Late August/early September is known as a dumping ground for Hollywood a block of weekends for movies that don't fit into studios' strategical timeline. This could be for quality reasons ("when else are we going to put out this crappy movie?") or in the case of The Debt the movie might be too straightforward for its own good.
Oscar-winning director John Madden's (Shakespeare in Love) espionage thriller walks the fine line between action entertainment and award-season bait—leaving it in the unmarketable limbo known as "solid adult entertainment." The film a remake of a 2007 Israeli drama of the same name starts in 1997 centering on former-Mossad agent Rachel (Helen Mirren) and her two former teammates David (Ciaran Hinds) and Rachel's ex-husband Stephan (Tom Wilkinson). The trio cross paths once again with the publishing of a book written by Rachel and Stephen's daughter recounting the team's daring (and semi-successful) mission to kidnap and incarcerate a Nazi war criminal in 1965. It's with this solidifying of fame that the true events of their mission begin to trickle out.
The movie quickly flashes back to 1965 picking up with Rachel David and Stephen (now played by rising starlett Jessica Chastain Avatar's Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) at the start of their mission. Like any group of gorgeous people forced to live in confined spaces romance begins to blossom with Rachel warming to the introverted David and Stephen waiting for the opportune moment to sweep her off her feet. While the trio prepares for the kidnapping—with your standard array of sleuthing calculated scheduling and intel-gathering—their relationships complicate giving The Debt a bit more depth than your run-of-the-mill Mission: Impossible-style spy movie. When it comes time to bag the Nazi everything seems to have fallen into place.
But unlike the stories told by their '90s counterparts the three agents find themselves in a stickier situation than expected. WIth one misstep the tension between the triangle boils and Madden to play games with our expectations. The script by Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman twists and turns bouncing back and forth between Mirren and Chastain's Rachel with ease. The spectacle in The Debt isn't delivered by elaborate set pieces but rather by the two actresses' performances. The duo without sharing a single scene click and unfold a complete arc beginning with Rachel's pride-filled aspirations to her chaotic downfall to Mirren's newfound mission to cover up the truth. Even when the movie dawdles (and it does around the hour mark) Mirren and Chastain keep us on board.
The other members of the ensemble don't have too much meat to chew on but Worthington impresses nonetheless tackling a character that's a complete 180 from his usual action-oriented muscle roles. His young David gives weight to the mission inhabiting a sense of devotion that explodes when he finally engages their Nazi hostage in a battle of words. Csoaks as young Stephen is just the slick realist prick the movie needs to make the team's downfall frighteningly disastrous and in turn the events of the present that much more dire.
The Debt doesn't have the expansive harrowing scope of Steven Spielberg's serious spy movie Munich but for a movie that doesn't really have a place on the Hollywood slate it delivers a square serving of drama and sharp performances. It tells its story and does so with the right amount of flair.
At the end of the summer that's a welcome surprise.
Parodies are a dying art. I hate to say it — because I love them so much — but over the last few years the unrelenting hacks known as Friedberg and Seltzer have systematically killed the art form with their brainless pop culture-stroking disguised as commentary. I remember the good ole’ days of Abrams and Zucker (prior to their Scary Movie entanglements) when parodies where funny precisely because they established their own voice and didn’t use the material they were lampooning as a crutch. Airplane! mercilessly mocked the bizarre run of airport disaster movies in the '70s but it also transcended easy jokes and script aping. Today thanks to inexplicable box office validation an entire generation now thinks that the “Random celebrity what are you doing here?” gag is the appropriate formula for parody.
Kick-Ass is going to put a giant boot in the face of that mentality. It is a pitch-perfect send-up of everything that is characteristic of superhero films. It is versed enough to cite convention but clever enough to find the humor in the genre’s absurdity. And the biggest advantage Kick-Ass has in the parody department is that it is unrelentingly entertaining. It seems that in the last few years terrible parodies have made undeserved fortunes at the box office while better-crafted entries have gone largely unseen. Kick-Ass on the other hand has all the necessary components to clean up at the box office and be well deserving of its success.
The performances in the film are all top notch. Nicolas Cage showcases yet again how he can make his personal lunacy work very effectively under the right conditions. The overly Leave It To Beaver dialogue he and his daughter exchange prior to assuming their crime-fighting alter egos is charmingly silly and if you don’t get a kick out of his channeling of Adam West from the 60’s Batman series when he is in the suit I highly suggest a humor implant immediately. Aaron Johnson in the title role plays the lovable loser to perfection. He brings a lot of heart to the character that drives the emotional crux of the film. And as much as Christopher Mintz-Plasse is the most recognizable young actor in the film it’s Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl who totally McLovins the film; stealing every scene she’s in. The personality comedic timing and ruthlessness that she brings to this character demonstrate a talent level well in advance of her age.
In terms of the treatment of the teenaged characters in the film this script is tantamount to something written by the late great John Hughes in so much as the teens are allowed to speak honestly and in their own limited vocabulary without the pretense of wit. I think teen comedies are improving dramatically of late but the obsession with making teens pithy wordsmiths baffles me to no end and I’m glad they were allowed to just be vulgar. And my God this thing is vulgar…and violent to boot. We get to watch an 11 year-old drop f-bombs and stab thugs in the forebrain. I mean come on the movie is called Kick-Ass for a reason and while it is a comedy the action sequences are unstoppably exhilarating.
A smart somewhat genre subversive parody Kick-Ass is also action-packed and entertaining enough to stand on its own two legs as a film and not just a lampoon. The costumes the music the fight choreography all work in harmony to bring us a blockbuster superhero film that is legitimately humorous in both its homages and honest characterizations. Do not miss this film.
Finally a brilliantly told fractured fairy tale for children and adults alike that does not feature a grouchy green orge anywhere. Once upon a time a young man sneaks into the mysterious magic kingdom of Stormhold that’s walled off from his quiet English village. He soon meets a lovely young lady who just so happens to be a princess enslaved by a not-so-wicked witch. Nine months later a basket is dropped on his doorstep. Yes this baby boy is the unexpected result of his one-night liasion with the royal lass. The boy grows up blissfully unaware of his regal roots so when he reaches manhood Tristan (Charlie Cox) doesn’t understand why he so drawn to the land on the other side of the Wall. He finally hops over the Wall when a star falls out of the sky and lands deep in the heart of Stormhold. His goal: to bring back the star as proof of his love for Victoria (Sienna Miller). Too bad this scheming temptress doesn’t think too much of the penniless and mild-mannered workingclass stiff. This being a fairy tale the star isn’t just a star. The star’s actually a beautiful celestial being named Yvaine (Claire Danes). And she fell to earth as part of a devious plan by Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O'Toole) to determine his successor. But the king’s scheming sons (Jason Flemying and Mark Strong) are not the only ones seeking Yvaine. The oh-so-wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs Yvaine to help her restore her youth. So that means Tristan must become the hero he’s destined to become—and take on witches princes airbourne pirates (Robert De Niro’s Capt. Shakespeare) and shady black marketeers (The Office’s Ricky Gervais)—so he can return home to Victoria. But Cupid has other plans for Tristran and it’s not hard to guess what those are. If all stars took on the human form of Claire Danes many more of us would probably pursue a career in astronomy. But it doesn’t take a working knowledge of the Hubble telescope to see how relaxed and luminous Danes is when she’s not carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. And sparks definitely fly between Danes and Charlie Cox even when they’re at hurling hilarious insults at each other. Newcomer Cox makes a smooth transition from ill-at-ease lovesick puppy to swashbuckling hero. He also doesn’t seem to be intimidated at the prospect of staring down Robert De Niro. There’s always concern whenever De Niro takes on a comedic role for a big paycheck. He usually gets by with pure talent and nothing more. And when De Niro’s pirate crosses paths with Cox and Danes you immediately fear that he’s going to offer yet another variation on his tough gruff Alpha males from Analyze This and Meet the Parents. But he blindsides us by instead going all Jack Sparrow on us—that is if the old sea dog had no interest in the ladies—to deliriously campy effect. What with Hairspray and now Stardust Michelle Pfeiffer’s comeback seems to be predicated on getting in touch with her inner bitch. She’s splendidly nasty and scary as Lamia. And the uglier and older she gets the meaner and funnier she gets. Equally cruel—though more cheerfully so—is Sienna Miller. Providing small but amusing cameos are Gervais once again revealing an unparallel mastery of toadying and Peter O'Toole who kicks the bucket quicker than John Cleese’s King Harold does in Shrek the Third. There’s legitimate reason to question whether Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn has what it takes to direct a big-budget effects-driven summer blockbuster. Remember after making his name producing or directing relatively inexpensive British crime capers Vaughn walked away from X-Men: The Last Stand. Judging by Stardust though Vaughn would have done a masterful job leading those misunderstood mutants into battle. Then again he couldn’t have done worse than Brett Ratner. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Stardust possesses both a big heart and an uncommon adventurous streak. Unlike the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End which was too long and too cumbersome for its own good Stardust moves nimbly and confidently through a strange and wonderful land populated with noble heroes to cheer for fiendish villains to boo at and gorgeous damsels in distress to sigh over. Vaughn keeps us on the edge of our seats whenever Tristan must think or fight his way out of danger. But he invests as much time in making believe that Tristan and Yvaine are made for each other. He also strikes a fine balance between honoring the sword-and-sorcery genre while playfully sending up its many cliches. The humor’s a lot more risqué than the bedtime story that was The Princess Bride but most of the sexual innuendoes will zoom over the heads of those still too young to pick up on many of Shrek’s pop-cultural references. Clearly Stardust cannot escape all other comparisons to The Princess Bride but Stardust boasts more than enough magic and daring-do to win over those who remained enthralled to this day by Cary Elwes’ brave efforts to rescue a kidnapped Robin Wright Penn. So this is one fairy tale that richly deserves its happily ever after--and for that matter so does Vaughn.