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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John Wick


Sometimes, Keanu Reeves wonders if he shouldn't have taken the other pill.

Sometimes, Keanu Reeves wonders if he shouldn’t have taken the other pill.

(2014) Action (Lionsgate) Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters, Adrianne Palicki, Omer Barnea, Toby Leonard Moore, Daniel Bernhardt, Bridget Moynahan, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Bridget Regan, Lance Reddick, Keith Jardine, Tait Fletcher, Kazy Tauginas, Alexander Frekey, Thomas Sadoski, Randall Duk Kim, Kevin Nash, Clarke Peters, Gameela Wright. Directed by Chad Stahelski

If action movies teach us anything, it’s that you don’t mess with a man’s family. You DEFINITELY don’t mess with his car. But if you steal his car and kill his dog? Not a good idea, even if you’re the son of a Russian mobster.

But that’s just what Iosef Tarasov (Allen) does. But it’s not the act itself that pisses off his father Viggo (Nyqvist). It’s who he did it to. Check out this conversation the Russian mobster had with Aurelio (Leguizamo), the owner of a chop shop;
VIGGO: I understand that you struck my son.
AURELIO: He stole John Wick’s car and killed his dog.
*pause*
VIGGO: Oh.
*click*

There are some things you just do not do. You don’t walk on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. And you do not steal the car and kill the dog of John Wick (Reeves), particularly when the dog was the last gift from his recently deceased wife (Moynahan). Who is John Wick may you ask? He’s a retired contract killer. He’s the sort who can walk into a room and kill three guys with a pencil. That’s right, a pencil. If you want someone who is untouchable dead and in the ground, you’d call John Wick. There wasn’t anyone he couldn’t kill. Even other contract killers were terrified of him; that’s why they call him The Boogey Man. And not the one that KC and the Sunshine Band sang about either.

Viggo knows that John Wick won’t stop at his son; he’ll go after his entire organization, everyone who ever knew his son and a lot of people who didn’t. John Wick is like the ice age; where he comes through nobody lives. The only people who like John Wick are funeral directors. You get the general idea.

And that’s all you need to know about the plot. Mainly the movie goes from one action sequence to another. Director Chad Stahelski comes from a stuntman background (he was in fact Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix) and his experience shows. The fight sequences are mind-blowing, perfectly choreographed and exciting as hell. They are most definitely the highlight of the film, kinetic whirling dervishes of leaping assassins and flying bullets.

Reeves, never the most charismatic of actors under the best of circumstances, has a role that really plays to his strengths here. John Wick rarely shows any emotion, although he has one speech to Viggo late in the movie where all his rage seethes out of him like a terrible demonic presence and Reeves actually does an outstanding job with it. He is also a fairly graceful action hero, and is said to have performed about 90% of the stunts himself.

The supporting cast is very able, with Palicki showing her fangs as a gleeful assassin, Nyqvist showing his villain chops and Dafoe has a role as a kind of Zen Yoda-like assassin/mentor for John Wick. McShane, Leguizamo and Reddick are reliable and Alfie Allen, Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones, may be setting himself up for a career portraying men the audience would like to see die painfully.

If you go looking for something that breaks the action film mold, well, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any of that here – or anywhere else given the state of action movies in 2014. There isn’t much of a plot (the revenge thing has been done to death) but the action is so outstanding that you don’t much care. There is a place in this world for mindless entertainment and as that kind of movie goes John Wick is better than most.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing action sequences. Right in Reeves’ wheelhouse.
REASONS TO STAY: Kind of a series of action sequences in search of a plot.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of violence, some of it bloody. Loads of foul language. Some drug use as well. Dog cruelty may be upsetting to some.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth time Reeves has played a character named John in the movies.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mechanic (2011)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Small Town Murder Songs

The Matrix Reloaded


The Matrix Reloaded

Definitely not “Singing in the Rain.”

(2003) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Monica Bellucci, Daniel Bernhardt, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Anthony Zerbe, Harold Perrineau, Collin Chou, Gloria Foster, Lambert Wilson, Harry Lennix, Randall Duk Kim. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

 

Movies like this create a lot controversy by their very nature. A messianic figure, cutting-edge special effects and an overall hipper-than-thou feel. All of this and being the most eagerly-anticipated movie of the year, sure to be a box-office bonanza. No pressure here.

Those who saw the “Animatrix” episode that played before the theatrical version of Dreamcatcher (or downloaded it off the internet) know what is revealed early on in the picture. Some time has passed since the events of the first Matrix movie, and changes are coming to both the computer-generated world of the Matrix, as well as the bleak world of reality. Neo (Reeves) is responsible for the “awakening” of an unprecedented number of humans, swelling the population of Zion. However, one of the hoverships has discovered that the machines are drilling — directly above Zion — and hundreds of thousands of Sentinels follow the drills. Should the drills arrive at Zion, millions will die. Possibly the entire human race will be wiped out.

The Oracle (Foster in her final role; she died in 2001) has urgent information for Neo, but Agent Smith (Weaving) is close on Neo’s tail, and Smith has become a rogue program in the Matrix (a virus, maybe?), out of control and self-replicating, leading to a spectacular sequence in which Neo takes on hundreds of annoyed-looking Agent Smiths.

There are others who don’t want those questions answered, but Neo knows that the only way to save humankind is to access the machine world’s mainframe, source of the Matrix, and take it on. In order to do that he will have to rescue the Keymaker (Kim) and get a specific key from him. However, he must find the Keymaker first to do that and he’ll have to take on the Merovingian (Wilson) to get there. Once he finds the key, what’s behind the door it unlocks calls into question everything we knew, or thought we knew about the world of the Matrix.

The movie ends on a cliffhanger note, which leaves the viewer vaguely unsatisfied. Still, there’s a lot to digest, a very complex storyline and some of the most amazing visuals imaginable. As action movies go, this one may be the one that takes the cake – at least in terms of the first part of the decade.  The freeway chase scene which features lots of leaping onto and from moving vehicles is one of the most thrilling ever filled and is worth the price of buying the DVD or Blu-Ray all by it’s lonesome.

On the minus side, Reeves continues to be one of the most wooden actors ever. He’s unconvincing as a messiah, and his relationship with Trinity (Moss) generates no chemistry. Thankfully, the other players – Morpheus (Fishburne), Link (Perrineau), Niobe (Smith), Persephone (Bellucci), Seraph (Chou), the Twins (Neil and Adrian Rayment), Commander Lock (Harry Lennix), the Merovingian (Wilson) and Counselor Hamann (Zerbe) – more than make up for Reeve’s lack of emotions.

This is a great action movie that set the standard for that genre circa 2003. That said, it isn’t perfect, and go in knowing there are some fairly major flaws. However, after seeing it in theaters back in the day I was left anticipating the final chapter – The Matrix Revolutions – which came out later that same year and therefore the movie accomplished mostly what it needed to.

WHY RENT THIS: Incredible action sequences. Some great supporting performances. Visionary and unique.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t live up to the first film. Relationship between Neo and Trinity lacks heat. Reeves still curiously flat as Neo.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s plenty of violence and a little bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Aaliyah was originally cast in the movie to play Zee but she died in a plane crash before filming began. Nona Gaye was cast in her place.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a 22-minute featurette on the making of the freeway chase scene, one of the best in history. There’s a making-of featurette on two promo commercials for product tie-ins (yes, really) and a parody skit from the opening of the 2004 MTV Movie Awards. The Blu-Ray edition includes a music video from P.O.D. and a look at the making of Enter the Matrix, the videogame that served as a compliment to the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMNCE: $742.1M on a $150M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Lightkeepers

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

Ninja Assassin


Ninja Assassin

Oh, I've seen Fire and I've seen Rain...

(2009) Martial Arts Action (Warner Brothers) Rain, Naomie Harris, Ben Miles, Sho Kosugi, Rick Yune, Randall Duk Kim, Sung Kang, Kylie Goldstein. Directed by James McTeigue

There are certain movies that you really can’t complain about. For example, this one; the title tells you exactly what kind of movie you’re going to get. You can’t watch it and then bitch about the plot and the acting. The whole point of the movie is to have guys in black pajamas slice and dice each other and fly through the air like moths. Really, that’s the only standard a movie should be held to in reality. Still, one can dream of a little more to a movie than that, right?

Raizo (Rain) is a lethal assassin, trained from childhood (some would say abused) in the art of killing people silently and unseen by the Ozunu clan, the deadliest assassins in Japan. Their compound, high in the mountains of Japan, has never been seen by an outsider and the mere knowledge of their existence can mean death in a most painful and bloody way. Laughing at their rumored existence, well, that’s just plain stupid as a few yakuza toughs find out in the opening sequence.

However, Raizo has a bone to pick with his clan; they executed his girlfriend (Goldstein) in a most gruesome manner (which would tend to piss anybody off) and now they’re all after his ass. Raizo, the deadliest and nastiest of them, is out to topple their empire, aided by a couple of thumb-twiddling Interpol cops, Mika (Harris) and Ryan (Miles). However, Raizo has violated a cardinal rule of the ninja – something akin to rule #1, don’t talk about Fight Club. Now the clan’s leader, Ozunu (Kosugi) and his number two son Takeshi (Yune) have a real need to dismember Raizo and you just know it’s going to end badly for somebody.

This was produced by the Washowski Brothers (the Matrix trilogy) and directed by McTeigue, who previously helmed V for Vendetta which I think is a much better film than this. Part of the problem of a movie about ninja assassins is the whole conceit that they melt in and out of the shadows; by necessity the movie must be then underlit to provide said shadows, which makes seeing the fight sequences difficult at times. That’s a shame because some of the choreography is pretty damn good.

Yes, I know that you’re not supposed to talk about the acting in a movie like this (I did mention it earlier) but I do have to at least point out that I found Harris unbelievable as an Interpol agent (do Interpol agents scream like little girls whenever an assassin shows up?) and that the acting is a bit stiff in general. Rain, the Korean pop star, is more adept at dancing and singing than he is at slicing and dicing, but he performs solidly enough in his fight sequences. He showed immense potential in Speed Racer as a double-dealing race car driver which isn’t delivered on here. Harris was in the first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies and was far more effective in those, so I know both of them are capable of better than they delivered here.

Sho Kosugi is one of the most revered and beloved figures in Japanese action films (particularly of the samurai variety) of the last 30 years. While known mostly to Asian cinema aficionados in the States, he brings a certain gravitas here that is quite frankly wasted. He’s well into his 60s but he can still kick patootey without breaking much of a sweat. Personally, I think he’s worth seeing even in a movie that isn’t.

Something tells me that this movie was a victim of studio over-involvement. A last minute re-write was called for and delivered in a two and a half day turn-around which allowed the movie to make its tight delivery date after which brilliant studio executives promptly delayed its release for almost a year. Really, when dealing with ninja movies it would be a wise studio executive that doesn’t get too involved with the nuts and bolts; the simpler, the better in terms of plot for these kinds of things and its best just to let your fight choreographer and director just go to town; this movie is at its best when they do just that.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some very fine martial arts sequences here. It’s always a pleasure to see Kosugi, one of the underrated stars of Asian cinema.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is as wooden as it gets. There are times that the story drags, particularly in the middle. Penalty for overuse of flashbacks. Too many fight scenes lose their effectiveness because they’re badly lit.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect from a movie of this nature, there’s a boatload of violence and a smattering of foul language. Definitely for older teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Babylon 5” creator J. Michael Straczynski did the re-write of the original script which was, in an unusual move, approved by Warner Brothers without notes and shipped into the actor’s hands within a week.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray has a nice feature on ninjas and the mythology behind them.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $61.6M on a production budget of $40M; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Intermission