Aaron Johnson in Kick-AssKICK-ASS

Considering that its climax finds 46-year-old actor Mark Strong beating the holy hell out of 13-year-old Chloë Grace Moretz - who was 11 during filming - I didn't hate the comic-book adaptation Kick-Ass the way I thought I would. I actually hated it in a completely different way.

Much has been made about the questionable, some would say immoral, employment of Moretz in director Matthew Vaughn's ultra-violent action comedy, in which the young actress plays a prepubescent superhero who slaughters creeps with untoward relish and casually blurts the F and both C words. I found absolutely no enjoyment in watching this miniature ninja either annihilating her enemies or suffering a bloody pummeling. (This is no doubt a matter of personal taste, as the raucous laughter and exclamations of "Yes!!!" at the screening I attended suggested that many will get off on this sort of thing.) I didn't, however, find the character conceit wholly reprehensible - the avenging angel Hit Girl has actually been designed with a fair amount of smarts - and thankfully, Moretz displays such spectacular poise and confidence in the role that she manages to add some lightness of spirit to this bleak enterprise.

Yet Kick-Ass is still a mostly infuriating experience, because it keeps threatening to turn into something fascinating and unique, and keeps ignoring its edgier, more intriguing elements in favor of lame wisecracks ("What a douche!") and juvenile and empty-headed "comic" bloodletting. Vaughn's outing continually teases you with hints of subversion, and - in the performances of Moretz and Nicolas Cage, who portrays the girl's sociopathic father - occasionally delivers. But for a film that wears its faux coolness on its sleeve, Kick-Ass winds up being all too obvious in its assaultiveness, and in the end, all too conventional; the filmmakers don't seem to realize that underscoring their boffo-socko action finale to Elvis Presley singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is about as square as movies get.

The labyrinthine storyline follows teen geek Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) in his desire to be an honest-to-goodness, though superpower-less, costumed crime fighter, and leads to a bunch of terrifically satisfying details, particularly the YouTube frenzy that results after his alter-ego, Kick-Ass, successfully ends a street brawl. (There's also a sweet subplot that finds the object of Dave's affection, played by Lyndsy Fonseca, swooning over Kick-Ass while thinking of Dave as her gay best buddy, a shrewd 21st Century twist on the Superman/Lois Lane/Clark Kent "triangle.") But Dave's adventures as Kick-Ass - including his run-ins with a vicious gangster (Strong) and his nebbish son (a beautifully cast Christopher Mintz-Plasse) with superhero ambitions of his own - are of far less interest than Cage's and Moretz's compelling and sick father/daughter act. And this is where the movie really drops the ball.

Through a flashback - presented, amusingly, through comic-book panels - we learn that Cage's former cop Damon Macready has spent years planning revenge for his unjust imprisonment, and has been training daughter Mindy in weaponry and martial-arts skills since she was five. (The actors' opening scene, and it's not an unfunny one, finds Cage shooting the bulletproof-vested Moretz point-blank in the chest.) Yet while the mind reels at the psychological complexities of this relationship, and the actors seem more than ready to dive into them, Kick-Ass chooses to steadfastly avoid them. Macready has no questions of conscience, Mindy suffers no trauma, and a potentially devastating exploration of family dynamics is trashed; when the girl's vicious, bloody attacks are accompanied by the soundtrack blaring Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" and the Banana Splits theme song, it's clear that nothing but dumb action noise and "ironic" laughs are on the filmmakers' minds. (And many of these laughs are senseless, to boot: Why does Cage's masked avenger - who, in theory, should be a figure of vengeful solemnity - speak with the campy, oddly emphasized cadences of Adam West?)

There's little doubt that Vaughn is a director of perhaps considerable talent - his staging of Dave getting hit by a passing car is a giddy shocker - and his day-glo color schemes are certainly arresting. But he never finds a consistent tone between the film's grimness and its attempts at satire, and I would've traded all of Kick-Ass' snarky ass-kicking for a few more scenes like the one that finds the costumed Johnson and Mintz-Plasse grooving to the car radio with dorky abandon; the movie is criminally short on both depth and charm, and at nearly two hours, it seems to last forever. Like its on-screen viscera, Kick-Ass is a mess. By shoving its brutality down your throat, the movie demands that you take it seriously, and then winds up punishing you if you actually do.


Danny Glover, Martin Lawrence, and Tracy Morgan in Death at a FuneralDEATH AT A FUNERAL

Death at a Funeral's opening credits begin with an alphabetical listing of performers, and it features such a wealth of talent - the names include Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, Danny Glover, Columbus Short, Loretta Devine, and Peter Dinklage - that you immediately find yourself thinking, "Wow, this could be great!" Then the credits wrap up with the acknowledgment "Directed by Neil LaBute," and you find yourself thinking, "Wow, this could be ... interesting ... ." The movie actually turns out to be neither, but considering the wildly unlikely pairing of material and director - a cheerful farce with a predominantly African-American cast helmed by the creator of so many corrosive works about bitter and unhappy white people - the results are by no means embarrassing.

LaBute's comedy concerns a series of mishaps and rivalries that occur at the home-based funeral of a family patriarch, and if the story sounds familiar, it might be because you already saw the movie, like, a few weeks ago. Adapted from the identically titled British farce from 2007 - and boasting a nearly identical screenplay by the original's author, Dean Craig - Death at a Funeral is actually a slight improvement on its predecessor; the pacing is a little sharper, and the insults are hurled with more enjoyable comic ferocity. Given that this 2.0 version is practically a scene-for-scene remake, it's also weak in the exact same ways as its inspiration. Some characters (such as those assumed by Regina Hall and the staggeringly pretty Zoe Saldana) are indifferently drawn, some are confusing (how exactly are Morgan and Luke Wilson connected to this clan?), and many of the slapstick antics are unduly protracted, while the subplots are tidied up with such off-putting speed that you could easily miss the movie's climax during a late-film trip to the restroom or concession stand.

No matter. For what it is, Death at a Funeral is pleasant enough, and its actors ensure that it's sometimes even better than that. Rock plays it (mostly) straight and, somewhat ironically, comes through with the funniest screen performance he's delivered in ages - his incredulous reaction shots are priceless - and he's well-matched against Martin Lawrence, who offers a surprisingly subtle turn as a preening egomaniac. (You're most aware of the LaBute touch in his handling of comics who, when seemingly left to their own devices in other films, oftentimes come off as naggingly shrill.) Morgan's baby-voiced buffoon is more entertaining here than it's been anywhere outside of 30 Rock - and way more than it was in the recent Cop Out - while Short, who rarely gets the chance to stretch his comedic muscles, proves himself an unexpectedly nimble and inspired funnyman.

The moon-faced Wilson is beyond irritating here, and James Marsden, though he tries hard, doesn't quite pull off the manic, drug-fueled lunacy he appears to be aiming for. (Dinklage, who's incredibly witty as the deceased's secret gay lover, reprises his role from the 2007 film, and it would've been wise for the filmmakers to also re-enlist original cast member Alan Tudyk, who was sensationally clever in Marsden's role. It also would've been fun, for many of us, to see him reunited with this film's Ron Glass, Tudyk's co-star on Firefly.) Kevin Hart, though, provides an expectedly hilarious cameo, Devine - with her breathy soprano and eccentric readings - is a constant delight, and Glover delivers an apoplectic turn as a wheelchair-bound crank, and all but rolls off with the wispy but affable Death at a Funeral. In a nice nod to his Lethal Weapon days, Glover's grouch surveys the madness around him and grumbles, "I'm gettin' too old for this shit." Not yet you're not, Danny.


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