It’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.
I’ve been busy over the last few weeks working on New Zealand’s biggest participatory film event, the V 48 Hours which reaches its local climax tonight at the Embassy Theatre. It’s a wonderful celebration of Wellington film talent and there may be door sales so check with the venue.
One of the inspirations for 48 Hours is the true story of a group of Mississippi kids who spent six years of weekends and holidays in the 1980s remaking Raiders of the Lost Ark — shot for shot — on home video. The project went from notorious to legendary in 2003 when the kids (now adults) were invited to meet Lucas and Spielberg and their story was even optioned by Paramount. I can’t see that picture getting made now as Spielberg (and J.J. “Star Trek” Abrams) have come up with something that, though partially inspired by the boys’ VHS efforts, goes in a different direction entirely, honouring not just their homemade Raiders but Spielberg’s own E.T. and Close Encounters .
In a small Ohio town in 1979 a bunch of kids are making a zombie flick so they can enter the local Super 8 film competition. During an unauthorised night shoot at the railway station they witness a devastating train crash which unleashes mysterious forces that the Government is desperate to cover up. As the freaked-out citizenry are evacuated so the Air Force can hunt down the whatever-it-is that’s escaped, our heroic kids head back in to the danger zone armed only with curiosity and that child-like sense of right and wrong that Mr. Spielberg used to specialise in.
Stars are important. Despite their supposedly waning influence on box office (Avatar managed perfectly well without a marquee name and Bruce Willis hasn’t carried a hit film in years) the charisma of a leading man is still a key factor in how we much we enjoy our escapism.
Exhibit A is the inexplicable success of Gerard Butler. Despite an unpleasant on- screen persona that mostly oozes brutishness and condescension he continues to rate well with certain target markets and, as a result I still have to watch his films. The latest is a repellent revenge fantasy called Law Abiding Citizen in which Butler gets to smirk his way through several remote-control murders while supposedly locked away in solitary confinement. How does he do it, we are supposed to ask.
Butler is Clyde Shelton, an inventor and family man whose family is randomly targeted by two low-life home invaders. They kill his wife and child (but inexplicably leave him alive as a witness) but hot shot Assistant DA (Jamie Foxx) is worried about his win-loss ratio and cuts a deal that saves one of the perps from Death Row. Shelton is upset about the supposed lack of justice and hatches an eight year plot to teach everyone involved (including the entire Philadelphia city administration and the Pennsylvania justice system) a lesson.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall is an ideal post-Festival palate cleanser: a saucy comedy fresh off the Judd Apatow production line (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up). Here he gives the spotlight to one of his supporting players: Jason Segal (Knocked Up) plays tv composer Peter who within two minutes of the start of the film is dumped by tv star Sarah M. (Kristen Bell from “Veronica Mars”). He goes to Hawaii to recover only to discover that his ex is also there – with her new English rock star boyfriend. Very funny in parts, surprisingly moving at times thanks to a heartfelt performance from big lump Segal, FSM gets an extra half a star for featuring professional West Ham fanRussell Brand, playing a version of his sex-addicted stage persona.
Returning swiftly from the Festival is The Italian, a lovely and old-fashioned art-house winner about a six year-old Russian orphan played by the wonderful Kolya Spiridonov. He’s Vanya, a little urchin with soulful eyes who sees everything that goes on in his wretched Dickensian orphanage including the corruption, thievery and abuse. The mother of his best friend makes a pathetic drunken appearance which gives him the idea that he, too, might have a mother. And, if he has a mother then there’s no reason why he can’t find her so they can live together forever. Highly recommended.
My Best Friend is one of those French films that signals its gallic credentials with plenty of accordion music (though falls short of gratuitous Eiffel Tower shots like Orchestra Seats earlier in the year). Ubiquitous Daniel Auteuill plays an antique dealer who discovers he has no friends but needs one to win a bet. He discovers trivia buff taxi driver Dany Boon who seems to win friends effortlessly and demands to know his secret.
And, like so many French films, the effete bourgeois gets life lessons from the down-to-earth proletarian (cf Conversations With My Gardener, still to return from the Festival) because the life of an intellectual is no life at all. If this was an American remake starring John Travolta and, say, Chris Rock we’d call it the rubbish it is.
Talking of rubbish American remakes, No Reservations is a virtually shot-for-shot recreation of the German hit Mostly Martha about an uptight female chef disarmed by her 9 year-old niece and the vivid Italian chef she is forced to work beside. This is a vehicle for Catherine Zeta-Jones with support from Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin and talking chin Aaron Eckhart and I’m sure most will find it unexceptional; I despised its lazy competence including the cynical ability to commission a rare Philip Glass score and then discard it whenever the need for a cheap pop cue appears.
Breach is a terribly good, low-key, post-Cold War thriller anchored by a Champions League performance from Chris Cooper as real-life FBI traitor Robert Hanssen who was caught and convicted in February 2001 after 22 years selling secrets to the Russians. Helping nail him is rookie Ryan Phillippe who, at first, is seduced by his pious Catholicism and computer-nerdery before discovering the complex and unusual man inside. Of course, while the FBI was putting every spare man-hour on the case of the mole within, several Saudi students were learning to fly planes in Florida so it wasn’t exactly the Bureau’s finest hour.
In The War Within, Grand Central Station in New York is the target of fictional Al-Qaeda terrorist Hassan who, like Derek Luke’s character in Catch a Fire a few weeks ago, is an innocent man radicalised by the brutality around him. Very well made and photographed (HD’s digital ability to produce vivid, saturated colours well to the fore) on a modest budget. The War Within is almost calculated to be of limited interest to mainstream audiences but will certainly reward those who seek it out.
In Black Snake Moan, psychologically-damaged abuse-victim Christina Ricci goes off the deep end when boyfriend Justin Timberlake leaves their small Tennessee town to join the National Guard. Grizzled Blues veteran Samuel L. Jackson chains her to a radiator to save her from herself but he has issues of his own, of course. Black Snake Moan gets better the more it trusts its characters and, if you can get past the pulp shock value, there’s a good film inside.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times, Wednesday 23 August, 2007.
Some screening notes: The Italian screened at home several weeks ago on a time-coded DVD from the Film Festival; My Best Friend viewed from the too close front row of a packed Penthouse Three (the big new one) on 11 August; No Reservations seen at a virtually empty staff and media screening in Readings 8 at 9.15 on a Monday morning (6 August); Breach watched this Monday (20 August) at the Empire in Island Bay who shouted me a free coffee after I bitched about the bus driver making me throw my first one away; The War Within screened at home on Saturday night from a gently watermarked DVD from Arkles, the distributor; Black Snake Moan screened at the Paramount on Monday afternoon.
Full disclosure: I have done paid work in the past for Arkles Entertainment (distributor of The War Within) and am designing their new web site which will be live next week.