How to train your expectations for the concluding chapter in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise: step one, lower them. I was dispirited to discover what a disappointing final chapter The Hidden World comes across, especially considering the previous movies, including the 2014 sequel, are good to great. At its core it’s always been a tale of prejudice and family, dressing up a simple boy-and-his-dog story with fantasy elements. It also presents a world with danger and cost; even the fist film ended with the main character, Hiccup, losing a freaking foot. He loses his father in the second film. It’s a series that has grown naturally with heart, imagination, and a real sense of stakes. This is why I’m sad to report that the third film feels like a different creative team made it. The villain is a repeat of the second film, a dragon hunter with little to be memorable over. The plot is very redundant, stuck in an endless loop of capture, escape, capture, escape, etc. The addition of the new lady dragon is a perfunctory means to drive a wedge between Hiccup and toothless, his dragon. The lady dragon has no personality and needs rescuing too often. Her inclusion relates to a rather regressive emphasis on the need for coupling and marriage. The titular Hidden World amounts to a grand total of five minutes of screen time. The action starts off well involving the various colorful side characters but misses out on that sense of danger that defined the other movies. It feels goofy and safe and listless. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a sizeable disappointment and coasts on the emotional investment of the first two movies. You’ll feel something by the end, sure, but it’s because of the hard work of others and not this movie.
Nate’s Grade: C
It’s hard for me to discuss Kick-Ass 2 without sounding like a hypocrite. I enjoyed the first film’s visceral thrills, style, and satire of superhero tropes. The sequel gives me more of the same except not nearly as well polished, and in typical sequel mentality, it goes bigger, expanding the world and the height of the sick puppy violence. Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace-Moritz) are trying to live ordinary lives but keep feeling the need to don their suits and fight crime. Kick-Ass joins a ragtag team of other costumed vigilantes to battle a super villain team, lead by the former Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). For long stretches, the movie seems like an unwanted Heathers knockoff as Hit Girl attempts to fit in at high school. She has some particularly nasty vengeance against a popular bully, and if there is a line, it may have been crossed here. I don’t know what it says about me, but I guess I’m fine with a pint-sized kid slicing up bad guys and cursing like a sailor, but making a woman simultaneously vomit and defecate herself, watching both projectile streams spray out her ends, is too much for me. This is a darker, cruel, and mean-spirited feel with the material, and writer/director Jeff Wadlow fails to compensate for the lack of creativity this go-round (I miss you Matthew Vaughn). The humor is still lively, but the plot is predictable at every step, the characters behave in ways that don’t make sense, and the action sequences are poorly filmed, leading to an anticlimactic ending that simply peters out. Kick-Ass 2 won’t be knocking anyone out.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Based on Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s popular eight-issue comic, Kick-Ass takes the world of superheroes and makes it one step closer to reality. Granted, it’s still a heightened reality with flexible rules erratically administered, but it’s almost recognizable. Nobody in Hollywood wanted to touch this movie, so it was produced entirely outside the studio system. That hesitation may be because Kick-Ass begins as a goofy teen comedy and morphs into a bloody action caper with off-the-wall violence. But it’s also preposterously entertaining.
Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is just a typical kid who reads comics and wonders what else could be out there for him. He’s pretty much a nobody at school who routinely gets beat up. His life’s biggest tragedy is the loss of his mother, but she was not taken by some dastardly villain but by an aneurysm. Dave questions why nobody ever tried to be a real super hero. Tired of being a nonentity, Dave orders a wet suit and fashions a costume for a superhero alter ego, Kick-Ass. His first few encounters don’t go so well, landing Dave in the hospital, but in short time his exploits become a YouTube sensation. His MySpace page becomes full of admirers all seeking super hero help. He inspires others to don cape and cowl, like Damon “Big Daddy” Macready (Nicolas Cage) and his daughter, Mindy “Hit Girl” Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz). But they have their own reasons for cleaning up the streets. Big Daddy worked as a cop but was wrongly imprisoned when he went against mob kingpin Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). Damon has been plotting his vengeance and training Mindy to be an efficient killing machine. Unfortunately, their mob hits are being blamed on the hapless Kick-Ass. Frank D’Amico enlists his wannabe gangster son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), to pose as a superhero and lure Kick-Ass out into the open. It’s like The Departed but with more eyeliner.
Kick-Ass is a fairly subversive work, notably in the relationship between Hit Girl and Big Daddy. He has been training her (or brainwashing) to become a tool of vengeance, but he’s also making sure that his little girl will be tough enough to handle the evil the world may throw at her. A father/daughter outing includes dad firing live ammunition into his daughter’s bulletproof wearing chest. He’s doing this so that she won’t be afraid when, not if, she gets shot. She will know what it feels like. He then promises that they’ll go out for ice cream later. This demented sense of parenting, as presented, actually becomes strangely endearing. They become the heart of the movie, and I was surprised that during some major scenes how emotionally involved I was. We have a beguiling sense of protection for Hit Girl, much like her father who even in moments of great agony screams helpful tactical suggestions to his little girl (to answer any concerns, Moretz and the character are not sexualized even with a Catholic schoolgirl outfit). Unlike Kick-Ass, they have something very concrete to fight for, which is why we feel for them and hope for their success.
The tone of this movie, as you might be able to tell, is wildly uneven. Kick-Ass exists in a reality closer to our own, and Hit Girl and Big Daddy exist in a different fantastic reality where they can perform Matrix style maneuvers at a moment’s notice. But I actually believe that these two different tones and approaches compliment one another. Kick-Ass is a realistic portrayal of what would happen if somebody with no training and nothing but complete naivety would don a costume to fight crime for the greater good. In Kick-Ass’s first confrontation with the criminal element ends with him getting stabbed. His superhero wish fulfillment is brought back to a stinging reality thanks to that blade in his side reminding him that violence is real and painful. His first successful encounter with criminals is not because suddenly he has developed super martial arts skills or any sort of power, it’s simply because he has a stronger will power to continue fighting, even as he staggers back and forth likely to pass out from exhaustion. He wins through sheer will power and little else. He’s got heart but not the ability, thus we watch him receive many pummelings throughout the film. And throughout the movie, Kick-Ass keeps to this edict. He doesn’t succeed through any sort of cunning; his only “special ability” is his above-average tolerance for pain. On the flip side, Hit Girl is the ultra stylized fantasy version of a superhero that we’re more familiar with. She has an amazing talent for death and deception, and even her back story feels ripped from the comic pages — raised to avenge the death of her mother by the hands of gangsters. She is much more in line with our anticipated pop culture sensibility of what makes a super hero. So she and Big Daddy exist as the contrast, an exaggeration that heightens the vast difference between the fantasy super hero and the harsh reality of the ordinary (Dave). It’s a satire that indulges in its targets. While the movie toggles back and forth between the two tones, I never felt chaffed by the alternating styles.
And while we’re on the subject, while the film may be called Kick-Ass but he’s the least interesting aspect of it, perhaps because he is a mirror to the audience. He’s weak, wimpy, and is delusional as far as where his lack of abilities can take him. Which sets the stage for the film to be completely stolen by Hit Girl, played to foul-mouthed, steely perfection by breakout star Moretz. She is a one-woman wrecking crew and dispatches bad guys with stylish, wall-flipping ease. The incongruity of watching an 11-year-old child turn into a killing machine both serves as commentary on the preposterous nature of the comic book world, and it also makes for some seriously wicked fun. Who wouldn’t enjoy a pint-sized little crime fighter with a profane vocabulary? Parental activist groups, I suppose, who have complained about the movie’s portrayal of young Moretz, going so far as to argue that any child should not be made to say the off-color language that she does in Kick-Ass (have they listened to school yards this century?). But here’s the point: it’s supposed to be shocking exactly because she’s a child and that battery of behavior is not expected. She lures opponents into a false sense of security because, after all, she’s “just a little kid.” But Hit Girl is anything but. She’s one tough chick and Moretz gives a performance full of swagger. Film fans, get ready for her lead role in the Let the Right One In remake this fall. It should prove to be another launching pad for Moretz.
Director Matthew Vaughn started as a producer for Guy Ritchie’s films, but with every new film under his belt it looks like Ritchie might become an asterisk for the mighty career of Vaughn. After the tense gangster thriller Layer Cake, the whimsical fantasy Stardust, it seems like Vaughn is getting to be a better director whereas Ritchie appears to be getting worse from film to film. But I am here to praise Vaughn and not bury Ritchie. The movie has splashy visuals and some grand action, especially during an all-out assault on D’Amico’s lair as finale. Pretty much like Hot Fuzz, in the last act the movie degenerates into what it was parodying earlier. But by this time I’m already hooked. Let the fireworks commence and I’ll keep munching my popcorn. It’s a rousing, action-packed finish that manages to acknowledge the irreverent ludicrousness of the whole film while still being, well, kick-ass. Vaughn makes excellent use of music, nicely pairing muscular pieces of epic instrumental rock like “In the House — In A Heartbeat” by John Murphy from 28 Days Later. There are some smart additions like having Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” play at a fiery moment of anger, and a kitschy kid song playing during our first introduction to Hit Girl, magnifying the absurdity.
Vaughn also coaxes a good performance from Cage, meaning the actor has strung two good performances in a row (please see Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans). Cage has an eerie sense of determination but he plays his character in an “aw, shucks” Mr. Rogers style, even borrowing the speech patterns of Adam West when he dons his costume.
The movie does have some issues. It’s stuffed with too many subplots that go into more detail than they have to. The gangster goons have way too much screen time and are, at best, bad caricatures. The subplot with Dave’s love interest, cute girl Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), thinking Dave is gay goes on for too long just to offer some third-rate Three’s Company misunderstanding gags. The plot is also completely self-referential without stooping to explanation. As stated earlier, the tonality shifts will not play out the same for everyone, and the plot pretty much switches protagonists halfway through, becoming the Hit Girl show. Then again some might argue that the film would be better off without Kick-Ass.
Kick-Ass plays like a juvenile romp, nothing to be taken seriously. This is not The Dark Knight by any account. I was not feeling the same sense of moral unease that I felt during the depraved, consequences-free killing-as-personal-self-actualization film Wanted, also based on a Millar comic book series. Kick-Ass is never really mean-spirited or cruel or casual with human life, despite the central themes of vigilantism and vengeance. In fact, the movie posits that more people need to make a difference and stand up to injustice, granted he movie ignores the justice system in lieu of fisticuffs. The movie doesn’t deconstruct the world of superheroes like Watchmen, but at the same time it holds it all up for ridicule, saying, “Isn’t this all ridiculous?” and offering escapist thrills. Kick-Ass is a visceral, absurd satire of the realm of superheroes that also manages to mine that same realm for polished genre thrills. Vaughn keeps the movie from feeling disjointed, even as it swaps tones from comic to dramatic, from (moderately) realistic to geek fantasy wish fulfillment. It won’t be for everybody, but consider me apart of the throng that cheered when an 11-year-old managed to make a guy shoot himself in the head with his own gun. There’s probably something wrong with me.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Is there an actor alive more charming than Paul Rudd? The always-affable actor has a terrific sarcastic yet lovable presence that never dips into being glib. Role Models is a great showcase for his sly comedic talents. The plot of irresponsible adults (Rudd, Sean William Scott) learning to be responsible by being big brothers to problem kids (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bobb’e J. Thompson) is mostly conventional, but it’s the character camaraderie that makes the movie special. Watching the cast interact is a great pleasure, and they constantly add sustained laughs that seem organic to the plot and the characters. I found myself laughing out loud steadily, and although the ending is a bit formulaic I was amused that film didn’t break character once. It goes for gusto when it comes to embracing the geekery and cheesiness of a climactic medieval battle. There are witty running gags, rewarding payoffs, and the film even packs some heart, though it never gets sentimental. Combine a wicked comedic turn by the daffy Jane Lynch and some added Elizabeth Banks sparkle, and it all adds up into what might be the most satisfying mainstream comedy in a non-Judd Apatow-directed year.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Seth Rogen makes me feel like a slacker. I’m two months older than him, but already he’s broken out as a comic actor on great-but-cancelled shows like Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, and now he has risen to headlining star thanks to the runaway success of Knocked Up. Now here comes Superbad, a comedy he’s co-written with his friend Evan Goldberg, and I haven’t even gotten one movie off the ground or, for that matter, a starring role in any TV series, canceled or on the air. Oh well. At least Rogen’s consistent attachment to quality projects makes me a happy, if marginally envious, moviegoer.
Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are high school seniors looking to score with the ladies. Their nerdy friend Fogell (Chistopher Mintz-Plasse) has a scheme to get himself a fake ID, and the trio seizes upon this opportunity to become important figures in the teen circuit. With the promise of the fake ID, Jules (Emma Stone) has asked Seth to provide all the alcohol for a house part that she’s throwing that night. Not only that, Evan’s unrequited crush Becca (Martha MacIsaac) is going to be there. Seth and Evan figure that this party will be the best chance they have ever had to get lucky thanks to the miracles of what some would call, “liquid panty remover.” They just have to get the booze first. Fogell’s ID lists him as simply as McLovin. He is set back when his attempt to purchase alcohol is interrupted by a robber. He’s interviewed by Officers Michaels (Rogen) and Slater (Bill Hader) who take a shine to McLovin (“It sounds like a sexy hamburger”). The threesome spend a madcap night drinking, busting crime, sharing worldly wisdom, and running away at the faintest sign of other police officers.
First off, Superbad is raucously funny. It’s plenty profane and has several memorable moments, like Seth’s imaginative scenarios for buying alcohol and a dance that goes in a very unexpected direction. The humor is timeless and built around the nervous interaction between the sexes; there are very few jokes that reference pop culture or dependent on a specific context. I imagine what makes Superbad hilarious will still make it hilarious in 20 years to a new audience that can relate to the same trials and tribulations of teen life, though perhaps at that point we will be replaced by robots.
What separates Superbad from other offensive sex comedies is that it’s really a story about male friendship. I don’t mean in the tacky, Hollywood vein of working together for a common goal, which is commonly to lose one’s virginity. Superbad is another entry into the Judd Apatow (40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up) school of comedy that professes that a comedy should be character-based and that those characters should be painfully human. This is no mere genre movie. Underneath all the boobs and booze discussion is the pain and worry of a long-standing friendship being able to survive. Seth and Evan have been close friends all of their lives, but many good friends have grown apart in time thanks to their lives moving in different places. There’s unspoken tension between the two of them and Seth is concerned he’s about to be abandoned by the person that means the most to him. Many films touch upon the indelible companionship between men but few can accurately articulate the authentic love that can foster bonds of friendship. Superbad explores the exploits of real friendship, and while it’s chock full of funny the film also has its fair share of moderately touching moments. You really do care about the characters and want them to triumph. Fogell’s ascension to becoming a confidant, cool lady’s man is one of the summer’s true pleasures. Apatow’s fingerprints are all over this, and that is a glorious thing.
But this isn’t some phony Porky’s-style high school sex comedy with male fantasy set pieces and lots of dunderheaded beauties prone to bouts of frequent nakedness. Superbad is a relatively realistic portrayal of high school life in the world of movies. This isn’t a school ordered by cliques of entrenched stereotypes like the jocks, the Goths, etc. In fact, I don’t think Superbad makes any social distinction between the students.
Superbad is a celebration of the glories and anxieties of the male members’ member. Even for a teen sex comedy, the film is very phallus-centric, complete with a hilarious anecdote about a “treasure chest of dick drawings.” It seems Seth, at a young age, was stricken with the unique compulsion to draw a phalanx of penises. The anecdote is quite unexpected and funny and underscores how often the penis prevails in the minds of young men. The boys discuss at length the life and times of the penis, especially how women can compliment this. The constant dick-chat may get old after a while for most of the female audience in attendance (a.k.a. those without), and I can’t exactly blame them, but Superbad does convey, in a convincing manner, how much teenagers think about sex (“You know how many foods are shaped like dicks? The best kind”). Some have argued that there’s an undercurrent of misogyny with Superbad, but I feel like those detractors are missing the deeper point. These guys are totally terrified of women and go through one wild night just to avoid actually confessing their feelings to the objects of their affection. These guys don’t hate women, they’re just frightened and utterly bewildered by them, and so they rely on what pop culture and their peers have taught them is the way to a woman’s heart: booze.
The movie is taken to an extra level of excellence thanks primarily to the outstanding comedic performances by its cast. Cera was a star of brilliant understatement on TV’s Arrested Development, and when it comes to portraying awkwardness, Cera is king. The gangly teen is a textbook example on high school awkwardness; he feels uncomfortable in his own skin. He seems antsy to leave most scenes. His self-effacing smile, wide-eyed gawk, and nattering stutter are spot-on signals of clumsy, confused, and embarrassed teen life. Cera is a master with impeccably punctuated line deliveries. The kid could make any line funny by flawlessly placing a pause in the right place. Arrested Development was a great showcase for Cera’s comedic chops, and now Superbad is a juicy platform for the funniest straight man on the planet (and he’s only 18 years old).
Hill has been a supporting player in previous Apatow productions, but this is his first major role. Hill is the loud, boorish, vulgar, and more outlandish half of the duo. When he gets worked into a frothy rage you can practically feel his indignant teen spittle. What makes Hill special is that, in an instant, he can go from foul-mouthed cretin to a vulnerable buffoon. In the end, when the police bust a party, Seth runs on instinct and his instinct is to save his friend. It’s the versatility of Hill that allows Superbad to channel the sweet, gooey center behind all the sex-obsessed hijinks.
Not all the different elements of Superbad seem to fit together. The cops subplot is played very broad and relies on a lot of physical comedy; it feels at odds with the genuine teen comedy that is the heart and soul of the movie. The subplot is indeed full of laughs and it turns McLovin into a legendary teen character, but it feels like a separate movie, albeit an interesting one. For a male-dominated comedy, the female roles are pretty sparse but even those take heed not to slip into empty stereotypes. Becca and Jules are portrayed as sensible and approachable.
In short, Superbad is super good, and it’s thanks to relatable characters, a sweet sensibility, plenty of raunch, and some excellent performances. Apatow has opened the 2007 summer with a winner and now he closes it with another one.
Nate’s Grade: B+