Kick-Ass 2 Review

            Back in 2010 Kick-Ass, the superhero film directed by Matthew Vaughn, became one of the biggest surprises of the year.  It wasn’t seen as a financial success though (although it did make over 2.5x over its budget in the worldwide box office), so it looked like there would be no follow-up film despite a cliffhanger ending.  Then just last year news came that Jeff Wadlow was doing what was thought to not be possible: Kick-Ass 2.  Now that Kick-Ass 2 has been released, was it really all worth it?  I will give Kick-Ass 2 one thing.  It has made me like the first film even more.  Kick-Ass 2 is a big mess that largely succeeds because of great characters and the creative forces behind the film knowing the overall path these characters had to take (even if the specifics of that path are mostly uninteresting).

            Kick-Ass 2 takes place a few years after the events of Kick-Ass.  Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a popular senior at school now that he has retired from the superhero life.  Meanwhile, Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz) is still blowing off school to continue her training as a superhero, and Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is plotting his revenge on Kick-Ass for the death of his father.  However, a series of events are set in motion when Dave becomes aware of a group of superheroes lead by Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), and he decides to once again don the mask of Kick-Ass.  The film is directed and written by Jeff Wadlow (Never Back Down).

            Matthew Vaughn created a film that expertly straddled the line between an interesting deconstruction and a stupid mess of a film with Kick-Ass, and Jeff Wadlow’s work on this film shows that this type of a film needs someone that is as good as Vaughn in the directing department.  The humor and violence are back again, but in Wadlow’s hands the joke execution rate is really low, and the violence becomes a bit disconcerting at times.  This results in a film that thinks it’s a goofy meta-comedy like The Muppetsand yet has a rape scene (most of it is off camera) and other heinous crimes.  Luckily, Vaughn left Wadlow a huge gift.  The characters are excellent.  Kick-Ass is still a good hero.  Hit-Girl is still a character for the ages, and even Chris D’Amico is a villain that you can understand.

            It also helps that those characters are preformed quite well.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and (especially) Chloe Grace Moretz deliver performances that seem to build off of their work in the previous film to make it seem like their characters are naturally progressing.  While there is no performance like Nicholas Cage as Big Daddy, the supporting cast in this film is much better than its predecessor and there is one performance that gets close to Cage’s.  That is Jim Carrey as Colonel Stars and Stripes.  Carrey doesn’t have much screen time, but he makes sure you remember his character as he delivers a chameleon-like performance.  Other standouts from the supporting cast include Olga Kurkulina as Mother Russia (one of the better henchman in recent memory), Lindy Booth as Night-Bitch (finding a way to make her character not seem ridiculous as Kick-Ass’ love interest without much screen time to do so), and Clark Duke as Dave’s friend Marty (doing some solid comedic relief in an expanded role from the first film).

            Thanks to some strong character work Kick-Ass 2is able to overcome a slew of problems.


42 Review

            The popularity of baseball films has diminished greatly since the glory days of the genre in the 40s and 50s.  Yet we might just be witnessing something of a renaissance for the genre.  Moneyball ended up with a Best Picture nomination.  Knuckleball! has been a well-received documentary and even Trouble With the Curve featured some solid filmmaking.  However, the genre still needs another film that can garner the type of publicity that Moneyballreceived, and 42 might just have been that film.  42 received quite a bit of publicity this spring when it received the rare A+ Cinemascore.  For once mainstream audiences got it right.  42 is a fantastic film that serves as a strong tribute to Jackie Robinson.

            42 follows Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman)’s ascension into Major League Baseball from Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) seeking him out to him contributing to the Dodgers’ playoff push.  The film is directed and written by Brian Helgeland (screenwriter of L.A. Confidential and Mystic River).

            The easiest way to bring down a biopic about a well-known figure such as Jackie Robinson is to be overly sentimental.  Brian Helgeland finds the perfect amount of sentimentality to not only avoid this easy mistake but also turn it into one of the film’s strong suits.  This is just one of the many impressive things that Helgeland does with his direction and his script.  The film covers a lot of ground and Helgeland isn’t afraid to go to some dark places along the way while also making everything feel necessary to the story he is trying to tell.  It would be quite easy to turn this film into a “greatest hits” version of Jackie Robinson’s life (and those films never work), and Helgeland never lets that happen.  The thing that impressed me the most about Helgeland’s script though is that he is able to make this an easy sit for the uninitiated while also including enough inside-baseball (literally) elements to make it interesting for the biggest fans.

            The cast is another strong point of the film.  Chadwick Boseman makes a major impression as Jackie Robinson to the point that many will relate him to a young Denzel Washington.  Boseman is a charming guy and he is able to portray Robinson’s contained ferocity quite effectively.  Harrison Ford is a great counterpoint to the much louder acting that occurs around him.  It is easily his greatest performance in years and it gives me hope that his increased workload in recent years will bear fruit.  Nicole Beharie is another standout as Jackie Robinson’s wife.  It’s nice to see that Beharie was able to give a lot of strength to a figure that is treated like a god in real life nowadays by Major League Baseball.  The other standouts of the supporting cast are Christopher Meloni (who is quietly having a good year as he also delivered one of the more memorable supporting turns in Man of Steel) and Lucas Black (who is able to standout from the crowd as the legendary baseball player Pee Wee Reese).

            42 is one of the best films of the year.


Mud Review

            While this year has been a subpar year for films so far, 2013 has been noted for its strong set of coming-of-age films.  Films such as The Way, Way Back and The Spectacular Now have been some of the most buzzed about independent films of the year.  However, the biggest coming-of-age film of 2013 might have been a film that debuted at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.  That film would be Mud.  Mud is at times a very strong film that’s filled with a talented cast.  Yet it can’t quite achieve greatness thanks to some of its messages not hitting as well as they are intended.

            Mud follows Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a teenager who lives on an Arkansas River with his soon-to-be-divorced parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson).  In order to get away from his chaotic home life, Ellis is constantly out on the river with his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland making his acting debut).  When they go to check out an island they come across a stranger (Matthew McConaughey) and set a chain of events in motion that none of them could have predicted.  The film is directed and written by Jeff Nichols (who directed and wrote the powerful Take Shelter).

            Jeff Nichols is a director to keep your eye on.  He directed one of the most intense films in recent memory in Take Shelter, and with this film he proves that he is here to stay.  Mud isn’t intense like Take Shelter, but Nichols still shows that he can direct a coming-of-age-tale filled with Mark Twain-inspired dialogue and moments.  Yet this isn’t as structurally sound of a film as Take Shelter.  Nichols tries to cover a lot of ground in Mud, and one of the things he does try to cover in this film is the role of women in our society.  Many of the characters in this film treat women harshly, and if you were just watching this film casually you would get the impression that this film is misogynistic.  I think Nichols ultimately gets his point (that women can be better leaders in society than men) across but it’s done in such a subtle fashion that it may not work for most against the brashness of some of the actions that the male characters take.

            That is the film’s lone weakness, and luckily Nichols has a strong cast to make some of the weaker moments of the film work.  Tye Sheridan delivers one of the strongest child performances in recent memory while Matthew McConaughey finally delivers a performance that can get me to jump on the McConaughey bandwagon (which has exploded in popularity in the past year).  Ray McKinnon and Sam Shepard are also strong in supporting roles that they are perfectly suited for.  However, the best supporting performance in the film might belong to Sarah Paulson, who gives so much to the viewer while saying so little.

            Mud is a step down from Take Shelter for Jeff Nichols.  Yet this film does cement him as one of the most promising directors currently working.


The Killing: Season 3 Review

            There has been much critical hate driven towards AMC’s The Killing in its first two seasons, and while the show’s second season was not good, a lot of that hate was undeserved.  So I was happy to see many critics and hate watchers quietly offer their mea culpas during the show’s third season (which aired this past summer and was something off a miracle as the show was “cancelled” last July).  Yet I oddly found myself not as won over as many with this past season.  This season had many high points and was able to find make something interesting out of every plotline, but it ultimately wasn’t as even as the show’s first season as it tried to juggle three major storylines that often felt adrift from one another.

            The third season of The Killing followed Linden’s (Mireille Enos) return to the Seattle police force in order to help Holder (Joel Kinnaman) find the Pied Piper, a serial killer that preys on the homeless teenagers of Seattle.  As Linden gets closer to finding the killer she begins to realize that a man she once helped sentence to death (Peter Sarsgaard) may be innocent after all.  Veena Sud continued to run this series while the season was directed by a plethora of directors including Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme.

            This season is definitely a season of television that will play better on re-watch.  Many of the plotlines that felt so infuriatingly away from most of what else was going on in the show early on end up becoming important in the long run.  Other than a subplot involving a death row prison guard and his family life, many plotlines will reward the viewer better on second viewing.  The problem with this is the conclusion to the big mystery of the season is disappointing and poorly executed.  While the character work may be good (and Linden’s journey into the darkest point of her life truly is fascinating), it’s mixed in way too much with the mystery of the season to be worth it.  That being said, the good (and there is a lot of it with standout episodes such as “Reckoning” and “Six Minutes”) outweighs the weaker parts of this season.

            The show’s cast also continues to get better.  Mireille Enos and Peter Sarsgaard give the two strongest performances of this new TV season.  Enos isn’t afraid to work with darker material for her character, and this is the first season where she has made me truly invested in her character.  Meanwhile, Sarsgaard delivers a performance for the ages in “Six Minutes” as he faces death in the face.  So while the writing for the character may be a bit murky at first, it clears up enough in time for Sarsgaard to reach his true potential.  Joel Kinnaman is also good, even if he doesn’t get the material he got in past seasons.  Amy Seimetz and (especially) Bex Taylor-Klaus do great work in supporting turns.

            The third season of The Killing is a bit of the mess but it offers more good than bad and is a clear step up from its sophomore season.


The Wolverine Review

            Endings are a tough thing to pull off.  Get it wrong and even the most creative and ambitious projects can leave a sour taste in the mouths of viewers.  The Wolverine, the sixth film in the X-Men franchise, unfortunately gets it wrong.  For most of its runtime The Wolverine features some of the best superhero filmmaking ever.  However, when the film gets to its troublesome third act, it’s like someone else took over for James Mangold and his writers.  Does all of the interesting ideas and smart plotting go to waste because of this? No, but The Wolverine loses any chance of being memorable thanks to too many missteps in the final act.

            The Wolverine takes place in the aftermath of X-Men: The Last Stand(which is now eight years old) as Logan (Hugh Jackman reprising his most famous role) tries to recover from the stress of killing Jean Grey (Famke Janssen).  He is suddenly whisked away from the Canadian wilderness to help out an old friend and one of the richest people in Japan (Hal Yamanouchi) face his mortality as well as figure out the future of his company.  The film is directed by James Mangold (who is quickly racking up an interesting filmography filled with a western, a biopic, a rom-com actioner and a film featuring an Academy Award winning performance from Angelina Jolie) and is written by Mark Bomback (Unstoppable) and Scott Frank (Minority Report).

            It is quite amazing how perfectly this film works as a sequel to X-Men: The Last Stand despite that poorly received threequel having been long since forgotten.  A lot of credit has to be given to Bomback and Frank for working in the mythology of the X-Men series without bogging down the plotline of the actual movie (something which many superhero films have trouble doing).  Thanks to the script and Mangold’s crisp direction, this film moves at a fast clip while still finding time to answer almost all of X-Men: The Last Stand’s many lingering questions.

            That being said, a lot of the creative good will that Mangold and company build up is completely wasted when they consistently break the rules that the film sets up to get to its ending.  In the film’s ridiculous final act, a character’s immaculate mutant ability suddenly doesn’t work at a key moment only to work minutes later to set up a plot twist that you can see coming from miles away.  A smart and fierce villain not using a device that worked effectively earlier to dispatch a hero is also just another one of many moments that just brings this film down.

            Luckily, the cast is quite solid.  Playing a stripped down version of Wolverine, Hugh Jackman might offer his best portrayal yet of the character.  Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima are also quite good in their first major American roles (even if the former plays a poorly written romantic object).  Even Svetlana Khodschenkova leaves enough of an impression to get past what might be one of the worst written villains in recent memory.

            The Wolverine offers enough interesting bits in its first two-thirds to make the film worth it.


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