Friday, June 27, 2008

"WALL·E" -- * * * *



**WARNING: My review of "WALL·E" reveals a bit more than the trailer does, but I don't discuss anything past the halfway point of a 90 minute movie**


While Pixar's consistent greatness has gotten to the point of being taken for granted, it's often overlooked to what a huge extent they've changed the animation world; these aren't films that settle for being merely 'cute.' Adults, in large numbers, are now going to animated movies on their own. Animated movies are now getting Oscar nominations for their screenplays. Every animated work is now held to a higher standard: the Pixar standard. Even the ones that are favorably received ("Kung Fu Panda") are preceded with "It's no Pixar movie, but..." With Andrew Stanton's "WALL·E," I don't want to say Pixar has produced their best film yet, but I don't want to rule it out either. It's certainly in the upper echelon at least, joining the ranks of "Toy Story 2," "The Incredibles," "Finding Nemo" and "Ratatouille." It's a gutsy, downright exhilarating film, one that I think takes more risks in terms of storytelling and filmmaking decisions than any Pixar film has thus far, but does it while remaining entirely accessible to anyone (of any age) who wants in. A lot of times folks will grade certain films generously because they're "for kids," but "WALL·E" offers originality, comedy, emotion, character definition, and substantive ideas on a level that surpasses most movies, period, not just in the animation world. It's a complete delight, and at this halfway point, my favorite film of 2008 so far.

Opening in the year 2800, "WALL·E" begins with shots of a decimated, unoccupied planet Earth filled with empty, decrepit buildings (all ominously labeled with 'BNL') and massive piles of garbage. As the camera swoops in, we see the planet is not entirely vacated, but is occupied by a lone figure, a robot named WALL·E -- Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class. WALL·E is apparently, one of many such robots that were sent to clean up Earth and attempt to make it sustainable for life, but when the goal was deemed futile, he was the only one (assumedly mistakenly) left behind. Unphased, WALL·E continues to do (as he's done for presumably hundreds of years) what he was made to do, clean up the Earth -- albeit slowly -- and turns garbage into crushed cubes and stack them up. With only a Big Mouth Billy Bass and a cockroach to keep him company, he mostly spends his non-working time wading through the various items humans left behind and watching his favorite movie, "Hello, Dolly!" When a ship drops off a different sort of robot with an indeterminate mission, WALL·E is immediately smitten, and after much wooing, the other robot (named EVE -- Extra-Terrestrial Vegetation Allocator) reciprocates. The two have a brief, cordial romance, but when WALL·E presents EVE with a little seedling/plant he's found, she's quick to store it, and very soon, the rocket has returned to take her back. Unwilling to lose his newfound love, WALL·E impulsively grabs hold of the rocket and begins hurtling along for the ride back to wherever EVE was sent from.



Much in the way "Kung Fu Panda" was a genuine Kung Fu film, "WALL·E" is in every respect a science-fiction film, and proudly wears its influences on its sleeve. From its core concept to the places it goes as it progresses, the film has some fantastic ideas, and presents a fascinating -- and a wee bit terrifying -- hypothesis of the future that even gets its biological details right (see, cockroaches really can survive anything!). From its grim view of our future, to the chase sequences, to the exploration through space to the wild ambition on display aboard the space station and the places the plot goes in second and third act, this is a truly innovative work of science-fiction that'll simultaneously make geeks foam at the mouth and introduce kids to a genre they might be heretofore unfamiliar with (albeit setting the bar fairly high early on). Stanton has stated that much of "WALL·E" is based on old science fiction classics that influenced him, and while there are noticeable traces of "Silent Running" and "Alien," it's virtually impossible to miss the numerous nods to "2001: A Space Oddysey;" the infamous music is used in a climactic sequence, and hell, the "villain" of the whole thing is a single, programmed despotic red light/eye.

What's so great about Pixar, besides the boundless creativity on display, is that they address very adult themes in very kid-accessible ways without condescension, so that both chunks of the audience get a rewarding experience out of the deal. Here, clearly, the underpinnings are based in the concepts of environmentalism, and specifically about humanity's habit of consumption, planetary destruction and excessive waste. We find out Earth officially became un-inhabitable around 2110, and WALL·E and EVE's respective missions are to clean up humanity's destruction, and help to begin re-instating some sort of ecosystem. Currently, all of remaining humanity is (and has been for about 700 years) confined to a space station made for their mass consumption, and they're all morbidly obese, gelatinous Americans who ride around in carts, and need machines for everything, even to help them sit up. It's an extremely perceptive and scarily not-too-exaggerated vision of the direction humanity is potentially heading (and in some parts of the country, already is). The potential effects of our willy-nilly destruction of our planet is an issue rarely touched upon in movies, let alone ones targeted at children, and as such, it's a phenomenal way of broaching the subject with young'ns, and doing so tactfully (where it's organic to the story) rather than polemically. While it would be impossible to not take note of such themes, Stanton does all of this without ever letting it overtake the movie or allowing this entertainment to transform into a lecture. It's all going on, but it's almost happening in the background, as the movie never loses sight of the central story being told, which is that of WALL·E's journey and his transformative relationship with EVE.



The movie wouldn't work if we somehow didn't care for our titular figure, but thankfully, that's not the case. For a robot, let alone one who doesn't speak, it's astonishing how well-defined a character and personality WALL·E is. I've always had issues with caring, or developing feelings, for characters that are by definition devoid of genuine emotion, but both "WALL·E" and "A.I." found ways around it in having their robot leads develop personalities, either via glitch or specific programming. Turns out WALL·E is one of the more carefully etched figures we've seen in a movie this year, and the filmmakers have equipped him with delicate character development that slowly allows us in and to go along with him through his emotional journey. WALL·E is a creature imbued with sweetness and child-like fascination, as illustrated in how he cherishes little knick-knacks left behind by the human race, whether they're Rubik's cubes, bras, rubber duckies or engagement rings (though he prefers the case to the ring itself).

But he's perhaps best defined by his obsession with the film version of "Hello Dolly!" Before he goes to "sleep" each night, he watches a chunk of the film on his video iPod and longs for someone/something to share a hand-holding session or a dance with; he also records songs from the film and listens to them on playback as he engages in his single-handed clean-up. When Eve finally arrives (she gets born/programmed by her ship before his eyes), WALL·E's immediately entranced, and his extremely shy and courteous courting of her to the strains of Louis Armstrong's "La Vie en Rose" is irresistably adorable. She initially resists -- she's there to follow through on what she's programmed to do -- and shoots at him whenever he chuckles or makes a charmed noise at something she does, but when she finally subsides, and they "meet cute" and introduce themselves, it may be the cutest thing ever. When she's taken back by her ship, WALL·E's determination is more than just a cute character tic, it's rousing and moving all at once; he's finally found companionship at last, and he's not going to lose it.



It's nothing new for Pixar films to be blessed with incredibly gorgeous visuals, but "WALL·E" has so many stunningly beautiful images and sequences, one would be forgiven for being too transfixed to heed the story/characters much mind on a first viewing. When you see that Coens regular Roger Deakins was a 'visual consultant,' everything starts to make sense. There are some quick visual gags that alternate between amusing (an ad proclaiming "Time for Lunch... in a Cup!" and an "Outlet Mall Coming Soon" sign on the moon) and brilliant (WALL·E playing Pong against an immobile Eve), but the chiefly memorable visuals on display here are the ones that may just drop your jaw depending how big a screen you see them on. I found the animation tremendous at every turn, but I was particularly taken with the sequence of WALL·E traveling through orbit on the back of the rocket, and the film's opening shot of space set to "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" from "Hello, Dolly!," as the camera flies towards (and through) a decimated earth with garbage piled as high as the sky. It's a simultaneously beautiful, haunting and darkly funny image that had me from the get-go.

I've read about a dozen articles speculating about what a risk "WALL·E" represents in that its first 38 minutes offer almost no dialogue (WALL·E and Eve mostly just hum and make whirring noises), and questioning whether kids will be able to sit still for an extended, word-free chunk that bears more in common with works of Tati, Chaplin and Keaton than old adventures with Buzz, Nemo and Sully. To this, I ask, are they fucking kidding? If anything, kids are bored by dialogue, and in my experience, they're far more engaged by moments centric on visuals and action than witty banter. Hell, wasn't "Ratatouille" considered a relative box office 'disappointment' because it was too reliant on the screenplay and dialogue for the wee tykes? I think kids are going to go for "WALL·E" in a big way, and if anything, enjoy the first third the most. If very young kids will have issue with anything, I think it might be with grasping the ideas at work here. The actual concept of robots and understanding the whole being-programmed and lack-of-free-will elements can be a bit jarring or confusing (during some quieter moments, I heard a toddler or two ask 'Why did he/she do that?'), and some smaller ones may not quite comprehend how the earth ended up this way, or why all these people are all so fat and can't walk. I think WALL·E and EVE will be their eyes and ears and largely get them through it, but it is kind of heady stuff for little ones.



Even as someone who loves the film, some of the ejaculatory hyperbole I'm reading (particularly on Ain't It Cool News) seems to take expectations to an absurd, almost impossible-to-reach degree, and I've already talked to two different people who, while still liking the film, found themselves to be somewhat let down. To be blunt, you should be excited about the emotionally intimate, aesthetically epic "WALL·E" -- I love it unabashedly, regardless of what any review can or will ever say about it -- but I worry about overhyping it. I'll be the first to admit, it's not a perfect film (I'm still working out how I feel about the brief use of real human actors). That said, if you are at all susceptible to the magic that movies are capable of, you really have no excuse to miss this. Pay the 'G' rating, with its implications of being kiddie-oriented, no mind; "WALL·E" is more thoughtful, daring, entertaining and emotionally satisfying than anything else playing in theaters right now, and I can't recommend it enough.

"Wanted" -- * * *



At least once every few months, an action movie bursts into theaters with both guns blazing and either captures the imagination of the violence-loving masses or crumbles under the weight of its own ambitions (or lack thereof). Cheerfully amoral and blissfully dumb, Timur Bekmambetov's "Wanted" thankfully falls into the former category, and armed with a sense of humor and a Hefty bag-full of visual tricks, it sends you out of the theater at least twice as full of adrenaline as you were when you entered. It's basically "The Matrix" if the Wachowskis lost interest in philosophy and weren't quite so concerned with making sense. While fans of the source material and/or logic may not be able to let themselves surrender to the high-energy proceedings, its propulsive, unrelenting nature will likely suck in the most base-influenced and crass among us, and leave the rest either chuckling or nodding in its wake.

All the action-filled shenanigans revolve around Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy), the sort of pathetic lout who Googles his name at work and gets no results. His boss (Lorna Scott) gives him shit, his girlfriend (Kristen Hager) is cheating on him, he downs anxiety-suppressants like candy, his ATM calls him "asshole" when he tries to make a withdrawal, and he generally all-around hates his life. When at the drugstore to pick up some more medication, a voluptuous assassin named Fox (Angelina Jolie) sidles up beside him and informs him that his father (David O'Hara), who Wesley thought long-dead, was in fact, killed only yesterday. Turns out he was a member of a secret society of assassins called The Fraternity, and now the dude (Thomas Kretschmann) who snuffed out pop wants to kill Wesley too. After an extended chase, Fox takes Wesley to the Fraternity's headquarters -- also a textile factory -- and meets their leader, Sloan (Morgan Freeman). Wesley is promptly shown his true destiny, to join the league of assassins and wipe out those who need wiping out. Suddenly, Wesley is important, and his once-futile existence is given some credence; cue the echoes of "Matrix's" 'chosen one' arc. Sort-of a "Kung Fu Panda" for the over-18 set, the movie is largely made up of Wesley's training as he learns how to best unleash that (as Sloan says) "caged lion locked inside," get schooled in gun-and-knife-wielding (including "curving" bullets), and get revenge for his slain father.



Bekmambetov proves here that he can assuredly handle a big-budget Hollywood film, while infusing it with the visual flair that was the only good thing about "Night Watch." The closest comparison tone-wise would probably be "Shoot 'Em Up," but I recently rewatched that film, and while I still recommend it, it's more of a patchwork of goofy, fun set-pieces than an actual movie; "Wanted" delivers a more satisfying, slickly-packaged whole, and that's primarily due to the Russian helmer's work. I liked little touches, like the symbolic smashing of Wesley's boss's red stapler, but the true masterstroke is a shot of Wesley smacking the gentleman screwing his girlfriend across the face with his office keyboard, with the keys flying toward the camera spelling out 'FUCK YOU,' with the dude's upside down tooth making up the second 'U.' It's visual ingenuity like that that makes this a lot more fun to watch than other films featuring some of this one's more familiar elements. The movie also fucks with its chronology a lot in inventive ways; a scene will abruptly end prematurely and then we'll find out how they actually ended up later (e.g.: Wesley gets stabbed in the hand, and then we cut to him in a bathtub encased in wax). Though it may frustrate some, it's not just a stupid device; it enhances our understanding of why the scenes end up the way they do.

With its non-stop absurdity and defiance of anything grounding it in reality, "Wanted" might as well be a comedy, and that's not a criticism; its dumbness isn't something you have to overlook, it's a key component to the fun. Bekmambetov knows every step of the way how silly all this is, and refuses to either play it 100% straight or let jokiness undermine the events of the movie. Instead, he has fun with the defiance of logic, always leaving the film's tongue firmly planted in its cheek (my first chuckle was in the first second, as the setting-establishing bottom crawl reads "1,000 Years Ago"), and gets us to go along with it by never over-explaining things to us. The logic behind, say, the curving of the bullets, is never really explained -- we just have to accept that this movie takes place where bullets can curve if you whip your gun around like a boomerang while you shoot it. In addition, characters jump through windows of skyscrapers, assassination targets are randomly determined by code written in fibers on a giant weaving system called the Loom of Fate, wings are shot off flies, and exploding rats are used as weapons; if you can't deal with it, it's best to jump off the train as its leaving the station. However, in a movie full of ridiculous things happening, perhaps the most ridiculous is that James McAvoy's girlfriend would cheat on him with some oafy, unattractive douche.



For a movie about people who spend the majority of their time slinging around lots of knives and guns, the proceedings are almost jarringly good-spirited and freewheeling. I kept waiting for things to get a bit darker than they did (even "Shoot 'Em Up" reveled in black humor or shock value), but I was okay with the fact that they didn't; this movie's just interested in showing you a good time. At the end of the day, this is most emphatically an "action movie," and a big reason why I think it works is that there's something about the action sequences that aren't just energetic, but downright energizing. I could see some finding the perpetual nature of them alone a bit numbing, but by the time we hit the halfway mark, I felt overly-caffeinated and was ready for more. There have certainly been more violent movies than this, but it may hold the record for most slo-mo brains splattering out the back of heads in a major motion picture. There are two major, excellent action sequences in the first 20 minutes alone, and some may cite a climactic train shootout (with bullets that keep smacking into each other) as a favorite, but the moment the movie truly won me over is when one target is killed through his limo's moonroof... by McAvoy and Jolie flipping their car over the limo mid-drive. Yes, it's that sort of movie. It's also the sort of movie that has difficulty sustaining the adrenaline it builds up by the time we near the end, but there's enough here to satisfy even the most A.D.D. of action fanatics.

The film is (understandably) being sold with Jolie's supporting presence, but McAvoy's clearly the star of this show. While I couldn't be happier for the supremely talented Scot, I find it highly amusing -- and a little sad -- that after his illuminating, complex turn in the beneath-him "Atonement," it's his crack at being 'James McAvoy: Action Hero' that may turn him into a household name. It's also regrettable that for an actor who's built up 'heartthrob' status with his transfixing blue eyes and Scottish brogue, McAvoy is again -- after "Penelope" -- asked to perform his role with an American accent (blue eyes still here though). The Yankee accent has improved since the pig-nose movie, but it still has some work to do; almost all of his lines are read in a whiney monotone that grated on my nerves a little bit. Still, for a role that largely requires him to shriek and get the shit beaten out of him, McAvoy holds his own, and makes for a comfortable, suitably sweaty action hero by the third act. Jolie, who makes her first appearance around the 15-minute point, is surprisingly very good as the sultry action queen Fox, and it struck me that this is the sort of role she was born to play. She barely speaks (and shows her ass), but she gets across so much with a lot of stares and head tilts; she has a particularly choice moment when Wesley bellows "Leave me alone!" and she just gives him a glance-and-smile that radiates "Aw, isn't that cute." Freeman yet again, boringly, plays wise old mentor man, and mostly just glowers a lot, but I'd be lying if I said there wasn't something irresistible about hearing his God-like dulcet tones say the word "motherfucker."



I don't want to make the claim that the substance level here rivals the style, but beyond the loud inanity, there are actual intriguing ideas. Wesley's questioning of authoritative killing orders ("What'd he do that he deserves to die?") are mined for their eventual thematic heft, and a twist at around the 80-minute mark is actually thought-provoking in its implications. When attempting to ease Wesley's concerns, Fox offers up the concept of "Kill one, maybe save a thousand," and that the film doesn't really explore the complexities of that "maybe" is one of its weaknesses; it'd much rather spend time on minor quirks like Fox listening to "If You Like Pina Coladas..." on the radio post-high-speed-chase, and a bullet flying through the donut of Wesley's fat boss. Since this is a film more about things being shot up really good rather than one about narrative/thematic complexities, I didn't find the simplicity a crippling blow, but time spent on them would've been nice.

Lest I forget, "Wanted" is a comic book adaptation. There is always so much speculation and obsession on the level of 'faithfulness' on film adaptations of, say, "Spider-Man" or "Iron Man," that it's often overlooked in the case of lesser-known works (a massive re-tooling of "I Am Legend" didn't stop it from grossing half a billion dollars). While "Wanted" the film is badass enough in its own right, from the little I know about its source material, I don't know how pleased I'd be if I were a fan of the comic books. Despite author Mark Millar's blessing (I'm sure his big fat check coaxed that blessing out a bit), this doesn't really resemble his original works, aside from some core ideas; while I understand the reasons for that -- it would've made for a much more nihilistic and disturbing film -- something about it doesn't sit right with me. In the comics, Wesley is joining an elite group of super-villainous assassins and numerous innocents are gleefully laid waste too... here, not so much. For those who haven't read them (i.e. most of the people who are going to see this movie), it likely won't matter much, but it's disheartening to know that a much cooler version of this movie had potential to be in store.



Despite (or for some, because of) the missed opportunities, once you settle in and relax, "Wanted" is supremely dumb fun of the highest order. With traces of "The Matrix," "Fight Club," "Speed Racer" and "Shoot 'Em Up" rolled into one deliciously goofy package, it's a high-energy action-filled blast that's practically tailor-made for the summer movie season. Despite its defiance of all sense of reality and logic, it doesn't insult your intelligence; in fact, it does quite the opposite: it assumes you're smart enough to acknowledge and go along with how silly it is. It may be overwhelming in the worst way possible for some, while others will already be salivating for a sequel, but either way, it fills the current quality-action void in our multiplex. Filmed with a rarely-seen glee that showcases all that can be glorious about hardcore violence, "Wanted" is basically the filmic equivalent of Red Bull, and that was just fine with me.

Friday, June 20, 2008

"The Love Guru" -- * 1/2



I admit that Marco Schnabel's "The Love Guru" was one of 2008's more dreaded big summer movies for me. Despite my appreciation for Mike Myers' talent, the trailer looked horrific, and I entered the screening half-expecting the experience of watching the movie in full to be borderline-torturous. So, perhaps the mere fact that I didn't hate it is some sort of recommendation in itself, but while the movie is unquestionably better/funnier than I expected, it's still quite bad, and disconcertingly, it's tough to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. No, despite advance protests, it's not offensive to Indian people (though if you're gay or a midget, that's another story). The filmmaking on display is no less shoddy or competent than the "Austin Powers" films, so your liking is entirely dependent on whether or not you find the jokes funny. Personally, I found Myers' repeated dependence on his formerly winning formula of scatological jokes and shameless mugging desperate and kind of sad, and for someone who's so clearly gifted, it's almost mind-boggling how many of his jokes fall completely flat. At the end of the day, it's disposable, dumb comedic fare that goes down easy enough and will be forgotten just as easily, but in the realm of stupid movies currently playing at your multiplex, I'd take the Zohan over Guru Pitka in a heartbeat.

The movie is basically a series of sketches scotch-taped together with a guise of a plot, all centering around hugely successful Guru Pitka (Myers), who despite constantly chasing the popularity of Deepak Chopra, has developed a huge following with his pearls of wisdom, acronyms and repeated-mantra, "Mariska Hargitay." When Toronto Maple Leafs player Darren Roanoke (Romany Malco), known as "the Tiger Woods of hockey," is left by his girlfriend Prudence (Meagan Good) for big-dicked fellow player Jacques "Le Coq" Grande (a wildly mugging Justin Timberlake), Pitka is recruited by Maple Leafs owner Jane (Jessica Alba) to use his wisdom to get the couple back together. As he does so, Pitka develops a severe attraction/love for Jane, but cannot act on it due to his chastity belt, befitted for him by his mentor, the severely cross-eyed Guru Tugginmapuddha (a -- detecting a theme here? -- wildly mugging Ben Kingsley). Once Pitka learns to love himself, he can love others, and the chastity belt will be removed... or something like that. Throughout, Chopra's name is mentioned so many times, his cameo near the end is inevitable, though it's interesting to note that both Oprah Winfrey (who's named-checked about a dozen times) and Celine Dion are presences in the film as characters, but both wisely declined to actually appear.



As the movie began, I started thinking maybe I was wrong about my negative preconceived notions. It opens promisingly enough, with a mildly funny gag about a Morgan Freeman voice-over machine and amusingly setting up its story. Then, it immediately made me smile big with an opening credits musical sequence of Pitka singing/playing Dolly Parton's iconic "9 to 5" on the sitar. However, within five minutes, Pitka is sticking his head up his own ass, and we're getting thudding pop culture references to Paris, Britney and Lohan. The movie still has its occasional bright spots after this (there's a cute, brief nod to "Wayne's World"), but they're few and far between. The movie is all but stolen by Stephen Colbert and Jim Gaffigan as non-sequitir spouting Hockey announcers, but even they're familiar stock character that have been used better in many other movies.

What "Love Guru" makes the most evident is that Myers' comedic I.Q. seems to be regressing as he gets older. Go back and watch the "Wayne's World" films; No one would make the argument that they're particularly high-minded, but there are little-to-no gags about farting, boners, or urination/defecation. The "Austin Powers" films took things up a notch with penis jokes a-plenty, diarrhea mustaches, prolonged urinations and non-stop double entendres. With "Love Guru," Myers shows his highest percentage of scatological material yet, with nearly all of its comedic material being made up of jokes about boogers, farting, urine and elephant poop. Everything here is very crude and sexual, and that's fine in theory, it's just that so many of them are especially strained, tired and just plain stupid. A sequence of characters hitting each other in the face with mops soaked in piss seems to go on forever, and the movie never relents with Pitka's self-help acronyms that spell out things like "B-L-O-W-M-E". At one point late in the proceedings, Myers has two elephants fucking in the middle of a hockey arena for reasons that eluded me, but my crowd (who seemingly have never been to the zoo) ate it up. Basically, if you find the concept of something being in the shape of a dick and balls funny, you'll be in comedy heaven here.



But don't worry, lots of other jokes fall flat besides just the pre-adolescent-targeting scatology. The most overt problem that's evident here is Myers giving Pitka the character trait of constantly laughing at his own jokes. It just reeks of desperation to have the character's reaction insist that a joke is funny, and when all else fails, Schnabel cuts to other characters laughing at him. By and large, things are kept as broad and simple as possible (e.g.: people getting hit in the head of hockey pucks), but Myers' attempts at strange running jokes are just misguided; references to a "Quebec Pizza" as a pop tart with ketchup left my audience more bewildered than amused, and the repeated uttering of the 'Mariska Hargitay' mantra just keeps chugging along, never getting any funnier. And for all the pre-opening rumblings about offended Indians, I'm surprised the little people community isn't up in arms; there's more overtly mean mocking of midegts than the "Austin Powers" films put together. In those movies, the jokes were more of the "tee-hee, it's a little version of Dr. Evil" variety; here, it's straight up calling Verne Troyer "gnome" and "Keebler Elf" and making fun of him for being short. Myers also shoehorns in jokes/references that seem to have gone past their expiration date; the movie ends with a Bollywood parody (which have already been done to death), includes a dusty reference to "Punk'd," and features a near-replica of an outsourcing joke from "Zohan."

Myers has stated in numerous interviews that this was a very personal project for him, and I believe it, since he apparently only rarely deems a project worthy of his comedic talents (this is his first live-action appearance in a film in five years). Even if he has the ego to cameo as himself in his own movie, I admire Myers for his creativity, madcap energy and concede to the fact that he has an inspired comedic mind; I also admire him for centering this movie around his longtime love, hockey, despite it being a sport nobody cares about anymore. Whenever I see Myers in a crap movie, it's more sad than anything else because I know he's a talented guy, and even sadder because you can see how much effort and craft went into it; here are lots of original jokes here, I'll give him that, but very few of them are funny. "Love Guru" falls way, way short of the first two "Austin Powers" films and the two "Wayne's World" films -- it even pales in comparison to "So I Married An Axe Murderer" -- but it's certainly no "Cat in the Hat" (still, one of the worst movies I've ever seen) or "Goldmember;" then again, that's hardly a standard for success. At the heart of the movie's failure lies the fact that its title character just isn't a very funny one. I have difficulty imagining even those who laugh at its poop-and-dick jokes clamoring for another Pitka movie.



It's worth noting that almost all the cast here is trying their best, but almost to a person, they're terrible. Timberlake has proven himself adept at dramatic work (e.g.: "Alpha Dog," "Southland Tales," "Black Snake Moan") and comedy (his "SNL" hosting gigs) alike, and he's fearless in making a fool of himself here, but for almost every second he's on screen as Jacques le Coq, he's borderline-embarrassing. His horrific French-Canadian accent may be intentional, but he seems to have taken a cue from Myers with his mugging and exaggerated gyrations; it might be enough for some that he's shirtless in a handful of scenes, but I was mostly shaking my head at any joke he delivered. As Jane, Alba gives one of her better performances, mostly due to the fact that she's not given much dialogue; still, when she's asked to emote or raise her voice, it's a reminder of why she's, by far, the worst actress working today. Though, giving her a run for her money, Jessica Simpson shows up to answer the question 'Can an actress really be cringe-inducingly awful in a ten-second cameo?'

Much has been made of the fact that two broad, high-profile comedies with major stars -- "The Love Guru" and "Get Smart" -- are facing off at the box office this weekend. This is a much more original, inspired work than the formulaic "Get Smart," so I feel a little guilty saying that I liked the latter significantly better. As conventional as it is, "Get Smart" generally succeeds at what it's trying to do, and has more moments where I was chuckling or enjoying myself, while "Love Guru" more often flounders in its desperate scatology. I do have to emphasize that "The Love Guru" is not a particularly painful sit. There have certainly been worse, lazier dumb comedies, and the whole affair goes by fairly quickly (the 80-minute running time helps). I wouldn't begrudge its defenders; 10-to-15-year-old boys, in particular, should adore it. But in a summer already rife with broad comedies to choose from., I'd advise you sit this one out and wait for Myers' next, hopefully better effort.

Monday, June 16, 2008

"Get Smart" -- * * 1/2



Peter Segal's movie version of the 1965-1970 spy spoof series "Get Smart" is neither a particularly strong representation of what's beloved about the show, nor a joyless cash-grab that coasts on its name-brand familiarity (e.g.: "Bewitched"). Rather, it's a slick, broad, fun enough time at the movies that I'm right on the verge of recommending, but not quite all the way there. As a sizable fan of both Steve Carell and the original television series, I enjoyed the movie overall, but found it hard to ignore just how hit-and-miss and formulaic it was. An apparent love for its source material by the filmmaker, a perfectly cast Carell in the titular role, a fast-moving narrative, and about a 55% joke success rate, adds up to a generally satisfying summer comedy that isn't likely to knock anyone's socks off nor seriously underwhelm. Those pleased with the film adaptations of "Starsky and Hutch" and "Miami Vice," and underwhelmed by, say, "I Spy" and "Bewitched," should find this a fairly happy medium, as long as expectations are kept subsided.

For a spy movie, even a tremendously goofy one, the plot here is surprisingly sparse. Obviously, the proceedings center around Maxwell Smart (Carell), an eager information analyst working for U.S. spy agency C.O.N.T.R.OL. Smart, who has both "Russian Chatter" and ABBA's "Take a Chance" on his iPod, longs to be an agent out in the field, and looks up to the heroic Agent 23 (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson). After he aces his agent exams and C.O.N.T.R.O.L.'s enemy agency, K.A.O.S., kills off almost every C.O.N.T.R.O.L. agent, The Chief (Alan Arkin) finally grants Max a promotion. Max is paired with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), a sleek, hyper-efficient agent who has recently undergone major plastic surgery to make her look like Anne Hathaway. Together, the two must locate K.A.O.S.'s leader, Siegfriend (Terence Stamp), and take him down. Many set-pieces that only tangentially have to do with the plot ensure, and it all culminates in a race-to-the-bomb-equipped-location climax set to "Ode to Joy."



Like the show it's based on, the film's tone is consistently goofy. Even in the action moments that work, there's no real sense of danger, and we're never asked to take anything seriously. Thankfully, the movie throws enough at us that, even with all the pitfalls, I was laughing or smiling an awful lot (and usually at Carell). The chief set-piece that really works (and the filmmakers clearly know it, judging by their desperate closing of the film with repeating it) is one of Max retreating to the lavatory aboard a mid-flight airplane, and attempting to escape from his shackles. His continual incompetence is as stupid as it is hilarious, and the essence of what the character should be. Some of the briefer, sillier moments that resemble the show's sense of humor (a bit involving the "cone of silence") are among the movie's strongest, as well as throwaway lines/jokes like one Arkin tosses off about existentialism, and Max's referring to Ryan Seacrest as "American's Sweetheart." The physical stuff really works, like the phone-throwing gag from the trailer, and the movie deserves commendation for amazingly making me laugh at its one reliance on gross-out humor (a truly disgusting puke joke), which I generally abhor.

The jokes that do miss thankfully aren't of the groan-worthy, thudding variety, but just of the staring-at-the-screen-acknowledgement-that-that-joke-didn't-work sort. It's noticeable that the ones that particularly flounder are the big, scripted set-pieces; a bit where Max is mistaken for shoe-bomber on board an airplane falls flat (as well as brings to mind the most recent "Harold and Kumar" film), as well as sequence where Max dances with a morbidly obese woman -- while "size 6" Hathaway steams -- at a banquet. Still, in each of these, Carell manages to shine through, making the best out of any material he's given. Other stuff of the broader variety, such as a head-shaking bit involving a squealing, cartoonish pig, that don't feature Carell, aren't as successful. Then there's other stuff where you may chuckle at, but not feel good about it almost immediately after (a scene where Ken Davitian is on the receiving end of simulated anal sex again after "Borat" comes to mind).



It was fairly evident from the moment his casting was announced that Carell was perfect for this role, and sure enough, he's aces in it. Taking his bumbling incompetence (and just a pinch of awkwardness) from "The Office's" Michael Scott, Carell manages to play off his well-known persona without quite playing "Steve Carell" again and making Maxwell Smart a unique character. Max isn't imbued with depth -- no one here is -- but Carell plays him brilliantly, bringing to mind the perfect matching of actor-and-character of Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark. Anyone who's been paying attention to the film world in the last few years realizes that Carell is a fantastic comic who can make iffy jokes work and turns horrifically awful movies into merely bad ones (e. g. "Evan Almighty"). I laughed a lot here at just-okay lines because of him, and I don't know if many other actors could actually make puke jokes or fat-suit gags (Max is given a formerly-fat backstory) funny to me. Still, the movie gives him a wealth of broad material for him to run with, and he never for a second seems like he's slumming or pushing to try to make lazy material work. Aside from being effortlessly hilarious, Carell has a warmth and likability to him that just makes you smile, and works to great advantage in making Max appear like an actual person, not just a caricature. From his warnings in research presentations, "the next 100 pages can get a little bit dry," to his playful banter with Hathaway, he's the perfect fit for Maxwell Smart and he goes a long way towards making the movie work.

Hathaway is sexier here than she's ever been in a movie before, but unfortunately, no less boring. She's not overtly bad -- she never is -- but I'm still waiting for a movie where she exudes any sort of charm or charisma and doesn't just reek of blandness. Johnson's actually in the film very little; he appears in just a handful of scenes, and doesn't get much to do, but he handles the material pretty well (particularly his supercool, cocky, slo-mo entrance which culminates with him walking into a wall). Arkin seems to be having fun here, and has noticeable chemistry with Carell, even if the role doesn't ask much of him; still, it's hard not to smile hearing the actor utter "I've been waiting for this since Nixon!" as he tackles the Vice President. Stamp clearly hasn't enjoyed himself on screen in a few decades, but even so, he still manages to get laughs with his monotone delivery as Siegfried. James Caan turns up in a few funny scenes as a Bush-clone President who pronounces nuclear "nucular" and is seen reading "Goodnight Moon to a class of elementary schoolers; it was done better by Quaid in "American Dreamz," but Bush is an easy enough target to make fun of, that Caan still made me chuckle. The two "comedy teams" on the sidelines don't fare so well; "Heroes"'s Masi Oka and Nate Torrence (resembling a fatter Nick Swardson) are more annoying than funny, while David Koechner and Terry Crews are brilliantly paired together as a team, and then get very little to do



Despite having Mel Brooks and Buck Henry on board as consultants, it's tough to say exactly what diehard fans of the TV show will think of the movie. They may not be pleased with some of the dumber jokes and action scenes, but I found enough here in the spirit of the show, as well as knowing references, to be satisfied on that front. The opening credits, where we see Max marching through the never-ending series of metal security gates on way to phone booth as the familiar theme music plays, is pretty much perfect, and starts the movie off right. Though we have to wait till the 84-minute mark to see any reference of the famous shoe-phone, such touches as Agent 13's brief appearance inside a tree (a good cameo by a comedic genius) and Max's using Noodnik Shpilkis as an alias as one point, should generate enough goodwill among purists. My only real issue with movie/show incongruity is that Max is maybe just a bit more competent than he really should be. The show's Maxwell Smart had a Clouseau-like ineptness that made his inadvertent success all the more hilarious. Here, Max is generally depicted as a clumsy-but-efficient agent who uses unconventional methods to get the job done; his escape from a jail cell late in the proceedings is amusingly ridiculous, but downright jarring in its competence.

"Get Smart" is perpetually very broad and very silly, and for what it's trying to do, it basically works; I'd give it a favorable/fresh rating, but by a hair. In the summer movie season, known for soulless money-makers, the movie doesn't bring anything drastically new or different to the table, but it offers enough mid-range laughs to at least merit a matinee showing at your multiplex. My crowd seemed to eat it up (there was hearty laughter throughout and applause at the end), and while it probably won't be huge, I think it will hit with audiences, if not critics. Okay, so the film isn't particularly witty, and doesn't cleverly take "Get Smart" into the year 2008 (political subtext is virtually nil), but it's always entertaining -- even when it's not working -- and I have difficulty imagining even the most negative of Nancys emerging from the theater angry they watched it.


"Get Smart" opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, June 20th.

Friday, June 13, 2008

"The Happening" -- *



In the last couple of years, there seems to have been an almost sadistic desire by the media and movie aficionados to see M. Night Shyamalan fail as a filmmaker and a certain malicious glee exuded when he has. I guess it's understandable, considering his very public ego and steady self-proclamations of brilliance, but I've never been one of those people; I've always rooted for this guy to succeed. Whether he's cracked in the head, or misguided at best, I'm all for anyone with an extremely creative, ambitious and unique voice to continue making movies, if only to give us respite from the processed, assembly-line output that makes up much of what we see filling our multiplexes. I may not always be pleased with what he gives us, but I've always been glad he's out there, been a cheerleader of sorts, and an occasional defender (more on that later). So while I take no particular glee in reporting that "The Happening" is easily the worst movie Shyamalan has made so far, it is unquestionably that. I will say, however, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, that it takes true talent to make a film this extraordinarily bad. Skin-crawlingly preachy, seat-tappingly tedious, and filled with such appallingly awful acting and half-thought-out ideas, it's a giant waste of time for everyone, no one more so than Shyamalan.

Opening with an ominous credits sequence of fast-encroaching clouds laid over a font and score clearly emulating (like the movie itself) Shyamalan's own "Signs," the movie starts off with the shit immediately hitting the fan. It's 8:33 a.m. in New York's Central Park, and suddenly, dozens of casual park-goers become immobile, freezing in place, before promptly mutilating themselves and/or committing suicide. Just as our appetite's being whet, we cut to Philadelphia high school biology teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg).... let me repeat that: high school biology teacher Mark Wahlberg. Yeah. Anyway, mid-class, Elliot hears of the events in the park -- and numerous other parks -- and he, along with everyone else, assumes the cause is bio-terrorism; all people know is that whatever's causing people to do this to themselves is airborne, and it's happening in random spots in the Northeast. Ever-responsive, Elliot and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), whose marriage has been on the rocks lately, hit the road, along with fellow math teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and his 8-year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), to try to escape or out-run this airborne virus. When their train breaks down in Filbert, PA, Julian leaves Jess with the trouble couple, as he tries to go search for his still-in-the-city wife. As Elliot, Alma (who keeps getting cell phone calls from a 'Joey') and Jess make their way across Pennsylvania, they intermittently run into other refugees and join forces, but keep finding dead bodies in their paths, indicating this dangerous wind is coming in their direction. We find out very early on what's causing this to happen, and while I'll let you discover it for yourself, I will say that Shyamalan's screenplay was originally titled "The Green Effect."



In my ever-optimistic nature, I'll start with what's good here. James Newton Howard's score, while extremely reminiscent of "Signs," is very effective throughout, and often does a nice job establishing atmosphere when the movie itself can't. Also the opening ten minutes, largely spoiled by the ads, are gangbusters. With people suddenly, and without expression, offing themselves in exceedingly creative ways, Shyamalan throws a plethora of unsettling imagery at us, and staged in a clever, chilling manner (a sequence of an assembly line of folks shooting themselves in the head stops just short of going from scary to silly). It's an opening the film can't come close to living up to, nor does it try to; this opening is the hook the movie's being sold on, but there's not much of it there. The film, while frequently meandering and dreary, isn't particularly boring, so I guess that's a plus -- the promise of something horrific happening hangs in the air, and adds an air of menace to everything even when we're rolling our eyes or staring in disbelief. And lastly, even while ripping off elements from "The Signal," "War of the Worlds," "The Mist" and "The Birds," at the movie's core lies a fantastic idea. Again, I'll try to avoid flatly giving away who/what's causing all this mayhem, but once it's revealed, I knew exactly what Shyamalan was trying to do, and I actually got excited. This premise, if done right, has potential to be fucking terrifying. Almost inexplicably, Shyamalan takes it and uses it to its most base, lame, B-movie mechanics, and repeatedly torpedoes the movie's potential. There's a germ of a terrific idea here, and I hope someone else steals it and runs with it, exploiting it for its real possibilities/implications.

Shyamalan's noble, stump issue this time around is environmentalism and harsh, deserved criticism for the way we're treating our planet. But rather than do this with any degree of subtlety, substance or insight, the misunderstood-genius filmmaker goes on frequent bouts of moralizing, and the screenplay is rife with high school senior-level metaphor. There are numerous characters that purely, and obviously, exist as symbols/metaphor. First we get a student of Elliot's who doesn't care about global warming because it doesn't effect him. Then later on, we get a character who literally says "The world don't care about me, and I don't care about it!" Hmm, wonder if that character will symbolically meet their doom? For the slightly-less-brain-dead audience members, there's a ham-handed image here of a nuclear power plant right behind a greenhouse, and in a touch that made me particularly cringe, our main group of environment-fleers running past a real estate sign that proclaims "You Deserve This!"



I will try my best to avoid hyperbole, but the performances here by our leads are, frankly, astonishing. Displaying acting that seems straight out of children's theatre acting with big, emphatic, mannered delivery, Deschanel and especially Wahlberg are so dramatically awful that I can't imagine they'll provoke anything but consistent chuckles. I never knew either actor was capable of being this bad, and I'm half-tempted to recommend the movie just to see their work on the big screen. Whether it's a result of an acting choice or a directorial instruction, Wahlberg gives literally one of the worst performances I've ever seen in a movie. Think I'm exaggerating? Go see the movie. Tell me I'm wrong. From his first line of dialogue, my jaw dropped and my eyes bugged out of my head, and amazingly enough, Wahlberg keeps at it the whole film. With his inexplicably sincere, naive, wide-eyed delivery of every single line of dialogue, Elliot never speaks in a way I've ever heard a human being speak. His inflection goes up at the end of every sentence, as if every statement is somewhere between him being confused and asking a question. When a scene comes along for him to talk down to Jess, there's virtually no difference, as that's how he's sounded the whole time. A friend of mine compared his acting style here to Dirk Digger's, and I can see the comparison, though I'd argue the latter was better. Deschanel is pretty awful and mannered herself, but she's not helped by dialogue that forces her to speak her feelings out loud (e.g.: "I am upset!" "I'm scared."). She seems to have been cast for her big, expressive eyes, and she uses them to great effect, since she doesn't appear to have been given much instruction on what to do with her character. What confuses me is that these are not bad actors; Deschanel is outright good, and Wahlberg has been excellent at least twice ("Three Kings," "I Heart Huckabees"). I can only believe they were following specific orders and adhering to some sort of directorial vision Shyamalan had, because these aren't just lazy, generic performances; they're astounding in their overt suck.

But acting aside, what chiefly contributes to "The Happening's" failure is Shyamalan's least focused and least assured screenplay yet. The dialogue all grasps at significance but each cluster barely relates to the next; starting with Wahlberg's classroom lecture about the disappearance of the bees, it seems like Shyamalan scribbled down all the ideas flying through his genius head and made a character talk about it at some point during the movie. Merged with the storytelling conventions and metaphor/speechifying, it all almost plays like a parody of Shyamalan movie. Again, like "Signs," there's a troubled relationship repaired by a catastrophic event. Again, there's forced moments of levity that completely fall flat. Again, characters are giving little charming quirks that are meant to add resonance but just make you wonder where Shyamalan came up with this shit (e.g.: Elliot wears a prominently featured mood ring). But aside from flat-out not making sense at times (if the toxins are in the wind, where the hell is every continually running off to?), the movie's premise and overall threat undercuts potential scariness. The fact that victims only commit suicide and not homicide, if unsettling, sort of saps the whole affair of tension. We know Wahlberg and Deschanel are the leads and will make it, at least most of the way through, without offing themselves; And it's not really a terrifying prospect that the new minor characters they meet every few minutes might be affected by the signal, er, I mean, the happening.



It's also remarkable just how much noticeably unnecessary dialogue there is here. During a mass suicide scene, an observer says "Those people look like they're clawing at themselves." Um, kay. How bout show us? During a phone conversation with a harried daughter, a mother, while on the phone, says as an aside to the crowd around her, "She's so scared!" But the most egregious examples are Shyamalan's favorite indulgence: unnecessary exposition. Elliot and Alma run into a gardener along their way; I don't remember his name, but I just referred to him as "Exposition Man," since, aside from rambling incoherently about hot dogs, all he exists to do is to explain to everyone what plans are physiologically capable of doing and why everything in this movie is happening. As the icing on the cake, near the movie's end, a television pundit thoroughly and explicitly explains everything we've just seen to alleviate any sense of mystery or ambiguity. Bravo, M. Night.

Much has been made of "The Happening's" R-rating, and sorry to break it to those who had anticipated it as the film's raison d'atre, it's completely unnecessary. Every particularly bloody/gory moment could've cut away one second earlier, with little-to-no effect lost, and the movie would have been PG-13. There's extremely little, if anything, in this movie that's particularly shocking, and the rating to have been tossed in -- or mandated -- by the studio, strictly as a marketing ploy (and boy have they been marketing it) than as an artistic necessity. Oh, and that "fucked up shit" you came to see? Since it's almost entirely in the first 10 minutes, almost all of it's been shown, or at least glimpsed, in the trailers, and the minimal stuff that occurs after the opening sequence (a man being torn apart by lions at the zoo, a "Maximum Overdrive"-inspired suicide where a man lets a large lawn-mower run over him) is more stupid than scary. Shymalan even resorts to the infamous 'jump scare,' which he usually avoids, and the two instances he utilizes them are amongst the movie's shittiest.



It seems everyone has varying degrees of thought on Shyamalan's ouvre, with unanimous proclamation of "The Sixth Sense" as the best, and I'm more forgiving than most, it seems. I think "The Sixth Sense" is fantastic, "Unbreakable" is a bit of misunderstood brilliance, and "Signs," despite a silly ending, is incredibly well-made, emotionally resonant and extremely scary no matter how many times I watch it (and actually justifies its pro-Christian bent). "The Village" and "Lady in the Water" are where most agree the director went off the rails, and that's where it gets a bit murkier for me. I think "The Village" is a mess, with some awful performances (*cough* William Hurt *cough*), pacing issues, misguided twists, and a disappointing narrative, but it also has an excellent leading performance from Bryce Dallas Howard, and some interesting ideas that could have been something were something made of them. I don't quite understand its defenders, but there certainly are some positives there. "Lady in the Water" is obviously extremely silly, but I think if it were taken at face value for what it was -- a garish fairy tale -- audiences would've been more perceptive; personally, I think the movie kinda sorta works, if boasting some major issues. And, in my opinion, if it wasn't in the middle of such a silly/stupid/wacky movie, Giamatti's performance was of the sort that usually merits awards consideration. In terms of connections to his past films, "The Happening" attempts to take the "Signs" structure that the world loved (forced, constructed familial conflict rectified over the course of horrible world events) and fuse it with his metaphor-laden message and proselytizing that everyone hated when he did it in "The Village." Thankfully, like "Signs" and "Lady in the Water," there is no twist here, but you may wish there was, just so the proceedings would actually be leading to something rather than the filmmaker creatively throwing his hands in the air.

"The Happening" is ultimately too ambitious/interesting to dismiss outright, but that doesn't mean it's anything resembling being worth seeing. Upon leaving the theater, no one I spoke to could muster up something kind to say about the movie, and I was sure it would inspire unanimous vitriol, but there are a handful of positives on Rotten Tomatoes, and frankly, I don't get it. I can't imagine what about this movie someone might find redeeming; it's so misguided and inert every step of the way, past the opening ten minutes, I was mostly just shaking my head feeling bad for Shyamalan. I'd be lying if I said this wasn't worse-seeming as a movie due to his promise as a filmmaker; it's much more disappointing/sad to watch knowing it's probably a somewhat talented filmmaker's nail in the coffin (he was very smart to sign on for "Airbender" before Fox squeezes this one out into theaters). The film is often literally laughable (after an off-screen gunshot, Wahlberg utters a half-hearted "Oh, no."), but I couldn't bring myself to laugh. I was too upset. While, personally, I may like "Lady" and not outright hate "Village," I know that audiences generally disagreed, and people just will not stand for being burned three times in a row. This may be the last original work by Shyamalan we'll ever see, at least one backed by a substantial budget; even if he somehow bounces back quality-wise, audiences just won't go. At the end of the day, the man has got a keen directorial eye, and the best thing he could do at this point is direct someone else's screenplay. But if I had to guess, I'd say his ego and defense of his own brilliance will never allow that to happen; taking that into consideration, it's unavoidable to acknowledge what "The Happening" likely represents: his goodbye to prominent filmmaking.

"The Incredible Hulk" -- * * *



After Ang Lee's misunderstood, but generally despised, "Hulk" opened in June of 2003, there was a kind of backlash/ire from audience and critics (though more from audience) towards what they were given, that it seemed this character with extreme amounts of crowd-pleasing potential had been forced into early retirement. Ever since director Louis Leterrier and writer/star Edward Norton's reboot of sorts, "The Incredible Hulk," was announced, it's stuck out as one of the summer movie season's big question marks. Many wondered if it would just be another missed opportunity, and the Hulk would be given two shots now and both end up sucking; the underwhelming trailers didn't help matters. Personally, I was more concerned that given the recoiling by audiences from Lee's character-driven, intelligent approach, that this would swing the pendulum too far in the other direction and resort to non-stop brainless action. Well, while Leterrier's loud, fast film is very clearly an intentional reaction to Lee's quiet, slow one, it does end up justifying its existence and carving out an identity as a well-crafted, entertaining B-movie that doesn't insult your intelligence nor reek of joylessness. I'd still like to see Norton's supposedly significantly longer cut, but this is neither too brainy nor too stupid, goes for a slow build (which I always like) and should satisfy audiences much in the way "Iron Man" has been. If nothing else, it's an opportunity for this character to be featured in the kind of movie crowds want to see him in.

Smartly using its opening credits sequence to give back story to those who were confused about the film's re-boot-ing, kind-of-a-sequel, kind-of-not nature (as well as quickly name-dropping 'Stark Industries' and 'Nick Fury'), we're shown physicist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) working in a Brazilian bottling plant, hiding out from the people who know him. Still struggling to find a cure from the botched gamma radiation experiment that turns him into a huge green monster whenever his blood pressure hits 200, Banner's hiding specifically from General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), while missing his love, Ross's daughter Betty (Liv Tyler) and e-mailing scientist "Mr. Blue," a cellular biologist who might help him find a cure. General Ross, along with his top soldier, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), are determined to find Banner in the hopes of capturing him and using his "curse" / mutated genes as a weapon to enable soldiers with Hulk-like capabilities. When Banner returns to the states to see Betty, his cover blown, and Ross and Blonsky's efforts see no results, Blonsky willingly has similar genetic mutations injected into him to level the playing field, so to speak. Much property destruction ensues.



Whether I like it or not, the studio was smart to action up the proceedings this time around, as that's what audiences want to see, but Leterrier avoids making this an orgiastic, overly Hulk-y affair, at least not at first. The first chase/Hulk scene at the 22-minute mark almost entirely avoids showing the creature and manages to be more effective and exciting for it. Not only does it give us Blonsky's point-of-view and add a sense of mystery and suspense to the sequence, it also makes the green guy's ultimate in-full appearance a cool moment, better for being built up to (I almost wish the trailers avoided showing the Hulk at all). It's also worth noting the restraint in this being pretty much the Hulk's only appearance in the first half of the film. Leterrier's avoids the frenetic direction that reared its head in his 'Transporter 2' and makes this a superhero movie that shouldn't make anyone dizzy or bombarded. While there is action aplenty, it's still a fairly story-centric affair and is paced not too slow and not too quick. Whenever Bruce turns into the Hulk, the results are unquestionably entertaining, and builds to an ending action sequence that should rouse most audience members (including this one). The final big Hulk vs. Abominaton set-piece that makes up the last 10-15 minutes is perhaps a bit video-gamey, but it's extremely fun/entertaining, and I definitely preferred it to "Iron Man's" robot-on-robot finale. And kudos to whoever came up with the idea for it to take place on Harlem's 125th Street, with the Apollo visible in the background.

This may be a more pared-down, mainstream-accessible Hulk movie, but that doesn't mean it resorts to laziness or settling for bland formula. There are numerous inspired touches, with effort made to not make this feel exactly like every other superhero movie. Throughout the movie, there's a repeated 'Days Without an Incident' Counter at the bottom at the screen that's used to particularly clever effect, and the moments of levity when they come don't feel shoehorned in and usually work. Banner's purchasing of stretchy pants finally acknowledges fan's complaints about the Hulk's bottoms never ripping, while a comic moment of Bruce stopping sex with Betty because his heart rate might get too high simultaneously addresses an actual potential issue on the character's part. Other jokes, however, such as Banner not quite having mastered Portugese yet and delivering the subtitled threat, "You wouldn't like me when I'm hungry," are just funny. One also has to throw Zak Penn's screenplay some props for (a) being the first Marvel movie with a Stan Lee cameo that isn't entirely gratuitous/superfluous, and (b) using "Hulk Smash" in as minimally cheesy a manner as possible.



Even though the movie's equipped with an A-level cast, nobody really does aces work here, but Roth's the one that seems to be having the most fun, and thus, the most fun one to watch. Throwing a suitable level of callousness and sick joy into a guy who'll casually shoot an annoyingly barking dog with a tranquilizer dart, while displaying Kung Fu-like acrobatics, he's always the most interesting person on screen and has a particularly nice scene right before he becomes Abomination. A big deal has been made of an actor of his caliber taking this kind of role and 'class-ing' up the proceedings, but he doesn't bring much to the table besides street cred (and his appropriately pussy-ish voice), making it apparent Banner really could've been played just as effectively by anyone. I honestly can't quite explain why I like Liv Tyler in almost everything she's in but I do. She never shows particular range, but she always radiates sweetness, sincerity, and manages to look pretty in everything. I know some are put off by her breathy voice, but there's something about her I just like and can't put my finger on. Deal with it. As for Hurt, he's fine, but in my opinion, Sam Elliott was perfect casting for this gruff, overprotective general, and can't be topped in my eyes; throughout the movie, I kept flashing back to his performance and that didn't do wonders for my take on Hurt's work.

I've heard complaints about the effects work on the Hulk, but there's just no way to do this besides an all-CGI Hulk, and an all-CGI Hulk is never going to be photo-realistic, so it's best to just deal with it. I never had a "my god, that's fake-looking!" sentiment in my head during the movie, and for what it's worth, I think the effects are as real-looking as they're capable of being. If you just go with it, it shouldn't effect you. Thankfully however, Abomination doesn't look nearly as crappy as the trailers indicated. On the other end of the technical spectrum, Craig Armstrong's score is mostly generic and serviceable, but during the Hulk's second furious outrage, and during the climactic showdown, there are brief, subtle strains of organs recalling early 20th century horror movies that only the most attentive viewers will notice, but made me smile nonetheless.



*SPOILER ABOUT A SCENE ALREADY SPOILED IN EVERY TV SPOT AHEAD*


Anybody who considers themselves a comic book fan, or even regularly browses certain websites, knows at this point that Robert Downey, Jr., as "Iron Man's" Tony Stark, makes a cameo here. I have no problem with this -- in fact, I think it's handled rather well, and it's kind of a brilliant idea, especially when viewed in the context of what Marvel is building these films to be. My two-fold issue is with what's been done with the scene. Firstly, it was very, very clearly intended to go after the credits (much like Sam Jackson's "Iron Man" Nick Fury cameo). The movie has a natural, very good ending, the screen goes black, the audience begins to applaud, it's clear credits were initially going to be cut to. But then we get one more scene where Stark shows up and talks to General Ross. It's a good scene, but it was obviously moved to before the credits after the massive success of "Iron Man," and it breaks the narrative flow of the movie. And, it also strikes me as a bit too inside baseball for those who (a) didn't see "Iron Man," or (b) aren't familiar with the "Avengers" direction these Marvel films will be taking down the line. It would've been a nice, dare I say 'awesome,' fan-tailored bonus after the credits, but where it is now, it's crowd-pleasing, but kind of awkward. It's a minor complaint, but it bothered me, and it's the one aspect of the movie that really stuck out for me as a 'problem.' Secondly, knowing that people loved "Iron Man," and Downey as Stark, Universal has spoiled this scene in virtually every TV spot airing lately. I know ads have a tendency to be spoiler-y or misleading, but it's the fucking last scene of the movie. Show some class, for Christ's sake, and don't ruin everything for us.


*SPOILER ABOUT A SCENE ALREADY SPOILED IN EVERY TV SPOT OVER*



While I dug it myself, I get that Lee's "Hulk" was too cerebral and slow for what a superhero film is supposed to be, and Leterrier's "Incredible Hulk" is much more conventionally entertaining/satisfying (not to mention a good half hour shorter). To its benefit, Banner's character is in a more interesting place this time around -- knowing what he is and trying to control it -- and we get to see him taking on a relative equal, not just smashing up shit. That said, there's virtually none of that film's visual inventiveness and propensity for experimentation here, but I admit I'm biased; this is a much less strange interpretation so I'm naturally inclined to like it less. The film still takes itself fairly seriously this time around, but the emphasis is more on plot-propelling action than introspection, and there's not necessarily anything wrong with that. Paying proper homage to its source material with a nice moment where Norton tells Lou Ferrigno (cameo-ing as a security guard) "You are the man," while not swinging too far over into "big dumb action" territory, "The Incredible Hulk" is conventional yes, but it's also admittedly satisfying. Those who weren't pleased with what Ang Lee tried to do should dig this, and as someone who was pleased, I enjoyed this as well.

Friday, June 06, 2008

"You Don't Mess With the Zohan" -- * * *



*sigh* I fear I'm probably going to be alone on this one. If you've seen the trailer for Adam Sandler's latest, "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," directed by Dennis Dugan, you already knew that it was going to be stupid. Well, the movie itself is very stupid, even moreso than you might be expecting. But it's also imbued with such a high absurdity level, and strange, inspired asides and throwaway gags, that while I may not be proud, I also laughed a whole hell of a lot. We've grown to have a certain level of expectation from Sandler's movies, whether that's a good or bad thing for you, and we usually know exactly what we're getting; here, he goes a different route than we're used to seeing from him, and while this may not be saying much for some people, I think this is easily one of Sandler's better/funnier efforts. There's a consistent "Anchorman"-esque undercurrent of ridiculousness (if nowhere near that film's brilliant, inspired level), but I'd say "Zohan" is more in the vein of something like the first two "Austin Powers" films, with a balanced emphasis on the scatological and the absurd.

Having spent his first forty years as an invincible Israeli commando/superhero, Zohan Dviri (Sandler) has finally tired of all the incessant fighting in his native holy land, and wants to finally move to America and pursue his dream. That dream? Becoming a well-regarded hair stylist in New York City. With the help of his pelican friend, Zohan (a.k.a.: "The Zohan") fakes his death at the hands of comparably invincible Arab fighter, The Phantom (John Turturro). Smuggling himself aboard a NY-bound plane hiding inside a dog kennel, Zohan adopts his canine co-passengers' names and arrives in the U.S. introducing himself as Scrappy Coco, from Australia. While looking for work, he talks owner Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui) into letting him style women’s hair at her salon, all while staying with newfound friend Michael (Nick Swardson) and his horny mom (Lainie Kazan). With his tremendous styling skills, combined with his post-styling sexual intercouse, Zohan soon becomes NYC's most popular hair stylist with the senior citizen set. However, soon, his secret identity is revealed by Palestinian cabdriver Salim (Rob Schneider), who wants revenge on Zohan for unexplained reasons, and attempts to get in touch with the Phantom, to let him know his assassination victim is still alive.



It's established very early on that "Zohan" is not supposed to be taking place in any sort of realistic or real world, even for a Sandler flick; Those thrown by the anatomical-defying feet/leg gag from the trailer (very, very funny incidentally) should run for the hills now. Zohan swims fast enough to catch up with a motorboat, unscrews screws with his tongue, and does pushups with just his toes, while the Phantom runs on ceilings while doing acrobatics. Starting with an "I feel no pain"-off with the two soldiers/assassins one-upping each other with their threshold for agony, and culminating in a destruction-by-high-decibel-singing gag stolen from "Mars Attacks!," it's safe to say this is the craziest movie to ever have a rumored budget of 90 million dollars. Things are kept absurdist all the way through, and you're going to require a tolerance for the ridiculous to even approach this, let alone enjoy it. While some jokes of this variety (Zohan singlehandedly defeating two musclemen and a bull in a beach tug-of-war match) work better than others (a flashback of Zohan's hand being severed and then untying him) , this sort of humor tends to be up my alley, so I dug on most of it.

Sandler and his friends (Schneider, Dugan) are not necessarily the most comedically-astute or skilled filmmakers in the world, and virtually every one of their movies contains some tired, pre-teen baiting jokes relating to scatology and anatomy, and sigh-inducing ones you're surprised really remained in through the test screening process. Here, we get a Zohan ass shot in the first two minutes (though the paunchy Sandler is clearly using a butt double), followed by a joke about Zohan catching a fish -- and a hackey sack -- in his butt cheeks that may seem to confirm the fears of those in the audience worried about another Sandler movie (I myself thought I was a goner at this point). So while you must be prepared for a fairly lopsided hit-and-miss ratio of joke success, personally, I laughed at about two for every one I didn't. Even recurring jokes that seem to start off tired with the potential of getting annoying the more they're repeated, only get better by the stakes being upped as the movie goes on; everything silly is taken to absurdly silly levels that infuse them with inspiration. Even running jokes about Zohan's hackey sack skills and propensity for hummus had won me over by the times he (a) hackey sacks using a live cat, and (b) brushes his teeth with hummus, and puts out a fire with it. Even his skill of twisting people into pretzels grows increasingly, and enjoyably, ridiculous the more it's employed.



Through each step of Zohan's journey, I found the humor surprisingly well-paced/crafted, as it was rare a few minutes would go by without me laughing. Before his hair-cutting dream is fulfilled, his mom's throwaway recommendation to "Stay in the Army, play it safe" and him weeping "I just want to make people silky smooth!" curled up in bed are funny enough to establish that this movie's going to have a fairly oddball comedic voice, and that's only continued with Zohan's refusal to admit that he's Middle Eastern (he says he's from "Chaustralia"). Though glimpsed already in the trailers, Zohan's auditions at a black hair salon, and a kids' haircut place ("Whipper Snippers") both offer very funny inappropriate utilization of his Mossad skills, including a too-explicit description of the effects on a jugular slash to a 5-year-old. The revelation that Salim's impetus for revenge-seeking is Zohan taking his goat, and Zohan's insistence of punishing himself by stabbing himself with scissors are similarly taste-acquired gags that will work for some better than others. I also laughed at the handling of one of our racist redneck villains (Dave Matthews), who repeatedly talks about how Mel Gibson is the only guy who knows what he's talking about, and a gag that lists his likes as "The Lethal Weapon 1, 2, 3, What Women Want" and dislikes as "The Whole Foods, The George Clooney."

A subtle tip-off to the change of pace in store for Sandler fans is the shift in music; though his past movies seem to revel in '80s styles/themes/music, "Zohan" employs a cheesy '90s soundtrack, including Ace of Base's "Beautiful Life" and Technotronic's "Pump Up the Jam," to great effect. Whether you like it or not, this isn't the sort of middle-of-the-road, likeable-enough, barely-trying "LCD crowd pleaser" he's been prone to put out; this is a far stranger beast, and I don't know if all of his diehard pack of fans are going to make the jump with him. I enjoy "Mr. Deeds," "Big Daddy," "Click," etc. for what they are, but here Sandler is going balls-out and going back to playing an original character and not the lazy Sandler-esque shlump those movies offered, and a more refreshing out-there sensibility too. If comparable to any of his past works, it feels more similar to the early Sandler films like "Happy Gilmore" and "The Waterboy," with some "Little Nicky" thrown in; If that sounds more like a discouragement than a recommendation, "Zohan" probably ain't for you.



The supporting cast here does just fine, with the normally bleh Chriqui being adequately charming and grappling surprisingly well with her accent. Schneider and Swardson are, almost amazingly, the least annoying they've been in a Sandler movie (though when is Schneider finally going to be shot by some extremist for all his racist, offensive caricatures?). There are cameos that range from lame (Henry Winkler, Kevin James) to worthless (Kevin Nealon, Mariah Carey) to inspired (Chris Rock, Dave Matthews, John McEnroe). But, as slumming as he might be -- as he's wont to do in Sandler and Michael Bay movies -- the actor who seems to be having the most fun, and thus, the most fun to watch, is Turturro. As The Phantom, a celebrity terrorist/freedom fighter, who's defined by his hatred for Israel but has a more complex/softer side, he made me laugh whenever he was on screen, even making a tired MySpace joke tolerable with his delivery. It helps that he has the movie's funniest scene -- a hilarious "Rocky"-style training sequence where he punches a live slab of beef -- but while he goes missing for the movie's middle chunk, thankfully he returns at around the 80-minute mark for the third act.

Free of Sandler's hack-for-hire Tim Herlihy, "Zohan" benefits from the comedian's screenwriting collaboration with legitimate comic genius Robert Smigel and wonderful-if-overexposed Judd Apatow, on a script that supposedly has been sitting on a shelf for years. While Smigel's ridiculous, raunchy voice is everpresent, you can also tell much of this comes from Apatow's pen, though not the one you might be used to; rather than the wise-if-filthy comic sexual observations of his later works, this is most definitely more the Apatow who worked on the brilliant "Ben Stiller Show" than anything else. That said, I'm surprised this movie escaped with PG-13. While low-brow scatological jokes are not new to Sandler, there's a surprising, if welcome, greater emphasis on the sexual and raunchy material than we're used to, from Zohan telling elderly women at the salon "you've got the ass and tits of a schoolgirl" to his actual fucking of them after cutting their hair. At first, it's established that he views the intercourse as a polite thing to do ("I had to thank her!"), but eventually it becomes clear, in a refreshing twist, he actually enjoys banging the women. There's no Max Bialystock-style revulsion here, he's just a kindly weirdo who has a predilection for heavier, older ladies. I also enjoyed Zohan's penis dictating most of his actions/feelings (e.g.: his love for Chriqui is indicated by his dick not getting hard for other women) and having a life of its own so to speak (at one point, it waves goodbye).



Most of the media attention surrounding "Zohan" has been about the movie's touching upon the Israeli-Palestinean conflict, and while the movie focuses more on old-lady-fucking and disco-dancing, the subject is given much credence and screentime. Surprisingly, considering Sandler's real-life political dunderheadednss (e.g.: his campaign contributions to Rudy Giuliani), the movie isn't unremittingly pro-Israel, but actually keeps an even keel, embracing a "let's all get along" dynamic that actually feels sincere, unlike the mandated hypocritical apologizing ending of "Chuck and Larry." The movie also acknowledges the complexity of the situation, though avoids delving into it. The most we get in that department (wisely) is a Palestinean freedom fighter trying to explain mid-attack, "I'm just saying, it's not so cut and dry!" Once Zohan hits NYC, there's a clever gag about one side of the street being Israeli and the other being Palestinean, and Sandler's call for unity is rather sweet and well-intentioned; the unnecessary romance subplot actually serves a purpose this time around, since said love interest is Palestinean. The movie also implies, if not outright states, that Americans have more to fear from all-powerful corporations, and racist rednecks, than most Middle Easterns; in its own stupid way, it's heartening that the movie depicts Zohan joining forces with the Phantom at one point, and apparently, both sides of the conflict can come together on their love for Mariah Carey. It's extremely simplistic, obviously (this is a Sandler film, after all), but it's a genuinely nice gesture.

Last year's "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" was easily one of the most discomfiting, homophobic films to ever be given a national release (and it made gobs of money, of course), but it was hardly Sandler's films' only presentation of such attitudes -- intentional or unintentional. His works have been largely dominated by homophobia, and he seems to be incapable of making a movie without having a gay or gay-ish character we're meant to perceive as "gross" and who either (a) hits on Sandler, or (b) sticks something phallic in their mouth. It's a lame-ass, immature attempt to pander to 12-year-old boys' discomfort with homosexuality and perpetuate negative stereotypes. So, much to my surprise, in a movie that seems to cry out for low-blow gay jokes, the homophobia is kept to a minimum here. Aside from Zohan's parents laughing at him and assuming he's a "fageleh," the mockery is tamped down; there's a wildly flaming Gaysian Claude (Alec Mapa) working in the salon, but his homosexuality isn't really acknowledged, let alone included as an object of derision. There's also a late film throwaway gag involving cameos by gay celebs George Takei and Bruce Vilanch that any gay with a sense of humor should be able to laugh at. It may not be a huge compliment to say "it's not that homophobic!," but for Sandler, it's a step up.



When going through things that I found funny about "Zohan," there's virtually none of it that can be classified as "clever," "witty" or "defensible;" there are some/many people that are going to hate this movie, and not quite fathom how I could like it. But while I admit it could be a little shorter (an hour and 45 minutes is a bit much to ask for something this brainless), this sort of brash, original, moronic lunacy is my cup 'o tea, and you'll know very early on if it's yours. This may be -- okay, is -- a stupid movie, but it's a really ambitious stupid movie, and not only features numerous things I never thought I'd see in a film, it represents a unique inching in the absurdist direction that I think more dumb comedies could benefit from. Throw into that a fairly sincere, surprisingly resonant message about following your dreams and being who you are, despite what anyone thinks, and you have an appealing (at least to me) blend of heart and supreme idiocy.

"Kung Fu Panda" -- * * *



I admit, I wasn't really looking forward to seeing Dreamworks' latest zany animated work, "Kung Fu Panda." The title, and thus the premise, are so lowest-common-denominator and painfully high-concept on the surface (I'd been making fun of it for weeks). It seemed to adopt the filmmaking mindset of most movies of this ilk, operating under the principle that kids will watch anything, and a wacky, simple premise (e.g.: tap-dancing penguins) is all you need for them to drag their parents. So, it's much to my surprise that the movie takes its simple, title-explaining concept and runs with it, never settling for the bare minimum of creativity. Taking a left-field approach, in a way that reminded me a bit of last summer's underrated "Surf's Up," this is an extremely entertaining movie that's often very funny, and equally successful in its execution of action and packaging of morals for kids. The results are truly inspired, doing some innovative things with the medium, and anyone who allows themselves to be even a little susceptible to the movie's charms will have trouble resisting.

Our story is set in China's Valley of Peace, apparently populated entirely by talking animals. Panda Po (Jack Black) works in a noodle shop/restaurant for his father (the indomitable James Hong) and dreams of being a martial arts master. All the while, turtle monk Master Oogway has had a vision that the evil Tai Lung (Ian McShane) is going to escape from prison, then destroy and dominate the Valley of peace. To stop this, Oogway must decide who must to become the dragon warrior. The five obvious candidates, the Furious Five, are all trained under sensei Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman); they are Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross), and Mantis (Seth Rogen). Somehow, through a series of random coincidences, the elderly Oogway chooses Po as the dragon warrior, infuriating Shifu and the Furious Five (who Po worships as a fan); their disbelief is understandable since the portly Po has trouble climbing up more than three or four stairs and has his biggest workouts while eating meals. But, as the decision has been made by Master Oogway, it must be accepted and Shifu must train Po and assess if he has any talent or capability, or ensure he doesn't make it through training. This is basically "Rocky" meets "The Karate Kid," formula-wise, and you know where things are going; the fun is getting there (literally-- the training period doesn't end until about an hour into this 83-minute movie).



While it seems every children's film has some phony positive message(s) shoehorned in, the ones here are never obtrusive and actually could do a bit of good. Like this week's "You Don't Mess with the Zohan" (arguably the only thing the two movies have in common), there's a nice throughline about following your passions and believing in yourself that actually rings true; who among us can't relate to a panda who slaves in a noodle shop longing to be a Kung Fu master? There's many a waiter working in NYC cafes with dreams that're seemingly as unlikely. I also found it refreshing, and positively inspiring, how Po learns to turn his weaknesses into strengths (e.g.: using his fat as an asset in the climactic battle) and having confidence in himself being more important than actually having skills ("There is no secret ingredient"). It might be a reach, but hey, if it makes one fat kid even a little bit less self-conscious about himself, that's more good than most films of this ilk usually attempt. But besides the message-whipping on display, this is a great movie for kids just in the respect that they will positively love it. It never stops moving, propelling briskly from one plot event to the next, and I can virtually guarantee they'll never get bored. My kid-filled Saturday morning screening was nearly silent for the movie's entirety, which is generally unheard of during such events.

Still, as appealing as it is for kids, there's one audience that'll enjoy it even more: fans of old Kung fu films. This is a genuine Kung fu movie, not just a family movie with some Kung fu elements; there's a wealth of well-done action and fight sequences throughout, and at almost every turn, there's an effort to pay tribute to films that clearly inspired this one's creation. From the clever, chop-socky take on the Dreamworks logo at the outset to Shifu's classic sensei elements (he boasts crazy white facial hair and the ability to heal and cripple with a few precise taps), there's clearly a love for the film's origins on display. On top of which, this is a significantly more appealing way to introduce kids to the Kung Fu fighting styles (Crane, Monkey, Tigress, etc) than April's "The Forbidden Kingdom," which was oddly more violent and more infantile than this. And you don't need to be a Kung fu expert to "get" the excess of parodic slo-mo and recognize elements you may have glimpsed in the "Kill Bill" films (I was reminded of the five-point palm exploding heart technique on more than one occasion).



Lest I forget to mention, this young-skewing animated film is often very, very funny. Aside from the simple ideas of Po possibly being picked as dragon warrior because master Turtle is going senile, and being motivated to do Kung Fu properly by food incentives, the filmmakers get considerable mileage out of Po's unashamed fanboy nature. He's such a Kung Fu / Furious Five nerd, he geeks out over exact moments that took place at their lair, and during training, he actually enjoys getting pummeled by these guys because they're his heroes (upon being kicked in the face, he utters, "that was awesome!"). The moments of broad slapstick -- at one point, he's hit in the nuts, dubbed his "tenders" -- surprisingly work, and the incongruous juxtaposition of highbrow Asian culture and a fat, clumsy panda are not overlooked ("Panda, we do not wash our pits in the pool of Sacred Tears"). I won't spoil it, but there's an acupuncture gag midway through that was so funny, I literally had trouble stifling my chuckling for a minute or two afterwards.

The animation here is gorgeous, but to be fair, that's kind of expected from these sort of films by this point. Still, there's a really keen visual style on display here that incorporates Chinese art and styles and utilizes a gorgeous color palette and shadings. The film opens with an exaggerated 2-D dream sequence, and when the transition is made into 3-D animation, the effect is fairly remarkable and almost reason alone to see this on IMAX (if not likely to be quite as sensory experience as "Speed Racer"). There are consistent visual flourishes that etched memorable images into my brain, chiefly the really effective scenes of Tai Lung chained up in his below ground dungeon, and the truly beautiful way Tigress's eyes glow at night. I have a feeling everyone's going to have a sequence or two to claim as their favorite, but I particularly adored said two-dimensional opening dream sequence (Po narrates, "Legend tells of a legendary warrior..."), the sure-to-be-infamous training battle over dumplings, and Tai Lung's escape from his dungeon, which had me actually muttering an awe-inspired "very cool."



Admittedly, those who are regularly annoyed by Jack Black will continue to be annoyed by Jack Black, but it's superb voice casting. He makes Po so incredibly likeable, charming and adorable, without relying purely on his Jack-Black-isms of funny sound effects; we genuinely like and understand where Po is coming from, and even as a talking panda who does Kung Fu, we believe him as a real character. He's occasionally prone to crying, and not always for laughs, and his unabashed sensitivity is what makes him such an unlikely, and refreshing, hero. Last time Black was suspected of "selling out," it was for the similarly kid-centric "School of Rock" -- which currently provided us with his best performance to date -- and like with that film, this provides him with a potentially defining character/project, and not just the cashing of a paycheck. Hoffman is almost as perfect casting, taking a part that could've easily been sleepwalked through and imbuing it with a sense of warmth, frustration and wit that makes it a pleasure whenever Shifu's onscreen. McShane also has a lot of fun as Tailung, though it helps how the character's been drawn; he's a villain who's not only genuinely frightening, but actually has reasonable motivation and isn't just "evil." The rest of the voice cast is fine, but doesn't really do much (most noticeably Jolie, who has now done two voice over jobs with no personality).

To be clear, I liked "Kung Fu Panda;" I think it's ultimately too simple and unspectacular to all-out love, but perhaps my enthusiasm is just boosted by the fact that the film is a respite from a genre that is known for shameless pandering and minimal effort. This isn't anything resembling the soulless "Shark Tale" and "Bee Movie" (or "Shrek the Third") that have been brought to us by Dreamworks Animation in the past; its closest cousin might be the oft-forgotten "Antz" from 1998. What largely sets it apart from the feral pack aside from the effervescent enthusiasm/creativity, is the fact that the movie avoids the lazy crutch of instantly-dating pop culture references, and if I recall correctly, poop or fart jokes. In fact, the movie almost entirely eschews tired cliches; even a rendition of the seemingly-inevitable "Kung Fu Fighting" (used in all the trailers) is thankfully saved for the closing credits.



"Kung Fu Panda" may not be a classic, but I think a substantial portion of its target audience is going to love it, and those who had minimal interest may be surprised how gosh durn enjoyable it is. While this may be due to it not having the expectations of something like "Iron Man" or "Indiana Jones," it gives itself a unique edge by being a summer movie that actually delivers what it promises and then some (a movie making me smile for most of its duration is never a bad thing). Despite an underwhelming pitch and marketing campaign, it packs a significantly greater amount of wit, energy and creativity than we've come to expect from family films, but whether kids are in tow or not, "Kung Fu Panda" offers a surprising, at least for me, amount of entertainment for your buck.