by Steve Habrat
Kick-Ass was one of the best films of 2010 and nobody even realized it. In a year that was loaded with middle of the road releases, Kick-Ass stood out because it dared to be a little different and refused to conform to what a normal superhero film should be. It was a blast watching the little monster Hit-Girl curse like a sailor and rack up an impressive body count. It was an unexpected surprise to see Nicholas Cage TRYING again and actually giving a performance that wasn’t flat out laughable. In the wake of its release, Kick-Ass was caught in a flurry of controversy over the language and the violence that all came from children, some of the outrage being a little overblown. This is a movie, folks! Boasting a well-written and highly intelligent script based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., Kick-Ass is a scrappy black comedy that tips its hat to comic book fans all over while also holding up a mirror to our YouTube/social media crazed society. The film also doesn’t hesitate putting you through the emotional ringer.
Kick-Ass introduces us to ordinary teenager Dave Lizewski (Played by Aaron Johnson), who is just another comic book fan that likes to hang out with his buddies in the local comic shop and discuss fanboy topics. He voices his frustration over the fact that ordinary citizens refuse to intervene when a crime is being committed. In his spare time, Dave begins putting together a vicious alter ego called Kick-Ass. Armed with a modified bodysuit and a fancy MySpace page, he takes to the streets of New York City to confront neighborhood bullies who prey on the weak. While his first day on the job ends with a brutal stabbing and a hit-and-run that puts him in the hospital with permanent nerve damage, he begins training himself to be better at confronting small time crooks. After intervening in a gang attack, stunned bystanders record Dave’s heroic actions and he becomes an overnight celebrity. Dave soon catches the attention of the heavily armed and heavily trained father/daughter duo Big Daddy (Played by Nicholas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Played by Chloe Grace Moretz), both who act as masked vigilantes and aim their attacks at local mob boss Frank D’Amico (Played by Mark Strong). As the trio launches attacks on D’Amico, they find themselves approached by D’Amico’s son Chris (Played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who has taken on his own alter ego Red Mist and aims to break the group up before they can take his father down.
Maybe Kick-Ass worked its way into my heart because I absolutely love the way the film tips its hat to countless superheroes yet at the same time isn’t content with just celebrating comic books. Director Matthew Vaughn pays tribute to spaghetti westerns, Quentin Tarantino, and teen comedies, all which mix quite well if you ask me. The movie has a twisted love story at its heart, forcing Dave to play gay after his initial embarrassing encounter with two neighborhood thugs. He has the hots for Katie Deauxma (Played by Lyndsy Fonseca), who is oblivious to Dave’s feelings for her and just sees him as a friend. The fact that Kick-Ass deals with some extremely raw emotion is what really makes it so great. On the surface, Vaughn cooks up a vivid cartoon filled with vibrant colors and lots of blood thrown in for fun. Yet he never shies away from giving the film lots and lots of heart. We really feel for the grieving Big Daddy and Hit-Girl and there is a longing to be just one of the guys in Chris D’Amico’s heart. We can really stand behind Dave’s noble quest to protect those who can’t protect themselves, even if he does get his ass handed to him every time he tries. The real heart wrenching moment comes near the end of the film, when our heroes begin to understand the loss that they will face in their quest to clean up the streets of New York.
While the film follows Johnson’s Dave, the real stars here are Cage and Moretz. They sneak in and steal the entire film away from Johnson. Cage is wonderful as a grieving father who has to put on a happy face for his daughter. When he is suited up as Big Daddy, who looks like Batman on a budget, he speaks and moves very robotically and it is downright hilarious. There are moments where he is asked to get real savage and he is most certainly game to do so. He gets a fight scene in the middle of the film that is both awesomely hardcore and horrifying at the same time. Moretz is a little hellion as profanity spewing Hit-Girl, a character that is almost a little too awesome for words. She rips through a room of bad guys with such ferocity that would make muscle man heroes blush. It helps that Moretz, who was very young when this film was released, has impeccable comedic timing and has such a way with stinging one-liners. Thankfully, the novelty that this is all coming from a little girl never once wears off. Some may call the performance irresponsible but I say it is absolutely brilliant and a breath of fresh air.
While much of Kick-Ass may belong to Cage and Moretz, Johnson and Mintz-Plasse do their absolute best not to be completely forgotten by the audience. Johnson does soft-spoken nerd very well and he is a pro at playing ordinary. He quickly realizes that he has gotten in over his head, especially when he begins mingling with Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. I was thrilled to see the fumbling and bumbling Dave finally get his moment to be a hero by the final showdown. Mintz-Plasse shies away from playing lovable dweeb and instead plays an outsider just looking for a friend. It is sad to see him slip over into his father’s shadowy operations. I was glad that Vaughn never relied on him solely for laughs and gave him some room to show audiences he is capable of more than just smartass wisecracks. Mark Strong as Frank D’Amico is handed a fairly cliché gangster role but he leaps into the part with so much enthusiasm, he morphs the character into a snarling cartoon, making him an unforgettable villain.
What is ultimately the best aspect of Kick-Ass is the fact that these characters, while operating in a cartoon world, are flesh-and-blood individuals that are capable of getting hurt and bad. One character gets hurt when jumping off of a dumpster while Kick-Ass himself hesitates from jumping from one building to another, his stomach dropping when he takes a gander over the ledge. The film really gets interesting when one of the major characters is killed off halfway through the movie and the characters are overwhelmed with grief. Kick-Ass reflects on the idea that in this day and age, anyone can make a difference as long as you are armed with a camera and a social media account. You can be as ordinary as could be but with a little bit of drive and motivation, you can do anything you want. It may not always be easy and we are going to fall down, but we have to be willing to get back up and try again. Sound juvenile and incredibly familiar? It is but in a time when trying just isn’t cool anymore, it is a message that needs to be repeated. Overall, Kick-Ass is an of-the-moment adrenaline rush that plays by its own rules, making it one unpredictable puppy.
Kick-Ass is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After the debacle that was 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, things could only look up for auteur Tim Burton. My initial reaction was not blame at Burton himself but rather was aimed at Disney, who I was certain was tinkering with Burton’s vision. Now we have a new Burton and Johnny Depp mash-up with a remake of the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows, which is a small step up from Alice in Wonderland but not by much. Dark Shadows is half a good movie and half an even bigger disaster than Alice in Wonderland was. Depp has said in interviews that Dark Shadows is meant to do away with “vampires that look like underwear models”, which is an obvious jab at the perplexingly popular Twilight saga. While Dark Shadows does restore a smidgeon of honor to the vampire genre, Burton shoots his own film in the foot by tacking on an asinine climax that is slathered in CGI nonsense and a droll final showdown that is a stiff as they come. The ending of Dark Shadows left me wondering if Burton is indeed loosing some of his creative juice after all and Disney wasn’t fully to blame for the botched Alice in Wonderland.
Dark Shadows begins in 1782, with Joshua and Naomi Collins leaving Liverpool, England to begin a new life in North America. They bring with them their young son Barnabas, who grows up to be a wealthy playboy and master of Collinwood Manor, the Collins’ gothic seaside dwelling. Barnabas (Played by Johnny Depp) ends up breaking the heart of a witch named Angelique Bouchard (Played by Eva Green), who in turn puts a curse on the Collins to get revenge on Barnabas. After the horrific death of his parents and the love of his life leaping to her death, Barnabas finds himself cursed as a vampire and buried alive in a shallow grave by the fearful citizens of Collinsport, Maine. After being confined for 196 years, a construction crew accidentally frees Barnabas into the alien world of 1972. Confused by the new world around him, Barnabas returns to Collinwood Manor to find the once glorious estate in ruin. Barnabas is quickly introduced to family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Played by Michelle Pfeiffer) and the rest of his dysfunctional descendants. Horrified but the state of the family, Barnabas sets out to restore honor to his family but finds himself pitted once again against the evil Angelique, who is determined to make his undead life even more of a living hell than it already is.
The first half of Dark Shadows is a hilarious fish-out-of-water tale about Barnabas trying so desperately to adjust to life in 1972. He tiptoes about Collinsport with weary caution, baffled by McDonalds, lava lamps, the board game Operation, and television (Trust me, there is tons more that intrigues Barnabas). Elizabeth’s rebellious teenage daughter Carolyn (Played by Chloe Grace Mortez) is appalled by Barnabas, especially when he mistakes her for a prostitute during the first meeting. Set to classic tunes from the Nixon era, Dark Shadows really finds its funky groove early on even if that groove is made up of dry humor. Things really get moving when Barnabas revives the family business, attempts to connect with his relatives (a conversation about wooing women with Carolyn is the highlight moment), and is tortured by Angelique. Half way through, it seems as if Burton remembered that he is making a film that will be released during the summer movie season. He crams the second half of Dark Shadows with nonsensical explosions, CGI creatures, narrow rescues, and a fiery final confrontation. It’s like Burton began making an entirely different movie altogether.
In addition to the quirky first hour, Depp and his supporting cast manage to keep Dark Shadows afloat even when the project falls apart around them. Speaking in a rich British accent and painted up in pasty white make-up, Depp’s Barnabas is one of the politest bloodsuckers to inhabit the screen. He apologizes when he drains one of his poor victims of blood and stands for a lady when she approaches the dinner table. When the vampire violence is called for, Depp becomes vicious but he remains delicate and sensitive for a good majority of Dark Shadows. Near the end, Burton attempts to sell Barnabas as an action hero, a requirement that Depp seems uncomfortable with and it’s blatantly obvious. In addition to his awkward turn at the end, Burton edges Depp out of the way almost completely to unleash multiple twists and reveals for the rest of the cast members. Yet overall, the entire film and the supporting cast really perk up when Depp enters the screen. His performance is silky smooth and his comedic timing is impeccable.
Burton fills the supporting roles of Dark Shadows with the usual suspects as well as several new faces. Burton’s squeeze Helena Bonham Carter shows up as orange haired Dr. Julia Hoffman, the family psychiatrist who is perpetually recovering from the night before and has an infatuation with staying young. Michelle Pfeiffer, who (funny enough) appears to not age, holds her own as the family matriarch Elizabeth. Pfeiffer has some razor sharp chemistry with Depp and I would have liked to have seen more. Christopher Lee has a brief cameo as a sailor who enjoys sipping beer in the local pub. As far as new faces go, the always-welcome Chloe Grace Mortez as Elizabeth’s daughter does rebellious teen a little too good and snags all the best moments with Depp. Eva Green smolders as the sexy Angelique, who seems on top of the world seducing and tormenting Barnabas. Bella Heathcothe as governess Victoria Winters checks in with a rather quiet and reserved performance. She isn’t given too much to do besides be wooed by Barnabas and interact with a CGI ghost. Jackie Earle Hayle as caretaker Willie Loomis, Jonny Lee Miller as Elizabeth’s irresponsible brother Roger, and Gulliver McGrath as Roger’s ghost-seeing son David all do a fine job but are given very little to do.
I wish that screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith had developed a better story that would have stretched through all 113 minutes of Dark Shadows. The film’s plot dries up halfway through, pauses for a musical intermission from Alice Cooper, and then continues to sputter by on fumes for the rest of its runtime. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Burton and the rest of his crew realized that they had a bunch of money left over so they decided to dump a bunch of unnecessary CGI into the hollow climax. Had Dark Shadows remained consistent, this could have been a serious return to form for the vampire genre, one that manages to be fun, sexy, thrilling, and, yes, creepy too, but Burton and Warner Brothers just couldn’t resist blowing a few things up to appeal to the summer movie crowd. At least Depp held it together and refused to allow Burton to drive a stake through his dignity.
If you have checked out my Best Films of 2011 post, you know that Martin Scorsese’s love letter to the history of cinema Hugo ranked as my number one favorite movie of 2011. This breathtaking film is visually stunning, magical, and downright magnetic for those who find themselves wrapped up in all things cinema. It also acts as a call for film preservation! The film cleaned up at the 84th Annual Academy Awards on Sunday night, picking up a slew of Oscars in most of the technical departments. I heavily recommend Hugo to everyone who visits Anti-Film School and I sincerely hope you go out today and pick up the Blu-ray! You will find yourself swept up in the magic of movies.
Click here to read my review of Hugo.
Click here to read my Best Films of 2011.
by Steve Habrat
I wonder what the film snobs who snarled at J.J. Abrams and Steve Spielberg’s wide-eyed tribute to the escapist cinema Super 8 are now thinking about Martin Scorsese’s turn at bat. Truth be told, Scorsese’s Hugo is quite possibly the best movie I have seen all year. With 3D that rivals Avatar’s, some of the finest acting from child stars I have seen since Super 8, an extraordinary performance from Sacha Baron Cohen, and a reserved respect for classic cinema, Hugo is a sumptuous revelation that will live on for years to come. In fact, I’d be so bold to say that if Scorsese retired and never made another picture, there is no finer way for him to go out than with this film. Hugo places Scorsese’s heart on his sleeve, which is quite rare when we go back over his resume (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Departed, Shutter Island). It’s rare you find a film of this caliber, one that manages to capture the director’s spirit and boy if Scorsese’s spirit isn’t incandescent with childlike wonder. And from a guy who has made so many films about tough guys, who’d have thought he was a gigantic softie?
Hugo breathes new life into this cookie cutter Oscar season, loaded with the usual fare (The Descendents, J. Edgar, My Week with Marilyn, Shame), and it is utterly refreshing. Set in Paris during the 1930s, orphaned Hugo Cabret (Played by the breathtaking Asa Butterfield) tends to the clocks behind the walls of a bustling train station. He steals food from the cafés that line the station, people watches from behind the towering clock faces, dodges the ever-watchful Station Inspector (Played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who has never been better) and flits about the winding steam rooms and hidden grinding gears. In his spare time, Hugo sneaks around the station stealing trinkets that will help him fix a mysterious automaton, which he was building with his father (Played by Jude Law) before his father was killed in a fire. He steals parts from a toyshop owned by the bitter George Méliès (Played by Ben Kingsley). One day he gets caught by Méliès and as punishment has his notebook containing the instructions on how to fix the automaton taken away. Méliès tells Hugo that he must work for him and earn the notebook back. While working for Méliès, Hugo meets Isabelle (Played by the always great Chloe Grace Moretz), a young girl who hangs around the toyshop. They strike up a friendship and she begins to help Hugo on his quest to finish the automaton and Hugo aids her in her quest for adventure.
While there isn’t a kink to be found in the storytelling, the performances are all wonderful, and the film hits every emotional mark it needs to, the film soars because of it’s jaw-dropping 3D. It’s on the level of Avatar and even surpassing it in some respects. What I believe good 3D should accomplish is making me feel like I inhabit the world that the characters do. This is what saved Avatar and coaxed back audiences to see it again. You felt like you were on Pandora with the characters, not like you were just peering through a large opening. We are invited in to the world that Hugo Cabret explores on a daily basis. The opening moments of the film pulled the rug out from under me and I felt like I was dashing along that twisting labyrinth of metal and steam. While watching Hugo, I felt like I had jumped into a time machine and sped off into history.
Speaking of history, Hugo gives a concise overview of the history of cinema, even if it is succinct. These are told in minor flashbacks that tickle the viewers eyes by flashing clips of old silent classics, stock footage of WWI, and techniques applied by Scorsese himself. The film contains numerous scenes in which the actors have little to no dialogue and let their performances evoke the spirits of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and more. At times I almost found myself wishing that Scorsese had filmed Hugo in black and white, just to give the audience the full effect. I guess the producers may have feared it would overshadow the recent release The Artist, which is also a testament to early cinematic works. As someone who has studied the history of the medium, I was enthralled with Scorsese animated trip through history all while constantly nudging my friends and gasping over the nods to old films. Scorsese appears to never feel obliged to tip his hat and it felt like this was coming from the deepest depths of his magic loving heart.
Magic is the core of Hugo, as Scorsese professes his undying love for it every step of the way. He couples magic with imagination and our willingness to dream. He firmly declares that film is our way of capturing our dreams and showing them to the world. This goes against what is taught at stuffy film schools where they say film should not be a form of escapism but rather make political, moral, and social proclamations. For those of us who grew up marveling at the medium, this shatters what we have built film up to be and I ask why they must defile what is sacred to us fans? It must be quite a blow to their egos, as film schools like the one I attended gushed over Scorsese and his gritty works. It turns out they were wrong about that little guy. He dares to dream with the rest of us.
Hugo boats some truly exquisite performances from its young child stars. Kingsley conveys anger, resentment, and redemption with grace. Sacha Baron Cohen is Oscar worthy as the strict Station Inspector who has confidence issues and a hopeless crush on a pretty and fair Lisette (Played by Emily Mortimer). Asa Butterfield’s Hugo shines the brightest of all and he nabs our empathy just as nonchalantly as he takes a pastry from a café. Chloe Grace Moretz is flawless as always, but then again she has been a talent to keep an eye on since she broke out with last years stellar Kick-Ass. Christopher Lee pops up as an observant and baritoned bookshop owner who finds himself puzzled over the independent Hugo. All of these performances compliment each other and the true marvel is the performances achieved without copious amounts of dialogue. It’s like they are from a different era.
Hugo gathers it’s momentum in the first few seconds of flashing across the screen and it never slows down. Everything just clicks in this picture. You’ll find yourself grinning over it if you’re a film fan and enamored with it even if you are just a casual viewer. Scorsese pleads with us not to contain our imagination and our passion for the things that we love. They should guide us through this twisting and complicated world and allow us to discover what our purpose is in this life. Thanks for reminding me to dream, Marty, and assuring me that it’s more than okay to do so. Oh, and thanks for Hugo, the best film of 2011.