Over the Top. Movies reviewed: The Square, Kick-Ass, Fritz the Cat

Why do directors try to go over the top?

I get the impression that movies that want to get noticed try to up the quotient a bit, by including more violence, especially more unexpected violence, or more sex, especially outside the mainstream, or more explicit than what you see in most mainstream movies. So people will be a bit shocked, a bit dismayed, a bit distressed. That’s nothing new. What is new is that the boundaries of what used to be shocking is so far beyond what it was a decade or even five years ago.

So the sex or violence alone isn’t enough. To really shock they want to have kids or old people, or women, or pets, either committing the violence or having it done to them; and what used to be the push for celebrities and famous actors to show more flesh on film, has now shifted to a push for actors to show explicit sex on films. What used to be a bit of blood, now is a flood.

At the same time, the openness to a broad range of opinions and language that really expanded into the mainstream in the sixties and seventies seems to have been scaled back, especially over the past decade. Dirty words are OK now; troubling ideas less so. I’m going to review three comic-book-like movies that are in some way edgy in the over-the-topness in their stories, ideas, explicitness, or language.

“The Square”, an Australian movie directed by Nash Edgerton, has more mullets than you can shake a stick at. A contractor, Raymond (David Roberts), agrees to install a large concrete square in a building development, and arranges to get a kickback from a supplier. He has a good job, success, money, marriage, big house… and even a much younger mistress, Carla (Claire van der Boom). And they all live in the same area — some in mansions, some in shacks — on the banks of a wide, bucolic river. Life’s beautiful.

But one day, Carla discovers her bearded, abusive husband has a hidden bag of slightly stained cash. Lots of it. So she manages to convince Ray to come on board her scheme of somehow stealing it – in a way that can’t be traced back to her. They secretly hire a shady guy – well actually everyone in this movie is a bit shady – to burn down the house. Of course something goes wrong. So now happy Ray has everything and everyone lined up against him.

The square he’s building is sinking; and he has to fend off his contractor, his employees, his boss, the shady arsonist, the womanizing kick-back guy, the conniving mistress, the low-life, mullet brigade colleagues of her bearded hubby, and a mystery person, sending him creepy Christmas cards telling him – “I know what you did”.

So he starts to unravel, suspecting everyone, which devolves into a series of linked, unplanned deaths. It gets stranger and stranger as the movie goes on, till the point where the audience starts cracking up at all the misguided violence. I think the director wanted to go too far… and he did. And I think the movie pulled it off.

It’s definitely a B movie (maybe a C), but it kept my attention and interest. The acting was fun, across the board, though it was hard to deeply sympathize with anyone. (I thought some of the dodgier elements looked more like espresso bar faux-hemian actors than ruthless killers.)

Finally, there are a few great, unforgettable scenes in “The Square” that make it worthwhile. A Christmas picnic in the park, with its miscommunication leading to a panicky Santa is unforgettable. For a Canadian, just seeing a Christmas party in the middle of an Aussie summer is whack.

“Kick-Ass”, which you may have heard of, (directed by Matthew Vaughan, and based on a graphic novel by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr) is a great retake of the super-hero origins-style comic book (as in Spiderman, Superman, Batman). It’s about Dave (Aaron Johnson), a High School boy who’s tired of his undesirable combination: invisible to girls, but a magnet to bullies and muggers. So after a typical round of complaining to his pals, Dave decides to do something about it.

He fashions himself a super-hero outfit from stuff he buys on-line, and practices poses and punches in front of his bedroom mirror. And he lucks out: his rescue of a man in a street fight with some hoods is captured on a cel phone and instantly goes viral – Kick-Ass is born. He gets lots of hits on his Kick-Ass Facebook, but his own life is unchanged, just full of difficult secrets. Gangsters believe he’s moving in on their territory and want to snuff him, the girl he has a crush on thinks he’s gay, and other kids everywhere are copycatting his costume.

So when he encounters some real superheroes, Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage), he is shocked back into reality. These real “heroes” are also amassing huge amounts of weapons and money they steal from drug dealers. And Kick-Ass is getting blamed for it.

Tiny, 12-year-old Hit Girl is like a ninja in her speed, skill and ruthlessness, with a shocking moral code different from conventional superhero comic books. She’s part of Big Daddy’s mission of vengeance. These real life super-heroes (similar to the ones in Watchmen, but done much better here) are not the good role models they used to be.

At first glance, Kick-Ass” seems like a typical teen comedy with a twist. But it’s actually a superhero action movie with great comic elements. It is morally ambiguous, extremely bloody and violent, but it does manage to avoid one annoying and pervasive element of action movies: There are no girls calling out to their boyfriends to save them. The girls in this movie follow the Buffy the Vampire Slayer model; either they’re superheroes themselves or they’re self assured regular people, who, when push comes to shove, are ready and able to fight back, to kick ass themselves. That alone makes this an above-par movie. And a reason for there to be more female scriptwriters (like Jane Goldman).

We’re in the midst of film festival season in Toronto. Coming in May, is HotDocs, follwed closely by NXNE. Right now, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival is just finishing up. One of the most interesting topics they’re covering is comics. And of those films, nothing can compare to the well-known but seldom seen on the big screen Fritz the Cat, directed by the legendary Ralph Bakshi).

Fritz the Cat was the first animated film to receive an “X” rating in the US – this was back in the early 70’s. And to understand it, you have to consider it in context, the period in which it was made. (FTC would never be made this way today.)

The story is about a hep-cat, Fritz, who’s a hip cat. (He’s a cat.) Fritz is a university student at the peak of the baby-boomers’ take on the ‘sixties, in downtown New York City. He’s sick of studying and going to classes so he embarks on a journey, to experience life. So we follow him from Washington Square Park, where he tries to pick up girls by impressing them with his lame guitar-playing.

He ends up at a pot party, which soon devolves into romping group sex in a bathtub. He later falls in with a crow, steals a car, has sex, takes drugs, and falls in with some bikers and revolutionary terrorists who want him to blow things up.

Fritz is a sort of a Cheshire cat, but dressed like a college student trying to be cool. The crows look suspiciously like the magpies Heckle and Jeckle. (This was a TV cartoon series made by Terrytoons, where Bakshi worked in the 50’s at the start of his career. I wonder if that was his inspiration.) In this movie the cats and rabbits live downtown, while the crows, well, they live in Harlem. The pigs, of course, are a bumbling team of cops — an old-timer, Ralph, and his new partner. And there are lizards, a cow who’s a biker chick, and other cats and dogs. (Black pimps? Cops as pigs? Old jews praying and complaining? Maybe in 1972 these tired stereotypes were more audacious end edgy, less cliched than now.)

Most of the characters — especially the scrunched faced men, and the big bottomed women in overalls — are icons of the great cartoonist Robert Crumb, who was also a sort of an underground comic superstar at the time. This movie captures a lot of Crumb’s relaxed hippy sexuality, but also Bakshi’s sorta terrifyingly nihilistic, and misogynistic view of a violent world. So there’s lots of tame sex, lots of music, drugs, four letter words, and very bloody, senseless death, none of which was ever seen at the time in animated American movies (but are now on the level of what you find in a few minutes of The Simpsons). Fritz the Cat is a step back into the defunct microcosm of rioting, extreme change, and anything-goes experimentation of the late 60’s and early seventies.

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