Vampire Cleanup Department (Gao geung jing dou fu)


There’s nothing like a nice refreshing dip in an acid pool.

(2017) Horror Comedy (Media Asia) Babyjohn Choi, Min Chen Lin, Siu-Ho Chin, Richard Ng, Hok-chi Chiu, Meng Lo, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw, Cheng-Yan Yuen, Jim Chim, Eric Tsang. Directed by Sin-Hang Chiu and Pak-Wing Yan

Budding filmmakers, here is something to consider: everybody loves a secret agency that protects its citizens from supernatural threats – or at least a high enough percentage of everybody that you’re likely to get a whole lot of buzz.

Tim Cheung (Choi) is something of a clumsy nebbish. An orphan, he was brought up by his grandma who often confuses him with his deceased father. One night, he sees someone being attacked in an alleyway and tries to help; instead, he is bitten on the behind by a strange creature.

That creature turns out to have been a vampire. When Tim wakes up, he’s in the underground headquarters of the Vampire Cleanup Department, a secret government agency that takes on the nosferatu of Hong Kong. Among those who work for the VCD are his Uncle Chung (Ng), the head of the department as well as his Uncle Chau (Chin) who is the martial arts master of the group. There’s also Ginger (Yuen), a priest who is the master of the amulets that freeze the undead among other things; there’s also Tai Gau (Lo), the weapons master.

On Tim’s first mission, he gets dragged into a lake that had once been farmland and is kissed by a rotting vampire. The vampire’s rotting flesh sloughs off, revealing a beautiful young girl. Summer (Lin) was a 20-year-old girl whose Landlord had her buried alive with him when he died; the Landlord was a vampire and the living girl had become one due to her unjust death. Like most vampires, she can only hop around rather than walk or run. The others order Tim to immolate Summer in their furnace but Tim, seeing the tears flowing from the undead girl’s eyes hides her instead. The two soon fall in love. He grows to believe that she is not evil; that she is in fact a rare human vampire who might be able to learn how to become human again.

It’s a bad time to fall in love with the undead; there is an ambitious police officer who wants to take away the undead gig from the VCD and has his American scientist find a way to destroy the vampires scientifically. It is also very nearly time for the blood moon during which time the Landlord vampire can resurrect himself. What’s a nerdy vampire hunter to do?

For fans of classic Hong Kong cinema, particularly the hopping vampire genre, your ship has come in. This is an amazingly entertaining but lightweight homage to those films of yore such as Mr. Vampire – many of the cast have made appearances in one hopping vampire film or another. This is more of a romantic comedy than outright horror; while there are some gory images, they are relatively few in number and the bulk of the story is concentrated on the romance between Tim and Summer.

This is very much a guilty pleasure, with cheesy special effects and comedy that falls on the silly side but it has charm by the bucketful. One can’t help but root for Tim despite his hangdog demeanor and his somewhat klutzy cluelessness. It is well above the Abbott and Costello horror spoofs and way above the more modern Scary Movie-type abominations. After viewing it, I was thinking this is what a Hong Kong hopping vampire film might look like if produced by Kevin Feige and directed by Guy Ritchie – although you might have to twist yourself sideways to see the Ritchie reference (I was thinking of the Sherlock Holmes films).

The mythology behind the Vampire Cleanup Department itself is solid and has the kind of detail normally reserved for comic book adaptations. Think of these guys as the Avengers of hopping vampire hunters with a Shaolin twist. Who can’t love vampire hunters who are disguised not in dark suits but in rubbish collector vests? Some of the humor is downright subversive if you can get past the pratfalls. I love that the voice of Summer is essentially Siri after she swallows Tim’s smart phone.

There are a few missteps. Some of the intentional cheesiness is perhaps a mite too cheesy for Western audiences. Some of the externally filmed scenes at night are way too murky and were hard to make out and while the Siri-voiced Summer conceit is cute, the Malaysian pop star Lin actually has a very naturalistic delivery and I thought the film might have benefited from more dialogue from her.

This may end up being my favorite movie from this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, which is saying something because this was a particularly bumper crop of fascinating films for the festival which has become more and more influential in the past few years. It isn’t going to change anyone’s point of view or educate them all that much on conditions in Asia but it is going to entertain the ever-loving heck out of you and that’s a lot more than many of this year’s summer blockbusters can claim.

REASONS TO GO: Although this is a bit on the cheesy side it’s nevertheless supremely entertaining. The background mythology is solid. Choi is ideal for the handsome nerd role. It reminded me of a Guy Ritchie film in a kind of twisted way.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the humor is a bit overly silly for Western tastes. The special effects are definitely cheesy and some of the outdoor night scenes are a bit hard to see.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some horror violence (some of it comedic) as well as bits and pieces of gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cheng-Yan Yuen, who plays the priest Ginger, is the brother of legendary stunt choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fearless Vampire Killers
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Birthright: A War Story

The Forbidden Kingdom


Clash of Titans.

Clash of Titans.

(2008) Martial Arts Fantasy (Lionsgate) Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano, Collin Chou, Liu Yifei, Li Bingbing, Morgan Benoit, Deshun Wang, Yu Yuan Zeng, Xiao Dong Mei, XiaoLi Liu, Juana Collignon, Jack Posobiec, Thomas McDonnell, Zhi Ma Gui, Shen Shou He, Bin Jiang, Michelle Du, Crystal Kung, Jia Xu Wei, Ju Shi Xiao, Meng Guo, Alexis Bridges. Directed by Rob Minkoff

It takes great courage to become more than what you are and while that is rare, it does happen. Sometimes it comes from the most unlikely of people.

Jason Tripitikas (Angarano), a resident of a tough neighborhood in South Boston, loves martial arts films. He longs to be like the ancient heroes of China, with Kung Fu skills bordering on the supernatural. The sad reality is, however, that he is afraid, not confident in himself and while very knowledgeable about the various styles and moves of his martial arts heroes, is unable to put them into practice.

He often visits a pawn shop in Chinatown where the elderly proprietor (Chan) often stocks rare and out of print martial arts movies of the Shaw Brothers era. When Lupo (Benoit), a neighborhood bully with a hair trigger, discovers that Jason is friends with the pawn shop owner, he forces Jason to use his influence to get his gang into the store for the purpose of robbing the old man. Jason, too afraid to stand up, reluctantly gives in to his tormentor. Once in the store, however, things go horribly wrong. When the thugs are unable to find the store’s money, in a fit of pique Lupo shoots the old man. Jason, realizing that he is next in line, grabs an old staff to help him get away, but he is trapped on the roof with a gun pointed at his head. That’s when things get really crazy.

It turns out that the staff is a powerful magic weapon that once belonged to the immortal Monkey King (Li), and when the mischievous monarch insulted the powerful Jade Warlord (Chou), the Warlord challenged the Monkey King to a martial arts duel, but tricked the Monkey King into putting down his staff. The Warlord then turned the Monkey King into stone, but the Monkey King, just before the Jade Warrior had worked his magic, sent his staff out of his world and into ours. However, once the staff is returned to its rightful owner, the spell would be broken and the Monkey King would end the tyrannical reign of the Jade Warlord.

This is explained to Jason by a wandering drunken scholar (Chan again), who helps Jason escape from soldiers of the Jade Army. They are helped by a beautiful young musician (Yifei) who is on a mission of her own: vengeance against the Jade Warlord, who killed her family. However, en route to the Mountain of the Five Elements, where the Jade Warlord’s palace is, the staff is stolen by the Silent Monk (Li). After a furious fight with the drunken scholar, they at last realize that they have the same mission and agree to join forces and train young Jason in the ways of kung fu. However, they are being tracked by a wicked witch (Bingbing) who has been sent by the Jade Warlord to retrieve the staff and kill those who carry it. With an entire army and wielders of immense supernatural power arrayed against them, how can they restore the staff to the Monkey King and find Jason a way back home?

In many ways, this is Chan’s movie and he carries it strongly, easily falling into the character of the drunken master whom he has played many times in many movies earlier in his career. Li, whose character the Silent Monk is onscreen most of the time, doesn’t get a lot of dialogue and little to do but be stoic in between bouts of kicking derriere. However, when he is in his persona of the Monkey King early in the movie and then again near the very end, he is delightful, showing an impish sense of humor he rarely gets to display.

Yifei is almost supernaturally beautiful, playing the eventual love interest, and when she does get to fight, she holds her own. Bingbing and Chou are both marvelous in their villainous roles, particularly Bingbing who has a vicious kind of charisma. It is Angarano who winds up being the weak link; it isn’t that he’s bad, he’s just very bland. You get no sense of the inner fortitude he must display as the movie progresses, and his transition from timid nebbish to brave warrior just doesn’t work.

The fight sequences are staged by the great Woo-Ping Yuen, who did the same for the Matrix trilogy as well as many legendary Chinese martial arts films. Although there are several wire sequences (for which Yuen is justifiably best known), the movie isn’t dominated by them. Most of the martial arts sequences are staged on the ground. Another Asian legend, cinematographer Peter Pau, is behind the lens, and his vistas of placid Chinese villages and barren deserts are breathtaking. The sequences that take place on the Mountain of the Five Elements utilize some nicely done CGI. The American-Chinese co-production makes use of some of the best aspects of both schools, an advantage the filmmakers use to the fullest.

Chan is absolutely delightful and clearly dominates the movie. While the storyline is a bit complicated, it is told in a fashion that is not and winds up being a lot easier to follow than you might imagine. The smattering of Chinese mythology and fantasy are nicely adapted for the Western palate, although filmgoers better versed in those subjects might get a kick out of some of the in-jokes and homages the filmmakers insert from time to time. Then, of course, there’s the fight sequence between Chan and Li. Even though in many ways both men are past their primes, they deliver a fight that is absolutely breathtaking and while some might find it overly long, true aficionados won’t want the sequence to end.

Director Minkoff, best known for family movies like The Lion King, The Haunted Mansion and Stuart Little, delivers a movie that while fairly violent, is nonetheless suitable for all but the most sensitive. While there are some pretty impressive throw-downs, the violence is almost of a cartoonish nature and there is little blood and almost nobody dies, at least as far as can be seen.

Even Da Queen liked this one, and she’s not a big martial arts fan. The tone is lighthearted enough to keep things from getting too self-important, while not so lighthearted as to become farce. Duly noted are the Wizard of Oz similarities – the hero falling from the sky, meeting a trio of characters and following the road to the Emerald – or Jade, in this case – City. Sure, there are some people who just will not EVER desire to see any sort of martial arts movie, which of course is a matter of taste, although there’s just a hint of film snobbery in that decision. Those that are willing to brave the waters will find some wonderful entertainment here and while not visually in the league of Hero or Curse of the Golden Flower nor as well-made as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nonetheless this is worthy of your entertainment dollar. Spend it wisely, grasshopper.

WHY RENT THIS: Chan is absolutely delightful. Lighthearted tone but not farcical. Nifty CGI.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Angarano doesn’t cut it here. A little bit on the derivative side.
FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of martial arts action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This marks the first time that Asian martial arts legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li have appeared together in the same movie.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: A ton of extras including a blooper real, a retrospective on the careers of Li and Chan and how they almost worked together on several occasions, a look at the Chinese mythology that inspired the story, and a featurette on scouting the gorgeous locations within China. All of these are available both on the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of the film.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $127.9M on a $55M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the West
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday

Kung Fu Panda 3


Pandas and rabbits and pigs, oh my!!!

Pandas and rabbits and pigs, oh my!!!

(2016) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, David Cross, J.K. Simmons, Lucy Liu, Kate Hudson, Randall Duk Kim, Steele Gagnon, Liam Knight, Wayne Knight, Al Roker, Barbara Dirickson, Willie Geist, Fred Tatasciore, Ming Tsai, April Hong. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Allesandro Carloni

Know thyself is a long-standing axiom, but it is hard to know who you are when you don’t know where you come from, or from who. It can leave us with a sense of feeling lost, floundering in a dark sea without any reference points.

You would think Po (Black) has at least some sense of who he is. After all, he is the Dragon Warrior. But he’s also an orphan, raised by Mr. Ping (Hong), the noodle vendor – who happens to be a duck to Po’s panda. Po has just figured that he was the only one.

But there is trouble brewing. In the spirit world, renegade General Kai (Simmons) has been stealing the chi (lifeforce) of all the great masters in the afterlife, which seems problematic at best considering they’re all dead. He’s even managed to grab the chi of Master Oogway (Kim). However, Oogway has a trick up his sleeve, one that is not revealed until later.

The addition of Master Oogway’s chi has given Kai enough power to return to the mortal world where he plans on gathering up all the chi of all the kung fu masters on the planet, culminating with the Dragon Warrior’s. The Dragon Warrior however is very much distracted. Master Shifu (Hoffman) is retiring and he wants Po to take over training the Furious Five, which is disastrous. The appearance of Li (Cranston), who turns out to be Po’s long-lost dad, leads Po and his adopted father Ping to the farthest reaches of China to the secret village of the pandas, where he meets all his long lost relatives.

Po is ecstatic and happy having found not just his people but himself but still has been unable to master chi, something that the pandas were reputed to be masters of. When the news arrives that Kai has beaten the Furious Five save for Tigress (Jolie) and he is on his way to the hidden panda village, Po realizes that there is no way he can beat Kai by himself. He is going to need an army – of pandas. But how to make these lazy, dumpling-eating, hill rolling creatures, as gentle as can be, an army?

The third installment in the KFP franchise has done pretty well at the box office despite its January release date and competition from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, of the three films in the trilogy (and this is supposedly the last one as the studio has revealed no further plans to continue the franchise at present, although the success of this movie leads me to think that DreamWorks might be reconsidering that decision) this is the weakest to my eye.

Many of the characters who made the series a success are limited to essentially cameo roles. Hoffman as Master Shifu is limited to maybe a couple of dozen lines after being essentially a main character for the first two films and the Furious Five are mainly an afterthought, appearing together in just one scene. While there are plenty of new characters to make an impression here (including Hudson as a seductive ribbon dancing panda), Kai as a villain seems no different than either of the first two villains, supernatural origin or no.

Black is earnest enough as Po and continues to center the franchise as a character who is slowly learning to believe in himself, which also is getting a bit tired but I suppose if you’re going to be child-oriented as an animated feature, a simple lesson in self-belief or being who you want to be needs to be front and center. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, only that there is nothing here that really stands out from any other animated feature out there.

Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for a kidflick, particularly in an auditorium full of noxious little brats who were plainly too young or too undisciplined to be in a movie theater but this one left me pretty flat. In many ways this is not quite as good as the second film which got a similar rating, but I didn’t see enough wrong with this one to go down a notch. I got the sense the kids enjoyed the movie (particularly the little boys) and that the parents were more or less happy that their tykes weren’t at home driving them crazy. And that’s not really what I’d consider reason enough to see a film with the kids, animated or not.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of fun new characters.
REASONS TO STAY: Left me feeling pretty “meh.”
FAMILY VALUES: Some animated martial arts action and slightly rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Has the longest time between sequels for any DreamWorks Animation film with five years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tigger Movie
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Witch

Johnny English Reborn


Rowan Atkinson gives himself a little touch-up.

Rowan Atkinson gives himself a little touch-up.

(2011) Spy Spoof (Universal) Rowan Atkinson, Gillian Anderson, Dominic West, Rosamund Pike, Daniel Kaluuya, Tim McInernny, Pik-Sen Lim, Richard Schiff, Burn Gorman, Isla Blair, Mark Ivanir, Stephen Campbell Moore, Roger Barclay, Eric Carte. Directed by Oliver Parker

The world needs its superspies. Suave men ridiculously well-dressed who can toss a grenade with one hand while holding a perfectly made cocktail in the other while spouting a witticism as dry as his martini. We need them. Really we do.

That is to say, we need Johnny English (Atkinson) but the urbane spy no longer needs the world. After a disaster in Mozambique which led to a world leader getting assassinated on Johnny’s watch, he has retired to a kung fu monastery where he is undergoing rigorous training to get a Zen-like calm back although what getting kicked in the nuts has to do with Zen I’m not quite sure.

Then he gets word that he is needed at MI-7 (now known as Toshiba British Intelligence in one of the film’s better jokes) and reports to Pegasus (Anderson), the agency’s chief. It appears that another assassination is in the offing and the contact who knows anything about it will speak only to English. Johnny is given a hero-worshipping Agent Tucker (Kaluuya) to assist and is watched like a hawk by psychiatrist, Kate Sumner (Pike) whom he develops a more intimate rapport with.

In the meantime he must contend with supercilious agent Simon Ambrose (West), an octogenarian hit woman with a deadly vacuum cleaner (Lim) and a clever and deadly opponent who always seems to be at least one step (if not more) ahead of English and his colleagues. Plus, it seems, there may be a mole within the agency. Someone evidently forgot to call the exterminator.

I have to admit first off that Rowan Atkinson is a taste I haven’t yet acquired. He has legions of fans for his efforts in “Blackadder,” “Mr. Bean” and in dozens of film appearances over the years but I haven’t ever really found him to be my taste, so take anything negative I say about him with a grain of salt. He is a gifted physical comedian but for whatever reason I’ve always found him to be too lowbrow. He is the equivalent of a fart joke and there are plenty enough of those here.

There are a lot of Bond references here as there must be in any self-respecting spy spoof but at times you get the sense that there isn’t any sort of real imagination here particularly in regards to the story. It seems like something we’ve seen a million times before, not only in Bond but it traditional suspense movies and in other spoofs, like “Get Smart” for example.

This is definitely aimed at youngsters. The humor really is on that level. Parents will get the references; kids will love the toilet humor and pratfalls. It’s really quite inoffensive and has moments that you might chuckle nostalgically at but it got little more out of me. Those who love Atkinson will probably get a lot more out of it than I did. It’s not a bad movie – heaven knows there’s much worse out there – but by the same token it isn’t going to remain in your memory banks for very long.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nifty gadgets and Atkinson, though an acquired taste, never disappoints.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor is terribly juvenile and the plot stale and predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a little bit of rude humor, some cartoonish violence, a few choice bad words and some sexiness.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Simon Ambrose is said to have attended Eton College. In reality Dominic West, the actor that portrays him, actually did attend Eton.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $160.1M on a $45M production budget; this was a big hit but nearly all of it overseas. Only $8M came from domestic box office which virtually guarantees we’ll see another Johnny English movie but possibly not over here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Mystery, Alaska

Kill Bill: Vol. 2


Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Uma Thurman is astonished to find a white-haired Chinese master growing out of the end of her stick.

(2004) Action (Miramax) Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks, Bo Svenson, Samuel L. Jackson, Sid Haig, Perla Haney-Jardine, Caitlin Keats, Jeannie Epper, Vivica A. Fox, Lucy Liu, Stephanie L. Moore, Shana Stein. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

 

The first Kill Bill was an action-heavy revenge flick that sent the Bride (Thurman) after her fellow members of an elite assassination squad who had participated in murdering her groom at the altar, massacring everyone in attendance at the wedding and leaving her for dead. She is working her way up to Bill (Carradine), the leader of the squad and her former lover.

First she’s going after Budd (Madsen), aka Sidewinder, Bill’s brother and a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad. However, after the demises of the various members in the first film, Budd is waiting for her with a double barreled shotgun packed with rock salt. The force of the blast knocks out the Bride, whom Budd proceeds to bury alive. He offers to sell the Hattori Hanzo sword she had made in the first film to Elle Driver (Hannah) aka California Mountain Snake for a million bucks. However, Elle double crosses him and leads a deadly Black Mamba viper in the satchel with the cash, which bites Budd and finishes him off.

However, the Bride during her training with Pai Mei (G. Liu) – told in flashbacks – learned how to break wooden planks with her bare hands from short distances away (most martial artists use the full extension of their arms to break boards) and she does so, allowing her to break the planks and claw through the dirt to freedom.

More than a little hacked off she returns to the double wide where Budd shot her and finds him dead there with Elle still there gathering up her cash and the sword. The Bride gets in an epic battle with the one-eyed Elle and eventually beats her, plucking out her remaining eye and leaving her for the Mamba which is loose in the trailer.

Now it is time for her to take on her nemesis, her former lover and former employer. When she finally meets up with Bill, things won’t go as expected; she’ll be forced to confront some truths about herself and about her life and make peace with who she is before she can Kill Bill.

If anything, this is even better than the first film which was a non-stop action funfest that paid homage to nearly every genre of modern grindhouse movie imaginable, from samurai films, wu shu epics,  blaxploitation to anime. This one has a few more homages but to be honest, this is where the meat and potatoes of the storytelling lies. It is here where you get the emotional payoff that the first movie was leading up to.

Thurman is less robotic here and while she isn’t the most expressive actress ever, this is one of her better performances. Carradine, the “Kung Fu” veteran who had largely been forgotten in the 90s showing up in cameo appearances in cheesy exploitation films, gives the performance of his career here. Mainly an off-screen presence in the first film, he shows both the tender and murderous sides of his character, and demonstrates the cunning that  a hunter of human beings would have. The conversation between him and his former lover that makes up most of the end of the film is really one of the most compelling confrontations in cinematic history – and there really isn’t a whole lot of action going for it, but what action there is pays off big time.

The two films do stand alone pretty well individually, but really to get the maximum effectiveness from Vol. 2 you have to at least have some knowledge from Vol. 1. Those who haven’t seen the first film at all may be a little bit lost throughout the film and certainly the emotional wallop of the last scenes won’t be as intense.

Although Tarantino has gone on to direct some amazing films both before this and after it, to my way of thinking this remains his magnum opus and maybe the masterpiece that will always define his career. What distinguishes him here is that while he has always been a fan of movies first and foremost, he never loses sight of the power of good storytelling. In other words, he doesn’t just mimic a few genres for film geek cred; he understands what makes those genres work and links them together with a story of epic grandeur, one that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that a woman wronged is nobody you want to mess with.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the most amazing action films of all time. Carradine gives a career-reviving performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You really need to at least be familiar with Vol. 1 in order to appreciate this.

FAMILY VALUES:  As with the first volume, there is a whole lot of violence and a whole lot of bad language; there’s also a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two volumes were always meant to be seen as one film. However, it has only been screened as such just twice – at Cannes and then in 2010

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a performance from the movie’s premiere by Chingon, the band fronted by director Robert Rodriguez (who contributed some music for the film).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $152.2M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill Bill: Vol. 1

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil


Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil

Hell’s Granny comes to town.

 

(2011) Animated Feature (Weinstein) Starring the voices of Hayden Panettiere, Glenn Close, Joan Cusack, David Ogden Stiers, Patrick Warburton, Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, David Allen Grier, Andy Dick, Martin Short, Brad Garrett, Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong. Directed by Mike Disa

 

There seems to be a reigning strategy in Hollywood that a successful original movie’s sequel can be made even more successful by adding 3D. This is of course regardless of whether 3D is necessary or annoying by its presence. It’s all just cash registers ringing up a higher sale.

The Happily Ever After Agency is back to business as usual. Nicky Flippers (Stiers), the froggy head of the agency, is doing without Red (Panettiere, taking over for Anne Hathaway) his best agency who is away for further training from the Sisters of the Hood, who achieve better Kung Fu thru baking. In order to get through them, though, she’s first got to best a somewhat arrogant troll (Grier).

Her partner Wolf (Warburton) and sidekick Twitchy the Squirrel are accompanying Granny (Close) on a rescue mission to retrieve Hansel (Hader) and Gretel (Poehler) from the clutches of the witch Verushka (Cusack). However, due to the incompetence of Wolf, the rescue goes sideways and Verushka escapes not only with her hostages but with Granny as well.

Red in the meantime discovers that the Sisters have created a recipe for a truffle that bestows ultimate power on the person who devours it. Only Granny knows the secret ingredient that makes the powers work, which was why she was kidnapped – Verushka, like Granny, having been a part of the sisterhood at one time. Red must forego further training and rescue Granny before she is forced to bake the unthinkable.

The first Hoodwinked was a surprise hit back in 2005 and a sequel was inevitable. While original director Cory Edwards remains on board, it is only as a producer, co-writer and the voice of Twitchy. In the director’s chair is Disa, a longtime animator getting his feature debut nod.

The animation is in many ways better – it is certainly brighter. Disa shows some imagination, particularly in the backgrounds of the fairy tale city. However, the whole fairy tale spoof thing that the first movie had in common with the Shrek franchise is wearing a little thin here. In all honesty we’ve seen it done elsewhere and better.

The main issue here is the 3D. It’s unnecessary most of the time – 3D tricks for their own sake – and frankly some of it is a little nausea-inducing. Obviously on a home video system, all of the 3D is lost unless you have a TV and Blu-Ray player with 3D capability and so it further illustrates some of the film’s deficiencies. I’m not a big fan of 3D for its own sake.

Still, some of the goofiness from the original is retained and the cast tries hard to maintain the mood -particularly Warburton, whose work as a voice actor (on TV shows like “The Tick” and “Family Guy”) have made him one of the best in the business, I think. Unfortunately, he’s not given a lot to do but to act kind of demented and stupid but Warburton makes a game effort of it.

This is a movie that could have used a bit more cleverness and a bit less pizzazz. Sure, it’s going to keep kids reasonably entertained but discerning kids are going to watch this once and likely not turn back again while their parents are going to flee the room as soon as their rugrats are plopped down in front of the TV. It may make for a decent enough rental but as a purchase it probably isn’t the kind of investment that Jim Cramer would recommend.

WHY RENT THIS: Just enough goofiness to make this worthwhile.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Relies far too much on 3D effects that are lost if you don’t have a 3D system.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some mildly rude humor and a bit of cartoon action.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s release was delayed more than a year while Weinstein resolved a lawsuit brought on by the production company. 

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a trio of music videos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.0M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a box office failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Happily N’Ever After

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Chernobyl Diaries

Kung Fu Panda


Kung Fu Panda

Sometimes we all need a little kick in the behind.

(2008) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Randall Duk Kim, James Hong, Michael Clarke Duncan, Dan Fogler. Directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne

 

Dreams are generally not handed to you. In order to achieve them, hard work and sacrifice is almost always required. The question becomes how much are you willing to give in order to make your dream come true – and is it worth it.

Po (Black) is a big, goofy panda who lives in the Valley of Peace. The animals there live in peace and harmony, overseen by the benevolent temple on the highest peak guarding the town from those who would cause harm. Therein dwell the Furious Five, a group of five kung fu warriors of world renown. Po worships them and dreams of being one of them. However, he is the son of Ping (Hong) a humble noodle shop owner whose secret ingredient makes his noodles better than anyone else and Ping knows that Po’s dream is foolishness itself.

Within the temple is the Dragon Scroll, a parchment which explains how to become the Dragon Warrior, the ultimate kung fu practitioner. Snow leopard Tai Lung (McShane) wants this scroll not to become the valley’s ultimate protector but to dominate and become a cruel tyrant, wreaking revenge on the master who spurned his dreams.

Tai Lung has escaped from his prison and means to take what would not be given to him. The temple announces that their venerated abbot Oogway (Kim) is going to select the Dragon Warrior who will be given the scroll and the power to protect the Valley. The entire village ascends the mountain to see who will be accorded this great honor. Po is sent by his father to go sell noodles at the temple.

Everyone assumes that one of the members of the Furious Five will be chosen – Tigress (Jolie), Mantis (Rogen), Monkey (Chan), Viper (Liu) or Crane (Cross). Maybe it will be their venerated master, Shifu (Hoffman). However when Oogway chooses Po, the entire village goes into shock. Surely there must be a mistake.

Po has no training and it appears, no aptitude for Kung Fu. What he seems to be best at is eating, and he does that pretty much non-stop. Shifu figures that he can discourage the young panda out of becoming the Dragon Warrior and thus allow one of his more deserving students to achieve that honor. However, Tai Lung is approaching and time is running short. Will Po stay and find his inner hero? Or will he leave and watch from the sidelines as one or all of the Furious Five save the day?

Of all the  CGI animated features I’ve seen this is my favorite that doesn’t begin with the Pixar logo. Yes, I understand its faults and shortcomings but for whatever reason I connect with it. Maybe because I’m quite Po-like – I love to eat, I dream about being a superhero and I have a pretty laid-back nature most of the time (that sound you just heard was Da Queen snorting). The animation is also pretty impressive, from the faux Chinese landscapes to the rippling fur on Shifu, Tigress and Tai Lung.

The story is a bit rote and predictable and certainly is aimed at the Nickelodeon set. There is a good deal of physical humor, much of it revolving around Po’s weight and clumsiness (which some might argue reinforces stereotypes about overweight people, not necessarily a message we want to send to kids). Also, there is almost zero character development for everyone other than Po, Sifu and Tigress. Even Tai Lung really is given a kind of cursory character background as to why he is a villain. Most of the non-feline Furious Five all kind of blend together. Makes me wonder if they could have done a Terrific Trio instead.

There are some moments of real beauty – one involving Oogway and peach blossoms – as well as some imaginative fight scenes (especially the one between Po and Shifu involving a dumpling and chopsticks). This is a pleasing film aesthetically, enough so that parents won’t get bored when watching it for the umpteenth time with their kids.

In fact, the movie is much like it’s protagonist – kind of dumb, kind of lovable and ultimately it just steals your heart. Even if you aren’t into the old chop sockey movies that are clearly the touchstone behind the genesis of Kung Fu Panda you’ll still get a kick out of this animated classic.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous animation. Nice work by Black, Hoffman and McShane.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Predictable story aimed squarely at less discerning audiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some action sequences which might overwhelm the littlest tykes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Hong, who voiced noodle shop owner Mr. Ping, is the son of an actual noodle shop owner.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: As with most hit kid films, there are plenty. The DVD came as a stand-alone or in a two-pack with the short animated feature Secrets of the Furious Five. The original DVD included featurettes on how to make noodles like Mr. Ping and a kid-centric instruction manual on how to use chopsticks. There’s also a Dragon Warrior Training Academy interactive game, a music video of the theme song, an animation video jukebox featuring songs from each of DreamWorks’ Animation Studio’s movies to that time, and a nice PSA  on saving wild pandas.  The two-pack also includes an instructional video on how to draw the characters from Kung Fu Panda, an interactive Dumpling Shuffle game, and fun featurettes on how to determine which Kung Fu fighting style is your own and how to figure out which sign of the Chinese zodiac you fall under. The Blu-Ray has all of these in addition to BD-Live downloadable content which includes a Day in the Life of an actual Shaolin monk and the opportunity to hear Po from various other language soundtracks. “Squidoosh” just sounds a whole lot of different in Swedish my friends.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $631.7M on a $130M production budget; the movie was a huge hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Tales From Earthsea