Contest: Conan!

Posted on August 14, 2011 at 8:00 am

In honor of this week’s release of the new “Conan the Barbarian” movie starring Jason Momoa (“Game of Thrones”), I have a special Conan comic book from Dark Horse, based on the film.  Send me an email at with Conan in the subject line and don’t forget your address. I will pick a random winner on Friday.

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Posted on August 3, 2010 at 8:00 am

“Kick-Ass” revels in its transgressive, nasty brutishness, and its audience will, too.
Of course, it’s one thing to have a 11-year-old girl in a comic book use very strong language and kill lots of people and it is another thing in a live-action movie, when the character is played by an actual 12-year-old. So let me say up front that I object to the rules allowing a child actor to perform this kind of role. If there are words an adult could be arrested for saying to a child, a child should not be permitted to say them on screen. Director Matthew Vaughn says that it is hypocritical for people to complain about the language used by a young girl, but not the violence. Well, first, I am complaining about the violence; I do not think children should be permitted to film graphic violent scenes whether they are the perpetrator or the victim (this movie has both). And second, the violence is fake but the language is real, so it is fair to take that seriously. So, for the record, to the extent I endorse this film, I want to be clear that I object to the involvement of a then-12-year-old in making it. kick-ass-hit-girl-uk-poster.jpg
The problem is that it is getting harder and harder to find anything that is shocking or disturbing and having a child use bad language — in this case some crude sexual terms that are arguably misogynistic — and shoot bad guys in the face is one of the few remaining ways to provoke that delicious boundary-defying sensation. And — reservations aside — it works. Seeing Hit Girl, well, kick ass to the kicked-up-a-notch cartoon theme from the “Banana Splits” and then to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” is a tonic. And there is something undeniably heady about seeing a vulnerable young girl mow down the bad guys — like “Home Alone” on crack.
“Kick-Ass” is a knowing tweak on the comic book genre. Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a comics-loving high school student who dreams of being a superhero, but, as he says, “My only super-power was being invisible to girls.” Undaunted, he orders a diving suit, turns it into a uniform, and re-creates himself as Kick-Ass, defender of justice. And then he gets beat up, stabbed, and sent to the hospital. No radioactive spider-bites or gamma rays, but he does come out of the hospital with two helpful results from his injuries — nerve damage that lessens his ability to feel pain and some metal plates in his bones that make his x-ray look — at least to him — like Wolverine’s.
Meanwhile, a former cop (Nicolas Cage) is raising his young daughter to be a killing machine, a pint-sized Kill Bill he calls Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz). His superhero persona is Big Daddy and his uniform is reminiscent of both Batman and Night Hawk. What they don’t have in superpowers they have in training, equipment, very, very heavy artillery, and single-minded focus.
Director Matthew Vaughn (Stardust, “Layer Cake”) has a great eye and knows how to stage stylish, striking action scenes. Moretz (500 Days of Summer and Diary of a Wimpy Kid) has a great deadpan delivery and a natural chemistry with Cage, whose witty, skewed take is slyly funny.
The superhero genre has always been about transformation — the mild-mannered loser who contains within him (if only everyone knew!) a secret source of power. Here, the power is not x-ray vision or the ability to fly; just an extra dose of the hallmarks of adolescence: an affect of ennui about everything but smashing through limits and a sense of irony about everything but sex.


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The Losers

Posted on July 20, 2010 at 8:55 am

The weather is getting warmer, which means it must be time for some movies about BLOWING STUFF UP!

And so we have “The Losers,” based on a comic book originally set in WWII but updated by Andy Diggle. The name originally signified that they were all officers who had lost men in the war, but now it means they’re the usual motley crew of lovable rag-tag tough guys as quick with a quip as they are with the various mechanisms they have for creating mayhem, and almost as quick as they are to come to each other’s aid or defy authority. These guys are the fists and fury equivalent of a boy band, each member with his own adorable quirks, awesome proficiency, and cool call sign name that makes them sound like extras from “Top Gun.” And there’s just enough variation among them that you can pick your own favorite. There’s the sharpshooter who’s silent, but deadly (Óscar Jaenada as Cougar). There’s the scary-looking guy with the scar who seems to have a rather short fuse (Idris Elba as Roque). There’s the cute computer whiz with a taste for whimsical t-shirts (Chris Evans as Jensen). There’s the sweetheart family man who can master any known vehicle on land, sea, or air (Columbus Short as Pooch). And big daddy, the mastermind (Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Clay).

It’s sort of “Mission Impossible” and “The Three Musketeers” crossed with “The A-Team.” There’s the sniper, the weapons expert, the techie, the transportation guy, and the leader. They got mad skillz so they are only brought in on the blackest of black ops, so secret it’s amazing even they know who they are.

We meet them in Bolivia, where they are on a mission to tag the hideout of a drug dealer so that it can be air-bombed, under the direction of a Charlie of Charlie’s Angels mysterioso they’ve never seen named Max. But when they see that the dealer is using children as mules to transport the drugs it turns out the big old tough guys are also big old softies. Can our hardy little team fight off a zillion Bolivian bad guys with AK-47s and rescue 25 cute little kids, one with a teddy bear (presumably not being used as a place to hide cocaine)? As a former Vice Presidential candidate might say, “You betcha!”

But it’s a set-up. Things go terribly wrong and The Losers are framed and believed killed. When a mysterious woman named Aisha (“Avatar’s” Zoe Saldana) offers to get them back to the US if they will help her go after Max, they agree.

The Losers have brash, raffish charm, the action scenes are well-staged, the explosions are really big, the bad guy (Jason Patric) is entertainingly twisted, and nobody takes themselves too seriously. Pass the popcorn!

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The Spirit

Posted on April 14, 2009 at 8:00 am

If there is ever an Oscar category for best performance by an article of clothing, the red tie worn by the title character in this film would be the clear winner and the rain coat would most likely be the runner-up.

This film version of the innovative and influential comic book owes much more to writer/director Frank Miller than to the man who created the character, Will Eisner. Miller, who revitalized Batman as The Dark Knight and co-directed “Sin City,” based on his own comic book series, itself in part inspired by Eisner’s subversive noir stories.

The Spirit is is something more than a man but something less than a superhero. Once he was Denny Colt, a cop, but something has happened that gives him special power and special responsibility. His great love is the city and he serves as its masked and mysterious protector. But there are also women, many of them and all utterly captivating and utterly captivated by him — his childhood sweetheart, the doctor who patches him up, a rookie cop. And there is a super villain, Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), a guy who has developed a potion for giving him something on the brink of immortality. He has the same kind of special powers of healing that The Spirit does. And he wants something that will give him everything he needs to become all-powerful but it was in a box that got mixed up with something also very valuable but much more mundane.

Miller misses the forest for the trees here with luscious, insouciant images that sizzle and tantalize but finally detract from any sense of story, purpose, or character. I’ve seen lava lamps with more of a plot. And for an action movie it all seems very posed and static. Comic books, with their panel-bound drawings, provide a more muscular sense of motion than Miller does here. He pays more attention to the sole of The Spirit’s shoe than he does to anything that would connect us with the character or even connect the characters do each other. Everyone is arch. Everyone just poses. They might as well be trying out for “America’s Next Top Model.”

And Jackson is not just over the top. He is over whatever is over the top. As his sidekick, Scarlett Johansson is completely out of her depth and it is uncomfortable to see her floundering to try to look predatory. In the title role, Gabriel Macht is outdone by his clothes. The only watchable performance is from Eva Mendes as Sand Serif, the bad girl who could only have a heart of gold if she stole one.

Eye candy can only go so far. Archness is not the same as irony. Style is not the same as substance. Miller captures the letter, but what this film is lacking, in every sense of the word, is the Spirit.

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Posted on December 1, 2008 at 7:00 am


Nasty, twisted, pulpy, and brutally violent, “Wanted” is like a cross between Kill Bill, The Matrix, and The Terminator. Angelina Jolie, smokey-eyed and a little bit leaner, plays the assassin who grabs cubicle galley slave Wesley (“Atonement’s” James McAvoy) when he is picking up a prescription for anti-anxiety pills just as a lot of gunfire is about to start wrecking havoc on the pharmacy aisles.

It turns out that our Wesley, who has been inwardly stewing and outwardly doing nothing as he is hounded by his supervisor and cuckolded by his best friend, is, in the grand tradition of heroes from King Arthur to Luke Skywalker to Neo to Harry Potter, the chosen one who must discover his hidden powers. The woman’s name is Fox (“Is that a call sign? Like Maverick in “Top Gun?” he asks) and she takes him to a secret citadel where textiles are woven and assassins are trained. Wesley learns to use guns, knives, and fists. He is often critically injured, but fortunately they have some nifty little healing tanks and a soak or two puts him back on his feet and learning how to shoot around objects and race along the top of the El train. He understands that learning how to do something that makes full use of his unique talents is the only way to know who he truly is.

And the director knows enough to get that part out of the way quickly and get to the good stuff, some low-down and nastily twisted action that includes some bullet-cam shots of bodies that are about to be hit very, very hard. Russian director Timur Bekmambetov of the very successful “Night Watch” movies knows how to make violence stylish without becoming overly stylized, nudging the pulpiest elements into myth.

James McAvoy shows himself as able at nerd-into-action-hero as he was at faun (“The Chronicles of Narnia”) and tragic romance (“Atonement”), and Jolie seems delighted to shake off the beatific Madonna role she has played on- and off-screen most recently. She moves like a panther, bringing an ecstatic grace to a ducking move on top of the El train just before it gets to a tunnel. Morgan Freeman is all gravelly exposition and Common has marvelous screen presence as members of The Fraternity. The plot twists are less successful onscreen than on the page and the violence goes over the top but by that time the fanboys will be so satisfied (did I mention that there’s a scene with Jolie getting out of the tub and showing off her tattoos?) that they might not mind, especially with the hint of a sequel.

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