New Release Tuesday: Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

30 05 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2 is the sequel to the surprise 2008 hit, and although it has only been three years it honestly feels like forever considering how quickly animated films get churned out these days. This time we pick up soon after the first film and our hero Po, the Dragon Warrior, is training in the temple with the furious five. All the major characters are back except this time around they aren’t just trying to save the Valley, they are trying to save Kung Fu altogether as an evil Peacock (oddly not the first time I’ve heard that over the past year) threatens to take over the world thanks to the invention of gun powder. Po also starts having visions of his youth and his quest is conflicted by his desire to find out the truth of his past. I’ll be honest, I loved the first Kung Fu Panda, aside from the “made for American children” aspect of it, I thought it was a fantastic adaptation of a unique genre doing justice to not only the movies that inspired it but to the culture that produced them as well. Unfortunately, Kung Fu Panda 2 doesn’t feel like this at all, but an American attempt a Wuxia comedy-drama, exactly what the first didn’t and why it stood out.

 “This could be the end of Kung Fu.”

There are two major storylines in Kung Fu Panda 2, the first is Po’s desire to discover his past which (somehow) coincides with his attempt to learn his next lesson: inner peace. The plot that moves the film forward is the furious five’s (six’s?) quest to stop Shen, the maniacal Peacock with guns. Po’s journey is a standard man vs self, except that he is never in conflict with himself. He is always searching for answers from other people; most of the movie has him asking Shen for what he knows… and really the big piece of advice that clears it all up for him is that his obvious memories he believes are dreams are in fact memories. Po is the audience’s conduit in which we interpret the movie, they set that up clearly in the first film and continue it here, so when his great epiphany is something incredibly obvious to the audience it looses most if not all it’s impact. Not to mention his inner-peace can’t really be called inner-peace at all by the movies own chronology and interpretation of the term, but I’m not even going to get into that.

The central storyline is consists of the battle against Shen and it seems like a western interpretation of an eastern theme done wrong. Although not as common in Wuxia films, the idea of martial arts vs Industry (ie. firearms) is a very common one in Samurai films. Kung Fu Panda 2 takes this theme but only the title and none of the substance that goes into it. It is about the warrior ideals, honor, and integrity over the dehumanization of violence and its consequences. It is an emotional battle, only there is absolutely no emotion in this conflict at all. I’m not even exaggerating, I didn’t see one character involve themselves at any level or even mention what it was really about. It was there only as a plot device which really surprises me considering how much care was taken in the first film.

“My fist hungers for justice! “

The true failing of Kung Fu Panda 2 has to be within the fight scenes. The first film had only three or four and each had much more than just the fight taking place. Each scene involved one bad guy, Tai Lung, and we get to see his power. First against an incredibly well guarded prison, then against the furious five, and then against Shifu. Each time Tai Lung overcame an increasingly difficult barrier, and all appearing greater than Po making the foretold final fight all that more dramatic. Everything in Kung Fu Panda from the opening scene built to that moment. In Kung Fu Panda 2 we have our heroes getting into a battle not even 10 minutes into the movie, and after that we barely get a 5-10 minute break where they aren’t fighting. This dulls the action especially when all they are fighting are henchmen, the exact same henchmen over and over. There is no build up, just action scenes serving no real purpose outside of taking up screen time. In all fairness though, the movies climax doesn’t even occur against the antagonist, it is Po vs the Cannons. Hard to get emotionally invested when the enemy is an inanimate object.

Kung Fu Panda 2 is a mess. The story, the structure, the character arcs etc are all just poor. That said, it has very pretty animation and I believe it may be even funnier than the first, but the animation and humor only accounted for part of what made the first one great. I guess it is an OK way to beat the heat this summer but if you expect anything close to the original in quality you will be disappointing.

Score 55/100


Escapist Friday: Orpheus (1950)

27 05 2011

“Orpheus”, or “Orphee” in the original French, is the influential Jean Cocteau’s surreal take on the Greek legend. This is the middle part of his Orphic trilogy, one spanning 30 years between first and last film, but this film deals with the most famous part of the myth. It goes: Orpheus, the famous musician and poet, has a wife, Eurydice, who passes away from a snake bite. To get her back he travels to the underworld and convinces Hades and Persephone to let her come back to the living world with him. Of course there is one stipulation, he cannot look upon her until they both reach the mortal world, so he walks ahead of her and once he reaches the upper world he turns to embrace her yet she is still on the other side making her disappear forever. Jean Cocteau follows the myth fairly closely yet sets it in then-modern Paris and makes few other changes such as inserting a different love story and starting the movie out more like a mystery.

When a director attempts to do a movie about a classical myth they usually have one of two option: set it entirely in the classical context, or modernize it with metaphorical supernatural elements. Jean Cocteau decides to take it right down the middle; he sets it in modern Paris yet keeps the names (Orpheus, Eurydice, etc) and all the supernatural aspects. Despite this, he actually changes all but the skeleton of the original tale. The biggest of which is that Orpheus ends up falling in love with Death which conflicts with his happily married life to Eurydice. The strongest part of “Orpheus” has to be the surreal nature of it all. By setting it in the modern world and keeping the supernatural aspects the viewer is treated to a true fantasy film which we do not expect. The film also uses many interesting tricks in editing and cinematography to help produce a surreal atmosphere which makes “Orpheus” work very well as an adventure film. As Orpheus is working out what is happening the viewer is also taken to along for the ride as the movie produces scenes which I don’t think we could really expect.

The weakest part of “Orpheus” I believe aren’t the changes, but the development of those changes. We see Orpheus as a loving husband; he has never cheated on his wife despite being so famous, and has a couple parts of dialogue where those feelings really come through. Cocteau does a very good job showing the allure of Death allowing the viewer to understand why Orpheus is attracted to her but we never see the internal struggle that Orpheus must go through during this time. The character Heurtebise also falls in love with Eurydice but nothing really comes of it. “Orpheus” has many powerful themes of love and loss but few of them are fully realized by the characters, we are told more of their feelings than we actually see on screen which a problem when much of the movie revolves around love.

Although “Orpheus” feels underdeveloped, it is still quite a treat to watch. When the supernatural sections arrive it feels like a series of surrealist paintings come to life. I wasn’t blown away by “Orpheus” and it might have been better if Cocteau just sticked to the original myth, but it is hard to deny that the parts that work do so wonderfully.

Score: 85/100

Foreign Language Thursday: Pather Panchali (1955)

26 05 2011

Today we examine the poetic and emotional “Pather Panchali”, directed by the legendary Satyajit Ray in his very first film making this, without a doubt, one of the finest directorial debuts ever. “Pather Panchali” revolves around the newly born Apu and his family over several years as they struggle with life; from the weather to their neighbors to even one another. The incredibly well formed characters give the movie a very natural feel allowing for more impact in every scene. It is easy to recognize one-self within these characters as they each have a distinct personality and outlook, and despite the regular situations presented on screen they never allow it to never feel worn.

“Whatever God does is for the best.” 

The biggest strength of “Pather Panchali” is the characters. The plot revolves around Apu’s family which includes his sister, Durga, as well as his mother, father, and auntie. Apu is the looking glass in which we observe everything that happens, he acts like a child but is enough of a blank slate that the viewer can associate themselves with him as someone who is a passenger and can do little in regards to the events surrounding him. His mother acts as the strict hand watching over the children. She worries about money, what her children are up to, and what other people think about her. Her husband on the other hand is very much the opposite; he has a strong sense of duty yet has a more playful sense of responsibility. He quotes the above line “Whatever God does is for the best” often and lets life come to him, nevertheless both of them obviously love their children very much and would do anything for them but show it in two separate ways, he will give them anything while she is consciously thinking of what is best for them and the entire family. His older sister really is a mix of the two. She shares her mother’s stubbornness while also being adventurous and fun-loving like her father. Finally, his aunt is older and nearing the end of her life so she is a little more care-free and encourages Durga is her misadventures, not to mention frequently clashing with the children’s mother over several issues. All of these people are so well formed and play off one another extremely well giving the movie a natural and riveting dynamic.

“… we’ll go and look at the trains again. We’ll get a good look this time.” 

“Pather Panchali” has often been described as poetic and with good reason, the cinematography is just outstanding. Subrata Mitra works on his very first movie at only 21 when filming started and is able to bring the country to life. As great as the characters are, it is in his work in which the movie really comes into its own. Mitra uses wide shots and natural lighting to excellent effect and takes full advantage of nature when it presents itself. The shots during the monsoon rain scenes will particularly stay with me for some time.

Overall “Pather Panchali” is a familiar yet absorbing  film. In the beginning it is quite easy to relate to these characters in what seems to be a standard family drama, yet little does the viewer know that this familiarity will only greatly intensify what is going to happen later. The plot moves along surprisingly well and it is always a treat to look at. It is very hard to overstate how good “Pather Panchali” is because it truly is one of the best films ever made.

Score: 100/100

Congrats to the Vancouver Canucks

25 05 2011

My hometown Vancouver Canucks won last night to go to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time 17 years. Meaning I was a little preoccupied from doing anything else yesterday. Tomorrow will have a foreign language review up.

Comedy Monday: Love Me Tonight (1932)

23 05 2011

For the second time I am doing an older musical on Monday, but that is where the similarities between “Love Me Tonight” and “Gold Diggers of 1933” end. This week we follow the upbeat Parisian tailor Maurice Courtelin, played by Maurice Chevalier. He has recently opened a shop in a neighborhood which some has had trouble keeping businesses afloat. Of course that is of no concern for our hero since he has the business of the Viscount (Charles Ruggles), the finest dressed man in town. The Viscount racks up quite the debt but before he can pay it his uncle, the Duke (C. Aubrey Smith), grounds him within the chateau. Maurice, in need of the money, is forced to go to him and the Viscount give his the disguise of being a baron so Maurice can stay there while he conjures up the money he owes. Maurice ends up falling for the Princess (Jeanette MacDonald) during his stay, but will their love be able to survive when all the cards are laid out.

“A peach must be eaten, a drum must be beaten, and a woman needs something like that. “

Last week “Gold Diggers of 1933” exceeded all expectations in the musical department and the story was a bit of a mess, this week it is the exact opposite. The story is fine, charming even, and it also says alot about this film when you can identify several story mechanics still in place in today’s romantic comedies. Although it does seem a little tired for today’s standards credit must be given where credit is due. The movie is still funny by today’s standards, although most of the jokes are hit or miss and the same can be said of the musical numbers. They fit seamlessly into scenes and a number of them are quite catchy, the only complaint I would have is that many of them revolve clever wordplay which, as someone looking back in retrospect, seems used and somewhat predictable. There are well documented issues that “Love Me Tonight” had with the censors due to its racy topics. Today it all seems fairly tame, but it is also a very refreshing movie to watch from that time period since it did decide to push boundaries.

Maurice Chevalier is truly the driving force of this movie. He is energetic, charismatic, and is not only the life of the film but he keeps the movie going at a tremendous pace. Although I think much of the movie is hit or miss, his performance along with what works, makes it still a very enjoyable movie to watch as well as an extremely interesting look at how little the romantic comedy genre has changed.

Score 78/100

Weekend Wrap-Up: 21/05/11

21 05 2011

American Psycho (2000): 78/100

Christian Bale gives a charismatic performance as Patrick Bateman and the movie has a wonderful dark humor to it.

Chocolat (2000): 64/100

– Ranges from extremely dramatic to very light but doesn’t excel in either area. Although it doesn’t present anything new in terms of story structure either, it is a different enough take on a fairly standard film to be worth a watch.

3-Iron (2004): 83/100

A strikingly original, Buddhist-infused drama. Borders on being different for the sake of being different, but blossoms nicely at the end.

The Consequences of Love (2004): 84/100

– Stylistically like a Wong Kar-Wai film during the first half, but keeps an even keel during the second and doesn’t quite go for it.

Eastern Promises (2007): 77/100

An intriguing yet uninteresting plot keeps this well acted drama from being as good as Cronenberg’s previous film “A History of Violence”.

Foreign Language Thursday: Sansho the Baliff (1954)

19 05 2011

Was supposed to do the Apu trilogy today but that will have to wait once again, so for now it is Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Baliff”.

This beautifully shot movie is about a governor’s family and what becomes of it when he is forced into exile.  His wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) and their two children travel follow him years later after temporarily staying with her brother. They get tricked along the way and then separately sold into slavery . Their children, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyoko Kagawa), get sent to a private manor under the care of the strict and malicious Sansho. Mizoguchi’s tale touches on themes of human rights, politics and bureaucracy, and morality.

“What a horrible world.”

Zushio and Anju are definitely transported to such a place once they are abducted except that Mizoguchi contrasts it wonderfully with great cinematography done by Kazuo Miyagawa. Japan is such a gorgeous country and many of the shots in “Sansho the Baliff” make full use of the landscapes; from the shores to mountainsides Japan is on full display. Inside Sansho’s manor it is dark and depressing, the life seemingly sucked out and the gloomy atmosphere stapled on screen by just the setting. Outside of the setting, many of the shots are complicated from either using a large amount of people in the frame or just very carefully constructed scenes which give many of the crucial scenes in the film the appropriate tension and emotion which in a film that relies on emotion so much is crucial.

“Without mercy, man is like a beast.”

One of the biggest themes of “Sansho the Baliff” is morality. We are early on exposed to two extremes of views on human decency: the children’s father who actually gets exiled for standing up for his people and whom the above quote it from, and Sansho who uses inhumane techniques and has absolutely no regard for the well-being of his slaves. Throughout the movie we are shown many characters who struggle with his issue including Sansho’s son, many government officials, and even Zushio himself. Zushio, although good and honorable in nature, struggles with his new home and what happens there. He is torn, like everyone else, between doing what is morally right and what is the logical thing to do in a socio-economic sense. The film tells a message that many have told, the choosing what is right over what is profitable, but it I don’t know if it has ever been done so emotionally and effectively.

“Sansho the Baliff” is definitely a classic. Kenji Mizoguchi is an often overlooked classical Japanese director since he unfortunately made movies in the same period as Kurosawa and Ozu, nevertheless movies like Sansho and a couple of his other acclaimed works prove that he was just as talented as his contemporaries.

Score 95/100