Kick-Ass

 ★★★★★ 

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a comic book geek who wonders why no-one tries to be like the heroes he reads about. He soon finds out the painful truth when he decides to try, as Kick-Ass, and ends up with vicious crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) out for his head.

Since the superhero genre revolution took off properly with Spider-Man, mainstream cinema seems to have been aimed purely at kids, with even Die Hard 4.0 and Terminator: Salvation retooling once adult franchises for teens. Maybe 2010 will see that put right with The Losers, The Expendables and The A-Team all to look forward to and hopefully not pulling punches. The irony is the bar has already been set by a superhero movie! Kick-Ass, based on Mark Millar’s hilarious comic, is astonishingly violent and ready-made to cause some healthy controversy. Yet it is equally entertaining and has bags of substance. Despite being a parody of superheroes, it feels fresh and original throughout. This is Shaun of the Dead for costumed freaks and similarly destined to be a modern geek classic. The trailer sets you up without revealing just how layered the film is.

It starts like a typical teen superhero story, with Dave and his friends wondering why no-one tries to be a super-hero. One more mugging later, Dave is determined to prove it can be done and so dresses up to go out and make a difference. He is quickly brought down to earth with a shocking failure in his first half-arsed attempt to stop car thieves. Nevertheless, he ends up with dead nerve-endings and a metal pins (Wolverine?) throughout his body meaning he can take a beating. So he can’t resist trying again and through no small amount of blind luck, ends up on the Internet as Kick-Ass, in the first of several sharp digs at modern media (later a TV news report has to end a live broadcast because it is too shocking, despite it being uncensored on the web!). Fame and cheap merchandising quickly follow, despite him being nothing more than an enthusiastic idiot.

That brings him to the fascinated attention of a two proper, highly skilled heroes who keep a low profile at odds with their costumes. Big Daddy is a Batman figure, possibly harder actually, while his 12 year old highly trained daughter Hit Girl is simply like nothing you have ever seen before. Your jaw will drop at the petite foul-mouthed killer who can clear a room of thugs without breaking a sweat! Her fight scenes are incredibly inventive and bloody, without resorting to the silliness of Wanted, also based on a Mark Millar comic, and the finale is simply glorious, introduced by Elvis Presley no less on the cool soundtrack. Matthew Vaughn brilliantly handles all the threads with an inventive and confident style, featuring an animated comic sequence and one fantastic moment from a first person shooter perspective, yet never loses focus of the central theme.

While it is very funny, the witty story, full of comic book references, also has a conscience and a clear sense of mortality and bears comparison with Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The violence isn’t really gratuitous (well, not much!) because it forces both Dave and the audience to realise the sobering cost of what he’s trying to do. This is supported by a great cast of well defined characters, anchored by Mark Strong’s Frank and Nicholas Cage. Normally he brings a dose of insanity to relatively normal characters, but here he softens Big Daddy, who is clearly nuts, with subtle honesty. Cage has been turning into a self-parody for years, but he is superb here and gracious in his performance alongside sparky Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl. That Superbad’s McLovin, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, as Red Mist and Aaron Johnson as Dave aren’t lost in the mix is testament to both their performances and the finely balanced plot. There’s even room for a sub-plot as Dave pretends to be gay to get close to dream girl, Lyndsey Fonseca.

For me the defining superhero films are Superman, The Dark Knight and The Incredibles. Kick-Ass can easily sit alongside them. I’m just not sure that the teenagers are going to be happy settling for Tony Stark, because Iron Man 2 is already looking dated!

Ghost In The Shell

 ★★★★★ 


The year is 2029, the world is made borderless by the net; augmented humans who live in virtual environments. Watched over by law enforcement agents that are able to download themselves into super-powered, crime busting mecha. The ultimate secret agent of the future is not human, has no physical body and can travel freely through the information highways of the world. Hacking and manipulating whatever, whomever and whenever required…

In my recent review for Akira, I claimed that it set a sci-fi benchmark that Hollywood has failed to match. It wasn’t a one-off though and it is a point anime has continued to prove, especially with Ghost In The Shell to the point of a specific example. Released in 1995, the theme of the story bears some resemblance to 1999’s The Matrix. And so this film has always been my favourite stick to beat the overrated Wachowski’s with! If you like pure action, there are few films better than The Matrix, but a lot of people held it up as brilliant sci-fi to rival Bladerunner, especially as the producers weren’t shy about Ghost being an influence. Actually, in comparison to the challenging and sublime Ghost, The Matrix is nothing more than a clumsy gimmick.

It’s a political story, with perhaps very vague echoes of Robocop. The main character, Major Kusanagi is a cyborg and a brilliantly effective agent, but she contemplates the possibility of having a soul, or a “ghost” and worries how much of her is natural or just a result of AI programming. She works for Section Nine who are investigating The Puppet Master. Although they argue about how it’s possible, it is likely he is just a ghost with no physical form himself, hacking into various shells and networks as a form of cyber terrorism.

While it isn’t as epic as the ambitious Akira, nor animated quite so brilliantly (it does have its moments though), it does share that earlier films skill for balancing gorgeous, wide open cinematic action with an incisive sci-fi plot. In fact, this focused, tightly plotted story is arguably better. It has a nostalgic poignancy that gives the film a soul, smartly mirroring the story of cyborgs wrestling with a conscience. The haunting theme adds another layer. And I was being picky about the animation only to demonstrate the difference with Akira, but actually the attention to detail is incredible, something only recently matched by people like Pixar.

It can’t match Akira‘s confident pacing. A couple of scenes are a bit talky and suffer from the static anime style Akira avoided, but there are several moments that are achingly beautiful. Especially when the Major goes diving and drifts weightlessly to the surface, embodying the emotional struggle she has with being whatever it is she is. Another example is the frequent nudity from the Major or even the damaged cyborg “shell” they find. It sounds strange to point it out, but it’s done with a tasteful obvious quality that live action could never pull off and it suits the story without being in any way gratuitous (the Major’s partner, also almost all cyborg, claims he doesn’t understand why she wishes to do things like diving, but then ironically catches himself staring at her body, revealing his own very human qualities).

It is very difficult to describe the atmosphere of this brilliant film and give it justice. It amused me when I watched this again that there is a quote from James Cameron on the sleeve, rightly praising Ghost for its “literary excellence” and another from the original Empire magazine review, saying that this is “the kind of film Cameron would make if Disney let him” (indeed he has often mentioned another manga, Battle Angel Alita, on his wishlist). Ironic that now, some years later, Cameron’s Avatar is The Matrix of its day with most people agreeing the story is derivative. Sounds exactly like the film Disney would have made! I wonder if Avatar‘s Japanese poster has got quotes from Mamoru Oshii on it?

Avoid the Blu-Ray, “2.0” version. Although the transfer is superb, they have gone as far as replacing some key sequences with cgi and it looks horrible and jars. Strangely, you are far better sticking with the DVD.

Akira

 ★★★★★ 

In 1988, the landmark Anime film Akira, by director Katsuhiro Otomo, defined the cutting edge of Anime around the world. By today’s standards, Akira remains a landmark achievement in cell animation and retains the explosive impact of its highly detailed animation and its intensely violent saga of power and corruption. Pioneer Entertainment proudly presents this classic film, completely restored and digitally re-mastered. Childhood friends Tetsuo and Kaneda’s motorcycle gang encounters a military operation to retrieve an escaped experimental subject. The military captures Tetsuo and conducts experiments on him that unleash his latent psychic ability, but when these new powers rage out of control, Tetsuo lashes out at the world that has oppressed him!

Akira is the film that introduced me, along with thousands of other naive Westerners, to Anime. It’s been the favoured poster boy of Manga ever since and still stands today as one of the finest examples of animation, Japanese or otherwise. The opening scene of warring motorcycle gangs colliding with a revolutionary plot and wrinkly psychic kids is still a top favourite movie moment for me. I remember when I first saw it; after being brought up on nice, safe Disney, I think it blew my mind and I’ve never quite recovered! Thank goodness.

That scene sets the balance for the rest of the film which is a dizzying clash of plots. You have the cool, irreverent, often violent action provided by Kaneda’s bike gang as they look for their friend Tetsuo, who has been taken by the military after an accident. The military in turn are dealing with politicians and revolutionaries alike in a powerful sub-plot, while a girl from the revolution is tolerating Kaneda, as they have a mutual interest in finding Tetsuo. He is the heart of the story, struggling to come to terms with strange powers that are quickly getting out of hand. The wrinkly kids are also very powerful and are trying to keep him in check for his own sake, especially as he is learning about Akira. Who or what Akira was is left ambiguous throughout, but whatever is left of “him” is buried deep under the city and Tetsuo is determined to get at it. The last act of the film is all the various factions converging on one point for an epic, breathtaking finale.

The various plots are wound together with an assured attention to detail, never at the cost of pace and all the elements balance each other perfectly. For instance, the kids attacking Tetsuo disguised as huge toys that bleed milk would be unbearably disturbing but for the next scene of cathartic, wanton destruction or a wisecrack from Kaneda. The sci-fi plot is deep and philosophical, concerning human evolution. If there is a complaint, it’s possible only the surface of potential was scratched. Certainly the original manga, also by director Katsuhiro Otomo, is much larger. This is really picky though and newbies won’t notice because they will be too busy trying not to fall off the edge of their seat!

The quality of animation is astonishingly detailed, fluid and cinematic (some Anime has a tendency to be stilted), and the sound design and bonkers score match it throughout. This DVD release is getting on for 10 years old, but it’s a fantastic transfer. Also the 5.1 is only available in English dubbed, but it’s unusually good. I did have the dubbed VHS first, then VideoCD and remember the latter subtitled version being a big improvement, but this dubbing is excellent.

It is a very modern and dynamic piece of film-making and a benchmark for the sci-fi genre, a benchmark Hollywood has consistently failed to match. It treats the viewer with intelligence and doesn’t compromise the story at all. If you enjoy the genre, but are wary of watching “kids cartoons”, I urge you to try this. You owe it to yourself.

The Incredible Hulk

 ★★★☆☆ 

Ok, I know a lot didn’t like Ang Lee’s The Hulk, but I thought it was one of the bravest and best comic adaptations so far. It just needed more mindless action. Well, we get that here in spades. Especially the mindless part.

It was a shame they seemed to quietly disregard the first film, as it was an excellent basis to start from. While the action with The Hulk is suitably relentless and rage-filled, the action with Bruce Banner on the run is too over the top, both thanks to Transporter director Letterier. For instance, the first act was a nice plot with Banner trying to keep his cool while falling for the local girl and fighting the local thugs. It made perfect sense for that to be reason enough to Hulk-out and cause a depressed Banner to go back on the run, after demolishing the town, but no; We have to have the stupid drop-of-blood coincidence bullshit, leading to all out fucking war. Nice cameo from Stan Lee, otherwise, too noisy and muddled. Good idea, screwed up.

In the cast, they had great actors capable of pulling off the balance between drama and action, but instead they drowned them in noise. Norton was especially good at showing Banner as scared by his own memories.

The effects were very good (again, nothing wrong with the “don’t make me Ang Lee” version) and the middle action sequence particularly Incredible (nice documentary style camera work) and the final battle are great fun, with cute Hulk-isms (police car boxing gloves! Thunderclap! It speaks!), but this story deserves better. It is at heart, such a sad character and is capable of Frankenstein style empathy, but a brief musical interlude and funny cameo from Lou Ferrigno is the closest I think we will ever get to the charm of the TV series, or comic for that matter. Bruce Banner may soon be lost to a complicated multi-film arc and the chance to make a really good stand-alone version has passed.

It needed bigger, greener balls, but The Hulk was a far better film.