Kick Ass

What’s Good: I haven’t read the graphic novel but I have a feeling it hasn’t been tampered with by the studio which is always a good thing. The irreverent humor rocks! So do Big Daddy and Hit Girl! Bravo to Nick Cage for finally being in a halfway decent superhero film. While I can see him playing a comic book villain Nick Cage knows he’s too old for tights and thus picked the perfect role. He is forgiven for Ghost Rider.
What’s Not: Roger Ebert. I love the guy but he’s got to shut up about two things: video games and “Kick Ass.” The non-superhero sequences involving Dave/Kick Ass are not particularly interesting. “Spider-Man”-esq scenes dealing with girls, family life and school don’t work even though I can understand why they are included.

“Kick Ass.” It sure does. And does, and does and does some more. This is one of the most unusual “parody” superhero films ever made. With titles like “Sky High,” “Mystery Men,” and “The Incredibles” dominating this sub genre it was, until last week, hard to imagine anything other than kid friendly superhero comedies. After “Kick Ass” it’s now hard to imagine going back to those tepid kid films. “Kick Ass” does not hold its punches in service of the comedy aspect. In fact that only makes it punch harder. It’s the “Fight Club” of superhero movies in that respect. Don’t get me wrong, the violence in this movie is funny but it is also mean and jarring. The tone is all over the place as well. It’s a funny teen comedy where kids slip and fall on the bad guy when trying to save lost cats. It is a half baked critique on hero worship in the Internet era where, for instance, Kick Ass’s kitten saving/bad guy stomping antics end up on My Space (people still use that?). On the other hand it’s also a lame and corny “Spider-Man” type of “will the hot popular girl like the nerd” High School film. And finally, how do I put this, the kind of movie where someone is thrown into a giant microwave and cooked. The effect of all of the above is overwhelming at times but in a way that I have to admire because while real Superhero movies only go so far with action and moral conduct “Kick Ass” found a way to go farther while still somewhat keeping you in the movie and, most importantly, liking its characters.

The hero kicks the story off by telling the viewer about his average teen life. “With no power comes no responsibility” he tells us, riffing on Spidey’s bombastic style. The kid is played by a soft spoken, easily bruiseabe Aaron Johnson who goes on to illustrate his lack of talents, skills and strength. Inspired by the comic books he reads he becomes a not quite super hero called Kick Ass for the hell of it and after very little time “crime fighting” his self aware heroics inspires others. But not necessarley in a good way because he inspires people who are far from well adjusted. The film might be saying that the superheros, if looked at objectively, are actually pretty off balance.  That’s when/why the film gets interesting. “Real” superhero Big Daddy, played by Nick Cage (Adam West era Batman meets The Punisher meets, um, Nick Cage), and his daughter Mindy aka Hit-Girl are the movie’s real crime fighters. We are introduced to the two memorable anti-heroes on a father daughter weekend activity that involves Big Daddy testing out a new bulletproof vest on his daughter. Standing on opposite sides of the screen he shoots her right in the chest. Being only 11 she practically flies off the screen, landing with an emphatic oomph. If you’re not laughing at the act of a grown man shooting his daughter then you WILL NOT like “Kick Ass” because that’s one of the lighter scenes. This film is hardcore but I really have to say that it is not without heart.

While the non-hero hero is doing his own thing (which mostly consists of having people laugh at how stupid he looks before beating him up) Big Daddy and Hit Girl exist in their own separate superhero movie. A much darker one and a much better one. Kick Ass just wants to play around on the streets of New York while the other two are serious about their hobby. Dead serious. Seriously, they’re sadistic and their quest to stop and punish a drug king pin (Mark Strong in that rare bad guy role–yeah right) is a long and bloody one that’s more “Kill Bill” pot boiler than “Spider-Man” foot cozie. The murderous father-daughter duo don’t so much fight crime as they torture it and I really have to say that Hit Girl, played by the young actress Chloe Moretz, steals the show then proceeds to rip it to shreds. This tiny psychopath is a great movie character because she runs counter to almost every side-kick-kid trope ever. There’s a deeply ironic undercurrent to Hit Girl but there’s also a genuine and emotionally engaging character here that is equal parts lovable and scary. Seeing this tiny purple blur fly around the screen, impaling drug dealers leaves you, and the out of his element Kick Ass, speechless. I can’t speak for Kick Ass but the lack of speech on my side of things relates to my usual dislike of child actors/characters in movies. I’m going on record by saying that this is one of those cases where a precocious child actually makes an action movie better! Not only that but the same precocious child that made “(500) Days of Summer” worse! I don’t think that has ever happened before. Okay so maybe it has, but it’s not often and Moretz is in the same league as Newt from “Aliens” and Natalie Portman in “Leon/The Professional.”

“Kick Ass” is directed by Brit Mathew Vaughn who has managed to combine the no-nonsense grittiness of his breakout “Layer Cake” with the subversive fantasy of his underrated “Stardust.” This project is a good step forward for the director who wisely balances the film’s style so that it never takes away from the story or calls attention to itself which it could have easily done given the hip and geeky subject matter. Just look at the Edgar Wright’s “Scot Pilgrim Vs. the World” trailer for an example of an opposite but hopefully equally enjoyable approach. You might remember that Vaughn was initially slated to directed “X-Men 3” (the one Brett Ratner ruined) and I’m glad he knew enough about his comic book sensibilities to stay away from mainstream conventions. At the same time though this movie adaptation tends to be very conventional at times. Many scenes involving the teenagers don’t quite work as intended (they’re not always very funny and not always as interesting as they should be) and the animated cell comic narrative device within the movie falls a bit flat. I’m not going to let those minor flaws that affect my overall enjoyment of “Kick Ass” however because in a way it needs to have a conventional backbone for the very reason that when it breaks those conventions it comes as a shock. And if this film proves anything it’s that it knows how to shock. 
Grade: B+

Best of 2009: Best Shots, Posters and Trailers

Best Indivdual Shots of the Year

Sure the “motion” part of motion pictures is the selling point but I’ve always been a fan of single movie images. These moments in time or as Roland Barthes would say, “shadow[s] of the frozen moment,” remind us that movies can provide us with 24 works of art every second. Even bad movies can stumble into moments of visual greatness, quick as they may last (see my “Public Enemies” shot at #10)! Powerful images have a way of freeing themselves of the tyranny of the whole. They exist on their own artistic terms yet never get enough credit…

1. A Serious Man
Roger Deakins
I also have an obsession with the absolute first thing we see in a movie and the last. They are, after all, the alpha and omega of a story’s universe yet far too often filmmakers take these impressions for granted. Not the Coen Brothers. No final image was better last year than “A Serious Man.” The main character’s son is listening to music on once confiscated radio at school just as he’s about to finally pay that bully back (long story… but a good one). Suddenly, out of nowhere, a tornado hits. Random but also… not because the moment is juxtaposed with the boy’s father learning of his fate across town. This absolute final shot gives me chills. It’s an absolutely perfect cut-to-black moment. The shot is visually atypical of the rest of the movie (therefore not really a spoiler shot) but hammers home the notion of divine intervention, God’s wrath and… Jefferson Airplane.

2. Two Lovers
D.P: Joaquin Baca-Asay
“Two Lovers” was the second new film I saw in 2009 and it certainly stuck around, ranking as my number two film overall. Once again a movie with Two in it’s title ranks as number two. Grey is clearly a great visual filmmaker and I’m sure he would be quick to credit his cinematographer. While many of the extended two-shots (another two!) in this movie such as this or this or, yikes, even this (shameless self promotion) resonated, I fell in love with the above shot the second I saw it. Phoenix’s look is priceless. I said to myself that it’s so powerful and quirky that I had to find some way to talk about it. What’s great about how this shot comes off is the isolation in Phoenix’s character’s world. We not only can see but also feel how out of his element the charater is. That piece of art looming above his head (which was on location when Grey and co. got there) is perfect because adds a splash of strange humor.

3. Thirst
D.P Chung-hoon Chung

Speaking of strange humor. This show kept me thinking about the notion of what it means for a vampire to reach the absolute bottom of the barrel and a priest laid out on the floor and sucking blood from the IV of a man in a coma is pretty much there. Well, maybe not quite–Brad Pitt sucking on a dead rat in “Interview with the Vampire” might lower but that’s up for debate. The way he lays down implies a feeling that this man is far, far away from being human at this point. He’s a monster but in the most non monster-y way possible and between this and “The Host,” Korean filmmakers have nailed the realism of horror. I also love cinematography involving that white roomthe the two vampires make for themselves to mimic day and a shot and the end with the empty shoes which I won’t get into for obviosu reasons. But, really, nothing spells out the film’s quirky and dark tone than what you’re seeing. Plus, it’s kinda funny.

4. Antichrist
D.P. Anthony Dod Mantle
Hard to find a shot in this movie that isn’t striking. I’m even transfixed even when von Trier and Mantle zoom in on a plant in a jar of water. The one I settled on is not only a great shot but chilling in an undefined archetypal sort of way. The poetic visuals of a completely ruined human being laying alongside animals (known here as three beggars) in a cabin is iconic and will not be soon forgotten. To hammer home how much Lars von Trier and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle have shifted we really should consider the meta-sparse visuals of “Dogville” side-by-side with the hyper stylized “Antichrist” to see two polar opposite aesthetic approaches executed in equally effective ways; hard core function in one and harder core form in the latter. Filth, flesh and nature is what “Antichrist” is all about. And all are combined in this shot which, to me (and what do I know?), is like a neoclassical painting (horrible things are happening to beautifully naked people) come to life. Compare it to this, that or one of my favorites Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David and you may agree… or you may not (I know jack about art after all) or it just may confirm how much of a creepy ass hole Lars von Trier is.

5. White Ribbon
Christian Berger
Perfectly captures the eerie, off-balance tone of the movie in a way you can’t quite put your finger on but that’s reverberating through your body. A visually imposing and hypocritical authority blocks out the foreground while sheepish followers stand in the middle. One of the few innocent people in the whole movie meanwhile gets punished and relegated to the back. Life suck. This image says all that yet comes off so natural and unplanned. It just knocks me out every time I look at it. Something’s not right here. Something is very, very wrong. And beautiful.

6. You, The Living
D.P. Gustav Danielsson
The camera never moves and the editor never cuts. Images, then, have a way of lingering in this wonderful movie. This shot is the one most loaded with meaning, humor and horror. Roy Anderrson’s sensibilities are fascinating. Slow, depressing and morbid. In this scene a dinner party is huddled in a corner (no explanation for this… as if one is needed in an Anderrson film) as a man attempts to do that old trick of pulling the dinner cloth from a table. Anderrson’s interpretation of this age old gag is not just funny (all the shit falls…) but surreal (…to reveal a giant swastika on the table!!!). He’s also making a comment on Sweden’s hidden pro Nazi past. By the way, the guy pulling the cloth gets arrested (perhaps for revealing such a past) and, in the next vignette, convicted by a panel of beer swigging judges to be sent to death.

7. The Road
D.P. Javier Aguirresarobe

As epic as it is bleak. This vast shot conveys depth, death (all plant life in this movie looks like that) and man’s small  and fleeting place in this post civilization world. For the overall look I picked Aguirresarobe as the best cinematography of the year and this shot is at the top of the reasons why.

8. Inglourious Basterds
Robert Richardson
A classic movie shot. There are many great shots in this movie but this is the iconic moment. And it’s official: a new generation of film lovers finally got their Rambo moment!

9. Moon
D.P. Gary Shaw
The decay of flesh juxtaposed with the corporate coldness of space and science. Note: The image looks crappy because I didn’t grab this directly from the movie. I don’t have a way of doing a screen caps on blu-ray–and if you don’t see Moon on blu-ray you’re missing something.

10. Public Enemies
Dante Spinotti
Christian Bale aims, shoots and fires. Michael Mann’s film may have missed the mark but this shot sure didn’t. Mann and the always great Dante Spinotti have a keen eye for cool shots (literally) and that’s probably because doc inspired handheld style allows for more experimentation and unplanned composition. This one, though, was very planned and it’s easily the film’s most memorable moment. And by that I simply mean that it’s one of the few things from this movie I haven’t purged from my memory banks.

Guilty Pleasure Shot: Knowing
D.P. Simon Duggan
What you’re looking at is balls. Total balls. Sometimes the goal of science fiction is to transport us to a different place. A place we never could have expected when we started the film. Knowing’s final shot is a thing a of audacious beauty. So full of hope, symbolism and painterly beauty that it turned many off. It feel the moment is earned and contains more ecstatic religious power than any Mel Gibson movie I’ve suffered through. It also managed to blow the socks off of “Battlestar Glatica’s” strangely similar but far more literal “new earth” ending concepts. With this, director Alex Proyas continues his streak of perfect final shots; “Dark City’s” pier closer is dear to me and “I, Robot’s” robo-Jesus final moment never gets enough credit so I will include it.

Best Poster Art
AKA poster art most likely to be displayed in my dingy apartment


…wow. wow, wow, wow. This is the most rich and evocative poster I’ve come across in a long time. I want this but may never get a print because it’s a limited edition deal. The poster is by David D’Andrea was made for Fantastic Fest.

…should have been the main poster for Basterds.

…the humans only angle is just brilliant marketing. And it doesn’t even say the movie’s name. Looks cool too.

…another Antichrist poster. I could see someone hating this poster design but I really grabbed me. Especially when I think about how these scissors are used in the movie. When I look at this I think the alternate title should be “There Will Be Blood.” Hum, I think that one’s taken though.

…usually Paul Giamatti movie posters are bad but this one gives off a cool “Being John Malkovich” vibe. Well, that and “Men in Black” (‘member that alien inside the head… aw, never mind). This is such an interesting poster I’m surprised nobody saw the movie. I’m including myself in that large group.

…yup, that about sums the movie up. That poor, poor priest. I particularly love how the human figures are positioned in such a way that implies the infinite loop of misery these two immortals sinners will be engaged in. Not just misery though, lust too.  The look on Kang-ho Song’s face says it all.

Worst Poster…

Extract. Someone got paid to come up with this? Really? Is this a joke? Sadly… yes. There are no redeeming qualities to this poster. It’s tacky and nowhere close to being clever which is ironic because the film’s pretty good in a cult comedy sort of way. It’s almost as if someone at the studio wanted to sabotage Judge’s film. And it worked. That the film is funny is the biggest tragedy of all.

Runner Up: Ghost of Girlfriend’s Past

Screams out, in every way possible, WE’RE NOT EVEN TRYING. WE GIVE UP.

Best Trailer

Fitting that the film with the best shot of the year also has the best trailer to go along with it. Now why didn’t this make my top ten again? I starting to freak out at the idea and may never let myself forget that I relegated “A Serious Man” to #12. Even so, I said it from day one that “A Serious Man’s” trailer is the most visually exciting and artful mainstream movie trailer ever made! It’s rapid fire editing and use of sound is absolutely perfect. It’s so good I’m surprised it didn’t convince the usual multiplex philistine to see, gasp, a Coen Brothers period movie. The rhythmic flow in the clip below does not represent the style and flow of the film itself (thank god) but it exists as a work of art in its own right which, some could argue, is the point of a well made trailer.

Worst Trailer#1: After Last Season

Worst Trailer#2: The Boys are Back
Ever seen a trailer and made a audible sound of dejection? Something like EWICK or awwwaghh? Well this was a total ewick/awwwaghh!!! moment for me. And here I though the Brits (esp Clive Owen) were above bein so trite. Still not sure if the trailer is bad or just has the misfortune of trying to get people to see a worse movie. Since I would rather die than sit through this sappy crap I’ll just assume it’s both.

Trailer I had to see so much I got sick of: Duplicity and Shutter Island. When you see dozens upon dozens of moves in the theater in 2009 you don’t exactly expect variety in the trailers but to see the same two every time is agony. I sat through the two trailers so much I had to be creative or risk losing my mind. Ironically both movies were decent but I almost didn’t watch them.

Okay, I’m almost ready to let go of 2009. Just one more list to go and that’s the worst movies of the year.