Mar 27, 2010

Film Reviews: Lourdes / Kick Ass

DIR: Jessica Hausner
CAST: Sylvie Testud, Léa Seydoux,
Bruno Todeschini, Elina Löwensohn

When a film deals with religion and (possible) miracles it is important to see where the film is coming from in relation to that concept and those events. Lourdes is perhaps best described as an agnostic film. Jessica Hausner and her cast may know the truth of what happens when Sylvie Testud’s wheelchair bound MS sufferer Christine is, on a visit to the titular site of pilgrimage, apparently miraculously able to walk again but, crucially, they aren’t telling. That’s part of what makes Lourdes so compelling, rather than taking the easy route and battering us over the collective head with either religious or atheistic fervour it simply (very simply, in fact) tell this story, and leaves us with the ambiguity of it, free to think whatever we like.

There are a few problems with Lourdes, mostly the fact that the way the screenplay deals with its characters is sometimes a little schematic (especially in reference to the two old ladies who form a sort of greek chorus, and disapprove when the much less outwardly devout Christine receives a miracle, rather than anyone else), but for the most part the film’s focus is tightly on Christine, and Sylvie Testud’s spectacular performance, and when she dominates the film it is just about perfect.

Testud is an exceptional actress, the kind of character actor who seems almost to shape shift from role to role. She’s perfectly cast as Christine, largely because rather than going for the sometimes ludicrous glamour that Hollywood actresses often portray, Testud looks like a real person rather than a model in a wheelchair. This film isn’t a character study, and actually the writing of Christine is a little thin, which means that Testud has to play a lot in undertones; a glance here, a flicker of emotion on her face there. She’s severely limited, during the film’s first two acts, by the fact that Christine can only move her head. Despite these limitations, Testud finds oceans of depth in Christine, giving an extremely moving performance, while actually doing very little. Some of her smallest moments are her best; the tiny smile when she’s able, unnoticed by her nurse (Seydoux), to reach out and touch a wall at Lourdes; the effort she puts into a spin while dancing with one of the male helpers (Todeschini); the long beat, the day after the ‘miracle’ when it seems that she may not move, and the moment that she appears to remember that she can. It’s exceptional work from a great actress.

Jessica Hausner’s directorial style is meticulous, and heavily designed, but that design never feels suffocating, rather it presents the story with beautiful simplicity. Most of Hausner’s shots are still frames, often held for quite a long time, it’s a nice touch, a clever way to get us to soak up the atmosphere of Lourdes, which seems, from this film, an odd combination of church and gift shop and to experience it in much the same way that Christine does; still, with a perspective that shifts infrequently, and only through outside intervention. The imagery is often extremely beautiful, and Hausner seems to have an innate sense when it comes to shot selection. Especially strong is the one kiss that Christine has with the male helper she’s got a crush on. Most movies, certainly most Hollywood movies, would rush in for a close up, have music swell on the soundtrack, and quite possibly roll the credits. Hausner observes the moment in long shot, without music, and just lets the force of the moment speak for itself, an intelligent and mature choice from a director on only her third feature.

The supporting cast are sometimes slightly shortchanged by the screenplay, but in the most pivotal roles Léa Seydoux, Bruno Todeschini and Elina Löwensohn are all excellent. Seydoux, in particular, impresses as the young girl who is helping out on this trip rather than going skiing, but is finding it both less fun and less fulfilling than she hoped, and, like Christine, she’s distracted by Todeschini.

What really makes Lourdes special though is that it’s an example of an increasingly rare thing in cinema; a genuinely thoughtful film. Despite the U certificate this is very much a film for adults, because it demands your engagement, it provokes thought about whether what Christine has experienced is a miracle, a simple remission in her MS, or if, spurred on by her interest in the male helper, there has been a psychological effect that has caused this remission. It digs in to complex issues like the motivation of pilgrims and those who accompany them on their pilgrimages and it wraps it all in a beautifully told, if low key, story with an ending that is both hugely emotional and deliberately ambiguous and quiet. Lourdes is a great film, the first great film of 2010 and it’s one that you should make sure to seek out.

DIR: Matthew Vaughn
CAST: Aaron Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage,
Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong

Whenever a film is as hyped, and has such stellar advance word as Kick Ass has amassed since debuting footage of Hit Girl at Comiccon last year, I end up going into it a little bit pessimistic, because my hopes have so frequently been dashed in the past. I was hoping that Kick Ass would manage to be half as good as it was supposed to be (which would still have made it pretty awesomely entertaining). Well, sadly, it’s not half as good as you’ve heard.

Incredibly, it’s better than you’ve heard. Had you going there, didn’t I? This is a truly spectacular movie, almost its every frame is honed to perfection, its one and only aim to allow you to have an exceptionally entertaining time. It’s so good that it leaves you baffled, both at how everything managed to fall together so well, and at how frequently films intended as mass entertainment (The Bounty Hunter, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen et al) manage to be less fun than watching a cat cough up a hairball because, and this is one of the great joys of Kick Ass, Matthew Vaughn makes this shit look easy.

As much as it is anything else, Kick Ass is the experience of watching a filmmaker come of age. Vaughn started out as Guy Ritchie’s producer, but his first two stints in the big chair showed him to be a more creative filmmaker than Ritchie could ever aspire to be. Layer Cake was Ritchie with more wit, Stardust clunked on occasion (Robert DeNiro’s gay pirate anyone?) but was overall a charming and amusing story, even if the Princess Bride influence weighed rather heavily on the film, but Kick Ass is something else. Vaughn cuts loose, employing a bold visual style entirely appropriate to a comic book adaptation and going as over the top as he can, finding new things to do with each action scene and constantly outdoing himself after you think, ‘well, that can’t be topped’. It is, despite the darkness inherent in many of the story beats, a genuinely joyous film to watch. It’s confident, muscular, inventive filmmaking and while it uses the familiar tropes of the superhero film it never feels bound or hamstrung by them.

The story, based (though I can’t tell you how closely) on Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr's comic book is both simple and convoluted. At its heart the film is about Dave Lizewski (Johnson), a comic reading nerd who wonders why nobody has ever tried being a superhero for real, he decides to try it, and becomes Kick Ass. Even after he’s rendered largely unable to feel pain, and has a lot of metal put into his body to replace the bones broken when he’s hit by a car Dave is a pretty ineffective hero, but he becomes a cult figure on the net, which brings him to the attention of gangster Frank D’Amico (Strong) and father and daughter heroes Big Daddy (Cage) and Hit Girl (Moretz).

Aaron Johnson, whose John Lennon I wasn’t all that convinced by in Nowhere Boy, is effective as Dave and as Kick Ass, the film is patterned, to a large degree, after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, and Johnson does a good job of selling the nerdy kid (who is pretending to be gay, just to get close to the girl he fancies) but what this film never forgets is that it’s about a truly identifiable superhero. Spider-Man was great because he seemed like the superhero you could be. Kick Ass is the superhero you would be, and Johnson makes that identification strong.

Mark Strong has become Hollywood’s go to bad guy of late, and he again demonstrates why with a charismatic turn as mob boss Frank D’Amico. In keeping with the film’s dedication for showing characters in a more realistic way than we’d expect in a superhero movie it’s clear that D’Amico largely hides behind his hired goons because, despite an ability to fight, he’s fundamentally a coward. It’s an interesting move for the film, and one that Strong pulls off well. I can’t say much about Christopher Mintz-Plasse as D’Amico’s son, who later becomes superhero Red Mist, but he does demonstrate that there’s more to him than McLovin’, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in the sequel.

Good as these leads are, entertaining as the support is, and though the movie is called Kick Ass, this film is completely owned by Nicolas Cage as Big Daddy and the astounding Chloe Grace Moretz as Hit Girl. Kick Ass has its weaknesses, for instance the pace slackens a bit when Dave is just being Dave, but whenever Cage or Moretz are on screen you can forgive the rest of the film a multitude of sins. Hell, if the rest of the film were Troll 2 I’d probably be able to forgive it, such is the unfettered awesomeness of these characters. Cage is an actor who has no middle gear. He is either catastrophically awful, or he’s jaw droppingly brilliant. His performance as Damon, Big Daddy’s ex-cop alter ego, is largely straight, though there’s an insane glint in his eye too (well, obviously, in his first scene he’s shooting the eleven year old daughter he dotes on in the chest as a training exercise) and he forges a palpable, and perversely rather sweet, bond with Moretz in those scenes, but it’s as Big Daddy that Cage really has fun. In costume, Damon channels Adam West’s Batman. It could have gone either way, but the movie is so consciously a comedy that the deliriously over the top style of Cage’s performance fits brilliantly, and is constantly hilarious.

Hit Girl, oh, what can I say about Hit Girl? This for starters: The movie knows exactly what it’s got in both Hit Girl and Moretz’ exceptional performance. Right from the word go Moretz, as Hit Girl’s alter ego Mindy, is great, as in the scene you’ve all seen in the trailers, where she’s talking about what she wants for her birthday, and after asking for a dog, says: “I'm just fucking with you Daddy... I'd love a bench made model 42 butterfly knife!” But it’s the first time we see her in costume, and her first line as Hit Girl, that really kicks Kick Ass into overdrive. The minute this tiny, pixieish, eleven year old says: “Okay you cunts... lets see what you can do now!” she’s an icon, a character we’ll be talking about for years to come. Moretz completely sells Hit Girl as daddy’s little girl and as perhaps the deadliest thing in this movie, in an irresistible, perfectly judged, performance that is going to make her a huge star. If there’s any way to make Kick Ass an even better movie it would be to shift focus and make Kick Ass the support and Hit Girl and Big Daddy the stars.

The action, which is largely just (wire assisted) martial arts, is enormously fun. Amazingly, Moretz visibly does the bulk of her own stunt work, and does it fantastically well. The great thing about the action here is that it manages to straggle the difficult boundary between being cartoonish and fun when it needs to be (as when Hit Girl takes on a corridor full of D’Amico’s henchmen) and yet hard hitting and distressing when that’s the order of the day (as in the sequence in which a captured Kick Ass and Big Daddy take a savage beating), all without unbalancing the tone of the movie. It’s great to see a superhero movie that keeps things up close, personal and real. CG is very thin on the ground, and certainly there’s none of that horrible, weightless, replacing of characters with digital doubles during the action.

So, to sum up. Wow. I really didn’t think that this film could possibly live up to the hype, but it’s exceeded it. Kick Ass is, put plainly and simply, one of the most out and out entertaining movies of the past several years. It’s perhaps the best comic book movie ever made and is absolutely guaranteed to thrill and entertain all sorts of audiences. It’s spectacular, and I can’t wait to see it again.


  1. Kick-Ass is an exceptional film...and it's the most fun I've had in the cinema in over 20 years.

    It's barely in UK cinemas but the DVD release cannot come soon enough for me.

    I loved every thrilling minute.

    Great review...I know Steve (Psychocandy) gives it a solid 10 too.

  2. Kiss Ass is beautifully written, directed, and certainly phenomenally acted. I knew it would be good from the trailers, but didn't expect this good. Weird though, I was the only female in the audience. I want purple hair. My boyfriend and I laughed our asses off. Thanks for the great review. Melba