Friday, May 07, 2010

Trying to Have It Both Ways

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—After yesterday, when the U.S. stock market, for a brief period of time, looked to be disintegrating right before our very eyes—with the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling nearly 1,000 points in the early afternoon before eventually rallying to close at a comparably less horrific 347.80 loss—today we at least have a big-budget Hollywood superhero flick to take our minds away from real-world drudgeries...

...or not.

As someone who didn't see what big deal was about the original 2008 Iron Man—other than its irreverent tone and Robert Downey Jr.'s breeziness, it was a pure box-office mechanism through and through, with barely anything worth remembering about it afterward—I'm not exactly foaming at the mouth with excitement over Iron Man 2. Nevertheless, I'm seeing it tonight with friends and will report back...eventually... (For anyone who wants to see an instant response, you can all track my Twitter feed, of course, to tide you over before I eventually tackle the film in depth on this blog.)

In the meantime, let's revisit a couple more films in my growing review queue, one of them a more-interesting-than-usual, if ultimately unsuccessful, recent slice of the superhero pie.

Kick-Ass (2010; Dir.: Matthew Vaughn)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009; Dir.: Niels Arden Oplev)

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

These two films don't have much to do with each other, except that they both embody the dangers of trying to, as the popular saying goes, have it both way.


In the case of Kick-Ass, that means a movie that wants to be both a superhero genre flick and a thorough deconstruction of the superhero genre, but which ends up fulfilling its latter goal and never fully realizing its former.

The film's director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn—adapting a graphic novel by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.—shows a lot of affection for its genre, evidenced by the attention he pays to visual detail: the cinematography (by Ben Davis) and art direction (by Joe Howard, Sarah Stuart and John King) bathe the screen in vivid comic-book colors that nevertheless manage to stay grounded in something approaching a palpable reality (this certainly isn't the hyper-stylized palette of, say, Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy). And he has a welcome empathy for his main characters: Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), whose desire to break out of his high-school angst leads him to put on a costume and become the titular hero; Mindy Macready (Chloë Grace Moretz), who has been raised since birth by her revenge-driven father (Nicolas Cage) to be the wildly ferocious Hit Girl; and Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the lonely son who yearns for some parental affection from his crime-boss father Frank (Mark Strong).

Most importantly, though, he grasps that superhero movies, at their best, can have a mass appeal as exaggerated expressions of innermost desires and deep-seated traumas. In Kick-Ass, the superhero genre is mostly just a clothesline for Vaughn to craft a subtext-rich tale about young people searching for someone to look up to, whether in parental figures or in themselves. In effect, they're looking for roles to play in their own lives—surely a universal desire among teenagers tickled by the possibilities of adulthood.

If Vaughn had played all of this entirely straight, he might have at least come up with a reasonably clver and enjoyable genre piece. But at the same time that he works to deliver the standard pleasures of superhero/teenage movies, Vaughn also wants to poke postmodern fun at the genre, to make us all aware of the superhero fantasies these characters prize as fleetingly exciting but ultimately empty wish-fulfillment that could actually get you seriously injured or even killed if reenacted in real life. On that score, Kick-Ass falls disappointingly short.

To be fair, the film comes within striking distance of realizing its deconstructive intentions. Kick-Ass develops a genuine sense of horror as Dave moves forward with what he intends to be his last job as Kick-Ass, and finds himself knee-deep in even worse circumstances than he could have ever imagined—to the point where he is put in front of a video camera and physically tortured over streaming online video by Frank D'Amico's goons. Dave even taunts us naïve audience members to wake up if we think that he's going to actually get out of this alive, as usually happens in most Hollywood movies.

Well, guess what? He does get out alive! Turns out, for all its attempts at subversion, Vaughn is only willing to go so far; to go any further would be to risk turning off its core audience of comic-book fanboys, which simply would not be kosher for a big-budget Hollywood production like this one. And Kick-Ass never recovers from this failure of nerve as the film proceeds; its most egregious failure later on comes in the reduction of arguably the film's most complicated protagonist—Chris D'Amico, who finds himself torn between his loyalty to his new friend Dave and to his murderous father—to a one-dimensional villain by its predictably noisy, ultraviolent climax. The fact that Chris lives while his father dies is presumably meant to provide a jolt of moral ambivalence, as he will presumably seek revenge against his father's killers in the future—but the wholly insincere final shot he's given musters up the emotional weight of a wannabe superhero franchise setting up for a sequel, nothing more.

Even before the compromised climax, though, the film has shown signs of not putting its money where its mouth is. Take its treatment of Dave's dream girl, Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca): Here, she's imagined as nothing more than a pining geek's sex fantasy. Of course, in a movie as divided in its intentions as Kick-Ass is, that pining geek eventually does get the girl, though not after he spends much of the time pretending he's gay ('cause hey, she assumed he was in the first place) in order to reap the rewards without any of the stress. But even after he comes clean with her (to the strains of faux-Tangerine Dream/Risky Business synthesizers, no less), she remains little more than the usual supportive/worried girlfriend, without a personality to call her own.

For this viewer, the fundamental flaw in Kick-Ass comes down to this: For a movie that wants, among other things, to show how comic-book fantasies jibe with reality, Matthew Vaughn & co. show a detailed understanding of comic-book fantasies and not nearly enough of an understanding of anyting resembling reality. Or, more precisely, it can only communicate that understanding in broad comic-book terms—in black-and-white heroes & villains and snazzy visual form. (In that sense, it's almost like a superhero-movie equivalent of the equally disingenuous An Education, except with far more bracing taboo-busting gusto.) Instead, like the way its hero acts around his dream girl, Kick-Ass wants to reap the rewards of being considered cutting-edge, media-savvy and dangerously hip without actually being any of these. For all its chutzpah, it's just not as smart as it thinks it is.

I will say this in its favor, though: that Hit Girl is quite a character, potty mouth and all. Her heartfelt interactions with her misguided but caring father provide the only real moments of soul in this film (with Nicolas Cage giving a far better performance here than with his overrated showboating in The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans). Above all, though, her character is by far the most colorful and fascinating of the leads: the kind of hero one would like to cheer if the implications of her sheer existence didn't disturb on some level. She's the closest Kick-Ass comes to true subversion.


The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Niels Arden Oplev's adaptation of late Swedish author Steig Larsson's first book in his Millennium Trilogy (the others are The Girl Who Played With Fire and the upcoming The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), tries for some subversion of its own, of the feminist variety—but it, too, ends up being full of hot air.

Its most intriguing character, of course, is Lisbeth Salander, the goth hacker lesbian chick who aids Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist who is facing jail time for a crime he didn't commit, in an investigation of the mysterious disappearance of a rich CEO's niece 40 years ago. But Lisbeth herself is a mystery in her own right; as conceived by Larsson in the novel and as played with magnetic fury by Noomi Rapace in the film, she keeps her emotional guard up around men much of the time—a chip on her shoulder that seems to have been borne out of traumatic childhood experiences. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, nothing about Lisbeth is fully explained (though I assume more about her will be revealed in the other two films, both of which have already been released in Sweden and will no doubt get theatrical runs in the U.S.), but the suggestiveness of her behavior tantalizes us throughout the picture even when the detective-procedural plot mechanically grinds on.

Alas, there's no mystery about the way that, honorable Mikael Blomkvist excepted, the film ruthlessly stacks the deck in order to contrive Lisbeth into some sort of feminist icon while trying to give the audience its money's worth in sordid titillation. Pretty much every man here is a mustache-twirling chauvinist pig of some sort. In the beginning, there is Lisbeth's latest guardian—replacing an earlier guardian who has suffered a brain hemorrhage—who demands blowjobs before granting her wishes for new hacker equipment. There isn't any particular reason that I can see for this guardian to be as monstrously corrupt as he is except for Oplev & co. to have an opportunity to thrust a graphic rape scene on us, and then present us with the salacious details of her supposedly savory revenge, complete with a gruesome inscription on his stomach branding him as a rapist for all time. Huzzah!

It only gets trashier from there, as Mikael and Lisbeth gradually discover that the billionaire's niece's disappearance had something to do with what she had discovered about a family member's sadistic, and deadly, sexual predilections. But the resolution of its central mystery is only a set-up for its final plot twist, which involves Lisbeth secretly stealing money from a corrupt government official—one that Mikael, as a journalist, was trying to bring down before being sent to prison—and ending up on a tropical island; the final shots of the film are of her dressed up as a high-class hooker stepping out of a limousine and walking away from the camera, seemingly untroubled and theoretically triumphant.

This just makes no sense to me in context of the behavior we've witnessed from her over the course of the film. It's not like the official has done anything particularly misogynistic in his transgressions to incur her wrath (unless I'm forgetting something); and it surely doesn't jibe with the "I can take care of myself" vibe that makes the character such a compelling screen presence. As far as I can tell, this last twist is just another excuse—as if being a lesbian dressed in goth wear wasn't enough of a male fantasy—to provide the audience with one last blast of sexual delectation. Worse, with the way those last two shots are framed and lighted—with glossy magazine-cover ambience—would it be too much of a stretch to conclude that the filmmakers really, truly believe that money is the real path to happiness?

Readers, don't be fooled. Despite occasional gestures toward moral intelligence and depth, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is little more than a slick piece of exploitation trash with delusions of being an ode to "female empowerment." Hit Girl—not to mention her spiritual precursor, Beatrix Kiddo of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies—would spit in this pandering, dishonest film's eye.

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