Reel Opinions


Friday, May 27, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2

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There are two big sequels opening over the holiday weekend, and of them, Kung Fu Panda 2 is the one that takes the most chances. More than a mere rehash in a different setting (like The Hangover 2), this is a film that continues to explore the characters and the world they live in, and actually takes some surprising changes. There's a lot more heartfelt emotion here than in the first Panda. The gags are also funnier, the action bigger, and the scope of the adventure is wider. For the first time, I'm thinking Dreamworks Animation just might have the advantage over their long-time studio rival, Pixar.

picThe original movie introduced us to Po (once again enthusiastically voiced by Jack Black), a charming and rotund panda who became the unlikely student of the martial arts master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). Po was eventually able to earn the high title of Dragon Warrior in his training, and now leads the Furious Five - a group of kung fu animals that act kind of like superheroes, protecting the surrounding villages from any danger or threat. The Five take a much smaller role in this film, with Tigress (Angelina Jolie) getting the most screen time, due to the fact that she's the strongest, and seems to have the deepest relationship with Po. Speaking of our panda hero, he's been haunted by nightmares that seem to be a forgotten memory connected to his birth. If you'll recall, the original movie established that Po was raised by Mr. Ping (James Hong), a goose who runs a noodle shop in a nearby village. That movie chose to ignore the issue of how a goose could be a father to a panda, but this movie takes that issue head on, and ends up being all the better for it.

picPo's past, it turns out, is directly connected with that of the vile Lord Shen, a crazed peacock with the voice of Gary Oldman, who once held power over the kingdom with his ruling family, but was exiled when the warnings of a soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh) caused him to perform diabolical acts in a desperate attempt to hold onto the power he held. He has now returned with an army of loyal wolf and gorilla warriors, seeking revenge, and has developed a massive cannon weapon that is powerful enough to destroy anyone and anything that tries to stop him. If that fails, he also has knife-like feathers that he can throw with pin-point accuracy. We know that the two rivals will eventually meet, and the past will be explained. What took me by surprise is how dramatic and surprisingly tragic the film treats the material. While Kung Fu Panda 2 is mostly all about fun (it's funny, energetic, and full of beautiful animation), there is a sad undercurrent to the film that lifts this film above the first, as we feel much more for the characters.

picDirector Jennifer Yuh makes some smart choices here. She gives the movie a distinctive style by using different kinds of animation throughout - While most of the film is done with modern CG, the flashbacks and dream sequences for Po are done in traditional hand drawn animation, and are really quite lovely to look at. Once again, a 3D version is being forced upon audiences, and once again, my advice is to seek out the 2D version, so you can get every last color and detail. This is a beautiful movie, and the last thing it needs are dark glasses muddying everything up. More than the visuals, it's the script that impressed me here. Po has gone from being a lovable underdog, to a fully rounded character that we can sympathize completely with. Even the evil Lord Shen gets at least one moment where we almost feel sorry for the guy, which proves he's not just a generic cartoon villain. He's probably one of the more interesting villains I've come across in a recent animated film.

picDreamworks has a long history of casting celebrity names in their animated films, and while this sometimes works against them, it works quite well here. Jack Black is once again filled with boundless energy as the likable Po, but gets to explore some other sides of his character too, this time around. Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, David Cross, and Lucy Liu are back as the Furious Five, and while their roles are reduced, they still get some individual moments to stand out. Another returning actor who makes the most of a reduced role is Dustin Hoffman, who knows how to get some big laughs out of his wizened master character. The movie has been cast extremely well. Nobody sounds out of place, or seem like they've been cast just to put another famous name in the voice credits. It would also be a crime not to point out James Hong as Po's adoptive father, who not only manages to get laughs, but is also quite sympathetic here.
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So yes, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a lot of fun, and much better than the first. It's also the first big summer movie that manages to truly satisfy. When the inevitable Kung Fu Panda 3 comes along, I hope they remember the lessons they learned here, and continue to let these characters grow. It would be a shame to see the story advancements this film makes go to waste.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Hangover Part II

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2009's The Hangover was a true lightning in a bottle movie - A little summer comedy with no big stars that went on to first become a word of mouth hit, and then become the most successful R-rated comedy of all time. It deserved all the praise it got. (I was certainly a fan.) What it did not deserve was a sequel. Regardless, The Hangover Part II is here, and is expected to break box office records for the Memorial Day weekend. It it lives up to expectations, expect an equally unnecessary Part III to get the greenlight next week.

picThere's no denying that The Hangover Part II is an unnecessary sequel. The first movie worked fine on its own, and did not exactly leave any lingering questions. There's also no denying that despite this, the film does have some solid laughs. Nowhere near as much as the first time around, but I did find myself laughing out loud more than once. My rule of thumb in reviewing a comedy is how much did I laugh. In this case, while I did laugh, they were spaced so far between, I can't really recommend that you see it. Oddly enough, this movie had the opposite effect on me that the original did. Whereas with The Hangover, I found myself laughing harder and more frequently the more absurd things got, here I found myself laughing more during the early scenes. The majority of the film feels like a desperate attempt to ape the formula and even some of the same jokes that worked so well the first time around, only ratchet up the raunchy behavior and the gross out gags. Returning director and co-writer, Todd Phillips, is so concerned with topping himself, he oddly forgets to let loose and have fun with his characters.

picDespite the return of the original stars, a lot of the charm they displayed the first time around is now gone. Phil (Bradley Cooper), once a party animal looking for a good time, is now a fairly bland lead who is given little to do. Stu, the uptight dentist (Ed Helms), probably has changed the least of the three heroes, and remains likable, thanks to Helms' performance that constantly seems to be teetering on the edge of forced politeness and insanity. Finally, there's Alan (Zach Galifanakis), who came across as an almost lovable man-child in the original, but here his characteristics are so exaggerated and sometimes forced, he comes across as being mentally challenged at times. He still gets some laughs, though, especially when Galifanakis dials down the performance, and goes into deadpan mode, talking about things that make no sense. ("I saw an albino polar bear once...")

picThe three are reunited for Stu's impending wedding to the lovely Lauren (Jamie Chung). The plan involves a trip to Thailand to meet Lauren's family, who generally view Stu as a disgrace, placing all of their love on Lauren's teenaged younger brother, Teddy (Mason Lee). The guys slip away for a celebratory beer on the beach by a campfire, taking Teddy with them. If you've seen the first movie, you pretty much know what happens next - A night of endless partying follows, and our heroes find themselves sprawled out in a dingy hotel room in Bangkok, with no memory of anything that happened the night before. Teddy is gone (though they find his severed finger lying in a bucket of water), Stu now has a tattoo on his face, Alan is bald, and there's a drug mule monkey following them everywhere they go. Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) makes a return appearance, there's a crime boss (Paul Giamatti) who seems to know what happened that night but isn't talking unless he gets something in return, and the guys end up having to ditch a dead body in an ice machine. You're probably better off not knowing the details about the stripper that Stu spent the night with.

picThe Hangover Part II still works partly, as there are laughs to be had. Helms and Galifanakis get to stand out in individual scenes (mostly Helms), there are some laughs when the guys are stuck with an elderly monk who has taken a vow of silence, and Mike Tyson returns for another funny cameo appearance. It's what comes between those laughs that makes this a lackluster sequel. The laughs don't come nearly as often. There are long stretches where the movie is amusing enough, but just not that funny. It's never bad, it just fails to get any genuine laughs during these moments. Despite the fact that this film is probably darker and grosser than the first, it oddly feels like it's playing it safe by sticking rigidly to the structure and the jokes that made the original a runaway hit. The element of surprise from before is gone. The setting is different, but a lot of the situations are the same. The monkey, for example, replaces the baby they carried around in the last one. It generally serves the same purpose, but gets fewer laughs.
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When The Hangover came out two years ago, it was a rare adult comedy in a sea of summer blockbusters. This year, the sequel is swimming in much more crowded waters. Bridesmaids is already out (and is a much funnier and smarter film), and there are a few other adult comedies hitting later this summer that might take a bite out of this film's popularity. Regardless, The Hangover Part II is not that bad for an unnecessary sequel. I didn't mind seeing it but, unlike the first one, probably won't watch it again.

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

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It's perhaps fitting that On Stranger Tides, the fourth installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, is centered around the search for the Fountain of Youth. After all, every film franchise that hits its fourth entry is starting to look kind of tired by this point, and is in desperate need of revitalization. Oddly enough, here it's the old that works better than the new. Although it doesn't hold the same spark of inspiration that it once did, Johnny Depp's off-kilter antihero, Captain Jack Sparrow, still manages to hold our attention with his one-liners and facial expressions that give the sense that the character is not really understanding much of anything going on around him, if he even understands anything at all.

picEven though Jack's story was supposed to have ended with 2007's At World's End, it's not surprising to see him making a return appearance, especially when you consider how producer Jerry Bruckheimer's last few films for Disney (Prince of Persia and The Sorcerer's Apprentice) died at the box office. Not only has Depp's most famous character been revived to ensure at least one big weekend for the studio, but his part has been expanded, as he now pretty much drives the entire movie. The lovebirds from the past films, Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner (played in the past by Kiera Knightly and Orlando Bloom), are now gone, as are most of the cast from the first three movies. The increasingly complex plot from before has also been jettisoned in favor of a much simpler one involving a race to find the Fountain of Youth. All well and good. However, despite the new approach, returning screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio end up making some of the same mistakes.

picOn Stranger Tides is still much longer than it needs to be, and feels needlessly padded out at times with needless exposition. (Though, mercifully, the film is shorter than the previous sequels.) The movie also feels bloated at times, with action sequences that are cluttered and edited at a much too rapid pace, while a bombastic score by Hans Zimmer wails in the background trying to create excitement, but simply comes across as being annoying at times. There is a new romantic subplot, this time between a Christian missionary (Sam Claflin) and a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), whose magical tears are needed to activate the power of the Fountain of Youth. However, much like the romance in the first three films between Will and Elizabeth, the romance is bone-dry and never engaging, due to the fact that the characters in that romance are largely dullards. Even the presence of a new director doesn't help matters much. Rob Marshall (Chicago), taking over for Gore Verbinski, shoots the movie with a murky lens, which is bad enough in 2D (which is how I saw the film), and I imagine an absolute pain in 3D.

picFor all of the movie's gloom and dull romantic subplots, it is Johnny Depp that once again arrives to save the day, and turns On Stranger Tides into a passable summer entertainment. Yes, it's true, he's only back because he was offered an insane paycheck, but whatever they paid him, it's worth it, because he makes the film worth watching at least once. The early scenes, which finds Jack in the presence of King George (Richard Griffiths) and his old nemesis, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), is like a virtuoso lesson in delicious scenery chewing. It's great fun, as is his daring escape on the streets of London. We get another cameo by Keith Richards as Jack's father, who manages to get the film's best line. ("Do I look like someone who's found the Fountain of Youth?") This kicks off the plot, where Jack finds himself reunited with a woman from his past named Angelica (Penelope Cruz). She's the daughter of the infamous pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), and is trying to help her father find the legendary Fountain. Barbossa is looking for it as well, for reasons of his own, with the help of the King's naval fleet. There's also a Spanish fleet involved in the race to find it first. All of this is an excuse for a lot of big action sequences, special effects, and for Jack Sparrow to comment on everything with his usual dry and nonchalant wit.

picThis is pretty much Jack's show, and if the movie works at all despite its numerous shortcomings, it's because of it. I suppose your opinion of this movie will vary on your feelings of the character. If you have grown sick of Jack (as I know many have), this movie will probably be torture. The performance still worked for me, though. Yes, it's not as fresh as it once was, but Depp's heart is still in the portrayal. Everything else surrounding him is bombastic mediocrity. The mermaids who sing siren songs then drag unfortunate men to a watery grave, the zombies that wander about Blackbeard's ship, the complicated and murky relationship between Jack and Angelica (the movie never seems sure what light to portray Angelica, so it tries a different approach with each scene)...All of this is second. Geoffrey Rush gets some fun moments too, so at least Depp isn't alone. This is a summer movie that works in fits and starts. It hits upon something that works, then kind of coasts along, then hits upon something else, only to coast along some more. It's uneven, but at least there's a sign of life.
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I know this doesn't read like the most glowing review, but for a fourth movie in a franchise that probably should have ended four years ago, it's really not that bad. I guess the key to getting the most out of On Stranger Tides is to lower your expectations. If you want to see Jack Sparrow up on the big screen one more time, or simply need a in-one-ear, out-the-other summer entertainment, this will do well enough. But if you're waiting for a summer blockbuster that will knock you out of your seat, I'm afraid your search is still on.

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bridesmaids

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Even though I have seen Kristen Wiig in many films, Bridesmaids (which she not only stars in, but also co-wrote) is the first time I've really noticed her. Having not watched Saturday Night Live in a long time, I'm unfamiliar with her work on that show, and up until now, have figured I was not missing much. Now I'm thinking I was wrong. Wiig is downright brilliant here - Heartfelt, honest, likable, and downright hilarious. I advise her to write all of her own roles from now on.

picThis is the rare comedy that truly is laugh-out-loud funny, and ranks alongside Cedar Rapids as one of the funniest movies I've seen in 2011. I think I laughed more at this movie than the last five or so comedies I've seen. Much has been made of the fact that Bridesmaids is a "women behaving badly" comedy, and some have even compared it to The Hangover. There's really no reason to compare. Not only do the two movies have nothing in common (The only thing they share is an R-rating, and the characters do attempt a trip to Las Vegas at one point, though they never get there.), but it is its own movie, which is in itself kind of special. Bridesmaids is very funny, and yes, it can be rude at times. But it also has a huge heart, a lot of likable characters who I think audiences will be able to identify with, and a lot of valuable insights into different kinds of relationships. This is the rare comedy that not only makes you laugh hysterically, but also makes you think about the people you know, or used to know.

picWiig plays Annie, a woman who recently watched her small bakery business crumble in a bad economy. Now she's stuck working at a jewelry store (a job she hates), and is forced to share an apartment with an oddball British brother and sister pair who don't seem to understand the meaning of "personal space". When Annie's best friend since childhood, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), suddenly announces that she is engaged, Annie finds herself thrust into the role of being the Maid of Honor. She's happy to help plan the wedding, until she meets the lovely and seemingly flawless Helen (Rose Byrne), Lillian's wealthy new friend, who not only is in danger of threatening Annie's long relationship with Lillian, but also seems destined to completely take over every detail of the wedding, since she feels she's right about everything, and has to do everything flawlessly. Helen is the kind of woman who upstages everyone else at the wedding shower by giving Lillian a free trip to Paris as a gift.

picReading that plot description, I'm sure bad memories of awful romantic comedies are right now circling your head, but Bridesmaids is smarter than that. Helen is not a character that we are supposed to despise, for one thing. She is simply so used to taking charge of every situation, she does not realize the damage she is doing to the people around her. The movie is also a lot smarter than you might expect, as these are women with actual brains, who say smart things, and are actually very witty. There are a lot of memorable supporting characters as well, who make up the other bridesmaids at the upcoming wedding. They include Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), a bitter mother-of-three who is looking forward to letting go at the bachelorette party, Becca (Ellie Kemper), a sunny newlywed, and Megan (Melissa McCarthy from TV's Mike and Molly), a brash and honest woman who ends up stealing every scene she's in, thanks to McCarthy's inspired and hilarious performance. While each of the women get their individual moments, Megan is the character I suspect most in the audience will walk away remembering.

picThere's a romantic subplot for Annie, as well. She starts out dating a slimy rich guy (Jon Hamm), but quickly wises up, and falls for a sweet young state patrol officer named Rhodes (Chris O'Dowd). Their "Meet Cute" scene is one of the funniest I've seen in a long time, and though their relationship follows the expected formulaic ups and downs, we like both of them, and are never bored. Credit for this must not only go to the performers themselves, but also to the screenplay by Wiig and Annie Mumolo. The dialogue is constantly sharp, never sounds forced, and seems to care deeply about each of its main characters. These are people with emotions we recognize and can relate to, so the relationships never feel like they're being manipulated by the plot. Wiig and Rudolph come across as best friends (most likely their years on Saturday Night Live together help with this), Wiig has a genuinely sweet chemistry with O'Dowd, and we find ourselves caring about these people as much as we are laughing with them.

picBridesmaids was produced by Judd Apatow, one of the most powerful names in the comedy business right now in Hollywood. It shows too, as the film shares a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses as his earlier productions. It shares the cheerfulness, intelligent yet sometimes crude humor, and everyday characters who bond over a series of misadventures. It also shares the main problem I have had with a lot of his films, in that it runs a little too long. Though I was never bored, the film's final moments do seem dragged out, as the film frantically tries to tie up one loose end after another. It didn't hurt my enjoyment, though. I wish that was the worst thing I could say about every movie I see. Aside from some slow moments late, the movie manages to be consistently entertaining, and is bound to be a star-making role for Kristen Wiig. I dare anyone to watch her scene on the airplane, and not think that a comic star is being born.
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Wherever her career goes from here, Bridesmaids will always stand as a testament to her talent as a writer and a leading performer. I can easily see this becoming a word of mouth early summer hit, so hopefully she will make smart choices, and Hollywood will give her the chance she deserves. This is a movie that's too good to miss, and judging by this film alone, Wiig has a talent that's too strong to pass up.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Priest

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What was the inspiration behind Priest? Surely there must have been some reason behind director Scott Stewart's decision to bring us such a hollow, joyless, drab, dreary, and ugly film. Of course, nobody sets out to make a bad movie, but sometimes, you just have to sit and wonder what anyone possibly saw in the script. Maybe he really liked working with Paul Bettany (who starred in Stewart's last film, Legion), and leapt at the chance to do it again. If that's the case, maybe he should have held out for Bettany's next project.

picPriest started life as a Korean comic book, and had a long road to the big screen, being shuffled across various release dates, edited numerous times in a vain attempt to salvage an obviously doomed film, and then dumped right before the flood of summer movies start to hit. To add insult to injury, the film has been hastily converted into halfhearted 3D, meaning you pay extra so that the already muddy looking images can look even more lifeless. The film itself starts out with a two minute animated sequence that's more stylized than anything in the remaining 88 minutes of live action. It rushes us through the film's backstory of how humanity has been at war with vampires for years, until the Catholic church stepped in with some warrior Priests to take care of the problem. The skilled vampire slayers drove the monsters into dark caves and reservations where they could be watched over. As for the humans, they now are locked away in generic-looking cities that apparently can't afford their electric bill, and it rains 24-7. The church rules these cities with an iron grip, and the Priests themselves have gone into hiding, though they still display the crucifix tattoo on their faces, which must make it hard for them to blend in.

picOur hero is a former Priest (Bettany) who is living a quiet life, until he is delivered news that vampires have attacked some relatives of his who live on a farm on the outskirts of the city, and that the blood-suckers have ran off with his young niece, Lucy (Lily Collins). She's being held captive by their leader, Black Hat (Karl Urban), who dresses like a villain in a Western, and is attempting to seek revenge on the humans by gathering up his vampire brothers onto a train that's headed for the human cities. The Priest tries to convince the church to allow him to take action and investigate the attack, but the head of the church (Christopher Plummer) refuses, believing that the vampire threat is over, and that sending Priests out into battle would be a waste of time. So, the Priest decides to break his vow not to disobey the church, hops on a motorcycle, and takes off into the desert to get some answers on his own.

picHe's quickly joined by a local Sheriff named Hicks (Cam Gigandet), who was dating Lucy when she was captured, and wants to help find her. So, we already have themes of horror, religion, oppressive societies, and traits of classic Westerns. Rather than make something out of this mix of ideas, Priest instead just kind of cobbles them together into a shoddy patchwork of cliches. Due to the fact that the movie has been edited numerous times before hitting the screen, characters just kind of show up instead of being properly introduced. A good example of this is a fellow Priest (Maggie Q), who is initially sent by the church to track down Bettany's character, only to immediately join him as soon as she tracks him down. There's some hollow exposition as to why she's helping him, and it has to do with a halfhearted forbidden romance subplot that is so inconsequential to everything else, you wonder why the filmmakers bothered in the first place.

picBut then, everybody is treated in the same manner in the screenplay by Cory Goodman. Nobody shows any personality, or maybe that's just the performances. Bettany scowls and frowns his way through every scene, Gigandet stands behind him, Maggie Q is mostly expressionless, and everybody basically looks like they wish they were somewhere else. This is a dead-in-the-water movie with no sense of building or sustaining tension. The vampires in the movie generally look and act like CG video game targets, existing mainly to pop out of dark places, scream, and then get killed. A character at one point makes the argument of how vampires are superior to humans, but it's kind of hard to take that comment seriously, when all they do is stand around and scream all the time, giving the heroes ample time to shoot or stab them.
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Maybe at one time in the film's development, there was a spark of inspiration in Priest. I'll give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, and suggest it got lost somewhere between the planning stages and the scripting. As it stands, this is a derivative and flat movie that fails to make the slightest impact on the viewer. There's nothing to care about, nothing to get excited about, and certainly nothing worth paying inflated 3D prices for. The movie doesn't even have the decency to have a sense of humor about itself. What a crime.

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Sunday, May 08, 2011

African Cats

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Unlike the past two films that have been released under the Disneynature label (Earth and Oceans), which looked at a wide spectrum of life in different environments, African Cats keeps things fairly simple, focusing only on two different families of cats - A proud pride of lions who defend their territory against a rival pride, and a cheetah mother trying to protect her five young cubs on her own. Despite the narrowed scope, it is no less engaging than the studio's past nature documentaries. With some beautiful footage, and a surprising amount of intimacy with its subjects, African Cats is sure to enthrall anyone who is interested in the animals on display.

picThe film has been edited in such a way so that it tells a simple narrative story, with the voice of Samuel L. Jackson guiding us through it. Some have criticized the film for the fact that it gives the individual animals names, accusing the film of anthropomorphizing its subjects. But, it's a common practice for nature researchers to give names to their subjects while they're observing them, and it never feels like the film is trying to give human-like qualities to the animals, although Jackson's narration does attempt to know what the creatures are thinking from time to time. On Kenya's Masai Mara Natural Reserve, we meet two different families of African cats who live on different sides of the Reserve, divided by a crocodile-infested river. On the North side of the river, we meet "Sita", a cheetah who is trying to raise her five young cubs, with the constant threat of attacks by hyenas and rival cheetahs always just around the bend. On the South, an aging lioness named "Layla" tries to hold her own amongst her pride, despite her increasing injuries from unsuccessful hunts, and also protect her young cub, "Mara".

picWith the film's strong emphasis on the relationship between a mother and its children, it's perhaps appropriate that I happened to see this movie over Mother's Day weekend, instead of on its original Earth Day release date. The film does not shy away, however, from the many dangers these mothers face. The biggest threat in the film comes from "Kali" and his four sons, a lion who wants to dethrone the current ruler of Layla's pride, "Fang", and increase his rule over the land. Despite the film's G-rating, parents should be advised that the film contains not only some brutal attacks (which are kept mostly off camera, but show just enough that might scare some small kids), but also some moments of quiet despair. Such moments include Sita being separated from her cubs after an attack, and facing the possibility that they may have been killed by prowling hyenas, and a particularly heartbreaking sequence where Layla has suffered too many injuries, and can no longer go on with her pride, her cub Mara leaving her behind.

picWith its simple and almost human narrative, African Cats may not be as educational as it could have been. (For that, look to National Geographic's recent documentary, The Last Lions.) Instead, filmmakers Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey should be applauded for their stunning footage. Assembling their film out of two years of following these animals, there are some breathtaking moments, especially during the hunting scenes, or the quiet moments of the young cubs at play or making new discoveries. The movie works entirely on an emotional level. It's nearly impossible not to have your heartstrings pulled at least once while watching the film. I can see how those who are looking for an informative film about the nature of lions could be somewhat disappointed by the film's simplistic approach. But those who just want to get close to these creatures and share an emotional journey will not be disappointed.
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Those with children of their own in the audience will certainly relate to the film's tale of the sacrifices, joys, and sadness that comes with parenthood (especially mothers). That it makes its subjects so easy to relate to alone is a great feat on the part of the filmmakers. African Cats is not the best nature doc out there, but it's a good start to introducing your kids to the worlds of the animals up on the screen, and might get them to want to learn more.

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Saturday, May 07, 2011

Jumping the Broom

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I guess it's becoming a tradition that around this time of year, we get a comedy about mismatched families coming together for a wedding. Last spring, we had the horrible Our Family Wedding, which you may remember ended up on my Worst of 2010 list. Jumping the Broom (named after an African American wedding tradition) is nowhere near as bad as that film was, but it still never stands out as being truly special. It's too mediocre to make much of an impression, good or bad.

picThis time, we have two different African American families coming together - the upscale Watson family (who are wealthy, and live in a huge mansion in Martha's Vineyard), and the blue collar Taylor family. They are brought together when the Watson daughter, Sabrina (Paula Patton) prays to God for a good man after a string of disappointing one-night stands. Her prayers are answered when she literally runs into the Taylor son, Jason (Laz Alonso), with her car and they begin dating soon after. "Five incredible months later" (as a subtitle informs us), it's revealed that Sabrina's job is forcing her move to China. Not wanting a long distance relationship, Jason proposes, and they plan to marry the very next month. The wedding is to take place at the mansion home of Sabrina's wealthy, but emotionally distant parents, Claudine (Angela Bassett) and Greg (Brian Stokes Mitchell). This immediately does not sit well with Jason's working-class mother, Pam (Loretta Devine), who seems to hold a grudge against the wealthy, and pretty much everyone else who is not in her close circle of family and friends. She's also not happy that she hasn't had a chance to meet her future daughter-in-law or her family before the wedding.

picAs the relatives, friends, and guests trickle in for the wedding, multiple plotlines and character relationships are thrown about seemingly at random by screenwriters Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibbs. There are deep buried family secrets, grudges between friends and family members, family traditions argued about, dinner conversations that turn sour when someone says the wrong thing, a sexy relationship for the chef who's catering the wedding, and disputes between couples about money. The only plot that comes close to working is the cute subplot concerning Pam's friend (Tasha Scott) becoming attracted to a much younger man (Romeo Miller) who is interested in older women. Like most of the many other subplots it's competing with for out attention, its resolution is swift and basically an afterthought. But, at least both Scott and Miller get some nice moments in there. Indeed, the last ten minutes or so of the movie is devoted entirely to one hasty, unsatisfying conclusion after another.

picAlthough the cast is made up of game actors, Jumping the Broom ultimately fails due to the fact that very few of them are actually likable or seem real to begin with. They either exist to spout one liners, look disapprovingly at everyone else, or start trouble. The key offenders are Bassett and Devine, who play the mothers, and spend most of the film being so manipulative or mean-spirited, it's hard to generate any good feeling for them. It's not that their performances are bad, they're just stuck playing women that nobody could possibly relate to. Bassett is untrusting, cold, and generally looks down at everyone, especially her husband, who she thinks is having an affair. Naturally, Mitchell as her long-suffering husband winds up getting our sympathy, since he comes across as being the more rational and sane person in the couple. We know he's not having an affair. Not only does Mitchell play him too nice, but the script is constantly contorting itself to make it look like he is. When his true secret is revealed, it's pretty much forgotten about as soon as he brings it up, only for it to get resolved in a throwaway line in the last five minutes.

picAs for Devine, she's supposed to be playing a proud working-class woman who is overly protective of her adult son, but often comes across as being just plain nuts. She works at the post office, and constantly keeps her customers waiting in long lines as she goes off to chat with her friends about her problems. She arrives at the mansion home with a huge chip on her shoulder, and finds something to criticize about everything around her. She's constantly unpleasant, obnoxious, and when she overhears a potentially damaging family secret, she's all too eager to share it, even if it means it will destroy certain people who will be joining her family soon. She's supposed to go through a redemptive moment near the end, but I didn't buy it. She doesn't deserve the happy ending she gets. Neither do a lot of the people in this movie. Even though everyone apparently comes together as one big happy family, so many of the resolutions seems forced, I just didn't buy it.
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Jumping the Broom is the kind of middle of the road, throwaway movie we usually get to compete with the summer blockbusters that start rolling in. I'll be hard-pressed to remember it months from now, and I'm sure almost everyone else who sees it will feel the same. It's certainly not unwatchable, but boy, is it ever forgettable.

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Friday, May 06, 2011

Something Borrowed

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What we have with Something Borrowed is a movie that is frustratingly conventional in a lot of ways, and yet kind of interesting in others. As someone who has sat through more than his share of romantic comedies, I feel the need to applaud the film for having lead characters who come across as being slightly smarter than what we usually get, and actually has an ending that isn't a 100% inevitable conclusion. But there's more than enough stuff here to drag those qualities down, so while not a total success, it will have to settle for a near miss.

picLead heroine Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a mousy lawyer who is used to being overlooked by others for her pretty, blonde, popular best friend, Darcy (Kate Hudson). It's been that way since they first met as kids, and as Rachel hits her 30th birthday and realizes she still hasn't found love, she figures it will always be that way. A chance cab ride with Darcy's fiance, Dex (Colin Egglesfield) could just change all that. A few drinks, and some honest talk about their feelings, and Dex is soon passionately kissing Rachel, and they wake up in bed with each other just weeks before Dex's wedding to Darcy is set. We learn through flashbacks that Rachel and Dex went to law school together, and had a relationship budding, until Darcy came along and Rachel willingly let him go, figuring she would never stand a chance with him next to her friend. Although Dex has been attached to Darcy for years, his feelings for Rachel apparently never left.

picThis brings about an interesting dilemma - Rachel and Dex have feelings for each other, but also don't want to hurt Darcy. Do they go along and pretend nothing has happened, or do they risk it? The movie's not quite prepared to probe such a situation deeply or maturely, but it's smart enough to raise more than a few questions, mostly asked by Rachel's other friend and co-worker, Ethan (John Krasinski), who watches from the outside, and tries to figure things out along with us the audience. The film also walks an interesting tightrope. These are all flawed characters, and the slightest misstep could make Rachel and her actions in the film entirely detestable. But, the film does give her plenty of chances to question what she's doing, and the various choices she is faced with. The movie gives the characters no easy answers, and although there are certainly some major contrivances to make things easier for Rachel to make up her mind, things never quite seem black and white as is usually the case in these films.

picWhere the movie falters is with the character of Darcy, who constantly comes across as a caricature, and never as developed as Rachel. She's the hard-drinking, hard-partying type who never quite grew up, and while Hudson is fine enough in the role, the character never really gets her side of the story told. We're faced with Rachel's problem, but when it is revealed that Darcy maybe has some secrets of her own, they seem more like plot contrivances, rather than character development. It's not until the film's final moments that the script finally starts to get a hold on the character, and we get some interesting scenes. The last time we see her is surprisingly poignant, and leaves things resolved, while also a little open ended, which was unexpected to me. It made me wish that screenwriter Jennie Snyder had explored these sides of her earlier.

picThe true stand out of the cast turns out to be John Krasinski as Ethan. Much like his performance in the underrated Away We Go, he brings a certain maturity to his role as a man who seems to be on the outside looking in on the whole situation, but holds quite a lot of wisdom for Rachel, and often seems to be speaking for the audience when he talks bluntly about her situation with Dex. As Rachel, Ginnifer Goodwin is quite charming and attractive, maybe a bit too much so for a character who is supposed to be a "plain" woman who is not noticed much. Whenever she talks about how she's not hot enough to get the kind of guys that her friend Darcy gets, we find it personally hard to believe just by looking at her. Maybe she needs some self-esteem boosting or something. Whatever the case, she's winning in the role, and I would like to see more of her.
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Something Borrowed works best when it goes off the beaten path, something it doesn't do nearly enough for me to recommend it, but I also can't say I'm sorry I saw it. It runs a bit long, especially when it starts trying to wrap up its multiple characters and plots, but it also hits some nice notes that I was not expecting. Even if I'm giving this film a near miss, I can see this movie doing well with the romantic comedy crowd, and maybe inspiring some discussion when it's done.

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Thor

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I liked Thor quite a bit, and would have liked it more if the script had not been in such a rush, and had allowed the characters to breathe. This is a top class production all the way around, and a film that anyone can get into, even if they are not familiar with the Marvel comic book about the God of Thunder. But, the characters aren't as interesting as they could have been, the villain's not as evil or threatening as he should have been, and the movie didn't leave me quite as satisfied when it was over like the original Iron Man or the earlier Spider-Man films.

picI feel the need to stress once again that this is a top class production, and that I did find a lot to like, despite its obvious flaws. Marvel's film studio made a smart decision in hiring filmmaker Kenneth Branagh to bring Thor to life. His knowledge of Shakespeare and theatrical drama actually lends a lot to the story of ancient gods based on Norse mythology. He also shows a strong sense of fast-paced action during the battle scenes. His combination of classic theatrical drama with modern day effects helps set Thor apart from most other superhero films. He has also cast the film well. Chris Hemsworth (best known for playing Captain Kirk's father in the 2009 Star Trek reboot) plays the title character with the appropriate amount of gusto, arrogance, and surprisingly strong comic timing in certain scenes. It was also a smart choice to place Anthony Hopkins in the role of Odin, king of the ancient gods, and Thor's father. If there's an actor who can talk about an invasion by the deadly Frost Giants from the realm of Jotunheim and make it sound convincing, it's him.

picAs the film opens, Thor has been chosen to succeed Odin at the throne of Asgard, realm of the gods. The fact that Thor has been chosen, over his younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), is a plot point that should not be ignored. During the ceremony, some of the dreaded Frost Giants sneak into Asgard to steal an artifact that is important to the gods. The Giants are dispatched quickly, but Thor is angered that they were able to get into the palace in the first place, and gathers Loki and his friends to journey to Jotunheim and face the Frost Giant king, Laufy (Colm Feore), in battle. Thor's actions of war threaten to shatter a very fragile treaty between the two realms, and as punishment, Odin strips him of his power, his mythical hammer weapon, and banishes him to Earth.

picHere we come to the heart of the film. As Thor wanders a New Mexico desert lost and confused, he is discovered and befriended by a trio of scientists, which include the logical-minded Erik (Stellan Skarsgard), quick-witted Darcy (Katt Dennings), and most importantly, the lovely Jane (Natalie Portman), who will serve as Thor's eventual love interest, and his main portal of entry to understanding the world of mortals and learning compassion. This is obviously an important aspect of the Thor character, as it's supposed to be the key to him gaining entry back to Asgard and regaining his powers. But the screenplay kind of glosses over the relationship between them, to the point it seems that they're falling in love simply because the actors who play them have their names above the title. They have a couple nice moments, and stare up at the stars once or twice, but it was not enough to convince me of Thor's change of heart, or why he should become so protective of the mortals down on Earth once the jealous Loki takes control of the throne in Thor's absence, and sends a giant monster known as a Destroyer down to kill Thor and his human friends.

picThe script never quite seems to be on solid ground when its dealing with the human emotions of Thor, which is too bad, since he is an interesting character. The movie is much more confident and fun during the effects-heavy Asgard sequences, and the many battle and fight scenes placed throughout. The characters aren't weak enough to sink the film, but they are a constant problem. Every superhero movie needs a great villain, and Loki just never comes across as a serious threat. He's jealous and he's scheming, but he never truly seems evil. He's simply a god dealing with a lot of family and daddy issues. Even the interesting characters don't seem as fleshed out as they should be. Although I usually look down upon films that are overlong and wear out their welcome, Thor runs for nearly two hours, and I felt it needed to run longer. The movie tries to squeeze too much in, and as a result, the characters seem to be dragged along with the plot, instead of being a part of it.

picBefore this review gets too negative, I should emphasize that a lot of Thor does work, and works well enough for me to recommend it. Thor's initial attack on the Frost Giants early in the film is a fine blend of action, effects, and editing. There are touches of humor throughout the film that is actually quite funny. Plus, the cast is very likable. I feel that this could be a star-making deal for the relatively unknown Hemsworth. He not only has the physique to pull off the hero role, but he brings a lot of personality and warmth, even if his character is underwritten on more than one occasion. This is a well-made movie that's a lot of fun to watch, and could have been a great movie if the script has been tightened up.
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Despite the flaws, we have an effective summer blockbuster here. Yes, Thor does ultimately boil down to being a very long lead-in to Marvel's upcoming Avengers movie, much like last summer's Iron Man 2. But, at least the filmmakers do a better job of hiding it than that film did. I can't picture this movie joining anyone's list of favorite superhero movies, but it is a lot of fun.

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