Saturday, June 25, 2011

Green Lantern

Green Lantern – Dir. Martin Campbell (2011)

"In brightest day, in blackest night
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil's might
Beware my power
Green Lantern's light!"

There was a time when Marvel Comics was incapable of getting a decent movie made. Fanboys still have nightmares about the Dolph Lundgren Punisher or the previous Captain America with the rubber ears. Nowadays, Marvel rules the roost as they build to next year's ultimate team-up, The Avengers, while other characters make the leap to the silver screen on an annual basis. DC, their "distinguished competitor," hasn't had much luck recently outside of Christopher Nolan's Bat-films. The Man of Steel is getting another reboot after the failure of Superman Returns while popular superheroes like Wonder Woman and The Flash have been trapped in development hell. DC is hoping to change their fortunes with Green Lantern, based on a character that isn't a household name like Superman or Batman.

The original Green Lantern was created back in 1940 by Martin Nodell and Bill Finger, a writer who was instrumental to the early days of Batman. Alan Scott was a railroad engineer who carved a lantern and ring out of a mysterious, green meteor. In the 1950’s, DC was experiencing a renaissance and many of their Golden Age superheroes were being revamped with a more sci-fi bent during a time where nuclear power and the space race were making the headlines. This Green Lantern was Hal Jordan, who has become one of DC's most popular and enduring creations.

Ryan Reynolds plays Hal as a cocksure test pilot, still haunted by the fatal crash that killed his father (Jon Tenney), also a pilot. One night, he inherits a power ring from a dying alien named Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison). Abin Sur is a member of the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic police force created by a race of ancients known as the Guardians of the Universe. Abin Sur has been mortally wounded by an enemy known as Parallax (voiced by Clancy Brown), a primal being that feeds off fear.

Hal discovers he is the first human being to ever be inducted into the Corps. The ring taps into the emerald energy of willpower and allows him to create anything he can imagine. Meanwhile, Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), a nebbish biology professor is infected by a shard of Parallax. He mutates into an Elephant Man-looking supervillain with telepathic powers.

As the newest Green Lantern, Hal must learn to wield the ring and save the Earth from the threat of Parallax.

Green Lantern has largely been savaged by critics upon release. It currently rests at a dismal 26% on Rotten Tomatoes, a low score though nowhere near as embarrassing as the 13% Jonah Hex. While I don't believe the film deserves the shellacking it has received, it doesn't deserve a whole lot of praise. Green Lantern is just disappointing and mediocre.

There is a lot to take in as the film acts as a formulaic origin story and an introduction to the heavy mythology of the comics. As such, the story gets bogged down with endless exposition told in the most uninteresting manner. At approximately 100 minutes, the movie doesn't have a lot of time to introduce the main characters, the concept of the Green Lantern Corps and their powers as well as their enemies and their powers. Yet, Green Lantern still finds time to grind the forward momentum to a halt with an inordinate amount of superfluous scenes.

The Green Lanterns take their name from a green lantern, which serves as the power source for their rings. When Hal Jordan first taps his ring to the lantern, he learns the oath before being interrupted by friend and fellow pilot, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively). He goes to the bar with her in such a blatantly Top Gun moment that when he starts to sing, you think he'll bust out with "You've Lost That Loving Feeling." Then, Hal gets into a fight out in the parking lot. Then, he gets whisked away to the Green Lanterns' homeworld of Oa. Were those previous scenes even necessary? Why not simply have Hal speak the oath then travel to the headquarters to keep the story moving? Alas, this brand of sloppiness is indicative of the disjointed screenplay credited to four different writers.

Green Lantern is another one of those comic book pictures where the hero mopes a lot and contemplates hanging up his tights. Heaven forbid we ever get a superhero movie with a superhero that actually enjoys being a superhero. Hal Jordan has a cool job, is obscenely handsome, and then gains the ability to create almost anything he wants. How can he possibly spend so much time forlornly staring at his belly button? Hal trains with Green Lanterns Sinestro (Mark Strong), Kilowog (Michael Clarke Duncan), and Tomar-Re (Geoffrey Rush) for all of ten minutes before he arbitrarily takes his ball and goes home.

All the angst is a disservice to Ryan Reynolds, who excels at playing snarky characters. In the comics, Hal Jordan is more of a straight-arrow, but Reynolds makes him more of an irresponsible wiseass who must grow into the role of hero. He's not my first choice for the character (Nathan Fillion?), but he's charismatic and does a fine job carrying the picture on his shoulders. That's more than can be said for the woefully miscast Blake Lively, who is far too young to pass for an experienced jet pilot. The filmmakers are obviously going for a Clark-Lois feel to the romance between Carol and Hal, but their scenes have none of the spark that Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder possessed. On the other hand, Mark Strong gives a better performance than this movie deserves, lending a legitimacy to all the silliness. Of all the broadly drawn characters in Green Lantern, Sinestro is the only one you want to see more of. Not to spoil anything, but, yes, a guy named Sinestro will eventually turn evil (make sure to stay midway through the credits).

A hero is only as good as his villains and Green Lantern features some of the weakest villains in a comic movie since Ghost Rider. Hector Hammond serves as a secondary villain, but one that adds absolutely nothing to the film. This is not a knock on Peter Sarsgaard, who gives the kind of mannered performance you expect from a lighthearted comic book movie. There are times when it seems he's doing the world's best John Malkovich impression. However, Sarsgaard can do little while hidden behind a ridiculous make-up job that makes him look like Rocky Dennis from Mask. There's also a poorly drawn backstory about Hal, Carol, and Hector being childhood friends. Aside from the fact that their ages are completely different, their shared history is only introduced halfway through the picture in one scene with a handful of dialogue. Then, you have Parallax, who is essentially a giant cloud of smog with a face. There is nothing exciting about watching the good guy fight a cloud. Did nobody learn their lesson from Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer? Give the hero somebody he can punch.

As a summer blockbuster, Green Lantern will live and die based on the special effects, which are a mixed bag. Watching Hal create various constructs in battle was neat, even if some of them were goofy (a Hot Wheels race track, really?). The FX artists went into a great level of detail in creating the alien Green Lanterns. Despite being mere background filler, they all look unique and hardcore fans will have fun spotting comic characters like Boodikka, Stel, Bzzd, and Gallius Zed. G'nort, I'm afraid is nowhere to be found. Yet, one of the film's few strengths is also one of its most glaring weaknesses. There are over 3600 Green Lanterns, but not a single one could be bothered to help this inexperienced rookie against a universal threat of epic proportions?

Warner Brothers went with the decision to give Green Lantern a wholly CGI uniform rather than a physical one. There are shots where the costume looks cool, highlighted by pulsating energy. In other shots, it looks like a bad Photoshop job. Much like Thor, Green Lantern has a heavy sci-fi/fantasy element. Thor divided the story between Earth and the otherworldly realm of Asgard while Green Lantern struggles to find a balance between its bland Earth scenes and the planet of Oa. Both suffer from video game-style graphics, but Asgard had a sense of grandeur lacking in Oa, which looks incredibly dank and primitive, not at all fitting for a race of wise ancients. Martin Campbell, who is a competent action director, seems out of his element on a film so reliant on CGI.

Rounding out the main cast is Angela Bassett, who is thoroughly wasted as Amanda Waller, a shadowy government operative. If you're a comics fan, you'll know Waller is an important character in the DC Universe and should have been the movie version should have been the equivalent of Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury. Tim Robbins is also thrown in as Sen. Robert Hammond, Hector's overbearing father because everyone in this movie has daddy issues in lieu of actual personalities.

Audiences are definitely feeling superhero fatigue. As more and more of these characters are brought to life, it becomes harder for studios to differentiate themselves from previous entries in the genre. Elements in Green Lantern have already been conveyed more effectively in films like Iron Man and Thor. If it had been released earlier, Green Lantern may have fared better. As it stands, the movie is the by-product of bad committee filmmaking. It's a scattered mess lacking in depth and originality. Warner Brothers reportedly sunk $300 million into the production and marketing campaign, but pulled in a meager $53 opening weekend. The poor domestic take spells doom for a potential sequel as well as plans for other characters and the fanboy dream of a Justice League flick.

Green is a lucky color for some, but it hasn't been so for superheroes this year with The Green Hornet and Green Lantern failing to connect with audiences. Poor Green Arrow will have to wait awhile.

Rating: * ½ (*****)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Hobo with a Shotgun

Hobo with a Shotgun - Dir. Jason Eisener (2011)

"People look at you and think of how wonderful your future will be…maybe, you'll end up like me, a hobo with a shotgun!"

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez created Grindhouse as an homage to the beloved exploitation films of their youth. The duo even included faux trailers to complete the double feature experience with Machete being the first to be turned into an actual movie. They allowed fans to participate by holding a contest with the winner being Jason Eisener for Hobo with a Shotgun. The trailer was shot in five days on a budget of $120. No, I'm not missing any zeroes. Three years later, a full-length Hobo with a Shotgun film arrives in theaters in limited release with an earlier release through Video on Demand.

Eisener scores a major coup in landing Rutger Hauer for the title role. Hauer is the nameless Hobo, who rides into the rundown city of Hope Town (re-named "Scum Town" by graffiti artists), on a freight train. The Hobo has a meager goal, seeking to scrape together enough cash to buy a lawnmower and start his own landscaping business. Unfortunately, Hope Town is run by a sadistic drug lord known as The Drake (Brian Downey) and his two douchebag frat boy sons Ivan (Nick Bateman) and Slick (Gregory Smith), both of whom look and dress like Tom Cruise in Risky Business. Immediately upon arrival, the Hobo witnesses Drake decapitate his brother with a manhole and a noose of barbed wire. Blood gushes forth like a fountain as a stripper wearing a bikini and a fur coat randomly bumps and grinds bathes in the crimson fluid. That sets the tone for the insanity that will follow.

As he befriends a sweet-natured prostitute named Abby (Molly Dunsworth), the Hobo is driven to the edge by the decadence around him. He uses the fifty bucks he earned from a despicable Bumfights-style filmmaker to purchase a shotgun from the pawn shop and dishes out his own brand of brutal justice. Don't ask me how he bought all the ammo. He blows away drug dealers, muggers, and a pedophile dressed like Santa Claus. As the citizens rally around their new champion, the Drake takes merciless steps in stamping out any possible insurrection.

Hobo with a Shotgun delivers exactly what the title promises and all that it entails. This is a picture that could have only escape from the fever dreams of a mind exposed to an overdose of exploitation movies and 70's vigilante films. It's an urban Western with the low-budget crassness of a Troma production, more reminiscent of the over-the-top Death Wish 3 than the original Death Wish. Washed in an oversaturated color palette, Hobo also has echoes of the Mad Max series with a post-apocalyptic style climax and a pair of armor-clad demon bounty hunters known as The Plague. Eisener maintains a tone of relentless violence with multiple scenes of grisly, cartoonish violence, such as Drake disemboweling a victim with a baseball bat wrapped in razor blades. Eisener does take the violence a little too far exemplified in a scene where Ivan and Slick use a flamethrower on a school bus full of toe-headed children to the tune of "Disco Inferno" by The Trammps.

Eisener definitely strains to pack as much shock value into the movie. The dialogue is ridiculous with lines like, "I love the smell of your asshole," and "I'm gonna wash this blood off with your blood."

The one thing that makes Hobo work and what lends it credibility is its star, Rutger Hauer. He does a fantastic job at transforming from downtrodden castoff of society to a snarling rage-filled punisher. In one of the film's best moments, Hauer delivers a fatalistic monologue (quoted above) to a room full of newborn babies. It may not have the poeticism of Roy Batty's iconic death scene, but it packs a wallop.

The film is also blessed with an 80's synth-heavy score ala John Carpenter.

Hobo with a Shotgun rides in on a wave of retro B-movies like Machete and Black Dynamite. However, it doesn't have the inventive action scenes of the former or the humor of the latter. It's a one-joke concept thinly stretched to Still, Hobo with a Shotgun is the best movie you'll ever see about a hobo with a shotgun. If you see one movie about a hobo with a shotgun, see Hobo with a Shotgun.

Rating: ** (*****)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Super 8

Super 8 - J.J. Abrams (2011)

Steven Spielberg. It's hard to come up with another filmmaker who had such a tremendous impact on pop culture. Just in the 1980's alone, he directed E.T., and all three Indiana Jones movies not to mention worked as producer on The Goonies, Back to the Future, Gremlins, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He did a lot to shape my own childhood as well as the formative years of JJ Abrams. In fact, as teenagers Abrams and Matt Reeves (who directed Cloverfield and Let Me In) were hired to restore some of Spielberg's home movies that were shot on 8mm. It's no surprise that Abrams first collaboration with Spielberg would be evocative of the man's most beloved films. Super 8 not only pays homage to some of those aforementioned pictures as well as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It acts as a tribute to a time when all you needed to make a movie was passion and ingenuity, rather than $200 million and the rights to a hip comic book.

Super 8 is set in the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio during the summer of 1979. Though set in the 70's, this sleepy little burg seems more like a time-lost town existing perpetually in the 50's, untouched by the modern world far past their city limits. This is a time before the instant gratification of the digital era, back when you had to wait three days to develop your film. Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) has suffered the tragic loss of his mother due to an accident at the steel mill. His father, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a sheriff's deputy, is equally distraught and doesn't know how to deal with his grief or his son. Jackson wants to send the boy off to baseball camp, but Joe has promised to help his best friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), with his zombie movie. Charles thinks of himself as a junior George Romero though his zombies look more Raimi than Romero. Charles has a ragtag group of pre-teens to work as his cast and crew. There's lead actor Martin (Gabriel Basso), a nerd with thick glasses; Preston (Zach Mills), a nerd with big ears who is their utility player; and Carey (Ryan Lee) who has a penchant for fireworks and setting things on fire. Naturally, he is their special effects guy.

For his latest feature, Charles has snagged Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), a pretty girl who Joe has a crush on, to be their starring actress. While shooting a night scene at the train stop, the kids witness a massive wreck as a pick-up truck collides head on with an oncoming train. Soon, the Air Force, led by Col. Nelec (Noah Emmerich), arrives en masse in Lillian and offers the barest of information to Jackson and the other local officers. Electronics are stolen, dogs run away, and people begin disappearing. Something escaped from the train and it's up to the pint-sized protagonists to investigate these strange happenings.

Super 8 is a compelling blend of old-fashioned storytelling with modern filmmaking techniques. The film could probably be described as Stand By Me meets Cloverfield and set to a John Williams-esque score by Michael Giacchino. The children possess a sense of wonder and curiosity that makes them aware of the dangers around them while the adults remain ignorant or disbelieving. Super 8 also delves into issues of father-son relationships, which have been at the center of many Spielberg productions.

The child actors Abrams has cast are phenomenal, despite Super 8 being the debuts of many. They not only give brilliant performances, but they even look like they could have been in an 80's movie. Joel Courtney, who makes his film debut here, resembles Henry Thomas in E.T. while the huskier Riley Griffiths looks a bit like Jerry O'Connell in Stand By Me. Both are great, but the scene-stealer is Ryan Lee as the mischievous Carey. Lee possesses the holy triumvirate of cute kiddie attributes: braces, a lisp, and an overbite. Then, there's Elle Fanning, the younger sister of Dakota who comes off a fantastic and naturalistic turn in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere. Fanning manages to give two great performances in the movie as well as in Charles' movie-within-a-movie. There's a magnificent moment when Alice displays her acting abilities for the first time and completely bowls over her male peers.

The dynamics between the kids and the creation of Charles' amateur movie form the spine of Super 8. It is a slight disappointment when the story devolves into a standard creature feature. One of the criticisms levied at Abrams and the way he apes Jaws in the slow build up to the reveal of the monster. The shark was logically hidden by his underwater habitat while Abrams finds artificial methods to keep the thing from viewers. I didn't have a problem with any of that so much as I had a problem with the repetitiveness that gradually came about. Abrams dips into the well once too often by using multiple scenes in which oblivious characters investigate a strange noise only to be snatched away screaming. The climax is far too chaotic and builds to a resolution that ultimately feels rushed. The idea of the creature as a metaphor for Joe's pain comes off as ham-fisted and never fully effective.

And if you loved the lens flares in Star Trek, you'll love the lens flares in Super 8, a trademark Abrams borrows liberally from Close Encounters. If you didn't, you may find them distracting, particularly when a lens flare pops up while the kids are spelunking down a dark subterranean tunnel. Still, Abrams direction is strong and the train wreck stands as one of the best action sequences of the year. The children run for their lives amidst a mass of explosions as train cars careen in every direction. My eardrums nearly burst during the IMAX screening I attended.

Super 8 isn't empty spectacle. It's a blockbuster with genuine emotion and an aura of magic hearkening back to the heyday of Spielberg's classics. It's not a film only about special effects, but about summer friendships, first love, and pure imagination.

Rating: *** (*****)

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Company Men

The Company Men - Dir. John Wells (2010)

Hollywood loves making movies with a message and the country’s economic collapse and slow recovery has been a hot-button topic. Two of the best films on the subject have been Up in the Air and Charles Ferguson’s fascinating documentary Inside Job, The Company Men doesn’t match their quality, but it is the most star-studded affair. This is a film that fits into the category of hyperlink cinema, a term coined by Film Comment’s Alissa Quart. Hyperlink cinema refers to a movie featuring multiple protagonists and interconnected storylines. Crash, Babel, and Traffic are a few of the more notable entries in the genre. Thankfully, The Company Men isn’t as heavy handed though it does suffer from being an utterly dry drama.

The Company Men takes place during the cusp of the financial crisis and revolves around GTX, a former shipbuilding concern which eventually grew into a powerhouse conglomerate. CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) makes the decision to shut down factories and initiate massive layoffs. It’s not just the blue-collar joes who lose their jobs, but the middle management guys as well.

Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is the first to feel the mighty axe of downsizing. He refuses to give up the trappings of his affluent lifestyle, desperate to maintain a semblance of success. Bobby continues golfing at the country club and driving around in a Porsche he can no longer afford. He’s also too proud to except any position that doesn’t come with a six-figure salary attached to it. Months pass by as Bobby remains unemployed and begins questioning his own self-worth, despite the unwavering support of his loving wife, Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt). Bobby eventually swallows his pride and takes a construction job with his brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner with an iffy Boston accent).

Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) has been with GTX since the beginning, working his way up from a welder to a suit and tie position. His career was his life and he has no idea how to fill the hours of the day anymore. Phil also realizes he’s too old to go job hunting and that any lucrative openings will go to much younger candidates. With mortgage payments and a daughter (played by Steven Spielberg’s daughter, Sasha) going off to college, Phil finds his situation growing more grave.

Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) founded the company with Salinger and served as mentor and friend to Bobby and Phil. Through this latest downturn, the conscientious Gene has watched his best friend turn towards the dark side. His heart breaks as those around him concern themselves more about maximizing shareholder profits than they do about the lives that have been shattered. Thousands are unable to support their families while the company turns around and buys a swanky high-rise in downtown Chicago to be their new headquarters.

The cast also includes Maria Bello as the human resources exec in charge of the layoffs and Eamonn Walker as a sympathetic job seeker Bobby befriends.

The Company Men was written and directed by John Wells, a showrunner for acclaimed television programs such as ER, The West Wing, and Third Watch. This is Wells’ debut as a feature film director and he has a great support system with a solid cast and the amazing Roger Deakins as cinematographer. Deakins gives the film a slick look and there are several striking shots. One of them finds Phil looking forlorn amidst rows upon rows of empty cubicles. A slow realization dawns on him that he is the last employee left on his floor. As a former member of the West Wing staff, Wells throws in the requisite walking and talking tracking shot. On the whole, Wells’ direction is fairly straightforward as is his script. The Company Men deals with the economy in a blunt manner. The audience never has to guess what's on the characters' minds because they will spell it out for you.

The film also asks a lot in requesting viewers to sympathize with white-collar executives. Ben Affleck, who excels at playing a jerk, plays another jerk here. It's hard to feel bad for someone when their biggest troubles involve delinquent payments to the country club and not being able to afford his kid's X-Box. There's more empathy to be found with Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones. It's a testament to both actors who carry a potent amount of gravitas whenever they appear on screen. Jones and Cooper don't have to try hard to portray soulful and world-weary.

The rich have it bad too. At least, that's the message some may take away from The Company Men, a dull drama ripped from today's headlines. The Company Men isn't a particularly bad film. It's well-shot and technically sound. The performances by the ensemble cast are fine, but they aren't anything new. How many times have we seen Tommy Lee Jones play the sullen old timer? In the end, The Company Men offers no fresh insight into the problems plaguing this nation.

Rating: ** (*****)

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Hesher - Dir. Spencer Susser (2011)

Hesher is a movie I really wanted to like. The film stars the lovely Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Rainn Wilson. It garnered a healthy amount of buzz on the festival circuit thanks to screenings at Sundance, SXSW, and even Comic-Con. This should have been a cool, little indie flick instead of a Frankenstein-esque cinematic creature stitched together from disparate clichés.

Young TJ (Devin Brochu) has suffered a tragic loss due to the death of his mother in an auto accident. His father, Paul (Wilson), suffers from a crippling depression. Paul does nothing aside from popping pills and sleeping on the couch, unshaven and unkempt. Grandma (Piper Laurie) shuffles around the house in her nightgown and slippers mindlessly going about her daily business. Both are oblivious of the deep pain TJ is in, which is made all the more worse by a ruthless bully. Then, along comes Hesher…

TJ unfortunately crosses paths with the titular Hesher (Gordon-Levitt) while he was squatting in a half-constructed house. Hesher is the prototypical heavy metal burnout with tattered clothes and long black hair. He has a tattoo of an extended middle finger across his back and a stick figure man blowing his own brains out on his chest. He cranks Motorhead from his black van, the kind usually driven by serial killers and 1980's garage bands. At first you think Hesher might be some ethereal character existing solely in the imagination of TJ. He seems to be the boy's raw id unchained by a fragile psyche. Hesher even appears mysteriously into a scene to the blaring, opening guitar riffs of "The Shortest Straw" by Metallica.

Alas, Hesher is not the Kerrang! version of Harvey. He is all too real and he isn't the most genial person around. Hesher decides to crash at TJ's house. He strips down to his tightie whities, smokes like a chimney, and rigs the cable so he can get all the porn channels for free. When TJ protests, Hesher grabs him by the throat and threatens to do unspeakable things to the kid's genitals. He doesn't bother to help TJ when the bully shoves his face into a urinal. Nope, Hesher's response is to drag TJ along while he torches the tormentor's car, then ditches him to face the wrath of the authorities.

Portman (who also served as a producer) dons a pair of vintage nerd glasses to play Nicole, a supermarket clerk who saves TJ from a beating. TJ develops a crush on her (who wouldn’t?) so Hesher naturally shows up to sabotage their budding friendship.

Hesher somehow manages to put this broken family back together as they struggle through the various stages of grief. He is by no means a saintly big brother figure. He is violent and crude, but is infused with a semblance of humanity thanks to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance. The highlight of the film is easily a final act monologue delivered by Hesher that is darkly humorous and oddly affecting. Gordon-Levitt displays a lot of manic energy that director Spencer Susser (who also co-wrote the script with Animal Kingdom’s David Michod) is unable to properly tap.

Hesher is tonally inconsistent as it bounces around from black comedy to cornball drama. It feels like a metal song that whips back and forth between devil-horn headbanging chords to lighter waving ballad notes without a moment's notice.

Rating: ** (*****)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris - Dir. Woody Allen (2011)

Woody Allen remains one of the most prolific American filmmakers working today. At the age of 75, Allen still manages to write and direct a new film every year, even if they aren’t as critically acclaimed as those of the past. Every so often, he’ll craft a picture (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) that will have movie buffs clamoring about how it’s a welcome return to form for the man behind works like Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Midnight in Paris is just such a film, capturing the wit that was once Allen's trademark. More importantly, Midnight in Paris is simply a flat out fun experience, which is not a description that is generally used in discussing a Woody Allen movie.

The plot has largely been kept a secret. Judging by the trailers and advertisements, Midnight in Paris would seem to be no different than anything else Woody Allen has made. However, there is an incredibly clever plot twist that I hesitate to reveal because the surprise is part of the fun. Yet, I don't think I would have rushed out to see the movie if I hadn't learned about it. Plus, it's difficult to review the film without mentioning it so…


Midnight in Paris begins in a similar fashion to Manhattan with a jazzy montage of the gorgeous sights to be found in Paris. We meet Owen Wilson as Allen's stand-in, Gil Pender, a self-described hack screenwriter of innocuous Hollywood fare. He is visiting the City of Lights with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents (Kurt Fuller & Mimi Kennedy). Gil is excited about the possibilities that await him as he works on his novel about a man who works in a nostalgia shop. He waxes poetic about rain soaked streets and Paris as a cultural haven for the greatest artists of the 20th century. But, Inez and her folks haven't a romantic bone in their body. They are stuffy conservatives constantly clashing with Gil's more Bohemian interests. The final straw for Gil is the arrival of Inez's friend, Paul (Michael Sheen), a pedantic and pompous professor more than happy to show off how much smarter he is than everybody else.

To escape Paul's hot air, Gil decides to take a nightly stroll through the cobbled streets of Paris. He winds up lost on some innocent-looking street corner when the clock strikes midnight and a vintage car pulls up and whisks Gil away to what he thinks is an elaborate costume party. Wait, did somebody say this shindig is for Jean Cocteau? And the guy playing the piano sure resembles Cole Porter. Yes, Gil has been magically transported to the 1920's where he's greeted by Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Alison Pill & Tom Hiddleston). Next thing you know, he's sitting in a bar with Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), who promises to show Gil's manuscript to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates).

Each night Gil escapes the drudgery of his shrewish paramour and her insufferable clan to converse with T.S. Elliot ("Prufrock is my mantra!") and dance the Charleston with Djuna Barnes. Gil's predicament is so surreal that he can only discuss it with the surrealists Luis Bunuel, Man Ray, and Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody). In one of many gags that will have viewers rushing to check Wikipedia, Gil pitches Bunuel the concept for The Exterminating Angel, which only befuddles the soon-to-be famed filmmaker ("Why don't they just get up and leave?"). Not all the jokes are so esoteric. When Gil hears Stein has purchased a Matisse for a mere 500 francs, he asks if he can also pick up six or seven.

Gil finds himself falling in love with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a beautiful muse/mistress to artistic giants like Modigliani and the pioneers of Cubism, Picasso and Braque. Adriana, in turn, wishes she could have been alive during La Belle Epoque. Sure enough, a horse-drawn carriage whisks them away to 1890's where they watch can-can dancers with Gauguin, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec. A perfect Woody Allen moment occurs when Gil complains they are in an era before the invention of antibiotics.

Owen Wilson's Gil may act as a surrogate for Allen in the sense of being a creative soul caught in a stifling environment, but he is far less neurotic than the typical Allen protagonist. Wilson melds the character with his own laid-back persona and trademark drawl. Michael Sheen is also fantastic as the appallingly arrogant scholar who annoyingly prefaces his sentences with phrases like, "If I'm not mistaken," or "I believe…," as if he were attempting to hedge his bets. He is the vainglorious pseudo-intellectual Allen has enthusiastically skewered numerous times, most famously in Annie Hall. You half expect Marshall McLuhan to be pulled into the scene to refute every ridiculous thing Paul says. Rachel McAdams isn't given much to do as a one-note character. It's a cheat on Allen's part to put Inez and Gil together because it doesn't make any sense why these two would ever be together. Then again, it doesn't make any sense that a man could travel back in time via a Peugeot. A DeLorean, maybe…

The real stars of Midnight in Paris are the who's who of actors brought on to play the who's who of artistic giants. Allen makes no attempt to accurately depict these people. They are broadly drawn caricatures filtered through decades of pop culture. Alison Pill is the flighty flapper we imagine Zelda Fitzgerald to be. Tom Hiddleston (in a complete 180 from Loki) doesn't have much screen time as the author of The Great Gatsby though hints of the Fitzgeralds tempestuous marriage seep through. Adrien Brody is delightfully over-the-top as an exceedingly eccentric Dali. His offer to sketch Gil involves a rhinoceros, a teardrop, and the face of Christ. Brody definitely makes a better Dali than the pretty boy from Twilight. Corey Stoll, by a wide margin, gives the best performance in the film as Hemingway. He speaks the way he writes, in terse, blustery sentences about masculine subjects like hunting, war, and death.

Midnight in Paris is a wankfest for English Lit and Art History majors and I mean that in the most complimentary way. Allen has created a clever and vibrant romp akin to The Purple Rose of Cairo with its blurring of reality and fantasy. It is a modern-day fairy tale that embraces nostalgia, but only in moderation. This refuting is ironic considering Allen's own proclivities have been less than contemporary. The past may be a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.

Rating: *** ½ (*****)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Hangover: Part II

The Hangover: Part II - Dir. Todd Phillips (2011)

Sequels can go two ways. The creators can take the story in a completely different direction than the original film and risk alienating audiences, who might complain they lost sight of what made the first installment so successful. The sequel could also stick closely to the plot structure of its predecessor and risk fans complaining that the filmmakers are simply recycling ideas. The Hangover Part II is guilty of the latter, a sequel that rigidly follows the same formula of its 2009 forerunner.

The Wolfpack is back for another round of drunken revelry. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis return as the three best friends anyone could have. In his own words, Stu (Helms), the straight-laced dentist is still trying to put the fragile pieces of his psyche back together following the strange events in Las Vegas. He's not taking any chances now that it's his turn to get married. Unfortunately, it is not to the stripper from the first film. Part II earns its first strike with the exclusion of Heather Graham's sweet-natured Jade. There are only passing references to their relationship as Stu is getting hitched to a pretty young Asian named Lauren (Jamie Chung). We learn absolutely nothing about their romance because it only exists as a flimsy excuse to take the protagonists to Thailand.

Stu is reluctantly convinced to have a round of beers on the beach with his pals and future brother-in-law, Teddy (Mason Lee, son of director Ang Lee), a pre-med student and child prodigy. Faster than you can say, "Here we go again," Stu, Phil (Cooper), and Alan (Galifianakis) wake up the following morning in a sweltering Bangkok hotel room with no recollection of how they got there. Alan's head is shaved bald, Stu has a tribal tattoo plastered on his face, and there's a Capuchin monkey wearing a denim jacket. Even worse, there's no sign of Teddy save for his finger and Stanford class ring. Once more, the gang must follow a trail of breadcrumbs that takes them through seedy back alleys, dens of iniquity, and a Buddhist monastery.

Sound familiar? It should since director Todd Phillips and company have essentially remade the same exact picture. The sequel begins in a similar fashion to the first picture. Phil makes a defeated phone call to Doug's wife, Tracy (Sasha Barrese), followed by an opening credits sequence set to Danzig and a frantic search through the city for their missing friend. The end credits are a near carbon copy of the earlier Hangover with a series of photos of their wild night as Flo Rida rings through the theater. Even Mike Tyson returns for a cameo though he sings a different 80's hit tune (Murray Head's "One Night in Bangkok," natch). Ken Jeong also returns as the effeminate gangster, Mr. Leslie Chow. This time, he's a member of the wedding party, invited as Alan's plus one. A little Ken Jeong goes a long way. He can be funny in small doses, such as his recurring role on NBC's Community. Unfortunately, Phillips didn't get the memo and Jeong's routine is too forced and grating to be amusing.

Without Chow as an antagonist, the Wolfpack run into another mobster played by Paul Giamatti as well as a pair of Russian drug dealers. Giamatti isn't known for giving a bad performance and he's great for the brief time he has in the movie. Actor/director Nick Cassavetes also makes a quick appearance as a tattoo artist, a role that generated a lot of press before the movie's release. Mel Gibson was originally set for the character before negative reaction from members of the cast and crew put the kibosh on it. Gibson was replaced by Liam Neeson, who was unable to reprise the role when Phillips needed to reshoot the scene. Considering the revolving door of actors, you'd think the character would be noteworthy. Instead, he's there simply to divulge vital exposition to get the boys to their next destination.

Because the screenplay by Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong is so concerned with adhering to the plot structure of its predecessor, it forgets that the budding friendship of the leads was the backbone of The Hangover. Not that the protagonists have grown much. Bradley Cooper is the same as the group's overgrown frat boy. Zach Galifianakis has some of the movie's funniest lines, but his Alan has lost some of the eccentric charm since last we saw him. He's more annoying than child-like and just a bit disturbing. Of the main trio, Ed Helms probably fares the worst. Helms has some good scenes in the first half of the film, but eventually regresses to screaming and flailing his limbs about. The jokes also regress to a series of tasteless and uninventive gags that exist purely for shock value. I'm sure the Thailand Board of Tourism will be excited to see their country depicted as a haven for violent drug dealers, underage prostitution, and she-male strippers.

I may lose my cinephile credentials when I saw I enjoyed it. The Hangover may have been a vulgar farce appealing to the lowest common denominator, but I was thoroughly entertained. The same can't be said for The Hangover Part II. Despite a few chuckles, the sequel is a witless rehash full of lazy, gross-out humor.

Rating: * ½ (*****)

Monday, June 13, 2011

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class - Dir. Matthew Vaughn (2011)

X = $

It’s a simple formula that has worked out for Marvel Comics for decades. Put the letter ‘X’ in the title and you’re almost guaranteed high sales figures. Development began in 1989 for a feature film based on Marvel’s biggest franchise, but it wouldn’t be until 2000 that an X-Men picture would finally see the light of day. X-Men came at the cusp of a new age where comic book movies are now a staple of the Hollywood machine. Its sequel, X2: X-Men United, was even better and widely considered to be one of the best comic book adaptations. The franchise lost steam with the third installment, X-Men: The Last Stand, and spin-off, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The behind-the-scenes drama seemed more interesting than either of the later films.

Director Bryan Singer defected to Warner Brothers to helm the disappointing Superman Returns. Fox rushed production on Last Stand with Matthew Vaughn as director. However, Vaughn would drop out a month before principal photography and Brett Ratner replaced him. Singer and Vaughn have returned with X-Men: First Class, a prequel/reboot that ties into the first two films while ignoring the events of Last Stand and Wolverine. The screenplay passed through numerous hands with the original draft by Josh Schwartz, the creator of teen-centric TV dramas like The OC and Gossip Girl. Elements from a proposed X-Men Origins: Magneto project by Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air) was merged with a new draft by Jamie Moss (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), which was rewritten by the Thor duo of Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and again by Vaughn & Jane Goldman.

First Class takes us back to the opening sequence of the first X-Men with a young Erik Lehnsherr utilizing his magnetic powers for the first time as a concentration camp prisoner. Meanwhile, in affluent Westchester County, a very young Charles Xavier meets a shapeshifting girl named Raven, who he adopts as a sister. Years pass and an adult Xavier (James McAvoy) attends Oxford to study genetic mutations while Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) works as a waitress. While Xavier uses his telepathic powers to pick up women, Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) hunts down fugitive Nazis. At the top of his hit list is the sadistic camp doctor who murdered his mother. That doctor has reinvented himself as Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), a millionaire playboy with the power to absorb and channel energy. Shaw is manipulating the Americans and the Russians in order to trigger a nuclear holocaust that will wipe out mankind and allow mutants to rule the Earth. Xavier and Lehnsherr eventually join forces with CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) to stop Shaw from igniting World War III.

Shaw has assembled a group of powerful mutants to aid in his quest for genetic supremacy. They include: Emma Frost (January Jones), a telepath who can transform into diamond; Riptide (Alez Gonzalez), who is able to summon powerful winds; and Azazel (Jason Flemyng), a demonic looking teleporter who comic fans will know as the father of Nightcrawler.

The good guys enlist their own band of young recruits including: Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), who can emit sonic screams; Havok (Lucas Till), who is able to fire plasma beams from his chest; Dr. Henry McCoy aka Beast (Nicholas Hoult), a scientist with prehensile feet; Angel Salvadore (Zoe Kravitz), a go-go dancer with insect-like wings; and Darwin (Edi Gathegi), who has the power of reactive evolution.

As you can tell that's quite the roster of characters for a movie a little over two hours long. Don't forget Oliver Platt as an unnamed Man in Black and various military personnel played by veteran character actors like Michael Ironside, James Remar, Glenn Morshower, and Rade Serbedzija. Fox has a penchant for overstuffing their comic book movies with more characters and subplots than they can handle and First Class is an unfortunate victim of that philosophy. Characters like Angel and Darwin are hardly given any chance to develop or even matter to the overall story. Riptide doesn't even have a single line of dialogue in the movie; he's just there to be the silent and menacing henchman. Despite dropping Marvel's merry mutants hip deep into the Cuban Missile Crisis, First Class doesn't fully utilize its unique 60's setting aside from giving Kevin Bacon the excuse to grow some awesome sideburns. Xavier and Magneto have been compared many times to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in their differing philosophies. Yet, civil rights barely factors into the film. Ironically, the only mutants of color are either killed or turned evil.

Notoriously picky fanboys won't be pleased with the way First Class takes liberties with the source material. These aren't the original X-Men from the comics. Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, and the other Angel (Warren Worthington III) are nowhere to be found. The movie Havok isn't intended to be Cyclops's brother though changing his beams from white to red is likely meant to be some sort of concession. Moira McTaggert has gone from Scottish scientist to American secret agent. As a life-long comic book reader, I had little issue with the changes made in First Class. The X-Men books were known for their convoluted mythology as storylines were lost and found on the whim of an ever-changing line-up of creative teams. First Class isn't set in the world of the comic books, but the one created for the movies.

Fans of the entire series may be confused as First Class doesn't completely gel with events depicted in the previous films. When it does, it feels as if Fox wasn't sure a sequel would be possible, so they felt obliged to throw in as many recognizable elements as they could. We find out the origins of their codenames, the creation of Cerebro, and how Professor X winds up in a wheelchair. The movie inevitably feels rushed with the Xavier-Magneto relationship put in fast forward. The filmmakers do throw in a few references and in-jokes for the hardcores. There are also a couple clever cameos, including one from a familiar face who is the best there is at what he does.

Despite a few flaws, X-Men: First Class stands as the second best entry in the franchise with X2 ranking as number one. The primary reason for the prequel's success is the casting of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as the friends turned enemies. In the past, McAvoy has played reactive characters. As Xavier, he's more aggressive, growing from a cocky prat to a responsible mentor. However, it is Fassbender's Magneto who truly anchors the film. The solo Magneto movie was largely cancelled because Fox didn't believe he could carry a picture alone. After First Class, I would love to see a Magneto: Nazi Hunter starring Fassbender. No pun intended, but the actor is absolutely magnetic in the role of the tortured villain. One of the film's best moments is a Boys From Brazil-esque scene with Lehnsherr tracking two former SS officers to a tiny bar in South America.

Jennifer Lawrence is equally phenomenal as the young Mystique, making her more than just the naked blue chick. She becomes a vulnerable girl desperately searching for her place in a society that finds her ugly. Kevin Bacon is also great and it makes you wonder why it took so long for someone to cast him as a supervillain. Bacon is deliciously over-the-top in the beginning of First Class as the mad scientist looking to exploit a teenaged Lehnsherr's burgeoning powers. The same cannot be said for January Jones as Emma Frost, a sexy and manipulative femme fatale in the comics. Her diamond form is poorly realized and when she's not made of jewels, she's made of wood. Jones is practically robotic in the role. Is this the same Betty Draper we've come to know and love?

Kick-Ass proved that Vaughn could handle high-octane action sequences and First Class has plenty of cool set pieces. The film's climax juggles multiple battles without descending into a jumbled mess of special effects. There are also several unique displays of power such as Azazel's gruesome method of dispatching humans. A telepathic battle involving rotating rooms was cut when Inception beat them to the punch. Vaughn was heavily influenced by classic James Bond films while making First Class and it shows. Sebastian Shaw is the archetypal Bond villain with his secret headquarters and tricked out submarine. The prequel is a globetrotting adventure with higher stakes than any other X-film. The first act is hardly over and the audience has already been taken to Poland, Switzerland, New York, England, Las Vegas, and a Kubrickian war room underneath the Pentagon. It's also fantastic that they put the X-Men in their classic blue and yellow uniforms.

X-Men: First Class gives the X-Men franchise the vital jumpstart it needed and heals the damage done by the awful Last Stand and Wolverine. With a fresh, new cast in place, the X-Men are opened to new possibilities such as a film set in the 70's based on Giant-Size X-Men #1, a redux of the Dark Phoenix Saga, or Days of Future Past.

Rating: *** ½ (*****)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster

Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster - Dir. Wilson Yip (2010)

Before Ip Man was released to theaters in the fall of 2008, a sequel was already announced with Donnie Yen returning to the titular role of Wing Chun master. For those of you arriving to the party late, Ip Man was a master of Wing Chun, whose biggest claim to fame was as the teacher of Bruce Lee. In fact, the second movie was initially planned to revolve around the relationship between a young Bruce Lee and his mentor. However, the producers were unable to come to terms with Lee's estate.

Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster takes place in 1949, years after Master Ip’s violent confrontation with the Japanese in Foshan. He has since relocated to the British-occupied Hong Kong with his pregnant wife Cheung Wing-sing (Lynn Hung) and their son Ip Chun (Li Chak). Ip Man plans to open a martial arts school, a business venture that starts off humbly enough. He practices on the rooftop of his tenement building amidst clotheslines full of laundry hung out by his neighbor. His first student is a brash and cocky young man named Wong Leung (Huang Xiaoming), who recruits other students after experiencing Master Ip's skills the hard way. Unfortunately, Ip Man doesn't find the same camaraderie with his fellow masters in Hong Kong that he did in Foshan.

Ip's school is threatened before it even starts when it grabs the attention of the local martial arts association headed up by Master Hung (Sammo Hung). Ip Man must fight the other masters to prove his abilities are worthy. He must also pay protection money to the association in order to remain operational. In turn, the money paid to the association goes to Wallace (Charles Mayer), a corrupt superintendant on the Hong Kong police force. Events build to a one-on-one battle for national pride between Ip Man and Wallace's champion, a professional boxer known as Twister (Darren Shahlavi).

Ip Man 2 isn't much of a departure from the original film. In fact, it's not much of a departure from many other martial arts films. The sequel follows a familiar formula with the heroic protagonist defending the honor of his fellow Chinese against the hateful foreigners. The storyline is something that's been seen in pictures like Once Upon a Time in China, Bruce Lee's The Chinese Connection and its remake Fist of Legend. It also seems to borrow liberally from Rocky IV so much so that you half expect Twister to scream, "I must break you." Both Twister and Wallace are portrayed in a cartoonish, moustache-twirling manner as uncouth and prejudice.

Despite a weaker story compared to its predecessor, Ip Man 2 still manages to wow in the action department. Wilson Yip returns as actor and Sammo Hung, in addition to his supporting role, once again takes up duties as fight choreographer. This is extraordinary as Hung underwent heart surgery before principal photography and still showed up to act, perform his own stunts, and put together the action sequences. Hung had previously faced off against Yen in Sha Po Lang which saw the big man in a rare turn as a villain. In Ip Man 2, Hung isn't an outright villain, but a begrudging antagonist. In their rematch, Hung and Yen test each others' kung fu while attempting to balance on top of a teetering table top. Yip allows the action to unfold without breaking it up with unnecessary camera tricks or rapid editing. It's a lesson many Hollywood directors have yet to learn.

Donnie Yen puts on another strong performance as the cultured Ip Man, who imparts wisdom on others when he's not pounding them with piston-like punches. In a welcome return, Fan Siu-wong reprises his role of the boisterous Jin Shanzhao, a former highway robber who reformed after his last encounter with Ip Man. Hong Kong movie vet Kent Cheng, who played sidekick Lam Sai-wing opposite Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China, has a brief role as a liaison between the masters and Wallace. As Ip Man's wife, Lynn Hung doesn't have much to do other than look forlorn. However, the actor who is wasted the most is Simon Yam as Ip Man's long-time friend, Chow Ching-chuen. Here, he's been rendered brain damaged and puts on a ridiculous performance that Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder would describe as "full on retard."

Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster isn't quite up to the level of the first film. It replaces the pathos of the original story with a formulaic plot revolving around jingoism and xenophobia. Still, the sequel is elevated by the performances of Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung as well as its exciting action scenes and slick production values.

Rating: ** (*****)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Ip Man

Ip Man - Dir. Wilson Yip (2008)

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

If I've learned anything from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, it's that you should never let the truth get in the way of telling a good story. Many famous martial artists have become folk heroes in China and have had their lives turned into action flicks. Wong Fei Hung is probably the most popular and has been portrayed on screen by both Jackie Chan (Drunken Master & Drunken Master II) and Jet Li (in the Once Upon a Time in China series). In fact, Jet Li has played other folk heroes like Fong Sai Yuk (the eponymous Fong Sai Yuk I & II) and Huo Yianjia (Fearless).

Ip Man stands as the first film based on the life of Ip Man, a master of the Wing Chun style, who trained many students in the martial arts. Without a doubt, Ip Man's most famous pupil was a fellow you might have heard of by the name of Bruce Lee. The star of Enter the Dragon wasn't just about kicking butts on screen; he was an ardent believer in teaching the philosophies behind martial arts. It's easy to see who instilled these ideals in Lee. As portrayed by Donnie Yen, Ip Man is a highly skilled master, but he is first and foremost, a man of great generosity and modesty. He prefers spending time with his family and practicing Wing Chun in solitude.

Trivia note: Legend has it that Wing Chun was developed by its namesake, a woman named Wing Chun, who learned the style from a female monk. The story inspired a movie naturally titled Wing Chun with Michelle Yeoh in the title role and Donnie Yen as the love interest.

Ip Man opens in the 1930's in the Southern city of Foshan where Master Ip is widely respected by ordinary citizens and martial arts instructors alike. When a rival, Master Liu (Chen Zhihui), issues a challenge to Ip Man, he reluctantly accepts and even invites Liu to have dinner beforehand. Ip Man doesn't extend the same courtesy to Jin Shanzhao (Fan Siu-wong), a loudmouthed fighter from the north who believes his skills are superior to everyone in Foshan.

Things take a turn down a darker path when the Japanese invade China in what would be known as the Second Sino-Japanese War. Ip Man's home and wealth are taken from him. He is forced to eke out a meager living shoveling coal. Circumstances eventually lead Ip Man into a climactic showdown with General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), the commander of the Japanese occupation force.

Ip Man marks the highest profile role for action star, Donnie Yen, who got his start in the Hong Kong film industry at the age of 19. Western audiences will probably know Yen for a bit role as a vampire warrior in Blade II or as the villain in Shanghai Knights. Devotees of martial arts films will know Yen for memorable turns in Once Upon a Time in China II and Hero. Though he’s had plenty of starring roles before, Yen has usually taken a backseat to Jet Li and Jackie Chan. Here, he finally gets a chance of shine in his most critically lauded role and his biggest box office success. As Ip Man, Yen is more than just a man of action, but a refined and intelligent individual. The scenes of Ip Man’s hardships add a layer of pathos that isn’t regularly found in most kung fu flicks.

Also good are Simon Yam as a close friend of Ip Man’s who runs a cotton mill and Lam Ka-tung as a police inspector who works for the Japanese as a translator.

This being a martial arts movie, most fans are probably more interested in the action than the acting or drama. The film was directed by Wilson Yip, who previously worked with Yen on Dragon Tiger Gate and Flash Point. The fight choreography was handled by Sammo Hung, who co-starred with Yen in Sha Po Lang (released in the U.S. as Kill Zone), which was also directed by Yip. Yen trained for months before production to learn the Wing Chun style. He impressed many with how quickly he excelled, including the real Ip Man’s son, Ip Chun, who served as a technical consultant. One of the film’s best fight scenes sees Yen holding off a sword-wielding Fan Siu-wong with nothing more than a feather duster. The other highlight features Yen tackling ten Japanese fighters with a blurring barrage of lightning fast punches.

Ip Man is one of the best martial arts films to come out of Hong Kong in recent years. It's a great mixture of drama, action, and comedy anchored by a great performance by Donnie Yen. It's a must-see for kung fu fans and an excellent primer for newbies.

Rating: *** ½ (*****)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2

Kung Fu Panda 2 - Dir. Jennifer Yuh (2011)

Dreamworks Animation has done a lot recently to shake off the stigma of being second banana to Pixar. Last year's How to Train Your Dragon was their best film to date and the house that Jeffrey Katzenberg built hasn't lost any momentum with Kung Fu Panda 2. Like many sequels, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a bigger and bolder production with Guillermo del Toro serving as executive producer and Charlie Kaufman (believe it or not) as script consultant. Jennifer Yuh, a storyboard artist on the original movie, directs off a script by returning writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. Unlike the diminishing returns of the Shrek series, Kung Fu Panda 2 is actually better than its progenitor.

While the first film opened with a vibrant pop art prologue, Kung Fu Panda begins with a somber sequence in a paper cut out style. The opening introduces us to the movie’s villain, Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a peacock, who was banished by his royal family for an unspeakable act of genocide. A prophecy foretold that Lord Shen would be defeated by a warrior of black and white, so he wiped out the panda population.

Meanwhile, Po (Jack Black) has grown into his role as the Dragon Warrior, fighting alongside the Furious Five in protecting the Chinese countryside from marauding bandits. However, he is plagued by repressed memories coming to light and begins questioning where he came from. Shock of all shocks, Mr. Ping (James Hong), the noodle shop goose is not the real father of his giant panda son.

These dueling storylines collide when Lord Shen returns with an army of wolves and gorillas. Utilizing gunpowder, Shen plans to destroy kung fu in order to conquer all of China.

In addition to Black, all the main heroes from the previous picture are back including Dustin Hoffman as Master Shifu, Angelina Jolie as Tigress, David Cross as Crane, Jackie Chan as Monkey, Seth Rogen as Mantis, and Lucy Liu as Viper. Joining them are Michelle Yeoh as a wise soothsayer, Danny McBride as the Wolf Boss, as well as Victor Garber, Dennis Haysbert, and Jean-Claude Van Damme as heroic martial arts masters. The voice-over work is solid all around. Black imbues the character with an exuberant energy that’s been lacking in his recent live-action ventures. Gary Oldman is gleefully villainous returning to the type of scene-chewing performance that made his turn in The Professional so deliciously evil. You half expect him to scream, ”EVERYONE”, at his henchmen. Jolie’s hardcore Tigress shows she has a soft and squishy side as the story hints at a blossoming romance between her and Po. The best performance though belongs to the prolific James Hong. His scenes with Black are funny, touching, and form the emotional core of the film. Unfortunately, with so many characters involved not everyone receives their fair share of the spotlight. Liu and Chan, in particular, only get a handful of lines.

The animation of Kung Fu Panda 2 is extraordinary. Dreamworks mixed CG with anime influenced hand-drawn animation and the result is a gorgeous feast for the eyes. The backgrounds are beautifully rendered from the misty mountains to the classic Chinese architecture of Gongmen City. This is one of the rare instances when I’ll say that the 3D actually enhanced the experience with the visuals possessing a very noticeable depth of field. The action is spectacular with elaborate fight sequences featuring the Furious Five battling wave after wave of enemies. The biggest set piece has to be a scene in which our heroes attempt to escape a toppling tower while fireworks explode all around them.

Kung Fu Panda followed the traditional hero’s journey and its sequel further explores the mythology of the universe. Kung Fu Panda 2 hits on a variety of emotions and is a darker than the original (Del Toro’s influence?) and a bit more surreal. A dream sequence involving Po battling a radish feels like it sprung from the imaginative mind of Kaufman. Even with all the amazing action sequences, Kung Fu Panda 2 never loses its sense of heart. Aside from a nod to Pac-Man, the writers avoid the snarky, anachronistic references that become the crutch for the uncreative. Highly recommended for adults and kids alike.

Rating: *** (*****)