We seem to have entered a brief period of frenzy between the pre-Oscar stasis and the slow summer pace of one blockbuster per week. I’m keeping up as best I can.
Kick-Ass. Alias Smart-Ass, a black comedy marking another advance in the decadence and self-consciousness of superhero mythologies. The central premise of a teenage comic-book geek (Aaron Johnson) donning a green wet suit with ropy yellow trim to act out his crime-fighting fantasies, prosaically dubbing himself Kick-Ass for the purpose, is not as original as the script makes believe — “How come nobody’s ever tried to be a superhero?” — although the current generation of fanboys (were they known as fanboys before the current generation?) could not be expected to remember a thing like Nunzio, dated 1978. (Things like Blankman and Unbreakable are not so dust-covered.) Such a premise cannot stay for long in touch with “reality,” and soon the teen sex comedy — “My only superpower was being invisible to girls” — crosses paths with a Death Wish revenge story, and a “real” superhero surfaces: Big Daddy in a Batsuit knockoff (Nicolas Cage, kept under wraps in the trailer) and his bred-from-the-cradle prepubescent sidekick, the raccoon-masked, purple-haired Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz, who steals the show from her elders), together pressing a private vendetta against a Manhattan druglord (the tritely cast Mark Strong). You might say that the film, directed by Matthew Vaughn, deconstructs and then reconstructs the superhero fantasy, or anyway you might say it if those words are in your vocabulary. And if truly gory and nasty and ugly violence does not drag down or perhaps even boosts up your high spirits (consider Tarantino a test case), you are fairly well guaranteed to get at least a little kick out of it. Even I could get interested in a spin-off sequel revolving around Hit Girl exclusively. Kick-Ass can be given the boot.
City Island. Amiable domestic comedy about a nuclear blue-collar family in which everyone’s got a secret, and one’s got several. Dad (Andy Garcia, the sides of his head close-shaved in the style of Bogart’s ex-con in High Sierra) is a prison guard — correction: “correctional officer” — who sneaks off to acting classes under the manly cover story of poker games (sympathetic classmate: the twinkly Emily Mortimer; peevish teacher, pet peeve being the pointless pause: an amusing Alan Arkin). He has, in addition, just discovered in prison his unacknowledged long-lost son (Steven Strait), whom he takes home on parole ostensibly as a live-in handyman. Lastly and leastly, he is a secret smoker, a vice he shares with both Mom (Julianna Margulies), who harbors no larger a secret till she begins to get an eyeful of the hunky new handyman, and Son (Ezra Miller), who moreover has a stiffie for online BBWs, or Big Beautiful Women, colloquially called Fat Chicks. Meanwhile, Daughter (Dominik Garcia-Lorido) has lost her college scholarship and is trying to hide the fact by paying her own way as a moonlighting stripper at Hell’s Half Acre. Writer and director Raymond De Felitta orchestrates some lively passages of household discord, and he has set the action in a flavorful locale, a New England-y “fishing village” in the middle of the Bronx, where lifelong residents go by the name of “clam-diggers” and outside transplants go by “mussel-suckers.” The farcical finale is a bit uncomplicated in its resolution. Any viewer willing to entertain the rampant deception in the film ought to be willing to entertain a bit more mess at the end of it.
The Greatest. Brash title for a movie not about Muhammad Ali and not remotely great, only goodish. First-time writer and director Shana Feste has devised a sticky situation — the parents of a highway fatality (Aaron Johnson, kicking ass no more) open their home to the boy’s pregnant girlfriend — and she uses it to anatomize the different forms of grief. There’s some sharp observation — the mother waking up in the morning to the renewed realization, the father overprotectively and overzealously summoning his other son out of the surf — and Susan Sarandon (aging naturally), Pierce Brosnan (having a hard time, as both actor and character, squeezing out a tear), and An Education’s Carey Mulligan (no flash in the pan) give it their all. Added up, it’s enough to satisfy the neglected appetite for soap suds.
Date Night. A hedged bet, marital comedy cum action thriller, much like the ex-marital comedies cum action thrillers, The Bounty Hunter and Did You Hear about the Morgans? A “boring” New Jersey couple enliven their stale marriage by getting themselves mistaken for high-stakes blackmailers. Tina Fey will never in her lifetime use up the eternal gratitude she earned for her role in the 2008 presidential campaign (the faux Palin), and her intelligence intermittently peeks through the constant crassness, if only by stark contrast. Steve Carell, not so smartly, armors himself in protective irony, sort of like Jack Lemmon in quotation marks when we want Jack Lemmon straight. He never for an instant lets us feel that after the adventure is over, he’ll be obliged to return to suburbia. A parade of familiar faces, amounting almost to a “stellar” cast, substitutes to some extent for the dearth of laughs: Mark Wahlberg, Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, Taraji P. Henson, Ray Liotta, William Fichtner, James Franco, Mila Kunis, and, as himself, Will.i.am.
The Joneses. Consumerist satire wherein the ideal family of four is really an assembled sales team — a “unit” — planted in an affluent community to arouse envy and rivalry in their neighbors. Details of the operation are sketchy at best, but it works well enough as a metaphor. The satire goes soft at the end, though, and in fact begins to signal the melting a long way short of the end. Demi Moore, molded, sanded, polished, and varnished to mannequin perfection, has found here a role in which her inhumanness is not, until the softening, a drawback. David Duchovny, with that trademark quizzical look of trying to identify the flavor of ice cream in his mouth, is the chief signaller, the chief bean-spiller, of the coming thaw.
Malice in Wonderland. Simon Fellows’s, though made first, is the second version this year of the Lewis Carroll children’s classic, updated (albeit little more distorted than Tim Burton’s) in a depopulated urban underground in North East England, with a funhouse atmosphere of tilted cameras and electric Expressionistic color. It is often good to look at, not least for the comely Maggie Grace as an amnesiac adult Alice, but the forced fidelity to the original text — to the Mad Hatter, to Tweedledum and Tweedledee, to the Cheshire Cat, to the (now male) Queen of Hearts — becomes a ball-and-chain.
The Secret of Kells. Tomm Moore’s recent Oscar loser in the animation category, largely hand-drawn, flat and unfluid, to mythologize the creation of a Medieval Irish illuminated manuscript, from which numerous visual motifs have been lifted. An esoteric cartoon (who’s it for?) to say the least, soporific to say the worst, so stylized as to eliminate the menace from a pack of wolves or the magic from a woodland fairy.
The Perfect Game. Fact-based inspirationalism appalling and amusing in ineptitude (William Dear, director): a scrappy upstart Little League team from Monterrey, Mexico, blazes a trail across the U.S. to the 1957 World Series in Williamsport, evidently without ever having played a prior game, and without encountering en route a single intelligible and suspenseful baseball situation. (Coach, Clifton Collins, Jr.; spiritual guidance, Cheech Marin.) The ignorance of the sport is tipped off early: “I tipped it,” protests a batter after a swinging third strike, even though the catcher cleanly catches the ball. If I need to explain that to you, maybe it wouldn’t bother you.
The Warlords. Hoked-up Civil War epic, visually very uneven, set in mid-19th-century China, featuring three of the usual suspects, Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kineshiro, and directed by a new name to me, Peter Ho-Sun Chan. The weighty statements on the specific history and on war in general are subverted by eruptions of martial-arts silliness in the hand-to-hand combat. A filmmaker must choose whether he wants to be taken seriously or taken sillily. He can’t have it both ways.