Sunday, April 25, 2010

Kick-Ass Review

Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Released in 2010

Ever wish to fill in the shoes of your favorite superhero? Imagine holding the ability to swing from building to building like Spiderman or using your wealth and intellect to fight crime like Bruce Wayne.  Well, after a viewing of Kick-Ass, these wishes may wane as this somewhat realistic take (note the somewhat) on superheroes is unforgiving in its depiction of vigilante crime fighters. From the first scene to the last, Kick-Ass delivers a unique, hilarious, violent and occasionally shocking take on the often-cliched superhero genre.

Ironically, the film starts out with perhaps the most routine high school plot out there:  an unimpressive, though handsome and compassionate, teen named Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) has the "superpower" of being invisible to girls as he deals with hormones, bullying and awkward situations. His lame friends are Evan Peters and the new Jonah Hill, Clark Duke, from Hot Tub Time Machine. He has a crush on the pretty girl - Lyndsy Fonseca, also from Hot Tub - but it does not help that she thinks he is gay. Thankfully, this does not remain the main storyline for long as Dave decides, for almost no emotional reason at all, to become a superhero. He buys a green and yellow scuba costume online and seeks to help those who are ignored by bystanders when they need help most. His moniker? Kick-Ass.

So begins the kinetic, and sometimes disturbing, riot this film becomes. Dave becomes an Internet sensation as a video of him sloppily fighting a few thugs becomes a hit on YouTube. He begins to take requests by those who need help, but he has one particular target held above the rest. When trying to "kick ass" in order to impress the girl of his dreams, Dave runs into the real stars of this movie, Hit Girl and Big Daddy. Hit Girl, the remarkable Chloe Moretz who will be recognized from (500) Days of Summer, viciously - and really unnecessarily - slays a room of goons with a double-edged sword after dropping the C bomb. All the while, a childish chanting tune plays in the background to provide a queasy juxtaposition.  Big Daddy provides support from afar, and the character is captured by none other than the brilliant Nicolas Cage. After this particular event, a millionaire crime boss, played by Mark Strong, perceives these misfit heroes as legitimate threats to his drug ring. His spoiled son, Christopher Mintz-Plasse  - forever McLovin' - dons a costume himself and tries to get Kick-Ass on his side in order for his father to dispose of this nuisance. The plot dips and dives from this point to the end, making for an entertaining, if thematically inconsistent, ride.

The content at hand may shock some with its dark tone and liberal use of violence, not to mention pervasive language. Completely inexperienced and naive Kick-Ass tries to fight off some gangsters only to end up in the hospital. The film does not portray it too comically either; you are left feeling somewhat nauseated. The equally stupid gangsters are portrayed in a different light, as every misstep of theirs usually ends up in a bloody mess but is played off for worthwhile laughs. The actions of Hit Girl and Big Daddy lay somewhere in between. Every time they take the screen, awesomeness is guaranteed to unfold. Sometimes it is comical, such as the first appearance of Hit Girl, or sometimes it is a brisk, well-choreographed slice of action that can be seen when Big Daddy disposes a group of mobsters in record time. The violence is certainly exaggerated, but not over-stylized a la Kill Bill, to provide a proper, concrete disconnect between the viewer and the action on-screen.  These scenes all oscillate in tone and purpose, making the movie a rough, bumpy wooden roller coaster instead of a smooth, comfortable steel one. That is fine for a young, blasé youth like myself, but this practice tends to polarize viewers, the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading as an example. Wanted, from 2008, pulled off this style better than most, blending comedy with ruthless violence, but it lacked the charm of either of these two films. Take one, leave the other, apparently.

The greatest point of contention for many in this film is the star of the show herself, Hit Girl. The adorable Chloe Moretz steals the show as the foul-mouthed, guiltless killer who was raised by a loving father who forgoes Barbie dolls for butterfly knives.  She is a riot in every scene, and though much of her draw comes from the shock value of what she is doing on screen, she certainly has talent on her own. She has the ability to be simultaneously menacing and cute at the same time, and I am sure she will headline her own film very soon. Nicolas Cage, the actor who is great even when he is terrible, is the obsessed, troubled father who cares for his daughter, even if the two only talk about the obscure names for famous firearms. When he dons his Batman-like costume, he speaks with an indisputable Adam West cadence that is both hilarious and a reminder that, no matter how  kick-ass these superheroes may be, they are ultimately a bunch of comic book geeks. Truly, the film is alive with these two stars on the screen.

The rest of the cast is solid, if unremarkable. Kick-Ass himself, Aaron Johnson, provides an uninteresting narration but delivers a worthy performance. His trials and tribulations, both with and without his costume on, are overbearing throughout, and he convincingly conveys this deep pain. While his pseudonym is the film's name, he is not really the leading character, instead acting as the vehicle to fit in every other character's story around him. The antagonist, Frank D'Amico, is a soulless villain who is hard to root for, but the performance by Mark Strong is certainly better than his super cheesy turn in Sherlock Holmes. He does not cease to chew the scenery, but a more interesting character, one who is intertwined with Big Daddy's past, makes this a far better performance than the bland Lord Blackwood. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who will never live up to his immortal role of McLovin, disappoints as he barely has any notable lines, nor is he too interesting as Kick-Ass's wealthy counterpart, Red Mist. Kick-Ass is an entertaining package, but upon analyzation, it is not hard to notice that the film nearly grinds to a halt when Cage or Moretz are not on the screen.

Kick-Ass will, and already has, offended many and been condemned by family groups and critics alike. Roger Ebert himself stated that this film is "morally reprehensible." Nah. The film relies on shock value, certainly, and can get very, very dark at times, but the only problem that this ultimately creates is a constantly vacillating shift in tone. Hit Girl, near the end, gets brutally beaten by D'Amico, making for another disturbing scene, but this just reveals the film's haphazard pacing, not the demonic intentions. There is no reason to castigate the  ethics behind the movie (named Kick-Ass by the way) because I can state with 100% certainty that no one without a severe preexisting mental condition will turn into an abhorrent cursing maniac, or a perverse, bloodthirsty killer. We Americans are a jaded bunch. With the Internet, we can see anything we want, free of charge. Kick-Ass should not prove too disturbing to a generation that can watch the uncensored 9/11 attacks on YouTube. To those complaining about the "morals" behind this film, lighten up. Kick-Ass may have problems of its own, but it is too much fun to be blacklisted by a cranky few.

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine Review

Hot Tub Time Machine:
Directed by Steve Pink
Released in 2010

Simplicity is underrated. Films with titles like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire can be clumsy and lead to confusion. Confusion leads to thought, and who wants to think when seeing a movie? Thankfully, the film with the best name in years, Hot Tub Time Machine, is here and allows you to turn off your brain for about 100 minutes and revel in the mindless hilarity. 

The story is, as one would think, fairly self-explanatory. Four dudes (John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry and a newcomer, Clark Duke) are experiencing a nadir in their once-rich lives. John Cusack is Adam, whose girlfriend just dumped him, Craig Robinson is Nick, a hopeful musician who settled down too quickly, Clark Duke is Adam's geeky nephew, and Rob Corddry is the reckless alcoholic, Lou, who shows a surprising disregard for his own, as well as his friend's, well-being. They decide to take a weekend off at a ski resort and have a crazy party in a mystical hot tub, which, to the audience's complete surprise, transports them through time. The new year is 1986, and the guys, with the exception of Clark, who was not born yet, realize that they have to replicate the exact events they did over 20 years ago in order for the "space time continuum" to remain intact and....actually, nevermind, this information is not necessary. Too much thought. Anyway, they first try to adhere to the past but realize that doing so took them to their miserable current existence, so they decide to change things up as a result. The writers do not even attempt to logically explain the science behind the time travel and it is better off because of this. Quantum physics is not what one should expect when going to see a movie called Hot Tub Time Machine.

To put it in layman's terms, this movie is funny. The opening has a eclectic Hangover vibe before it eventually develops as a crude cross between Superbad and Back To The Future. Speaking of that time travel classic, Crispin Glover (the dad from Back To The Future) makes a welcome appearance as the hotel butler Phil. In the present day he is missing an arm, leaving him a vile, offensive brute, but mysteriously has the appendage in the past. The group witnesses Phil run into several close encounters that could result in an avulsion. Lou's disappointed reaction when Phil turns out to be safe is one of the best parts of the whole movie. The laughs come quickly and rank in the upper echelons of recent R-rated comedy fare. 

The cast shows a dynamic comedic range that may provoke thoughts of The Hangover's leading men. Cusack is the straight man, Robinson is the troubled married man, Duke is the nerdy, spineless geek, and Corddry is the outrageous, mentally-troubled buffoon. The combination works wonders, thankfully, as they all have a share of hilarious scenes. John Cusack is, and has always been, a terrific actor and he seems to be overqualified for this role. There are scenes when he convincingly emotes the deep melancholy of his character, and he may follow with a winning comic line delivered with sharp cadence. This role certainly also seeks to remind the audience of Cusack's role of teenage icon in the 80s with such films as Say Anything and Better Off Dead. It succeeds.

The rest of the cast is equally bright. Craig Robinson, the often-harassed Darryl from The Office, shines as a noble yet weak-willed married man who must cheat on his current wife with a girl in the past. Technically, that is not cheating is it? Chevy Chase literally pops out of nowhere for a few scenes as the prophetic "Repair Man" who seems to be the Doc Brown to the group's Marty McFly. Chase, whose physical appearance and movements have made him as much of an icon as his extraordinary comedic timing, does not have many memorable lines but his mere presence only helps the film in the end. Crispin Glover is a pleasure to behold as well, and, with his other recent film Alice In Wonderland raking in hundreds of millions at the box office, it is great to see such an interesting and, daresay it, forgotten actor back in the spotlight. That leaves us with the star of the show, Rob Corddry. I have been a huge fan of Rob since he started on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, so it is great to see him get a big role that shows the world his superb talent. "Lou" is eccentric throughout, whether it be resorting to hiring hookers upon stepping into the room or shooting projectile vomit at peaceful squirrels. Lou also seems to be the one character to take advantage of their situation and current knowledge by placing inordinate bets on obscure events or trying to impress others with his forebodings of the future. At one point he drunkenly shouts "John Lennon will get shot" before realizing that has already happened.

Considering it takes place in the 1980s, there are countless references to that decade shown throughout. The way these clues stack up to the initial revelation of a time switch is rather ingenious, but, for the rest of the film, some of these nostalgiac tidbits seem tacked on.  As Adam walks into a room to meet his smokin' girlfriend in a tight, furry jumpsuit (and it is worth mentioning that, like any R comedy nowadays, there are handfuls of hot women, clothed and topless, here), David Bowie's "Modern Love" plays (an interesting song choice considering the title) and a Duran Duran Rio poster is seen briefly afterwards. This scattershot piling of references actually makes for a superb soundtrack, led by Motley Crue's "Home Sweet Home", but does end up feeling disorganized. This is barely a complaint, however, as anyone who lived through the 80s or appreciates the decade will notice the liberal allusions placed within.

In conclusion, Hot Tub Time Machine is not original or groundbreaking in any way besides in that it embraces its inherent simplicity. The scientific plausibility of the events that occur is briskly ignored, as it should be. The title itself eschews metaphors or romantic imagery and gets straight down to business. What is here is a hilarious, raunchy time warp with an excellent cast of characters. The script is strong for the most part, though The Hangover and Anchorman can lay claim to more "classic" nonsensical quotes. Do not expect the rapid-fire, witty screenplay a la In The Loop either. Nonetheless, feel free to join the dudes in the glowing hot tub. The time will be eventful and you'll ache from laughing.  Just do not drink the water. There's no way it can be good for your health. 

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5