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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Kick-Ass and Human Nature (Kick-Ass Movie Review)

In a movie starring Tom Cruise, does Tom Cruise exist?

This rhetorical question demonstrates an important tenet of film theory. A film’s world is not our world, no matter how much it looks like it. Each film creates its own unique mythology. The characters have histories and experiences beyond what’s on screen. Thus, film, like literature, can be a powerful tool for studying human nature. It provides a control environment in which psychoanalytical artists can experiment with personalities, and then propose theoretical outcomes.

While this is true in all cases, better filmmakers embrace the power of the form and strive to present some new and interesting comment on the human experience. Few films over the years have left me eager to watch over and over again, to study the characters, to analyze the relationships, and to derive meaning for my own life. The first film to do this for me was Alex Proyas’s “Dark City." Others include Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece “Brazil” and Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman's “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which I watched twice opening day. This is no comment on the quality of the film, although I believe they are indeed excellent films. These are simply films that, to me, required further exploration and ultimately forced me to reexamine my own character.

The latest film to do this is Mathew Vaughn’s ultra-violent comic book adaptation “Kick-Ass,” which has haunted me since I first saw it over two months ago. By the end of that first viewing, I had that familiar feeling in my gut. I knew that it was special, and I was eager to examine it further. The film's theme is voyeurism. It asks important questions about desensitization to violence, detachment from our neighbors, and responsibility as citizens. Have instant gratification mediums like Youtube, reality TV and 24-hr news made us numb to the plights of our fellow human beings?

Subsequent viewings allowed me to preclude being distracted by the beautiful photography and to focus on the characters: the dialogue; the relationships; the body language; the numerous diagetic clues. Every piece is essential, whether a character’s clothing, a line of dialogue, a name, a prop.

The character of Hit Girl, portrayed brilliantly by Chloe Moretz, is perhaps the most interesting in terms of human nature. She is the product of an unconventional (to say the least) upbringing: Her mother died during her birth while her father (played by Nicolas Cage) was in prison for a crime he did not commit. As soon as Big Daddy (as he is known) is released from prison, he plots revenge on those who framed him, and he trains his daughter, Mindy, as his henchman.

He turns her into an unstoppable killing machine, in just her short 11 years. During her first on-screen battle, she slaughters a dozen bad guys in gruesome ways as the impotent Kick-Ass stares in disbelief. Three times she pauses, blood dripping from her blade, and she flashes Kick-Ass an uncomfortable smile. She’s showing off, obviously enjoying what she’s doing, but her smile reveals an emptiness. Big Daddy is fulfilling his vengeance, but Hit Girl possesses no such motive. She’s only doing what she’s always done, what her daddy taught her. How does she really feel?

In one scene, we see a cop handcuffed to the steering wheel of his car, which sits in the teeth of a car crusher. He screams and pleads for his life, but Hit Girl pushes the button making the machine turn. She looks on coolly as the cop’s blood splatters across the windshield, and she proclaims, “What a douche.” A funny line, sure, but important in conveying this character’s callousness toward death.

The character of Kick-Ass provides an interesting counter-variable to Hit Girl’s unapologetic brutality. He’s motivated by a genuine concern for his fellow man. His benevolent naiveté is captured in the following dramatic exchange between Kick Ass and three gang bangers after he jumps in to save a stranger:

Gang Banger: “What the fuck is wrong with you, man? You'd rather die for some piece of shit that you don't even fucking know?”
Kick Ass: “Three assholes, laying into one guy while everybody else watches? And you wanna know what's wrong with me? Yeah, I'd rather die... so bring it on!”
Meanwhile, observers are more concerned with capturing the brutal attack on their cell phones than getting help for the bruised and bloodied wanna-be superhero.

Kick-Ass has the motivation but not the ability. Hit Girl has infinite ability, but little motivation. Where these characters intersect is where we can have a very interesting discussion about human nature.

When we’re first introduced to Hit Girl, her father is pointing a gun at her. He convinces her to take a bullet so she’ll know what it feels like (she’s wearing a bulletproof vest.) She asks her father if it’ll hurt, and he responds sympathetically that it won’t hurt much more than a punch in the chest. She then proclaims, very subtly, and for a good chuckle from the audience, “I hate getting punched in the chest.”

In a lesser movie this might be a throwaway line, but here it reveals a lot about this character. It tells me that, well, this girl’s been punched in the chest. Clues to her history are placed throughout the film, like when in their war chamber Big Daddy tells her “No more homework” before they go kill some bad guys. On her way out we catch a passing glimpse of this “homework”: a comic book.

When speaking to her father, she does so with absolute adoration. He loves her, and she reveres him. But when he dies in a horribly gruesome way, she doesn’t cry. Moretz, so impressive at such a young age, plays the scene as if she wants to cry, like she’s trying to force out a tear, but to no avail. This, of course, goes against our basic assumptions of human nature, but in her context it makes perfect sense.

The first time she exhibits the slightest bit of raw emotion is toward the end when she’s surprised by a helicopter kick to the face from a grown man (a disturbing image, no doubt.) She’s lying on the floor, dazed and confused, with blood pouring out of her nose. She reaches up to touch the blood with her fingertip, and she looks at it in both shock and deep insecurity. This might be the first time she’s ever bled. Moretz conveys profound emotion here, as we watch this character for the first time embrace her own mortality. She is at this moment pondering the meaning of her own life, a sense of purpose. Big Daddy might have trained her to kill, but he never prepared her to die.

So we have one character who commits selfish, brutal acts with little regard for humanity, and we have another who wants to save the world, but can’t. Where do you stand on this continuum? Where do you see our society as a whole? Where do you believe we SHOULD stand as members in a community? These are all complex questions that have been asked throughout human civilization. The answers are timely, but the discussion is timeless.

-this movie review for Lion Gate's "Kick-Ass" was written by Michael Fallik

Monday, May 3, 2010

Jesse has grown up (Breaking Bad : S3E8 "One Minute")

(image: AMC)

This episode marked a conclusion of Jesse's transformation.  Jesse is now a big player and seems to have his head straight.  He is no longer a lingering peon in the meth game.  The beating Jesse took from Hank in the first moments of this episode was the event that, in my view, propels Jesse to the next level. Jesse's new found direction is conspicuous and sufficiently believable to have (with a little nudge from Skyler) Walt bow down and for first time show him respect. This was definitely the most dramatically demanding episode Jesse's character has had and Aaron Paul nailed it.  The episode presented the longest monologues for Jesse's character, that I can recall, as well as the most intense emotional outbursts.  Jesse displayed his new found strength as well the fears and sadness that dwell deep inside.

On the other hand, all the steam that had been building up within Hank's character finally caused Hank to implode.  We met Hank as an almost goofy character in the first two seasons with a mean edge while at work. This season he had been trekking through darker terrain as he found himself closer and closer to catching Heisenberg. Being fired for misconduct and getting his badge taken away softened him up and threw him into a cloud a self-doubt and fragility. This culminated when he received the 'one minute' phone call and got into the greatest gun fight (with The Cousins) we have ever seen in this show.  It was reminiscent of a Quentin Tarantino film.  It appears that psychic potato's prediction was right in that Hank was not killed off just yet (see last week's post).

And now for our first rocking potatoes farewell.  It appears that "the cousins" are gone.  You will be missed.  Thus far you were the best character(s) to be killed off in Breaking Bad.  We will miss your mute presence. We will miss your skull-tipped boots.  We will miss your ax-murdering ways. And most of all, we will miss your visits to that freaky chapel. RIP.

(image: AMC)
Also, it looks like Walter is becoming more and more careless about his ways.  He visits Jesse at the hospital, not appearing to be concerned with the dangers of being seen publicly.  He talks to him on the phone very freely.  This seems odd for someone who is coming so close to being caught.  On a sidenote, I just want to give some credit to Bob Odenkirk (Saul) whose character really livens up the show.  His silly antics and demeanor really balance all of the show's violence and dark areas.  If not for Saul the show might come off as too somber.

Finally, psychic potato has a prediction-- something bad is going to happen due to Walt essentially firing Gale. Psychic potato sees that Walt has underestimated Gale and that Gale will catch on to what happened and get back at Walt in a big way.