Midnight in Paris (A)
U.S.-France; Woody Allen, 2011, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Midnight in Paris is a funny valentine to the City of Light, a sweet, jazzy fairy tale about the wonders of Parisian art and artist cliques in the '20s -- a time when you could actually (if you were connected enough) go to a party at Gertrude Stein's and trade quips or stares with Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. It shows us writer/director Woody Allen at his current best -- which, for me, is plenty good enough. We keep complaining that our movies don't have enough brains, wit, ingenuity, art and personal feeling, that they're not made for adults. Here's one that is. Treasure it.
Allen's new movie, deservedly praised by almost everybody, begins with the same kind of affectionate cinematic tribute to its city and setting, Paris, that Woody once gave to New York, New York in the opening of his 1979 masterpiece Manhattan: a delicious montage of well-loved if touristy Parisian sights (the Eiffel Tower, the Seine) with one of his period musical favorites playing piquantly in the background. In Manhattan, it was Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"; in Midnight in Paris, it's a jazz piece by the great saxophonist (and expatriate American in Paris) Sidney Bechet.
After putting his heart on his sleeve and sending us a postcard of it, Allen then tells a story which, in some ways, mixes the romantic themes of Manhattan with the celebrity fantasies of The Purple Rose of Cairo and Zelig. As in Manhattan, he spins a story about a hack mass media writer and would-be intellectual who dreams of being a better artist, and is hooked up with the wrong woman. But he also adds Cairo-like blends of reality and fantasy and Zelig-style fantasy encounters with his special '20s Parisian artistic idols or comic pets.
It's a delightful little humorous daydream (or night-dream) of Allen's, and, along with his great cast, he's made us an irresistible present of it. The affably loose and boyishly hilarious Owen Wilson is Hollywood sell-out blockbuster screenwriter Gil, the Woody stand-in, and an unusually good one. Gil, who might be Annie Hall's cousin, has a sharp-tongued, narcissistic fiancée, Inez (played knowingly and nastily by Rachel McAdams), and we can soon see, even if he can't, that she's the wrong woman for him -- and that her tea party apologist parents John and Helen (sour Kurt Fuller and go-along Mimi Kennedy) are even wronger in-laws.
Gil's prospective new family takes potshots at everything French, but Gil, oblivious, gets thoroughly dazzled by the attractions of Paris, despite the annoying presence of Inez's pompous ex, intellectual/poseur Paul (Michael Sheen, right on) -- who makes fun of nostalgia, makes fun of Paris, of art and of Gil, and may be trying to reactivate his "ex" status with Inez. It's a California francophile vs. the snobs from hell.
But suddenly it's midnight. Gil is left alone, a little sloshed, after Inez has gone off to "dance" with Paul. As he Owen-Wilsonishly sprawls near the cobbled street, a chic '20s-style roadster pulls up, and two enthusiastic bon vivants invite him to a party: Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald (played by Tom Hiddleston of Thor and Alison Pill). Amazingly, this glittering couple turns out to be the real "Lost Generation" novelists Scott and Zelda, and, at the party to which they take Gil, there are more stars: an unabashedly macho, likable, full-of-himself fellow novelist named Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll, very good ), and a bald, intense painter named Pablo Picasso (Marcial di Fonzo Bo), among many others. At the piano, playing "Let's Do It," with a smile brimming with innuendo, is the real Cole Porter.
Later, at other parties and other midnights, Gil will meet, to his increasing bedazzlement, the legendary surrealist painter Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody, absolutely fantastic), the famous avant-garde photographer Man Ray (Tom Cordier), and Dali's taboo-shattering Un Chien Andalou collaborator, surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Dan). Even the relative nobodies are incandescent: An artist's model named Adriana (Marion Cotillard) has been mistress and muse to Modigliani and Picasso, and may have Gil on her list as well. Our hostess -- with, artistically speaking, "the mostest" -- is Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates, wonderful).
Tell me you don't want to go to that party, or this movie. It's a marvelous idea, and Allen does it with loving affection and razor-keen wit. The images (mostly shot by Darius Khondji) are lovely, the mood is mellow and enticing, the cast is having a ball, the jokes are convivial and smart. (Extras: featurette Midnight in Cannes; photo gallery.)
Kung Fu Panda 2 (B-)
U.S.: Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2011, DreamWorks Animated
Kung Fu Panda 2 is a cute, likable movie, done with a lot of skill and A-level talent, and with all the visual virtuosity we expect by now from big-budget cartoon features -- especially from sequels to gigantic hits, like the first Kung Fu Panda. But Panda 2 didn't connect with me the way the first film did. This one seemed sweet but stilted, spectacular but more muted, likable but more artificial. My mind wandered.
That 's no accurate gauge, of course, of how the core Panda audience (kids and parents) will react. I expect children will like it a lot, since it's mostly pitched to their key.
The new movie is directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson (the storyboard artist on the first Panda) and it's scripted by the original scenarists, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. All three, plus the usual crackerjack DreamWorks animation team, help return us to a magical cartoon realm that many audiences thoroughly enjoyed: that historical Chinese wonderland, derived partly from storybooks and Chinese martial arts period movies, where talking animals roamed and Jack Black put the voice and the sass into roly-poly panda and superhero-wannabe Po.
In the original, Po was a nebbish who wanted to be a superhero, and, after some comical humiliation, he teamed up with the Furious Five -- the kung fu quintet of Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross), and went on quests and fought foes (including Ian McShane as the super-villainous snow leopard Tai Lung) and finally became the Dragon Warrior.
Like many others, I was entertained and charmed by that original, with its unlikely panda hero and its delicate yet deep visual style -- its look of Chinese scroll paintings mingled with choppy-socky action films, its likeably childish jokes (with the usual smart-assery from Black) and its puckishly assembled cast, which also included James Hong as Po's goose of a father Mr. Ping and Dustin Hoffman as wise old Ratso -- excuse me, Shifu.
Most of that voice cast is back, abetted this time by new additions vocalized by Michelle Yeoh (a soothsayer), Jean-Claude Van Damme (Master Croc), Dennis Haysbert (Master Storming Ox), Victor Garber (Master Thunder Rhino) and Danny McBride (Wolf Boss) -- as well as a brand-new sinister and sadistic villain, Gary Oldman as Lord Shen. Shen, done with every ounce of vanity and evil Oldman can muster, is a vicious peacock who wants to rule all China, has a new super-weapon to help him do it, and who, we gradually learn, played an undisclosed part in Po's still obscure past.
What happens afterwards is almost exactly what you'd expect Still, the expanded cast means there's even less screen time for the Furious Five, who, I thought, were somewhat short-changed in the first movie.
None of this is offensive or boring, of course. Kung Fu Panda 2 is a movie that's hard to dislike. It's just not especially interesting, especially if you're above the age of six. (Extras: new adventure: Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Masters; TV episode "Kung Fu Panda Legends of Awesomeess"; commetary; featurettes; trivia track.)
U.S.: Cindy Meehl, 2010, MPI/Sundance Selects
Documentary films are often especially good at human portraiture, and this well-drawn picture of Westerner and horse trainer Buck Brannaman, who was able to reclaim his life after a brutal childhood, is warm and touching, an often remarkable remarkable piece of work by the sympathetic director Cindy Meehl.
Buck and his brother were child cowboy roping prodigies and local media sensations, but there was a darker side to their fame. They were tyrannized and beaten by their father to keep up their skills. When Buck finally was pulled from his home (by a court judgment), a child who had been beaten and terrorized for years, he was healed and transformed by the kindness of his new foster parents, and he made an extraordinary success in a new field: communicating with and training "problem" or difficult horses.
Buck, whose methods of dealing with animals involve a healthy measure of kindness and empathy, worked on the Robert Redford film The Horse Whisperer, and he became one of the was one of the models for Redford's character, a similar horse trainer. Buck, as we see him here, is a good man with a great gift, a person who not only loves animals but truly understands them. We hear his story, see his skills. The surrounding Western landscapes are a fittingly poetic backdrop. This is a very impressive, very human drama and one of last year's (deservedly) best loved documentaries. (Extras: commentary with Buck and with director Meehl and other filmmakers; deleted scenes; trailer.)