Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Kick-Ass

There's a fresh idea at the center of this story.

The idea is somewhat controversial, but without it, there wouldn't be a movie at all.

Kick-Ass is about the adventures of Dave Lizewski, an ordinary 16 year-old who decides one day to become a super hero. To this end, he dons a green and yellow wetsuit with matching facemask. He arms himself with a pair of baseball bats -- one for each hand -- and hits the streets, determined to combat evildoers wherever he finds them.

When he encounters real criminals he is quickly stabbed, beaten and run over by a car.

This is not the story's central idea.

Dave, who dubs himself "Kick-Ass," never does acquire superpowers. Nor does he develop fighting skills that could be described as anything other than slightly below average.

What Kick-Ass does do is find himself an ally. That ally is Damon MacCready, an ex-cop played by Nic Cage, who happens to be the father of a thirteen year-old girl named Mindy. Cage has raised Mindy to be a superhuman fighting machine the way Earl Woods raised his son Tiger to play golf.

This means Mindy, who goes by the moniker "Hit Girl," is the real deal, a pint-sized death dealer to every villainous scumbag who populates the city's dark underbelly.

THIS is the idea at the center of the movie.

The best sequences in Kick-Ass are those where Hit Girl is carving a path of bloody destruction through a group of gun-toting mobsters like some combination of Bruce Lee and Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator.

If you recoil at the idea of a thirteen year-old girl playing the role of action hero, I guess I understand where you're coming from. But I enjoyed it immensely. The action genre has been exhausted for almost a decade and the superhero field is quickly reaching a saturation point.

It's a good time for something different, and Kick-Ass is certainly that.

The movie is based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar, a British writer who has worked for both DC and Marvel. Millar is an established hand in the comics business, and Kick-Ass shows all the signs of coming from a mind somewhat bored with the usual way of doing things.

The ensuing combination of violence and humor, seriousness and absurdity, will best be enjoyed by comic book lovers, movie nuts or all-around story junkies who are ready for a familiar meal prepared an unfamiliar way.

Everyone else is likely to be mystified, horrified or otherwise put off.

It's their loss, though. That little girl really does kick ass.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 75/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 75/100

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Date Night

The last decade or so, every movie from Twentieth Century Fox comes out the same way. Here's the Fox formula and how Date Night follows it to a tee:

Step One: Cook up a feeble but simple premise that will appeal to the lowest common denominator.

A harried suburban mom and dad make time for "date night," only to be mistaken for blackmailers and chased around the city in a raucous adventure that reignites their passion for each other.

Step Two: Cast the movie with B-listers, former stars or wannabe stars. Actors with recognizable names but low price tags.

Steve Carrell and Tina Fey, both primarily known for their tv work, are willing to work on the cheap for a crack at the silver screen.

Step Three: Hand the movie over to a director with as few artistic impulses as possible, so studio executives can rigidly control the content and style.

Canadian director Shawn Levy, whose filmography contains such innovative work as Cheaper by the Dozen, The Pink Panther (Steve Martin reboot) and Night at the Museum.

Step Four: Use the profits from Avatar to repeat over and over and over...

Date Night isn't bad. There are aspects of craft and efficiency to admire. But the movie is so utterly forgettable, I'm lucky I thought to myself "That was a fifty-two out of a hundred" as I walked out of the theater. Otherwise I wouldn't remember enough of the movie to score it properly. It would be the first ?/100 in the history of this blog.

What drives me crazy is not that Date Night was bland and forgettable. What drives me crazy is that it was bland and forgettable by design.

Making movies is a risky business, or at least it should be. But some studios, like Fox, try to avoid risk entirely. This is like a baseball team that tries to bunt every pitch. It might turn out to be a good idea, statistically speaking, but wouldn't it ruin the sport?

That's how I feel about Fox, and to a lesser degree all of Hollywood. Studios escape the world of risk by out-sourcing funding, rehashing old material and sticking product placement ads in every other scene. Then they pat themselves on the back for their ingenuity.

But aren't they just fooling themselves? The beauty of the movie business is its element of risk. The greater the risk in Hollywood, the greater the potential reward.

If a movie is great -- not just financially successful, but genuinely great -- it might find itself a part of our global culture. It might become an enduring touchstone in the heritage of our species. It might be something imperishable like Citizen Kane or The Godfather.

That's something you can't achieve selling laundry detergent or snack cakes.

Ambitious men and women should live and die fighting for glory in Hollywood. Not to grind out a few extra bucks more efficiently than someone else. Not to avoid getting fired for six more months.

But to swing for the fences.

The way Date Night was put together, there was no chance it would be awful.

There was also no chance it would be great.

So why even bother?

SCORE

How Accomplished: 52/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 52/100

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Clash of the Titans

Here's a riddle worthy of a sphinx: how does a big-budget version of the Greek myth depicting Perseus' quest to slay Medusa and defeat the Kraken make for a terrible Hollywood movie?

Let us count the ways:

1. Action on a tiny scale. Despite a couple "Directing for Dummies" wide-angle shots of the port city of Argos accompanied by operatic music blaring at full volume, Titans utterly fails to make Argos feel like anything but a sound stage in Burbank. Furthermore, the distant lands to which Perseus travels look like arid sections of Griffith Park in Los Angeles.

Thus, zero points for good direction. Those non-points go to director Louis Leterrier, the Frenchman responsible for last summer's popular but awful Taken.

Absurd as this is to say, the cheesy 1981 version of Titans felt bigger. Of course, I was a lot smaller then.

2. Bad acting. Sam Worthington is suddenly all the rage, but he hasn't yet given a performance worthy of the term "mediocre." He's a blond Keanu Reeves, and while he may get better -- see Ledger, Heath -- Titans is not his turning point.

Bad dialogue makes even good actors look foolish, of course. At one point in the story, Bond babe Gemma Arterton turns to Worthington's Perseus and has to say: "This part of your journey you must do alone."

Beyond the grammatical inconsistency, the syntactical clumsiness and overall triteness, it's a crackling good line.

The only actors to survive with dignity intact are Bond villain Mads Mikkelson and young Brit Nicholas Hoult, who still fosters a lot of goodwill for playing the boy in About a Boy.

3. Sub-par special effects. I saw this movie in 2-D after hearing the last-minute 3-D conversion was bad. Well, it must be hideous because the 2-D version is drab, dark and afflicted with CGI straight out of a 1996 video game.

Maybe the only compliment I can muster is that the special effects are better than the creepy stop-motion visuals of its 1981 predecessor. 19 years of technological innovation have moved us from disturbingly phony to blandly phony. The less said about the effects, the better.

Wait, I do have one more thing to say about the effects. Toward the end, there's a moment where Perseus is riding along a beach atop Pegasus, the winged steed. The action looks halfway convincing and I was eagerly awaiting the moment when Pegasus would leap off the ground and soar into the air. Surely that's a moment we can expect to enjoy when watching a movie about Perseus and his famous flying horse.

Naturally, Leterrier cuts away at the last moment to a shot of Pegasus already in mid-air, flapping away idiotically.

I was so mad I could have killed the Kraken.

4. Bad writing. There's a fundamental flaw in the writing that kills any chance at quality this movie has. The flaw: every time Perseus finds himself in trouble, someone springs forward to get him out of it.

At one point Zeus himself pops up to give Perseus useful advice. And he's supposed to be the antagonist!

Along the way, Perseus collects every piece of magical armor, weaponry, travel and protection he can -- along with a BOATLOAD of powerful allies -- to overcome foes that start to look seriously outgunned.

The only act of genuine cleverness on the part of Worthington's Perseus -- using Medusa's reflection to fight her without looking at her -- was conceived thousands of years before the movie's writers were born.

It's crazy to think that if we could bring some reasonably intelligent people from ancient Greece twenty-five hundred years into the future and show them what modern civilization has made of their myths, they'd watch in stupefied silence till the credits rolled...

...then turn to each other and say "Wow, that sucked!"

SCORE:

How Accomplished: 22/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 17/100

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

This movie is just good enough to be completely redone by Hollywood in the next couple of years. It's a pre-remake.

It competently tells the tale of Mikael Blomkvist, a fifty year-old journalist who pairs with twenty-something computer hacker, goth chick and all-around antisocial bad ass, Lisbeth Salander -- who sports a large dragon tattoo across her back -- to investigate the disappearance of a rich industrialist's niece thirty years prior.

In case you can't tell by the names, the story is set in Sweden. Based on the novel by former fifty year-old journalist Stieg Larsson (write what you know, I guess), the movie is voiced in Swedish, leaving the average ignorant American -- like this reviewer -- reading subtitles.

This may explain why the movie has grossed eighty-six million dollars internationally, but less than a million in the United States. We're just not big readers.

What's striking about Dragon Tattoo is how much it feels like a Hollywood movie. Except for some graphic sexual violence that will be the first thing cut for the remake, the story plays out in the tradition of Silence of the Lambs or Seven. The clue-gathering second act, the action-packed third and the unambiguous ending couldn't feel less European.

It turns out, the writing of author Stieg Larsson was most heavily influenced by British and American crime novelists, not the local anti-narrative symbolicists whose work is so impenetrable to the rest of humanity.

While Dragon Tattoo will require no cultural translation for its Hollywood rebirth, it will need some traces of its prosey origins removed. Our crimefighting duo are TOO well characterized. Excessive subplots and backstory weigh down the first act, require an overlong denouement in the third, and extend the running time to an unpalatable two hours and forty minutes.

Within that running time, there's a lot of meaty stuff. The relationship between Blomkvist and Salander is genuinely involving, and the mystery they seek to unravel has all the fun twists and turns requisite of the genre. Including the shocking revelation that the study of a disappearance in the past may shed light on terrible killings in the present.

And of course, the closer Blomkvist and Salander get to the killer, the more danger they themselves fall under.

I TOLD you it felt like a Hollywood movie.

Just within the last few hours, word has escaped that director David Fincher -- of the aforementioned Seven -- has signed on to direct the remake of Dragon Tattoo. The name Kristen Stewart has been batted around for the part of Lisbeth Salander.

And why not?

Män som hatar kvinnor (as the original title reads in Swedish) plays like a cinematic first draft. The Fincher version -- if indeed Fincher sees the project through -- won't even be a remake as much as a rewrite.

And rewriting makes everything better.

Okay, now that I've thoroughly jinxed it, the Hollywood version will probably suck.

Sorry about that!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 67/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 67/100