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by Peter Sobczynski

This weekend sees two of the summer's mostly highly hyped sequels going head to head at the multiplex for your hard-earned money. However, as you will discover from this round-up of short reviews, the latest efforts from a pair of well-regarded filmmakers with admittedly spotty recent filmographies that are far more deserving of your attendance. Once again, I apologize for the lack of long-form reviews and I promise that things will be back to normal next week.)

Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike has garnered an enormous cult following throughout the world over the last decade or so, partly because of the often wild and extreme nature of his work and partly because of his ridiculously prolific work habits--he has cranked out so many features, videos and TV shows that he makes Steven Soderbergh look like Terrence Malick by comparison. Personally, I have never been the biggest fan of his work--too many of his films feel rushed and tend to consist of maybe one or two interesting ideas that he merely pads out to feature length with gallons of gore instead of expanding on them during the screenwriting phase--but on the films where it is obvious that he has decided to spend a little more time than usual developing them instead of rushing on to the next project, he is capable of doing amazing things (such as the brilliant and haunting "Audition.") His latest effort, the samurai epic "13 Assassins," is clearly one that he spent a little more time on and the result is a bloody and hugely exciting film that is likely to put all of this summer's comic book extravaganzas to shame. Set in 1844, the film opens with the sadistic and murderous Lord Naritsugu (Gore Inagaki) preparing to ascend to greater power within the Shogunate, a move that could plunge Japan into war in order to satisfy his increasingly deranged bloodlust. To prevent this from happening, another shogun is charged with putting together a group of 13 samurai of varying backgrounds to go into battle against Naritsugu's soldiers in what appears to be by all accounts a suicide mission. Though ostensibly based on a 1963 samurai film of the same name, Miike is clearly borrowing a page or two from Akira Kurosawa's classic "The Seven Samurai" as well and while that may result in something a little less bizarre than his more outré efforts, the final product is so entertaining--especially the staggering action climax that sustains itself for over 40 minutes without so much as a breather--that few will find themselves complaining afterwards. Although best appreciated on the big screen, this film is also currently being made available through various video-on-demand services but no matter how you see it, you pretty much have to catch it if you still want to consider yourself an action movie buff.

The trouble with most sequels to comedies is that since the best jokes were presumably used the first time around, the people stuck with coming up with a second installment are forced to either come up with comedic concepts that presumably didn't pass muster the first time around or simply redo the earlier jokes with only slight adjustments to the punchlines (as anyone who has seen the likes of "Airplane II: The Sequel," "Ghostbusters 2" or "Analyze That" can attest. This process can be even more painful when the original film in question wasn't exactly hilarious and that is especially the case with "The Hangover: Part II," an astonishingly lazy and witless followup to the 2009 raunchiest that inexplicably went on to become one of the most successful live-action comedies ever made. Less a sequel that a virtual scene-for-scene remake, this continuation reunites Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis and has them once again waking up after an evening of pre-wedding debauchery and struggling to put together exactly what transpired so that they can retrieve a missing man and make it back in time for the ceremony--the big differences this time are that the locale is Bangkok instead of Las Vegas, the missing man is the bride-to-be's younger brother and not whoever it was the first time around and that roughly one-third of the dialogue is now some variation of "I can't believe this is happening again!". Other than that, things are pretty much the same as before--the jokes are gross, tasteless and infantile without betraying traces of wit or any other comedic approach beyond cheap shock value (unless you are under the impression that just the mere sight of a penis equals instant hilarity, in which case this is definitely the fin for you), director Todd Phillips demonstrates absolutely no flair for directing comedy thanks to a cinematic approach that makes one long for the cinematic grandeur of the lesser "Police Academy" sequels and Ed Helms once again serves as the film's MVP, mostly because he is slightly tolerable while co-stars Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Ken Jeong (who is jammed into this edition with all the subtlety and élan of the Great Gazoo). It isn't so much that Phillips and Co. are content to simply redo what worked once before that is so annoying, it is the fact that they have clearly gone through this entire enterprise with the kind of smug attitude that suggests that if people were stupid enough to buy this garbage in droves the first time around, they will presumably do so on the second go-around so why even bother to break a sweat by trying something even slightly new. They are probably right but I suspect that even the biggest fans of the first one are going to be taken aback by the sheer contempt that permeates every frame of "The Hangover: Part II" and if it is remembered at all a few years from now, it will be as this generation's "Caddyshack II."

I will admit that while I know that I saw "Kung Fu Panda," the 2008 animated hit about Po (Jack Black) a clumsy and rotund panda bear who appears to be the answer to an ancient prophecy foretelling the arrival of a kung fu master who will save the day from the forces of evil, I don't really remember much about it beyond the basic plot description and my guess is that unless you are a parent whose kids have had the DVD in near-constant rotation since it was released, you most likely don't remember much more than that yourself. Po returns in the imaginatively titled "Kung Fu Panda 2" and this time around, he is still under the tutelage of the wise Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) when he, along with the other members of the Furious Five (voiced by Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross and Jackie Chan), is charged with rescuing China from the depravations of a maniacal peacock (Gary Oldman) and along the way also discovers the long-hidden secret involving his real parents and why he was left to be raised by noodle-dealing goose Mr. Ping (James Hong). If I had to pick between the two "Kung Fu Panda" films, I would probably give the edge to this one--the story is a little more ambitious and emotional than what is usually found in most non-Pixar animated films of late, there are fewer fatty-falls-down jokes on display and the animation is bright and colorful (especially if you are wise enough to see it in 2D instead of shelling out the extra bucks for the dingier picture provided by the 3D process) with Po's flashbacks to his younger days coming across as especially striking. The main problem is that, like the first film, "Kung Fu Panda 2" is so essentially inconsequential and forgettable that much of it will have evaporated from your mind by the time you get home from the multiplex. As kid-oriented extravaganzas go, it isn't too offensive and viewers over the age of 10 will at least be able to sit through it without squirming too much but if you are over that age and have no younger charges to escort, there is nothing here to particularly warrant your attendance.

In recent years, the relentless cinematic output of Woody Allen has grown so scattershot in quality that even his most devoted fans have become a little wary of plunking down their hard-earned money not knowing if they are going to be getting a worthy effort like "Match Point" or "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," a flawed-but-intriguing try like "Sweet & Lowdown" or "Melinda and Melinda" or an outright disaster such as "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," "Anything Else" or "Scoop." Therefore, I want it to be clear that when I say that his latest film, the delightful fantasy "Midnight in Paris," is his best and most satisfying film in a long time, I am comparing it to such unquestioned classics as "Manhattan" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and not simply to the likes of "Hollywood Ending" or "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger." (Because part of the charm of the film lies in the particulars of the story and how it develops, I will be as vague as possible in describing the set-up and if you don't already know the premise, it is best to avoid as many reviews as you can.) Owen Wilson stars as a successful screenwriter struggling to complete his first novel while on vacation in Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and her parents--while he is in love with the romance of the city and its rich cultural history, she is more concerned with shopping and making goggly eyes at an old college crush (Michael Sheen), a know-it-all of such mammoth proportions that during a tour of the Louvre, he spends most of the time correcting the guide. One night, Wilson is lured into a cab by some revelers and he winds up meeting and interacting with a number of surprising people, the comeliest of the bunch being Marion Cotillard as a art groupie who thinks that he may be a genius as well. The conceit of the film is pretty brilliant but what makes the movie so special and allows it to avoid being more than just a one-joke premise is that Allen is able to come up with any number of hilarious variations (the best being the scene in which Wilson pitches a peculiar movie idea to a new acquaintance, a bit that will allow viewers to gauge how many Film Comment subscribers are in the audience based on the laughter) while still offering up a thoughtful but never heavy-handed meditation on the joint pleasures and perils of nostalgia. Although Owen Wilson may not seem like the ideal person to play what would have once been Allen's part, he is surprisingly effective throughout and never falls into the trap of merely offering up an Allen imitation--as for the others, Cotillard is such the epitome of France in all its drop-dead glory that even the most rabid xenophobes will be reduced to quivering globs of goo after seeing her here and there are nifty supporting turns from the likes of Kathy Bates and Adrien Brody as well. Smart and hilarious from start to finish and with nary a missed step, "Midnight in Paris" is a true treasure to behold and a welcome return to form from one of America's best filmmakers.

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originally posted: 05/28/11 05:56:45
last updated: 05/28/11 07:45:17
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