Monday, August 8, 2011


Dir. Michel Gondry US 2011

This movie had a lot working against it now that I think about it. It's based on a comic book character that most people under 50 have never heard of. It was coming out in the middle of a nearly decade-long glut of superhero movies. It had been in development for about 15 years, before finally being handed to Michel Gondry, an acclaimed indie filmmaker with no previous experience directing action. Coupled with potential Seth Rogen backlash and a co-star with a questionable grasp on the English language, this is not a movie I would have bet on (and I guess I technically didn't, since I didn't see it in theatres). It was not really surprising when Green Hornet opened to mostly negative reviews and middling box office. What DID surprise me when I finally got around to watching it was how goddamn good it was.

The Green Hornet is the story of Britt Reid (Seth Rogen), the drunken, hard-partying slacker son of a major newspaper publisher in Los Angeles (the always excellent Tom Wilkinson). Following his father's sudden death, Britt befriends his personal assistant, a mysterious, multi-skilled man named Kato (Jay Chou). Moved to action by the passing of his crusading father and a crime wave perpetrated by a maniacal drug kingpin (Christoph Waltz), Britt marshals Kato's martial arts and engineering skills to turn himself into an underworld scourge known as the Green Hornet.

Michel Gondry got his start in music videos, most famously the visually striking "Fell in Love with a Girl" and "Hardest Button to Button" videos for The White Stripes, and made his major film debut with 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In addition to his off-kilter camera work and whimsical, low-tech special effects, Gondry brings something else to this film that sets it apart from other superhero films: a shaggy, loose sense of plotting that opts for the characters screwing around and hanging out rather than sacrificing such moments for the sake of steamrolling the plot forward. This is also a testament to the skills of Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg (there last script, Superbad, displays a similar inclination to chuck its characters into random situations and see what happens, rather than push them through a narrative), who keep the film consistently funny and clever, while also hitting all the necessary beats for a buddy action-comedy. At two hours, the film feels a little long, but it never wears out its welcome.

For a guy with no previous action cred, Gondry puts together some pretty interesting sequences for this movie. The slo-mo "Kato-vision" is a little trite on the surface, like so many other derivatives of bullet-time, but the weird camera effects and creative choreography keep the fights fresh and engaging. The finale is a combination car-chase/shoot-out/martial arts blowout that ranks as one of the most fun action scenes I've seen in a long time. My favorite though, comes at the end of the second act, where Britt and Kato have their obligatory "falling out before they can team-up for the ending" argument, which manifests as a clumsy, creative fight through Britt's mansion with some pretty hilarious choreography and appropriation of household items as weapons.

I can't really call the character Seth Rogen plays here that much of a risk for him, given his predilection toward irresponsible, caustic louts, but Britt does seem like a twisted extreme of his previous performances. Whereas Rogen's characters in Knocked Up and Pineapple Express ultimately learn valuable life lessons and grow as people, Britt plunges through this film with the enthusiasm and arrested development of an old Looney Tunes character. He is narcissistic to the point of delusion, utterly selfish and mostly incompetent. Yet his reaction to all the craziness around him mirrors the amused reactions of the audience and so you feel as though he's watching the movie along side you and commenting, rather than acting as the idiotic impetus for everything that's happening. Jay Chou's Kato, despite being hyper-competent and highly skilled at basically everything, is only slightly more responsible than Britt, which is to say, not really at all. The film takes some brief time out at points to contemplate the extremely skewed morals of its two leads, but never really condemns them for it, another factor that probably contributed to the films poor reviews.

Cameron Diaz is in this movie as well, ostensibly as the love interest, but the film has the good sense (unlike the film I previously reviewed, Ironclad) to realize that no one usually cares about the male/female relationships in these films and instead chooses to focus on the bond between Britt and Kato, while simultaneously ridiculing it with tons of gay innuendo. Diaz doesn't show up until about 40 minutes but, to her credit, plays a fun straight man to Britt and Kato's wackiness. The true MVP of this film though, is Christoph Waltz. Best known for stealing the show as refined SS officer Hans Landa in Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, plays another quirky villain here, the self-obsessed but hilariously insecure Chudnofsky. Waltz still possesses that same irrepressible charm that he displayed as Landa, but he paints Chudnofsky with broader strokes, with goofy asides and a strangely adorable sense of self doubt that makes for a highly entertaining villain. His jealously of the Green Hornet's fame and his attempts to replicate his success gets more and more hysterical as the movie goes on, and his showdown with an uncredited cameo (who is amazing, but I won't spoil who it is) in the first few minutes is possibly the best scene in the movie.

It's nice to be reminded that reviews aren't always right. I'll probably get more rewatch value out of Green Hornet than Kick-Ass or any of the other self-aware superhero movies popping up now. Good stuff.

UP NEXT: Attack The Block

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Dir. Jonathan English UK/USA 2011

I'm happy to live in an era where even low-budget films have the means to make history look and feel realistic. This is the primary saving grace of Ironclad, a film with a solid premise and a fun cast that manages to never really gel.

Set in England shortly after John I (the evil Robin Hood king, for those of you who learn history via other movies) signed the Magna Carta, the film deals with the First Barons' War, which erupted after John tried to reclaim control of the country from the newly empowered nobles. Specifically, Ironclad is a siege film, depicting the pivotal Siege of Rochester during the winter of 1215. Leading the cast is James Purefoy as Marshall, a Templar Knight who finds himself adrift after the Crusades and seeking vengeance for his fellow knights who were slain by the king. John is played by Paul Giamatti, who has plenty of fun turning him into a snarling, bitter megalomaniac. Also on hand are the always great Brian Cox as a rebel lord and British character actors Jason Flemyng and Mackenzie Crook as some of the rag-tag peasants assembled to defend the castle.

Now, I'm a big sucker for siege movies, so I was pretty excited about this going in. And if you go into this movie knowing what's good and and what's bad, it could actually be pretty enjoyable. The director opts for the shaky-cam, Bourne-style shooting when it comes to the action scenes, which isn't too bad when you've got guys fighting hand-to-hand. The editing is a little sloppy at points, but overall, it works. The violence itself is the highlight of the film. You will find no gory discretion shots here. The film is adamant about showing you exactly what a mace or an ax will do to somebody's face. Some of the blood sprays were definitely CGI, but all of the injuries were done with very impressive prosthetics and practical effects. If you're in it for the action alone, I'd say it delivers.

The rest... gets a little spotty. The gaping hole of lameness in this film is the relationship between James Purefoy's character and the Lady of Rochester, played by Kate Mara. Now, love stories generally feel superfluous from the start in action/war movies, but if the acting and writing are strong, they can be made interesting. Not so here. I haven't seen Kate Mara in much else, but she's extremely flat in this film, and what little chemistry she has with James Purefoy is kind of awkward and weird. The worst part is that SO MUCH TIME is devoted to their relationship, and I can't imagine that anyone watching this movie would care about it. Especially since the film already feels a bit too long with its 2 hour run time, I do not understand why they didn't trim this plot down, if not jettison it all together. If they wanted to keep the long runtime, I'd've much preferred it spent on building the relationships between the men defending the castle.

The rest of the cast is pretty solid, but the writing does them a disservice by not really fleshing out their characters to the degree that it should. James Purefoy, badass as he is, seems somewhat miscast as a silent, brooding Templar, especially given the affable villainy he brought to the role of Mark Antony in HBO's Rome. Paul Giamatti is the performance that makes the movie, playing King John as a Napoleonic super-villain. He's got a giant rant about two-thirds of the way through the movie that he completely knocks out of the park. He manages to seem like he's taking the role very seriously while also seeming like he's having the time of his life. And even though his character was extremely stock, I was rooting for Aneurin Barnard as Guy the squire, the idealistic young kid who wants to fight for honor and democracy. As I said, the character is stock, and his modern ideas about democracy are very anachronistic, but I thought his relationship with Marshall was one of the better ones in the film. That being said, this movie does go the Braveheart/Gladiator route of giving the good guys all these lofty ideals about freedom and democracy that wouldn't have been common nearly a millennia ago. It's not as egregious as the religious views of some of the characters in Kingdom of Heaven, which positions its characters to the left of most modern Americans, but it's still a little annoying.

Ultimately, if you're looking for some vicious Medieval action, I'd say Ironclad is well worth your time. Just maybe fast forward through any scene that just has James Purefoy and Kate Mara.

UP NEXT: The Green Hornet and Attack The Block.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Dir. Joe Johnston 2011 USA

So it seemed like 2011 was the make-or-break summer for superhero movies. You had four major releases in three months, including two run-ups to next year's The Avengers, a reboot of an old franchise and the first film in a potential new one. A lot of people felt like audiences might finally reach their breaking point this year and that one or more of these movies would tank.

With all four having been finally released, this does not seem to be the case. Kenneth Branagh's Thor has been the biggest success thus far, enjoying solid critical acclaim and a huge global box-office. Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class had the lowest opening of any X-Men film yet, but still did well and enjoyed critical comparisons to Mad Men. Martin Campbell's Green Lantern was a critical disaster, but it still may break even at the global box office. And now, finally, Captain America seems to be on track to equal Thor, both critically and commercially. Three out of four ain't bad. And with three very promising tent-poles slated for next summer (Joss Whedon's The Avengers, Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises), I don't think superhero movies are going anywhere anytime soon.

If you're curious about my personal thoughts, I would rank these four films as follows: X-Men, Captain America, Thor and Green Lantern, with the first three being very, very close and Green Lantern being a distant, distant fourth. Sadly, I could have more or less predicted this before I saw any of the four. I can chalk this up to two major factors: a) the fact that Marvel has pretty much got the formula for their movies down to a predictable, but highly enjoyable science and b) the fact that (other than hiring Christopher Nolan to save Batman) DC has no goddamn idea what they're doing when it comes to turning their properties into films. It's unfortunate that Green Lantern sucked so hard, but if I had to pick one company to be firing on all cylinders, it would be Marvel. And hey, we're still getting good Batman movies.

So I'll try to provide some relatively quick hits on what I thought of the first three flicks and then talk about Captain America and how it sets up for next summer.

I came into Thor with a slight bias. I was never that invested in the character as a whole. I enjoy what he brings to The Avengers, but I was never that invested in the cosmic/mystical side of the Marvel Universe, and conveying that aspect to a movie-going audience was always the biggest obstacle this film had facing it. Kenneth Branagh wisely (if somewhat awkwardly) treats the film as two parts of a whole, combining a goofy fish-out-of-water story on Earth with magical Shakespearian action in Asgard. The story jumps between the two locals well, but for a film trying to convey such an epic scope, both worlds feel weirdly empty. The Earth story never leaves the sparsely populated town that Thor is banished to, and Asgard seems to consist of three rooms in a palace and one giant bridge.

The cast assembled for the film is impressive to the point of seeming like overkill. Chris Hemsworth is a hell of a find, imbuing Thor with the necessary gravitas and arrogance while also finding the humor and pathos in the character that make him work so well as part of an ensemble. Natalie Portman is charming as ever, but their relationship felt like more of a function of plot than any real chemistry between the two. Kat Dennings character was cute comic relief, but I feel as thought the movie would have been better served by more time spent between Hemsworth and Portman, since Thor's character arc (from arrogant god to humble human warrior) felt rushed and perfunctory. It was also fun to see Titus Pullo and Stringer Bell as Norse Gods.

X-Men: First Class, despite some glaring flaws, managed to be the best of the bunch on the basis of its style, ambition and the performances of the two leads. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender perfectly capture the spirit and presence of two iconic characters who have already been portrayed by extremely talented actors. It's a tough act to follow, but they pulled it off, all while being incredibly dashing and well dressed (seriously, the costume and set design in this movie is amazing). For a comic book movie, this film places a surprising amount of faith in the intelligence of its audience. Large portions of the film are subtitled, as the characters always speak the language they would logically be speaking, rather than accented English. The film is heavily steeped in international affairs that occurred forty years before its target audience was born. And the grey morality between Xavier's manipulative idealism and Magneto's righteous hatred plays out far better than it did in any of the previous X-films.

In addition to the two leads, the always reliable Kevin Bacon portrays villain Sebastian Shaw (who's nebulous powers they managed to convey very effectively) and Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult generate an effective relationship as Mystique and Beast, despite the script giving them little to work with. Less effective were some of the characters selected to be in the film (I'm looking at you Havok and Angel), and January Jones does a terrible disservice to the wonderful character that is Emma Frost by choosing to play her as a stony ice queen and ignoring the wit and passion she displays in the comics. I guess that's also the writer's fault. Nonetheless, the film is sharply directed and completely commits to its vision of a past that manages to feel authentic and stylized at the same time (Captain America boasts a similar achievement).

Oh, Green Lantern. Where do I even start? Can this segment be entirely questions? How do you spend $200 million on a movie (that's pre-marketing costs) and have the effects not look awesome and the action scenes be completely uninventive and uninspiring? How can you have unimaginative action scenes when your main character possesses a ring that allows him to turn his imagination into reality? How do you justify casting Mark Strong as Sinestro, a part which he knocks out of the park, and only allow him to be in the movie for about 8 minutes? How do you cast the admittedly-more-attractive-as-a-brunette Blake Lively as the feisty love interest when she seems to be clinically incapable of emoting? Sigh...I'm getting depressed. It was bad. Let's move on.

Captain America. For a movie that I enjoyed as much as I did, there's very little about this that stands out. The acting is serviceable, but not captivating. The characters are effective, but broad. The action is competent, but not incredible. But despite all this, it was the most fun I've had at the movies all summer (even more than X-Men; it never quite reached the same highs, but its flaws were much less upsetting). Like its main character, the film is very much a meat and potatoes kind of affair. Satisfying without being particularly remarkable.

Chris Evans was an interesting choice for Captain America, and not one I would have made. Having already played a Marvel hero (as the Human Torch in both Fantastic Four films), I kind of discounted him from the get-go, and would have been more excited to see Chris Pine or Jensen Ackles in the role. Evans seemed too snarky to me, too modern to embody the quiet, earnest determination necessary to portray Steve Rogers. Sometimes it's nice to be proved wrong. Not only does Evans look the part (both as a real-life slab of post-super-soldier muscle and as a CGI assisted pre-super-soldier weakling), he imbues Rogers with a boyish charm that the character has grown past in his modern comic book incarnation, but is totally appropriate when playing the character as a newly-minted hero. So good job casting directors and Chris Evans.

Joe Johnston also deserves some serious props for this movie. Showing early promise as a student of the Spielberg school of directing, with films like Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and The Rocketeer (which shares it's tone and setting with Captain America), he declined pretty sharply in the last decade or so with movies like Jurassic Park III and the completely awful Wolfman remake that came out last year. Here, Johnston shows an eye for detail makes the film seem like it was ripped from a World War II propaganda poster, but rather than giving the film a the stylized, modern sheen that Matthew Vaughn gave X-Men, Johnston utilizes practical effects and an even-handed tone to evoke both Raiders-era Spielberg as well as war films of the 1940's.

In terms of story, this film feels much truer to itself than Thor or even Iron Man 2, in that it can stand on its own without using its status as an Avengers prequel to fill out its universe. Despite the presence of the Cosmic Cube (as seen in the post-credits scene for Thor), Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark (Iron Man's father) and the modern day scenes that bookend the film, this movie very much feels as though it could stand on its own if none of these other films existed, which was both unexpected and impressive.

True to form, Marvel has put together a solid ensemble for this film, with an sharp eye toward potentially recurring characters. Tommy Lee Jones gets some of the best lines as the extremely familiar, but always welcome crusty old general who actually cares about his men. Sebastian Stan makes for a great Bucky, quickly establishing the necessary relationship between his character and Evans', to the point where I wished that the film had been more about their relationship than the one that Steve has with Peggy Carter. Hayley Atwell wears her costumes well and gets a few badass moments, but she's mostly sidelined in the latter half of the film (at least she never needs to be saved). Hugo Weaving was pretty much born to play the Red Skull. His absurd commitment to being so evil that even the Nazis don't want to associate with him, combined with some pretty effective make-up effects made me wish he'd had more screen time as well. Considering that it's just over two hours, this movie moves like clockwork. I'd be interested to see if there are any deleted scenes on the DVD.

It pleases more than I can say that I'm living through an era where movie studios are devoting hundreds of millions of dollars to recreate my childhood fantasies on screen. If anything, Captain America and Thor have allowed me to remain unabashedly optimistic about the enormous financial and critical risk that is The Avengers. I'd also very much enjoy a new trilogy of X-Men films with the sequels set in equally stylized versions of the 70's and 80's. And Green Lantern... Well, Warner Brothers seems set on a sequel. And the next logical story to cover would be The Sinestro Corps War. It really can't be that much worse.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

I'm Back

Hey guys.

It's been a while, I know. I kind of overwhelmed myself back in April and then just panicked and quit. How lame of me. I've been feeling like I can get back in the groove though, so I'm tentatively restarting this bad boy in the hopes that, with a few tweaks and improvements, I can not puss out again. I plan on seeing Captain America tomorrow and I will use that review to also look back on the other superhero flicks that came out this summer, specifically Thor, X-Men: First Class and Green Lantern.

In the meantime, here on some super-brief thoughts on most of other shit I've watched since I quit back in April:

The Sword of Doom: An 1960's samurai flick, with a beautiful release via Criterion. If you're into existentialism and/or hardass anti-heros, this one is for you. A little slow at first, but the ending is more than worth it. Much darker than Kurosawa's samurai films.

Punisher: War Zone: I watched this for the novelty of Titus Pullo from Rome (Ray Stevenson) and Jimmy McNulty from The Wire (Dominic West) being in it. Holy shit is it bad. Parts of it are bad in a good way, but more than anything, I'd just call it grossly incompetent. Which is a same because Stevenson takes the role very seriously and would have been a great choice for a serious adaptation of the recent Punisher Max books.

Buried: This movie has a pretty interesting gimmick (the film is set entirely within the coffin in which the main character is trapped), and Ryan Reynolds gives the most visceral, emotional performance I've ever seen from him, but the ending is sort of a "Fuck you" to all the viewers tough enough to endure such a narrowly-focused, emotionally draining ride.

Piranha 3D: I was hoping that this would be bad in a good way, but other than a few chuckles, I thought it was a pretty big waste of 80 minutes. That being said, Adam Scott and Christopher Lloyd were awesome for the 10 minutes that they were in it.

Le Doulos: Another gem from Criterion. A moody, tragic French New Wave gangster flick from the early 60's, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo from Breathless as a classic morally questionable protagonist. Great imagery, great atmosphere, great outfits.

Cyrus: This got a limited release last year. It stars John C. Reilly as a depressed dude who falls for Marisa Tomei and has to contend with her emotionally manipulative, socially stunted son played by Jonah Hill. Although the premise makes it sound like a Judd Apatow movie, it's much more of an indie drama with a few good laughs. Jonah Hill shows some interesting range here, playing the title character as a non-homicidal, 21st century Norman Bates.

Machete: Robert Rodriguez's full length adaptation of the trailer he made for the Grindhouse movie he did with Quentin Tarantino. Although its kind of cool to watch a movie starring Danny Trejo, this movie just felt like watching 80 minutes of less interesting connective tissue while waiting for the 5 minutes of cool stuff you already saw in the trailer. In fact, you should probably just watch the trailer.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2: I kind of wish that they'd just sucked it up and released a three and a half hour cut of this and the first part. They would play much better as one film. This just feels like a two and a half hour climax with no time for the character beats of part one. Ultimately, displays all the same strengths and weaknesses of the last three films in the series. Great look, great action and a very cool cast, but no space for the world-building and character connections that make the books so great.

Super 8: Probably the most fun I've had in the theaters this year. If you thought it was cheesy, I see where you're coming from, but I loved every second of it. J.J. Abrams totally nailed the early Speilberg vibe he was going for. The movie is very much E.T. meets Jurassic Park. It also features some of the best child actors I've seen in a long time. Special props to Elle Fanning, who knocked my socks off.

Your Highness: If you'd told me before I saw this that a sword and sorcery spoof starring Danny McBride, James Franco and Natalie Portman was going to be one of the worst movies I'd ever seen, I'd've called you crazy. But you would have actually been totally right. I hope they had fun making this, because it was literally painful to watch.

Source Code: This movie definitely seemed to be riding the coattails of Inception (although it was made before Inception came out), and while it definitely had some problems in the third act, it's definitely an interesting and engaging sci-fi movie, which I'm always happy to support. Jake Gyllenhaal makes a pretty game action hero and the premise is a lot of fun. Definitely worth a look on DVD.

Whew. So yeah. It's good to be back. Like I said, Captain America with retroactive Thor, X-Men and Green Lantern reviews forthcoming.

Monday, April 11, 2011


Dir. James Gunn USA 2010

Dir. Peter Stebbings CANADA 2009

I find it really strange that we live in a world where post-modern superhero films have become their own little sub-genre. I suppose it's inevitable that once any genre reaches a certain level of popularity, people who enjoy it will start commenting on it and making fun of it in their own works. Kick-Ass was the most successful of these films so far and given that their are still plenty of straight-forward superhero flicks coming out in the next few years, now would be the time to start riffing on them.

Super is far and away the more successful of the two films, but its far from perfect. Written and directed by James Gunn, (writer of the 2004 Dawn Of The Dead remake and writer/director of the 2006 horror/comedy Slither starring Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks), Super cobbles together a bizarrely eclectic cast and a grusome, low-budget aesthetic into something that's occasionally stupid and frequently entertaining.

Rainn Wilson stars as Frank D'Arbo, a pathetically naive short-order cook who's two greatest achievements in life were marrying his beautiful wife Sarah (a surprisingly effective Liv Tyler) and this other time where he told a cop which way a mugger ran. When Sarah, a former junkie, suffers a serious relapse and runs off with an extremely affable drug dealer named Jacques (an extremely affable Kevin Bacon), Frank suffers a serious break with reality and becomes obsessed with righting all the wrongs he perceives in the world around him (which range from the understandable "drugs are bad" to the absurd "cutting in line"). With the help of a young comic book shop employee (Ellen Page), Frank adopts the guise of The Crimson Bolt and begins his one man war on crime.

I've gotten some pretty solid rewatch value out of Slither and I'd highly recommend it for it's fantastic balance of goofy humor and disgusting horror. Super attempts to walk a similar line, but it runs into some problems along the way. James Gunn spend the early part of his career working on Troma films, and their blood-soaked, DIY style comes through loud and clear in Super. It suits the premise of a thrift-store superhero very well, but is tonally all over the place and ends up making some pretty disturbing moral judgements that I'm not entirely sure were ironic.

I think the biggest problem I had with this movie is that I just don't like Rainn Wilson. I've never watched The Office so I'm pretty sure the only thing I'd seen him in prior to this was the opening scene of Juno. The part is broadly written and Wilson seems to take the role seriously, portraying Frank as a sweet, naive fuck-up with an dangerously poor grasp on morality and common sense. While I will always argue for real emotion grounding humor or horror in the abstract, I think Wilson could have injected a bit more humor into his performance. Granted, a lot of the humor is supposed to come from Frank's complete lack of awareness that what he's doing is idiotic, but a lot of it falls flat, especially at the beginning of the movie when the audience still isn't sure which way the movie is going to go. I guess it goes to show how well Wilson was cast as Dwight in The Office, but ultimately I feel like he's just way too off-putting and creepy to ever be truly sympathetic. Wow, that sounds really harsh when I re-read it.

The supporting cast is where this movie shines. Although I'm glad that they're getting work two of my favorite TV actors, Andre Royo (Bubs from The Wire!) and Linda Cardellini (Lindsey from Freaks and Geeks!) are criminally under-used here as minor characters who's parts feel like they could have been cut. Returning from Slither are Nathan Fillion, Michael Rooker and Gregg Henry, all of whom are always welcome. And as I said earlier, Liv Tyler and Kevin Bacon are both great. But three guesses who stole the movie for me?

OK, before you say anything, I know I'm operating with a bias here, which is the fact that I am totally enamored of Ellen Page. And while she doesn't steal this movie quite as much as Hit-Girl stole Kick-Ass, she was definitely the best thing in it. I will admit, when she was first introduced I was not convinced. She plays Libby, a snarky comic book store employee who guides Frank on his mission to create his own superhero identity and eventually talks him into letting her be his sidekick, Boltie. Initially, Page plays up both the snark as well as the shy, self-effacing manner one would expect from a nerdy female character, but the fact that she looks and dresses like Ellen Page makes it unbelievable that she wouldn't have every guy who walks into the store dying at her feet. It seemed a bit forced. At first. By the time Page gets into her (extremely crappy, yet still weirdly flattering) costume, she reveals Libby to be a deeply repressed psychotic who sees Frank's gross misunderstandings of morality and raises him a not-giving-a-flying-fuck. Again, it's an obvious bit of casting to take a cute girl known for low-key comedy and drama work and stick her in a role that lets her curse like a sailor and be wantonly violent, but whereas Hit Girl was hyper-competent and ultra-slick, Libby is barely holding on by a thread, her complete incompetence only overcome by her breathless, manic desire to hurt people for almost no good reason. Her size also allows for some pretty hilarious sight-gags, my favorite of which was her inability to walk while wearing a heavy Kevlar vest.

I don't want to give away the ending of the film as it involves some hilariously catastrophic violence and some deeply skewed quasi-religious morality, but if you check the movie out, you'll know what I'm talking about. And even thought I feel like I spent a lot of this review complaining about the film, I did have a good time watching it. It was mostly the little moments. Frank misspelling Jacques name as Jock. The smash cut from Libby suggesting a signature weapon to Frank inventing his signature weapon. An opening credits sequences that is remarkably like the opening credits of Grease. And one of the weirdest sex scenes I've seen in a film that wasn't a porn. As much as they were different, I think I can say that if you dug Kick-Ass, you'll dig this.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about Defendor. The debut feature from writer-director Peter Stebbings, Defendor makes the lamentable and always wrong choice of being boring rather than being inconsistent.

Woody Harrelson stars as Arthur Poppington, a mentally-challenged road crew employee who spends his nights fighting crime as Defendor, utilizing a variety of weapons ranging from the obvious (a truncheon) to the absurd (jars full of wasps). Obsessed with trapping and defeating the shadowy Captain Industry, Arthur enlists the help of a young prostitute (Kat Dennings) in his quest to overcome his own limitations and make a difference in the world.

Superficially, Super and Defendor have a lot in common. Both revolve around mentally challenged outcasts who undertake misguided quests as superheroes with the help of female sidekicks played by cute, hipstery actresses. But whereas Super has the feel of a fun, schlocky B-movie, Defendor plays more like a Lifetime movie-of-the-week. The film was advertised as a comedy, but almost nothing about the movie, beyond the inherent absurdity of Arthur's Defendor get-up, is amusing. The film takes itself and it's message way too seriously and suffers for it at every turn.

By this point, Woody Harrelson has proven that he can do drama, or at the very least create pathos with a character, so I won't say he was miscast in this film, but if you've got someone as goofy as him for your lead actor, it would behoove you to make the character a bit funnier. Harrelson's irrepressible, smirking wit shines through in a few scenes, but the character feels too obvious, like something Robin Williams or Jim Carrey would have played ten years ago when they were trying to be all serious. I won't knock the guy for trying something new, but the character, and by extension, the movie, just felt too low-key and trite.

Compounding this situation is the film's tendency to tell rather than show. Defendor is supposed to be set in a city (it was shot in Toronto, but felt like Philly for some reason) where crime and corruption run rampant. Rather than showing us this, beyond a few dark alleys, a couple of hookers and a powerful gang that seemed to consist of only half a dozen guys, the film includes a Greek chorus in the form of a talk radio host who complains about how crappy the city is and wonders why someone doesn't do something about it. You see what I'm getting at here?

This entire problem is rendered crystal clear by Kat Dennings. Now, I like Kat Dennings. She manages to be super hot without being a waif and she's got a easy-going, natural screen presence that's well suited to comedies and indie dramas. In this film, however, she is the most unconvincing crack whore I've ever seen. Like, Denise-Richards-as-a-nuclear-physicist unconvincing. Despite this being an R-rated film, everything about her character feels sanitized. Chapped lips, rings under her eyes and trashy clothes are the only physical indicators that she might be a prostitute. She looks well-fed otherwise and when she smokes a crack pipe, it comes off as cute, rather than gross and sad. And her relationship with Harrelson's character seems to develop out of obligation to the plot rather than any actual chemistry that exists between them.

It's a shame too, because there are some good performances lurking in this film. Elias Koteas (or to anyone in my demographic, Casey Jones from the 1989 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film) plays a corrupt cop and made me question why he doesn't have a bigger career. Also on hand was Clark Johnson (Gus from season 5 of The Wire) as police captain. Always a pleasure.

Ultimately, Defendor (as a film) seems less concerned with the tropes and consequences of superheroes and vigilantism than it is with exploring the tragedy of mental illness. It's attempts at this vary between the extremely obvious (the framing story, in which Arthur is being interviewed by a psychologist played by Sandra Oh, feels cobbled together from similar scenes in numerous other films) and the extremely preachy (the entire ending). This isn't to say that genre films can't tackle big issues (the obviously can), but a clumsy film is a clumsy film.

UP NEXT: I just saw Source Code tonight, so that should be up by the weekend. GAME OF THRONES starts Sunday. So. Goddamn. Excited.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Dir. Robert D. Siegel USA 2009

Dir. Dan Eckman USA 2009

These films were both low budget comedies by first time directors, so I thought they'd pair well. As it turned out, they're almost nothing alike, but they're both well worth your time.

Big Fan was written and directed by the former editor of The Onion, although very little of that publications snarky, absurdist humor is present in the film. Patton Oswalt stars as Paul Aufiero, a 36 year old parking garage attendant who lives with his mother in Staten Island. Despite living with a complete lack of accomplishment or aspiration, Paul is nonetheless satisfied by his one and only hobby: being a New York Giants fan. Too broke to afford tickets to the games, Paul and his friend Sal tailgate in the parking lot with a radio during every game, and Paul spends his long, boring days at the parking garage writing out long diatribes that he then reads on a call-in radio show every night. When an encounter with his favorite player (fictional quarterback Quantrell Bishop) goes horribly awry, Paul's already bleak life is plunged into further chaos and despair.

So yeah. If you're a Patton Oswalt fan going into this movie expecting a laugh riot, you're going to be sorely disappointed. Big Fan plays more like a low-key, sports-centric version of Taxi Driver, if Travis Bickle lacked any sense of motivation or self-respect. There are a bunch of genuine laughs during the first act, but as soon as Paul's luck begins to take a turn for the worse, things get really dark, really quickly.

Although the roles asks him to restrain his goofy, hyper-literate onstage persona, Patton Oswalt is a smart casting choice for Paul. His diminutive stature and schlubby ineffectiveness allow him to accurately portray the character without making him completely detestable. And while the audiences feelings of pity and disgust for the character are never alleviated (nor should they be), Oswalt always keeps you rooting for the guy, even when you know it's futile.

The escalation of Paul's anger and despair is perfectly played out in a number of scenes in which he calls in to sports talk show to argue with Philadelphia Phil, a boorish, cruel Eagles fan. Paul's rants are always interrupted by his mother, who pounds on the wall or screams from the other room, telling him to keep it down. This is an easy gag that gets played in a lot of lesser films and sitcoms, but the fact that Paul and his mother feel like real people (Marcia Jean Kurtz is wonderful in the role; her saving entire ziplock bags of duck and soy sauce packets from Chinese takeout because "throwing food out is a sin", rings wonderfully true) and the subtle escalation of these scenes as the film goes on, gives the relationship a real sense of tragedy and pathos.

This sense of escalation is a thread that runs through other aspects of the film as well, eventually culminating in a wonderfully edited, genuinely tense climax that actually left me surprised. Not something I'd expect from a movie about football starring Patton Oswalt.

Although Big Fan is definitely a better made film, Mystery Team is the one I see myself revisiting in the future (hell, I watched it twice in a week already). Conceived by and starring the Derrick Comedy troupe, who's members were a year ahead of me at NYU, Mystery Team works as both a hilarious series of set-pieces and sketches, as well as a fun throwback to some of the entertainment I enjoyed as a kid.

Donald Glover, DC Pierson and Dominic Dierkes star as Jason "The Master of Disguise", Duncan "The Boy Genius" and Charlie "The Strongest Kid in Town". As children, they were beloved by their suburban New England community as lovable kid detectives, policing the schoolyard and solving childish mysteries. Now, they're about to graduate from high school and everyone (including their parents) just finds them weird and sad. When a young girl comes to them and asks that they solve the murder of her parents, the Mystery Team find themselves thrown into an major case that threatens to tear apart the friendship and get them killed.

Mystery Team rides that perfect line between complete absurdity and carefully managed realism (not unlike Community, which Donald Glover landed a role on shortly after completing this film). The film is shot in this nostalgic soft-focus and is scored with uplifting strings and peppy refrains that call to mind the Nickelodeon-style shows of the late 80s and early 90s. The Mystery Team themselves inhabit this bizarre fantasy land that seems part Encyclopedia Brown and part 1950's cop show. The rest of the characters exist in a very real world of vulgar language, sex and responsibility, and the contrast remains hilarious through the entire film. If you're buying what the film is selling, you'll find it hysterical and almost comforting on a number of levels.

Glover, Pierson and Dierkes form the core of the film, and their roots in sketch comedy shine through in their well-oiled banter and effortless interaction. As the protagonist, Glover carries the film, blending the child-like cluelessness of his character on Community with a hyperactive, over-the-top energy that makes me wish he'd blow up in the same way that Seth Rogen and Jason Siegel did a few years earlier. He and Pierson maintain a perfect balance with Pierson acting as the nebbish straight man to Glover's increasing absurdity. Dierkes feels like the odd man out at times and some of his lines fall flat. His best contribution to the dynamic are his awkward mannerisms and facial expressions; his performance alone justifies a second viewing of the film, as he's usually in the background doing something stupid or muttering something under his breath that you'll probably miss the first time around.

The film also features a number of comedic character actors, including Aubrey Plaza as the female lead, playing a more balanced version of the Daria-like persona she's cultivated in her stand-up and on Parks and Recreation. Matt Walsh of UCB fame and John Lutz from 30 Rock pop up in the third act as well. The only person who didn't really work for me was Bobby Moynihan from SNL as a pathetic convenience store clerk who desperately wants in on the action. I'm not sure if it was his performance or the character being too broadly drawn, but I felt like he wasn't worth the time devoted to his subplot.

As I said, this movie is clearly amateurish in a number of ways (the directing is a bit to ambitious for its own good and the film at times feels like set-pieces strung together by a story rather than a narrative with funny moments) but if you're looking for something a bit off-beat and starring a bunch of really funny people, I'd say this one is time well spent.

UP NEXT: Two weeks until Game of Thrones. I'll try to get a few movies in before then.

Monday, March 21, 2011


Dir. Anton Corbijn USA 2010

If The American was anything, it was predictable. It was much more than that; in fact many of the adjectives I would use to describe it would be positive. But the beats of the story are ones you've seen a thousand times. I won't spoil the ending or anything, but it barely matters. If you've ever watched a movie about a hitman before, you've more or less seen The American, whether it's In Bruges or Blast Of Silence or Le Samourai or The Killer. I enjoyed all of those films more than The American, but this film (hell, this genre), is rarely one that you visit for the plot. Above all, The American is a mood piece, as tightly wound, effortlessly professional and quietly hollow as it's protagonist.

George Clooney plays Jack, a meticulously professional assassin who is sent to a small Italian town by his handler to hide out following a violent incident in Sweden. There, Jack befriends an elderly priest and begins a romance with a warm-hearted prostitute named Clara. He also begins building a customized rifle for a new client, a fellow assassin named Mathilde. As Jack attempts to reexamine his old life, his new one is threatened by retaliation for the incident in Sweden as well as new threats from unexpected sources.

See? Familiar, isn't it? Trite, even? Absolutely. However, the worthiness of The American lies not in its plotting or its scripting or even its acting, but the direction. Corbijn shows his European roots (he directed the 2006 Best Foreign Film winner, The Lives Of Others) by crafting a methodical, icy thriller in which the glacial pace is made all the more agonizing by the blink-and-you'll-miss-it bursts of violence that punctuate the film. The film is almost two hours, but I wouldn't be surprised if the script was about 50 pages. The dialogue is direct and to the point and Corbijn isn't afraid to include natural pauses that last for so long, they almost become unnatural. Despite it's realism, the movie becomes almost dream-like by the end, as you get more and more entrenched in Clooney's headspace.

Speaking of which. For a guy who's so handsome and charming, Clooney has a surprising amount of range. You've got suave, smarmy Clooney (the Ocean's movies, Out Of Sight), goofy Clooney (his work with the Coen Brothers) and serious, grim Clooney (Syriana, Michael Clayton). He plays all of these types pretty well, and in The American he takes his serious, grim performance to it's extreme. It's a deceptively tough role to pull off too. The stoic badass seems pretty basic, but Jack is given very little dialogue to work with and is shown to be particularly heinous at the beginning of the film (in a sad, brutal scene that is stunning just by virtue of it's nonchalance). Clooney still manages to create an evolution for the character though, and by the end of the film I was really pulling for him.

The rest of the cast is pretty solid as well. LOST fans will recognize Mathilde (who's name, I think is a reference to The Professional) as the woman Sayid encounters in his flashforward and the woman playing the prostitute also managed to do a lot with a pretty thankless role. I wasn't really sold on the priest character, mostly because he seemed to exist only as an excuse for Jack to cryptically wax philosophical about his job.

All in all, I'd recommend this movie, just don't go into it expecting an action move's totally not. Definitely more of a mood piece. Or if you just like seeing George Clooney looking pensive and sad.

UP NEXT: A way less pretentious review. Mystery Team! Also, Game Of Thrones starts in less than a month! Get psyched!