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Review: Kung Fu Panda 2, The Company Men, Potiche and Bill Cunningham New York

By August 1, 2011No Comments

Kung Fu Panda 2 posterIt’s nice to be reminded every now and then that going to to the movies is supposed to be fun. The first Kung Fu Panda film was a boisterous and entertaining treat (“resembles an eight-year-old’s bedroom while they are throwing all their toys around” I said in 2008) and the latest version is an improvement on that, adding a layer of sentiment to the amusing hijinks. It also trucks along for a nothing-wasted 91 minutes and should keep adults and not-yet-adults well and truly amused.

Panda Po (Jack Black) became the unlikely Dragon Warrior in the first film and now has rock star status among the anthropomorphic citizenry. Along with allies “The Five”, he defends the innocent from tyranny in between (and often during) meals. A new technology and a shadowy figure from Po’s past threaten the peace and force our hero to grapple with the strangely unanswered questions about his childhood and how a panda came to be adopted by a goose in the first place.

What I like about the KFP films is that they haven’t forgotten that they are cartoons. Director Jennifer Yuh knows that animated violence can be incredibly funny (she supervised the martial arts scenes in the first film) and I feel certain that even the great Tex Avery would be proud of some of the action she’s produced.

The Company Men posterOn a more (self-consciously) serious note we have The Company Men, advertised with pictures of serious looking men in suits and black overcoats staring mournfully off in to an uncertain future. Written and directed by John Wells (co-creator of “The West Wing”), The Company Men is a rare example of the Hollywood left actually trying to score genuine political points but you know, as the great Frank Capra helpfully pointed out, if you want to send a message call Western Union.

Ben Affleck is a top sales and marketing executive in the shipbuilding division at a billion dollar US industrial firm managed by Tommy Lee Jones. The parent company needs to juice the stock price to keep the sharks at bay — and shipbuilding has been a losing proposition for years — so Affleck (and thousands of others) are downsized into a shrinking employment market.

Over-extended and highly leveraged, Affleck has to get used to a Porsche-less lifestyle, to the extent of selling his McMansion back to the bank and moving in with his parents. Meanwhile, even Tommy Lee and 30-year veteran employee Chris Cooper (utilising his customary sneer acting technique) are on the way out. No one is safe!

Naive, sentimental and economically illiterate, The Company Men looks like it was produced by people who have never even seen an office job in their lives. Great actors sit at desks and stare at binders full of printed out spreadsheets like they are Aramaic scrolls and then wander around long-abandoned factories reminiscing about the days when people in America made things “with our hands” as if that really matters these days. Kevin Costner plays Affleck’s down-to-earth older brother, a building contractor who makes things “with his hands” and who nobly loses money on a job just to keep his staff on over the winter.

I’m sure there is a great film out there about the pain of being a man at work (in fact I know there is: Glengarry Glen Ross) but The Company Men knows not of which it speaks.

Potiche posterPerhaps the suit and tie wearers in The Company Men would have had a better time of it if their boss had been Catherine Deneuve from Potiche. She plays Suzanne, the “trophy wife” of small town factory owner Robert (Fabrice Luchini), forced to take over management of the company when her husband succumbs to illness and hubris. Of course, hubby can’t stand it when she turns the operation around and we’re set for a classic battle of wills in the boardroom and the bedroom.

Set in the chauvinistic 70s — when attitudes to women in the workplace were as antiquated as the Employers and Manufacturers Association (Northern) Inc. — most of the fun seems to be purely nostalgic and because the script is a lazy adaptation of a successful stage play the action is mostly studio-bound with lots of the best stuff happening off-screen.

The nicest touch is making Deneuve boss of an umbrella factory — ask a Film Society member why that is so sweet.

Bill Cunningham New York posterFinally, a slightly more extended shout-out to Bill Cunningham New York, a film that got a ten word recommendation in my World Cinema Showcase preview back in April. Cunningham has been producing a weekly street-fashion segment for the New York Times for almost 40 years, cycling around Manhattan looking for interesting people with an interesting look. He’s a lovely guy and his selfless cataloguing of decades of trends make him a living treasure. He also takes their social pics, and takes them very seriously too.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 13 July, 2011.