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Column Fri Apr 16 2010

Kick Ass, Death at a Funeral, The Joneses, The Eclipse, and Home

Kick-Ass

I'm not even sure why I'm reviewing Kick-Ass. It's complete and utterly awesome, and in all likelihood, you're all going to see it, and most of you will have some degree of love for it. Kick-Ass isn't the first film about regular people with no super-human abilities throwing on costumes and attempting to be crime fighters. But it's the first one that's shot like a superhero movie. Let me clarify that; few superhero movies relish their violence and other twisted aspect quite as wholly as Kick-Ass. The film's main villain is a member of organized crime, and the movie takes on the appropriate tone, with a climax that seems ripped right out of Scarface, complete with a torrential rain of bullets and enough explosions to take down a five-story building. And then there is the blood. My god, is there blood. Blood and gore and severed body parts and burning flesh and more blood. When I wasn't laughing or cheering right along with Kick-Ass, I was smiling the smile of a person who has just seen the greatest movie he didn't even know he was waiting to see. With film's like Iron Man 2 less than a month away from opening, I'm sure Kick-Ass will be dethroned, but right now this is the best movie I've seen in the first three-and-a-half months of 2010.

Much of the reason Kick-Ass worked for me was that it felt honest. The relationship Dave Kizewski (Aaron Johnson) has with his comic-book-reading buddies (including Hot Tub Time Machine's Clark Duke, fast becoming one of my favorite young comic actors) feels authentic. Sure, he's a nerd, but director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake; Stardust) manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of stacking your film with nerds. Dave is actually a good-looking kid, so it's his hobbies and friends that define his geekdom. His decision to throw on a tricked-out Scuba suit and fight crime seems borne out of the childish belief that we are invincible as youngsters. Not only does Dave get stabbed his first time out, but he stumbles into traffic and gets hit by a car, shattering his bones (which are reinforced with metal throughout his body) and damaging nerve-endings in his body that effectively make him impervious to most kinds of pain. With an endoskeleton and pain aversion, he's more ready to fight crime than ever before.

The story shows the meteoric rise to fame (via a YouTube video of Dave's alter-ego Kick-Ass fending off several thugs) and how his popularity inspires others to bring their crime fighting from out of the shadows. It turns out, a father-daughter team known as Big Daddy (an inspired Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz, who played Joseph Gordon-Levitt's advice-wielding little sister in (500) Days of Summer) have been training and taking on certain baddies for quite some time on more of a personal vendetta against crime boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong, who has become the go-to actor to play the heavy, as he did as Lord Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes and will soon in Ridley Scott's Robin Hood).

In many ways, the Big Daddy/Hit-Girl storyline could easily have been its own movie, but I love the way it feels like a tease in this one. We crave more scenes with these two, and Vaughn wisely saves Hit-Girl's best moments for the end of the movie. She's almost too good to be believed. I cannot wait to see how many underage and legal females dress as Hit-Girl this Halloween. I predict she will be the costume of choice this year. There's a sociopathic lean to both Hit-Girl and Big Daddy that is slightly terrifying and edgy in ways I haven't seen in movies in a long time. Big Daddy is surrounding his preteen daughter with weapons, teaching her how to kill and avoid being killed. You've probably seen the sequence of Cage shooting Moretz in the chest. And yes, it's extremely funny, but it's also horrifying when you really think about it. There comes a point late in the film where you will realize just how young Hit-Girl actually is and how her father has robbed her of her childhood, even if she never complains. Her story is tragic on so many levels, and she has the great story arc of any of the characters in Kick-Ass.

I don't believe you should have to come into any film based on a comic book (or any medium) with any advanced knowledge of the source material. And while I was certainly aware of this series, I was never a reader. I familiarized myself with the material after seeing Kick-Ass for the first time at Butt Numb-a-Thon last December, and while it has certainly enhanced my appreciation for what Vaughn has accomplished, it in no way makes me think that reading the series is required to enjoy this film. There's a great "original story" for Big Daddy that is one of my favorite sequences in the movie, and it involves the use of what is clearly artist John Romita Jr.'s artwork (sketches clearly done by Romita also paper Cage's workspace with the implication that Cage's character drew them; it's a nice touch).

A couple of other actors I should mention. Christopher Mintz-Plasse plays Chris D'Amico, son of the gangster, who is looking for approval from someone, preferably his dad, but really he's just a kid without friends. He invents the Red Mist superhero (complete with bad-ass, tricked out sports car) to trap Kick-Ass for his father. But the two teens find they have a lot in common and Red Mist is torn between family allegiance and his new friend. If they make a Kick-Ass sequel, I can't wait to see where this character goes, but the stage is set for the classic hero/villain-friends/enemies relationship between Dave and Chris.

So what doesn't quite work? Actually there's a weird dead zone in the middle of the film where very little happens. Yes, it sets the tone for the big finale, but it feels long and draggy. I wasn't impressed with the way that Dave's relationship with his would-be love interest was handled. At first, she thinks he's gay, and he's okay with that because it makes her feel more relaxed around him; he even gets to see her naked and spend a non-sexual night in her bed. But we know she's going to find out the truth, and when she does, very little changes. Slightly anti-climactic, but Lyndsy Fonseca (from Hot Tub Time Machine and "How I Met Your Mother") as Katie is so cute, I forgave her.

Kick-Ass is a great ride. When it isn't making you laugh, it's shocking you as a little girl hero spews out some hateful, foul language that will stun your delicate nature or it's spitting blood in your eye or it's thrilling you with some beautifully staged action sequences that exhibit both skillful and sloppy results. Vaughn has stunningly transformed Mark Millar's original writing into a statement on the nature of modern fame and heroism and childhood and doing whatever it takes not to be ignored. On both an emotional and entertainment front, Kick-Ass packs quite a punch. Oh just stop reading and go see the damn thing.

Death at a Funeral

I stopped asking the question a long time ago, whether it be a foreign-language offering redone by Americans for the English-speaking sect, of whether it's worth remaking a horror/sci-fi/fantasy work that isn't even that old to begin with. And the reason I stopped asking the question is because the answer is also the same: "No." No, Film A-B-C did not need to be remade, but just because a movie is a remake doesn't mean it's automatically bad. Okay, true, usually it's bad or at least not good enough to justify the remake in the first place. But Death at a Funeral is one of the strangest case studies in this age of Remake Fever that I can think of.

The original Death was made three years ago by director Franz Oz, and featured a mostly British cast, and two token Americans (Alan Tudyk and Peter Dinklage) turning the most bizarre comedic performances of the bunch. This redo features an almost identical plot with an almost entirely African-American superstar cast (including Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence), along with three white actors, including Dinklage (Elf; The Station Agent) playing the exact same role that he did in the original. At least that aspect of the film seemed inspired; the rest, not so much. This time out, the director is Neil LaBute, who might have the most consistently uneven directing careers in the history of film directors. He started out making edgy, ultra-dark comedies like In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, and Nurse Betty. He first made a name for himself as a dangerous playwright of such works as Bash, The Shape of Things (which was made into an excellent movie), and Fat Pig. But in recent years, he's lost his way as a director, putting forth drivel like The Wicker Man remake and Lakeview Terrace. Unfortunately, Death at a Funeral falls into this latter category of uninspired and ill-suited to LaBute's more piercing strengths.

The story is simple, so much so that there really isn't one. It takes place in the couple hours it takes one family to make it through the funeral of a patriarch, father to Rock and Lawrence and husband to Loretta Devine, who can be so good when given strong material, which this is not. We witness the family and friends pour in, including Ron Glass and Danny Glover as the brothers of the deceased, Regina Hall as Rock's wife, Zoe Saldana as a cousin, Columbus Short as another cousin, and Tracy Morgan as close family friend, and Keith David as the reverend performing the ceremony. There's a trumped-up story about Lawrence being a successful New York author (we can tell he's bookish because he wears glasses) and Rock being his frustrated brother who gave up his love of writing to stay home and take care of his parents. It all comes across as remarkably forced and not even a little bit funny. People spend a lot of time running around the home where the funeral is taking place, getting into fights, and stomping off to start another argument in another room.

Thank goodness for drugs and swearing. I didn't realize Death at a Funeral was R rated, and that helps, even if it is for a fair amount of swearing, some drug taking, and James Marsden's ass, which (assuming it's not an ass double) he shows quite a bit of. Marsden might be the funniest thing in this movie, playing Saldana's husband to be who has accidentally taken acid rather than Valium just before the funeral begins. He hallucinogenic ramblings are a scream, so much so that it was jarring because there are long stretches of this movie during which I didn't laugh. I'm sorry, but Danny Glover shitting on Tracy Morgan's hand isn't nearly as funny as it seems to be on paper.

As I mentioned, Dinklage is back as the compact secret lover of the dead man, who has come to the funeral to blackmail the family so he won't reveal compromising photos of the Daddy with the diminutive actor. I liked it when he did it in the original film, and he pretty much does the exact same thing in this one, so I can't really penalize him for it. Not that whitey gets all the best jokes in Death at a Funeral--Luke Wilson's turn as Saldana's ex-boyfriend is so poorly written and executed, one wonders how the character even made the final cut of the film. At one point, he actually grabs Saldana by the shoulders and shakes her. Hey buddy, save that type of behavior for your children! On this planet, we call that assault.

But this unnecessary manhandling is hardly the biggest problem with Death at a Funeral. Despite the setting, the film doesn't get dark enough, the way the original did. The film always misses out on any level of character development in favor of a cheap laugh (or no laugh, as the case often is), and at a point boredom settled in my bones and never let go. Death at a Funeral is the best argument for going to see Kick-Ass this weekend that I can think of. Here's a novel idea: support a film that has real, earned laughs, fully realized characters, and is fully and undeniably entertaining. Anyone think they're up for that challenge? If Death ends up being the top-grossing movie of the weekend, I will begin the slow and painful process of giving up on humanity. Do the right thing, world.

The Joneses

This modest little film from first-time writer-director Derrick Borte is remarkably watchable and built on a great concept that doesn't quite last until the end of the film, but almost gets there and gets an A for effort...or at least a B. The Jones family moves into a new home in a fairly affluent community near country clubs and high-end malls. They are the perfect American family, with mom and dad (Demi Moore and David Duchovny) ushering two attractive, bright teenage kids (Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth.) Within days, the Joneses have indoctrinated themselves into every aspect of life in the local society. People like them and admire them, especially their possessions, which all seem like the newest, state-of-the-art gadgets and latest fashions. If the Joneses own it, the neighbors all want it, and that's exactly what this family is hoping for.

You see, the Joneses aren't a real family. They are four salespeople placed together by an agency representing clients that want to promote their latest products on a grassroots level. The more of each product on display in the Jones home or on their body or used by them at the club that is sold in the town, the better each individual "family member's" sales number get better. And it's without a doubt fascinating to watch how each salesperson selects exactly the right method to get people interested in the products they're pushing. It could be a new car, gold clubs, a travel agent, or a brand of beer, these family members know how to make others interested in what they use.

This exercise is not played for laughs or with tongue in cheek. Instead Borte gives us a new breed of sellers and a new definition of the "hard sell." It's clear that Moore's Kate is the team leader and season veteran of this program, with six previous fake husbands. Duchovny's Steve is showing weak sales numbers, but his natural charm and inherent knowledge of how people think and who they listen to come in handy assist him in turning things around. The kids have their own ways of motivating--son Mick can be quite charming with the high school girls, while daughter Jenn is a sex addict. Heard has been getting better as an actress in the last couple of years in such films as Zombieland, Pineapple Express, and her breakthrough in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. This is the first time I've seen Hollingsworth, and I like his quiet way of getting women to trust him without ever flagrantly hitting on them.

I have a tendency to like David Duchovny in just about anything. He has an easy-going demeanor and an understated means of delivering a joke that always works. And I won't lie, I like seeing Demi Moore back on the books doing some real acting again in films like Flawless, Mr. Brooks, Happy Tears, and Bobby. I don't care that she doesn't look like she's aged a day in 20 years, I like that she can play a role that requires her to transition from sexy and playful to deadly serious in a single scene. She does that in The Joneses more than once and pulls it off beautifully. She's having something of a rebirth right now, and I'm enjoying watching the climb.

The Joneses falls apart in the final few scenes, and what bothered me most about the last few sequences is that the behavior of the characters in those moments doesn't stay true to everything we've learned about them for the entire rest of the film. I think it takes a certain kind of heartless manipulator to play these roles convincingly, and each member of the Jones family shows signs of being just that. And someone like that would never do the things that they do in the last scenes. It's not outrageous behavior that I'm complaining about; it's deeds that are too kind for the likes of these.

The Joneses is fleshed out with some nice support work from the likes of Gary Cole and Glenne Headly as the envious nearest neighbors, and Lauren Hutton as the liaison between the corporation and the family. As I said at the top of this review, this movie has small ambitions but I think it makes most of its points about corporate greed and the sinful things that drive us to consume before it gets lost in its own attempts at showing these characters as good people too. We don't need that, or at least we don't need it spelled out in big pink neon letters. Still, it's a solid effort that deserves your attention thanks to some excellent acting work from everyone.

The Eclipse

If my memory serves me, I saw this film as part of last year's European Union Film Festival, and I was drawn to it because it featured a rare lead performance by the fantastic actor Ciaran Hinds, playing a widowed teacher who still very much misses his wife and the mother of their two children. In many ways this is a great ghost story, complete with a few genuine scares, as the teacher begins to think his home is being haunted. But The Eclipse, based on stories by Billy Roche and adapted by director Conor McPherson (The Actors) always leaves open the belief that Hinds' Michael Farr is simply haunted by memories more than spirits. And not to get you too excited, but this isn't a film about ghosts really; it's about the exciting world of literary festivals in an Irish seaside community. Brace yourselves...

In all seriousness, this is a really strong work and gets far more intriguing than the premise might lead you to believe. Farr volunteers during the festival as a driver for visiting authors, including Lena Morelle (played by the Danish actress Iben Hjejle, probably be known as John Cusack's lady love in High Fidelity). It just so happens that she writes books about all things supernatural, and the two end up spending a great deal of time together bonding about their various experiences. Enter into the festival the world-famous writer Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn), who Lena had an affair with recently (he's married). Nicolas is in love with her and says he's ready to leave his wife if she'll have him. She's torn but seems less interested in pursuing this than Nicholas does. Meanwhile, poor Michael is starting to fall for Lena as well, and clearly this little soap opera/tragic-comedy is going to grow into a big mess for all three players.

Hinds (maybe best known for playing Julius Casear in HBO's "Rome" or in his legion of great supporting roles in such films as Munich and There Will Be Blood) can do very little wrong in my eyes, but he's impressively reserved and charmingly awkward as this humble man who would never dream of romancing this woman except for the small problem that he can't help himself. I've been a big fan of Hjejle's work in Denmark and her English-language work for years (if you can find it, check out the great Dogme film Mifune or more recently in Stephen Frears' Cheri), and while she's certainly a great beauty in my book, she also emits a real sense of modesty and likability to her performances. Quinn is the exact opposite in this movie. He plays Nicolas as a desperate, drunken boorish man going through an ugly mid-life crisis and throwing himself at a woman who made the mistake of sleeping with him once before. Quinn is overplaying the role slightly, but he still manages to convey his character's hideous nature quite effectively.

The Eclipse is a modest film with very real and honest emotions at its center. And while I'm not usually a fan of films in which all of the characters seem to have life-changing experiences over the same weekend, the fact that these three lives become so interconnected because of the isolated nature of the place made it seem less forced. McPherson keeps things dignified, although the handful of spooky moments gets far more goopy than I would have anticipated. I liked it; those of you expecting a pure chamber piece may be a little put off. To you I say, get over it. It's good to have the fear of God shot through you like a harpoon every so often. And ultimately it's the mature love story that wins in the end. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Home

I'll always admit when I don't GET something, and while I'm pretty sure there's a metaphor slinking around Ursula Meier's film Home, I think I'm not getting it. Weirdly enough, I still found her dark comedy about a French family at their summer home compelling and often funny, so I was able to enjoy it on a level I can only describe as primal. (Home is actually a co-production from France and Switzerland, and was the Swiss Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language Film.) Thankfully the great actress Isabelle Huppert (one of the reigning queens of French perversity) is on hand to steer me right, and we are treated to a true dilemma: what does a family do when the government, often years of inactivity, finally decides to complete and open a major, four-lane highway right next to their once quiet, solitary vacation home? Each character reacts differently, but they all react with varying degrees of crazy. Some collapse in on themselves and give over to the noise and danger; some attempt to escape; some attempt to find a way to recapture their isolation. It's a sometimes pathetic and lonely existence, but it's almost always fascinating. I couldn't pass a test on it, but for the most part I was digging it.

As I was getting to know the family members, I grew to really care about their mental and spiritual well-being, both of which seem to be in danger of getting lost due to the road. I know how strange that sounds, but I got into it and how they attempted to cope (most often unsuccessfully). Clearly the film is existing on an extremely thin premise, but I feel fairly confident that the themes of marginalization and the emptiness the modern world force upon those wishing to live simple quiet lives come through during the course of the movie. Either that or my analytical powers are simply fried; I can't tell. The real test for these kinds of movies is simple and comes down to one question: If this movie had been made in English, would you care as much? This is a question a lot of douchey, art-house fucks who claim to have given up on Hollywood movies should be asking themselves every day. I think in the case of Home, the answer is No. But if you find yourself frequently being sold on a film as art when the people in it speak French, you might be in for a good time. The film will screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center on April 17 at 3pm, April 19 at 6pm, and April 21 at 6pm.

 
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