Friday, 16 April 2010

Film Review: Kick-Ass

(Directed by Matthew Vaughn, running time 117 minutes)

Last year’s Watchmen was something of a mixed bag... well not for me, I loved it but I’m not narrow-minded enough to not acknowledge that for certain others it was hardly their favorite film that either they couldn’t understand or take its dark themes. Regardless of how you felt, what it was was a spin on the superhero genre, a plot element underused in cinema. To those who may have said nay to Watchmen (shame on you), while the very much hyped Kick-Ass has much in common with Alan Moore's brainchild; humanizing superheroes, casual violence and a twisted sense of irony, the plot is significantly more stream-lined and the general tone is much lighter.

Aaron Johnson plays Dave Lizewski, a teenage “comic-book nerd” who has an epiphany moment over the notion that despite its popularity, no one has tried putting being a superhero into practice, thus engaging in mask vigilantism himself in the form of “Kick-Ass”. Initially such attempts are comically futile even though being filmed and posted on YouTube helps his credibility much more than actual crime fighting (this subtle reference carries more weight as a a piece of commentary than at first glance). During the ride he gets mixed up with two highly skilled yet deeply deranged masked heroes; Big Daddy and Hit Girl, played by Nicolas Cage and ChloĆ« Grace Moretz, both who are on the warpath against kingpin mobster Frank D’Amico played by Mark Strong.

Sounds simple enough right? That’s because it is, while the story changes direction and tone between comedy and drama, the climax is clear on the the horizon. The prime issue to grapple with here is not the moral ambiguity of the script (trust me, if you haven’t already you’re bound to hear it from some heavily right-wing nut job radio commentator), I’ll get onto that later. No, it’s the genre. While all previews and trailers depict Kick-Ass as something of a comedy for young adults, greatly at times the whole mood takes a plunge into a psychological/social drama. While not overshadowing the obvious comedy touted outside the theaters, the drama is very much clear cut and stands out in a one by one ratio. Often at times the audience will witness a series of slapstick skits before taking in angst or sorrow the character might experience (because satire can be serious). This is a human related story after all. Even though such subject matter is sprinkled out in doses throughout the film to prevent becoming overbearing and in itself is defiantly apart of the overall experience as the comedy, I fear some questionable advertising may be setting some common folk up for a potential unpleasant surprise after having been put into the wrong mind set.

On the comedy front however, there is thankfully deliverance. Even with the glaring pit falls his character experiences as his alter-ego, Dave Lizewski also engages in a close friendship with one of the most attractive girls at his school, after having mistaken him for being a homosexual with the first joke to mind being the resulting sexual-tension on Dave’s parts as he consistently pretends to play along. Aside from the endeavors of the protagonist, further humor in exhibited from the youngest of the D’Amico clan, Chris/Red Mist played by Christopher Charles Mintz-Plasse, better known to the student audience as McLovin a’la Superbad who is as pleasantly awkward as ever, being an even more cocky yet useless rookie crime fighter than Kick-Ass himself. Additionally, the side cast such as Dave’s even more geeky friends and D’Amico’s hired goons have their own moments in the comedy spotlight.

However, it’s Big Daddy and Hit Girl who steal the show, being a pair of downright deranged individuals while at the same time oddly compelling that we even cheer on as they blatantly gruesomely decimate wave after wave of all sorts of unsavory low lives. And that’s something, like Watchmen, the violence is in plain site and rather unexpected, we’re talking massive head-shots, severed limbs and in one instance a guy exploding in a giant microwave oven. In terms of its violence however, given the comedy angle, it’s more reminiscent of Tarantino, being apart of the humor and colossal sense of irony. Nicolas Cage’s Big Daddy is something of a parent-orientated Batman who despite some hiccups in the past, I would say has redeemed his credibility as an actor. ChloĆ« Grace Moretz is more of an oddity since despite being a mere child, pulls off some of Kick-Ass’s heaviest profanities and executions to the extent of forgetting her age completely... which leads me onto this...

NOTE: This next paragraph is more of a brief commentary over the recent controversy this film has caused rather than a view on the film itself so skip to the last paragraph to get right to the conclusion.

There may be some out there who find certain elements of Kick-Ass questionable, for others even distressful. One reason for such negativity to resonate may be a result from the already explained unexpectedness of the heavy violence and profanity. In this one’s own opinion, all this does is benefit the spin on the superhero genre and enhance the elements of social commentary here and there. The prime issue however is that of Hit Girl, where some have found distasteful and exploitative. First of all let me say anyone who thinks it’s exploitative is sick and for that you sir/madam are the deranged individual. As for the violence, I will admit at first it is somewhat bewildering to see a small girl massacre a group of drug dealers and towards the end even take a bloody punch to face, and while I can understand why such an image might be distressing to some, in the end it’s a matter of taste. Sure, a loving parent would not take such violence kindly whereas a teenager out for cheap thrills wouldn’t batter an eyelid.

Kick-Ass is definitely a unique film experience that you should check out, being part teenage comedy, part violent action and part social drama, all of which is helped further by its in your face satire and sharp script. For most I assume reading this, they’ll find something about it entertaining, but due to some hang ups people have had in the past I must emphasize they approach with caution as it is not entirely what it seems at first.

Also stars Lyndsy Fonseca, Clarke Duke and Nelson Frazier, Jr (that’s Viscera the wrestler).

Film Review: Clash of the Titans

DISCLAIMER: I know I’m trying to shorten my reviews but in this particular case I’ve got a lot to get off my chest, which even then still isn’t long enough, so apologies.

(Directed by Louis Leterrier, running time 118 minutes)

Greek Mythology is somewhat of an oddity for film makers, while it provides a ready selection of mythical creatures, legendary heroes and a sizable pantheon of Gods, the originally stories themselves don’t translate to the moving picture in the slightest sense if reverence is on the agenda. Arguably the best attempt at bringing life to the ancient fables was the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts, one of the first “swords and sandals” epics and easily featuring the best of stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen. However liberties were taken to give life to the exaggerated tales of old. His second Greek outing (no, not like that) however came in 1981 in the form of Clash of the Titans. Unlike Argonauts, the spectacle however was not the best acted or even groundbreaking, in fact it was a step back for special effects at the time. But why is it still remembered? Charm and camp value, which makes it a cult classic that being the case would make me “Brother Frank”.

A remake however is not a farfetched concept since Greek Mythology can also be epic, just look at the God of War video game series. The original Clash of the Titans however wasn’t actually much of an epic story to begin with so naturally any attempt at making it epic would either mean taking liberties or over doing the grand scale of story itself... where this 2010 incarnation does neither.

By all means does the screenplay take liberties with the original story (which took liberties of its own with the original legend so for all those familiar with the genuine text; you’ll stop grinding your teeth after 20 minutes) but this does not involve inserting some epic battle sequences. Sam Worthington, having washed off his Smurf make-up plays Perseus, the bastard child of Zeus (played by Liam Neeson), who after losing his adoptive family and ship is swept ashore the kingdom of Argos that initially relishes in it’s independence from the Gods not long before they’re groveling at the feet of Hades (played by Ralph Fiennes) who demands a sacrifice for the Kraken, lest they be completely obliterated. So naturally this set up leads Perseus and co on a grand adventure to stop potential annihilation, overcoming many obstacles in the form of mythical beasts... or “big bad beasties” using Hollywood logic.

Already I’m questioning the plausibility of this set up. The writers themselves must have been in the mind set of “this happens because it was in the original” since a number of scenes played out in 1981 that don’t make sense in 2010. The most glaring of these is why is Perseus even on this journey? In the original, Perseus is out to save his beloved Andromeda and his soon to be kingdom while nearly 30 years later he is just out for revenge for the death of his family at the hands of Hades despite his quest not involving the goal of killing said Godof the Underworld. Further more upon his arrival at Argos he is treated like a scraping from under their sandal that begs the question why help them, especially since the people are bringing the wrath of Zeus upon themselves to the point of borderline painting a giant middle finger on the mountain side. The second issue is not so obvious since the plot element doesn’t come up much... and that is why it’s a problem. In 1981 the cursed beast Calibos is the whole reason the Kraken is summoned while in 2010 he is nothing more than a bribed peon of Hades, a tacked on reference to the original (although I will admit the mechanical owl joke was pretty clever). And thirdly Pegasus, the winged horse just turns up at the end sent by Zeus after a change of heart, there is no developed bond from the original making the creature more of a tool than a companion. I could name many others but I digress, in short it appears the film is so eager to get of the ground and wow audiences, there is no time to rationalize the legitimacy of the basic script. I’m not saying the original’s was perfect, but it was at least coherent.

Ok, so the script is clearly flawed but what about the characters? In a positive spin, the beauty part is there is definitely a band of interesting characters, that are built up from the start with different traits and backgrounds... slight problem however. Without giving away who and how, a good chunk are arbitrarily killed off making all that screen time building them up pointless if their deaths were so insignificant, screen time that could of been used developing the story itself. The acting is... ok. Not cringe worthy but tolerable... at times. The biggest chip on my shoulder is the Greek Gods themselves. Now Neeson and Fiennes are perfectly acceptable but why are they dressed like a camp stage theater retelling of King Arthur? What happened to the togas, the auroras of thunder, giant muscles and general sense of power? Why do the pantheon congregate over a landscape for train sets? They may act like Gods, heck the much touted line “release the Kraken” does pack a punch, but they don’t look like Gods.

This really isn’t going well?

CGI then. Thankfully, unlike the rendition of Olympus, the landscape does invoke the epic scale of Greek Mythology with the city of Argos alone rivaling that of the Lord of the Rings Minas Tirith. Even the desolate lands where twisted old witches reside comes off more as the shores of hell (or Hades). As for the inevitable monster mash, the bands of warriors plow through giant scorpions, harpies, Medusa and of course the Kraken, although the course is a little light, lacking the 1981 giant hawk and two-headed dog. In their place however are mysterious, almost wood like sand people who actually ally themselves with our heroes, which to their credit are at least visually striking and unique. The Kraken is defiantly the highlight despite like the original doing little in the way of... being the Kraken, but the hype prior is actually overbearing in a good way. Medusa however is less menacing this time around, having much less build up and sense of horror with the confrontation being more action orientated like the rest of the film. While it’s good action no doubt, it lacks any importance given the monsters before were casually despatched as mere hurdles. I mean even the sand people are immune to her powers, making her as an entity of pure dread redundant. On the up side, the giant scorpion sequence appears more important and exciting than it’s supposed to be given its significance to the overarching plot.

As a remake, if you saw the original first, you probably will be wanting more. As a stand alone film, it is deeply flawed. While action and spectacle take centre stage, the various hiccups along the road make the whole epic experience more of a bumpy ride. Since I essentially have a great gay boner for Greek Mythology (joke), I found myself crushingly disappointed. Not because of the liberties taken with the source material or the lack of charm the original film possesses but for the lack of epic scale and fantastical sense of awe that Greek Mythology is perfect for. The best case in cinema is still Jason and the Argonauts and very few things can even such the sheer spectacle of the God of War games, Greek Mythology or not. 2010 Clash of the Titans is not a straight up bad film, I’m sure there many who can enjoy it for the grand CGI fest it is since there is a lack of mythological orientated films, but the overall experience is lacking. I mean with a name like CLASH of the TITANS, you'd settle for nothing less than over the top epic scale. While I prefer not to grade or score a complex opinion like most critics, this film can best be described as around the C- range film, not too bad, but not really that good either... it’s just there for you.

Also starring Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng and Mads Mikkelsen.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Film Review: How to Train Your Dragon

(Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, running time 98 minutes)

Looking back at the many animated films I delved into, I can only sneer at the sugary AND cheesy onslaught that insulted my intelligence, if I had any that is, I was 6. I my view, a good children’s film is one you can look back on fondly and even enjoy once you’re all grown up... and the same applies today. So as a huge cynic, any children’s animated feature I can enjoy must be worth a glance for the bigger hearted regular audience. So far, only Pixar seems to be able to charm my critical attitude... but How to Train Your Dragon is a DreamWorks production and I did not enjoy Shrek. Before I get this review underway, let me briefly explain why I paid the price of admission; one, the reviews to mine and everyone else’s surprise were phenomenally positive and two, I’m a sucker for Vikings... with that child like remark, now I don’t seem so negative as a person.

The oddly named How to Train Your Dragon follows the endeavor of Hiccup, also oddly named, voiced by Jay Baruchel, a weak and young Viking blacksmith who supplies the weapons to the rest of his more typical fat, drunk and horned Viking clan who are under constant attack from an array of monstrous and cartoonish dragon archetypes. After inadvertently bringing down one of the harder to slay beasts, being the lesser Viking he is, he instead helps it heal before learning to ride and eventually befriending one of the dragons his people have been fighting for so long...

...yeah, it does sound familiar, more so to anyone who read my Avatar review. The story of of a hero switching sides is a tired out formula but as strange as it sounds, this animated feature isn’t the overhyped cliche spectacle some “other” films turn out to be. The prime difference is in its characterization. First of all, the dragons aren’t innocent creatures, they’re violent fire breathing behemoths, basically they’re real dragons. Secondly the Vikings aren’t even villainous, they’re just defending their homeland. In fact, neither the dragons or Vikings are the protagonists or antagonists, it’s about Hiccup and his juggling of caring for a dragon in secret while trying to train himself back at his village in a rather comically blunt series of Viking duels, all of this before an epic climax that you won’t guess from the trailers alone.

Might sound simple enough, but it’s the characters and humor that stand on its own feet. The dragons come in different shapes and sizes (and methods of attack) ranging from the simple design of the lead dragon to both cartoonish and menacing with their entire personality shown through their movement and facial expressions. In short they don’t talk or try to act like humans, which the animations of old did... excruciatingly. The Vikings themselves are also more typical of their kind, enjoying to drink, eat and fight and we’d expect nothing less. When Hicupp’s overbearing father and chieftain of the Vikings, Stoic the Vast (voiced by Gerard Butler) was introduced in the opening, I couldn’t help but grin for minutes afterwards at that name alone. Another Viking of note is Gobber the Belch (voiced by Craig Ferguson), sporting artificial limbs and an unconventional and downright dangerous training technique for new dragon slaying recruits.

The story is somewhat formulaic and there aren’t that many surprises outside of the characterization making for a somewhat predictable flow in a couple of instances, but what you do get is a series of excellent set piece scenes and epic battles with subtle humor and charm. Further more, the Viking setting is a fresh change of pace from talking animals and inanimate objects, which also allows for a pleasant orchestral score accompanied by Celtic pipes, which isn’t the most common thing to hear in an animation... except Beowulf, but I have it on good authority that may not be for children.

It might sound odd at first to enjoy such a film at my age but how many of you are planning to see Toy Story 3 hmm?

Also stars America Ferrera, Jonah Hill and David Tennant (yes, that one).

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Film Review: Alice in Wonderland

(Directed by Tim Burton, running time 109 minutes)

Tim Burton is losing his flare... not the most encouraging start to a review. But seriously, what was once a unique take on the fantasy genre has since become, to a degree a studio brand. This post-modern goth has rinsed and repeated to the point of becoming predictable and repetitive. Still don’t know what I mean?

Mia Wasikowska plays a now adult Alice straight after donating a third of her blood, who ends up in over the top fairy tale world of Wonderland after tumbling down a rabbit hole more reminiscent are a vortex induced by magic mushrooms (not that I’m suggesting anything). Short of weird for the sake of weird, we are then introduced to the whole shebang of Wonderland misfits; there’s Barbara Windsor as the twitchy Dormouse, Michael Sheen as the oddly depressed White Rabbit, Stephen Fry as the down right sinister Cheshire Cat and Matt Lucas as Matt Lucas... I mean Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Despite being sidelined as mere sideshows, the manic monsters are easily the highlight of this surreal display, bursting with personality and humor.

Beyond the anthropomorphic parade is the Mad Hatter played by Johnny Depp who I’m starting to think has shacked up with Tim Burton. Don’t get me wrong, Johnny Depp is as delightfully schizophrenic as ever but it’s become mandatory in a Burton production so even though Depp is the star, we already have a good impression of how much twitchy rambling to expect.

But I digress. Alice has apparently been brought back to Wonderland after her first visit as a child to overthrow the Red Queen (played by *sarcastic surprise* Helena Bonham Carter) and return the crown to the White (understatement mind you) Queen (played by a tolerable Anne Hathaway), which can only be done after defeating the “Jabberwocky” in an epic battle... yeah... As you may have already noticed this is not the Alice in Wonderland we know. If anything this is Alice in Wonderland 2 without the first installment. The prime issue I have is while I relish in good story structure, when the credits started to roll, I couldn’t be wonder if the the story would of faired better if it was actually a random secession of surreal events, like the original narrative because at its most obscure the film stands out.

Burton seems to have injected a Christian fable into a children’s fairy tale with the result being more Lord of the Rings than Nightmare Before Christmas in its crazed series of events. When you see the Had Hatter swinging a clamor in a duel with an evil knight, you don’t know what to think and I doubt that’s what Burton wanted. The entire package is what you’d come to expect from the man of white make-up, and for some that’s even a plus, but for me and a good deal of others it’s become repetitive despite trying to be an original twisted style. Turning classic stories on their head is a good concept but vary the style at least! Otherwise we’re going to the Wizard of Oz with a sexually mature Dorothy, monstrous lion, cyborg Tin man and zombie Scarecrow.

Also stars Crispin Glover, Alan Rickman and (briefly) Christopher Lee.