PICKS OF THE WEEK
Kung Fu Panda (B)
U.S.; 2008, John Stevenson, Mark Osborne, DreamWorks/Paramount
Kung Fu Panda, which I enjoyed, initially sounds like a one-joke comedy -- all about a plump and dumpy kung fu-loving panda who sounds like Jack Black and eventually turns tables and kicks cartoon animal butt. The Karate Kid meets The Forbidden Kingdom? But there's more to the package than that. This DreamWorks movie looks great, and, though it's not especially witty or imaginative, the production people and voice actors put it across.
With its gorgeous computer effects and drawing (the character art was by Nicolas Marlet and the production design and art direction by Raymond Zibach and Tang Heng), its irreverent writers (Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger) and its all-star cast (including Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman and Jackie Chan), Kung Fu Panda is a far cry from the heyday of the old classic Disney period.
But it shares with the Disney of 1937-42 -- the glory years from Snow White to Bambi -- a real sense of art and beauty that cartoon features don't always strive for. It's not smart-alecky or too au courant. And even if that may hurt a bit with audiences who love The Bee Movie on one hand, or Persepolis on the other, scene after scene keeps knocking your eyes out: bejeweled temples, vast mountain staircases, halcyon landscapes rolling by like old Chinese scroll paintings.
The movie is cuter and prettier -- and even more exciting -- than it is funny. But that's not necessarily bad. Along with their company/crew, directors John Stevenson and Mark Osborne (the latter made the much-awarded short, More) elaborate well. They plop us down in a DreamWorks version of ancient China, and they give us this fuzzy-wuzzy cartoon panda named Po voiced by Black: a big, cuddly bear with a yen to be a kung fu star, stuck in a boring job at the noodle shop of his fussbudget dad Ping the goose (James Hong).
Thanks to a series of coincidences, Po, while trying to kibitz on a Dragon Warrior ceremony, held by the wise old kung fu turtle Oogway (played by renowned Shakespearean stage actor Randall Duk Kim), suddenly finds himself actually named the new Dragon Warrior, despite his unprepossessing big fuzzy belly and pretty complete lack of coordination, knowledge and skill. Naturally, his unaccountable victory tics off Po's rivals (and idols), who didn't even know who the hell he was: the Furious Five. (What, no Grandmaster Flash?)
This perturbed quintet consists of Angelina Jolie as the lithe Tigress, Jackie Chan as the mischievous Monkey, Lucy Liu as the venomous Viper, David Cross as the soaring Crane and, in the role he was born to play, Seth Rogen as the nimble Mantis. Who would have thought that the screen's perfect mantis resided within the more panda-ish exterior of the sloppy Romeo of Knocked Up and Pineapple Express?
While the Furious Five furiously seethe, we watch Po learn martial arts from the Five's teacher, the wise but impatient old red panda sage Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), as Po suddenly digs how to manipulate his panda bulk and bash the bad guys -- the main bad guy being Tai Lung the nasty Snow Leopard (Deadwood's Ian McShane), who's been sneering and taunting viciously and kicking the stuffing out of everyone, including Shifu. Rope bridges crumble. Cliffs hang. Will Po the Kung Fu Panda finally triumph? Will real-life snow leopards, an endangered species, survive this insult to their species? Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Thank you Dwight McDonald.)
So much for the story. I wish Kung Fu Panda had cleverer dialogue and snappier patter. The Furious Five are so colorlessly written, it's hard to remember them. The best vocal characterization in the film, besides Hoffman and Black -- who was born to play a panda -- is by the venerable James Hong (a veteran of Blood Alley and Love is a Many Splendored Thing), who really puts a charge into the lines when he, Father Goose, stares at his panda son and says that there's something he's been meaning to tell him....
Kung Fu Panda can be excused most sins because the cast is so likable, and the visuals so marvelous. Sometimes we forget how beautiful animated movies can be -- the recent Kino releases of Kihachiro Kawamoto's animated short films and his Book of the Dead are reminders -- but the best of Kung Fu Panda brings it back.
U.S.; 2008, Brad Anderson, Filmax Group
It starts like a modern, hip version of The Lady Vanishes and then turns into a grim, violent contemporary psychological thriller about innocent Americans (laid-back Woody Harrelson and nervous Emily Mortimer) trapped in Siberia, caught between drug runners on the run (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara) and vicious Russian cops on their trail (including Thomas Kretschmann and Ben Kingsley, in another of his terrific modern noir roles). I liked this a lot. Though the ending goes a bit over the top, Transsiberian mostly stays exciting -- besides giving you an exotic ride through the wintry landscapes of a distant northern realm that turns into a hell on earth.
Perhaps that's because Brad Anderson (The Machinist), like Hitchcock before him, is adept at both romantic comedy and icy-fingered suspense. And he has a top-notch cast. Noriega is a splendidly ambivalent and charming villain as Carlos, the fugitive crook hiding a satchel of loot who ingratiates himself with the generous-hearted Roy (Harrelson) as well as the more suspicious Jessie (Mortimer). Mara is fine as Abby, his hard-to-read girlfriend, and Kingsley and Kretschmann are even scarier heavies as Grinko and Kolzak, the ruthless cops a train stop or two behind them all.
Anderson nicely exploits all the sexual/social tensions among the youthful quartet, who meet on the Transsiberian Express, before springing his story's traps and bringing on the fierce Kretschmann (the unlucky good German of Polanski's The Pianist) and the seemingly less brutal, more thoughtful Grinko.
Evocatively shot by Xavi Gimenez, this movie feels cold and dangerous as you watch it, and it also has those finely characterized heroes, villains and victims, as well as some genuine surprises. It's a thriller with brains and a heart, and I won't forget soon Noriega's mock-playful seductions, or the expression on Mortimer's face when she realizes what he's up to -- or on Kingsley's, when he makes his final choice.
Planet of the Apes (A)
U.S.; Franklin Schaffner, 1968, 20th Century Fox
The same year Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke made the visionary science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, this futuristic movie classic also appeared -- about a heroic astronaut with a distinctly gladiatorial look (Charlton Heston), who crashes on a planet where apes rule, and hold humans in slavery. Among the residents of the Planet of the Apes: Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans and James Whitmore, in amazing simian makeup. The movie is a smart, highly imaginative sci-fi adventure parable that's also darkly comic, and its surprise ending is justly famous.
Based on a novel by Pierre (The Bridge on the River Kwai) Boulle, and brilliantly scripted by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson, this classic show spawned hosts of sequels as well as the Tim Burton-Mark Wahlberg-Heston remake (released in 2001). But none of them topped this first Planet. In a way, it's a culmination of the leftist social-problem nightmare science fiction mode of Serling's The Twilight Zone and of the political backstories of black list victims Wilson and Hunter. It's also the finest movie, even above Patton, of that underrated director, Franklin Schaffner.
BOX SET PICKS OF THE WEEK
Star Wars Prequel Trilogy (A-)
U.S.; George Lucas, 1999-2005, 20th Century Fox
Includes: Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace (1999, A); Episode Two: Attack of the Clones (2002, B); and Episode Three: Revenge of the Sith (2005, A).
Star Wars Original Trilogy (A)
U.S.: Various directors, 1977-1983, 20th Century Fox
Includes: Episode Four: A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977, A); Episode Five: The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980, A); and Episode Six: Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983, B).
The most popular movie series of all time. It started as young George Lucas' '70s take on the '30s Flash Gordon serials and then, when he couldn't get the rights, evolved into a rip-snorting mythos and vast interstellar epic of his own. In both of these six-disc sets, you can get the entire six-film saga -- including both versions of the first 1977-83 series, the original release and the redone and partly reshot special editions. (Unfortunately, the original version here is non-anamorphic.)
I'm about written out on Star Wars, which I've tended to enjoy more over the years, but wanted to talk about less. But audiences apparently will never get tired of watching them. (Extras: Commentaries by Lucas (on 1-2), documentaries, deleted scenes, featurettes, trailers, TV spots, animatics, music videos).
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Get Smart (D+)
U.S.; Peter Segal, 2008, Warner Bros.
Would you believe... a stinker? It must have sounded like a good idea to begin with: Make a big action-comedy movie out of the old Mel Brooks-Buck Henry television James Bond spoof, Get Smart. Cast Steve Carell as the straight-faced, blundering, but resilient secret agent 86, Maxwell Smart (the old Don Adams role) and throw in big-budget action, chases and explosions, along with glamorous Anne Hathaway as Agent 99 (the old part for Barbara Feldon, who became a star with her sultry "all you tigers" commercials). Throw in Alan Arkin in Ed Platt's role of secret U.S. agency CONTROL's chief and add Dwayne Johnson as Smart's new idol, Agent 23, and lethal-eyed Terence Stamp and "Borat" sidekick Ken Davitian, as the villains, KAOS big boss Siegfried and dopey foil Shtarker.
How can you miss? Well, first off, you could use a not-too-smart script by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember (Failure to Launch), which supplies a good start toward chaos. It's light on humor, wit, charm, hilarity, sense, nonsense -- everything that worked for the original '60s show.
With a minimum of pizzazz, we're introduced to Carell's uptight Max as CONTROL's ace data-gatherer/analyst, a would-be agent whom the chief won't promote to the field because he's sharp at the desk, but who gets his shot when the identities of the other agents, including 23, are compromised. Soon Max, who has no background or skills, has to learn fast and save the world from KAOS -- while hooking up with the scornful 99 (who thinks he's a doofus) and trying to outwit Siegfried, who thinks everybody is a doofus. (In this movie, he's pretty well right.)
The original Get Smart creator/writers, Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, are listed as consultants here -- and I kept wondering how they were consulting, or why the producers didn't just hire the writers of The Producers and The Graduate for this screenplay instead of the team behind Failure to Launch. On the worst writing day of both their lives, even if Brooks and Henry had both descended into alcoholic stupors and were wheeled in, comatose, and strapped in chairs before their computers -- I can't imagine them coming up with something worse than this farrago of old movie and TV inside gags, stale topical humor (stupid presidents), overproduced cliffhangers and inane new jokes (like the running gag where people keep stapling papers to each other's foreheads.)
The only people in this Get Smart that made me laugh fitfully were Arkin and Stamp, mostly because they were so disdainful. Good reaction. Director Peter Segal, who handled sequels for The Naked Gun and Eddie Murphy's The Nutty Professor is no help either. He directs this movie as if it were a sequel too, a bad one -- and his failure to launch any consistent style for the comedy-action mix or mine any chemistry between 86 and 99 is only the first and second of his many problems.
There have been two previous Maxwell Smart movies, both with Adams -- 1980s The Nude Bomb (a movie, about a fiendish plot to undress the world, that probably should have been called Get Naked) and the 1989 TV film, with Feldon, Get Smart Again. You'd probably have a better time at either one -- if you get smart.
U.S.; Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, 2005, DreamWorksFour cheerily domesticated wild beasts at the Central Park Zoo -- a lion, a giraffe, a zebra and a hippo -- unwittingly escape to Madagascar. Snappy patter, flashy CGI animation, and the cast (Ben Stiller, David Schwimmer, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen and Cedric the Entertainer) help the movie Madagascar get to you despite your better instincts. (See sequel above.) Go, penguins! You got to move it, move it....