Monday, March 25, 2013

Movie Review: "Kick-Ass" by David Pretty

Kick-Ass unspools like a mad fusion between Mystery Men, The Dark Knight and Kill Bill.  About the only thing the script gets wrong is when our eponymous teenage protagonist Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) plaintively asks ""How come nobody's ever tried to be a superhero?"  Actually there are already quite a few of them, but I'm perfectly willing to overlook this little gaffe and let the script deliver its boundless epiphanies.

Sick of witnessing the apathy of everyone around him, Dave seeks to emulate his beloved comic book heroes.  He orders a wetsuit online, arms himself with a couple of batons and then ventures out to fight crime.  Unfortunately within minutes he gets beat-up, stabbed and then run over by a car.  This is exactly what the film is keen to explore: exactly what would the average, everyday jobber have to deal with if they were nutty enough to don a costume and became a vigilante?  In Dave's case he ends up with a metal-laced skeleton and considerable nerve-damage, both of which become ersatz super-powers.

After Kick-Ass explodes into an internet phenomenon it inspires some like-minded folks to "come out of the phone booth" as it were.  We're soon introduced to the father/daughter team of Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz).  Unlike Dave, who's just moonlighting in the superhero biz, Big Daddy and Hit Girl are professionals, actively campaigning to take down the film's primary villain by any means necessary.

Speak of the devil, the film-makers pull no punches when it comes to the stone-cold, morally-bankrupt criminals that our wannabe, spandex-clad heroes are forced to contend with.  Enter mob boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) who makes the Zodiac Killer look like The Riddler.  Frank is one part Tony Zucco, one part Tony Soprano and one part Joe Pesci on a cocaine bender.

Frank targets the high-profile Kick-Ass for gumming up his operation even though it's actually Big Daddy and Hit Girl who are secretly making all of the big moves against him.  Frank even gets his own milquetoast son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to pose as a manufactured super-villain named Red Mist in order to corral and purge the emerging "superhero threat".  When our heroes finally unite in an effort to take down the big boss things really kick into high gear.    

Upon its release, Kick-Ass garnered some pretty polarizing reviews (Roger Ebert described it as "morally reprehensible") but I found the film to be exhilarating, daring and fresh.  The concept of super heroes grounded in reality is nothing new; veteran comic book scribes Frank Miller and Alan Moore have been elevating the super-hero genre to high art for years.  Kick-Ass gets a lot of little things right, including what it takes to transition an anonymous masked schmoe into an unkillable fantasy martyr.  By the time Kick-Ass and Hit Girl assault D'Amico's inner sanctum you can almost pinpoint the precise moment in which these characters go from kids in costumes to bona-fide pop-culture icons.

Having worn the Producer's hat for Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Writer/Director Matthew Vaughn is no stranger to hard-boiled crime drama and stylish action.  Along with screenwriting partner Jane Goldman, Vaughn expertly strip-mines plenty of interesting twists and angles out of this story.  We're even treated to some lighthearted and diverting moments, such as Dave's attempt to make time with  his life-long dream babe Katie by posing as a non-threatening gay friend. 

Amongst a plethora of fine performances, Nicolas Cage is a clear standout.  This is definitely one of his best recent projects and his on-screen relationship with Hit Girl is both unconventional and remarkably sweet.  I just love how he's all Ward Cleaver when not in costume and then sounds like Adam West after dressing up as Big Daddy.  Aaron Johnson is also fantastic, giving us shades of Tobey McGuire's Peter Parker and plenty of sharp line readings.  The scene featuring a ludicrously-attired Kick-Ass and Red Mist bopping along to "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley while driving in the "Mist Mobile" is pure gold.

And, of course, Chloe Moretz effortlessly absconds with every scene she's in as Hit Girl.  Although Roger Ebert seems to be convinced that the character's casual use of violence (not to mention the Sharp-"C") should be interpreted as a symptom of moral decay, I see Hit Girl as a tremendously empowering figure.  She's so well-trained, so street-smart and so psychologically grounded that no bully or pervert could ever be capable of harming her.

Yes, the violence is intense and graphic but anything else would have hobbled the film's mission statement.  Clearly Matthew Vaughn and company wanted to explore what would happen if those fanciful, four-color fights from the comics were grafted onto our own harsh reality.  The film is a hard "R" for a reason and I strongly suggest that pre-teen kids wait a few more years before watching Hit Girl in action.

When they reach a more appropriate age (say, twenty-four for example), their inner child will still be intact and they'll be better equipped to process the film's often-hideous but thematically-appropriate levels of violence.  Until then, responsible parents should take this opportunity to introduce their kids to traditional comic books.

To paraphrase one of the characters from the movie: "You owe that kid a childhood." 

Tilt: up.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Movie Review "Unicorn City" by David Pretty

This movie sucked.

Thanks for comin' out, folks!

Seriously, I have no idea who Unicorn City was supposed to be aimed at.  Non-gamers will either be bored to tears, hopelessly perplexed or have all of their worst preconceived notions about gamers confirmed.  Actual gamers, on the the other hand, will be grievously insulted.  At least they should be, assuming that their grasp on reality isn't as tenuous as the writers of this shit storm.  

Anyway, here's the movie's promising trailer, which makes the whole thing look kinda sweet, sorta like a LARP-y combination of Napoleon Dynamite and Be Kind, Rewind.

Devin McGinn plays Voss, a witless, chronically-unemployed munchkin who is unhealthily preoccupied with escapism.  Chafing under his brother's iron rule, Voss sets his eye on a dream job with mega game publisher Warlocks of the Beach (geddit?!? No?  Um...okay, then).   Unfortunately, they aren't willing to hire him unless he can fulfill the script's stupid premise and exhibit a spark of real-world leadership.  

This comes along in the form of another moronic story convenience that anyone can see coming from a catapult's throw away.  After Voss leads a rebellion against the tyrannical game-master Shadowhawk (Jon Gries), he comes up with the brilliant idea of creating a gamer's utopia out in the middle of the wilderness.  As you might imagine, this works out about as well as you'd expect.

This is pretty much the entire plot that the film is forced to sustain over the course of one hundred and three wince-inducing minutes.  Perhaps the most insulting thing is how story / screenwriters Cameron Dayton and Adrian and Bryan Lefler treat gamers and their hobby.  At every turn these people are depicted as unaware, socially-maladjusted weirdos who have only a passing concept of reality.  Speaking as someone who's been playing games like this for close to thirty years now, I've found the exact opposite to be true.

I also can't help but wonder if the writers knew anything about what they were making fun of.  Voss gets his escapism fix down at the ol' FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Store) playing in a tabletop fantasy role-playing game which bears as much similarity to a real RPG as Taylor Swift does to a singer-songwriter.  Although I think gamers and their past-times are just as ripe for parody as anything else, all I ask is that it's done with a kernel of wit, respect, truth and sincerity.  In fact, I'd urge you to skip Unicorn City and just watch the "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" episode of Community.   

There, I just saved about an hour of your precious time.   

Although I personally don't think I could engage in Live Action Role-Playing, or LARPing for short, a helluva lot of people do.  In fact, in Denmark, it's the third most popular past-time behind soccer and handball (?).  If any demographic deserves to get pissed off at Unicorn City, it should be the LARPers.  According to the film's producers, LARPers and tabletop role-players are one and the same and acting like an emotionally-stunted, man-child is a prerequisite for both pursuits.  Frankly I think it's kinda two-faced for a film to make fun of the supposed inability of gamers to distinguish fantasy from reality when the screenwriters didn't even bother to give half of their characters real names.   

Not only are the film's characters hideously one-dimensional but the casting and performances don't do a lot to improve things.  Although I assume we're meant to sympathize with Voss, we're given precious little incentive to do so.  As written, the character is arrogant, hot-tempered, delusional, violent, oblivious and socially retarded.  When Voss Excaliburs the "guild's" game table after a particularly heated exchange with Shadowhawk, he's deservedly banned from the store.  Sooooo, are we actually supposed to feel sorry for this dickhead?  

Bearing an uncanny resemblance to a crazed weasel in a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon, actor Devin McGinn doesn't seem to know what to do with the role.  When he isn't standing around, slack-jawed staring vacantly off-camera he looks as if he's smelling something unpleasant.  Given that Voss always looks as if he could use a quick dip in Javex, I can't help but wonder if McGinn is a method actor and spent days on set smelling ripe.  Honestly, once the character declares "I'm a bardladin, okay?  Slaying and singing is what I do!" there's really no coming back from something so supremely lame.    

I actually like Jon Gries quite a bit but the character of Shadowhawk is more infuriating and creepy then threatening.  The script has a bit of fun depicting him as a pompous and pretentious theater director who's only interest in gaming is to subject a captive audience to his own slavishly immutable "narrative".  At least the film's writers know that the quickest route to player rebellion is to have a monologing Game Master who's only interested in keeping his own story on the rails.

Unfortunately the writing in these early game store scenes is so heavy handed that Shadowhawk's behavior borders on megalomania.  If these sad people are supposed to be looking for escapism, this isn't it.  Since the ability to referee a role-playing game isn't conferred at birth, why don't they just tell Shadowhawk to go pound sand and then set up their own game?  Oh, right, it's because we need this piece of shit movie to run for another one hour and thirty minutes.

When Shadowhawk hears about Unicron, er...Unicorn City, he decides to crash it in an effort to oust his hated rival.  We soon learn, however, that his real motivation is to discredit Voss in the eyes of the lovely Marsha (Jaclyn Hales) who is inexplicably smitten with the "bardladin".  Since Voss has done nothing but treat Marsha like an Unseen Servant, this supposedly villainous plot almost comes across as noble.  For just a second there, I actually felt a twinge of support for Shadowhawk's campaign to win Marsha over.  But then he lures her into his wingless space shuttle /  tour bus / mobile geek command center and subjects her to an uber-creepy foot massage.  By the end of it, this sequence was really baiting my gag reflex.   

This left me wondering about the role of Marsha and how it was cast.  I can just picture the producers, sounding suspiciously like the Robot Chicken nerd, all huddled around saying things like "Alright guys, we need a sweet and sensitive girl who's also shy, nerdy and utterly devoid of self-confidence.  Oh, I got it, let's find the hottest chick on the face of the earth and put a pair of glasses on her!"  Indeed, Jaclyn Hales is so drop-dead gorgeous that the very concept of her being forlorn in love is utterly laughable.  The fact that Voss is not only oblivious to her presence but is blissfully cruel to her at times makes me despise his character even more.

The funny thing is, Jaclyn rises to the occasion and does a great job portraying Marsha as a black hole of self esteem.  She's so good in the role that she very nearly banishes all charges of being miscast.  Indeed, of all the denizens of Unicorn City, Marsha is one of the few character who actually generates a modicum of sympathy.  Unfortunately, as soon as she's shot in breathtaking close up I suddenly felt as if her "plight" was nothing but the false construct of some creatively lazy film-makers who were merely  indulging in some geeky wish fulfillment.  

Evidence of creative fatigue abounds.  Although Matt Mattson tries to engender some empathy for Voss's rotund younger brother Clancy, the character is such a spineless milksop that he ends up being irritating.  Sorry, but the sight of a grubby-looking heavy-set dude wearing cat ears rolling around in the woods made me feel as if I was watching the geek equivalent of June Shannon.  Eventually I began to empathize more and more with their acerbic and randomly violent older brother Jeff, played with gleefully cruel abandon by Kevin Weisman.  Indeed, Voss and Clancy are both so gratingly annoying that Jeff's abuse almost feels like tough love.

The minor characters are also a mixed bag.  Steve Berg and Missy Hill are diverting as snog buddies Pat the Wizard and Angie the Halfling but their characters are also pretty one-note.  Niklaas Duncan's German Elf is nothing but an uber-dork constructed from about a half-dozen nerd cliches.  Emily Burnworth is gleefully diverting as the sexually-aggressive succubi Tearsumina.  Colleen Baum and Tom Markus are shamefully one-dimensional as a pair of yahoo cops named Cooley and Hamwater (?).  And although Clint Vanderlinden seems like the last person on earth to dress up as a mohawked centaur with a vending cart for an ass, he does succeed at becoming one of the film's few bright spots.

The really frustrating thing is, the film isn't poorly made.  Director Bryan Lefler and his cinematographer Brandon Christensen actually produced a decent-looking final product with some lively set ups, a good arsenal of camera movement and an almost lurid color palate.  Editors Jared Cook and Bryan Lefler manage to keep things moving while punching up the infrequent intervals of awkward humor thanks to some tight cuts.

It's a shame that Unicorn City was a wasted opportunity.  With some inspired casting and a script infused with respect, wit and insight, the movie could have entertained gamers with in-jokes and broadened the opinion of the non-gamers at the same time.  

Tilt: down.  

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Movie Review "The Warriors" by David Pretty

In much the same way in which The Good, The Bad and the Ugly created a vaguely sci-fi tableau by using an abstract era of our own history, The Warriors manages to be one-third Greek Odyssey, one-third future nightmare and one-third comic book movie.  Tonally it feels like a grim urban fairy tale.  Despite the trappings that date the film somewhat, the tale told in The Warriors is timeless and plays out like a distant sequel to 300.

That's because it's inspired, in part, by another story of Spartan bravery called Anabasis written by the legendary Greek soldier and scribe Xenophon around 370 B.C..  Anabasis (literally "Going Up") tells the story of an army of ten-thousand Greek mercenaries hired by a pretender to the Persian throne.  After some initial success, the army's patron is killed, rendering their mission pointless.  To make matters worse, the mercenaries are now trapped deep in enemy territory; strangers in a strange land who are completely devoid of supplies, safe passage and trusted allies.  In an epic struggle, they're forced to sneak, parlay and fight in order to get back to their own homes.

The Warriors follows the same basic plot structure and the results are arresting.  In a hellish future vision of New York City, the place is overrun by hundreds of waring gangs.  In a bid for city-wide domination, the charismatic leader of the dominant Gramercy Riffs, Cyrus (Roger Hill), tries to unite all of the gangs together. After arranging a summit meeting, nine unarmed members from each and every gang show up, resulting in a volatile gathering of ten thousand sociopaths.

Although most of the gangs are open to the proposal, the Rogues, led by the psychotic Luther (David Patrick Kelly) are less then enthusiastic.  They assassinate Cyrus and then pin the blame on their main rivals, the titular Warriors.  Anarchy ensues when a substantial bounty is placed on the collective heads of our anti-heroes.  The rest of the film follows the Warriors as they attempt to extricate themselves from the heart of darkness.  Along the way they face internal strife when their leader goes M.I.A., encounter surreal enemy gangs like the Baseball Furies, adopt a wayward prostitute seeking deliverance who may be friend or foe, duck police, and navigate traps galore (including one courtesy of the all-female gang The Lizzies).

This film is compulsively watchable and I'm actually dying to see it again.  Director Walter Hill, who would go on to helm the classic Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte pairing 48 Hours, creates a lean and mean thrill ride that's hypnotic to watch.  In fact, the film's simple and brilliant premise ensures that the ole' action engine gets kicked into overdrive within the first twenty minutes and never cools down.  With all of the close calls, rumbles, foot chases and insanity the viewer often feels as breathless as the Warriors themselves as they struggle to keep up.

Hill also does a fantastic job on the action sequences.  Instead of filming the fight scenes close up, which is standard procedure for less talented directors, Hill choreographed his encounters in confident detail, pulling the camera back to let the audience watch the battles progress.  His judicious use of slow-motion for the occasional "finishing move" also ramps up the "POW"-factor.

The film also looks fantastic.  The costumes are simple but distinct.  Although some viewers may claim that the gangs look more goofy than intimidating, I believe that was exactly the point.  As if the colorful transition paintings and wipes aren't enough of a tip-off, The Warriors is really meant to be a comic booky "day in the life" of Alex's "Droogs" from A Clockwork Orange.

The film's gorgeous lighting is also worth mentioning.  The rain-slicked streets and lurid signage of a filthy, decrepit pre-Giuliani New York City are frozen here in celluloid amber.  Shooting on location at the time was probably a huge pain in the ass for the film-makers but The Warriors is richer for it.  No modern-day monster-budget remake could replicate anything so unique and special.

The performances are memorable right across the board.  Michael Beck's Swan is the perfect anti-hero: calm under pressure, strong, crafty and no-nonsense.  James Remar also goes for broke in his portrayal of Ajax, Swan's main rival for control of the Warriors after their leader goes missing.  Remar doesn't look all that intimidating but as soon as the camera starts cranking he's all bravado, threat and petulance.  His ultimate Siren-like fate may feel like a cop-out to some but I think it's perfectly in step with the character's recklessness and the film's thematic inspirations.

Brian Tyler's Snow single-handedly epitomizes the film's pop culture iconography.  He's a bad-ass dude who rarely speaks above a whisper but when he does, people shut the fuck up and listen.  Deborah Van Valkenburgh's Mercy provides much of the film's heart and she does so effortlessly.  Unlike most films that shoe-horn a female character into the mix merely due to market research dictates, she's subtlety written and we're kept guessing about her motivations thanks to Van Valkenburgh's sassy take on the part.

Also worth noting is the presence of the late Lynne Thigpen of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? fame (or at least, the presence of her, um...mouth).   Thigpen plays an omniscient late-night D.J. who acts as a modern version of a Greek chorus, giving us status reports on the progress of our protagonists.   Her distinctive voice is used to tremendous effect.

My award for performance, however, goes to David Patrick Kelly as rival gang leader Luther.  Making the most of his preciously short screen time, Kelly displays a memorable spectrum of tics, mannerisms, and weasely behavior, ensuring that you'll remember him forever.  The iconic climax in which he clinks glass bottles together and cat-calls our beleaguered heroes in a creepy sing-song voice ("WAR-RIORS! COME OUT TO PLA-AYYYYY!!!") is one of the most unnerving things I've ever seen in a film.  The final confrontation is also refreshingly economical and a great exclamation point for the character arcs of Swan and Mercy in particular.

You owe it to yourself to seek this movie out.  It's a rich and propulsive experience.  Look beyond the dated trappings and you'll discover a timeless and engaging film that was originally overlooked but deserves its current reputation as a cult classic.

Tilt: up.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Movie Review: "Network" by David Pretty

Network proves that it's possible to love a movie despite hating some of its artistic choices.  Even though  I'm not one to tub-thump for remakes I really wish that a talented writer/director team would take the heart and soul of this film and transplant it into a fresh, modern body.  The world desperately needs this sort of forward-thinking genius but I fear that contemporary audiences will see the original and be turned off by some very legitimate issues.

Peter Finch plays Howard Beale, the aging television anchorman for the UBS Evening News.  After a slight ratings dip, Beale is given his walking papers and immediately becomes despondent.  Even after his spirits are buoyed up somewhat by his old ally Max Schumacher (played with great command by William Holden), Beale is still crushed that he's been discarded in such an off-handed manner.  During his next broadcast he casually threatens to kill himself live on air before he’s dragged off camera. 

Although he’s immediately sacked, Beale gets a second chance to bow out gracefully when Max comes to his defense.  Contrary to his sworn promise, however, Beale completely wigs out on-air again and delivers a fiery and damning critique of modern society.  The twist is, when the suits get wind of his rating the following day they discover that Beale’s viewership has gone through the roof. 

Schumacher tries his best to prevent the network pimps from exploiting his friend but the deck is firmly stacked against him.  Between the efforts of an conscienceless, ratings-hungry executrix (Faye Dunaway) and a ethically-bankrupt studio boss (Robert Duvall), Beale is given his own show and reborn as “The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves.”  

UBS continues to ride the gravy train even as Beale becomes more and more erratic and volatile.  Eventually the Mad Prophet goes rogue, blowing the whistle on a shady foreign interest deal to purchase the station and costing the studio heads a fortune.  The fallout from this starts to shift the film into the realm of black comedy. 

First off, let me catalog what I liked.  To see television used as a delivery system for an awakening versus its current incarnation as the opiate of the masses would be enough to make Marshall McLuhan sit up and take notice.  The fact that the film presaged exploitative schlock like Morton Downey Jr., Jerry Springer and reality programming is remarkable enough, but the scene in which the owner of the studio (played by Ned Beatty) lectures Beale over his crusade is particularly prescient.  Just check out this ballsy bit of social commentary:

“There is no America.  There is no democracy.  There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon.  Those are the nations of the world today.” 

The performances are absolutely fantastic, particularly Finch as Beale.  His firebrand rant, featuring the now-famous “I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" is pure electricity.  When he incites viewers nation-wide to scream this mantra out their windows you can't help but but hope and pray that Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer and Scott Pelley have similar epiphanies some evening.  

Unfortunately, there are some story deviations so ill-conceived that they actually derail the main thrust of the plot and strain credibility.  To this day, I still can't fathom why the script shoehorns Diana and Max together.  Perhaps screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky was trying to make some point about Diana’s father complex, the general instability of relationships in the Seventies or the growing lack of empathy amongst human beings, but frankly I found the whole thing to be rather contrived and kinda icky. 

The screenplay also suffers from what I like to refer to as "writers ego".  Paddy Chayefsky may have won an Oscar for this script but there are a lot of instances when he's trying way too hard to be clever.  Many times I was taken out of the film because I didn't feel as if I was watching a genuine exchange between real people.  Instead, the characters felt like puppets at the whim of a self-absorbed screenwriter.  The scenes between Diana and Max as well as Max and his estranged wife (played by Cindy Grover) really sounds hollow to my ear, as if it was written by a playwright enamored by his own wit. 

The overwrought dialogue also bleeds into the performances.  Given all of this tempting incendiary ammunition both Robert Duval and Ned Beatty are guilty of lapsing into moments of unrestrained scenery-chewing.  This is a pity since the film's legitimate and important points are sometimes overshadowed by needless bombast.  It cheapens the message and makes it easier for the audience to dismiss these legitimate issues as if they're watching an Alex Jones video. 

By the time the network adds a domestic terrorist cell to their payroll as "creative consultants" the film has already begun to slip into the realm of parody.  But, hey, why not?  There are things on T.V. right now that make The Mao Tse-Tung Hour look like Meet The Press in comparison. 

In spite of a few ill-conceived choices, Network is still a very special film that cries out for like-minded company. 

   Tilt: up.