Saturday, September 16, 2017

Movie Reviews: Kick-Ass, Last Exit To Brooklyn

directed by Matthew Vaughn
A deconstruction of comic book movies that also is an ode to superhero movies
Kick-ass, a 2010 film, is a mish-mash of a movie. It is simultaneously a romantic comedy, a savage parody of superhero movies, a violent revenge movie, and an honest ode to heroism. Kick-Ass makes fun of almost all of the cliches found in comic book movies (it's based on a comic book) while later upholding them. YMMV on this. You can get whiplash from the multiple changes in theme and tone, but I liked this film a lot. The black humor will not be to everyone's taste. It came close to going over the top a few times. It definitely did with one character. The film's most memorable character is not the titular hero but a young girl killer who is the spiritual sister of such anti-heroines as Arya Stark and River Tam. This girl is deadlier and a little meaner. 

The title character, a high school student named Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), is an average teen in almost every way. He has no super powers. He's not super strong or super smart. He has no special abilities with weapons, math or computers. And he would rather spend his time fantasizing about his busty English teacher or other women, attractive or not, than take the risk to try to get a real life girlfriend, like his sexy classmate Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca). Dave is content to go to school, hang out with the other nerds, and read comic books. 

This last is something of an obsession. Eventually Dave starts to wonder why there aren't any real life comic book inspired heroes. His friends point out that that anyone doing such a thing would get his behind beaten by real criminals and/or swiftly be shot or arrested by police. Duh! Nevertheless although he lacks superpowers one thing Dave does have is persistence. Well that and a fair amount of gullibility, something that the film never tires of pointing out. In short time Dave has sent away for a stylish green and yellow wetsuit and matching batons. Dave gives himself the name "Kick-Ass". His initial attempt at crime fighting doesn't go so well. As it is later remarked on by a more experienced vigilante, Dave is so inept at fighting that his name ought to be "Ass-Kick". Dave is pummeled badly by street thugs, stabbed, and hit by a car. The resulting drugs, metal plate insertions and surgeries leave him with a heightened ability to withstand pain. 

This event also leaves Dave with a public relations problem in school. He begged the emergency medics to take his clothes/costume so that his "heroic" identity wouldn't be revealed. When word gets back to his high school that he was naked when mugged, everyone thinks that it was a gay assignation gone wrong. Now that Katie thinks he's gay she wants him around as a safe friend. He can give her advice on fashion, bra choices, and guys. Dave tries to turn this to his advantage.
Once he's healed Dave returns to crime fighting. He has a bit more successful intervention when he stops a three on one gang attack. The event is uploaded to youtube. And just like that Kick-Ass becomes a minor celebrity. Dave opens a Myspace account where he responds to requests for help. When he gets a message from Katie, who is unaware that Kick-Ass is Dave, asking Kick-Ass to stop some drug dealers from bothering her, Dave can't wait to help. But these drug dealers are a bit more dangerous than street hoodlums. Things aren't going well for Dave. The sudden intervention of costumed superheroes Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and his young pre-teen daughter Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) saves Dave's life. Kick-Ass also realizes that he's not playing in the same league as Big Daddy or Hit-Girl. The father-daughter team is scarily prepared and highly motivated. They're armed to the teeth and kill people without qualms. They operate at an entirely different level of violence.

Dave is going to quit for good. He is talked out of doing so by Hit-Girl and Big Daddy, who track him down via his IP address, casually pointing out that if they could do that then so could worse people. Big Daddy and Hit-Girl are on a mission to take down Mafia boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong). They hold D'Amico responsible for framing and imprisoning Big Daddy, a former cop, and killing Big Daddy's wife, Hit-Girl's mother. The drug dealers they eliminated worked for D'Amico. They're taking D'Amico's organization apart, one scumbag at a time. They don't need Kick-Ass to assist. But they give him a way to contact them if he should need help. In the meantime they have hoodlums to kill. Bye!
And this starts off some deadly action. D'Amico is not going to stand by and watch anyone destroy his organization. He blames Kick-Ass for the actions of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. Unlike Kick-Ass, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl are a little savvier about not being caught on video like Kick-Ass. And when a mob boss puts his mind to it he can do a lot of damage. Another would be teen superhero, Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plass) pops up. Dave continues to try to find a way to tell Katie that he's not gay but that he is Kick-Ass. And Hit-Girl continues to demonstrate that anyone who tries to harm her father is really going to regret it. She is a pint-sized foul mouthed terror who is especially talented with butterfly knives. And when she's in full effect there's nothing cute about her--except to her father. Hit-Girl undergoes a personality shift when she's in costume, similar to her father's. The movie lampshades their close father-daughter relationship by seeing how Big Daddy's former police partner (Omari Hardwick) reacts to it. There is nothing inappropriate about their relationship, certainly not THAT thing. That is unless you overlook the fact that out of a grief-crazed need for revenge Big Daddy has robbed his daughter of her childhood and turned her into a cold-blooded killer. To toughen her up he shoots her while she's wearing a bulletproof vest. Outside of the whole killing mobsters thing, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl have a typical father-daughter relationship full of hot cocoa, birthday gifts and ice cream. Hit-Girl loves her father.

The movie references all sorts of comic books and comic book inspired movies, most notably Spider-man. Dave references the Spider-man line "With great power comes great responsibility". He muses that in that case is it true that "With no power comes no responsibility"? He decides no. Even losers like him still have to try to make changes. Kick-Ass is full of bad language and violence. It's also very funny. Because Hit-Girl is so over the top you don't think about the cruelty of creating child soldiers until the movie makes a point of bringing it to your attention.

Last Exit To Brooklyn
directed by Uli Edel
Take a stroll on the ugly side of life in this 1989 movie. 
This older movie was a tough film to watch. It was based on the novel of the same name by Hubert Selby. Selby wrote the similar novel Requiem for a Dream, also later made into a disturbing film. Last Exit To Brooklyn is set in the early 50s. We all experience ups and the downs. I think that you will better appreciate the good times after you've been thru the bad times. Some people will disagree. Those people should stay far away from this movie and likely any works by the late Mr. Selby. This film depicts small people trapped in desperate lives. Even when they make desultory attempts to change their roles, they know deep in their heart of hearts that things won't work out. For most people in this film there is no exit. This movie contains a lot of sex ,but it's generally not joyous. For one character sex is mostly work. For others sex is a source of shame. The erotic links all of these people but in their Brooklyn neighborhood eros and love have little to do with one another. Kindness is viewed as weakness. For good or bad, if you want something, you better have the muscle or smarts to go out and get it. If you can't do that, nobody in this Brooklyn neighborhood will have any sympathy for you.

Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is the local prostitute. Tralala makes money not just from selling herself but from luring men, mostly sailors or people from outside the neighborhood, into shady areas where the men will be robbed and/or beaten by thugs led by Vinnie (Peter Dobson). These thugs don't give Tralala an even split of the proceeds. And they occasionally think it's humorous to watch Tralala have sex instead of robbing her customer. But Tralala can't do much about this. The hoodlums are larger than she is. This could have been a cliched role but Leigh brings equal amounts of brass and sensitivity to it. Tralala may be a victim but she doesn't see herself that way. She is both predator and prey in equal measure, at least until the film's ending. Tralala can't process kindness. To her anyone who is nice to her is someone looking to get robbed or someone trying to rob her. Can she believe that one of her "clients" actually loves her? Can someone live a life in which they have deliberately cut themselves off from the possibility of love?

Harry Black (Stephen Lang) is an up and coming union leader. The local factory workers have gone on strike. Union boss Boyce (Jerry Orbach) gives shop steward Harry a lot of responsibility. It's Harry's job to disburse the strike funds, look after the families of the striking workers, keep morale up, and crack some heads if the police or scabs try to break the picket lines. Some of the people Harry hires to perform this last task are the same thugs who run with Tralala. Harry's good at his job. He likes it. Harry's even getting popular in the neighborhood. He's getting some respect in the streets and the bars. But Harry has a problem. He's discovering that he's not attracted to women, despite being married. He's noticing the trans sex workers on the street. And they're noticing him.
One local trans person is Georgette (Alexis Arquette). Georgette's mother is sympathetic to him. His brother isn't sympathetic. Not one bit. While Georgette is open about who he is, Harry is certainly not. Georgette has friends like Regina (Bernard Zette) who might like to get to know Harry. But Regina doesn't come cheap. And Harry had better be careful. Macho union working men won't take orders from anyone who's not 100% straight or who doesn't keep it to himself if he's not.The film touches on the ways in which both men and women of this neighborhood affect a swaggering macho toughness in order to intimidate others or hide vulnerabilities.

Big Joe (Burt Young) is an alcoholic close minded working man who is upset to learn that his obese, unattractive and unmarried daughter (Ricki Lake) is pregnant. Family honor requires a beating of the youth who impregnated her and then a wedding, not necessarily in that order. Joe's son Spook (Cameron Johann) has a crush on Tralala. But he's just a kid without money. Tralala doesn't see him as a mark or a threat. His big plan is to fix up a motorcycle so he can take Tralala for a ride. Lang and Leigh have the meatiest roles. Their self-loathing is both hidden and complex. But when it spills out it leads to tragedy for them both in similar ways. If you are at all sensitive to realistic depictions of violence and mayhem, then this is most definitely not a film you should watch. It has some very ugly brutal scenes. I'm not joking about this or exaggerating. I wouldn't describe this movie as having a happy ending. I though the film had some important things to say about the lies that we tell each other as well as ourselves. Sometimes those lies, as blatant or ridiculous as they may be, are necessary for someone to function in their environment. But long term I believe that living honestly is necessary for personal growth and change. 

If your environment requires you to lie to yourself or to others then you need to change your surroundings. I think that the movie bears that out. Many of the liars are punished by others or horrifically punish themselves. Although this movie has no happy ending I still was impressed by it. It's the struggle to live and find happiness which I think links all of us. It's that struggle which helps make us human. I believe films like this are made not to be enjoyed but to be experienced and understood. Don't watch this if you're not ready to virtually smell the unwashed bodies, blood and sweat of 1950s Brooklyn. Stephen Baldwin, the late Frank Vincent, and Sam Rockwell also have small parts.

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