Monday, 26 April 2010

Kick-Ass, X2 and an unheralded screwball masterpiece - Reviews #32

CINEMA: Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010) is an original, entertaining fusion of teen comedy and superhero movie that stops firing on all cylinders when its guns start blazing. Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is an ordinary American teenager who decides to become a superhero. He has no powers, aside from “being invisible to girls”, but he does have a natty green costume, ordered online. After a spot of posing and some light training, the self-proclaimed Kick-Ass goes into action. Seeing two hoods trying to break into a car, he tackles them - and departs in an ambulance. Eventually, though, through a combination of resilience and dumb luck, our hero does attain local celebrity, along with the unwanted attentions of gangland kingpin Mark Strong, who thinks him responsible for a series of vigilante killings carried out by wronged ex-cop Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his foul-mouthed daughter Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz, who is terrific). Meanwhile, Strong's neglected son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) decides he wants to get involved, and reinvents himself as the bequiffed Red Mist.

The film starts in an appealingly whimsical vein, its superbly-observed passages about teen life punctuated with blasts of graphic, realistic violence: one minute Lizewski is wrestling with love interest’s Lyndsy Fonseca mistaken belief that he’s gay, the next he’s wrestling three armed men in the gutter. There’s a superb moment in which Kick-Ass decides to leap between tall buildings, then thinks better of it, such subversion of comic book lore jostling for space with simpler pleasures, like two geeky teen superheroes dancing goofily to Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy as they cruise the New York streets. But these more engaging elements are ultimately overtaken by cartoonish mayhem in a less imaginative, more gratuitous second half that - while fine in itself - largely abandons the excellent premise in favour of stylised gore. It’s still a very worthwhile film, with well-drawn characters, a glorious sense of the unexpected and a dozen huge laughs. (3)


X2 (Bryan Singer, 2003) is a stunning sequel to X-Men that ups the ante in terms of action, mystery and character drama. The premise is perfectly formed, as the heroes from the first film are forced to enter an uneasy alliance with former adversary Ian McKellen and his amorphous henchwoman (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). The danger this time is despotic military man Brian Cox, who’s harbouring at least two dark secrets as he plots the demise of the mutant race. All the key cast members return, while Alan Cumming is an excellent addition to the cast as Kurt Wagner, improbably channelling Nosferatu to create a lovely, sympathetic character. Utilising biblical reference and the actor’s effective underplaying, the film cleverly flips our initial impression of Wagner, introduced as a knife-wielding, teleporting psychopath in a bravura opening sequence.

This is an extremely well-plotted, satisfying action film that (presumably inadvertently) ends up borrowing the clever double-ending of Confessions of Boston Blackie (see #89), which also saw its heroes defeat the bad guys, only to face near-certain suffocation. Singer seamlessly balances the disparate story elements, which again mix story threads about friendship, love and loyalty with broad satire and disarmingly funny, well-integrated comic asides. Racism gets another battering here, while mutancy is also equated with homosexuality in a spoof of ‘coming out’ clichés that’s played solely for laughs. “Have you tried not being a mutant?” asks Ice Man’s mother, before adding: “This is all my fault.” Happily, Pyro is on hand to reassure her: “Actually, they discovered that males are the ones who carry the mutant gene and pass it on, so-” he points at Ice Man’s dad, “it’s his fault.” The film's heart is illustrated by the genuinely touching chat between Wolverine and Ice Man, which sees the latter use his powers to cool his friend's drink. X2 is littered with such likeable, knowing touches.

There are shortcomings, with a slight nastiness permeating several scenes and coming to a head in a sequence invoking a gruesome lobotomy. It’s also unnecessary for Singer to hit us over the head with flashbacks concerning Wolverine’s past, when that shot of the three scratch marks etched into a column in a grim cellar lab made the point so subtly and so well, while a lack of clarity about the dam site in the final set piece makes the ending a touch confusing. But this is a mightily impressive, immensely enjoyable blockbuster, with strong action sequences, a firm grasp of its source novels’ mythology and strong performances across the board. (4)


It's Love I'm After (Archie Mayo, 1937) is just a delight, an incredibly well-written screwball comedy that keeps the expertly-crafted witticisms flying thick and fast. Given the wrong material or the wrong direction, Leslie Howard could appear unbearably smug, but here he gets the role of a lifetime - and makes the most of it. He's a conceited ham, with two eyes for the ladies, who spends most of his time off-stage (and some of it on) warring with thespian girlfriend Bette Davis. Resolving one day to turn over not just a new leaf, but a whole book of them, he's forced to play the last word in unthinking bounders to disillusion the fiancee (Olivia de Havilland) of an old friend's son. It's a great set up: a reformed character having to appear even more reprehensible than before in order to do the decent thing, and it's developed in consistently surprising, imaginative ways.

And then there's the cast. Howard is flawless as the conceited, confused, compromised, increasingly desperate cad - who has more than a little of John Barrymore about him - with Davis giving her best comedic performance as his long-suffering lover, who packs an explosive temper. De Havilland is perfectly cast, both cloying and appealing as the starstruck girl who'll excuse anything her rambunctious idol does, while Eric Blore excels as Howard's valet and co-conspirator. Blore, one of the great supporting comics, is great in everything, but I've never seen him as funny as here. Displaying his customary lack of vanity and willingness to do anything for a laugh, he spends most of one scene making ridiculous bird noises and another displacing his silly toupee. Blore also gets the best line of the film, responding to Bonnie Granville's cry of "I know something you don't know" with one of the funniest, most petulant one-liners I've ever heard.

Drawing on Shakespeare to gets both its pathos and its laughs, in the vein of To Be or Not to Be and Withnail & I, It's Love I'm After is streets ahead of most other golden era comedies: intelligent, romantic and uproariously funny, eliciting the particular buzz that comes with watching something that's clearly very special. (4)

Note: This film is now available on Region 1 DVD, on demand from the Warner Bros Archive.


Daredevil (Mark Steven Johnson, 2003) - Speaking of Shakespeare, there’s something of Hamlet about Daredevil, the hero of Mark Steven Johnson’s grim, adult comic book tragedy on the subject of revenge. Ben Affleck is Matt Murdock, a lawyer by day, but a catsuited crimefighter by night. In between, he recharges his batteries by gobbling down prescription pills and sleeping in a coffin full of water at the back of a Catholic church. Whilst supposedly a protector of the public, Daredevil battles a burning desire for vengeance that threatens to consume him, as shadowy forces rob him of the only two people he loves.

The context is particularly interesting: in terms of the character’s background, his complexity and his moral ambiguity. Murdock, the son of a prizefighter, is blinded during a tough childhood in Hell’s Kitchen, but finds that his other senses acquire a superhuman sharpness. Exacting his own brand of justice, he comes into conflict with his priest and guardian (a character reminiscent of Pat O’Brien in Angels with Dirty Faces), who tells him: "A man without fear is a man without hope." But as the desperate Murdock tells a cowering child: “I’m not the bad guy.”

The bad guy is The Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan), ably assisted by flicky hitman (“flickman”, if you will) Bullseye (Colin Farrell), who’s like a satanic, Irish Oddjob. Hilariously, Farrell is introduced with a hip hop song boasting the central refrain: "Top o' the mornin' to ya/Top o' the mornin' to ya". Indeed, one of the film’s main failings is an overbearing song score stuffed with unmemorable tunes that are either unsuitable for the action or else offer blunt narration. Farrell’s superb, though, in his colourful characterisation, and there’s a cracking joke about the way he deals with security guards.

Johnson’s direction is quite good, repeatedly drawing on a neat “radar” gimmick, later half-inched by wise old Morgan Freeman in The Dark Knight, as Murdock constructs a picture of his surroundings via his supersensitive hearing. The scenes in which the hero “sees” via the rain are poorly realised, there’s too much CGI in the Affleck/Farrell showdown and the non-linear structure is quite confused, but there’s a great shot of Murdock on the rooftop before the final fight that recalls the classic image of coward Chester Morris keeping an eye out for the cops above his safehouse in the pictorially striking Alibi. The final fight itself, in the pouring rain, is also very good - recalling the main set piece in Jet Li’s passable Born to Defend – and the payoff is admirable and brave.

Affleck is fairly good in a well-written role, supported by Jon Favreau - offering strong comic relief and emotional backbone as Murdock’s law firm partner – and Jennifer Garner, who’s a nice romantic lead. Her courtship dance with Affleck, a kung fu battle in a park, is daft but novel. I was surprised to learn that Daredevil is widely regarded as one of the weaker comic book adaptations of recent years, as it’s vastly superior to Spider-Man and more coherent and nuanced than the messy, if sporadically extraordinary Dark Knight. There’s also a funny bit in the funeral scene where it starts to rain and Affleck’s impeccably gelled hair begins to look like an umbrella. (3)


The following review contains one instance of fully-justified swearing.

Le mépris (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963) sounds intriguing, but staggers under the weight of its own pretensions. The plot, according to almost anyone you ask, is this: screenwriter Michel Piccoli is torn between an artistic director (Fritz Lang, good fun playing himself) and a commercially-minded producer (Jack Palance), his artistic problems coinciding with home life troubles. Really, though, this is a 90-minute lovers' quarrel, with a soupcon about art and compromise occasionally nudged into the narrative. If that sounds fun, then go ahead. The film is at its best in the first hour, with fine use of the central musical theme (later borrowed by Scorsese for Casino), some spectacular Cinemascope photography and snippets of fairly involving characterisation, but the final third is almost unbearably tedious, dominated by marital squabbling that becomes hopelessly mannered and repetitive. It's interesting to see Bardot as the director's muse, but while she's really rather good, she's scuppered by the infuriatingly shallow scripting. In the disc's accompanying documentary, Bardot et Godard, the narrator says: "All Godard's films are portraits of the modern woman: illogical, disarming, capricious, exasperating, regal ... mysterious." Try: "All Godard's films are artificial, unilluminating portraits of the two women he seems to have met: illogical, capricious, naked and really fucking annoying."

Likewise, though Lang has some interesting - if rigidly Godardian - things to say about man's relationship with God and with film, the movie too often lapses into self-indulgent rubbish. Godard is clearly delighted at the points he's making, but they tend to be either obvious or confused. The dearth of insight is typified by including the character of an interpreter, who takes up about a fifth of the running time saying something someone else has just said, making a pretty crude point about the incompatibility of the archetypes in a very long-winded, tiresome manner. While the key cinematic homage in Godard's first film, À bout de souffle, was stylised and clever ("Ah, Bogie!"), here the namechecking of Rio Bravo and Bigger Than Life comes across as pointless and laboured. Lang's contention that Cinemascope is "good for snakes and coffins" rather than people is a nice moment, while the unsurprising revelation that he prefers his 1931 film M to the bloody dreadful Rancho Notorious has a clear implication: one is a clear; artistic statement, the other Hollywood studio product. But I'd still rather watch Lang's Fury, or The Big Heat, than Le mépris, which is self-satisfied, overly familiar and ultimately dull. (2)


It Happens Every Thursday (Joseph Pevney, 1953) – Loretta Young, the toothy, huge-eyed leading lady, was known in Hollywood as “Attila the Nun”, due to her evangelical Catholic faith (which extended to introducing a swear jar on set, something I’ll have to implement at work) and iron will. She may have been voted the Hollywood Women’s Press Club’s most cooperative actress of 1950 (Bob Mitchum scooped their least cooperative actor gong), but then she always was a sassy self-publicist. Still, despite all that, and the bad press she’s had in recent years for the whole Judy Lewis affair, she remains an attractive performer: ethereal and appealing in those early years, then a fitting screen mother as her fascinating looks ebbed away.

It Happens Every Thursday was her final film and it’s a charming piece of Americana: something like the gentle cousin of Fuller’s Park Row, with a showy role for Young as the archetypal supportive wife – stoic, resourceful and loyal. John Forsythe is a New York newspaperman who buys his own small-town ‘paper – the Eden Chronicle – and finds it’s going to need a bit of work. The relationship between Forsythe and screen wife Young is smartly written and delightfully played, and the difficulties they face are nicely realised. The familiar baddie in such movies, a hateful, sniping little gossip gleefully ruining lives, is usually a harridan, but here you get a fey wannabe adulterer, played by Willard Wateman. The rest of the supporting cast is pretty much terrific, featuring the greatest character comic of them all, Frank McHugh, alongside Preston Sturges regular Jimmy Conlin and round-faced Edgar Buchanan, who’s excellent in a surprisingly deep role. Best of all is the magnificent Gladys George (also appearing on the big screen for the final time), the most sympathetic brothel owner in ‘50s cinema. This blend of Johnny Come Lately and Mr Blandings could have seemed stale, but thanks to good scripting, pleasant plotting and lovely acting, it turns out just great. (3.5)

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