Now that I’ve been liberated from television, I’ve been able to take in a lot more movie-watching (along with other less important things like work and studying and human interaction and things like that). With a renewed Netflix account as my saving grace, I’ll start putting up a weekly rundown of the films I’m watching and how they stack up. Here’s the first round of selections:
The Lovely Bones (2009)
There are some moments of real beauty in this film, but the tone is just too inconsistent. Peter Jackson seemed the perfect choice to helm the adaptation of Alice Sebold’s popular novel about a murdered girl helping her family grieve from the afterlife, but he’s unable to strike that balance between reality and fantasy that made his Heavenly Creatures such an astounding achievement. The film bounces from family tragedy to spiritual fantasy to crime procedural to suspense thriller in a way that makes it hard for the viewer to peg down what exactly it is they’re watching, which makes it harder to appreciate what are some really wonderful segments dealing with tragedy and redemption. I should point out that rising child actress Saoirse Ronan is terrific, as is an exquisitely creepy Stanley Tucci. Definitely worth a look for Jackson fans, but many may find it a tad overwrought.
Sexy Beast (2000)
Kingsley’s ultra-menacing performance as bullying gangster Don Logan is the calling card for this film, and it certainly is quite an achievement. The trouble is that once Kingsley is no longer part of the proceedings, the film dips into traditional heist mode that frequently interrupted by pretentious camera trickery and lackluster attempts at suspense. But the time Kingsley spends onscreen is worth the watch. As the old boss trying to bully Ray Winstone’s retired criminal back into action, he’s a frightening embodiment of coiled rage and seething psychosis.
Somehow this one got buried in Matt Damon’s filmography. It’s probably because it came out around the same time as Good Will Hunting (and has some of the same thematic elements), but on its own this is not only one of the best films about gambling ever made, but also a first-rate exploration of the nature of friendship and the limits to which that bond can be stretched. Damon does a typically solid job of conveying subdued intelligence as the card shark/law student protagonist, but it’s Edward Norton as his boyhood friend who steals the show. He’s an engaging and tragic whirlwind of self-destructive behavior, sucking all around him into his endless series of fuckups and foolish ploys. The final card game at the end between Damon and a wonderfully over-the-top John Malkovic is superbly constructed and expertly acted. This is a great film that too few have seen.
Man Bites Dog (1991)
Just couldn’t get into this film. It’s a Belgian mockumentary in which a crew of filmmakers follow a serial killer around as he dispatches a lot of victims in a lot of different ways, recording his actions as some sort of exploration of the predatory mind. Yes, I get it. Media perpetuates violence by repeating it until it becomes mundane and even entertaining. But with its black and white photography and complete lack of a moral compass (not always a bad thing), it just feels like a lame student film made a bunch of hipsters who think they know so much about humanity that they can remove it altogether and come out with a decent piece of art. They can’t.
The adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi has been in limbo ever since Fox bought the rights seven years ago, but it seems the ball has finally gotten rolling with Ang Lee attached as director. The fantasy epic about a boy crossing the sea in a lifeboat with three animals made for a deceptively simple and curiously profound novel, but adapting it to the screen will be a hefty challenge, seeing as there’s little dialogue and the story’s emotional and philosophical beats will be hard to nail down onscreen without voice-over or some cheap trick of that sort.
And Lee certainly is a capable talent for taking on the subtleties and emotional restraint of the story. But while his style has produced some truly incredible cinema (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain) it can also veer into the overly meditative and oddly stagnant (Hulk, Taking Woodstock). But this project has been given an appropriate budget (around $70 million)) and Lee will surely attract some top acting talent, so there’s a lot of promise here. It’s a fantastic story to tackle, and fans of the novel have been waiting a long time for a film.
Jon Stewart and the Daily Show already said their piece on the South Park-censorship situation last week, and Matt Groening and The Simpsons got behind Matt and Trey this week with this clever bit during their intro.
Hat tip to Mike Shelby.
Welcome to a new feature series here at the Populist Art House, the Unsung Masterpiece Series. We’ll take a closer look at films that may not have gotten their due as cinematic masterworks, and make a case for their inclusion in the film canon from this point forward. Time has a way of weeding out the riff-raff and letting the cream rise to the top, thus most masterpieces of bygone eras have long since assume their status as such. So most of the films spotlighted in this series will be more recent films, often released in the last 25 years. They may have divided critics. They may have arrived in the wrong cultural climates. Or they may have just taken a while for people to see their worth. This is also done with a clear understanding that no film is perfect, even the greatest o greats, so pointing out scratches on pristine castles is not a worthy avenue for this kind of discussion. The impact of these films has lingered long enough to garner renewed attention, and their incredible quality has proven impossible for this writer to ignore. Thus we will reopen their case files here and label them Unsung Masterpieces. Go back and take another look at them, or if you’ve never seen them, expand your film library with some overlooked greats.
And so we begin by selecting the first Unsung Masterpiece of the series, Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy.
Chasing Amy (1997)
Kevin Smith had fallen out of indie grace almost as quickly as he’d risen to it. Mallrats, his follow-up to Sundance darling Clerks, had arrived with a thud and proved too juvenile for critics to appreciate and too uneven in the laugh department for many of his faithful fans to warm up to. So it was on Smith to deliver another quality film or risk being yet another one-hit washout in the Indie Renaissance of the 90s.
He responded with Chasing Amy. Strikingly opposite in tone to the goofy and anarchic Mallrats, this was the work of a filmmaker with not only a keen ear for socio-literate giggles, but also with some mighty serious emotional ideas on his mind. The romantic comedy of the day was still stuck in the idyllic 80s mold of When Harry Met Sally, but this was something altogether different. Behind the laughs (and there are plenty of them), this was very thoughtful and often melancholy meditation on Gen-X love and loss, a clear-eyed look at the self-absorption and faux-wisdom that so often derails even the most precious of 20-something relationships.
The romance at the film’s center is appropriately offbeat. Ben Affleck’s endearingly narcissistic Holden McNeil falls for a “guy’s girl” who happens to start the film as a lesbian. His comic-writing partner and life-long friend Banky (still Jason Lee’s best onscreen work) is a volatile wit with an inability to keep his mouth shut, and Banky’s attraction to Banky is curious from the outset. What follows is a surprisingly touching and then tragic collapse into insecurity and selfishness, qualities that define all of the characters except the lone female protagonist. Joey Lauren Adams overcame a small budget and an off-putting voice to garner a Golden Globe nod and a great deal of attention, even if it didn’t lead to a particularly fruitful career. But the real heart of the film itself, and of Smith’s razor-sharp critique of his generation, is Holden. Here is a smart guy who wallows in his own sense of pious estrangement from his peers and thus puts himself square in the pack. He sees himself as witty, sensitive, and enlightened. And he is, to a certain extent. But he’s so caught up in his image of himself as a wise romantic that he’s courageous enough to take on a high-level challenge (wooing a lesbian into falling for him) but unable to keep standing when cracks begin to show in the floor. The girl is not entirely who he thought she was. In fact, she’s even more complicated and beautiful than he’d originally thought. But the roadblocks of his own ego, obstacles he fails to recognize until it’s too late, cost him not only the girl, but his best friend as well, who suffers from his own case of pious denied identity and can no longer share space with someone all too similar to himself.
It’s a story filled with keen observations about romance between young adults that at first bemuse (with the help of some very Smith-ian dialogue), but then slip rather sneakily into the profound. Its characters are indeed long-winded and a little too hip, but then so is Smith, and he’s using his newfound position as Gen-X spokesman to deliver some very harsh criticism at the peers that comprise his own fan base. Perhaps that’s why many of his fans didn’t completely get back on the bandwagon until the similarly observant but more cartoonish Dogma. These young people are certainly more worldly than the generations that came before them, but their incessant cleverness and sense of being on a higher plane than their forbearers wind up being their undoing in the most important arena of all; the building of human relationships.
Smith still delivers his fair share of lude humor (conversations deal with such academic matters as the sexuality of Archie and Jughead), but unlike with Mallrats, he does so with the eye of a satirist and a sharp sense of the insecurity and viciousness often found behind the jokes of funny people. Even when frat-humor stalwarts Jay and Silent Bob show up, they do so briefly and with the purpose of holding up an unfriendly mirror to Holden’s cluelessness and self-pity. Banky, with his school-boy crassness and sarcastic charm, is the film’s primary source of comic relief, but it’s telling that a film by Kevin Smith needs such “relief” in the first place. The tone of this one is more often downbeat, with an odd sense of impending doom uncommon to the romantic comedy, put most succinctly when Banky acutely observes that “this is all going to end badly.”
But showing a maturity in his art that other hip young filmmakers often drop the ball with, Smith doesn’t punch the audience with a resolutely pessimistic ending. He offers at most a hope that Holden can repair both relationships, but at the very least a sense that all concerned have grown from their experience and are the better for it. It rounds out the film’s status as the work of an artist doing a lot of his own learning and finally finding the means to express those lessons through cinema. Smith would never return to this artistic plateau, and his career since has veered from the sublimely clever (Dogma) to the insufferably overwrought (Jersey Girl). But if there is ever any doubt that Smith once possessed some serious artistic panache, one need look no further. It’s a one-of-a-kind work that makes use of the freedom of indie filmmaking to tell a story no studio would ever tell, and to this day it has not been successfully imitated by Smith or anyone else.
It’s the Populist Art House’s first Unsung Masterpiece.
South Park, that crude, goofy, irreverent show about a few foul-mouthed kids in Colorado, is one of the last bastions of fearless free speech in the paranoid Post-9/11 Age. As other voices swerve between cowardly “politically correct” contrition to cross-cultural fears and rabid aggression running along those same cross-cultural lines, South Park has maintained its central artistic premise throughout this fear-ravaged decade: we want to be funny, and we’re going to be funny no matter who is offended, no matter how angry people get, and no matter what that anger may mean for our own personal and professional welfare, and we’re going to do this primarily becuae IT’S OUR GODDAM RIGHT TO DO SO. Even as the show, in my opinion, has taken a dip in quality in recent years, it has continued to wave that banner, even as those around them fall to self-c0nsciousness and paranoid hesitance.
Well, that bastion just took a pretty hefty hit. After a radical jihadist site threatened creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker (and yes, it was a threat) following last week’s episode which featured Muhammad in a bear costume, Comedy Central imposed selective cnesorship ofnthis week’s episode without the consent of the creators. Just a few years after the ‘Cartoon Wars’ episodes, where South Park argued that a show’s creative integrity is compromised if it succumbs to even one instance of censorship due to fear, the show has suffered just such a blow. To be clear, Comedy Central has acknowledged responsiblity for the edits, and thus bears to dubios title of censor, not the creators. But this is a very crucial moment for American entertainment and free speech at large, even though it lands on a show many regard as slight or childish.
But this is not a childish matter. Threats have been leveled against Parker and Stone for something shown on a cartoon show. And before you dwell on just how ludicrous that is, remember that such threats can absolutely not be considered idle. The jhadist site used Theo van Gogh in its warning, and suggested that the South Park creators risk the same fate. Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker, was brutally murdered after making a film about abuses suffered by women in Islamic society. He was killed for exercising artistic expression, and one would be foolish to dismiss the chance that Parker and Stone run a very real risk of similar violence.
The danger, as infuriating and utterly ridiculous as it is, is real, but the reaction of the network is the real tragedy this week. They have demonstrated that American media, long held up to the world as a shining beacon of democratic freedom and unfettered American expression, has bowed to the will of lunatics operating in a very perverted system of faith. They have compromised one of the most cherished rights we have in this country, and they have done so at the expense of the artists, who have shown no fear or hypocrisy in refusing to exempt one group because that group might be crazy enough to hurt them.
The reaction of Parker and Stone will be interesting, no matter what form it takes. Their artistic integrity has been attacked, no by the psychos threatening them with violence, but by the cowardly American suits threatening them with censorship. It’s amazing that this gauntlet lies at the feet of a show that gets laughs from anally inserted gerbils and talking pieces of poo, but that’s indeed what has come down to, and the makers of that goofy little cartoon are some of the only artists willing to do what so many others in this country will not.
They will write what they want, and say what they want, no matter the threats. Because this is the United States of America…and that’s their goddam motherfuckin’ right.
Backed by a strong marketing campaign and a lack of competition from other new releases, Kick-Ass came out of the weekend at #1 with a haul of $19.8 million. Pretty impressive considering that the film is an independently financed affair with an extremely high degree of violence.
But the real story of the weekend is How To Train Your Dragon, which just lost out on the top spot with its take of $19.6 million but is holding on remarkably strong at it nears a month in release. It’s taken in over $150 million domestically and looks to easily top the $200 million mark before it’s through. Dreamworks Animation seems to have proven that it’s more than a one-trick pony, as the impending end of the Shrek franchise demanded that the studio innovate to remain relevant alongside the Pixar juggernaut. They’ve also proven yet again that the key to an enduring family hit is simply to make a really good movie. Family films get a bad rep because they’re seen as easy pickings for studios that need to do little more than provide some cheap giggles and some shiny colors to make a profit. But the big profits come from the quality products, and the family film viewer is more discerning than the system gives them credit for.
There’s little in the way of major releases over the next couple weeks, so we’ll have to wait until May 7th for the next big splash, when Iron Man 2 crashes into cinemas and kicks off the summer blockbuster season.
Behold the wonder that is Kick-Ass.
This is the kind of film that everyone says cannot be made by the Hollywood system. And they’re right, in a sense. Matthew Vaughn could have never have gotten it off the ground under the eyes of a major studio, and he had to find independent financing to make it. But once it was made, once people saw just how brazenly brilliant the final product is, it got its marketing and it got its wide distribution. So good ole American Hollywood can put out something like Kick-Ass, in a round-a-bout way.
And thank God for that. What Vaughn and company have created is a cinematic pipe bomb so fearless, so confident, so shocking, and so bravely flaunting of Hollywood’s two-faced moral system that its very existence is something of a miracle. You just don’t see films like this coming. They come out of nowhere, a two-by-four to the side of the head, but once they land they’re around to stay for a very long time. This is a brutal send-off to the superhero film, not so much a dissection of the genre as an outright disembowelment. It’s a sharp, highly fetishized look at what makes the superhero tick, even in a realistic world where don’t actually have superpowers, and while The Dark Knight may still hold the title of the greatest superhero film ever made, Kick-Ass may be the greatest film ever about superheroes.
Our story follows a teenager named Dave Lizewski, who really is your everyday teenager in a wonderfully realized sense. He’s geeky, but not a total nerd. He’s spry enough, but not real athletic. He’s smart, but not anywhere near brilliant. He can’t help but look down the shirt of his well-endowed English teacher and he’s not so much reviled by girls as completely invisible to them. Rising star Aaron Johnson (Nowhere Boy) makes his character compelling in a way few teen protagonists are these days. He isn’t whiny or overly angst-ridden, and Johnson strikes an excellent geek-appeal that instantly gets the audience on his side. In a film filled with uber-characters all too able to steal scenes, it would have been easy for Johnson to get lost in his own film. But he exudes an awkward movie-star charm reminiscent of a young Tom Cruise, and manages to hold the film amidst an array of high theatrics. He really is the average American teenage boy, and is as well-captured in that context as any budding teen hero I’ve ever seen in a film, even when he buys a scuba suit off the internet and makes himself into Kick-Ass. It’s this characterization that grounds the film in a believable and engaging reality. That, along with an opening shot of a crazy man in a bird suit leaping off a skyscraper to the cheers of onlookers…only to fall to his death.
Yes, this isn’t quite a ‘normal’ world. But then, is our world really ‘normal’? There are problems, there are bad guys, and Dave does possess something special that many could have but very few do…the will to actually do something about it. He’s perplexed that there aren’t real superheroes in the world, that there aren’t real people taking it upon themselves to do good. And isn’t he right to be perplexed? Isn’t it a shame that there aren’t real masked crime fighters, those possessing that special mix described by Dave as “optimism and naïveté”? Maybe so, but for a real superhero to come about and take to the streets in a costume and risk life and limb to deliver their own brand of justice, it also takes a dash of insanity. And that’s where the film really dives into this popular mythos…and that’s where Big Daddy and Hit Girl come in.
Nicholas Cage is having a nice little run right now. After his brilliant turn in Bad Lieutenant, he brings his special brand of ingratiating lunacy to the role of Damon Macready, AKA Big Daddy, a falsely imprisoned former cop who has taken to crime fighting as a means to exact revenge on mafia strong man Frank D’Amico for ruining his life and career. As Macready, he’s goofy and strangely humorous. As Big Daddy, he’s also goofy and strangely humorous, but with a penchant for dispatching bad guys with a brutal blend of knives, pistols, and shotguns. He is the mad-man superhero in the vein of Batman, but without the polish and with an even more palpable sense of unbalanced rage. His obsession and fury are enough for him to raise his daughter as a highly trained killing machine, established in the first scene in which we see them. Father talks lovingly to his daughter, makes sure her bullet-proof vest is on right, and shoots her square in the chest. Then takes her out for ice cream.
The result of this deranged upbringing is Hit Girl, a pint-sized angel of death who will no doubt endure as a cinematic icon, in no small part thanks to great work by young actress Chloe Morentz. The character is also what has brought out the morality police, given that she’s a near-sociopathic mass-murderer who’s been wired to view ghastly bloodshed as a game, so much so that she displays a childlike disbelief when she finally sees her own blood. And those naysayers would be right to be so appalled, if they weren’t viewing the character and the film in the wrong context. Hit Girl is the encapsulation of every subversive tick that brings people to the superhero genre. You want movies that pander sociopathic vigilante justice to children in the guise of elaborately costumed heroics? You want wildly exciting action that simplifies right and wrong to the extent that the violence becomes a philosophical parody of its own nature and motivations, which of course makes it easier for the intended teen audience to digest? Fine, that’s what you get in Hit Girl. But you get it in such a ghastly, shameless, and straight-up manner that it serves as a middle-finger to all the appetites that lead people to films like this (appetites that I myself most certainly share). Those appetites are natural, if sometimes too strong and too readily sated by modern culture, but it’s worthwhile to have them served up at face value. And that can be hard to watch, and many will certainly find the antics of Hit Girl a bit much to take. She hurls obscenities, slits throats, cuts off legs, and puts bullets through skulls with such dizzying frequency that it can feel like system shock, but the very fact that a film can cause that kind of shock in this age of hyper-edited overload is a feat in itself.
But this is a not a normal cinematic world, and Hit Girl is a not a normal little girl. She is, in a manner of speaking, off her fucking rocker. So is her father, and so is Kick-Ass to a lesser extent. In order for these people to suit up and take on the bad guys in the way that they do, they just have to be a tad bit insane, and it’s the inherent and somewhat troubling insanity of the superhero mythos that gives Kick-Ass its greatest and most subversive relevance. The world picture painted by the film, replete with modern tech-culture like YouTube, first-person shooter video games, and live streaming webcasts, is one where the embedded insanity and perverse hero complex within the genre are much more easily indulged. These superheroes buy their gear from eBay and communicate through MySpace, and the viral matrix of YouTube allows for a masked dweeb fighting off goon with batons to become an instant celebrity. It’s all just a little bit mad, isn’t it? Not the rise of a real superhero (that’s more believable), but the over-linked hysteria of our modern tech culture. And that’s the world where Kick-Ass exists, and it’s a world where the core lunacy is exactly the same as our own.
Crafting such a universe is the work of director Matthew Vaughn, the real star of the film. His first two directorial outings, Stardust and Layer Cake, showed promise, but here he shoots and gashes his way right to the A-List. He directs action scenes with virtuoso panache, hits some surprising notes of disturbed foreboding, and most important of all, manages the proceedings with enough humor and tongue-in-cheek self awareness to make it so much damn fun. He constantly throws the viewer off-balance, especially during Kick-Ass’s first attempted crime intervention where our would-be hero walks up to some thugs, talks a big heroic talk….then is promptly stabbed in the gut. It’s a brutal and shocking moment that pulls the rug out from the under the film’s superhero trappings, and it’s brilliant because from that point on, Vaughn can take the film anywhere he wants. And that’s just what he does, constantly doing what you know he should but don’t think he would, and that’s a large part of what it makes Kick-Ass so great. It’s fearless in a way free of pretense and designed first and foremost to thrill its audience. It goes places that films rarely go, and it always does so in service of its story.
Kick-Ass is that rare specimen, that special little movie that rises from the cinematic abyss and reminds you why film is such an exciting medium. So far, it’s the best film of 2010. Enthralling, shocking, horrifying, and every second entertaining, it may not end the traditional superhero genre, but it sure as hell has some nasty fun with it.