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Column Fri Aug 16 2013

Kick-Ass 2, Prince Avalanche, Jobs, Paranoia, The Act of Killing & In A World...

Steve at the Movies film review column

Kick-Ass 2

I'm placing this statement at the beginning of this review because, odds are, it'll get read the most here. None of the "bad" films opening this weekend are as bad as some critics are saying. That being said, all of them can be easily ignored this weekend if your other option for film viewing is to see something like Prince Avalanche or The Act of Killing or even In A World.... For those of you declaring the summer of 2013 to be a disappointing one for movies, I hate to sound like a broken record (or skipping CD for you younger folks), but you aren't looking in the right place. Films taking up one screen at a multiplex or playing at our local art houses have been consistently strong all year. And they have certainly saved my summer. It's the reason I maintain my Art-House Round-Up column on Ain't It Cool, and you should feel free to check that out if you need a list of strong closers for the summer of 2013.

So what the hell happened to Kick-Ass 2? It feels weirdly like a research film polling 100 "average" citizens to find out what they liked so much about the first film, and they all got it wrong. Sure the profanity, occasionally excessive violence and overall irreverent attitude made Kick-Ass a great deal of fun in the hands of director Matthew Vaughn. But there were more important messages about family, surviving as an bullied outcast, and a twisted code of justice, all of which are reduced to shadows by writer-director Jeff Wadlow (Vaughn is still listed as a producer).

The film isn't a complete wash either. Still, what I found so frustrating about Kick-Ass 2 is that the elements that might have saved it are ripped right out of the film just as they're getting interesting. The key relationship between Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Hit Girl (Chlöe Grace Moretz) is reduced to her attempting to cut back her time as the exceedingly violent vigilante and be a "normal" girl, and his attempt to find like-minded civilian heroes and become a team of crime fighters. Hit Girl's storyline is a watered-down version of Mean Girls, while Kick-Ass does meet up with some amusing costumed heroes, including a born-again former gangster named Col. Stars & Stripes (Jim Carrey).

While I understand the filmmakers' need to keep as many characters from the first film as possible, I could have done with a new villain instead of Christopher Mintz-Plasse's Red Mist transformed into the vengeful super villain called The Motherfucker. Some of his assembled evil types are amusing, especially Olga Kurkulina's Mother Russia, who is just big, strong and merciless. There's a sequence in which she dispenses with about a dozen police officers in about three minutes that is pretty nasty, and may not sit well with some. The Motherfucker wants revenge on Kick-Ass for killing his father in the last film, and he's willing to mow down everyone close to Kick-Ass to make that happen.

But true to form in this film, The Motherfucker's most interesting relationship is with his bodyguard Javier (John Leguizamo), who tries to reel in his young charge (whose real name is Chris D'Amico). Let's just say that Javier isn't long for this world, and thus goes one of the view high points in this troubled film.

If all you care about is senseless violence and heroes/villains with names like Battle Guy (Clarke Duke), Mr. Radical, The Tumor, Night Bitch, Genghis Carnage, Insect Man, Black Death, and yes, even Ass Kicker, then maybe you'll let the fact that Hit Girl is almost never Hit Girl. I don't really care if it's faithful to Mark Millar's comic book source material or not; if it doesn't make for interesting movie making, I can't recommend it.

Kick-Ass 2 had so many moments during which I was starting to gain some enthusiasm for what I was watching, and with almost rhythmic precision, it ripped those enjoyable aspects right out from under me, and I was left with a façade of a film that looks like something we saw and loved before, but minus the emotional core that set it apart. I will admit that there aren some things in this movie that I responded to, but my enjoyment peaks were short lived and fairly inauspicious. This is one of those sequels who sole purpose in being seems to be to tarnish the good memories you might have of the original. Who needs that?

Prince Avalanche

An easy, early choice for one of my favorite films of the year, David Gordon Green isn't so much returning to form as he is choosing another path that takes us somewhere between his early character studies and almost-transcendental way of looking at the world (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Snow Angels) and his more recent comedic outtings (Pineapple Express, many episodes of HBO's "Eastbound & Down").

Set in the late 1980s and loosely based on the Icelandic film Either Way, Prince Avalanche follows the non-adventures of two highway workers whose sole job is to paint the lines and place a few roadside markers on a newly paved Texas road that was destroyed (along with all of the land around it) by wildfires. Alvin (Paul Rudd, with a haircut and mustache that make him almost unrecognizable) is something of a buttoned-down square with a short temper and limited knowledge of the world around him. He's dating (from a distance while he's doing this job) the sister of his court jester-ish partner Lance (Emile Hirsch), who hates the isolation the job brings and longs for the weekends so he can go into town and, hopefully, get laid.

The two men don't really know each other, and the film does a remarkable job capturing the odd, awkward attempts at two people getting to know each other when they don't really want to or have any common ground on which to build a friendship. There is a certain meditative quality to watching them do their job, but Prince Avalanche actually is building to something much more emotionally satisfying, which is pushed along through encounters the men have with two people. The pair meet an elderly truck driver (Lance LeGault), who gets the two drunk and chatty about women, work and life. LeGault is only in the film a couple of times, but they are essential moments in which he bounces his theories about life, and they try them on to see if they fit.

The other elder encounter happens when the two men are apart for a weekend. Alvin encounters an old woman (first-time actor Joyce Payne) as she picks through the rubble and ashes of her burned-down house. If I told you that Payne was actually sifting through the remains of her real house, it might floor you (she is), but her drifting monologue to Alvin is so moving that even Rudd seems to have at tough time holding it together. She wonders aloud about whether you can really say you've lived a life if there's is no physical evidence of it. Heady questions with no answers.

Alvin is also dealing with the impossible task of holding together a long-distance relationship, while Lance is stumbling through a lovelife crisis of his own. The men pour their hearts out, argue, throw punches, get drunk and let chaos reign in this wonderful, reflective, celebratory soul-searching examination of the unfulfilled lives of two men who certainly have hope and dreams — we're just not sure if they have the energy to try to achieve them. The film has a great number of well-earned laughs, as well as moments that hit your mind and heart squarely in their center. This is a great little movie that you'll carry with you long after you've seen it. The film opens in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

To read my exclusive interview with Prince Avalanche writer-director David Gordon Green and actors Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Jobs

One of the defining moments in the late Steve Jobs' life is depicted in the most unflattering way possible — and frankly, there really isn't a flattering way to depict it in any medium — in the film about his life directed by Joshua Michael Stern. Jobs got a woman pregnant when they were both young and his career was just taking off in such a way that he could not allow himself to be derailed by an unwanted pregnancy. The woman had the child, a daughter name Lisa, and Job went out of his way to essentially ignore her for her entire childhood. These part of Jobs' life, as brought to life in Jobs, is so powerful that it may never allow you to like Steve Jobs as played by Ashton Kutcher.

But then, years later, after Jobs has been removed from the very company he helped build, we see him relaxing at his home with his wife. And suddenly, there she is: daughter Lisa appears out of nowhere, living with Jobs and his new family, as if nothing was ever wrong between them. Seeing how Jobs actually reconciled with Lisa would have carried a lot of emotional baggage and helped us feel for the driven inventor and entrepreneur, but we're never shown or told how they ended up in each other's lives finally. It's a real missed opportunity in a film fully loaded with them. Jobs is a series of unanswered questions, confusing motivations and a narrow view of a man's life that emphasizes what a complete asshole the guy could be without giving us much of the charm and charisma he's also been reported to have had.

I'm sure it would take a mini-series to even come close to learning anything even close to the truth about Jobs' life and what drove him to co-found Apple and revitalize the technology industry, but even still, Jobs feels like it's only skimming the surface, which means it skips over huge chunks of his life and career. And as much as you might want it to be, the fault of the film's failures does not lie with Kutcher's performance, which is measured and accurate. Actually, most of the performances are pretty great, including Josh Gad as Job's partner Steve Wozniak, as well as Luka Haas, J.K. Simmons, James Woods, Matthew Modine, Ron Eldard, Kevin Dunn and many more. If there were any sour notes in the acting, they belong to John Getz and Lesley Ann Warren as Job's parents. We get little to no sense of how hey raised their child to be so cutthroat or curious about technology.

Even so, the film does seem to capture the spirit of certain technological leaps, design innovations and business dealings. I happened to love the sequence where Jobs unveils his Big Brother-concept commercial for the Macintosh, or when he's asked by the new leadership at Apple to return and guide the company out of its downward spiral. He expresses a sense of cold revenge that seems to fit in with the Jobs we've heard so much about. But somehow the film doesn't succeed in giving us the pieces that can help us put together the whole man. I don't expect all of the answers or every layer of his life to be unveiled, but in a docudrama such as this, there has to be some level of understanding.

I was impressed with the use of music in Jobs, and since the film opens with him introducing the iPod to the world, it seems only appropriate that the film's soundtrack act as something of a playlist for Jobs' life. But great tunes doesn't make up for all that is missing, both in terms of information and feeling.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Jobs director Joshua Michael Stern and actor Josh Gad.

Paranoia

There is one short montage sequence in Paranoia, during which we see star Liam Hemsworth (The Hunger Games), looking all shifty eyed at his surroundings in the big city. He may even look over his shoulder a few times because a lot of very bad people are after him, his friends and family. It's also the only time in the entire film when anyone connected with the making of it seems to remember what the title of the movie is. For the rest of the film Hemsworth's tech genius Adam Cassidy is strutting around like he's got everybody right where he wants them, including those trying to get to him.

Cassidy and his friends/teammates are working for a tech firm run by Nicholas Wyatt (Gary Oldman in ruthless businessman mode), and after blowing a pitch to their boss, they all get fired. But the next day, Wyatt calls Cassidy in and essentially blackmails him into going to work for his former mentor and direct competitor Jock Goddard (a bald Harrison Ford), who seems duly impressed with the way Cassidy's mind works and even compares him in smarts to Wyatt.

Is anyone in this line of work dumb enough not to suspect something fishy is going on? Wyatt continues to be heavy handed at manipulating Cassidy into attempting to steal the latest tech from Goddard, and he even suggests he simply march into the company's highly protected vault and just grab it and walk out. Seriously, it might be the single worst-planned heist in movie history. This is a film that hasn't got a clue how crimes are perpetrated, how companies are run, how technology works, or how people behave.

Paranoia has a potentially interesting cast beginning with Amber Heard as Emma, the head of marketing for Goddard's company whom Cassidy has just started sleeping with. Julian McMahon plays Wyatt's thug, who specialty is threatening the lives of Cassidey's ailing but still frisky father (Richard Dreyfuss) and friends. Embeth Davidtz is on hand as Wyatt's... something tricky... still not sure exactly what her point is aside from looking good in a space-age suit and European bob hairstyle.

I'll just say it, director Robert Luketic is way out of his depth here. The studio would like you to think of him as the director of 21, but what he's really done are romantic and other lightweight comedies, including Legally Blonde (his only really good film), The Ugly Truth, Monster-In-Law, and Killers; there's a lot of shit on that list, and you can add Paranoia to the pile. The only time this film isn't being predictable is when a character does something so stupid, you never would have thought of it. For example, in the film's big climactic showdown between the three principles, Cassidy's big idea for bringing down everybody is to record their conversation... on his cell phone... that's a conversation between the heads of the two biggest cell phone developers in the world... because neither of them would have taken precautions against that happening — like for example saying, "Take your cell phone out." Jesus!

While I don't have anything against Liam Hemsworth as an actor, he has yet to show me that he's anything more than a pretty face on a toned torso. He has yet to distinguish himself as a actor who can carry any type of emotional weight; he's not embarrassing himself or those around him, but he's not exactly setting the world on fire with his acting either. I'm not saying a better actor would have saved Paranoia, but it couldn't have hurt. It's a rarer thing to say about a non-kids-oriented movie than you think, but this film is just plain dumb.

The Act of Killing

There are films that you watch and they move or shake you; and then there is The Act of Killing, a documentary so unlike anything you've seen before, the world may appear upside down and backwards after viewing. You think you understand the basic building blocks of human behavior, and then you are introduced to the one-time anti-communist, death-squad leadership of Indonesia, who not only got away with killing millions (mostly in the latter half of the 1960s) but are looked upon as national heroes for their vicious yet efficient means of killing large numbers.

The Act of Killing centers on the story of the now-elderly Anwar Congo and his band of gangsters, who were as much a part of the killing as the military or youth army. How director Joshua Oeppenheimer pulled this off, I'm not even sure I want to know, but after realizing that Congo is in the mood to explain the details of his many bare-handed killings, he convinces the white-haired old man to make a short film re-creating many aspects of his life in a time of genocide. He and his men gather locals to play "communists" (which was really a blanket statement for anyone of Chinese decent or opposed the regime government), who would be killed or have their homes burned to the ground. But mixed in with these ultra-real depictions of atrocities, Congo includes musical number in which the ghosts of his victims thank him for showing them the errors of their way by killing them. There's a sequence that is more Chicago-style gangster than Indonesian death squad. I'd love to say there's a fine line between brutal an insane, but in this film, there's little divide.

There is a reflective quality to the filmmaking, and as the filming goes on, Congo begins to realize just what his victims went through. In one especially tough sequence, Congo has cast himself as a "communist" being tortured by his own death squad. But for me, it was simply listening to the stories that were the most disturbing aspects of The Act of Killing. When the team is filming a simulated invasion and destruction of an entire village, some of the former leaders discuss raping women in the villages, especially the 14-year-old girls. "This may be hell for you, but it's heaven for me," one of them supposedly told some of the girls. Since some of the participants in the film seem to have the ability to lie about their role in the original killings (most pretend they were more involved, which is astonishing), we can assume that some of this talk may be empty boasting, but I'm guessing most is not.

The film is executive produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, two doc filmmakers who never flinch from tough stories, but neither of them has made a film anything life The Act of Killing. I'm guessing the nature of the stories told within this movie may be too much for some to take. There is something in the cavalier nature of the way they convey their stories that is beyond sickening, and there are times when you simply have to remind yourself that these are not actors cast in these roles; these are men who placed themselves at the center of these events and excelled at what they did.

The fact that these death squads are still celebrated in Indonesia is the piece of this insanity that bothers me the most, and that these tactics were supported by many Western (anti-communist) governments at the time is the only thing that could be more disturbing. One could question Oppenheimer even giving a voice to these killers, but it's important that we understand that these are not the product of Hollywood horror films (although many of them were inspired by American movies); they are human beings whose souls are rotten to and from the core, and they have reasons for what they did, however twisted.

And with the cameras rolling and giving a performance as the order of the day, some of them even say they are haunted by the ghosts of those that they killed. I'm not sure how much stock I put in such comments, but if the retching, grief-striken Congo we see at the end of the film is the genuine item, I guess there's some hope for humanity after all. There's no way you'll come out of The Act of Killing unscathed, but it's still a film well worth examining. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

In A World...

Winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival for Best Screenplay, writer-director-star Lake Bell's In A World... is a smart little comedy set in the (apparently) ferociously competitive world of voiceover actors. You know, those deep-voiced men who used to narrate trailers with the appropriate amount of bravado and vibrato. Bell plays Carol, a vocal and dialect coach to actors who is apparently quite good at her job, although she has a tough time making ends meet as a freelance instructor. She longs for the work and fame that her father Sam (Fred Melamed) has as one of the premier movie trailer voices. When it is announced that some studio is bringing back the "In A World..." opening line for one of its trailers, the voiceover community is set ablaze with excitement, especially when Sam says he won't seek the gig, leaving the path open for newcomer Gustav (Ken Marino) to grab it.

But when Carol is in a recording studio visiting her friend Louis (Demetri Martin), she's called upon to do a temp track for a trailer for a kids movie, and when the powers that be hear her work, they consider her a major player for the "In A World..." gig. And since the movie in question has a strong female lead, she's considered a front runner for the gig. Bell has a strong, if exaggerated, sense of this community and all of the sexism that goes along with it.

Some of the strongest scenes in the film belong to Carol's sister (Michaela Watkins) and her husband (Rob Corddry), whose marriage is in trouble. And while the two of them are very funny characters, when dealing with their marital discord, Bell treats them as serious, dramatic entities. There are moments in In A World... that feel like a romantic comedy, others that feel like a family drama, and still others that get brutally dark, especially when Sam discovers his daughter is in the running for this trailer gig and decides to throw his name in the hat just so she doesn't shine brighter in this arena that he does. The strong supporting cast is rounded out by the likes of Nick Offerman, Tig Notaro, Jeff Garlin, Geena Davis, Eva Longoria, and Jason O'Mara.

Much like Judy Greer before her (although Bell isn't quite at that level of perfection), Lake Bell has had a career of playing supporting roles in mostly dismal comedies, often saddled with playing the best friend or girlfriend. But In A World... gives her room to breathe and create a character that is funny but fueled by her anxiety and fear of failure in her father's eyes. It's the most fully dimensional characters she's ever played, and the movie is all the better for it. This is not a great film, but it's an original idea set among characters rarely considered in tales about Hollywood. And it's certainly one of the stronger, reality-based comedies of the summer. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with In A World... writer/director/star Lake Bell.

 

blaster / August 16, 2013 3:11 PM

This article reads as if it were written using a voice to text interface, then posted with no proofreading or editing. You're doing yourself a disservice by posting such poor quality work.

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Feature Mon Jun 09 2014

I Grew Up in a Big Ol' Gay Disco: an Interview with Oli Rodriguez

By H. Melt

Oli Rodriguez is an interdisciplinary artist working in film, photography, and performance. H. Melt sat down with him to find out more about his relationship to Chicago, the city's queer history, and how it impacts his artmaking.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jul 25 2014

Hercules, Lucy, A Most Wanted Man, I Origins, And So It Goes, Happy Christmas, Magic in the Moonlight, Under the Electric Sky & Closed Curtain

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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