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.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Thirty-five years after the pulse-pounding thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was made this sleek faster-paced remake not only improves on a good thing it showcases a much different New York than its pre-9/11 predecessor. Like the 1974 version the story revolves around the takeover of the lead car of a subway train by armed hoods headed by their crafty mastermind Ryder. They kill a cop take 18 people hostage and give authorities just one hour to deliver $10 million. (Inflation alert: In the first version it was a paltry million.) It’s up to train dispatcher Walter Garber to negotiate with Ryder in a cat-and-mouse game where innocent lives are used as bait. As the film progresses darker sides of both principals are revealed and become key parts of this ever-evolving time bomb of a movie.
WHO’S IN IT?
In a wildly different bit of casting The Taking of Pelham 123 stars Denzel Washington in the train dispatcher role played by Walter Matthau in the original giving it more gravity and making it less sardonic than Matthau’s lighter take. For much of the movie it’s really a phone connection that brings Washington together with his nemesis Ryder played to the evil explosive hilt by John Travolta. Travolta’s bad guys (think Face/Off Pulp Fiction) are always complex and intriguing and Ryder is no exception proving to be someone much different than we are originally led to believe. This is the actor’s best outing in some time and his “face-offs” with Washington give both stars grade-A acting opportunities. They deliver — and then some. Almost stealing the film is the original Tony Soprano himself James Gandolfini who plays a slippery NYC Mayor trying to keep the incident from spiraling out of control. Also worthy of praise is John Turturro who’s very fine as a professional hostage negotiator who finds the tools of his trade don’t work very well in this situation.
Departing from the original film which took its own sweet time and merged sly humor with suspense Pelham 123 director Tony Scott puts his signature stamp on this version even before the opening credits are done establishing a lightning fast pace and tense tone of high-stakes drama from the outset. Moments of comic relief are kept to a minimum. Despite the high-tech approach Scott keeps this Pelham from careening off the tracks by emphasizing Oscar winner Brian Helgeland’s (L.A. Confidential) smart repartee between the leads and old fashioned movie-making skills designed to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. The riveting storyline is credible and believable at all times.
Scott moves things along so quickly you wish there was time for more character development. This applies particularly to Ryder whose reasons for turning bad aren’t so obviously black-and-white and certainly fit the times.
The first direct confrontation between Washington and Travolta is pure gold as the two circle each other and try to spray their territory.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Both. See the new version in a theater and then go home and watch the DVD of the original. Or vice versa. Both are great examples of genre moviemaking at its best.
Lonely Hearts is really two stories set in post WWII America. The main story is about Ray Fernandez (Jared Leto) a small-time swindler who bilks war widows out of their insurance money and life savings by getting them to fall in love with him. He then marries them and kills them once he has control of their assets. His neat little scam is thrown off kilter when he discovers that one of his targets Martha Beck (Salma Hayek) is penniless. He tries to dump her but she figures out his scheme and they become lethal lovers and partners in crime. The other story is about the detective (John Travolta) who tracks them down. He is picking up the pieces of his own tragic life after his wife commits suicide. His son (Dan Byrd) is a distant and difficult teenager and his girlfriend (Laura Dern) is trying to help him get on with his life. Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream) is excellent as the greasy playboy who seduces and kills lonely women. He plays the sleazy charm and indecisive weakness of Ray Fernandez perfectly. But the standout performance of the film is Salma Hayek. Although Martha Beck on her best day never looked anywhere near as good as Hayek does on her worst the actress makes the cold-blooded character her own doing whatever it takes to get her hands on the ill-gotten gains. The image of a bloody and frustrated Hayek in a frumpy housecoat sucking on a cigarette with a hacksaw in hand complaining about the tenaciousness of one of their victims is priceless. John Travolta is either miscast or misused as the tortured tough guy detective Elmer Robinson. This wasn't a cool character and Travolta is a cool star who seemed to be straight jacketed by a character who is almost completely reactionary. James Gandolfini and Laura Dern do their best in their supporting roles. Writer-director Todd Robinson turns in a serviceable job behind the camera but falls down on the script. Lonely Hearts' main problem seems to be his inability to wiggle away from the facts to create an engaging movie. Robinson is actually the grandson of the real-life detective who brought Fernandez and Beck to justice. Robinson never gets beyond the made-for-TV luridness of the basic story. Gandolfini gets stuck in the role of narrator which would have been much more engaging if Travolta's character would have been the one talking to the audience. Robinson never lets the audience inside the characters long enough to make the film a more emotional experience. This is a problem with true stories; the writers are often not able or willing to be creative with the lives and motivations of the characters who have done extraordinary and well-documented things.
Invincible is Rudy and The Rookie all rolled into one. Set in the mid-‘70s Mark Wahlberg stars as the real-life Vince Papale a blue-collar Philadelphian down on his luck after his wife leaves him. His only solace is playing football with his cronies and rooting for his beloved Philadelphia Eagles who are in a real rut. Newly hired head coach the legendary Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) decides to infuse some new blood into the team by holding open tryouts. All of Vince’s friends think he’d be perfect and urge him to go for it. He does makes it and is soon playing with some of his idols much to their chagrin. I mean who is this punk anyway? Sure he’s got some excellent instincts but can he really be a NFL player with no experience? Yes in fact he can proving to all those regular Joes out there you can live the dream. Yeah yeah. Unfortunately none of the actors really add anything either. Wahlberg is definitely a natural to play this kind of role having already done so in Rock Star. At least in Invincible he gets to show off some of his athletic abilities rather than just his bare chest in black leather pants. But the performance is run of the mill. As is Kinnear who as Vermeil takes on the headaches of turning a losing team into winners all while his supportive wife sweetly reassures him he’s doing the very best he can. Seen it. To their credit some of the supporting actors—including Kirk Acevedo (The New World) Michael Kelly (Dawn of the Dead) and Michael Rispoli (Mr. 3000)—paint a convincing picture of genuine camaraderie between local Philadelphians. And Elizabeth Banks (The 40 Year-Old Virgin) rounds things out as Vince’s cute love interest (and eventual real-life wife) who knows a few things about football by golly. You’d think Invincible would be a no-brainer feel-good kind of sports flick. It’s based on a real-life person has that whole underdog thing going for it and it’s football. What could go wrong with that? Nothing really besides the fact it’s been done about a hundred times over—and has now been left in the hands of newbies. First-time director Ericson Core a former cinematographer and writer Brad Gann are clearly green doing things by the play book line for line. It’s scary helming a feature film for a big studio like Disney who had such sport hits like The Rookie and Remember the Titans. Perhaps Core wanted to go more out on a limb but was reigned in. Who knows? The football scenes are definitely the highlight and Core handles the action well. I mean you do want Papale to prove himself the natural athlete he truly is and make all his homies proud. But the rest of it is just blah.
Milwaukee Brewers' big swinger Stan Ross (Bernie Mac) is a baseball star--a man with big talent a bigger mouth and an even bigger ego. Nine years ago he achieved legendary status by getting 3 000 base hits and was revered by his fans but had burned most of the bridges with everyone else especially when he stuck it to his team by abruptly retiring from the game. No matter. Stan spent years capitalizing on his "Mr. 3000" persona and now is just waiting for his final honor--induction into the Hall of Fame. What he gets instead however is a slap in the face when it's discovered that three of his 3 000 hits aren't valid making him only "Mr. 2 997." To reclaim his record Stan is forced to return to the field and play once again for his former team and earn those three hits--and it ain't easy. The game has changed and so has he--pushing 50 Ross is faced with both physical and mental challenges. Not only must he measure up to the new kids on the block like the Brewers' cocky power hitter T-Rex Pennebaker (Brian White) he also has to contend with less-than-supportive sports journalists especially his former flame Mo Simmons (Angela Bassett) all of whom remember the lashings they took from invective-spoutin' Stan the Man back in the day. But this time around something happens to Stan. Now hungry to prove himself he finds his love for the sport and his team renewed realizing there is a difference between having a successful life and a meaningful one. See? I told you it was corny.
Bernie Mac is a smart man. Having played smaller but memorable roles in films such as Ocean's Eleven and Bad Santa Mac has made a wise choice picking Mr. 3000 as his first foray into leading man territory. First of all Mac actually used to play the game pretty seriously so you can definitely feel the love but the character also really suits this king of comedy emphasizing his gruff sense of humor (the scene in which he tells a group of school children their favorite story character has died just to shut them up is classic Mac) while also showing off some genuine acting chops as the self-centered Stan tries to change his life. Mac can pull off the romantic stuff too if you can believe it. He clicks immediately with the always-good Bassett as the two put on a rather refreshing display of affection tinged with some obvious history from their shared past. Stan also has a quirky but genuine relationship with his former teammate Boca (as in Boca Raton Fla. because of his trademark velour jogging suits) played by character actor Michael Rispoli (Death to Smoochy). Boca is Stan's only real and honest friend'; his cryptic refrain "That's why I love you man " becomes a running gag throughout the film. Other supporting standouts include White (who is actually a former pro-football player) as Stan's arrogant protégé and Paul Sorvino as the Brewers' stoic team manager who says next to nothing--until it really counts.
Baseball movies always seem to work. There's just something about that all-American pastime that gets moviegoers' emotions stirring--the underdogs; the camaraderie; the jaded ball player; the crack of the bat; the magical home run; the peanut-chomping fans; and of course the pure love of the game. Director Charles Stone III (Drumline) captures a good deal of that in Mr. 3000 as well as adding some funkiness to the proceedings with his savvy cast and a cool old time R&B soundtrack (Earth Wind and Fire gets you grooving every time). Still there's an inherent problem: We've seen this baseball formula done so many times before in better movies such as Bull Durham and The Natural. It's also highly predictable that Stan is going not only learn some lessons about life but will also impart that wisdom and inspiration to his younger teammates. Yeah yeah. Even Stan ends the movie saying "Was that corny enough for you?" It is--but that's why we love it man.
Randolph Smiley (Robin Williams) is on top of his game--he's the eponymous star of the highest rated kid's TV show Rainbow Randolph has his own Times Square billboard and makes lots of money. Until that is he gets caught taking bribes from stage parents. Suddenly he becomes the social pariah of the millennium and of course gets canned. Losing Rainbow Randolph however leaves the network in a bind. Now they have to find a squeaky-clean replacement pronto. Enter Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton) and his alter-ego Smoochy an abnormally large fuschia rhino who sings children's songs about kicking drug habits and stepdads who aren't mean but simply adjusting. With his naivete unwavering ethics and unflagging ambition to make the world a better place he becomes the new number one show. Sheldon soon learns however how cutthroat children's entertainment can be as the powers that be try to corrupt his ideals. Meanwhile a homeless Randolph makes it his number-one priority to destroy the bastard who stole his life. Who's going to get Smoochy first the corrupt businessmen or crazy Rainbow Randy? Stay tuned...
When you hear the Smoochy cast list--Williams Danny DeVito Jon Stewart Catherine Keener--you automatically think mondo laughs. Added to the list is Norton who may not be known for his comedic talents but certainly adds credibility to the movie especially given that he rarely picks bad scripts. Luckily no one disappoints. Norton plays the straight guy with aplomb and shines brilliantly when singing his sappy yet lesson-filled songs. Keener whom we haven't seen since her Oscar-nominated turn in Being John Malkovich is also a standout as the jaded development VP who falls for Sheldon's sweet manner. She has an uncanny way of delivering lines that bite to the bone. And then there's Williams--as always he has extraordinary moments of sheer hilarity in the film. This isn't one of those films where the comedian has to attempt to act or simply be reined in by the director (as some have done) to give a good performance. Director DeVito (who also plays the greedy agent) is wise enough to simply turn the camera on the comedian and let him go. Just wish we could have seen more of him.
Ever wonder what it would be like to kill Barney? We're betting DeVito thought about it quite often--and things never turn out good for that purple dinosaur. The premise of Smoochy is one of the funnier ones in recent memory and seems to follow the dark comedic path DeVito has chosen in his other directorial efforts including War of the Roses and Throw Momma From the Train. Unfortunately Smoochy doesn't quite hold up to its hype (or its trailers) because basically it focuses on the wrong character. It's got some great moments granted especially when Smoochy is on his show. But instead of being about Randy's obsession to do away with his replacement the film chooses to follow Mopes and deal with the dirty business of making a kid's show which appears to involve the Mob (whatever). Smoochy would have been a lot funnier if Randolph could have finally succeeded in his quest instead of getting all sappy.