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Kick Ass 2 Movie Review

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Kick Ass did a good job of building a movie around seven issues of a comic book. It did it by fixing some of the holes and expanding the characters.

Kick Ass 2 tries to do the same thing, but it has one big problem. Chloe Moretz has grown up. Its solution is to stick in a Mean Girls plot that is completely out of place.

Every other second superhero movie follows the pattern of having the hero contemplate hanging up the cape. But there’s usually more at stake than date night.

The high school scenes in Kick Ass told us why someone might want to be a superhero. The high school scenes in Kick Ass 2 don’t tell us anything and belong in a completely different movie.

That’s not the only problem with Kick Ass 2. Moving the showdown from Times Square to a warehouse doesn’t do the ending any favors. Neither does cutting out the dark ending of the comic and trading it for an action movie shark finish and a neat escape.

Kick Ass 2 might have worked if it had stuck to that darker ending where the superheroes are arrested, Kick Ass is a wanted man after killing his nemesis and Hit Girl is on the way to prison. Instead there’s an uplifting moral about how everyone has a hero inside them.

The things that Kick Ass 2 does well are the same things that Kick Ass did well. It develops the villains and makes them a lot more interesting and entertaining than Millar managed to do. And Jim Carrey steals every scene he’s in as Captain Stars and Stripes, even if he’s unrecognizable and decided to take his name out of the credits.

What it fails at is developing the heroes. If Kick Ass 2 had done as much for the development of the heroes as it did in developing Chris and his relationship with his father’s bodyguard and the attention it lavished on Mother Russia, it would be a good movie.

But no such luck.

The heroes get scaled down to dumber costumes. And Insect Man is traded for a guy who is there for comic effect. Hit Girl’s big conflict is wanting to date and be a cheerleader.

Evil has a solid trajectory. Good doesn’t.

Kick Ass 2 thinks the villains are a lot more entertaining than the heroes. But a movie where the villains are solidly developed and the heroine is off doing Mean Girls doesn’t work. The movie straddles this disconnect by not going too dark. The Captain’s dog lives. Katie doesn’t get raped. Kids don’t get shot. And that takes the energy Kick Ass had off the table.

Kick Ass went places you didn’t expect. With Kick Ass 2 you know who’s going to get eaten by the shark long before it happens.

Kick Ass 2’s big mistake is that it gets too comfortable being a comedy that it doesn’t think too much about the superhero stuff. It goes for easy laughs by building up the villains and lowering the stakes. It forgets that there already was a superhero comedy and this isn’t it.

Kick Ass backed out of the some of the comic’s darker moments, but it was smarter about what it replaced them with. Kick Ass 2 has nothing to replace them with.

The Adventures of Tintin movie review, Uncanny Valley and the Limitations of CG Technology

The Adventures of Tintin has all the passion and visual ingenuity missing from Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It also has the enthusiasm that has been missing from Spielberg films for too long. Unfortunately it’s also a paint by numbers cartoon and while its combination of motion capture technology and visual style avoids the uncanny valley, the motion capture can’t invest the figures with a soul.

Indiana Jones didn’t work because cliched pulp stories were such a brilliant concept. It didn’t work on Spielberg’s skills alone. It’s actors who bring a story to life, and while The Adventures of Tintin manages to invest Captain Haddock with human characteristics, all the technology can’t seem to make him something more than a one-note character stumbling into another punchline.

The Adventures of Tintin is visually frantic because its characters are so stiff and the world is so flat. Snowy, Tintin and Haddock are constantly rushing and stumbling and flying over things in Bugs Bunny style, but they are Bugs Bunny, one-note characters pretending to be human in a story that was a cliche even when it was written.

The Adventures of Tintin is a passable movie, but it works best for those who want to see the characters in the comics come to life. Remaining audiences see Spielberg doing what Zemeckis did, being seduced into believing that the power of complete control over an environment means unlimited creativity. The Adventures of Tintin is more polished than most of Zemeckis’ efforts, only during the concert scene does the CG look truly tacky, but all that effort is still wasted.

3D cartoons work best when the characters are drawn simply and cartoonishly. The Adventures of Tintin teeters between photorealistic fidelity and the simple lines of a cartoon. Its opening gimmick, echoes the one from Team America World Police, but without the sense of humor. The technology being shown off is impressive, but it never manages to lift The Adventures of Tintin beyond its limitations.

Unlike Zemeckis’ efforts, Tintin’s failure can’t be blamed on unready technology. Tintin is as ready as the technology will ever be. Its characters are a world away from the nightmarish wooden puppets of Polar Express. But they’re not people and they never will be. Uncanny Valley doesn’t make them creepy, just limited.

Cartoonists always knew that simple lines can capture more depth than detail. It’s something even DC and Marvel know, which is why every issue doesn’t look like an Alex Ross painting inside. There are comics that try that, going for photorealistic paintings and they combine badly with a fast moving story.

The real loss here is that Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg have wasted their time trying to create their ideal movie in 3D CG, instead of making it the way they used to.

From 1980 to 2000, Zemeckis made the Back to the Future movies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her, Cast Away and Forest Gump. Since then he made a bunch of disposable CG movies like Polar Express, Beowulf and Christmas Carol. Coming up next is Yellow Submarine.

The loss of Spielberg as an exciting director can’t be completely blamed on CG, but the difference between the first three Indiana Jones movies and the last one, is the difference between a director who went places to tell a story and one who went behind the Green Screen. Tintin isn’t lazy, but that’s because the artists are doing most of the work. It’s visually ingenious, technologically innovative and hollow. There’s action without momentum and visuals without impact. It’s clever without being alive.

Cabin in the Woods movie review

When Scream kickstarted the return of the slasher horror movie, it did it by being clever and sharp. Cabin in the Woods wants you to think it’s both of those things, when mostly it’s neither. Instead it comes packing the same late 90’s self-consciously smartass teen dialogue that sounds like it was written by Kevin Williamson, and a twist that’s not twist at all because it’s served up to us from the start.

Cabin in the Woods’ only real twist on the slasher movie is to put in a team of people who make the horrors happen, while breaking the fourth wall as a Greek chorus representing the audience and the production team. It’s a clever concept on paper, but the cleverness ends at using it to explain why things implausibly happen in horror movies. That makes it a punchline, but not much else.

After setting up its fourth wall, Cabin in the Woods has nothing else to do. The characters are one-note, the dialogue has been done before and the cabin, that the poster teased as some M.C. Escher construction, just has a fake mirror, a remote controlled trapdoor and that’s it. The team injects rape drugs and subliminal voices to try and make the four college students act out their parts, and that’s as unconventional as it gets.

Strip away the fourth wall and two-thirds of Cabin in the Woods is a weak and lame repetition of a dozen slasher movie reboots. And that’s the problem. The movie is constantly waiting until the team comes in contact with their victims, but that just means most of the movie is a waste. Cabin in the Woods is more entertaining when it’s done in the deep with the team, than when it’s with the four students who are just going through the motions.

But even once worlds collide, Cabin in the Woods blows its ending. The final dilemma could have joined both storylines together had Dana pulled the trigger and taken her place working with the team, instead the world seems on the edge of being destroyed in an ending that’s more awkward than apocalyptic.

Cabin in the Woods has one clever idea, but unlike Scream, it doesn’t bother to understand the materials it’s working with or to make the best of them. It thinks that one idea is enough, but it doesn’t develop it and it doesn’t bother trying to make a good movie, instead of a good gimmick.

Captain America movie review

Captain America movie posterThese are the things that Captain America doesn’t have. A plot, compelling characters or any reason to care about what’s happening on screen. But what it does have is charm. Director Joe Johnston brings the same retro sensibility to Captain America that he did to the Rocketeer, but he can’t being a semblance of order to a script that lacks momentum and a movie that exists just to promote The Avengers.

Johnston tries and when skinny Steve walks up to the desk and stares fiercely at the doctor, defying him to reject him, it almost seems as if he succeeded. But Steve Rogers’ drive to be a little man who contributes to the war is the only thing the movie has going for it. And once Steve gets his wish, Chris Evans reverts to his usual blandness and the movie dies even as it’s just supposed to be taking off.

It’s not really Evans’ fault, by then he’s been upstaged by a rush of action scenes that look like they cost a lot of money but have no impact, by a hastily introduced band of commandos that we didn’t really need to see, by raids that don’t matter and a relationship with the abrasive and irritating Agent Carter who has no chemistry with him.

Movies are often defined by their villains and Captain America has a generic villain with a generically pointless plan to blow up the world. The Red Skull is only briefly interesting once he belatedly pulls off his face and not even then. Johnston does a good enough job of grounding Captain America in a nostalgic period haze that the portrayal of a ridiculous Hydra Nazi splinter group just looks silly and spoils the balancing act between the real war and the comic book version.

Until its second half, it still almost seems as if Captain America might recover, but that’s when the script drops Captain America as a character and rushes into a hyperactive storm of attacks and action scenes that kill it as anything but a bunch of video game cutscenes. There’s barely any order to them and no real reason to watch.

Captain America works best when it sticks to the atmosphere of a 1940’s New York (the one that can only be found in England), the World’s Fair, the bond drives and the movie theaters. It’s where Joe Johnston is strongest, joyfully coaxing period life out of the streets and scenery. But it’s weakest once Captain America is running around in costume punching a long line of men in motorcycle helmets.

It’s hard to say who gets the blame for this mess. Bringing in the Narnia writing team was probably a bad idea. This is not a very good script, though it has a few good ideas. But the overall scrambled feeling can probably be blamed on Marvel’s insistence on wrecking Iron Man 2 and Captain America to set up Joss Whedon’s Avengers. But Johnston has to take some of the blame. The second half of the movie is just a mess and Hayley Atwell needed better direction. He wasn’t in a strong enough position to walk away from the franchise, like Jon Favreau did, but it’s hard to believe that he couldn’t have done anything to make it a bit more watchable.

The Spirit movie review

The Spirit film posterThe Spirit is one of the odder comic book movies ever made, but its spirit is much closer to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It’s one of the few comic book movies that actually is a comic book, not just in the way it looks, but in its crazy energy, unfulfilled ambition and pulp traditions.

Sit through the whole thing and you come away with a completely different experience than the modern comic book superhero blockbuster. The Spirit has nothing in common with Nolan’s Dark Knight or Bryan Singer’s X-Men, the movies that define the 21st century comic book blockbuster. It does its awkward horrifying best to be a comic book on film. And it’s the closest thing to seeing Frank Miller on film.

Like most first time directors, Miller is way over his limit and doesn’t realize that he hasn’t yet learned how to tell a story. But there are glimpses among the ruins of what The Spirit might have been if Miller had been given a reality check by a producer who knew his stuff.

The worst thing about The Spirit is Samuel L Jackson as The Octopus, a monster of crime who’s all Id with no Superego. It’s not Jackson’s fault that he’s been set loose with no tether and mugs for the camera like mad. What else is he supposed to do. Especially when he’s being dressed in a Nazi uniform or a Samurai scalplock. There’s nothing Jackson could have done to fix this mess. That was Miller’s responsibility and he blew it.

But the best thing about The Spirit is the Spirit himself. Macht isn’t a great actor, and the narration is usually over the top, but the Spirit’s mad race through the city, his pratfalls and escapes, capture the pulp energy that once made comics so exciting to generations of kids. There’s a freedom here that’s completely missing from the summer blockbusters. A freedom that goes beyond the panels. That says anything is possible.

The encounter with Sans Serif in her hotel room, The Spirit riding up in a transparent elevator past falling snow and gargoyles captures the quintessential urban pulp noir feel. But Miller doesn’t know when to stop. Most scenes with The Spirit’s allies go on way too long. The Octopus is so far over the top that it’s unwatchable. There are too many women around The Spirit and all of it runs in a comic book story which doesn’t work on film.

Then there’s the mismatch of art styles, a problem that crippled The Dark Knight Strikes Again, it’s not as bad in The Spirit, but it’s a major problem. Playing with art styles in comic books is one thing for a pro like Miller looking to test the boundaries of the medium, but Miller doesn’t realize that he’s not a pro here. He’s an amateur director and when you’re an amateur, you need boundaries.

There are some beautifully lit and shot moments, but the movie feels like browsing through DeviantArt at random. There are some gorgeous scenes, and plenty of amateurish ones, and none of it hangs together as a consistent whole. The Spirit needed dramatic reediting and a few reshoots. Had Lionsgate done that, The Spirit wouldn’t have been a major success, but it wouldn’t have been a punching bag either.

Still what The Spirit has is valuable. In a summer when there are a ton of comic book superhero blockbusters that all feel the same, it’s a reminder of something undeniably different. The spirit and energy of the comic book living faithfully on screen.

Paul movie review

I liked Paul better when it was called American Dad. Except I never liked American Dad much either, but it’s pretty sad when what the Pegg-Frost team comes up with is the premise of Roger on American Dad, except Paul isn’t gay. So what if Paul isn’t original? Well it’s also unfunny and that’s a bigger problem.

The first quarter, the whole idea of these two superfans driving around America and encountering an actual alien, is a good one. But where do you go from there? If you’re Pegg and Frost, you drive around encountering the brand of wacky Americans you usually encounter only on Family Guy or the BBC while making some hackneyed points about religion that are third rate Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. What follows plays out like a Saturday Night Live skit written by a fan of Monty Python, it’s not funny or really anything.

In that way, Paul reminds me of Gervais’ The Invention of Lying. Comedy that aims for philosophical statements but isn’t as deep or as funny as it thinks it is. Paul is the first Pegg/Frost collaboration that’s somewhat aimed at an American audience, but also hostile to it. Pegg and Frost could have set this back in England, with a Paul explaining to them what happened to Stonehenge, and they would have been on safer ground.

Unknown movie review

With “Taken”, Liam Neeson was anointed as the new Harrison Ford, the grim unsmiling seeker of personal vengeance whose humorlessness is proof of his righteousness. It makes sense that Unknown rips off Ford classics like Frantic and The Fugitive, along with Neeson’s own Taken and the entire Bourne series.

Unknown was filmed to cash in on Taken’s success, but it can’t even decide if it’s an action movie or a thriller. In a plot lifted from a dozen movies, Neeson wanders around Europe in search of his memory and on the run from a generically evil corporation. The entire implausible story is just convoluted enough so that you won’t care about its ridiculousness, but there isn’t enough action to give you anything else to care about.

Unknown isn’t bad, it’s just bleakly mediocre. A thin copy of a copy of Hitchcock. A weak stab at doing Bourne. Where Taken felt fresh, this feels like the oldest movie in the book. The miscasting borders on the comic. A blank January Jones plays a human mannequin. Diane Kruger plays the world’s least plausible taxi driver. The final confrontation fizzles. Neeson is the only thing Unknown has going for it, but the movie has nothing to offer him except a few lines that even Bruce Willis would have winced at.

Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs review

When Futurama returned on DVD with Bender’s Big Score ( read review here) , for fans who had not expected the series to ever return, the movie was a mix of nostalgia and disappointment. Like Bender’s Big Score, Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs has an epic universe spanning storyline (literally) but where Bender’s Big Score felt like it was stitched together out of three incompatible episodes and reminded you of an aging ex-major leaguer trying to throw out a pitch, Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs is a single epic story that may not be a perfect home run, but it does give you a real show for your money.

So besides not being a disappointment, what else is Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs? For starters it’s classic Futurama, from the Futurama Beast with a Billion Backsadroit SciFi references like St. Asimov’s Day, Deathball and two ceremonies on Kif’s home planet that gently parody Spock’s Vulcan ceremonies, to a clever storyline involving a tear in space that introduces a giant being from another universe made of electromatter, who’s lonely and promptly begins sticking tentacles in the heads of everyone in the universe before whisking them off to a faux heaven that comes with bird angels and Mattress Island that mixes theology with science fiction with invader paranoia and manages to tie in Fry and humanity’s loneliness into the mix. Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs manages to make pretty good use of the series’ stock of supporting characters, from Calculon to Zoidberg’s uncle to Zap Brannigan while introducing new ones, like Fry’s new girlfriend Colleen. But if there is one flaw to Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs, it’s that the movie has plenty of chuckles but not a lot of big laughs.

Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs is funny, but it’s funny more in the way that The Day the Earth Stood Stupid was, rather than Insane in the Mainframe, it’s too busy telling a story to set up punchlines. As a movie it’s cheerful, funny and even insightful, but don’t expect to watch Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs while rolling on the floor. It’s a good enough trade-off, especially considering Bender’s Big Score, but anyone with expectations of watching this and laughing till it hurts is going to be disappointed.

In many ways Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs walks or jets over well worn territory for the series, from Fry’s loneliness serving to represent humanity, Leela’s determination not to join in what others follow, Bender’s refusal to resolve his own contradictions and the pulp SciFi storyline that mutates into something more articulate and insightful, Futurama The Beast with a Billion Backs is classic Futurama, no doubt about it. And with the DVD also holding the Futurama game footage that producers have described as a lost episode, there’s plenty here to enjoy.

Iron Man movie review

iron man movie posterMost superhero movies look to cast an actor who can vanish inside the suit and the persona of a classic comic book character while getting drowned out by a 100 million dollars worth of special effects. Robert Downey Jr. doesn’t vanish inside the suit, he owns the suit and everything around it, pulling off a performance in Iron Man that has more energy than any of the movie’s many action scenes or special effects.

But Iron Man doesn’t stop with a charismatic performance from its main star, it runs on three great performances, fueled by the screen presences and pitch perfect acting of Downey, Paltrow and Bridges, and the movie’s energy is powered by their quirky meaning-laden interactions. Director Jon Favreau tops it all off by planting them in a movie that has its own nervous energy where things seem to constantly be on the verge of going wrong, only to be salvaged at the last minute.

Tony Stark’s blatant self-confidence is challenged by disaster after disaster as he attempts to take charge of Stark Industries and clean up his own messes in a superpowered suit, which time after time fails him or comes off as inadequate to the task. With a hole inside his chest, Stark goes off on mission after mission equipped not with the stoic heroism of conventional superheroes, but with a mixture of thrill seeking overconfidence and the inner demons of his own guilt leading him into situations he isn’t remotely ready for. But audiences don’t need to cheer on Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark or root for him, he does all his own cheerleading too.

If Downey was an unconventional choice to play Stark that paid off beautifully, Jeff Bridges was at least as unconventional of a choice to play villain Obadiah Stone. Bald, bearded, bulking; Obadiah is a long way from the Dude, equally at home being casually amiable and casually menacing, he’s the believable Ballmeresque CEO you see grinning on the covers of magazines and stabbing everyone in the back in the boardroom. Along with Terrence Howard’s straight man Colonel, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts completes Stark’s triad of human connections, taking a seemingly thankless sidekick role and investing it with human vulnerability, empathy and humor to make her Stark’s true other half.

Most of Iron Man’s key action scenes can already be seen in the trailer, a common failing of many action movies, but unlike those movies, Iron Man is invested in a lot more than its action scenes. The real movie is not in the fights or the special effects, it’s in the complete package tied together by the three main characters and held up heroically by Downey. It’s in that restless coolness that he brings to the table that makes watching Iron Man an adventure, the way great action movies are meant to be. It’s in that sense of daring unpredictability that the best action movies from Indiana Jones to James Bond have unleashed on audiences and Iron Man rides that unpredictability right down to its final moment, a complete shocker and yet absolutely in line with every single thing Tony Stark has done throughout the movie.

Where so many comic book movies get it wrong, Iron Man gets it right, going beyond the suit to the man. Any 200 million dollar summer blockbuster can toss special effects at the screen but no amount of money can buy the energy and the drive that connects Iron Man back to the great blockbusters of the 80’s. With Iron Man Jon Favreau demonstrates that he is on track to be the rightful successor to Steven Spielberg, and Robert Downey Jr comes back in a big way. Iron Man is more than just a great comic book movie, it’s a great movie. Period.

Art School Confidential movie review

art school confidential movie posterReuniting Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes, Art School Confidential mixes the conventional ‘boy in school who needs to find himself’ story with what is meant to be a withering satire of the art circuit. What Daniel Clowes has to say however had already been said long ago by Tom Wolfe back in the seventies when he wrote the The Painted Word and by numberless outside observers since then. The satire is sometimes wickedly pointed and other times simply grotesque caricature, but it’s never subtle and aside from Anjelica Huston’s unnamed history art teacher who is attempting to convey the continuity of art to students filled with postmodern relativism and sophistry, none of the instructors have anything worthwhile to offer. The professors are either shallow careerists or depressed burnouts and the students are crude stereotypes right down to Jerome’s fashion major roommate who is in the closet, despite being enough of a cliche to qualify for a role on Will and Grace.

Max Minghella’s Jerome is an idealistic student who falls in love with Sophia Myles’ Audrey based on a nude painting of her in the Swarthmore catalog. When he arrives at Swarthmore he instead sees corruption, decay and a senseless curriculum that awards all students with A’s but in which career advancement depends on catching a trend. Jerome’s own character sketches are disdained in favor of another student’s crude sketches of cars and spacemen. While Malkovitch’s Professor Sandiford alternately spends class time talking to his agent, demonstrating his contempt for the students and trying to seduce Jerome. Jerome frantically struggles to impress Audrey and win a career for himself as an artist by “experimenting” with a variety of modernistic styles, until he stumbles on the artwork of the Swarthmore Strangler and takes credit for it, setting off an implausible and bitterly satirical ending.

While Art School Confidential is centered on Jerome, the movie is too busy using him to make pointed criticisms of the professors and other students to ever have Jerome realize that he needs to grow up himself. Jerome is not a true character, only the focus for Art School Confidential’s potshots at the art world. The film makes much of Jerome’s infatuation with Audrey, but that infatuation is at least partially a virgin’s idealized infatuation and his paintings of Audrey are not the wonderful works of art that the movie would like us to believe. The large canvas in particular that Audrey rescues from the trash in a climactic scene is actually pretty bad. Jerome’s drawings and paintings are only good in comparison to the crude modernism of the other students, on their own they only qualify him for a career in commercial art. In only his first semester, Jerome has set his ambitions ridiculously high and his depression and dark phase are hard to sympathize with. But it’s the Swarthmore Strangler story that is the true kiss of death for the movie, Jerome’s arrest is to Art School Confidential what Steve Buscemi’s Seymour getting in bed with Thora Birch’s Enid was in Ghost World, the death blow for a flailing movie that destroys the last shreds of its credibility. With its conclusion Art School Confidential discards the charade that it is a movie about people and defaults to where its heart lay all along, to crude satire. The final statements about the shallow trendiness of the art world are funny but they’re also soulless because much as in modern art, character and story have been sacrificed for the sake of hammering home a graceless point.

Where Clowes’ Ghost World made the clumsy but heartfelt transition to the screen under Terry Zwigoff, with Art School Confidential Clowes’ stark black and white world stumbles onto the screen and loses much of its narrative and structure in the process. Stocked with two dimensional characters and burdened with an implausible plot and a self-indulgent love story, Art School Confidential is as juvenile as the paintings of its protagonist. Early on in the classroom of John Malkovich’s Professor Sandiford, Jerome criticizes another student’s slashing modernist self-portrait which the rest of the class defend based on the supremacy of self-expression over the discipline of structure. This is a criticism at the heart of Clowes’ and Zwigoff’s critique of how art is viewed today, yet Art School Confidential is a movie that is more about self-expression absent the discipline of structure. In making a movie critiquing a structureless art world that has forgotten what it takes to make a painting, Zwigoff forgot what it takes to make a movie.

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