneven, pace. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is still journeys with Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) and The Company of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to enter the Lonely Mountain and reclaim their kingdom from the terrifying dragon, Smaug (a sublimely evil, motion-captured Benedict Cumberbatch). Along the way, Gandalf separates from the companions in order to investigate a familiar, growing evil and the troupe must overcome obstacles, including escaping imprisonment from wood elves, and skulking about the city of Lake-Town which lies at the edge of the Lonely Mountain, to attempt to regain the Arkenstone, which would cement Oakenshield’s claim to rule.  
The film is sumptuous to look at. While the film's vision is distinctly Jackson’s, it is somewhat filtered through the unique lens of Guillermo Del Toro, who brought his Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy sensibilities to the film particularly in the setting of Lake-town (and quite possibly Erebor itself). Whereas the previous film returned to locations first seen in the original trilogy, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and conceptual designer (and noted Tolkien artist) Alan Lee, the world of Middle-Earth is expanded and feels like a real world in and of itself. The visuals do capture the mythological epic nature of Tolkien's fantasy world... 
...that is, if Tolkien's world was fully represented. 
Jackson's Tolkien-based films have always been a source of division among the fans of the source material, mostly due to his penchant for embellishing upon, or outright straying from, said works. Of all these films, The Desolation of Smaug may be the most divisive to date. Jackson’s additions not only give new motivations and angst for existing characters where originally there were none, he goes so far as to create a completely new and prominent new character that never existed in Tolkien’s books. Before 2001, one of the arguments against a film adaptation was the belief that the books were, as written, "unfilm-able". In order to make the original LOTR film trilogy, many liberties were taken to entertain and attract the non-Tolkien masses. Some of those changes were controversial, but on the whole, the essence of Tolkien's work, if not the details, remained relatively intact. In this film…not so much.  
The question becomes how much does one change the source material before it becomes virtually divorced from it? For example, “The Hobbit” is presented from the point of view of Bilbo Baggins. However, in this film Bilbo is the focus for part of the first third and is practically invisible until it is time for him to enter Erebor. The problem with inserting material from corresponding tales from "The Silmarillion" and "Unfinished Tales" is that Bilbo is no longer the story’s focal point and, as such, is relegated to background. This lack of one cohesive protagonist confuses as well as diffuses the power of the film's narrative. It's not to say that the other characters are uninteresting. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. All of the actors acquit themselves rather well with on one performer being a standout (including newcomers Lee Pace, Luke Evans and Stephen Fry as “King Thandruil”, “Bard the Bowman” and “The Master of Lake-town”, respectively, among others). However, this film is titled The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug; one would expect to follow the events from that character’s point of view for the majority of the film.  
Further, without going into spoiler-ish details, there are instances of scenes where Jackson contradicts the first trilogy, particularly where the elves are concerned. Then there's the problem of Evangeline Lilly's "Meredith"… "Tauriel", a character created by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. She exists because (since as far as I remember, there were no female characters in “The Hobbit”) modern day storytelling practically necessitates a female presence (which is not a chauvinistic judgment call, but merely a statement of fact). Her character is Middle-Earth's Katniss Everdeen; sure of bow, strong of character and stout of heart. Her presence, however pleasing to the eye or sympathetic to the viewer, is virtually unnecessary as she neither detracts nor adds to the proceedings. Due to studio decree, a romantic triangle was added after completion of principle photography in order to create a love triangle between her, Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reprising a character who, like Frodo Baggins, Galadriel and Saruman, was not in the book) and the dwarven Kili (a soulful Aidan Turner). This romance poses a problem in the fact that both the LOTR books and films establish that the first rekindling of peace between the dwarves and elves came about from the friendship forged between Legolas and Gimli (John Rhys Davis). However, the portions of Howard Shore's moving score that pertain to Tauriel hint that all may not end well for anyone involved in this triangle. Nevertheless, her inclusion does add some added context for Legolas' behavior in the LOTR film trilogy but, again, it isn't a necessary addition to begin with.
Is this addition emotionally moving? Yes. Is it necessary? Perhaps for the film, if one were to take these films as their own separate entity from the books. And it has to be, for Peter Jackson takes liberties that changes not only whole climatic sequences in order to enhance dramatic effect, but completely changes the motivations of some characters to have them resonate to a 21st century audience. In many ways, he rewrites Tolkien (and not always for the better). As previously asserted in other reviews on this blog, changes deemed necessary for cinematic translation of literary works are acceptable so long as the filmmakers get the essence of the characters and story right. In many ways, this time Jackson doesn't. One of the most egregious (and most likely to incite ire amongst the purists) is during Bilbo's fateful confrontation with Smaug, practically changing the antagonist's character and thus transforming the entire dynamic of the scene. Unfortunately, it doesn't improve matters. 
Despite the fact that in terms of pacing and action this film far surpasses its predecessor, it is filled with bloat. Some action sequences take far longer than required and it is painfully obvious that it is for the purpose of stretching the running time. On the whole, the film tries too hard to add gravitas to such an extent it almost calls attention to the fact that this film is mostly padding to get to The Hobbit: There and Back Again. Of all the films thus far, this may be the weakest of composer Howard Shore's offerings. His music is still powerfully evocative, but it is as uneven as the film itself. He eschews use of the dwarves' theme, so prominent in the previous film, favoring a recurring elvish motif that is not quite as distinct. The "One Ring" theme does present itself in this film, albeit in short bursts. In terms of music, this is Shore's Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.
Unfortunately, the CGI is also uneven.  A sequence involving the dwarves escape from the elven kingdom is almost no better than an Xbox game. The main focus of the digital special effects must have been Smaug the Dragon, who is rendered so realistically he almost seems too real.  Never has a dragon been so beautifully represented in terms of size, scope, and menace. 
The film is extremely, though frustratingly, enjoyable; in some ways, more so than the first. However, it pales next to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which is generally considered to be the weakest entry of the previous trilogy. It also ends in a very visceral cliffhanger, making one very frustrated in having to wait an entire year for the finale.  
Essentially, this film is a mixed bag. It tries too hard to have the same weight and import as The Lord of the Rings.  For people who haven’t read the book(s), the inconsistent characterization might be overlooked and the ride enjoyed for what it is.  For Tolkien purists, just roll with it.  The film is based on the book(s), and should be taken for what it is…Tolkien-lite. Just remember going in that this is Peter Jackson's house; we're simply guests in it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

BREAKING THE AVERAGES: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is What a Sequel Should Be

To say that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will be a box office hit is a no-brainer. After all, the Suzanne Collins penned books are national best sellers and the 2012 film grossed over $400 million domestic alone. However, there remains the question as to whether its sequel is deserving of the same success.

Suffice it to say, it is. 

As the film opens, we find Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, bearing a marked resemblance to Lynda Carter with her raven locks) returned to District 12, unaware that her success in the 74th Hunger Games has planted the seeds of civil unrest and burgeoning revolution. This fact has not escaped President Snow (a sublimely oily Donald Sutherland) who realizes that Katniss, and by extension all the other surviving game contestants, are a danger to the current regime. Therefore, he invokes a "little known reserve activation clause" that forces all winners to compete against each other in the 75th Hunger Games to the death.

In many ways, this film is superior to its predecessor. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation) imbues the film with an overwhelming, oppressively fascist tone. The Capitol's futuristic, opulent USSR/Nazi architecture is evocative of those historical periods while at the same time serves as counterpoint to the impoverished squalor that pervades the thirteen districts. Technology is ever present, used in tracking the movements of all citizenry. It is a world that satirizes our own in terms of where our society is headed. Its power and horror comes from how it reflectively resonates in our own everyday lives. However, in this world, that regime is completely personified in President Snow, and thus gives our archer protagonist a suitable target to focus upon.

It is not an easy job for any actor, male or female, to shoulder an entire franchise. Yet Jennifer Lawrence seems to be able to do so effortlessly. Her performance is as fresh and vital as in the first film, and not one scene rings false. She carries you along and makes you care for not just her, but what concerns her; primarily, the safety of her mother (Paula Malcomson, whose character still has no name), her sister, Primrose (Willow Shields in a surprisingly mature performance), and boyfriend No. 1, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). However, Lawrence’s performance is supported by a fine cast of returning regulars. As annoying as he was in the first film, Peeta is given surprising depth by Josh Hutcherson. For a character that straddles the line between fully realized persona and ersatz Christ figure, Hutcherson does a very good balancing act. He makes the character humanly relatable, thus given an added spice to the story's love triangle. Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinket also undergoes a surprising character shift, going from superficial to poignant; one that is perhaps emblematic of the revolutionary changes within society itself. In terms of acting, Woody Harrelson usually does no wrong, and he continues that streak here. His role as drunk mentor Haymitch is somewhat diminished compared to the first film but he makes his mark. As new Game Master Plutarch Heavensbee, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the film's Lando Calrissianesque-cypher who leaves the audience guessing as to whether he is friend or foe (if one hasn't read the book, that is). I would be remiss if I did not mention Donald Sutherland, who actually manages to present a character who is both disarmingly charming yet coldly malevolent; providing the perfect foil for our heroine. Other notable additions to the class include Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and Lynn Cohen; all of whom elevate their "second banana" characters into individuals who, despite minimal screen time, the audience comes to care for.

Jo Willems' cinematography and Phillip Messina's production design makes for a fully realized world. If there is a sour note in the production, and granted it is not much of one, it is in John Newton Howard's score. It is essentially a rehash of the first film's score with barely any new themes or motifs of note. However, it does work within the context of the film, underscoring each scene’s import and meaning without overpowering it.

The film skillfully follows the second rule of trilogies in that it is more of the same, only heightened. Unlike other trilogies (I'm looking at you Matrix, of which this film's end is remarkably similar), Catching Fire whets one's appetite for this trilogy's conclusion. This film is intelligently, soulfully well-crafted. It tells the story of one girl's reluctant and seemingly hopeless battle against a tyrannical system. It packs an emotional punch that leaves the audience clamoring for the conclusion. Let's just hope that the forthcoming Mockingjay (Parts 1 and 2 - don't get me started on that one), is more The Lord of The Rings - The Return of the King and less Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in terms of conclusory satisfaction.

Friday, November 8, 2013

THOR: THE DARK WORLD is a Bright Light In a Sea of Dark Cinematic Super-Heroics - [POSSIBLE SPOILERS]

In advance of this film, the folks at the satirical “Honest Movie Trailers” (only a YouTube search away) began their tongue-in-cheek summarization of Thor (2011) thusly: “Prepare for a film that only exists so non-nerds can recognize the blond guy in The Avengers.”  If one adheres to the postulate that the best satire always contains a glimmer of truth, then this is a sad indictment.  However, the same cannot be said for Thor: The Dark World, a film which, despite its missteps, is as close to “epic” as the Marvel Universe series of films have gotten.

Two years have passed since “The Battle for New York” as chronicled in 2009’s Marvel’s The Avengers.  “Thor” (Chris Hemsworth) along with “The Warriors Three” (“Fandral” (Zachary Levi), “Volstagg” (Ray Stevenson), and “Hogun” (Tadanobu Asano)) and “Lady Sif” (Jaimie Alexander), has been defending the nine realms from the forces of darkness.  However, the Thunder God who once lived for battle and glory takes no pleasure in his adventures, choosing instead to pine for mortal scientist "Jane Foster" (Natalie Portman) as he has been forbidden by "Odin the All-Father" (Battle-Armor-Santa-Claus Sir Anthony Hopkins) to return to Midgard (otherwise known as "Earth") for her. However, Jane comes to be possessed by the Aether, a destructive force of red energy that is sought after by the arch-nemesis of the Asgardians, the Dark Elves, who are led by "Malekith" (Christopher Eccleston). Thor must then forge a dark alliance with his half-brother "Loki" (fan-favorite Tom Hiddleston) and race against both time and the dark elves, who wish for nothing less than the annihilation of all creation, to find Jane before the Aether consumes her utterly.

Taking over the directoral reins from Kenneth Branagh, and working off a script from Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, sometime Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor forgoes the ersatz Shakespearian "Henry V" take and puts the characters and situations squarely in the space opera milieu with the only thing missing is the proverbial "singing fat lady".  

The film is a visually sumptuous feast.  As befitting a story about quasi-alien/mythological gods, the sets, the costumes, the scenery, are full of grandiose pageantry even if the 3-D renderings are somewhat off, especially with backgrounds that lose clarity.  Though not quite done in the distinctive style of Thor’s co-creator Jack Kirby, in many respects the set designs would have made him proud.  The realm of Asgard is a cornucopia of brilliant, primary-colored hues. By contrast, the Dark Elves and their ships are stark, earthy, and darkly green.  Whereas Asgard is the epitome of life in all its excess and splendor, the elvish world is a macrocosm of stark death and decay. However, the elvish side of the film is way too reminiscent of the Reman race in Star Trek: Nemesis, from the starkness and capabilities of the vessels to the relationship between the antagonist and his right-hand man. In fact, there’s a lot in this film that is evocative of the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises; unsurprising since, through the course of the source material’s inception (especially under the watch of comic creator Walt Simonson, upon whose stories some of the film’s elements are based), "Thor" has been a grand space opera. To say more about the visuals would be to give away too much.  Suffice it to say that in that regard, this is one of the better comic-to-film translations. At times, it really does look and feel like a comic book come to life. 

For all that, though, the film is uneven. When the action takes place, it’s, pardon the expression, thunderous.  However, the action is, at times, injudiciously placed. Other scenes are juxtaposed against each other in a jarring fashion. One scene in particular, which should have carried potent weight, while visually stunning, is devoid of any real heft. Much of this has to do with the treatment of a certain character.  The audience is never given enough time to identify with the players. That, coupled with the almost perfunctory length of said scene, causes it to fail. This despite Brian Tyler’s surprisingly nuanced score, which ranges from brass nobility (with echoes of John Williams from another franchise by Marvel’s “Distinguished Competition”) to quieter, almost spiritual moments. The story's flow is disjointed, but this narrative aberration mostly takes place between the first and second acts. Once the second half of the film takes off, the ride continues until the very end.

What sets this film apart from most other super-heroic fare of late is that, while the stakes are high, the film doesn't take itself so seriously that it forgets to be fun.  Yes, there are battles in which there are civilians in danger, but this film reminds us that the hero is working to save lives, not just contribute to the collateral damage. The film also manages to balance out its proceedings with a liberal dose of organic humor which never seems forced, from Thor's use of mundane, every day items to "Darcy Lewis'" (Kat Dennings) ad-libbed quips.

Though his direction is somewhat off in certain scenes, credit Taylor towards his direction of the actors.  Chris Hemsworth cannot be dismissed as just another pretty face or muscular body. Between the events of the first film and the aforementioned Avengers, his Thor has matured as a character, and Hemsworth's performance is a far cry from the super-powered frat boy from the first film.  Hemsworth's Thor has grown to be a much more responsible, seasoned, nobly heroic character. He's just damned heroic (Much more so in this presentation, daresay, than another crimson caped, nihilistically-reimagined pseudo-demigod with his own film this past summer). It's an internal as well as physical performance; it's not so much what Hemnsworth says, or rather what he doesn't, but how he does it...a look here, a stance there.  Hemsworth is an actor of surprising depth and emotional acuity. Unfortunately, while there are moments that he seems lost in his own film, that issue has more to do with script concerns and direction than his actual performance.

As the villain "Malekith", Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who) looks like a refugee from the Forgotten Realms fantasy series by way of the Borg (a comparison made all the more tongue-in-cheek given that the Borg Queen herself, Alice Krige, has a cameo in this film). Given that he's playing a character that solely exists (narratively and meta-textually) for the destruction of everything, there's not a whole lot to be expected by way of character nuance or development. He is appropriately driven and menacing, though his expression does seem more befuddled than actually menacing. As a villain, one could do worse.

Of course, fan favorite Loki is in the mix; his role expanded due to the character's rise in popularity. Ordinarily this would have been a source of concern, as more often than not re-writes to justify an actor's/character's expanded role can compromise the script, it's certainly not the case here.  Hiddleston gives a performance that deftly adds to the proceedings without overshadowing his co-stars, particularly Thor.  Loki's moral ambiguity remains intact throughout the tale, making him more compelling than his villainous turn in The Avengers. He provides the few genuine surprises to be had. Hiddleston knows when to be big and when to dial it back.  Even when he's being bad, he's oh, so good. He also has a quiet moment that is both shocking when juxtaposed with his normal carriage but understandable within context. Hiddleston gives a laudable presentation.

Natalie Portman's "Jane Foster", though still the film's damsel-in-distress, is not quite helpless.  However, for a scientist, her character doesn't seem to have sufficient chemistry with Thor. Hemsworth and Portman acquit the couple well, but quite frankly the passion that the couple is supposed to feel for each other is not quite there. We know the characters are in love because the story/script tells us they are, but the audience should feel this come viscerally from them. This is not in evidence; especially given the fact that Hemsworth seems to have more palpable chemistry with Jaimie Alexander.

Though many of the secondary characters have scant screen time, they never seem two-dimensional.  In fact, they fell more three-dimensional than they did in the first outing.  Possible-"Wonder Woman"-in-Training Jaimie Alexander infuses "Lady Sif" with an Amazonian regality which masks an unspoken yet emotionally palpable romantic pining for the Thunder God, for example. She has very little to say, but one cannot forget her presence when on screen. The tragedy of unrequited love evident in but a glance. Rene Russo, who portrayed "Frigga" in what amounted to a  blink-it-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in the first film, is given the opportunity to play with the big boys and she makes the most of it to such an extent you find yourself wishing there were more of her.  Idris Elba makes up for his Pacific Rim overacting by infusing Heimdall with a noble-yet-stately and powerful quiescence. His character is not one to be trifled with.  Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard, and newcomer to the series Jonathan Howard provide the human and welcomed comic relief.

If there is any sour note to the performances, it surprisingly comes from Sir Anthony Hopkins as "Odin". While his character is the epitome of the distant and unapproachable, never-pleased father figure, half the time Hopkins' performance (at times seemingly phoned in) seems to reflect an attitude that the material is beneath him; despite this, there are moments of nuance in his performance; especially in one scene that would fall apart without it.  In that one moment, Hopkins earns his assuredly-costly paycheck. 

While Iron Man 3 was the most highly anticipated Marvel film of this year, Thor: The Dark World is arguably the superior film. While it doesn't quite live up to its potential, it is by no means a failure. Not in recent years has a super-hero production seem to embrace its source trappings without seeming embarrassed by them.  It's a big, loud and, yes, epic spectacle with a genuine heart and something that has been lacking in super-hero films of late: A hero to truly root for. At the film's conclusion, it is said that Thor will return.  This is one promise this reviewer hopes is kept.

[Oh, as for the now-requisite Marvel credits/post-credits scene...the mid-credit scene seems slipshod and hastily put together.  Definitely stay for the end credit scene. You'll be glad you did.]

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


***NOTE:  The following was never meant for publishing. However, given the increasing awareness of bullying and its unfortunate effects within our society, I thought it appropriate to show that it can and does happen to anyone.
Do you remember what you said to me at our twenty year high school reunion, “buddy”?
I’m really sorry for bullying you…but you have to admit, you really had it coming.”
I understand that time passes, we grow, we change. You’ve turned your life around; even become an educator at the very junior high we attended.  As you’ve intimated in our one and only conversation since those days that standing on the outside, surveying bully and bullied, that you’ve gained an understanding for what you did and claim that you can see how far reaching the damage can be to those bullied.
And yet you still have the temerity to state “[I] really had it coming”?
I had it coming? 
How so, Mr. “So-Called-Reformed-Bully?” You, with your back-handed apology, think you know what bullying does to a person.  You think I asked for it? You think I was weak? What you didn't know was that in my first two years of school I was a very violent child.  You never knew that when teased or cornered I would attack my peers with such savage, emotional fury the type of which only an enraged child can muster that my opponents would get seriously hurt; one of whom eventually ended up in the hospital. You never knew of the shame I would feel from my parents and the only teacher I adored and respected back then…of how they so thoroughly shamed me into never raising my hand in violence again. How I was practically forbidden to defend myself as my parents didn’t clarify the difference between violence and self-defense; how I could not retaliate for my opponent's (read: your) protection, not mine, for the rest of my scholastic life.
All I wanted to do was mind my own business, show up to my classes, do what was required, and leave.  You and your cronies went out of your way to seek me out to heap your daily dose of verbal and physical abuse. I carried all my heavy school books…yes, ALL…in my backpack to minimize any possibility of your cornering me at my locker. I learned your (and your buddies’) class and lunch schedules so as to navigate the hallways with the minimal possibility of running into you.  I minded my own business on those rare classes we shared, but that didn’t stop you from surreptitiously tying my belt loop to my chair so that when the bell rang, I almost cracked my skull open after my chair slipped from under me due to the force of my getting up. 
You never knew that during school days I would wake up with a feeling of anxious dread. You never knew the toll it took on my self-esteem…how the rest of you could go about your lives willy-nilly and how I had to stay in control.  Every hit, every punch, every verbal epitaph I received…all undeserved, yet stoically (at least outwardly) endured nonetheless because, in the back of my mind, the shame would return; shame in and shame out without expression or release, impotently drowning in my own salty sea of sorrow.
And that pain stays with you…no matter what the age or how much time has passed. It stings with the freshness of yesterday. It becomes a part of your make-up. It infuses so much of your decisions in life whether consciously or otherwise. You take up self-defense classes. You bulk up your body by adding muscle to your frame. You gain an empathy for those that the “too cool for school” set has written off and discarded. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and trudge forward. You harden.  You compromise your ability to trust to keep from being betrayed.  You distance yourself from others to keep from feeling pain again.  You become a person who becomes virtually unrecognizable to the person who you used to be.  Yes, to some degree my own transformation is due in part because of you and your ilk. However, you should consider it a source of shame, not pride. Yes, one can move on from those experiences, learn from them, and let them go.  But despite that, the pain still remains as prevalent as a scar. It heals, bur remains.
When you said your “apology”, I gave you such a look that your own eyes registered momentary apprehension, and even perhaps a bit of fear; one which heightened when I approached you, stepped into your personal space, and told you where to shove that apology.  In that tiny, uncertain moment, you had but a miniscule taste of what I had felt for years of painful adolescence.  I hope you carry that with you for the rest of your days.  Maybe then, when you see it happen to others under your academic watch that you really make things right. Maybe then, I can believe you finally truly understand.  And maybe you might come to realize that of the two of us, you were the one who was really asking for it.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

REVIEW PROOF: "Machete Kills" With More Over The Top, Gratiutious, Sublime Ridiculousness.

Machete (2010) was never intended to be a film.  The character and concept first saw the light of day as a fake trailer for the Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse, the two directors' love letter to the film's eponymous film genre. However, the popularity of the trailer eclipsed that of the actual features (Tarantino's Death Proof and Rodriguez' Planet Terror, respectively). In response to fan demand, Machete was greenlit, with a cast that boasted the likes of Robert DeNiro, Jessica Alba, and Lindsay Lohan in a nun's habit (!). It made respectable box office and quickly achieved cult status through cable and home media strong enough to move forward with a sequel.

Whereas the original Machete was a send up of the Mexploitation/grindhouse films of the 70s, Machete Kills goes beyond and sends up various film, television, and even comic book genres of the 70s, including but not limited to Star Wars, Star Trek, "The Fantastic Four", and particularly the Roger Moore Bond films, with a little bit of 24 thrown into the mix. Machete (Danny Trejo) is practically a Mexican analogue of that era's James Bond, though substituting Moore's sardonic, raised-eyebrow smirk with a perpetual scowl and a predilection to refer to himself in the third person.  However, this film makes Moore's more outrageous turns as James Bond (Moonraker, anyone...upon which this film heavily draws on?) seem like an episode of Downtown Abbey.  Oh, there's a plot involving the Trejo's being recruited by the President of the United States (Carlos Estevez* in a ..."winning"...performance) to take down a rogue but insane rogue agent (Demian Bichir, who practically channels Al Pacino's '80s overacting phase...which isn't necessarily a good thing...) before he can use a nuclear warhead aimed straight for Washington, but the story just exists to string set piece after outrageous set piece.

For a film that serves as homage to an era of bad filmmaking, it is surprisingly good.  Rodriguez, who also served as screenwriter along with Kyle Ward and Marcel Rodriguez, manages to put in a plethora of "I didn't see that coming" moments that actually make sense within the context of the much as one can in a nonsensical film, that is. The violence is so ridiculously over the top, the Hershey's chocolate company must have made a mint for all the fake blood that was used in the production. While the violence is disturbing, it's so outrageously, bizarrely absurd that its almost akin to watching an R-rated "Looney Tunes" cartoon, albeit one with an inordinate amount of "T&A" (but who's complaining?).

Equally absurd are the performances.  As with the first film, Rodriguez has amassed an eclectic mix of "A" and "B" listers who are not only clearly in on the joke, but gleefully revel in it: Most especially Michelle Rodriguez returning as "Luz", Machete's one-eyed, off and on, kick-ass friend with benefits; Vanessa Hudgens as the tongue-firmly-in-cheek named "Cereza", Amber Heard as Machete's government agent handler who is also a finalist in the "Miss Texas" pageant; Sofia Vergara as a psychotic Madame with a very...special set of accoutrements; a very grown up Alexa Vega, who serves as Vegara's right hand woman; and Lady Gaga(!), Cuba Gooding, Jr., Antonio Banderas, and Walton Goggins, each playing...well, that would be telling. But the prize for the most standout performance goes to Mel Gibson, whose nutty presence is a perfect fit, both meta-textually and within the story, with the film's nutty shenanigans.  Playing a villain for the first time in his long career, Gibson shines as "Luther Voz", a billionaire "Blofeld/Hugo Drax" analogue (as if the "Luther" name didn't clue one in as to the character's alignment). Given the dark, self-inflicted turns his life has taken in the last few years, it is easy to forget that Mel Gibson was a very talented thespian under that once-handsome face.  This film reminds us of that fact. His acting exchanges with the stoic Trejo actually help bolster Trejo's performance; Gibson gives his all but reins in appropriately when necessary so as not to dominate their shared scenes.  Say what you will about the man's mental/emotional state, Gibson still knows how to capture attention. The film is a giant >wink< to the audience as Rodriguez takes advantage of the pop culture baggage attached to some of the players, using our acknowledgement of them to enhance the proceedings without overlying upon them.  It's very deftly handled.
There's really not much to say about Machete Kills other than the fact that it's a gonzo joy ride of insanity.  It's a guy film in the best sense of the word.  Who needs to juice up with 'roids when you can sit and watch this filmLeave all thought of coherence and physics at the door.  Machete Kills won't be everyone's cup of tea, but oh, what a sublime brew it is.

*Otherwise known as "Charlie Sheen".

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

RETRO REVIEW: CHEAPER THAN THERAPY - "Married Life" Offers a More Adult View of Marital Affairs

Ira Sachs’ film Married Life (2007), based on the novel by John Bingham, is aptly named.  Much like the institution that informs its subject, the film carries certain expectations going in but reveals something wholly unexpected beneath its facade. 
Set some time in the 1940s in an unnamed city, the film centers on “Harry Allen” (Chris Cooper), a man living through a very routine marriage to his wife, “Pat” (Patricia Clarkson) while being enamored with his beautiful mistress, “Kay” (the ethereal Rachel McAdams).  He wants out of his banal marriage but cannot bring himself to ask for a divorce for fear of the social and psychological consequences to Pat.  So, in order to spare her the pain and embarrassment of divorce, he “logically” decides to kill her. To complicate matters, he confesses his intent to his best friend, the rakishly debonair “Richard Langley” (Pierce Brosnan), an unrepentant womanizer who eventually falls for Kay as well.
The plot smacks of David Lynch-ian sensibilities and could have easily fallen into melodramatic “whodunit” territory.  Surprisingly, Sachs and co-screenwriter Oren Moverman avoid the temptation to do so.  Rather, Sach’s film is an exploration of the mores and hypocrisies found within relationships both in and out of wedlock, and presents same with refreshing honesty and maturity that, for the most part, succeeds.
This film could not be done in the present day, for many of the plot twists (of which there are a few), could easily be unraveled with a cell phone or a laptop computer.  The decision to use post-war America is also practical as it presents marital infidelity during a time when it was considered scandalous taboo.  The music by Dickon Hinchliffe is nondescriptly melodious and acts as a perfect reflection to the subject matter.  Peter Derning’s cinematography, which presents a combination of Art Deco and film noir sensibilities, creates a stylistic confluence evocative of both yet adhering to neither.
The strength of this film lies in the characters.  Chris Cooper is quietly engaging as the middle-aged Allen, a complex man to whom killing does not come easy.  Cooper, who is perhaps best remembered as the head of Treadstone in The Bourne Identity, manages with a look to convey the conflicting, rumbling emotions that his milquetoast exterior belies.  Patricia Clarkson is a revelation in her portrayal of Pat, a woman who may not be as fragile as everyone assumes her to be.  As the mistress/divorcee, Rachel McAdams radiates a physical beauty evocative of Veronica Lake.  Unfortunately, of all the characters, hers is the most two-dimensional.  She is more ethereal muse than flesh-and-blood person to the two male leads, inspiring them to consider avenues of thought they hadn’t before.  As to the other male lead, why is it that Pierce Brosnan seems to be closer to the literary James Bond post-Bond than he was ever allowed to be in his tenure as the cinematic super-spy?  As in his turns in The Fourth Protocol, The Tailor of Panama and most recently the critically-acclaimed The Matador, Brosnan infuses his character with a rapscallion flair and rapier wit.  Yet despite his betrayal of Allen’s friendship, he infuses Langley with charmingly disarming sensitivity and depth.  It is perhaps Brosnan’s most nuanced performance to date, and it is a superb turn.
This film will probably not be at the box office long because it is a film that does not follow standard formulaic clichés, nor is it filled with moments of exaggerated action or pathos.  Like the lives it depicts, the film is a quiet affair (pun intended) which presents its conflicts and resolutions (or lack thereof) in a human and adult manner.  Sachs’ purpose in this film is to show that a married life is not a fairy tale that ends “happily ever after” or that passion overrules all, but that true love and affection take time to build.  Every frame shot, every character interaction, shows that this film is a product of that which makes a good marriage:  A labor of love. 

RETRO REVIEW: ABANDON ALL HOPE…Despite CITY OF GOD’s Biblically Allegorical Bent, It’s Nothing We Haven’t Seen Before

Despite its crime drama trappings, one must address the irony of the title of director Fernando Meirelles’ 2000 epic, City of God.  After all, upon seeing the film one would have to acknowledge its irony; a not unrealistic expectation given our predominately Judeo-Christian society.  But given the various pantheons of gods that exist in various mythologies, this city could easily be ruled by, say, Hades or Shiva.  Perhaps the film would be best served by if it were titled City of Ozymandias, as what Percy Shelley wrote with tongue firmly in cheek would apply here wholly in fact:  Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.”  “God” (take your pick) is certainly absent from the proceedings; that is, if He/She/They was/were ever there to begin with.  City of God takes an epic approach to the matter of godless survival and the often futile attempts of hope to germinate in the face of abject hopelessness. 
As with any crime drama, setting is key. Meirelles through use of cinematography goes to great lengths to ensure that the viewer viscerally internalizes the bleak starkness that permeates City of God.  Instead of rain soaked, night blanketed city streets, glamorous gambling parlors and seedy watering holes, the landscape is stiflingly sun scorched. The buildings are weathered and dilapidated, each abutting each other in an oppressively claustrophobic manner. The streets are dirty, sickly, and wholly uninviting. The housing development outside the city is replete with rickety ramshackle homes that look as if they were about to blow over in the stiff, dust saturated winds that seem to incessantly blow with nary a hint of life-affirming vegetation in sight.  Nothing grows here; not life, not hope.  But Meirelles is not content to let the scenery voluminously speak for itself.  With its rapid camera cutting technique, the chicken chase sequence that opens the film foreshadows what is to come:  Unrepentant evil reigns in this fast paced land where lives are trampled and taken at a capricious whim.  The innocent cannot survive here unless they “duck and cover” and stay out of the way.  Even long steady shots are used to convey this mood as the viewer shares a woman’s pain as she watches her lover die in a futile escape attempt from the police, the scene receding in the distance as her hijacked car pulls away.  While escape is possible in this god-forsaken land, it does not come without a price.
Yet camera technique alone does not a movie make, and every Paradise Lost allusion needs its biblical analogues.  For Adam, we have the film’s narrator "Besquat/Rocket" (first played as a child by Buscapé Criança, then played with a disarming insouciance as an adult by Alexandre Rodrigues), a young man with photojournalistic aspirations.  Of course, no garden would be complete without its requisite serpent.  "Li’l Dice" (Douglas Silva) grows from a “nobody” child to "Li’l Zé", the ruler of this drug infested land.  Leandro Firmino plays the adult Zé with a charismatic vileness that rivals the mesmerizing effect of Orson Wells’ “Harry Lime” or Anthony Hopkins’ “Hannibal Lecter”, for how powerful can evil be without its seductive aspect?  Rocket’s and Zé’s stories are told in an epically cyclical fashion. Mierelles heavily borrows flashback techniques from Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander by using key moments or objects in the present to trigger flashbacks to tie-in the past and is used to striking effect: For example, in context to "Knockout Ned’s" (Mané Galihna) death.  When the scene is set in the past, the film’s visual aspects change in order to be evocative of the time period being represented, such as sepia tones for Rocket’s/Li’l Dice’s respective childhoods, a technique currently used in the series Cold Case.  That's not the only stylistic homage that is present.  In Li’l Zé, one can see the similar desire for power and respect and the social ineptitude of a Tony Montana in Scarface, or Bene’s best Mercutio impression from any rendition of Romeo and Juliet. But for all its similarities to other films in the crime drama vein, it bucks other trends in that genre.  In any other standard Hollywood film, Rocket would have sought vengeance for his brother Goose’s death at the hands of Li’l Dice/Zé.  Though he acknowledges the murder in his voice over narration, Rocket does not seek retribution, preferring to get high and stay as clear away from trouble (and filial responsibility) and seek out his escape through his dreams and aspirations.   
In essence, this is a not a story about good versus evil but, rather, its uneasy, compromising co-existence, though the good is certainly muted by comparison.  From Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather to Ridley Scott’s recent Russell Crowe/Denzel Washington vehicle, American Gangster, the current trend in the standard crime/mafia genre is to show how there is good exists in evil and vice versa.  City of God especially follows this trend.  For all his evil, Li’l Zé is the protectorate of his turf while the police kill and frame innocents for crimes uncommitted.  Arguably, for all his “good” qualities, Rocket is evil through inaction if one adheres to author Edmund Burke’s axiom that “for evil to flourish good men must do nothing.”
The cyclical nature of the story also works sub-textually in presenting the self-perpetual nature of this societal anomie.  As Li’l Zé grew from child murder to boss, so is the torch fatally passed when Zé himself is murdered by the pre-adolescent Runts.  Evil feeds on itself and it is the children, not the meek, who will inherit this piece of earth.  Yet that evil is subversively seductive, with power and pleasures to be quickly had while those who stray towards the light and attempt their own brand of legitimate greatness receive a mere pittance for their efforts.  Rocket’s internship at a newspaper for his Pulitzer quality photos attest to that.  But any expectation of fairness would be the understandable in a land of a just and loving god.  There is no justice here.
City of God is a film that works on various different levels but unfortunately, in its attempt to be different from the mold, only shows how closely it is tied to it.  Nevertheless, it is a powerful piece of work that makes its case known.  No sane, god-fearing individual would want to come near this City.  Nietzsche, however, would feel right at home.


"As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport."

                 - King Lear, Act 4, scene 1, lines 36–37.

Rather appropriate for today, don'cha think?

"DON JON"...STILL A BETTER LOVE STORY THAN "TWILIGHT". Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Film Seduces with Poignancy.

Who would have thought a film ostensibly about porn addiction would be enjoyable in a non-titillating fashion? 

But then, Don Jon, an artistic dramedy trifecta by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who serves as writer, star, and director), is not really about porn addiction.  That’s just the hook to get the viewers in the seats. What unfolds on the screen is a somewhat realistic and non-judgmental presentation of the life of Jersey boy “’Don’ Jon Martello” (Levitt) a young man who earned his moniker from his ability to bed “10s”.  Jon is very happy with his “situation”: He loves his car, his job, his pad, his family, his friends...and his porn.  He absolutely LOVES his porn as it gives him something that he can’t get from actual sex no matter how many 10s he scores; and he scores a lot of them. However, things change when he encounters two women who impact his eye: “Barbara Sugarman” (a very fetching, glammed up Scarlett Johansson, doing her best Drea de Matteo/”Adriana La Cerva” impersonation), who is the film’s epitome of “10-dom” and “Esther”, an older woman whose ditzy demeanor is not all that it seems.  

The film’s title, a play on Don Juan, is emblematic of the film’s indie-quirky stylistic approach. It is lofty and down to earth, quixotic yet straightforward; a combination made more explicit by Nathan Johnson's use of music, whose score is peppered with lofty arias and strings juxtaposed with street bass-worthy fare ("Good Vibrations", anyone?).  Instead of jarring, these stylistic contrasts not only flow with but compliment the narrative.  

Acting professionally since the age of four, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has has obviously learned from his experiences both in front of and behind the camera. It’s very difficult for a film both written and directed by its star to not come across as a "vanity project", but somehow Levitt pulls it off. What is also rare is the lack of extraneous scenes.  Virtually every frame in the film exists for the sole purpose of advancing the story and its themes, which range from hypocrisy to emotional isolation (and if a scene does seem to go long, it is to deftly make a definitive point). He shows how superficial veneer can mask the longing and/or unhappiness that lies beneath.  Levitt also makes the very defensible argument that mainstream (read, “acceptable”) romance media (movies, novels, etc.) are just as addictive and unrealistic as its “smutty” counterpart; extremes on either side that bring about unrealistic presentations of their subject matter and thus, arguably, can cause disappointment in the “real world” (In a particularly inspired sequence, Levitt utilizes celebrity cameos to highlight the unreality of the romcom genre). Another powerful theme in this film is communication or, rather, the lack thereof. Characters may talk a lot, but say little.  People may hear, but rarely listen (and careful of the ones who don’t speak). As such, Don Jon also satirizes perfunctory way life is lived. Even something as deeply personal as attending confession is treated as a perfunctory matter, where even the priest dolls out penance with the bored efficiency of handing out change in a financial transaction. Scenes of Jon’s life are virtually repeated to good effect, with Levitt's direction altering each reiteration of each scene with a slight nuance to evidence the changes that his character undergoes, whether the character realizes it or not.  

The performances seem real, at times brutally so.  Jon is a matter of fact, self-aware individual. He knows porn fills a void but he doesn’t know what that is.  As his primary love interest, Johansson is his opposite number, a Mata Hari who gets annoyed when a strand of hair is out of place. But it is a testament to both Levitt’s direction and Johansson’s ability that her character is never really portrayed in a negative light. Their relationship plays as very real.  If Johansson is the “vamp”, Julianne Moore’s Esther is the film’s “earth mother”; albeit a subtly sexy one. Her character is at turns manic and grounded, light yet filled with pathos.  If Barbara is Jon’s mirror reflect, then Esther is his contrasting comparison. Moore is beguiling even when she’s at her most innocuous.  One of the standout performances comes from Tony Danza as Jon’s father, “Jon Sr.” Just hearing Danza curse in fuggedaboutit fashion alone is worth the price of admission, and his interactions with Levitt pop. There is an affection between that two actors that does translates believably onto the scene (A probable a holdover from when the two worked together in 1994’s Angels in The Outfield). As “Angela”, Jon Jr.’s mother, Glenne Headly seems like the doting stereotypical Italian mother; it’s a façade for a longing the character herself experiences. The marriage, and the family, is a microcosm for all the themes the film explores. However, as in real life, this situation is not wrapped in neat little bow by the film’s end.  

This is not the first film Gordon-Levitt has directed, but I would go so far as to say it is his best. Don Jon is a quiet little film; one that is filled with honesty; humor both broad and subtle; pathos; and quirk.  It will probably get lost in the shuffle in the season of Oscar consideration, and that is to the film’s detriment. It is a sharp, well written, acted and directed film; one that’s almost literary in execution. When films are selected for Oscar consideration, it is my hope this one makes the cut.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A MEDIOCRE FAMILY GATHERING: "The Family" Shows Hints of Potential, But Ultimately Fails.


Luc Besson has produced, written, and directed some of the most entertaining and pulse pounding films of the last two-plus decades, among them Leon: The Professional; Taken and its sequel; The Fifth Element; and The Transporter series. However, even with a track record like that it’s possible to misfire, and unfortunately, The Family misses the target.
The story focuses on Brooklyn mobster Fred Blake/Givoanni Manzoni (Robert DeNiro) who, after surviving a near hit, turns in evidence that puts high-ranking mobster Don Luchese (Stan Carp) in prison and force Manzoni, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), and children Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo), into witness protection in Normandy, France with new identities. Each member of the re-christened “Blake” family is amoral in their own right and, as a result, this isn’t the first time that the family has been relocated, much to the consternation of FBI agent and handler Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones).
It sounds like a typical “culture shock” story, but one would expect (given that the story is written by Besson with an assist by screenwriter Michael Caleo with the entire process overseen by producer Martin Scorsese, who knows a thing or two about mobsters[1] ) that the premise would be given an interesting overhaul. However, the whole film is disjointed. It’s not that it is not enjoyable. It just seems uninspired.
Besson has been able to deftly juggle humor, dark or otherwise, with action and suspense before, as any of the aforementioned films can attest to. However, here the tonal shifts are discordantly jarring. The comedy, while effective in parts, is derived primarily from the actors and the audience's familiarity with them and, more importantly, their quirks. Robert DeNiro is essentially playing Robert DeNiro. Ms. Pfieffer basically repurposes her Married to the Mob character though she does manage to give her character a bit more bite that would give The Sopranos’ Carmela Soprano pause. Tommy Lee Jones seems to be on autopilot these days, playing Stansfield as a subdued Samuel Gerard from The Fugitive/U.S. Marshalls. It’s not to say they’re not enjoyable to watch, but there’s almost an underlying bored aspect to their performances combined with a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” at the audience that you’ve seen this all before (especially given the reference to another Scorsese film reference that is practically televised to the audience before it is even mentioned***). Surprisingly, it’s Agron and D’Leo who are the film’s standouts. Both start out as the stock “too cool for school” teenager characters but grow in an extremely visceral way as the story progress so that by its conclusion, they are at a more mature place. The world, and the circumstances by which they come to live in it, are no joke. The other performers are so one note rote that they barely merit a mention. That they service the story well is the best that can be said.
Besson seems more interested in, and devotes two-thirds of the film’s running time, to the Manzoni/Blake’s “fish out of water” story. Thus, the subplot regarding the price on their collective heads and the hit man in pursuit of them (an effectively creepy Jon Freda) is almost tacked on at the end. However, Besson’s direction ratchets the suspense in the limited amount of time remaining to actual edge-of-seat proportions. The climax also allows the two younger actors to shine in their respective roles, running a gamut of conflicting emotions warring with a surprising amount of self-possession. The score by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine is quirky but colorful, adding to the film’s general atmosphere. However, given the unevenness of film’s tone, it comes across as disjointed as well.
By no means is The Family a bad film. It has some enjoyable moments and some good character interaction. However, the shifting tone, the ennui of the leads, and the overall execution prevent it from being as enjoyable as one would expect given the talent involved both in front of and behind the camera. I never thought I’d see a Luc Besson film that would merit a “wait for cable” designation.
I guess there’s a first time for everything.
***The script is based on a short story called Malavita, which was also called Badfellas

Friday, September 6, 2013


The backstory behind the Riddick franchise is quite interesting. The first film, Pitch Black (2000) did well enough at the box office to warrant a big budget, studio backed sequel (The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)) which practically tanked at the box office. Reportedly, this was mostly due to the fact that it eschewed the tone and events of the first film. However, when Universal declined to green light a second follow up, franchise star Vin Diesel declined payment in a The Fast and The Furious cameo to obtain the rights to Riddick and went even so far as to mortgage his own house in order to secure financing for an independently produced second sequel. Does Diesel's gamble pay off?
On the whole, it does.
I have to admit that I went into this Riddick blind, as I had not seen the two previous films. However, it says something that this film makes me want to watch the first at the very least. While this film follows the events of the second film, it is still somewhat easy for the uninitiated to follow: A restless Riddick (Diesel) wears a "crown upon a troubled brow" (to borrow a phrase from Conan the Barbarian) as Lord of the Necromongers (don't ask). Riddick, a figurative caged animal tired of civilized trappings of rule, negotiates with Vaako (Karl Urban, in a blink or you'll miss him cameo) to relinquish his position in exchange for safe passage to his home world, Furya. However, a double crossed Riddick is left stranded, battered, and bruised on an inhospitable planet. Eventually, events force Riddick to send out a distress beacon that brings not one, but two different teams of bounty hunters: One led by a Hispanic caricature named Santana (a comically annoying Jordo Molla) who literally wants to put Riddick's head in a box; the other led by Boss Johns (Matt Nable), who is after Riddick for other, more personal reasons. The rest of the film plays like a combination between Alien, Castaway, and The Most Dangerous Game.
The script is a straightforward, by the numbers, if somewhat disjointedly directed affair by David Twohy. But then, let's face it; even someone who has not watched the previous movies knows that the big draw of the film is Diesel. He pulls a "Chuck Noland" for the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film; i.e. it's just him and the landscape. However, thanks to his natural charisma, he manages to sell what could have been ploddingly unnecessary exposition and make it interesting (and there are a couple of gratuitous shots of Diesel in the buff to ensure that interest for those who are looking for that).
Would that the rest of the cast could have fared as well. Unfortunately, the trope of bickering competitors forced to work together is annoyingly overused. What is further unfortunate is that the characters are practically paper thin, disposable, two dimensional cut outs (so disposable that when certain characters are taken out of the picture, so to speak, you barely notice their absence, much less feel anything for them). While fan-favorite actors like Katee Sackhoff ("Dahl") and Dave Bautista ("Diaz") are given some choice comedic lines, their characters are surprisingly bland. The dialogue ranges from substandard to laughably execrable (especially in Molla's case), and the stereotyping goes a bit into the satirical side (again, Molla's character, as well as Sackhoff's character's name sounding too much like "doll", which Riddick mocks to delightful effect) and the editing could have been tighter as some of the sequences tend to go long even after the point has been made.
What the film lacks in dialogue or characterization, it makes up in sheer spectacle. In the last twenty years or so of sci-fi films, this is the first film where an alien planet actually felt alien. The special effects department and cinematographer, David Eggby, create a Frazettaian/Vallejoian landscape populated by alien creatures that truly do seem creepily alien. While the quality of the CGI is inconsistent in quality at times, special kudos go to this team for being able to create a CGI alien dog that evokes emotion in the viewer.
Graeme Revell's score is versatile, if somewhat lacking a core identity, in that his music serves the film's changing moods and beats. It's a suspenseful actioner, though not quite as suspenseful as it should have been. It plods at times but when the action does arrive it comes, if you'll pardon the expression, fast and furiously.  However, this film serves as set dressing for Diesel, who revels in his strutting, Sergio Leone-esque Riddick character.  It's a character he loves and believes in, and it shows, which is especially evident in the film's final act.
 This is, for all intents and purposes, an independent film done on a modest budget (if one can call $39 million "modest"). Free from studio interference other than distribution, the character is free to return to his cinematic roots. The film is somewhat unpolished in certain areas, but in a rather refreshing way; it comes across as more natural ... at least, as natural as a sci-fi/horror/thriller hybrid can get.  On the whole, it is highly straightforwardly entertaining film. The majority of that enjoyment really comes from Diesel, whose presence is felt in the entire film even when he's not in the scene (a rare feat in movies these days). If you like your heroes with an old-time chauvinistic swagger, then this is the film for you, and one deserving to be watched in IMAX.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


 One of the major tropes of the “super-hero” genre has always been the conceit of the “secret identity”, which is also known as the “dual identity” because in most cases the presented persona of the hero or heroine is opposite in temperament to the person’s own.  Prototypically, Clark Kent was conceived as nebbishly emasculated compared to Superman’s virile animus. Bruce Wayne’s ennui masked Batman’s righteous fanaticism, Diana Prince was meek and mousey compared to Wonder Woman’s feminist self-possession, and so forth. Peter Parker was also meek but unlike Clark Kent, who simply put on a klutzy act, this was his gestalt personality. However, he felt truly alive and free to be himself when he donned the mask of “Spider-Man”.  Eventually, the issue of who was the real person and who was the mask became a point debate that, for many of these characters, still remains unanswered. Kick-Ass 2, written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, based on the comic book characters created by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., has its own identity conundrum as it is disjointed in presentation. 

Set a couple of years after the first Kick-Ass, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has put aside the Kick-Ass persona and resumed the normal, albeit frustrating, life of a high school student.  When he finds said lifestyle lacking, he decides to resume his career as Kick-Ass in order to regain his sense of purpose.  Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz) has honored her promise to her late father (Nicholas Cage, who appears only in photograph but whose ghost is felt in the form of the showcased Big Daddy costume, which is displayed in eerie inverse juxtaposition to similar scenes in Frank Miller’s 80s’ “Dark Knight Returns” mini-series) by continuing her war on crime as Hit-Girl, though doing so without the knowledge or consent of her adoptive father Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut). When he does find out, however, Mindy is forced to renounce her identity in order to find out what it means to be a “normal” girl.  Meeeeeanwhiiiiillllllle, at stately D’Amico manor, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is still wanting revenge against Kick Ass for the death of his father when fate gives him inspiration to become the world’s first super-villain, “The Motherfucker”, which leads to disturbing consequences for practically all involved.

In watching the film, I came away with two impressions.  One:  That the director/screenwriter tried to elevate the film in scope and importance beyond the source material. Two: That this quest for relevance has created inadvertently a schizophrenic film.

For example:  Throughout the film, characters repeatedly assert that they live “in the real world”, but when you have characters like Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina, who looks like Colonel Ninotchka from G.L.O.W. jacked up from five steroid cycles) possessing a nigh invulnerable hide who can pick up a lawn mower with less effort than a pen, or characters like Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison, who’s only shining moment in the film is a sequence that was undoubtedly cribbed from self-described real life vigilante Phoenix Jones’ experiences) having a bat that can be made into a high-tech tool right out of a bondage fetish catalog, the lie is placed to the conceit. Is it real, or is it fantasy? And therein lies the inherent problem with the film.  It is self-consciously self-aware. In its attempt to be hip in an “in on the joke” kind of way, it undermines the flow of the story, making almost a parody of the parody/ Case in point:  Moments of comedy are followed by moments of sadism, and vice versa; a styling most especially epitomized in a short but potent performance by Jim Carrey as Col. Stars-N-Stripes. At times, Carrey’s performance is played as caricature but there is also an underlying hint of tragic gravitas.  Unfortunately, the Colonel isn’t in the film long enough to have either possibility explored.[1]  There are moments where the director reveals the absurdity of the costumed super-hero (or villain) by placing them in mundane surroundings. But beneath that veneer one can see either the sadism or heroism of the individuals that don them. The action and fight scenes are presented in both comedic and realistic fashion, a combination that works at times, but also lends an uncomfortable feeling to the proceedings.
The film skirts with issues of fetishism and ego, but they are cursorily viewed. However, all other thematic elements in the film are heavy-handedly presented. The only hint of subtlety comes, surprisingly, from John Leguizzamo as Javier, Motherfucker’s bodyguard and surrogate father figure, who may or may not be what he seems. Take a gander at his facial expressions and body language when certain lines are said; it’s a performance that is better than the movie, quite frankly, deserves.
The film is ambitious and one gets the sense that Wadlow wants to get the material to rise above itself, to actually say something.  However, ambitious his intentions, the messages he presents are mixed.  He tones down the “Quentin-Tarantino/acid trip Adam West Batman” aesthetic established by director Matthew Vaughn in the first film and juxtaposes it against a teen bildungsroman, following the two main characters as they follow a similar path though starting from opposing directions. He plays with Jungian and Freudian psychological questions regarding gender roles, acceptance/rejection of father figures (literal and figurative), and chauvinism versus feminism, among others.[2] However, the presentation of each, and their attempt at resolution, comes off as incomplete and tacked on; one which is especially felt in Mindy’s high school journey.  It’s like an ill-fitting puzzle, where pieces are forced into place where they do not belong, making for a picture that is not quite there. The sad thing is that the elements are obviously there, but either left unexplored or cut off too abruptly to lead to a satisfying conclusion.
Fault cannot lie with the actors, though in some cases the performances belie the characters, as in the case of the (ostensible) lead.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s physique has changed significantly since the first Kick-Ass however very little has made to disguise that fact in the beginning of the film, making it difficult to believe that he has been retired, thus detrained, since the events of the first film. Despite this fact, he is believable and hits all the right emotional beats when called for. The big draw of this film is star-on-the-rise, Moretz.  The Hit Girl character became a breakout character and an overnight feminist icon.  However, her popularity is such that could breed overexposure, thus minimizing her effectiveness on screen.  To the film’s credit, it follows the “Incredible Hulk” edict of “less is more”. However, on a whole, Moretz must be given major props for being able to give a performance that skirts the line between strength and vulnerability and do so with credibility.
Someone should give Mintz-Plasse the “most annoying villain” award at the next People’s Choice Awards, because he actually makes D’Amico more annoying than the first film. Like Carrey, it’s a performance that works even as it undermines itself. His character performs deeds that are horrific, but seem to stem more from petulant tantrum than a place of actual evil.  Sadly, as his incarcerated Uncle Ralph, Iain Glen (Game of Thrones) evinces much more evil in five minutes of screen time than Mintz-Plasse does for the entire film. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether Mintz-Plasse’s presents a bravura performance or it misses the mark. 
All in all, Kick Ass 2 is an enjoyable film. Unfortunately, the lack of follow through in terms of themes and even within the characters themselves (there is one particular instance wherein a character’s lack of foresight leads to a tragic consequence, yet said character neither is made aware of it nor is made to deal with the consequences of said action), gives the film an unfinished feel. 
Personally, I wanted to like this film more than I did because it is entertaining; it’s not just particularly fun.  It is, in a sense, too self-important; which could be forgiven if it was treated as a straight up parody of the genre.  However (and to his credit), Jeff Wadlow made an attempt to make a more substantive film that ends up being a mixed bag.  Kick-Ass 2 is good for what it is but it could have been so much more, and the hints of that greatness-that-could-have-been that are shown but left unexplored is what ultimately lessens the whole.

[1] Supposition on my own part, but I wonder if the majority of Carrey’s scenes ended up on the cutting room floor due to his very public disownment of the film due to its level of violence as a response to the events of Sandy Hook.

[2] Which are matters that go beyond the scope of a simple movie review, but may be followed up as a separate essay on this forum at a later date.