Catching Up: Kick-Ass, The Ghost Writer, Vincere
By Fernando F. Croce

Beware, beware of films designed to tickle Comic Book Guy’s undercarriage. The frantically unenjoyable Kick-Ass arrives with the kind of hype that rockets titles to the top of IMDB lists months before they open, though even the most insular superhero fan-boy I hope would ask for a worldview that went beyond just stomping bad guys. The title refers to the crime-fighting persona worn by a high-school dweeb (Aaron Johnson), whose sole superpower is "being invisible to girls" until he puts his damaged nerve-endings to amateur crime-fighting use. His double life, amply documented on YouTube and followed on MySpace, gets the attention of a father-daughter vigilante duo (Nicolas Cage, Chloë Moretz), more experienced thug-shredders. A mob boss (Mark Strong) is the arch-villain, complete with a pampered little prince (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who wants a mask and cape of his own. I’m no big fan of graphic novels, but I'm betting the mix of family-values lip service and "cool" dismemberments was more interesting in the panels of the original Mark Millar-John Romita Sr. series than in the fast-fading mess on the screen. The director, Matthew Vaughn, has previously dealt with underworld violence (Layer Cake) and self-conscious mythology (Stardust); working in a project that brings the two elements together, he can only reveal a bloody-minded flippancy as hollow as Nolan’s strained Dark Knight seriousness. The tale of a nerdy masturbator in a green scuba-diving suit is Spider-Man rewritten by Judd Apatow; Cage’s avenging maniac, meanwhile, keeps breaking the frame by trying to honor a bit of narration that compares superheroes to serial killers. Contemptuous of people, tone, and even its own comic-book tropes, this freefalling movie scrambles to hang on to supposedly novel shocks: A 12-year-old saying "cunt"? About a 12-year-old getting squashed by a burly goombah? It’s a measure of Kick-Ass’ completely spurious subversion that Moretz’s much-touted sociopath-nymphette turn is as calculated as a Shirley Temple routine. Go ahead, give it a name: Half-Ass, Dumb-Ass, Sore-Ass...

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Enough juvenilia, let’s talk old masters. Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer is setup and punchline, but, as they say, some setup, and some punchline. The unnamed "Ghost" is a glib young author (Ewan McGregor) who’s hired to give form to the unwieldy auto-biography of a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) after the previous writer turns up dead. This being Polanski Land, that means moving from one insinuating cage to another -- from the streets of London, where a motorcycle can swoop onto the protagonist at any given moment, to the PM’s beachside private compound in New England, a mausoleum of glass, wood and marble ("Shangri-La in reverse"). Circling the bunker are journalists and protesters feeding off the minister’s War on Terror ignominy; inside it are his tart wife (Olivia Williams), his assistant-lover (Kim Cattrall), and a brick-thick manuscript that holds a foreboding clue or two about McGregor’s fate. What a joy to see such craftsmanship! Polanski’s serpentine camerawork is ideally attuned to this svelte vaudeville of art and politics, his casting is acute down to the cameos (James Belushi as a bald-pated bull in a blue suit, three savory minutes of Eli Wallach). Tension builds steadily yet delicately, a sudden downpour or an ownerless van in a barge’s belly, cell phone chimes, the velvet-wrapped threats of Tom Wilkinson. Survival in a wolfish world has been the career-long theme of the sardonic director of Knife in the Water, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, and people sniff for parallels between the auteur’s personal traumas and foibles and those of his characters. But is Polanski here the house-arrested celebrity in legal trouble, or the exiled artist who insists on investigating despite having been assigned to leave no fingerprints on the project? Wily and wise, The Ghost Writer is in a way Polanski’s A King in New York, an acid love-letter to America (shot in Europe, natch), full of shadowy trails and people who can’t resist following them into the woods.

*

Fervid opera to The Ghost Writer’s wry cello class, Marco Bellocchio’s Vincere finds another septuagenarian showing the kids how it’s done. The subject is Italy’s post-World War I succumbing to fascism, embodied in the footnote of a Milanese beautician fucked and fucked over by a despot-to-be. Mussolini circa 1914 isn’t yet the chin-jutting gorilla of newsreels, but a mustached fire-breather (Filippo Timi) who, in the introductory flurry, blithely challenges God to strike him dead before rushing into the street, bellowing about strangling the king with the pope’s guts. "Avanti!" is practically tattooed on his forehead. Mania is sexy, the young heroine (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) is entranced. They get married, he vanishes to become Il Duce, she won’t be ignored and is tucked away in a series of sanatoriums. Embracing his inner Visconti, Bellocchio pitches this to the moon: Stuttering cuts between settings and eras, words propelled across the screen by Carlo Crivelli’s throbbing score, futurist compositions with shadows, silhouettes and splashes of red. Much of this volatile, severe film takes place in the dark before flickering screens, silent comedies and news reports in nickelodeons and a DeMillean Calvary unspooled on the ceiling of a makeshift wartime hospital. Projected fantasies, projected history. Is cinema here the "most beautiful fraud" Godard spoke of, a seducer and abandoner to match Mussolini’s testosterone overload? "This is the time to be actors," somebody advises the endlessly suffering heroine, and, indeed, Mezzogiorno, a flavorless fashion-plate in Love in the Time of Cholera, comes to resemble Alida Valli over the course of the picture. Vincere puts on an often exhilarating show. It might have been great had it followed the dictator’s climb rather than his wronged sparrow’s tour of madhouses, but then we wouldn’t have the rich irony of a mother-love valentine from Bellocchio, who in his 1965 debut Fists in the Pocket made a jaunty case for matricide.

*

Short takes. The Girl on the Train: André Téchiné’s camera races along with the directionless young heroine (Emilie Dequenne), who, dark-red mane flowing as she rollerblades to Dylan’s "Lay, Lady, Lay," is quite a vision of carefree youth. She’s also, despite an act that later precipitates a scandal that shook France, a stolid center for loaded issues like race, identity, compassion and growth. The first half teems with incisive turns (Catherine Deneuve, Michel Blanc, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Ronit Elkabetz) and the director’s customary searching eye and generosity; the second half grows thinner and less urgent. Still, the spiritual and sensual intimacy of a webcam flirtation is something only Téchiné could have located. Chloe: You've had your babysitter-from-hell thriller and your secretary-from-hell thriller, now here’s the hooker-hired-by-wife-to-test-the-husband’s-fidelity (from hell!) thriller. Julianne Moore (vexed gynecologist in a glass office) and Liam Neeson (Don Giovanni professor asked out by a student mid-lecture) are the affluent yet strained Toronto couple. Amanda Seyfried, half-‘30s chorine and half-Peter Lorre, plays the tawny prostitute of the title. As the Skinemax-as-therapy plot spins in circles, the old Atom Egoyan Question remains: How much of this kookiness is deliberate? I have no clue, but, damn it, the answer has to lie somewhere in the scene where Seyfried’s erotic monologue is interrupted by a sneeze. Death at a Funeral: Flaccid Americanization of Frank Oz’s forgettable British comedy, replacing stiff-upper-lip twits with African-American Angelinos (the ensemble includes Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Danny Glover, Zoe Saldana and Tracy Morgan), turning the volume up, and, because it’s Neil LaBute directing, zooming in on the characters’ venality. LaBute keeps the zesty cast jumping, but his stab at farce can’t compete with the unintentional hilarity of The Wicker Man and Lakeview Terrace. The Secret in Their Eyes: The Headless Woman envisions Argentina's social tensions seeping into the skin, while Juan José Campanella’s flossy drama gazes back at the Dirty War to offer TV-sized platitudes. Guess which one took home the Oscar.


Reviewed May 8, 2010.

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