|Catching Up On Reviews With Erik Childress (5/27/11)
|by Erik Childress
This week brings hot lady vampires, the return of a butt-kicking Panda and a Woody Allen film that kinda kicks butt itself.
KUNG FU PANDA 2
While we all awaited the latest concoction from Pixar in the summer of 2008 (WALL-E), there was a nice little delight to tide us over from Dreamworks. With ventures Over the Hedge, Flushed Away and Kung Fu Panda, some solid, if unspectacular work was being created as an alternative to everyoneís darling while last yearís How To Train Your Dragon was seen as a giant leap, especially in the overblown 3-D world we live in now. Hoping that Po the Panda was merely following the classic evolution of the origin story that tend to lead to even bigger and better adventures in sequels, there was reason to be excited about the first of many animated sequels this year (including Cars 2, Happy Feet 2 and Puss In Boots.) Instead, it is the first big disappointment.
China is under threat from Lord Shen (exceptionally voiced by Gary Oldman), a peacock that has constructed a weapon that can wipe out the defense of kung fu with a single blow. Itís called a cannon. While the Furious Five push back one of his wolfpack attacks, Po (Jack Black) has a childhood flashback (cleverly visualized in traditional 2-D animation) to the family he never knew. Not exactly helpful as he searches for the inner peace taught by his master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). Maybe he can find it on the journey to destroy Lord Shenís weapon with his friends and allies (voiced by Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross and Jackie Chan.)
A lot of animated plots can be summed up and spit out pretty quickly, but we do not often see it done by the filmmakers themselves. Can you remember the last time such a close-knit and established group of pixilated characters actually had no chemistry between one another? You can start with the fight scenes and work your way back as the action scenes have an overtly manic feel that almost seems like a parody of themselves. A lot of kicks, thrusts and parrys with bad guys being flung out of the frame at lightning speed but no opportunity to appreciate much of the teamwork nor delight in the animatorís skill in bringing such action to vibrant life.
The threadbare story does not help matters as it alternates between either a conversation about Poís past or a less-than-inspired set piece and first time director Jennifer Yuh conducts the pacing as if even she cannot wait for it to end. At just over 80 minutes and what seems like four climaxes in the final thirty, Kung Fu Panda 2 gives us no time to breathe, grasp or care about the mission nor Poís daddy issues. Even with a couple nice scenes between him and his goose father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), the film betrays its own happy ending with a cliffhanger that the television ads have displayed no hesitation in spoiling. Decidedly lackluster in the laughs department, this comes as a surprise with returning writers Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger. Whoever was responsible for all but writing out the originalís best character, Shifu, deserves the most scorn. With maybe seven minutes and a handful of lines (including, not surprising, the filmís best one), Kung Fu Panda 2 ends up featuring less of Dustin Hoffman than the eleventh hour reshoots of Little Fockers. Hopefully we can chalk it up as a lesson learned in what not-to-do for Dreamworks in How To Tran Your Dragon 2 and another step for their host company, Paramount, towards nabbing the Best Animated Feature Oscar for Rango.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Any filmmaker who puts out a movie a year is bound to have his share of disappointments, mediocrities and all-out disasters. In retrospect, Woody Allen has had one helluva career, but in the last dozen years has produced more lesser works than probably the whole of the thirty years prior. It makes films like Match Point and Vicky Christina Barcelona stand out all the more; good films elevated to greatness with our expectations lowered. Good films they both are too, and with Allen's continuing fascination for European locales substituting his fabled New York tales as of late, Midnight In Paris may strike some as being better than either. Simply for it easily being his most enjoyable work since Small Time Crooks and his most lovely since Everyone Says I Love You.
Gil (Owen Wilson) is a successful Hollywood screenwriter on vacation in Paris with his fiance, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her right wing parents while he tries to draw inspiration for a novel. He is a romantic at heart for nostalgia and the days when walking in the rain in the Golden Age of the '20s must have been wonderful personified. His present involves Inez dragging him along to hear the pedantic babblings of Paul (Michael Sheen) another author who believes he has history pegged down to its facts about art. One night though, Gil gets lost on his way back to the hotel and drunkenly enters an inviting car that stops for him. Next thing Gil knows, he is at a party populated by gentlemen and flappers with names like Ernest, Zelda and F. Scott.
Hard to imagine his luck (if he isn't imagining the whole thing to begin with), Gil now has the opportunity to trade barbs with some of the greatest writers and artists of the 20th century. What could be better than to get advice from Hemingway (a fabulous scene-stealing Corey Stoll), critique from Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) or, in a classic exchange, irresistibly suggest a surrealistic plot to Luis Bunuel? Maybe becoming smitten with the mistress of Pablo Picasso? Marion Cotillard's Adriana provides an obvious, but sweet contrast between two people who would rather live in the past but cannot seem to escape their present.
The magical realism of Allen's fantasy is a welcome respite from films that would bog us down with rules of the situation or pulling the rug out from under us with an Oz-like climax. The comfort in the acceptance of Gil's midnight excursions allows an audience to soak in the joy and wonder of Gil's adventure, so when it adds additional layers we have no need to blink or question. It's a similar approach to 1985's The Purple Rose of Cairo where the fantasy itself is established and then allowed to effortlessly move forward while he again explores the notion of how our present can never live up to our pedestal of the past.
Every era's music, movies and literature will spark the criticism of the good ol' days. That is because history has propped the previous efforts up as the winners. The present is still evolving and the memory of the bad will fade with time while the best will always survive. Cotillard's Adriana spells this out perhaps a little too neatly late in the film, but it may serve as an ironic counterpoint to the beautiful subtlety of the theme up to that point and our short-term memory of it. Owen Wilson has been getting back into the fresh comic groove of the early part of his career. He was very good in James L. Brooks' How Do You Know and he is even better here, slipping into what has been construed as the typical Woody Allen character, but he makes it so distinctly his own that I, for one, was thinking that was an Owen Wilson role through and through. Another case where the past catches up with the present, only we can appreciate it now.
WE ARE THE NIGHT
It was starting to turn out to be a pretty good year for vampires. As we try to forget that Part 1 of Part 4 of that awful Twilight series is coming out. We already had a truly solid indie in Stake Land and the Fright Night remake actually looks like it has potential. So it was with great joy watching the first half-hour of We Are The Night that yet another film was finding a new way to explore elements of the genre. Until the time continued to pass and it slowly dawned that most of its ideas were circa 1987.
Louise (Nina Hoss) is the oldest living member of a vampire trio that also contains the subdued Charlotte (Jennifer Ulrich) and the hyperactive Nora (Anna Fischer). Lena (the arresting Karoline Herfuth) is a downtrodden pickpocket who lives for herself and resists the advances of police officer Tom (Max Riemelt) who can't decide whether to arrest her or date her. Louise and Lena cross paths in a club one night. A lovebite on the neck later and Lena is on her way to becoming a full-on creature of the night and she's about to get some on the job training.
We Are The Night boasts some terrific early energy and never lacks in style from director Dennis Gansel. Much like his previous film, The Wave (about a classroom experiment into fascism), Gansel (who co-wrote the script with Jan Berger) has a lot of trouble paying off the intriguing ideas he establishes early on. Louise's clan is part of a select group of women who have let the male of the species die off. Has she made a conscious decision to select females as potential mates or is her feminism rooted more in hate of a controlling man's world? This background is laid out in a single conversation and rarely touched upon again. Same goes for the traces of humanity in Nora's wild side with her feelings for a crushing doorman. What looks to be a touching parallel to Tom's pursuit of Lena results in a quickie resolution that comes out of nowhere and exists only as motivation for a later action.
After a first act of real energy including shades of Run Lola Run, We Are The Night settles into becoming basically a female Lost Boys as we await Lena to make her inevitable second turn of the film. A late second-act escape from the cops into daylight might have been cool if it hadn't been so completely derivative of the same scene from Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark and an anti-gravity climax is so dependent on tilted angles to hide its limited special effects becomes almost comical. Gansel certainly has talent behind the camera and it would be great to see him with a better script in his pocket or one that just drops all pretense of ambition to simply be a cool action or horror film. We Are The Night tries to go both ways when it should have taken a cue from Louise's philosophy.
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originally posted: 05/27/11 13:09:18
last updated: 05/27/11 13:24:54