I've been lucky enough to attend all eleven Butt-Numb-A-Thon festivals in Austin, TX. For the first ten of them, I was a contributing editor of Ain't It Cool News, the website founded by Harry Knowles, and BNAT is a combination birthday party for Harry and movie-nerd freakout that runs 24 hours straight, one film after another, a mix of vintage and premieres.
I'll be bringing you a number of reviews over the next couple of days from BNAT, although if you want, you can already read my reviews of "The Lovely Bones," Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Micmacs," or James Cameron's "Avatar," all of which played this year.
First up, though, let's talk about this year's big winner at BNAT, and the way the screening turned from a very good screening of a very good film into the stuff of legend. This was one of those happy accidents that I find make an event into something more than just a screening, and it's one of the things Harry has built the legend of BNAT on over the years.
Let's set the stage. "Kick-Ass" was the second-to-last film of the entire marathon, and before the screening started, there was a break so that people could order breakfast and wake up a bit. No one knew what they were going to be seeing, so when people filed back into the theater and took their seats, there was some between-movie video playing onscreen. I have no idea where Tim League found it, but it appeared to be a Japanese game show in which men are stripped to their underwear, covered in some sort of pheremone, and then dogs are unleashed on them that go hump-crazy on-camera. Yes, that's right... bestiality for breakfast.
Once everyone was finally settled in, Paramount took over for a few moments with a special presentation that they brought for Harry. They'd already shown both of the films they brought, so this was a smaller something, made especially for the event. Turned out to be a roast, and a fairly savage one at that.
It started with JJ Abrams (identified onscreen as "screenwriter of 'Gone Fishin'") talking about what a mf'er Harry is, mentioning my review of the "Superman" screenplay in particular. "I mean, come on... Lex Luthor as a Kryptonian? That's gold!"
Then it cut to Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, talking about how mean Harry was to their first few films, and how much it hurt because they were such personal screenplays. Orci said, "I mean, 'The Legend Of Zorro' was really personal to me because I'm Mexican, and it was personal to Alex because he knows a Mexican."
Damon Lindelof was the one who got the biggest laughs from those of us who know Harry well, ranting about how he's met Harry ten times now and each time, Harry has no idea who he is. "And when I tell him that I'm the co-creator of 'Lost,' he always says, 'Oh, I don't watch TV.' Right. Because everyone who works on TV is such an asshole, right?" That really is one of Harry's mantras, and Harry meets so many people that I've seen him get re-introduced to the same person four times before.
Danny McBride talked about how much it hurt when he met Harry and got dissed. "Do you know what it's like to be totally dissed by a red-haired man in a wheelchair and slippers? It does not feel good."
Jon Favreau was identified onscreen as "Gutter from 'PCU'," which made me howl. Favreau has had a long history with AICN. He was a guest for us when we made the Comedy Central pilot for the TV show, and he and Harry worked together to try and get their version of "John Carter Of Mars" made at Paramount. That's what Favs roasted Harry about the hardest, eliciting some gasps from the audience. "The whole job of a movie producer is to get a film made. And 'John Carter' is getting made now. Only it's by Pixar, and Harry and I have nothing to do with it. So does that reflect negatively on Harry as a producer? I'd have to say yes." Good god.
The big finish, though, was Michael Bay, whose identification onscreen was "Michael F'ing Bay, Motherf'ers." Every sentence was intercut with giant random explosions. He went through his filmography title by title, talking about how after "Armageddon," Harry kissed his ass so hard he left bruises, then showing us a photograph to prove it. He talked about how abandoned he felt on the two "Transformers" movies by Harry, how he felt like Harry had turned on him, and how he didn't want Harry back on "Transformers 3" no matter what. It was like a jilted girlfriend listing off all the things that her man had done to make her mad, and it was hilarious.
Finally, after a quick shot of Michael Bay saying "Should we do that again? Was I too mean? I don't want to be too mean," we got a series of shots of all of the guys saying happy birthday to Harry, and then Favreau announced that to make up for his part in the roast, he was sending us the brand new "Iron Man 2" trailer, which you'll see online tomorrow. Short review? Wow. It's basically a condensed version of the Comic-Con reel which we wrote about in July, but it's really effectively cut, and it promises one hell of a ride this coming summer.
Afterwards, the lights came up, and Harry brought Matthew Vaughn to the front of the theater, which confirmed for everyone there that they were about to see "Kick-Ass," setting off an excited wave of reactions. Matthew seemed nervous and self-deprecating, and I'm sure part of that was fear that the audience would be just plain too tired to enjoy the film.
He needn't have worried.
The trailer reel was made up of strange low-rent superhero films like "Fearless Frank" starring Jon Voight, "Animal Protector" with David Carradine, and the totally f'ing bizarre "The Return Of Captain Invincible" starring Alan Arkin. Perfect way to set the tone. We were warned ahead of time that the film is still fairly unfinished, so keep that in mind. Nothing we saw had been color-timed or digitally graded yet, and the score is, for the most part, made up of temp tracks.
What's interesting is that for the first time since I saw an early screening of Mel Gibson in "Payback," I wish it was possible to just buy the temp tracks and leave them in the film. And right now, Vaughn's actually got everything cleared except for the two Warner Bros. superhero tracks. I'm not really worried about the "Dark Knight" music that's in the film, since I think that's too recent and too specific, but more the John Williams "Superman" score, which is used to perfect effect in the film's opening sequence. As I understand it, those cuts are the only ones that Vaughn can't clear right now, which is a shame. You know, Warner Bros... it's not like you're going to be making a "Superman" movie anytime soon. And even if you do, didn't a slavish adherence to the Richard Donner films prove to be a dead end? Let the Williams theme go. It belongs to pop culture at this point. And if anything, allowing it to be used at the start of "Kick-Ass" is just going to make it seem cooler, rather than diminishing your brand in any way. It can work with other music, and the way the trailer uses "Thus Spake Zarathrusta" is fairly effective over the scene of the guy jumping off the building...
... but come on... that "Superman" theme just slays.
So the film opens with Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) wondering why no one in the real world ever dresses up as a superhero . And from the way he's talking, you can tell right away... he's going to do it. The first act of the film openly mocks the conventions of the superhero film, from the way Dave's mom dies to the way Dave's "origin story" plays out... it's all designed to make the film feel like it's going to parody superhero movie culture. But that's not true. See, Dave wants desperately to be a real superhero, and "Kick-Ass" isn't interested in mocking anything. This is a film that embraces all the inherent madness and absurdity of superheroes, and instead of devolving into parody, little by little, Kick-Ass (and "Kick-Ass") proves to be the real deal.
There are two other throughlines that are playing out at the start of the film, all of them eventually merging into one in a way that is fairly elegant, and both of them are kickstarted right up front as well. First, there's the story of Damon and Mindy McCready, played by Nic Cage and Chloe Moretz, which we teased in that clip we put up yesterday. She's a little girl whose father has been raising her to be an unstoppable killing machine, and while the film starts by playing it all as a big wild joke, there's something else underneath. An aching sadness. And that's what allows everything else we see. That's what earns Hit Girl every single drop of blood she spills. And, oh, man, once she gets started, she spills a lot.
In fact, it was the first scene where Hit Girl makes an appearance, as Kick-Ass finds himself over his head while dealing with a drug dealer named Razul, where Harry's bizarre PT Barnum karma kicked into overdrive. As the sound of the "Banana Splits" theme song blasted from the speakers of the Alamo Drafthouse, there was a nasty static POP, and suddenly everything sounded like it was underwater. Fmmmfmmmmrrrmmm Wmmmmrrrrrmmmrrrr. The picture was fine, and the audience was cheering what they were seeing, but the sound was just dead. Within moments, the film stopped, and the lights came up to reveal Tim League, who explained that the center channel speakers had just blown out.
A moment of investigation, another moment of debate, and then they announced that they would have to replace the entire speaker before we could continue. So we were suddenly given a half-hour break at the precise moment that the film had grabbed the audience by the throat. You know what it really felt like? Like you reached the end of an issue of the comic, and you were now facing a month's wait before you could read what happened next.
And outside, no one seemed upset. They were excited. They were ready to get back inside for the rest of the film. They were engaged by it. When I walked back in, one person rightly pointed out "The best compliment possible is that one one is out there right now talking about that awesome 'Iron Man 2' trailer." Point taken.
I ran into Matthew Vaughn and Tarquin Pack, the guys I think of as MARV Films from all the time I've spent talking to them over the years, and I could see that they were happy things were going well, but they were also wigging out that the screening got interrupted. And the question was obviously looming as the minutes stacked up... could Tim and Harry do it? Could they get the sound restored? Could they get the audience back inside and back into the movie so that the disruption wouldn't hurt things?
Are you kidding? Of freaking course they could. And did.
And when the lights went down and the film started again, it was cued up perfectly. It was Kick-Ass stepping into the hallway outside Razul's apartment. And when the audience realized they were about to see the entire sequence again, they went nuts. I don't mean a few people applauded. I don't mean they were vocal. I mean they shook that theater. BOOOOOOOM! It was a moment of myth making, a perfect example of why I will fly to Texas to watch movies I could just as easily see in Los Angeles. There is no place on Earth that could have intentionally staged an event designed to create tension that worked as well as the accidental bliss of Butt-Numb-A-Thon.
The third major thread in the film deals with Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and his father Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong). Frank's a gangster, and Chris knows exactly what his father does for a living and wants to be brought into the business now that he's about to turn 18. Frank doesn't want to bring him in, though. It's not until Kick-Ass seems to be interfering in Frank's business and Chris comes up with a fairly clever way of dealing with things that Frank sees his son in a new light. The problem is... Kick-Ass may not be what Frank needs to worry about, and the fact that he's so wrong means he never sees the real threat coming.
Slowly, the threads start to come together. Kick-Ass meets Big Daddy and Hit Girl, and immediately recognizes that Damon and Mindy are the real version of what he wants to be. Their introduction cranks the film up into a realm that more closely resembles the world of Hong Kong action in the '80s than anything I would call the "real world," and if you're the sort of person who's going to get hung up on that, then perhaps "Kick-Ass" isn't for you. Me, I'm more interested in "real cool" than "real" when I'm watching an action film like this one, and there are several scenes here that stand toe-to-toe with anything from "Kill Bill" or "The Matrix." Vaughn's been waiting to cut loose, and he does so in a major way here. He stages several Paul Verhoeven like gore gags in the movie involving microwave ovens and car crushing machines, and when he winds up Hit Girl and lets her go, he paints the screen red. Chloe Moretz sneers like an schoolgirl Clint Eastwood as she puts down waves of bad guys, and yet even in the film's wildest moments, Vaughn has such a sure eye for detail that the grace notes add real emotion, real humanity to what we're watching. Honestly... I like "Layer Cake" and "Stardust" a lot, but the difference between his work as a filmmaker here and in those films is shocking. He's always told me that he loves superhero and action films more than any other genre, and watching "Kick-Ass," I believe him. This is passion, exuberance, and love fueling this picture. The screenplay, written by Jane Goldman with Matthew, is just as clever, just as tight, and just as commercially fine-tuned as "Back To The Future." High praise, I know, but the evidence is onscreen. There are things I saw them do on-set that I thought were throwaway ad-libs that pay off in act three in some of the film's greatest beats. It's impressive how well they hide all the exposition and all the set-ups that normally feel so ham-handed in most superhero films.
The reality of this film isn't our reality, but it's the attitude that the film has that marks it as so much more honest than most of what's come before it in this genre. One of the things that drove me crazy about the second half of "Hancock" was the way they sold out all the careful attitude they laid down in the film's first half, and how it felt like they got distracted by trying to invent a mythology that is so undercooked that it just destroys the mood. With "Kick-Ass," the film keeps building and building, and the last "issue," the last 25 minutes or so, is just delirious. As much as I've raved about Chloe Moretz so far, the character only flies because everyone else is equally credible, starting with Aaron Johnson as Kick-Ass. Johnson's an English kid, but you'd never know it from the squeaky voiced Peter Parker act he nails as Dave. He has a breathless sort of astonishment all the time, and it makes it interesting when he puts on the mask and transforms his personality. He's a wise-ass by accident, as impressed by what's going on around him as the audience is, and he's just as entertaining out of the costume as he is in it. There's an entire subplot about what happens when the girl he likes mistakes him for gay and he decides to roll with it just so they can spend more time together, and all of their scenes are charming and sweet. Mark Strong continues to impress in role after role, and he takes what could easily have been just a stereotypical gangster part and plays him with all sorts of strange subcurrents of rage. Chris Mintz-Plasse proves here that he is far more than just the Man Who Was McLovin', and the film leaves him in a fascinating place in its final moments. If audiences react the way I suspect they will, we'll see a whole new side of his personality in future "Kick-Ass" films, and that alone is reason enough for me to root for this film to be a hit.
Special mention must be made, though, of Nic Cage in the film. I know people love to pick on Cage, but as I've said before... when he manages to wrangle his eccentricities the right way, as in this year's "Bad Lieutenant," the impact is still unlike almost anyone else. He fits the dual role of Damon and Big Daddy better than I can picture anyone else doing it. He plays Damon as a sort of spacy Mr. Rogers riff, and he channels Adam West to wicked effect as Big Daddy. When he fights, he's terrifying because you get the feeling that he savors each bone he breaks and each thug he kills, yet he's so sweet with his daughter that it's almost hilarious. This is the sort of role that Nic Cage plays better than anyone else, and I suspect it will remind people exactly why he's been employed as long as he has. It is, very simply, some of the best work of his career.
There were enough unfinished things about this film that I wouldn't call this my official final word on the picture, but I would have a hard time believing there's any way to screw up what we saw. The film has already gotten its R rating from the MPAA, which is frankly a little surprising. That means the cut has to be relatively final, disregarding surface changes like score or color timing. Even as rough as it was, "Kick-Ass" manages to both underline the ridiculousness of the idea of a superhero and embrace the giddy power fantasy of doing whatever it takes to right this world's wrongs, and it manages to comment on both superhero movies and the original books that inspired them. It is an impressive announcement that Matthew Vaughn really is a world-class action director, and I suspect that whatever job he wants after people finally see this, he'll get. We may have missed out on his "X3" and his "Thor," but the truth is that this is a more exciting film for him to have made because it's his. He's not restrained by a rating or by a studio or someone else's rules, and the result is as free as a kid in a homemade costume, running across the rooftops of New York.
"Kick-Ass" arrives in theaters April 16th, 2010.
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