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Mandy (2018)

Mandy is a gonzo, psychotropic mood piece that will infuriate some, test others, and delight a select audience that responds enthusiastically to atmospheric indulgences. Set in the 1980s, because of course it’s the 80s, a logger (Nicolas Cage) and his titluar girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) have a bad run-in with a small cult. Their leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), declares that the god of the universe told him he is entitled to everything, and he picks Mandy. Bad things transpire and Cage is left for dead. He sets off on a quest for vengeance against the cult and a fetish-clad biker gang they employ as muscle, and in the process he might be going insane.

So what kind of movie is Mandy? There really isn’t a plot here so much as an immersive experience of fever dream imagery with a loving yet detached nod to its cultural influences from the 1980s, heavy metal music videos, Heavy Metal magazines, heavy metal album covers (sensing a trend?). There is the bare bones of a plot here, a revenge formula, but it’s really more about the moments and the feelings that writer/director Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow) is trying to communicate through the screen. He’s another disciple of the Terrence Malick/Nicolas Winding Refn School of Filmmaking, ditching the story details for a visually immersive and hallucinatory sensory experience. The problem with these kinds of movies is that you either check into that wavelength or you don’t. I know that sounds like an oversimplification, as all movies either engage or disengage, but because the story and characters are so minimalist, the opportunities to click with the material rely entirely upon the moody atmosphere and creative execution.

Mandy is overwhelmingly a campy revenge thriller that celebrates the unique Cage-ness of Nicolas Cage’s more unhinged, bizarre performances. This is a movie that asks Cage to go the full Cage, and that can be a beautiful thing. There’s a knowing campiness to the whole exercise that doesn’t feel condescending. It’s not making fun of the onscreen antics so much as it is celebrating the artful absurdity. This is the kind of movie where there’s a chainsaw-on-chainsaw duel and it’s awesome. This is the kind of movie where every patch of woods has a blast of fog to make it feel like a dark fairy tale. It’s the kind of movie where the practical gore effects are stomach churning and memorable. It’s the kind of movie where Cage lights his cigarette from the fire of a decapitated head. It’s a movie where Cage goes on a journey where he transcends into the mythic. He is no mere mortal by the end; he is the mythic figure of vengeance. The man doesn’t just find his foes to foil; he has to first construct his own metallic scythe straight out of a fantasy adventure. Cage is fully aligned with the bizarre and eerie primal nature of the film. His crazed intensity is matched perfectly with the overwrought atmosphere and villains. There are moments where his bug-eyed stare or maniacal laughter will give you chills. He has one sequence that’s petty much non-stop screaming on a toilet as he tries to process shocking grief. It’s a performance that asks Cage to be unrestrained and tightly coiled at parts, relying more on physicality and intense looks than dialogue. For fans of the ironic and sublimely weird Nicolas Cage, Mandy should be a deranged delight to hoot and holler.

However, there’s really no entry point for a viewer if they do not celebrate the campy, gonzo, detached atmospherics of the film. Walking out of Mandy, I told my friends that it needed 20 percent more plot and 20 percent less movie. There’s no reason this movie needs to be over to hours long, especially with its threadbare plot. It takes far too long to get going, with the cult attacking Cage and his girlfriend at the one-hour mark. The second half has improved pacing but still takes its sweet time too. Cosmatos seems to favor a dreamy sense of pacing, so instead of, say, ten seconds of watching Cage’s pained reaction, we’ll get 30 seconds. The self-indulgence has a way of making the artful intent redundant. Did we need those extra 20 seconds to really feel the full artistry? Or, perhaps, could Cosmatos have used all the extra time saved from collectively trimming the excess moments and diversions to better develop the characters and story? The other problem with diverting the majority of the attention to atmospherics is that the eventual comeuppance of the cult lacks a full sense of satisfaction. If we don’t get to really know the cult members then we won’t feel the rush of catharsis when they are dispatched. I talked about this very topic with my review for Peppermint, another revenge thriller with inherent structural problems that mitigated audience payoffs. The revenge formula is a simple thing and engineered to deliver payoffs. Here are two September releases that fumble that formula, although Mandy places less importance upon it. Most of these cult members are given a look, at best, which makes them interchangeable and disposable. Jeremiah Sand is an intriguing, hilarious, pathetic creature, and so the final showdown proves satisfying and somewhat revelatory, as his ego-driven bluster transitions quickly to pleading and bargaining and abject fear. It’s a fitfully climactic moment but did we need two hours to get here? There’s a better 90-minute movie trapped inside here, subsumed and suffocated by Cosmatos’ love affair with his influences and indulgences.

This is also sadly the last score from composer Johann Johannsson, who passed away in February of this year. He was an eclectic creative voice whose musical abilities were diverse. He could create a thundering score that felt like an incoming army, like with Sicario, or a soaring melody that could lift your spirits, like his Oscar-winning score for Theory of Everything. With Mandy, Johannsson relies upon those 80s metal influences and produces a sonic landscape fitting for Cosmatos. The score is kept at a rumble that accentuates the nightmarish qualities of the visuals. To the end, Johannsson sought unconventional methods to give voice to his movies.

Mandy is a crazy, dreamy, moody movie heavy on brooding atmosphere and light on story and characters. If you can hop on its wavelength, Mandy will prove to be a gonzo good time. If you can’t, it’s going to be overly reverential to its cultural influences and laboriously long. I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m not a fan of most Refn movies because I feel like they fall into the trap of emphasizing pretty yet hollow imagery. The ideas don’t tend to go as deep as the filmmakers think they do, and I grow restless for more. Mandy needed more time spent giving greater shape to its world and narrative. This criticism may sound unfair given the nature of the film (do you ask for the details of a dream?) but I feel dismissing its lack of substance is a step too far. Mandy is essentially a dream with hazy plotting, vivid imagery, and intense feelings, but it can wash away upon waking. I left my theater torn over the movie, wanting to celebrate its artistic vision and weirdness while also wishing there was more weirdness and more of a vision.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Mom and Dad (2018)

The appeal of the indie thriller Mom and Dad is its frenetic, gonzo, absurdist spirit that accelerates into delicious dark comedy with a maniacal glee seldom seen in movies. The nature of the movie and its bloody violence will put off many viewers; however, if you have a healthy appetite for the bizarre and tonally incongruous, then Mom and Dad will serve as a thrilling and hilarious treat.

The Ryan family, father Brett (Nicolas Cage), mother Kendall (Selma Blair), teen daughter Carly (Ann Winters), and young son Josh (Zackary Arthur), are a typical suburban family with their share of secrets and antipathy. It’s a normal day until it isn’t. While at school, a mob of parents forms to collect their children. A rumor of a terrorist strike has circulated widely. But when the parents get close to their children they viciously harm them. It seems someone or something has flipped that parental instinct to protect one’s child at all costs. Now the urge is to kill one’s young. Carly and her friends escape the school mob and have to survive their homicidal parental units.

I didn’t realize it while watching but it became obvious in hindsight that this was the fodder of one of the debased, juvenile, and altogether hyperactive minds from the Crank movies, a series best described as debased, juvenile, and hyperactive. Brain Taylor takes a Twilight Zone premise and shoots it full of adrenaline and mescaline and whatever else was lying around on the ground. The action gets going in a relatively efficient fashion, establishing our family unit, and then setting them up for a collision course. From the 45-minute mark onward, it becomes more a self-contained thriller inside the family home, pitting our kids against their homicidal elders. It reminded me a tad of Don’t Breathe in its ability to set up a playing field and have its characters find organic ways to get into trouble, escape it, and get into worse trouble. It’s a series of moving pieces that feel elegantly arranged on the playing field. It keeps the movie barreling forward while still finding room for surprises and payoffs, including a glorious late Act Three payoff that I had long ago forgotten about its setup. It’s not quite dues ex machina because there’s more to come after, but it made me so happy.

This is a movie that strangles the concept of tone, and yet it decidedly knows what points to hit up the darker comedy, what moments need more drawn out suspense, and what moments can straddle the difference. The build-up of dread can be beautifully applied and then turned for laughs. Take for instance a moment when a teen girl comes home and notices an open blender with margarita mix, implying her mother is home. Just as a signifier of terror, it’s kind of fun, but then she leans closer and reaches into the open blender, her hand picking the blades. We’re leaning in, waiting for the blender to turn on all of a sudden, and then… she walks away, and the moment passes. Then we laugh to ourselves about how something so ordinary was turned around to be menacing. Taylor finds other little moments like this to assure the audience he’s thought through the premise and found ways to properly develop it to its potential. I was covering my face at parts in tense anticipation and I was cackling to myself at other times.

Cage (Snowden) is one of the few actors that seems to get exponentially more compelling to watch the nuttier he acts, and his crackpot zeal can elevate bad movies into something approaching unintended hilarity, like 2006’s woeful Wicker Man remake. There are few actors that go for broke regardless of how silly they eventually come across. In the wrong hands, this is an attribute that can betray Cage’s efforts and sink a movie. In the right hands, like Taylor’s, it provides the spark of madness needed to push a movie into another level of irascibility. Cage finds humor in the strangest of places, and it’s not a derisive sort of humor but more a genuine delighted bafflement at the character. If you love crazy Cage, you’ll have plenty to love in Mom and Dad.

Blair (Hellboy 2) is the more restrained parent while still getting scenes to cut loose. She’s having terrific fun getting to play bad. When she’s teamed with Cage, they form a darkly funny couple bonding over their shared intent for murder. It becomes an oddball romantic comedy in the darkest sense. Blair also impresses in her scenes of dramatic response. She’s one of the last parental figures to succumb to the hysteria, so we get to witness her process the shock and confusion of the day. There’s a great scene where she’s present in a hospital birthing room. Blair scrambles to save the newborn and try to understand what is happening, and it’s a personal kind of fear and betrayal that registers.

One of the more surprising aspects of Mom and Dad was how it’s able to build the parents as characters in clever and genuinely sincere ways. This is a crazy movie, and that’s its main appeal, but it can also find room to take things seriously. Taylor will momentarily pause the action to insert choice flashbacks that are enjoyable little asides, monologues that provide texture to the world and the characters. The flashback relating to a pool table’s demise opens up an entire analysis of a rocky marriage, a middle-aged man raging against his life’s mediocrity and the faded glory and promise of his youth, and the despair of losing your sense of self through parenthood. It builds and builds and allows the actors to unload. It doesn’t serve as significant a narrative point as other character-based flashbacks setting up ironic convergences. It’s just Brett and Kendall being able to voice their insecurities and disappointments. It’s about this point where the movie positions both as unswayable evil forces, so giving them a chance to come across like genuine human beings before they’re kill-crazy cartoons is unexpected and effective.

I know I’m having a great time with a movie when the worst thing about it is the last few seconds. Mom and Dad just sort of ends. It almost feels like there was some kind of editing accident and you may turn and say, “Wait, is that it?” I didn’t want Mom and Dad to end. This is a raucous dark comedy with an anarchic spirit but a strong sense of pacing, tone, and structure, layering in surprises and escalations dutifully while still finding equitable space to better shade the characters. If you’re looking for a risky dark comedy that will make you feel a tad crazier for watching, give Mom and Dad a whirl. This is the kind of movie you might hate yourself for loving.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Snowden (2016)

originalThere’s quite a difference when director Oliver Stone actually gives a damn with a movie, and you can tell with Snowden that he is passionate about making a compelling and accessible movie for American audiences to understand why they should be angry. He wants to lead the righteous civil liberties mob against the right perpetrators while providing an appreciative moral context to the actions of Edward Snowden, America’s most famous fugitive. That sense of purpose and drive animates Stone in a way that his recent films have not, and even though it’s far less gonzo and experimental as Stone’s quintessential catalogue, the storytelling skill is still consistently engaging and the resulting 134 minutes inform as well as entertain.

Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wanted to serve his country and his expertise in computers landed him in various jobs working for U.S. agencies. He discovered the abuse of surveillance over everyday citizens rubber-stamped by a FISA court meant to provide oversight. Callous private contractors would surf through thousands of collected data points, and if pressed, could justify through terrorism connections, as it seems anyone in the world is perhaps three connections away from a person of interest (consider is the really unfortunate version of the Kevin Bacon game). Snowden risks everything to reach out to a team of journalists (Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson) to tell his story and make sure the larger public will know these abuses of power.

maxresdefaultThe best compliment I can give Stone as a screenwriter and director of Snowden is that he took a thoroughly challenging scenario with few cut-and-dry answers and made an accessible movie experience that effectively conveys moral outrage and dismay. It feels like Stone the educator is leading you by the hand, taking time out to explain some of the more delicate intricacies of the murky stuff that goes on behind closed doors. I won’t exactly declare it to be an intelligent examination on the moral implications of the material, but it’s certainly a movie that lands its goal of clarity. It produces a sense of clarity for the subject and a sense of clarity for why Snowden made the decisions he did. Gordon-Levitt delivers a steadily engrossing performance, even if it takes several minutes to adjust to his distracting speaking voice. Maybe my ears are just broken but it doesn’t sound like Snowden. Fortunately, my ears did adjust accordingly. Gordon-Levitt and Stone effectively kept my attention throughout the film. I was surprised how much I found myself enjoying long stretches of this movie, even if my own stance on Snowden is less clearly defined. He talks a good talk but the reality is messy.

Given Stone’s conspiratorial history, the plot definitely comes with a distinctive point of view over whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. I don’t think inherent bias in a movie or the angle taken in storytelling is inherently misguided and that all stories should be as objective as possible. Sometimes the circumstances don’t permit objectivity. Stone’s film is clearly biased but it doesn’t fall into a hagiographical hero worship of its titular figure. This is a complicated subject and deserves a proper analysis to place the real-life people in the meaningful morally ambiguous context. Snowden ultimately makes the decision to become the world’s most famous whistle-blower for what he felt were systematic abuses of government surveillance, but before that climactic decision he comes across less than a spotless martyr. His character arc is a fairly recognizable awakening of alarm and horror at the great abuses of power in the name of security. He does start off as a lifelong Republican with family members who have served in the military and different governmental bodies. He’s devastated to be medically discharged from the Army and hungry to serve his country. He’s a patriot who becomes disillusioned with the system, but he’s also rather self-involved and excuses ego with civic duty. I didn’t know how gifted Snowden was in his field, and the movie has some amusement with the wunderkind training sequences where Snowden delivers shock and awe to his stunned superiors. However, the second act becomes more than a bit protracted because Snowden keeps quitting but eventually going back to government surveillance, whether CIA or private subcontracting. This is because of the pay, sure, but it’s mainly because nobody can do what he can do. He feels important. He feels needed. He convinces himself he’s making a difference in the War on Terror, but eventually the reality of the widening peripheral of the war zone is too much to ignore for him.

This is further epitomized through the romantic subplot with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a liberal firebrand, photographer, and exotic exercise instructor. Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars) does her best infusing a warm personality into what is too often the underappreciated yet overly agreeable girlfriend role. It’s a storyline meant to further humanize Snowden as well as personalize the encroaching invasions of privacy and subsequent paranoia. After he discovers that the government can activate laptops and watch oblivious citizens through webcams, Snowden can’t help but stare down his open laptop during an almost laughably forced sex scene. My reaction as Lindsay climbed aboard Snowden was exactly this: “Oh, I guess this is happening now.” She would have a greater impact if the movie did more with her character, as she is the long-suffering girlfriend who keeps accommodating his life choices. They move three times across the country for his jobs and Snowden is always unable to fully explain why he feels the pull to these tech occupations, which further frustrates a woman who just wants trust and stability. There is one interesting conversation that Lindsay offers, typifying the blasé response to spying with a “well I have nothing to hide, so who cares” rationale. Snowden is quick to admonish this line of thinking, an opinion that many still share. The other regrettable reality is that the romance is inevitably going to be the least interesting facet of this story. By going behind the curtain of American secret surveillance, we’re indulging in our collective curiosity at how exactly all these moving parts operate. To then go home and watch a couple squabble is a consistent letdown of drama.

snowden-movie-joseph-gordon-levitt-shailene-woodleyThere are a few other artistic miscues that weigh down Snowden, mostly Stone’s penchant for heavy-handed symbolism. The same instincts that allow Stone to carefully thread a knotty story are the same impulses that tell him that subtlety is for cowards. There doesn’t need to be a frame story here. I understand that select media outlets trying to break this story naturally allows for a question-and-answer framing system of flashbacks. However, very little is added besides a skeletal structure. The media members act as reactionary acolytes. It was all captured much more credibly in the Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour. There’s no earthly reason for Nicolas Cage to be in this movie except for drawing financing. He plays an old CIA code-breaker and admirer of outdated technology, but really he’s there to serve as an institutional nod to Snowden. At the conclusion, when Snowden’s identity and message becomes public, there’s a scene where Cage’s character literally toasts his pupil’s actions. I would say it’s a bit much but the character is a bit much for an actor that hasn’t generally been known for restraint. When Snowden is leaving the CIA offices in Hawaii for the last time, he steps out into the light (get it? get it?) and the scene is practically rendered in slow motion as the enveloping white light fills the screen and bathes Snowden (get it? get it?). He smiles bigger than we’ve ever seen. Lastly, Stone can’t just help himself during the very end and has Gordon-Levitt replaced with the actual Edward Snowden to deliver the closure of an interview. I don’t think we needed a reminder that Snowden is an actual living person.

Snowden the man, and Snowden the movie, wanted to shake up an ignorant and apathetic American public about the dangers of unchecked power in a surveillance state, but was the mission a qualified success? Years later and Snowden living in exile in Russia, the charitable answer would be inconclusive, though the pessimist in goes further. It very well seems that the majority of the American public simply doesn’t care (out of sight out of mind). The trial over whether Snowden is a patriot or a traitor seems a little moot perhaps when the larger public shrugs at the revelations of security overreach. Does a movie about a Great Man have as much resonant cultural cache if that defining act of greatness produces a shrug? I’m by no means saying we should apply a polling system to accurately measure a person’s value and accomplishments to the larger cultural and political landscape. Snowden wanted to wake the public up but we hit the snooze button. In the meantime, the movie about his exploits is fairly entertaining, so at least he has that.

Nate’s Grade: B

Season of the Witch (2011)

No actor has amassed a higher output of spotty choices than the reigning king of the paycheck film, Nicolas Cage. The man has a habit of appearing in mediocre trash, only notable because a star of Cage’s stature is participating. He’s in late Marlon Brando territory and Cage hasn’t even hit 50 (or blown up to 300 pounds). Every now and then he’ll make a movie that reaffirms how talented an actor he can be, like Adaptation. or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But mostly what we associate with Cage nowadays is tic-filled performances, exuberant weirdness, funny hair, and bad movies, two of which are so bad they’re skipping theatrical releases this year (Trespass and Seeking Justice). Season of the Witch will do nothing to change this association.

During the 14th century Crusades, warriors Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) are the best killing machines the Church could hope for. They desert their positions after becoming disillusioned with the Crusades. The duo ventures into a city where a girl (Claire Foy) has been chained in a dungeon. In an airtight piece of impenetrable logic, she’s being blamed for bringing the plague. Behmen and Felson, along with a former knight, a priest, and a young upstart, are tasked with bringing the girl to a monastery where she can be properly dealt with. This secluded monastery is the only place left with a copy of a rare manuscript that contains a spell that will end the pestilence. They put the girl in a cage with wheels and get rolling to that monastery, though not everyone is convinced that the girl is a witch.

For the first ten minutes, you swear you’re watching a buddy comedy transported to the era of the Crusades. Cage and Perlman are in the front lines of “God’s army” but they’re trading competitive quips like, “You take the 300 on the right. I’ll take the 300 on the left,” and then they preposterously debate who is going to buy post-battle drinks while in the heat of battle. They’re literally slaying enemy soldiers and would rather be arguing over who buys. It’s like they have no attachment to anything happening. This opening Crusade sequence takes us through 12 freaking years of battle locations, but it’s only at the final battle that Cage and Perlman come to the realization that women and children might also be getting slaughtered as they siege city after city. It’s at this point that they get on their moral high horses and stick it to the Catholic leaders: “I serve God, not you. This is not God’s work.” Why did it take them 12 years of fighting to figure out that innocent people may die when you lay waste to cities? Naturally this epiphany only happens after they kill off a European looking innocent. The opening sequence is meant to introduce us to these characters, but it jars the viewer in mere minutes. These guys don’t feel a part of their place or time, and it only gets worse from there. Their nonchalant anachronistic behavior makes the movie seem like a Hope and Crosby vehicle.

This is one thunderously boring movie, putting me to sleep three separate times. I had to rewind what I had missed, and each time I came to the conclusion that I really had missed nothing at all. The problem with the plot is that it makes a mystery pretty obvious. The group is carting around a teen girl in a cage. You’d think this would be something of a conversation starter, perhaps even an opening for a critical analysis of the Inquisition and religious fanaticism at this perilous time. Nope. The whole of the Bubonic Plague is being blamed on a teen girl and nobody seems to bat an eye at this. Sure there’s a few passing references to how killing is wrong (again, remember this took at least 12 years of slaughter to sink in), but the movie’s central storyline seems to shift to a “Is she really a witch?” query. Judging from what kind of film this is, you’d probably be safe betting on “yes” and, well, you’d be partly right. The reason this is no spoiler is because it’s revealed at like halfway through the movie. The girl’s chief defenders suddenly jump on the “burn her” bandwagon. Strange things are following the troupe, so it’s pretty obvious who is at play. However, the girl is no witch but is inhabited by a demon, which seems like splitting hairs. When the super cheesy CGI demon/gargoyle shows its face, the creature actually speaks English but in a really speedy and comical voice that makes it hard to be taken seriously. An earlier cut of the movie did not involve this dumb CGI demon but the girl herself. At least that route would have saved the producers some money and unintentional laughter.

The movie should be far more entertaining, even in a dubious fashion, than it finally is. Season of the Witch flirts with some messages (religion can exploit, women were unfairly persecuted) and silly genre elements amidst a Medieval setting (witches, demons, plague). That sounds like the makings for a campy treat but that treat never materializes. The boring plot lumbers, with the company encountering some setback that picks off their numbers one by one. It’s hard not to feel the drowsy effects of the dull repetition. They encounter killer wolf creatures. Then they encounter a rickety rope bridge, and you better believe that there are rotting boards and fraying ropes. Who keeps building these rope bridges that appear in so many movies, and why do they keep getting hired after continually doing substandard work? Do the regulators get fat payoffs from the rope bridge lobby?

The road to the monastery is a long trek and the movie’s momentum seems to lag with every step. There should be more internal conflict rather than this superficial “killing is wrong” moral that every warrior seems tormented with. The premise should be a ripe opening for a discussion on the perversion of religion for political and personal gain, for the abuses of power, for the archaic view of women as subhuman beings who will seduce men to destruction. There’s even a priest along the way to provide a counterpoint. But alas, Season of the Witch goes hog wild for the cheesy supernatural spooks and even at that it fails miserably.

As of late, the saving grace in a Nicolas Cage paycheck movie is a gonzo performance and some wacky hairdo. We don’t even get that much with Season of the Witch. Cage is oddly subdued throughout the whole movie despite all the swords and witchery. Even his hair is subdued. Without Cage’s typical nutty antics, the movie loses any chance of entertainment it might have ever hoped to have. The shame is that Cage and Perlman both have an easygoing chemistry. You like the two of them together; you just wish they had a better reason to trade insults and one-liners.

Far from bewitching, this movie is ponderously dull. It misses camp by a mile and just lands on mediocrity. There’s nothing about this movie that will stand the test of time, good or bad. This is the definition of a paycheck movie. It flirts with going darker before it settles on a messy monster-heavy ending. The special effects are cheesy, the scares are cheap, the plot is repetitious, the characters feel wrongly transplanted from a modern movie, and Cage sleepwalks through his role. I can’t say I blame him. Season of the Witch put me to sleep and I only had to put up with it for 90 minutes.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Drive Angry (2011)

Without a hint of self-awareness, and not nearly enough tawdry camp, this exploitation throwback manages to be completely serious with a ridiculous plot and a celebration of muscle cars, gory violence, and women in hot pants. And yet for a film about Nicolas Cage literally escaping from Hell to save his baby granddaughter at the hands of a Satanic cult leader (Billy Burke), it’s awfully complicated. The plot is hard to nail down, rarely does it spell things out, which means the audience is left trying to piece together the scraps of logic in between fetishizing cars and violence. Amber Heard (The Informers) and her cut-off high-waisted jeans becomes Cage’s sidekick and she gets to hold her own. The 3-D elements are mostly distractions flying at the screen, the violence is extreme but with a distasteful nihilistic edge, and the tone lacks any traces of irony or appreciation of genre. There’s more potential here that never feels tapped, like Cage’s special “God-killer” gun that spooks even the Grim Reaper/Angel of Death (William Fichtner, having a blast). At one point, Cage is locked in coitus with an overly animated waitress, and he kills an onslaught of goons while still engaging in sex. While Shoot ’em Up did it too, it’s a sequence that hints at what the film could have been had it given in to more tawdry impulses. Instead, Drive Angry isn’t nearly passionate enough to register as anything but a mundane retro, country fried rehash of 1970s action movies.

Nate’s Grade: C

Kick-Ass (2010)

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+

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

This is a crazy movie. It is not weird, it is not bizarre; it is not silly. Werner Herzog’s whacked-out movie is a remake of a 1992 movie that wasn’t that good to begin with. This certifiably crazy movie mostly involves Nicolas Cage as a corrupt cop playing all sides and snorting everything that isn’t bolted down in the Big Easy up his nose. For a stretch during the middle, he starts to sound like Jimmy Stewart with lockjaw. The central murder investigation plot is pretty much an afterthought in an environment like this. You want the crazy, and with Cage and Herzog, it is in no short supply. There’s Cage threatening an elderly woman at gunpoint, crawling reptile POV shots, a man’s “soul” break-dancing after the man lies dead, and neon iguanas that may exist only in Cage’s drugged-out mind. The film has been described as a trippy parody of standard cops-and-robbers fare, or as a seriously demented anti-drug message, but I think the best description is just “crazy-ass movie.” It has moments that make you do nothing but shake your head and laugh, like when Cage is about to hit rock bottom and EVERY case/storyline gets solved in a matter of seconds to his bemused disbelief. The comedy is straight-faced but it is definitely there. Cage harnesses his eccentricities and delivers an insanely entertaining performance that reconfirms that there is indeed an actor underneath his Hollywood veneer. He is compulsively enjoyable and the movie is compulsively watchable, every crazy freaking second of it. Iguanas!

Nate’s Grade: B

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