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Growing Pains

Kick-Ass and Hit Girl hit the awkward stage

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Kick-Ass 2. Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass (2010) is that rare comic book movie that balances humor, violence and style with unique cinematic technique. This follow-up has some of the original's essence, but so diluted that it feels more like a pale imitation than a proper sequel.

The movie opens with Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) back to the routine of a high school senior. Having retired his Kick-Ass alter ego, Dave finds himself bored to distraction by the lack of action. He seeks out Mindy Macready/Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), who has continued her training regimen. Dave convinces Mindy to get him back to fighting trim and ready for the streets. Mindy's guardian catches wind of their antics and issues a no-vigilante-justice ultimatum. Left to his own devices, Kick-Ass seeks out a ragtag group of ill-equipped but well-intentioned copycat superheroes. Led by lantern-jawed, ax-handle-wielding, born-again Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), they become more than the sum of their parts, and actually start doing some good.

Meanwhile, Chris D'Amico/Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), on a path of vengeance from the first film, has reinvented himself as the world's first super-villain. He whimsically names himself The Motherfucker and starts building an evil army to destroy New York City and the superheroes. As one might imagine, things come to a head.

Kick-Ass 2 lacks the clarity and confidence of Vaughn's direction. He stuck around as a producer, but handed off writing and directing duties to relative newcomer Jeff Wadlow. Wadlow does justice to the themes and tone of the first movie but loses track of fundamental storytelling elements. Character arcs and storylines are truncated, leaving their motivation dubious. The pacing is herky-jerky, and the fight sequences, shot hand-held and edited to death, lack space and spectacle.

To be fair, Kick-Ass 2 isn't all bad. Solid performances, especially by Taylor-Johnson and Moretz, fill in some of the script's tonal gaps. Special credit goes to Moretz for keeping Mindy/Hit Girl compelling after the novelty of a foul-mouthed, curb-stomping tween has worn off. The script's attempts to explore her burgeoning sexuality/attempts to assimilate/lost childhood are well-intentioned, though out of place. Still and all, she gives a compelling, utterly believable performance.

The movie lacks Nicolas Cage's buttoned-down mania from the original. While Jim Carrey does interesting work, his character is underdeveloped, little more than an entertaining sketch.

Kick-Ass 2 doesn't quite recapture the spot-on blend of absurdity, humor and threat that made the first movie so good. It never completely feels comfortable with its own tone — it almost gets there, but is maybe more disappointing for it. Glimmers of potential are obscured by a thin fog of mediocrity. R. 103m.

Lee Daniels' The Butler. Director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) traffics in the cinema of excess: painterly composition, fanatically detailed sets, operatic drama and larger-than-life characters. His work is divisive, and it tends to either work or fail completely. This time out, he gets it right.

The Butler, "inspired" by true events, uses the life of White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) as a lens through which we view the Civil Rights movement. Born into cotton field servitude and left alone by a horrible act of violence, Cecil progresses from street urchin to high society butler. His skills and subtlety land him a job on the president's staff, and he goes on to serve eight commanders in chief. His dedication puts a strain on his own household, where his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) turns to the bottle. His elder son Louis (David Oyelowo), increasingly distant from and frustrated by his father, joins the Freedom Rider movement, which leads to an association with Martin Luther King Jr. and eventually the Black Panther Party.

The movie takes on a massive, difficult passage in American history and, with a few too-sentimental exceptions, handles it effectively. Forest Whitaker gives a stirring, subtle lead performance, which he could do absent a director. Oprah Winfrey, on the other hand, doesn't necessarily have Great Actor presence, but she steals her scenes. Daniels, who coaxes great performances from actors, deserves at least some of the credit. The supporting cast is uniformly good, and includes some surprising actors as American presidents.

Real danger, real sadness, real horror are all at work in The Butler, from the viscerally disturbing opening shot through the stridently hopeful closing lines. Screenwriter Danny Strong (who makes a fun cameo) swings for the fences with this one. If mishandled, it could have been laughable. But his words find a fine handler in Daniels, whose similar tendency toward grandiosity suits the material. The result is profoundly sad, stirring and satisfying. PG13. 132m.

—John J. Bennett

Previews

BLUE JASMINE. Cate Blanchett is a socialite on the cusp of a breakdown who packs her Chanel and slums it with her sister in San Francisco in this Woody Allen drama. PG13. 98m.

MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES. Attractive, young "shadowhunters" battle demons in an even scarier New York that's invisible to mere humans. PG13. 130m.

THE WORLD'S END. Apocalyptic pub crawl with robots and the boys from Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. R. 109 m.

YOU'RE NEXT. A family vacation is ruined by killers with crossbows and creepy animal masks. R. 96m.

Continuing

2 GUNS. Lighter fare from heavyweights Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, who entertain as undercover odd-couple. R. 109m.

THE CONJURING. Ghost hunters find what they're looking for in a haunted house story with Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor. R. 112m.

DESPICABLE ME 2. Gru (Steve Carell), the girls and the minions are back saving the world in this fun animated sequel. PG. 98m.

ELYSIUM. Matt Damon turns workman's comp into revolution in this effective dystopian sci-fi with Jodie Foster as his sharp-suited foe. R. 110 m

JOBS. Ashton Kutcher trades his usual lap dances for a laptop in this bio of the Apple icon. PG13. 127m.

PARANOIA. A bald Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman glare at each other with corporate spy Liam Hemsworth in the middle. PG13. 122m.

PERCY JACKSON: SEA OF MONSTERS. Teen demi-god camp hits the surf in search of the Golden Fleece. PG. 106m.

PLANES. Like Cars, but not. Really, not. PG. 92m.

WE'RE THE MILLERS. Implausible drug smuggling comedy wastes the usually funny Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Aniston. R. 110m.

THE WOLVERINE. It's claws vs. samurai swords when Hugh Jackman takes his tank tops and mutton-chops to Japan. PG13. 136m.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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