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

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New Releases for the Week of January 29, 2015


Kung Fu Panda 3KUNG FU PANDA 3

(DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Bryan Cranston. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni

Po is the most unlikely Kung Fu master in China, but he has built a great life. However, when his long-lost father appears, Po is whisked away to a hidden panda village, a paradise for the corpulent bears. However, there is trouble brewing; the demonic Kai has been resurrected and is sweeping across China, defeating all the Kung Fu masters in his wake. It will take an army to stop him – but all Po has is peace-loving dumpling-chomping pandas. Can he whip them into shape before Kai takes over all of China?

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promo video and premiere live stream footage here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for martial arts action and some mild rude humor)

50 Shades of Black

(Open Road) Marlon Wayans, Kali Hawk, Fred Willard, Mike Epps. The 50 Shades of Grey franchise gets the parody treatment from master comedian Marlon Wayans.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Parody
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong crude sexual content including some graphic nudity, and for language throughout)

The Finest Hours

(Disney) Chris Pine, Holliday Grainger, Casey Affleck, Eric Bana. On February 18, 1952, a massive nor’easter struck the American east coast, causing the oil tanker S.S. Pendleton to break and half, trapping 30 men in the sinking stern. The nearest Coast Guard station sends out a rescue mission in a wooden lifeboat with an ill-equipped engine and virtually no navigation equipment to face hurricane force winds, 60 foot waves and freezing temperatures to reach the ship before time runs out. And yes, this really happened.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a promo, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of peril)

Ip Man 3

(Well Go USA) Donnie Yen, Lynn Hung, Jin Zhang, Mike Tyson. A crooked developer aims to take over the city and martial arts master Ip Man feels compelled to take a stand and right the wrongs being perpetrated against his neighbors. While the story is fiction, Ip Man was a real man who was Bruce Lee’s martial arts teacher.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Martial Arts
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of martial arts violence and brief strong language)

Jane Got a Gun

(Weinstein) Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Noah Emmerich. A woman trying to leave her past behind her finds it hot on her trail again in the form of the ultra-violent Bishop Boys gang. With her husband badly injured and her family in peril, she turns to an ex-lover – a gunslinger – to protect her home and her family from certain destruction.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Western
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for violence and some action)

Lazer Team

(Rooster Teeth) Colton Dunn, Alan Ritchson, Burnie Burns, Allie DeBerry. When four video game-playing losers discover a UFO crash site, they unwittingly genetically bond with advanced battle suits which they will then have to put to good use defending the Earth which is really gonna need it – oh dear God the Earth is in so much trouble!

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual material including references, language, action violence, teen partying and smoking)

The Man With the Iron Fists


How RZA got Russell Crowe to agree to do this movie.

How RZA got Russell Crowe to agree to do this movie.

(2012) Martial Arts (Universal) RZA, Rick Yune, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, Dave Bautista, Jamie Chung, Cung Le, Byron Mann, Daniel Wu, Zhu Zhu, Gordon Liu, Andrew Ng, Kuan Tai Chen, Xue Jing Yao, Telly Liu, Wen-Jun Dong, Zhan De Re, Lu Kai, Jin Auyeung (MC Jin), Ka-Yan Leung, Liu Chang Jiang, Brian Yang, Hu Minnow, Eli Roth, Pam Grier, Grace Huang. Directed by RZA

Most film buffs have a soft spot for a particular era or style of movie, be it the film noir of the 40s, the psychedelic cinema of the 60s, the spaghetti Westerns of the 60s, the slasher horror films of the 80s – or something completely different. All of us have movies that we grew up with that appealed to us in some way and helped mold who we are.

For rapper RZA of the Wu Tang Clan, that would be the chop sockey films of Run Run Shaw and other producers from Hong Kong in the 70s. He wouldn’t be alone in that regard; folks like Quentin Tarantino (who is credited as a “presenter” here and helped produce), Robert Rodriguez and Eli Roth (who co-wrote, produced, and appeared in a small role) all are fans of the style. Those who know RZA say he is a walking encyclopedia on the subject and certainly his music bears that out. Some thought it might only be a matter of time, ever since he got into acting, that he would create a film of his own.

Well, here it is. Like many of the original chop sockey films of the 70s, there isn’t much of a plot to speak of. A nameless blacksmith (RZA) – who happens to be black – creates weapons for the various rival clans of a small village. The village is a powderkeg waiting to explode and the arrival of a stranger named Jack Knife (Crowe) from England is all it takes. Soon the clans are at war and the Blacksmith will be drawn in not just as a maker of weapons, but as a fighter.

And that’s really it. And to be honest, the plot isn’t the most important thing about a movie like this, although I wouldn’t have minded a little more flesh on those bare bones. This is clearly a labor of love for RZA and reportedly he and co-writer Roth went into great detail into the mythology of the village, the types of weapons that he would create and the people who inhabited them. We don’t see much of the background except in dribs and drabs and I suppose that if he did go into detail, the movie would have ended up being a two-parter, or at least a single movie four hours long.

And to be fair, most folks who like the Wuxia movies and chop sockey films are all about the fights, and RZA recruited one of the best choreographers in the world – Corey Yuen – to work his film. And yes, those fights are pretty spectacular. However, the quick-cut editing and sumptuous visuals make it hard to follow those fights.

And the visuals are sumptuous, from the pink-hued cathouse where a good portion of the action takes place in, to the village streets and smithy which are period-friendly. It’s a great looking film but the editing again gives it a more modern feel than I think RZA was originally going for; or at least, he should have been.

RZA as a director shows promise; as an actor though, he should have stuck to directing. I’m not saying he’s a bad actor necessarily but he was wrong for the part. His personality onscreen is laidback and almost comatose; there’s just no excitement being generated by the lead character and that’s damn near fatal for any movie. If your audience isn’t connecting with your lead character, chances are they are changing the channel, walking out or otherwise finding something else to do with their time.

The characters have interesting names, weapons and personalities and some of the actors who inhabit them go over-the-top as well they should. Crowe and Lucy Liu as a conniving madam both seem to be having a good ol’ time with this; appearances by the legendary Gordon Liu, the equally legendary Pam Grier and Daniel Wu don’t hurt either. Rick Yune was also getting some heat but seemed to disappear way too early without explanation. Or at least, if there was one I wasn’t paying much attention by that time.

At an hour and a half this felt much longer than it really was and it’s a shame; there are a lot of elements here that are worthwhile had they been put together better. A direct-to-home video sequel was released earlier this year but I can’t say I have any desire whatsoever to see it and likely I won’t. I hope RZA continues to make movies; I just hope they’re better than this one.

WHY RENT THIS: A demented and occasionally entertaining cross between a spaghetti Western and a Hong Kong chop sockey.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A godawful mess. RZA doesn’t have the presence or the energy to be a lead.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence (some of it extreme) and sexuality (some of it extreme), a bit of foul language and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first cut of the movie ran over four hours long and RZA at one point considering splitting the film into two parts but producer Eli Roth disagreed and thus the movie was edited down to its current 95 minute length.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray contains both the R-rated theatrical release and an unrated version that is about 12 minutes longer.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.7M on a $15M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Warrior’s Way
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Detachment


Just holding up the wall.

Just holding up the wall.

(2011) Drama (Tribeca) Adrien Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson, William Petersen, Bryan Cranston, Sami Gayle, Betty Kaye, Louis Zorich, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chris Papavasiliou, Kwoade Cross, David Hausen, Roslyn Ruff, Jerry Walsh, John Cenatiempo, Brenda Pressley, Tiffani Holland. Directed by Tony Kaye

We are challenged in the classroom like never before. Teachers must compete with all sorts of distractions – texts, phone calls, games, the kind of thing that other generations can’t even begin to understand. With shorter attention spans, kids don’t seem inclined to put any effort in to learning which puts other nations – China and India at the forefront – of educating their young people and putting themselves in a position to be the global power in this millennium.

Henry Barthes (Brody) is a teacher, or more to the point, a substitute teacher. He’s been sent to a month long stint in an inner city school where apathy is the word of the day. His predecessor essentially had a nervous breakdown and several other teachers seem to be on the verge of one of their own. Henry strikes up friendships with the acerbic Chuck Seaboldt (Caan) and the pretty but standoffish Sarah Madison (Hendricks).

In the meantime he is trying to inspire gifted artist Meredith (B. Kaye) as well as take teenage prostitute Erica (Gayle) under his wing. These are things that are meant well but still don’t look too good and Henry ends up facing the music for acts of kindness when all he wanted to do was inspire a few kids to achieve, to make something of themselves and to live a life that could have some meaning. Not too much to ask, eh?

Considering the caliber of the cast, the script had to be something spectacular because many of these fine actors get little more than a line or two and yet they are here because they believed in the project, which speaks highly of the original material. Certainly it seems to be an indictment of the public education system, a place in which the problem children are all dumped into the same building and educators are little more than glorified babysitters. Parents who can’t be bothered to show up on parents night are perfectly happy to march into the administrators office and tell the principal (Hardin) – who has already been told to seek employment elsewhere at the end of the year – that the parent is going to have her gang raped. Nice, right?

I’m not sure principals and teachers deal with parents threatening with sexual assault very often in reality, but the apathy of parents and students towards education today is a very real issue that very real teachers deal with on a daily basis. Unlike the movies – including this movie – it takes a lot more than one inspiring teacher to reverse the tide for an entire classroom. Students are people and like most people they react to the same things in different ways. In other words, what’s inspiring for one may come off as cheesy for someone else.

Brody works very hard here and why not? This is the kind of role that’s tailor-made for his talents. It doesn’t hurt that he has Oscar nominees and Emmy winners to work with. He gets plenty of support but make no mistake, this is Brody’s show and he runs with it.

Still, he is hampered by the cliches that show up in so many schoolroom dramas and that kind of offsets his performance. While the heart is in the right place here, there are very few movies that really give us a fly on the wall view in the modern classroom and this isn’t one of them, sadly. While worth checking out particularly if you’re into Adrien Brody, this doesn’t set any new standards in educating the masses about the state of education.

WHY RENT THIS: A uniformly excellent cast. This is right in Brody’s wheelhouse.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit cliche in places.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Betty Kaye, who plays Meredith in the film, is the director’s real-life daughter.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is premiere footage from the Tribeca Film Festival as well as studio interviews with Brody and Tony Kaye.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.5M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/Stream), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy), iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Minds
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Taken 3

Code Name: The Cleaner


Neither Nicolette Sheridan nor Cedric the Entertainment can believe their agents signed them up for this movie.

Neither Nicolette Sheridan nor Cedric the Entertainment can believe their agents signed them up for this movie.

(2007) Action Comedy (New Line) Cedric the Entertainer, Lucy Liu, Nicolette Sheridan, Mark Dacascos, Will Patton, Callum Keith Rennie, Niecy Nash, DeRay Davis, Kevin McNulty, Robert Clarke, Bart Anderson, Tom Butler, Beau Davis, Rick Tae, Kurt Max Runte, David Lewis, Gina Holden, Doug Chapman, Jacquie Steuart, Joanne Pesusich. Directed by Les Mayfield

I like a good spy movie as much as the next guy, maybe even more. Sometimes, you want something that isn’t James Bond, but the truth of the matter is that few spy films that are action-oriented can live up to the Bond series. Does this one?

Jake (Cedric the Entertainer) wakes up in a plush hotel room and from that moment nothing seems right. It’s a nice hotel room and all and there’s a briefcase stuffed full of cash in the room but things are off. For one thing, he can’t remember how he got there. In fact, he can’t even remember his own name. To make matters worse, he can’t remember what that dead body is doing next to him in the bed. He needs time to think, so he runs out, taking the briefcase full of money out with him. Unfortunately, he is seen leaving the scene of a homicide, and as if things weren’t bad enough, the dead body is in fact an FBI agent.

As he scurries out of the hotel lobby, he is intercepted by a beautiful blonde calling herself Diane (Sheridan) who claims she is his wife. She smuggles Jake out of the hotel one step ahead of the police and drives him to a gorgeous estate, which she tells him he owns. He is met there by an obsequious butler (Clarke) and a sinister doctor (McNulty). Jake, not quite believing any of this, overhears a conversation between the doctor and his “wife” explaining the need for the truth and that a high dose of sodium pentothal should do the trick. Unfortunately, it might also give Jake cardiac arrest. While Diane is fine with this, Jake is not and he escapes out the window.

Some of Jake’s memories are beginning to return, and he seems to be in the military. He believes himself to be a spy, and he disguises himself as a Dutch folk dancer (don’t ask) to sneak back into the hotel and retrieve an item he’d left in their property check room, which turns out to be an electronic pass into a high tech corporation called Digital Arts. Jake goes to a diner across the street from their headquarters and meets Gina (Liu), a waitress who tells him she’s his girlfriend.

She takes him to her place to see if it’ll jog any memories, but the memories that are coming back are disturbing. Something is definitely smelling bad at Digital Arts and it isn’t the game developers after a marathon code writing session. This could only be a job for The Cleaner.

Cedric the Entertainer can be considered a poor man’s Martin Lawrence, but that’s not accurate since these days, Martin Lawrence is a poor man’s Martin Lawrence. He’s full of shtick but for whatever reason he has enough charm to pull it off. I’ve always liked Lucy Liu, but she just has the most atrocious taste in scripts. For every Kill Bill that she does, there are far more Charlie’s Angels. Mark Dacascos, a terrific martial artist who was so good in Brotherhood of the Wolf is wasted here, getting to use his considerable skills in only one badly choreographed scene. I’d love to see him get some of the stuff that is offered to Jason Statham.

There is a little bit of charm here in what is ultimately highly disposable entertainment. The movie gets by on the charm of Cedric and Liu, and having Nicolette Sheridan strip down to her bra and panties doesn’t hurt either.

The story is very cliché – the plot is lifted whole cloth essentially from Total Recall  – and the action sequences are pretty pedestrian. The budget wasn’t high enough to permit spectacular visuals, so the filmmakers had to get by on a few fight scenes. The Dutch Riverdance sequence is excruciatingly painful, but most of the jokes merely fall flat.

This is a comedy that isn’t funny and an action movie without any real exciting action sequences, so you do the math. I caught this on late night cable and it made nice insomniac viewing, but for the most part this is disposable entertainment that is more disposable than entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Cedric and Liu are charming. Sheridan is beautiful in her lingerie.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks laughs and the action sequences are dull. Story is predictable and payoff doesn’t pay.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a good deal of sexual innuendo. There’s some violence but not enough to satisfy the more extreme crowd.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.3M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD, Amazon (rent/buy), iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ecks vs. Sever
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Stop/Loss

Molly


Molly

Take me out to the ball game…

(1999) Drama (MGM) Elisabeth Shue, Aaron Eckhart, Thomas Jane, Lucy Liu, Jill Hennessy, D.W. Moffett, Elizabeth Mitchell, Robert Harper, Elaine Hendrix, Michael Paul Chan, Jon Pennell, Sarah Wynter, Lauren Richter, Tanner Lee Prairie, Musetta Vander. Directed by John Dulgan

 

When we look at the disabled, often all we truly see is their disability. The hardest thing for us so-called normal folk is to look beyond and see the person within. This is often true of those who love the disabled, as well.

Buck McKay (Eckhart) has a good job, a great loft in trendy Venice (California, not Italy) and a busy social calendar. He’s restoring a vintage sailboat. He is leading a quietly fulfilling, productive life. Then, he gets a letter from the state of California.

The care facility at Bellevue is being shut down due to funding constraints. What does this have to do with McKay? That’s where his sister, Molly (Shue) has been staying for a number of years, ever since both their parents died in a car crash. She’s autistic, with the emotional and mental state of a three-year-old.

Immediately, Buck’s life is thrown into chaos. He loses his job when Molly prances into an important meeting naked because she’s too warm although if Elisabeth Shue pranced into one of my meetings naked, I’d probably give her brother a promotion. Maybe that’s just me, though. In any case, the constant attention that his sister requires has emptied his social calendar. Yes, it’s true: The Buck stopped there.

A lifeline is thrown when Sam (Jane), a learning-disabled orderly who had developed a rapport with Molly at Bellevue, gets a new job at a new clinic. Doctors at this clinic are looking to perform experimental surgery that would activate the portion of her brain that isn’t functioning. Molly is an exceptional candidate for the surgery. The result would be the mental and emotional flowering of a young woman her self-absorbed brother has never taken the trouble to get to know. But what science giveth, capricious fate often taketh away.

If this sounds familiar, there’s a good reason for it. The plot is very similar to Daniel Keyes’ classic novella Flowers for Algernon, which later was made into the gripping Cliff Robertson movie Charly. Both of those versions are far superior to this distaff version, but Molly is not without its charm.

Shue, once an Oscar nominee for Leaving Las Vegas, had by this point without much fanfare become an impressive acting talent. In this film she plays a woman buffeted by a world she scarcely understands. Alternately full-of-life joyous and angry and frightened, she displays her emotions vividly and without reservation. The supporting cast was mostly unknown at the time, although many of them have gone on to good careers. Here, most of them are pretty solid.

The problem with the movie is predictability. The story is just too close to Charly for my own personal comfort. While it does raise the important issue of considering the person behind the disability, Molly often flails and wallows in maudlin sentiment, like a pig in a mud hole. During those periods, the movie drags, big time.

Molly didn’t really get a lot of theatrical play in its day and is probably difficult to find although I understand Netflix carries it, but is worth checking out if you either run into it or seek it out, if for no other reason to enjoy Shue’s performance, which is definitely superior.

WHY RENT THIS: An excellent performance by Elizabeth Shue.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of by-the-numbers. Solid but unspectacular performances after Shue.

FAMILY MATTERS: A little bit of sexuality and a little bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The film was unusual in that it premiered on airplane flights before its theatrical release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17,650 on a $21M production budget; the film was a huge flop.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Charly

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Last Mistress

New Releases for the Week of November 2, 2012


November 2, 2012

WRECK-IT RALPH

(Disney) Starring the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Ed O’Neill, Mindy Kaling, Adam Corolla, Horatio Sanz, Dennis Haysbert, Edie McClurg. Directed by Rich Moore

Ralph is a videogame villain who for decades has been overshadowed by Fix-It Felix who always gets to save the day. Ralph longs to be a good guy but will never be one as long as he is overshadowed by Felix, so he decides to find a game where he can do good. Unfortunately, in his quest he inadvertently releases an evil that threatens the entire arcade. Can Ralph be the hero he dreams of being and save the arcade? It’s a Disney film so I’m thinking “yes.”

See the trailer, promos, clips and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some rude humor and mild action/violence)

Flight

(Paramount) Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood. An airline pilot becomes a national hero when he pulls off an impossible maneuver to land a crippled plane. That adulation quickly turns to something different when his blood work taken from the accident site reveals that he had alcohol in his system during the fatal flight.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence)

The Man With the Iron Fists

(Universal) Russell Crowe, RZA, Lucy Liu, Rick Yune. A mysterious stranger arrives in a remote Chinese village to become the village blacksmith. Rival clans within the village force him to forge elaborate weapons of war. When the simmering feud goes nuclear over a shipment of gold, the stranger forges a weapon of his own, channeling an ancient power to fight alongside iconic heroes against soulless villains. The fate of the village rests on his ability to harness that power and control it.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Martial Arts

Rating: R (for bloody violence, strong sexuality, language and brief drug use)

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

Kill Bill: Vol. 1


Kill Bill Vol. 1

Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

(2003) Action (Miramax) Uma Thurman, Michael Madsen, Darryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Sonny Chiba, David Carradine, Julie Dreyfus, Chiaki Kuriyama, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks, Michael Bowen, Jun Kunimura, Kenji Oba, Yuki Kazamatsuri. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

 

Quentin Tarantino is hipper than just about everybody, and he knows it. That’s OK, though; the guy knows movies. He understands the art that is the “B” movie, the kind of stuff at which most critics turn up their noses, or use to play the trash hip.

Kill Bill is Tarantino’s magnum opus, a loving tribute to movies he loves and admires, from Japanese samurai flicks to film noir to anime to blaxploitation to Hong Kong martial arts movies. And he delivers it with impeachable visual sense and a crafty sense of humor. The movie is so long and complex that it was divided into two separate movies and released a year apart. While that can be absolutely fatal for certain films that have tried much the same thing (I’m looking at you, last two movies of the Matrix trilogy), the two Kill Bill films each stand on their own.

The story: The Bride (Thurman) used to be Black Mamba, a lethal assassin and a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad, but has decided to leave the business and get married. Bill (Carradine, whose face is never seen in the first film), her former employer, disagrees and appoints her former cohorts Copperhead (Fox), Cottonmouth (Liu), California Mountain Snake (Hannah) and Sidewinder (Madsen) to send his regards. After a savage beating of the Bride and her Groom, Bill delivers the coup de grace – a bullet to her head – personally.

Fast forward four years. The Bride awakens to find everyone she loves murdered and her life over. Having been an assassin, she decides to put her talents to use against those who wronged her, leading up to her former employer. As she goes after each member of the squad, she is aided by a retired Japanese sword maker, Hattori Hanzo (Chiba), who makes her a special weapon to use in her quest.

The story is not told sequentially; it begins at the second name on her death list and goes from there. Tarantino’s jumping around in time makes sense; the first name on the list, Cottonmouth – otherwise known as O-Ren Ishii, is the more spectacular and difficult “hit” of the two presented here, and makes a far more fitting finale for this volume than would the second, which is almost anti-climactic.

Tarantino also divides the movie into chapters, with each in a different genre; from the Samurai style (the sword making sequence) to anime (the Cottonmouth backstory), blaxploitation (the Copperhead sequence) and a good, old-fashioned Hong Kong swordfight (The House of the Blue Leaves sequence that closes the film).

At each turn, Tarantino pays tribute to heroes and genres of the ’60s and ’70s, from the casting of Carradine, Liu and Chiba to the use of Bruce Lee’s yellow tracksuit (from his final film Game of Death) in the House of Blue Leaves chapter (of course, it’s not the actual tracksuit).

Part of the mandate for Tarrantino here is to inspire people to see the second portion of the movie, and he does that. There are interesting twists, and the fight sequences are nothing short of astonishing, particularly the House of Blue Leaves portion, and the one-on-one dual between Liu and Thurman that follows immediately thereafter. There is some wire work, yes, but it’s kept to a minimum.

The violence is gratuitous and often graphic, although sometimes almost cartoonish in nature. There are a few moments that will make squeamish sorts squirm (particularly the aftermath of the Blue Leaves portion) but the blood that fountains out of the Bride’s victims is thinner than water, for what may be a subtle joke by the filmmaker.

Thurman is almost wooden, which I think is purposeful. Her beauty and glamour are stripped away in favor of a soulless killing machine, for whom revenge has become the single point of life. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the actors either join Thurman in emotion-free fashion (Liu) or are so over the top you’d think they were making an assault on Everest (Hannah, Fox). Veterans Chiba and Carradine give restrained performances. Chiba shows why many consider him to be a gem of cinematic history. Liu, who often shows up as the old wise man with flowing white eyebrows in chop sockey films, plays much the same part.

This is a movie I admire more than I like, although I like it a lot more now than I did when I first saw it. Da Queen said that she felt like she was in a room full of master painters — Matisse, Gaugin, Monet, Rembrandt — and she had only crayons. Tarantino’s massive knowledge of film is put to good use here.

This isn’t so much a tribute, or homage as an attempt to wrap all these diverse styles into one coherent story to make a new art form, and it works most of the time. One of the calculated risks Tarantino took when he agreed to splice his film in two is that some may wind up liking the first volume only after seeing the second, and some may wind up confused or overwhelmed enough by the first to completely skip the second. That would be a shame. There will be more on the second volume in a future edition of Cinema365 but let’s just say that both movies work best in tandem with one another and while each stands alone on their own, it’s like having peanut butter without jam on your sandwich. Good, but could be better.

If you love exploitation films of the 50s, 60s and 70s, or even if you don’t, this is one of the finest action movies to come out in the first decade of the 21st century. The more often I see it, the more I like it and that certainly marks it as a classic film.

WHY RENT THIS: House of Blue Leaves sequence one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed. Tarantino’s extensive knowlege of genre films is utilized perfectly. Seeing faded action stars like Chiba, Carradine and Gordon Liu does the heart good.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the acting is a bit wooden. The dizzying array of styles may be too much for most.

FAMILY VALUES: This is as graphically violent and bloody a movie as you’re likely to see. There are a few bad words and some sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The start of production was delayed due to Uma Thurman’s pregnancy. Tarantino never considered recasting; the part of The Bride was intended for her and her alone.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are a couple of music videos by The 5s, 6s, 7s, 8s, the Japanese band that played during the House of Blue Leaves sequence.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $181M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster through and through.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Game of Death

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT:Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

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