“KICK ASS 2” (2013) Review

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“KICK ASS 2” (2013) Review

The 2010 superhero action-comedy movie, “KICK ASS” barely profited at the box office, three years ago. Although it was well received by the critics, it barely made a dent into public opinion, until it was eventually released on DVD and became a cult favorite. 

Due to the increasing popularity of “KICK ASS” over the next two to three years, Universal Pictures decided to finance a sequel. The 2010 film was based upon the 2008-2010 comic book series created by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. The pair created two sequels to their creation – “Kick Ass 2” and “Hit Girl”, which this new movie sequel is based upon.

Following his retirement from being costume hero Kick Ass, Dave Lizewski discovers that life of a normal citizen does not suit him. He seeks Mindy Macready aka Hit Girl to train him in becoming a more proper hero. Because Mindy has promised her guardian Marcus Williams not to engage in vigilante activities, she secretly trains Dave in hand-to-hand combat. Meanwhile, the now fatherless Chris D’Amico accidentally kills his mother with a tanning bed, when they argue over her apathy towards his father’s death. Now in control of his family’s money, Chris decides to re-invent himself as a super villain known as “The Motherfucker”, and swears to get revenge on Kick-Ass for the death of his mobster father, Frank D’Amico. Dave’s training with Mindy ends when Marcus discovers that she has been leaving the house as Hit Girl and hanging around with Dave. With Mindy no longer at his side, Dave joins a band of costume vigilantes called “Justice Forever”, led by a former Mob henchman named Sal Bertolinni aka Colonel Stars and Stripes. And Chris recruits his own band of followers, with the help of one of his father’s former henchmen named Javier.

Writer-director Matthew Vaughn, who wrote and directed the 2010 film, did not return as one of the screenwriters and director for“KICK ASS 2”. Instead, he, along with Brad Pitt, served as one of the movie’s producers. Jeff Wadlow was chosen to write the screenplay and direct “KICK ASS 2”. Mind you, I believe he did a pretty good job. But a part of me ended up longing that Vaughn had co-written and directed the film. Like many sequels, “KICK ASS 2” failed to be better or just as good as the original film. But it was not the disaster that some people claimed it was.

If I have to be brutally honest, Wadlow lacked Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman’s wicked and slightly off-kilter sense of humor. Even worse, Wadlow borrowed one of Vaughn and Goldman’s jokes from the first movie- involving bullets and flak jackets – that simply came off as tired, instead of funny and fresh. But “KICK ASS 2” did include some funny moments. My favorites included Dave’s first solo fight against a group of thugs, Javier’s constant chiding of Chris’ habit of giving some of his henchmen politically incorrect names, and Dave’s first meetings with fellow costume vigilantes Doctor Gravity and Colonel Stars and Stripes and other members of “Justice Forever”. I must admit that I found Mindy’s attempt to be a “normal” girl in order to placate Marcus’ anxieties rather amusing, but not exactly a highlight of the movie. But There is one particular scene I DID NOT find funny at all – namely Chris’ attempted rape of Miranda Swedlow aka Night-Bitch. Perhaps I should be grateful that Wadlow did not repeat Millar and Romita’s comic book sequence featuring the gang rape of Dave’s old girlfriend, Katie Deauxma. But I did not appreciate the humor featured in Chris’ failed rape attempt . . . or the fact that this scene segued into Miranda suffering a major beating by one of his minions.

Even before Chris and his followers appeared at Miranda’s home, the movie had already taken a darker turn with the bad guys’ brutal murder of Colonel Stars and Stripes. And during Miranda’s beating, another one of Chris’ minions, a muscular ex-KGB agent and convict named Mother Russia, murdered ten cops that appeared on the scene. This led to a crackdown on all costumed vigilantes by the police. And when Dave’s father confessed to being Kick Ass, the movie became even darker. Ironically, I found this dark plot turn beneficial to the movie. I believe it improved the movie – story wise. In fact, Dave’s reaction to his father’s death proved to be more realistic and satisfying than his reaction to his mother’s death in “KICK ASS”.

Although “KICK ASS 2” featured some pretty damn good performances, there were a few that stood out for me. One of them came from Aaron Johnson-Taylor, whom I believe gave an excellent performance as Dave Lizewski. Mind you, I had not been impressed by his performance in “ANNA KARENNIA”. I suspect that the critics’ negative reaction to that performance had spilled over to his performance in this movie. And I do not believe he deserved such unfair criticism. Chloë Grace Moretz was marvelous, as always, as the butt-kicking Mindy Macready aka Hit Girl. Despite my lukewarm reaction to her “MEAN GIRLS” story arc, I thought she conveyed a good deal of complexity and vulnerability in her portrayal of Mindy’s attempts to become popular and in the latter’s complicated relationship with godfather Marcus Williams.

Speaking of the latter, I really enjoyed Morris Chestnut’s performance as Mindy’s well-meaning godfather. Thanks to his portrayal, one could tell that Marcus meant well and had a great deal of concern toward his goddaughter. But at the same time, anyone could see that his feelings were ruled by fear. I suspect that many people had expected Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Colonel Stars and Stripes to be a copycat of Nicholas Cage’s performance as Mindy’s late father, Damon Macready aka Big Daddy. Fortunately, Carrey’s character proved to be a different kettle of fish, a charismatic leader who seemed to have better social skills and an intolerance for profanity. And the actor-comedian did a hell of a great job with the role. Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s continuing portrayal of Chris D’Amico proved to be a great surprise in this movie. Mind you, I had been very impressed by his comic timing in“KICK ASS”. I read somewhere that he had been uneasy over whether he could transform Chris into a darker character. Well, you know what? Not only did Mintz-Plasse managed to explore Chris’ darker traits, his character proved to be just as scary as Frank D’Amico in the first film. More importantly, the actor maintained Chris’ goofier persona at the same time.

“KICK ASS 2” also featured some supporting performances that I found impressive. Donald Faison struck me as exceptionally funny as the enthusiastic Doctor Gravity. John Leguizamo gave a warm and funny performance as Frank D’Amico’s former henchman and Chris’ present bodyguard, Javier. Ukrainian body-builder Olga Kurkulina proved to be surprisingly and effectively scary as Chris’ top henchman, Mother Russia. Garrett M. Brown had some wonderful and poignant moments with Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the very concerned Mr. Lizewski. And Lindsay Booth proved to be equally poignant as Miranda Swedlow aka Night Bitch, a victim of Chris D’Amico’s vengeance, who rallied at the end to support Dave and Mindy in the final showdown.

One would think I really loved “KICK ASS 2”, considering the amount of positive things I had to say about it. I did not love it or embraced it as I did the first film. It had some flaws I could not swallow, especially the attempted rape scene. But I feel that it was good enough for me to enjoy, thanks to Jeff Wadlow’s writing and direction, along with some fine performances from a cast led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz and Christopher Mintz-Plasse.

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“THE LINCOLN LAWYER” (2011) Review

“THE LINCOLN LAWYER” (2011) Review

For years I began to wonder if Matthew McConaughey would be stuck in an endless series of mediocre romance comedies and light action thrillers. The last noteworthy movie I had seen him in was the 2008 comedy, “TROPIC THUNDER”. Only, he was not the lead in that film. And the last noteworthy movie in which he was the lead actor was the 2006 drama, “WE ARE MARSHALL” and before that – the 2000 World War II thriller, “U-571”. Then I saw “THE LINCOLN LAWYER” and whatever doubts I had about the future of his career were erased. For now. 

Directed by Brad Furman and based upon Michael Connelly’s 2005 novel, “THE LINCOLN LAWYER” told the story about a successful Los Angeles defense attorney named Mickey Haller, who operates around Los Angeles County out of a Lincoln Town Car, driven by a former client working off his legal fees (hence the title). Haller has spent most of his career defending garden-variety criminals, until he lands the case of his career – a Beverly Hills playboy named Louis Roulet, who also happens to be the son of a real estate mogul named Mary Windsor. Roulet is accused of the brutal beating of a prostitute. At first, Roulet seems to be an innocent who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But when Haller and his investigator, Frank Levin, discover that the prostitute’s injuries are similar to a past case of his that landed a previous client, Jesus Martinez in prison for murdering a woman, the seemingly straightforward case suddenly develops into a deadly game of survival for Haller.

After watching this movie, it occurred to me that the movie’s title bore very little significance to the actual plot. If anything, the idea that the Mickey Haller operated his law firm from the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car struck me as some kind of plot contrivance that almost seemed like a publicity ploy. Honestly. Both Connelly’s novel and the movie would have been better off with a title that related more closely with the plot. Perhaps I am being a bit of a nitpicker. Yet, before I actually saw “THE LINCOLN LAWYER”, I honestly thought the car would feature as a major plot point for the story. Another problem I had with the movie was that at times, cinematographer Lukas Ettlin utilized in that quick-cut photography that tends to leave me feeling slightly dizzy. And I thought that the story’s conclusion may have been rushed a bit. But despite these mild annoyances, I enjoyed the movie very much.

One, it has become increasingly rare to find a major Hollywood movie set in the Los Angeles. There have been movies set in my hometown. But there are not as many as they used to be. And as an Angeleno, this has been a bone of contention for me. Thankfully, director Brad Furman and cinematographer Lukas Ettlin did a great job in revealing the City of Angels to movie goers without resorting to extremes in its portrayal. Two, Furman made great use of a first-rate cast filled with many whose careers I thought were either over or sliding into oblivion. Most importantly, both Furman and screenwriter John Romano did an excellent job of translating Connelly’s novel to the screen. Okay, I confess that I have never read the novel. Which means that I do not know how faithful Romano’s screenplay was to the novel. But whether the movie was a close adaptation or not, I must admit that it had a damn good story. The best thing I liked about “THE LINCOLN LAWYER” was that Haller’s defense of Roulet transformed into a nightmarish situation in which he found himself in an unwitting game of cat and mouse.

When I said that the cast was first-rate, I was not joking. The supporting cast included excellent performances from the likes of Frances Fisher, who portrayed Roulet’s controlling and over-protective mother; Michael Peña, who portrayed Haller’s former client claiming innocence of murder, while serving time in prison; Laurence Mason as Haller’s observant chauffeur/former client; Michael Paré and Bryan Cranston, who portrayed two hostile but very different L.A.P.D. detectives, John Leguizamo, who portrayed the slightly sleezy bail bondsman responsible for directing Haller to Roulet’s case; and Bob Gunton, who portrayed the Roulet-Windsor family’s obsequious attorney. I believe that the last decent movie that Josh Lucas made was 2006’s “GLORY ROAD”. So, it was great to see him in a first-rate movie in which, once again, he proved how much of a chameleon he could be in his portrayal of the righteous prosecuting attorney, whose self-assurance is slowly whittled away. William H. Macy created a strong screen chemisty as Haller’s intelligent and witty investigator, who helps solve the case. And Marisa Tomei gave a strong performance as Haller’s ex-wife and a prosecutor who is torn between relief that she is no longer married to such a difficult man and lingering feelings for him.

But the two star performances came from Matthew McConaughey in the title role of Mickey Haller; and Ryan Phillippe as his latest client, Louis Roulet. McConaughey, who has spent too many years without a first rate leading role, owned this movie. Let me take that back. He did not completely own the movie, but he definitely made the Mickey Haller character his own. Hell, he practically conquered it. Sure, McConaughey utilized his usual brand of Southern charm in the movie’s first ten or fifteen minutes. But as the movie’s plot made a sharp turn, the actor dropped the charming façade and revealed his character’s range of emotions in dealing with his complicated new client. And speaking of the Louis Roulet character, I believe that it might turn out to be one of Ryan Phillippe’s best roles ever. Due to his superb performance, he transformed Roulet from a charming, yet bewildered client that projected an air of innocence to a dark and malignant man with a talent for manipulation.

Would I recommend that you see “THE LINCOLN LAWYER” before it disappears from the movie theaters? Absolutely. Thanks to director Brad Furman and screenwriter John Romano, the movie turned out to be a superb adaptation of Michael Connelly’s novel. And the movie was also blessed with a first-rate cast, led by outstanding performances from Matthew McConaughey and Ryan Phillippe. It is one of the better movies I have seen this year so far.

“MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” (2008) Review

 

“MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” (2008) Review

Based upon James McBride’s 2003 novel and directed by Spike Lee, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” told the story about four black soldiers of the all-black 92nd Infantry Division who get trapped near a small Tuscan village on the Gothic Line during the Italian Campaign of World War II, after one of them risks his life to save an Italian boy. The story is inspired by the August 1944 Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre, perpetrated by the Waffen-SS. 

Before I saw the movie, I came across a few reviews of the film. Needless to say, it either received mixed or bad reviews. Many critics either found the movie’s plot incoherent or seemed turned off by Lee’s message about the racism encountered by African-American troops during World II. After seeing the movie, I must admit that I also have mixed feelings about it.

Personally, I had no problem with the plot. It started with a the murder of an Italian immigrant by a black U.S. Postal Service in December 1983. Due to the investigations of the New York Police, and a rookie journalist portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the postal worker is revealed to be one of the four American troops who find themselves trapped near the Tuscan village. This same veteran is also discovered to have a piece of Italian sculpture in his possession. As I had stated earlier, most film critics found the plot confusing. Aside from certain scenes that I felt should have been deleted, the plot turned out to be perfectly coherent to me. What Lee did was take certain subplots that focused on the four troops, the inhabitants of the Tuscan village, the Nazi’s search for an AWOL German troop and a group of Italian partisans; and drew them together to form the finale of the movie’s mystery surrounding the veteran-turned-postal worker and the Italian sculpture. I must admit that aside from a few scenes, Lee did an excellent job in bringing this all together.

And the director had a good, solid cast to help him bring this movie together. Derek Luke (“LIONS FOR LAMB” and “ANTWONE FISHER”) and Michael Ealy were especially impressive as the disciplined and tightly coiled Aubrey Stamps and the cynical and slightly bitter Bishop Cummings – who vie for the attentions of a local Italian woman named Renata, portrayed by Valentina Cervi. Laz Alonso gave a solid performance as the Puerto Rican corporal Hector Negron, forced to keep the peace between Stamps and Cummings. I was also impressed by Pierfrancesco Favino as Peppi Grotto, the leader of the local partisan group. Like many other child actors I have noticed in recent years, Matteo Sciabordi surprised me with an excellent performance as the young Angelo Torancelli, who befriends the four soldiers, while trying not to remember the horrible massacre at Sant’Anna di Stazzema. At first I was slightly wary about Omar Benson Miller’s performance as Sam Train, the private who first saves young Angelo in the film’s first half. He came off as rather raw and inexperienced to me. But further along into the film, his performance improved. And I realized that his performance had never been at fault. Only the screenplay written by author McBride. Miller had the unfortunate bad luck to slough his way through some pretty horrible dialogue, early in the film.

Speaking of the dialogue, it turned out to be one of the aspects of the film I barely found tolerable. At least in the movie’s first half hour. I wish that Spike Lee had discovered this lesson a long time ago – never hire the author of the novel you are adapting to write the screenplay. Producer Dan Curtis had also failed to learn this lesson when he hired author Herman Wouk to write “THE WINDS OF WAR”screenplay. As much as I enjoyed how the movie’s plot developed, there were some scenes or pieces of dialogue I could have done without. For example:

*Axis Sally’s attempt to demoralize the black troops crossing an Italian river – despite the scorn heaped upon the dear lady by the black American and German troops alike, I must have spent at least five minutes squirming in my seat. Ugh!

*Private Train’s determination to convince his companions that the young Angelo is blessed with some kind of divine gift. Honestly, his dialogue drove me crazy. James McBride should have been ashamed of himself.

*Sergeant Stamp’s speech about the difficulties of being an African-American soldier during the war

*The flashback featuring the four soldiers’ encounter with a bigoted ice cream parlor owner in Louisiana.

The last two turned out to be perfect examples of another one of the film’s flaws – namely Lee’s heavy-handed portrayal of racism in the U.S. Army, during World War II. A part of me wishes that the director had watched Carl Franklin’s adaptation of“THE DEVIL IN THE BLUE DRESS” (1995). That particular movie was an excellent example of portraying racism in the past, without pounding in the message. Lee, on the other hand, overdid it. He allowed the message to get in the way of the story at least twice. When Stamps received a message from their Southern-born captain to capture a German soldier for question, this sends the usually obedient Stamps went into a rant about how black troops were treated. It was simply unecessary. Lee forgot another rule in filmaking – you show, not tell. He managed to do that with the troops’ dealings with their Southern-born captain. But he could not stop there. He and McBride also included the flashback in Louisiana . . . something that added nothing to the story’s plot. It felt like a propaganda piece added at the last minute by the filmakers.

Despite some of the bad dialogue, unecessary scenes and the ham-fisted message on racism, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA” turned out to be a better film than I had originally perceived. Although the film critics had been correct in some of their complaints, I found it hard to agree with them that the movie’s plot was incoherent. Even before halfway into the story, I understood what McBride and especially Lee were trying to achieve. I say . . . give it a shot. It might surprise you.