movie reviews

Review: Kick Ass 1 & 2

kick ass 2

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz in ‘Kick Ass 2’.

It’s hard to number all the ways that the Kick Ass movies don’t work, but let’s start with the basics: they don’t follow through on their own concept. That concept–what if someone in the real world tried to be a supehero?—offers a world of possibilities that go unexplored in these movies. Some lip service is paid to the idea, but mostly it just boils down to the main character being an ineffectual wimp who gets beat up a lot. But the movies themselves follow a lot of the same beats as a typical superhero narrative, only with sarcastic air quotes around everything, so what you end up with is a b-grade superhero movie with no stakes, no reason to get invested, and a main character who doesn’t really accomplish anything.

It’s not just Kick Ass, though. Neither movie has any idea what it wants to do with any of the characters. The concept behind Big Daddy and Hit Girl—a traumatized police officer drafting his prepubescent daughter into a war on crime—promises a subversive look at Batman, but once the filmmakers realized they could get laughs out of a little girl cussing and murdering people, the hope of even an undergrad level of deconstruction vanished. Hit-Girl’s paper-thin characterization is especially painful when you realize she’s the most well drawn character in the franchise. Everyone else’s pain and motivation is treated like a joke, flipped around between scenes or ignored. Kick Ass’s mom dies in the opening minutes of the first movie and is never mentioned again. One harmless dumb character that provided comic relief in the first movie becomes villainously stupid in the second, causing a major tragedy he never seems to comprehend. He gets a moment of redemption at the end, but boy, who could possibly care?

Pacing is another major issue: both movies were based off six-issue comic-book miniseries, and it shows. Both movies cut between three different groups of characters. In the first movie, this eliminates any chance for suspense, as we know ahead of time all the forces that are moving around and against the main character. In the second movie, where the chance of suspense is never even on the table, it just underlines how much time is being wasted. Hit-Girl spends half of Kick Ass 2 in her own sub-par version of Mean Girls (the term “Queen Bee” even gets tossed around) and by the time she’s out of it, the characters have learned nothing and the audience has gained nothing, save for a vomit/diarrhea joke that will make any viewer over the age of 11 uncomfortable and embarrassed.

Not only does the audience never get a sense of the story’s shape, we’re never sure how we should feel about the story itself. In a smarter movie, this kind of moral ambiguity would be welcome, but in a series where every plot point is underlined by the main character’s inane, sub-Dexter narration, any moment where something manages to be unclear is a failure. The first Kick Ass is at least consistent in its own warped morality; consistent and far too impressed with itself, but still, consistent. In the sequel, both the titular hero and Hit-Girl make solemn vows to end hang up their capes, but when they inevitably back down from these oaths (Kick Ass changes his mind a mere three scenes later), it’s not clear if we’re supposed to applaud them for sticking to their beliefs or sympathize with them because they have to betray their parents to get vengeance. In Hit-Girl’s case, the movie can’t even be bothered to give a decent explanation for her abandoning her cause, meaning that the one thing people reliably enjoyed about the first movie—a little girl cussing and murdering people—gets put on hold for no good reason.

Even though they were in development at roughly the same time, Kick Ass feels like the training-wheels version of James Gunn’s Super. Kick Ass is a high school junior doodling in his notebook; Super is bipolar grad student who just finished writing a thesis on superheroes. Super brings out all the twisted elements of the “normal-guy-becomes-a-superhero” story that Kick Ass can only snicker at. The hero of Super is pathetic and delusional in a much deeper and sadder way than Kick Ass, but the movie lets us root for him and even lets him succeed in the end. Ellen Page joins in as the sidekick and in just a few scenes she shows just what kind of lunatic would be attracted to costumed heroics, and she does it in a much more effective manner than anything the Kick Ass films ever attempted.

Kick Ass 2’s confused sense of self extends into the final two shots, which dismiss the need for real-life superheroes and then immediately promise a beefed-up sequel. If the filmmakers make good on this promise—though current box office data indicates they probably won’t—let’s hope they can give us the zany, all-out superhero story they’re clearly longing to give us without any of the false aspirations to “realism”, which, by the way, is a word Mark Millar wouldn’t understand if it knocked him out of a skyscraper window and blew up.


Review: The Conjuring

Vera Farmiga as real-life paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren.

Judging from his past work, you wouldn’t think James Wan was capable of a movie like The Conjuring. The first Saw film—the only one for which Wan can be held responsible—didn’t foresee the grim assembly-line product that the series would become, but it was still smothered with contrast, color-correction and fast-forward effects disguised as ‘style’. Insidious is Wan’s previous film and the one that most resembles The Conjuring, but even it was saddled with the assumption that blue filters are cool and people in Victorian clothing are inherently creepy, to say nothing of a third act that went completely off the rails.

Even if some of the plot turns mirror those of Insidious, The Conjuring is an improvement in every way: it’s a movie of earth tones, grounded scares and directorial restraint. Its pleasures don’t come from gleefully deployed, over-the-top buckets of gore, but from slow-burn scares. Wan takes his time to set things up, and when it clicks, it yields beautiful results, like the ongoing “hide-and-clap” routine. Wan’s continuing fascination with ghost-hunters is well-integrated into the plot, where as the ghost-hunters in Insidious provided some brief amusement but felt dropped in from another movie entirely.

The scares in the The Conjuring take the form of set-pieces so cleverly constructed that genre fans—or really, anyone who’s seen a horror movie—are as likely to smile as they are to shudder, such as the scene where Lili Taylor wanders into her daughter’s room blindfolded. It’s a feeling somewhat akin to seeing a long-anticipated bit of plot machinery click into place on a long-running television show, and it wouldn’t be possible if Wan didn’t take his time.

There are only two moments that qualify as “jump-scares,” which are typically derided as cheap shock. This sort of “come-close-to-the-camera-and-screen” trick is obnoxious if a movie offers you nothing else, but there’s something to be said for shock when it’s used properly and The Conjuring utilizes it in an unusual way. In most jump-scares, the audience is off the hook after the killer (or what have you) makes his jolt-inducing reveal. Most of the time, a jump-scare ends and the protagonist snaps awake from a dream. The first instance jump-scare in The Conjuring—which, like so many of the movie’s best moments, involves the old wardrobe in the bedroom—cuts away at the height of terror. The result is like an unresolved musical note played at high volume: we’re startled, yes, but we also fear for the character’s safety.

The film–apparently based on a true story–is set in 1971, and Wan flirts with Ti West-esque late-70’s pastiche, but it only amounts to a nifty title-card and a few old-school zooms. CGI is used sparingly: an exploding chair that shows up late in the film stands out, but only because it’s one of the few times that modern film-making rears its head. Of course, if the movie was actually made in the era in which it’s set—

Oh, big spoiler coming up.

–then the filmmakers might have gone for a darker ending, instead of letting everyone live and, less forgivably, indulging in the cliché that has sapped the power of many a haunted house story: the “You’re not strong!” ending, where the haunting spirit is defeated by “the indomitable will of the human spirit” or some other such malarkey. This time, a demon that has claimed numerous lives is done in by the memory of a pleasant day in the beach. Like everything else in the movie, it’s properly set up, but boy, what a waste.

Still, The Conjuring packs enough creepy visuals into the rote exorcism finale to make it worthwhile, right up until the power of love wins out. If the ending lets the wind out of the movie’s sails a little bit, well, it’s a rare modern horror movie that can hold itself together so well for so long.