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Movie Review: Kick-Ass 2

Kick-Ass was unabashedly proud of its pick ‘n mix of genres and brew of violence, youth-centric flair and cult cool class – borrowing aspects from better action, crime and superhero films. Not all that much has changed in Kick-Ass 2, in fact, one of its main criticisms is that it’s more of the same.

More of the same won’t really deter fans of the original. It kicked ass… and reliving much of what made it kick ass is a pleasure. Hit-Girl, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, has become a teenager and in many ways Kick-Ass 2 is her coming-of-age story. Kick-Ass (Taylor-Johnson) and Hit-Girl (Moretz) are doing a lot of growing up, reaching that tender age when vigilante activities could get them grounded… or worse, prison time.

Never Back Down writer-director Jeff Wadlow has picked up where Matthew Vaughn left off and he does a great job of keeping the sequel within the Kick-Ass universe. The opening scene features Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloe Grace Moretz in an echo of a scene from the original between Big Daddy (Nic Cage) and Hit-Girl. This signals the intentions of the sequel with Kick-Ass becoming an apprentice to Hit-Girl in much the same way Big Daddy played Mr. Miyagi to Hit-Girl in the first Kick-Ass.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse reprises and reinvents his role in Kick-Ass 2 as a super villain gimp. Loaded with limitless resources, a rebellious streak and a vengeful heart – he sets about recruiting an army of thugs to carry out his revenge on Kick-Ass like a lightweight hybrid of The Joker and Batman from The Dark Knight. Following in the shadow of his deceased father, he begins a series of comic book style take downs on a known group of superhero vigilantes.

The casting is superb with notable highlights in Jim Carrey and John Leguizamo, who replace the likes of Nicolas Cage and Mark Strong from Kick-Ass. Carrey’s almost unrecognisable performance as Colonel Stars and Stripes is gritty with enough interest to have warranted a spin-off. However, it’s not Carrey’s film and neither is it Leguizamo’s, despite our wishing their characters had been more central.

Kick-Ass 2 has taken to the superhero team trend and as a result, The Mystery Men connection is a lot stronger as the co-leads bond with other crime-fighting vigilantes, inspired by the Kick-Ass phenomenon. This gives the film a fresh feeling, suffering with its co-leads as they become adults and revisiting the real-life superhero story with fresh recruits.

Kick-Ass 2 is a timely film. Where comic book superheroes initially gave people an escape from their lives, Kick-Ass encourages people to take up a cause and become their own heroes. Are we taking responsibility or passing the buck? It’s a personal crusade that’s becoming more popular as citizens lose faith in the system and become more self-reliant, finding that real change can only be accomplished by taking the can-do approach.

The action sequences are just as exhilarating as Kick-Ass, delivering a vicious and visceral sucker punch. Kick-Ass 2 is every bit as violent and trashy as the original and retains that uneasy tension between the unreality of superheroes and gravity-sucking reality of death. There’s more in the way of beat downs than gun play, which is possibly why Jeff Wadlow made a good match.

Kick-Ass 2 is a mixture of Fight Club, Jawbreaker and Mystery Men. Given that there is more of Hit-Girl’s story at play, Wadlow brings in Jawbreaker style high school drama as Hit-Girl tries to quit her caped adventures and settle down under a guardian appointed by her father. All the while, Kick-Ass is trying to respect his father, finding that he shares more in common with an underground squad of vigilantes.

Kick-Ass 2 is a worthy sequel: action-packed, entertaining and funny. The solid casting and performances add to the fun of the ass-kicking and we’re able to live vicariously through these vigilante knights without suffering the pain. While it certainly packs a punch with frequent ultra-violence, the coming-of-age story’s emotional weight also catches you off-guard. If you enjoyed Kick-Ass… you’ll be more than satisfied with Kick-Ass 2.

The bottom line: Entertaining


Movie Review: Pain & Gain

Pain & Gain is a Michael Bay film. If you didn't know that, you've probably made a call on the intrinsic value of the film already. However, Pain & Gain is no ordinary Michael Bay film. This dark true story has been sitting in Bay's gym locker for over a decade... and he's decided to let it out.

During this time, the director has developed an affinity for explosive, loud, macho and action-heavy blockbusters. Yet, Pain & Gain demonstrates that Bay's brash and bombastic energy doesn't only come in XXL. Bay has crammed the same over-the-top ferocity of his blockbusters into this little film, drawing inspiration from a bizarre true story about three Florida-based bodybuilders, whose get-rich scheme included kidnapping, extortion and murder.

To bring this larger-than-life story to screen, Bay has cast Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson and Anthony Mackie as his ragtag trio of steroid-crazy bodybuilders. Each of these accomplished actors bulked up for their part and have managed to capture the spirit of the film with stupidly entertaining performances.

Wahlberg's performance is magnetic, flipping the attraction-repulsion on the character of Daniel Lugo so fast that we're caught in a love/hate flux. His determination to chase down the American Dream is admirable, his salesman charm is undeniable, yet his primal cutthroat execution make him self-destructive and detestable. He's supported by Dwayne Johnson, whose uncharacteristic performance is strangely complex, borderline offensive and wildly entertaining.

As if the cast wasn't heavyweight enough, it's bolstered by Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris, Rob Corddry, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong and the picture perfect, Bar Paly. Shalhoub takes on the difficult role of Victor Kershaw, an unlikable character who at times seems fully deserving of his torturous situation. Ed Harris plays a retired detective, who has a stabilising influence on the surreal dark crime comedy at play.

Pain & Gain deals in extremes and is not for everyone. It's a debauched, psychotic, drug-induced and surreal ordeal that comes across like a brash, loud and sometimes ugly head rush. The performances and bizarre story keep it entertaining and morbidly fascinating like a blend of Bernie and The Ice Man. Just when you think the film's reckless tone is about to self-detonate, its relentless energy manages to correct itself, reminding us it's still a true story.

This is not a film to watch if you're wanting to feel good. In fact, you may feel unclean after watching life through this slanted lens. The comedy distortion and surreal colour palette help soften what would otherwise be a horrific crime drama. By doing this, Bay makes it seem more like satire, poking fun at the American Dream and the culture of appearance. However, this farcical angle actually accentuates the insanity and inherent darkness.

The bottom line: Self-destructive

Movie Review: Percy Jackson - Sea of Monsters

Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief was exciting, entertaining, tongue-in-cheek fantasy action fodder. Everyone knew it couldn't possibly compete with the likes of Harry Potter, so our low expectations were rewarded with an imperfect, yet fun and action-packed thrill ride that warranted a sequel.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is in the same position as the first installation, except instead of Harry Potter, it's competing with itself and losing. While Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief appealed to a broad audience, the sequel seems to be muscling in on the Ben 10 market, sacrificing its script and characters to the gods of epic monsters and CGI-heavy action.

There's good cheesy and bad cheesy and this sequel seems to have trouble differentiating when it comes to good clean, stupid fun. A cycloptic character enters the fray with a distracting message about acceptance, which actually turns you against the good-looking teen cast, who all seem too keen to help him clear that spot... which happens to be his only good eye. Then three witches push the limits of even the stretchiest cheese with a out-of-place and unfunny cab ride. While a seahorse comes across like something you'd expect to have ski rope attachments.

It's these uneven transitions that give the fantasy an uneven tone. While some CGI creations and bosses are beautifully crafted, these distracting in-between scenes are a slow puncture in a lifeboat to the film. While often visually spectacular, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters seems to lean too heavily on its style and loses traction when it comes to character development, motivation and comedy.

Logan Lerman is a talented young actor, but without the likes of Anthony Head, Stanley Tucci and Nathan Fillion, Lerman and the young cast seem to be lost in a sea of CGI. The flashy visual effects do a lot to catch the eye, but there's an emptiness at the heart of this campy and inconsistent mythological story. Jackson is content to be sidelined in his own movie and the search for The Golden Fleece seems about as dangerous as the ghost tunnel at the fun fair.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters doesn't even try to ground its mythological paradigm, simply offering a flimsy "they live among us" X-Men style explanation. For the most part, it just seems like lazy, uninspired TV quality film-making, leaving the real work for post-production. Hotel for Dogs and Diary of a Wimpy Kid director, Thor Freudenthal, seems like he got the job because of his name.

When the passion leaves the building, it becomes about going through the motions. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is one of those loosely entertaining, tired and vapid franchise sequels that lacks oomph. All the ingredients are there, but it's made from a week's worth of leftovers and served cold, offering up the occasional dull surprise.

While it's climactic conclusion does lift the production's overall standard, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is inferior to the original and feels like a TV movie with big budget visual effects. There's little to distinguish itself and it makes all too much sense to learn that screenwriter, Marc Guggenheim, also wrote the script for The Green Lantern.

The bottom line: Uninspired

Movie Review: Elysium

Elysium is the much-anticipated follow-up to District 9. South African-born Neill Blomkamp has crafted another epic and spectacular science-fiction actioner that prods us by holding a broken mirror up against present day society.

Armed with a bigger budget and more sway, Blomkamp has relocated the story to the year 2154, the same year as Avatar. While he initially considered Die Antwoord's Ninja and even Eminem for the role of Max, Matt Damon was cast with Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley in supporting roles. The effects are just as visceral as District 9, but they've zoomed out of the cityscape to give creedence to a world in ruins foreshadowed by Elysium, an idyllic floating space station for the elite.

After a workplace accident leaves Max in desperate need of medical attention, he takes it upon himself to fulfill a lifelong dream of reaching Elysium in the hopes of seeking proper treatment. What starts as a do-or-die mission for one life inadvertently becomes a quest for equality of all life.

On the surface, Elysium is an original science-fiction film, comparable with District 9 for arc, style, special effects, theme, genre and actors. Its story follows a similar trajectory to Gladiator as Max, a slave seeking retribution, is forced to wear an exo-skeleton suit in order to battle his way to Elysium in the hopes of finding justice for him and his "family".

Both District 9 and Elysium have been said to carry political messages and this is difficult to avoid when portraying a disparity between races. There's a government-enforced segregation between the wealthy and the poor, which seems to be largely divided along racial lines. Then Delacourt, a high ranking Elysium official and megalomaniac, has an Aryan look and could have derived her name from influential economist and businessman, Pieter de la Court.

Being South African, you can understand Blomkamp's frame of reference, having grown up in the rainbow nation. This world-within-a-nation country has many parallels with America and the idea of an enforced system of oppression in Apartheid was a reality for him growing up. Whether he's representing history or the present in his vision of the future, is what makes this "actioner" that much more thought-provoking and relevant.

South African-isms have found their way into Elysium in all shapes and forms, many of which will only truly be appreciated from a South African perspective. Kruger and his mercenary wing men, played by Brandon Auret and Josh Blacker, are inspired by SA G2-Battalion soldiers. As South Africans, a lot of Afrikaans slang and culture permeates the film without any subtitles.

Matt Damon is a strong actor, who brings a sense of everyman authenticity to his characters that lingers just long enough not to set or typecast the actor. The character of Max lacks definition and apart from a little stick-it-to-the-man attitude, there's little to distinguish him and very few points of emotional contact for audiences. As such, Damon's performance comes across as more Sam Worthington than Russell Crowe, when Vin Diesel may have been a better match. This distancing from the hero keeps Elysium just out-of-reach.

Jodie Foster is the right kind of actress for the role of Delacourt, who was originally intended to be a male. She's strong-willed, gives the character clout and even comes across as an eccentric personality. As quirky as she is, you can't help but think that Tilda Swinton would have brought more gravity to the role.

Sharlto Copley steals most of the scenes with his outlandish take on Kruger, whose South African heritage and psychotic tendencies seem to have been loosely modeled on Ninja from Die Antwoord. He brings a complex and unpredictable energy to his character, much like Gary Oldman, that makes him a fascinating equal-opposite to Max. Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura and everybody's favourite bad guy William Fichtner round off a fine cast with solid performances as key characters.

Elysium's production values ground the film in a gritty not-too-distant future, where robots have been commissioned to police the earthlings and take care of basic day-to-day governmental functions to keep the work force in check. The technology has weight, tarnish and surface scratches adding to the realism of the hard knock life in the industrial slums. Blomkamp's love for future tech carries forth into the wide selection of explosives and weaponry used in skirmishes.

Elysium bombards you with beautiful utopian/dystopian visuals, design and effects. The conflicts are largely derived from social, economic and political inequalities, which fuel the story. While this makes it epic, spectacular and enthralling even - it lacks the connective tissue in terms of likable performances to deliver the emotional punch when it needs it most.

When your debut feature film is District 9, it's always going to be difficult meeting expectations. What Neill Blomkamp has achieved with Elysium, demonstrates that he has the ability to create a thinking man's blockbuster... the sort of film that carries the detail of production and thought that warrant repeat viewings, despite its flaws. While it won't be remembered as a truly great film, it still makes for solid entertainment.

The bottom line: Entertaining

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