Thursday, April 29, 2010

Iron Man 2: Why should we-e-e even care

The plot of Iron Man 2 picks up right after Iron Man. Tony Stark has just announced his alternate identity to the world. This displeases Ivan Vanko (the amazingly hammy, but also really entertaining Mickey Rourke) to a great degree. To such a degree, in fact, that he immediately goes to work on a makeshift ARC reactor (the thingamajig that powers the Iron Man suit). Because Russians are all into circuses and bears and shit, he makes two lightsaber whips to go with his half-a-suit. During this suit-making montage (and opening credits) composer John Debney gives Vanko a badass musical theme that is reminiscent of the Soviet national anthem in places (!!).

The movie cuts to Tony Stark being a cool slick badass. Robert Downey Jr pretty much kills it: I don't think there's a smoother motherfucker in movies today. Gwyneth Paltrow's all frowny with him, a dickhole senator wants him to hand over that goddamned suit to the government and Stark's buddy James "Rhodey" Rhodes frowns at him as well (he also faded into a different black man since last movie, namely Don Cheadle). My favorite addition in this Washington DC sequence however, is Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer. Hammer wants to be Tony Stark badly: the suits, the babes, the love, ... understandably. But sucker as I am for awkwardness humor (I pretty much love Borat and Brüno), I just had a ball seeing Rockwell throw himself head-first into a million jokes that get a polite chuckle at best from these huuuge crowds.

A lot of people the action of the first movie wasn't well done. I didn't have any particular problems with it, but it was definitely the first superhero movie where you were actually having more fun when the guy was out of the suit than in it. To those whiners I say: well, the action's a lot cooler than it was in the first one. Unfortunately, they added a whole new problem. Tony Stark ain't got shit to do.

You see, Vanko makes an assassination attempt on Tony. This fails, and the cockatoo-loving (seriously) Russian gangster-inventor (seriously) goes to jail. Justin Hammer, convinced this guy could get rid of Stark for him, busts him out and fakes his death. But he better build him some reaaal good stuff for the upcoming Stark Expo! Hammer's presentation at the Stark Expo is the climax of the film. So, uh... the villains are just kinda workin' on stuff for the remainder of the movie. But we'll get back to you, oohhh you'll see! The drama in the second act comes completely from Stark going on a self-destructive "I don't give a fuck" binge after being unable to stop the ARC-reactor in his chest from slowly poisoning his body. Personally, I really enjoyed Tony Stark coming to grips with his mortality. It's heavy enough to make you feel for Stark, but never too dark to destroy the movie's fun atmosphere.

So yeah, an hour of this movie is literally Stark & Co fucking about, waiting for the plot to happen again at the start of the third act. Beyond the nagging sensation that the movie wasn't really moving forward in any way, I still had a good time with it. That's pretty much due to Downey Jr and the cast. I mean, when things happen like Stark in the Iron Man suit dancing to California Love, pissing himself and then suggesting to Pepper Potts (Paltrow's character) that she drink his piss, well... that's a good time at the movies, you know?

Oh, and Stark has a new assistant, but I can't remember who plays her.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Kick-Ass: A promise kept

My parents think Spider-Man is a pussy.

They've seen Sam Raimi's original 2002 Spidey outing and decided enough was enough for them. I could see why Raimi's love letter to Silver Age (basically the 50s/60s) comic books was a little hard for them to swallow. Peter Parker becomes a superhero out of guilt over his uncle's death and decides to start fighting crime, as his initial selfish impulses to make money through his powers end in doom. A noble motivation, to be sure, but when Peter's refusal to admit his feelings towards his friend Mary Jane at the end of the film, my parents zoned out. The character was, simply put, "an idiot". Sacrifice is a part of the workaday life of any immigrant fortysomething former coal miner, but this Parker kid was just a masochist to them at this point.

Matthew Vaughn's newest film Kick-Ass certainly doesn't have that problem. Nerdy high school protagonist Dave Lizewski dons a scuba suit for the simple thrill of being talked about and liked. He doesn't even do anything beyond wearing it under his clothes the first few weeks of coming up with the idea. The first time he tries his hand at some actual crime-fighting, he gets stabbed and run over. After a few months in hospital, he's back on the streets with metal plates over most of his bones and damaged nerve endings, granting him a severely increased pain threshhold. Through sheer determination he manages to defeat three hoods beating up some guy, and the video makes the rounds on the intarwebs.

Kick-Ass becomes somewhat of a media figure with merchandising and everything. Despite freakshow fame and an ability to take a punch, Kick-Ass is still outmatched in strength and fighting skill by... well, most people. So much so, in fact, that his life is in danger not soon after his initial victory. He is saved by eleven year old Hit Girl in a slashy rescue most people will find Kill Bill-esque. Hit Girl and Big Daddy (her regular daddy, played by Nicolas Cage who is obviously so happy to be in a good superhero movie he practically jizzes on the camera in every shot) are well-trained, determined and have a target: mob boss Frank D'Amico.

If it weren't for these two intersecting with Dave's life, Kick-Ass would have been an Apatow-comedy with a comic book gimmick. But now Dave suddenly finds himself in league with two people who slaughter cartoon gangsters in their spare time. I've heard a lot of talk about the "switch in tones" the movie makes once the murders start to happen. How it somehow goes from a real world to an over the top action movie from the moment Hit Girl (if this movie makes one contribution to pop culture, however slight, it's probably her) stabs a dude.

I disagree. It never felt to me that the movie was really operating under any kind of reality. D'Amico's crew, for one, are complete caricatures. They wouldn't look out of place in Vaughn's earliest producing efforts (Snatch, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). The death of the protagonist's mother is treated as a twenty-second gag in the first five minutes. The mafia seems to rule 2010 New York as if it's 1930s Chicago. These are not exactly the hallmarks of Dogme 95, people.

Some people also believe there's a muddled message being delivered here, seeing as how Dave's character growth culminates with him killing a bunch of dudes, or maybe they come to the conclusion the film isn't meant to have a message at all and just asks you to sit back and enjoy the carnage. Personally, I think Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman kind of hit the nail on the head when it comes to the whole idea of superheroism.

If you go back to the very start, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman wasn't the boy scout he is now. He's a pretty angry dude in his first few appearances, using his super-strength on non-powered thugs. Hell, Batman straight up shot guys before Robin came along. In Gerard Jones' rather amazing Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, Siegel and Shuster are described as sheltered momma's boys, unable to vent their teenage frustrations somewhere constructive.

The term "power fantasy" is often bandied about in regards to superhero comics, and at its very core that's absolutely still what the genre is. Alan Moore already recognized this in his seminal 1986 comic book Watchmen, and Vaughn's Kick-Ass (not to be confused with Mark Millar's Kick-Ass, which is only about terrible things happening to horrible people) basically tells us the same thing: "Superheroes would be pretty fucked up dudes in real life... but holy shit look at this awesomeness!" It's no wonder Dave gets the girl after revealing his secret identity to her, even though she was under the impression he was gay and he'd abused her trust to GET IN DAT ASS. In real life Katie's decision may not make sense -- or at least the speed and eagerness with which she makes it doesn't -- but hey, the hero gets the girl.

Kick-Ass is a bit like Shaun of the Dead. It's meant to be a satire, but damned if I don't think it's on par with most of the "real" efforts in the genre. It's a total and complete celebration of a geek niche that is, at its very heart, kind of disfunctional. It knows it, it laughs at it, and it's never even remotely ashamed of it. The final shot of the movie echoes that of Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, one of the very first action movies. Here's Vaughn now essentially saying "Oh, and we've always wanted blood in entertainment to get our kicks lawl". I can't help but think that's very cool of him.

But I have no interest in this whole damned genre! It is infantile and abhorrent to me! Oh really? You must think you're a real goddamned Mr Fancy Pants! You know what the DEVIL has to say about that?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Dreamworks WUT??!

What the hell just happened? I'm confused. My socks may be on backwards. Did I just bump my head? Was that E I bought off of Johnny Tapia of dubious quality? Did Dreamworks just make a good movie?

How To Train Your Dragon is the story of Hiccup, a witless and clumsy Viking who frankly isn't very good at being a Viking. Jay Baruchel invests Hiccup with a biting wit and sarcasm which lead me to fear this movie would fall prey to Dreamworks' typical TOO HIP FOR DIS SHIT post-ironicism cuz, like, Vikings are totally lame. I was luckily proven wrong in the first ten minutes or so.

Instead of pillaging and raping, the PG Vikings of the town of Berk are comically badass and mostly must defend their island home against raiding dragons. As the title may have spoiled, Hiccup captures a young dragon which he can't bring himself to kill. He dubs the semi-paraplegic reptile (while crash-landing, his tail fin got ripped in half) Toothless. Over the course of the second act, a not entirely unexpected friendship grows between the two outcasts. Of course, a Viking/dragon friendship is akin to an Israeli/Palestinian one, so the shit hits the fan once it is revealed why

While the plot is formulaic and contains no real surprises, it's great character work and amazing design that make this movie reach the heights it does. The chemistry between Hiccup and Toothless, two animated characters of which only one actually speaks, is rather amazing. Chris Sanders' dragon designs are full of personality and all get a chance to shine. They're so good, in fact, you'll be able to name at least three kinds of dragons within the first half hour of the movie.

If you can, catch it in 3D. I can't remember a big deal being made out of this movie's THREEEE DIMENSIONS! but it easily rivals some of the better stuff done in Avatar. Hiccup actually training Toothless, and showing off his work to rival/love interest Astrid are some of the best, most beautiful and uplifting scenes I've seen in a theater in quite a while. And there's not a hint of irony there.

It's not a perfect movie: the title is dreadfully lame, it's kind of grating that all the Vikings parents actually have Scottish accents and the kids American ones (you can just imagine a Dreamworks exec waving money at himself going HATAZ GONNA HATE BUT AUDIENCES GOTTA RELATE) and there are a few sincerity-undercutting ironic groaners in there still.

It doesn't make it any less fun though. Incredible 3D, superlative designs and two central characters that work on that intangible level only the best of movies can accomplish make make this movie a must if you have kids or just like good animation.

Congratulations, Dreamworks. Wonder suits you.