#109 - The Cutting Edge
1923 - 2010
Ahoy, mateys! Welcome back to the Electric Theatre. Yes, I do have a review of the supposedly controversial new superhero movie that the internet has been all a-flutter over for the past few months. But since you’re probably as sick of hearing about that movie as I am, let’s start with a fantastic new documentary that absolutely should not be allowed to fly beneath your radar.
NOW IN THEATRES
Exit Through The Gift Shop
Street art is a fascinating, uniquely urban phenomenon. The art itself can be beautiful, satiric, funny, puzzling, profound and absurd. By its very nature, the work is ephemeral, often disappearing forever shortly after its completion. It’s a subject that cries out for a definitive documentary film. Exit Through The Gift Shop, the new movie from enigmatic British street artist Banksy, is not that film. Not quite, anyway. Instead, it’s the story of the guy who was supposed to make that documentary. It’s a movie that turns in on itself and vanishes down a rabbit hole into a very strange place where the lines between art, hype and commerce blur into each other.
The would-be documentarian is Thierry Guetta, a Los Angeles shop owner and camera buff. On a visit home to France, he reconnects with his cousin, the street mosaic artist known as Space Invader. Thierry dives headfirst into the new world, befriending other artists including Shepard Fairey, the man behind the Andre the Giant “Obey” image and future designer of the now iconic Obama poster. They’re charmed by the Frenchman, who becomes an unofficial chronicler of the movement, location scout and assistant. Finally, Thierry meets up with Banksy, who allows him unprecedented access to his inner circle and encourages Thierry to make his film. But Thierry’s filming was more of a symptom of OCD than anything else. He would take the finished tapes, occasionally label them, and file them in boxes. He had no plans to even watch his footage, much less assemble it into a film. When he does finally put something together, it’s absolutely unwatchable. So Banksy takes control of the footage and encourages Thierry to go back to LA and pursue his own art…which is where things really start to get strange.
Narrated with a sardonic twinkle by Rhys Ifans, the movie leaves you chewing over a number of questions. What is art and who gets to decide? Does placing a dollar value on it increase or decrease its legitimacy? But these weighty themes are couched in a playful, often hilarious frame. It isn’t often that a documentary can be described as fun but Exit Through The Gift Shop is an exhilarating good time. Banksy fills the movie with surprises at every turn. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the giant question mark hovering over the entire film, the sense that this whole enterprise might simply be an elaborate hoax perpetrated by Banksy and/or Thierry (or Thierry’s art persona, Mr. Brainwash). I don’t think it is but I could be wrong. And if it is all just a prank, it might even elevate my opinion of the movie even higher.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if what we’re seeing is truth or illusion. There is truth to be found here, delivered with a wry sense of humor. Exit Through The Gift Shop upends your expectations of what a documentary should be, what art should be, and what artists are supposed to be like. See this movie with friends because you are guaranteed to have a lengthy, engrossing conversation about it afterwards. It’s the most fun you’ll have at a documentary this year. (* * * ½)
I don’t really have a whole lot to say about this movie. It’s been talked up and down for a long time now and frankly, I don’t think there’s that much here to warrant all the debate. I did not think Kick-Ass was beyond awesome, nor did I think it was a moral cesspool. It’s OK but it’s nowhere near as innovative, subversive or clever as it seems to think it is.
As you are no doubt aware, Kick-Ass is the latest entry in the generally meaningless superheroes-in-the-real-world genre. Filmmakers, comic book creators and fans tend to see this question as genuinely profound and original but it’s the same question posed by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster when they created Superman back in 1932. What if there were superheroes? Flash forward to the Marvel age in the 60s, when Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others asked, “OK, what if there REALLY were superheroes?” Enter characters like Spider-Man with real world problems and hang-ups. Flash forward again to the present day and the question becomes, “No, seriously. What if there really and truly were superheroes?” So now we have stuff like Watchmen, which is a brilliant piece of science fiction but doesn’t do much to answer the question, and Kick-Ass, with its delusional comic book geek deciding to put on a costume and fight crime despite the fact that he has no particular skill or talent.
In the title role, Aaron Johnson is likable enough but I never once believed in anything he does. It’s never clear why he decides to adopt this persona in the first place. He’s certainly read enough comics to know that he might want to at least learn how to throw a punch before heading out to fight crime. This becomes problematic when we meet Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz as an ex-cop and his killing-machine daughter who, inspired by Kick-Ass, become Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. These characters are far more interesting and believable than Kick-Ass, who ends up feeling like a peripheral character in his own story. Cage is particularly funny as Big Daddy and I’d have liked to see much more of him. The fuss about the bloodshed and profanity surrounding Hit-Girl is much ado about nothing. The language is just there for cheap shock value. It doesn’t really make sense that the character would actually speak like that. The violence at least is consistent with the way she was raised and director Matthew Vaughn stages her action scenes with more flair than anything else in the movie.
At least 50% of Kick-Ass is pretty routine, with characters we’ve seen a million times before, a predictable plot and fairly bland visuals. The rest is interesting and often fun but Vaughn never finds a consistent tone. He wants to have it both ways, making a gonzo action-comedy that makes you pause and consider the ramifications of deciding to dress up like a superhero. But the laughs aren’t big or consistent enough to make it a great thrill-ride of a movie and he never persuades us that his central question is important enough to consider for more than ten seconds. (* * ½)
TALES FROM THE QUEUE
She's Having A Baby
When I wrote my tribute to John Hughes last August, I asked you to recommend some of your favorites that I had missed. I perhaps should not have been surprised that essentially all of Mr. Hughes’ films were subsequently suggested to me (although Curly Sue did not seem to have many supporters). Far and away the two biggest vote-getters were Pretty In Pink and She’s Having A Baby. I decided to check this one out first simply because it was also directed by Hughes (Howard Deutch helmed Pretty In Pink). And while it’s not up to the level of Hughes’ other movies, it has its charms and clearly could have come from no one else.
The title is slightly misleading, as an entire hour of screen time goes by before the idea of procreation even comes up. Instead, this is a relatively honest, if unavoidably dated, examination of a young married couple (Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern). More accurately, it’s a look at Bacon as he struggles with leaving college behind and accepting his new role as husband, career man and eventual father. Bacon does a good job, especially when dealing with his new role as the young man in the grey flannel suit at a Chicago ad agency. He grounds his performance in an everyman likability, making it easy for us to identify with his suburban angst. McGovern, on the other hand, barely registers and I think it’d be a better movie if it weren’t so one-sided. For much of the movie, she comes across as a passive-aggressive shrew to the point that you start wondering why these two got married in the first place.
This is also a darker movie than I expected from Hughes. Bacon’s face is often criss-crossed with film noir Venetian blind shadows and the scenes with Alec Baldwin as Bacon’s free-living best friend are muted with real conflict. But there are still some distinctly odd touches, such as the impromptu suburban dance number, that are instantly recognizable as the work of John Hughes. I was also surprised by the montage of famous faces suggesting baby names over the end credits, including Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and, weirdest of all, Warren Zevon. If you own this DVD, I suggest using the end credits as an 80s trivia game at a party.
Unlike most of John Hughes’ movies, She’s Having A Baby grows a bit stale during its second act and goes on a little too long. But it’s hard to complain about that too much since the movie is so obviously heartfelt and delivers its message with a fair amount of restraint and maturity. I wouldn’t consider She’s Having A Baby to be an essential entry in the Hughes canon but it’s an interesting one with hints of what might have been if Hughes had decided to keep directing movies set outside of high school. (* * ½)
Thanks to everyone who suggested this week’s TFTQ entry, far too many to list individually. As always, make your recommendations of underrated and rarely screened movies known, either via email or the Facebook deal. If you liked it, I want to see it.