Kung Fu Panda

Wow, this was a lot better than I expected. It’s like a Sammo Hung kung fu movie with animals. If you don’t know who Sammo Hung is, he’s a chubby kung fu goofball who palled up with Jackie Chan several times and has many great Hong Kong fooey movies to his own credit. With subtle titles like Enter the Fat Dragon, you know what you’re getting into. Kung Fu Panda has some of the same spirit and manages to be more of a kung fu movie than just a kid movie, and that- along with an excellent voice cast- is what makes it worthwhile.
Jack Black plays Po, a panda who works at his father’s noodle shop. His father, Mr. Ping, is a rather goofy-looking duck voiced by the irreplaceable James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China, Blade Runner) who even managed to make Balls of Fury tolerable. Ping’s “secret ingredient noodle soup” is thw town favorite, so Po is too busy slinging noodles to learn kung fu. When he hears that the Shaolin Temple will be choosing the Dragon Warrior- the only disciple worthy of viewing the secrets of the legendary Dragon Scroll- he must attend, but of course Pops wants him to go and sell noodles outside.
The Shaolin Temple is where Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a wizened red panda teaches his disciples, the Furious Five (not Grandmaster Flash’s band, either). They are Mantis, Tigress, Crane, Monkey, and Viper, after the 5 fighting styles of Shaolin. They are played by Seth Rogen, Angelina Jolie, David Cross, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu respectively- and all relatively on the down-low, letting their characters speak for themselves, you could say (if anyone steals the show, it’s David Cross’s Crane). Shifu is concerned that his old enemy, Tai Lung- a warrior so fearsome that an entire prison manned with rhino guards was constructed to contain him- may be plotting to escape. He wishes to give one of his students the knowledge of the Dragon Scroll, to be ready for the inevitable battle.
Po lugs his noodle cart up the mountain’s endless stairs, and through his clumsy attempts at viewing the choosing of the Dragon Warrior, his fat black ‘n white butt ends up in the middle of the ceremony. And of course, the wise elder Oogway- an ancient turtle, who like all kung fu masters, looks frail and slow but has powers that Yoda would envy- chooses the lowly fat panda to be the Dragon Warrior. Can such a lazy, gluttonous kung fu fanboy be trained to fight at all? Can he convince Master Shifu to take him seriously?

From here on it reminded me a lot of Jackie Chan’s earlier kung fu comedies like Half a Loaf of Kung Fu and the original Drunken Master. There is plenty of character-based humor and wordplay to keep the adults laughing while the slapstick keeps the kiddies rolling. Po is hapless and helpless. Sure, he’s a kung fu fanboy but he is beaten by a training dummy. But he’s got what fighters call “heart,” because he never gives up. Even when he probably should. When Tai Lung escapes (of course), Shifu has no choice but to train him.
The story is nothing new- it’s like a hundred kung fu films where the unlikely, destined warrior must be trained to defeat the undefeatable, but in Kung Fu Panda the humor, stunningly gorgeous backgrounds and catchy character designs, and the characters themselves make it shine. Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu is the one who must redeem himself, in a change of pace- Po will always be Po, and just needs to believe in himself, as disciples must. Po’s Daddy Duck Mr. Ping- who we at first expect to be a joke, or be the Angry Dad who wants to ruin his dreams- also gets a touching layer of depth that will make you stop wondering how he fathered a panda in the first place.
The animation is quite good, and while the battles are a little less exciting when you’ve seen Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, which brings them to such a level of ridiculousness that even animation can’t top them, but the training sequences are both funny and exhilarating. There’s a fight over a dumpling that is so perfect that you’ll know they watched many, many classic old kung fu flicks and loved them before embarking on this project. And that’s what made the movie for me- sure, it’s not at the level of Pixar, but like Horton Hears a Who!, it strives for that level of excellence. Unlike Horton, it doesn’t quite reach it story-wise, but it’s still a blast and much better than I expected. Few, if any pop culture references, and the stars play characters, not themselves.

For example Ian McShane (Deadwood, Hot Rod) plays Tai Lung- a power-hungry warrior who’s not evil, or even misunderstood- but when we find out why he wants that Dragon Scroll so badly, he’s a character, not just a Bad Guy. But of course, whether you will like or hate this movie really depends on what you think of Jack Black- he’s more self-effacing here than in his usual persona, as in Tenacious D, but if you find him grating this movie is not for you. I found Po refreshing after Black’s habit of playing (with) himself, and his timing is perfect. Ebert complained that he isn’t charismatic enough, but that’s sort of the joke- I wouldn’t want to be around Jeff Lebowski all the time either.

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Prop 8: The Musical (Jesus content)

http://player.ordienetworks.com/flash/fodplayer.swf

This is sort of old news but still good. Prop 8: The Musical by the gang over at Funny or Die. With Jack Black as Jesus (a role he reprises from Mr. Show, where he starred in their Jesus Christ Superstar spoof).

Be Kind Rewind

Love them freckles, dahlin’!

Let me begin by saying that I enjoyed this movie very much, and that there are some very big laughs in it. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it is being advertised as a balls-out comedy madhouse full of Jack Black and Mos Def remaking movies youtube-style from beginning to end, and it is definitely not that movie. It’s very sentimental, sometimes corny, sometimes off-kilter and it really doesn’t care about our expectations.

The premise if you haven’t heard it already is that Mike (Mos Def, Bamboozled) works at a video store in Passaic New Jersey run by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover, Gone Fishin’). The neighborhood is so decrepit that they actually rent VHS tapes, and Mr. Fletcher entertains the neighborhood kids by telling them stories of when Fats Waller lived in the building, and try to give them some community pride. Mike’s friend Jerry (Jack Black, Heat Vision and Jack) a somewhat crazed mechanic who runs a junkyard & repair shop near the power station. He wears a colander on his head to protect from the electricity nearby, and is obsessed with shutting it down. He becomes magnetized and erases all the tapes while Mr. Fletcher is away, and his favorite customer (Mia Farrow, Supergirl) comes by, the guys decide to remake Ghostbusters to keep her from calling the boss. The tape becomes so popular that the neighborhood starts demanding more movies, and the fun begins.
His caper to shut down the power plant leads to his brain becoming magnetized and some good slapstick. There’s a scene with a ladder that had me rolling from how clever and cartoonish it was, and no one got hit with the ladder, as you might expect. The magnet gags are well executed and unexpected, and the first two acts are quite engaging. Irv Gooch plays Jerry’s mechanic Wilson, and gets dragged into playing female parts. This is his first acting role, he normally does vehicle wrangling in movies, and I hope this leads to more small parts for him, because he was authentically funny and bizarre.
The community of Passaic is presented in a heartfelt way, and people are brash and eccentric in a uniquely Jersey fashion. One internet review I read said that everyone was a jerk, so that validates my statement. The meat of the film is the second act, when they hook up with Alma (Melonie Diaz, Itty Bitty Titty Committee) who works at the dry cleaners and plays the female roles after Wilson gets fed up. She’s cute and more than a face, bringing needed energy to the second act, and someone for the leads, both funny in their own right, to riff off of.

With Alma in tow, they go after Rush Hour 2, Robocop, and the Lion King, and have a lot of fun doing it. There’s a nice scene in a local deli where everyone talks about how much they love the Lion King. This movie isn’t for the uber movie buffs, it’s for everyone. Ask any adult without kids who watches Disney movies and they’ll turn their nose up at the Lion King; it was derivative of Simba the White Lion, it used CG, Timon & Pumbaa were a thinly veiled Ren & Stimpy ripoff…. but it’s still a fun movie.

Mos Def is really coming into his own. I liked him in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an underrated adaptation of an impossible book, and forgive him for taking that part in 16 Blocks. Jack Black is doing something he’s done since Mr. Show, but it works here; he acts like a wacky junkman with a colander on his head should act. And I know enough backyard mechanics to know he’s got the character down pat.
The third act is where most films fail, and I’m sad to say it is the weakest part of the film. Mr. Fletcher left the store because the town wants to condemn the building and he needs to make repairs, so he spies on other video stores to see why they’re so successful. Like everyone in the film, he’s imbued with a childlike innocence that lets director Michel Gondry make some amusing social commentary on video stores and the movie industry. The movies the crew makes, which get called “swedes” because they claim to have to import them from Sweden, raise the ire of the movie industry. And of course the community rallies together to help save the store… but we don’t get a Hollywood ending. Gondry is kind enough to spare us that. In a movie dripping with childlike sentimentality and requiring some willful suspension of disbelief, he gives us a somewhat open ending; we know it’s not happy ever after, but he doesn’t waste our time by showing us a “where are they now.”

Michel Gondry’s best movie to date is still Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with a script by Charlie Kaufman. Gondry’s own scripts, like this and The Science of Sleep, aren’t as clever but are enjoyable in their DIY way. He reminds me of John Waters and other true indie pioneers, and even Hal Ashby. In the booklet that came with the recently released Harold & Maude Soundtrack LP, the improv style Ashby expected from his actors was remembered, and the same feel is evident here. Everyone talks over each other, mixed metaphors and malapropisms abound, but it’s never forced or obviously written.

Gondry is most famous for the home-made props he uses in his music videos and films, such as the giant hands in the dream sequence in The Science of Sleep:
That whole movie was like a dream, and this one is often similar. For example when Jerry gets magnetized, he floats in an electric field and the effects aren’t just funny, but bizarre in a dreamlike way; he’s genuinely frightened of what happened to him. He goes to the doctor, who just gives him a bottle of aspirin. The Fats Waller movie they end up making and the effects they use are the most dreamlike part of the film. It gives Gondry an excuse to make the weird props and effects he loves, such as a piano with human fingers for keys.

It’s certain they had a lot of fun making this movie, almost like a John Landis project- it has that same infectious feel, like they were all friends on the set, and wish you had been there. I enjoyed it a lot and recommend it, but it’s not for everyone. It’s not all laughs, and if you don’t like the characters you’re going to be disappointed. His favorite movie is Back to the Future, and the last time I saw that movie I was reminded of how quirky it actually was; he captures some of the same energy here with a lower budget, and there’s even a car that looks like the DeLorean made with a Kia and tinfoil, but unfortunately they don’t “swede” the movie.

Gondry is from France, but he seems to have a knowledge of Passaic. He films it as a town with character that is being homogenized, and that’s not far from the truth. My favorite haunts there are long gone; the Passaic Book Center merged with the Montclair one many years back. The Blue Castle System burger joint is gone. The record shops and martial arts supply places have disappeared, and I bet the porno theater is gone too. Slummy as it was, it had character. I was never afraid going down there on weekends to browse records and used books, and maybe buy a wooden sword to crack our heads on. I could imagine a video store still renting VHS there. Thanks for a sentimental and funny movie, Mr. Gondry. Here’s hoping the lukewarm reception at Sundance doesn’t stop you from making more like it.