Friday, 8 July 2011
Summer round-up 2011 - Part Two - Reviews #78
Get off the beach at once and go and watch some movies.
Since you've been so good this year (at least so far), here's the rest of the summer round-up, including a strongman, a midget, four clones and a mad scientist. They're all in the same film.
Elsewhere, I heap praise on DreamWorks' latest, go all gooey over a Steve Carell comedy-drama and quickly tire of Bulldog Drummond, the world's worst detective. He makes Inspector Clouseau look like Charlie Chan.
Actually, Neil Simon made Inspector Clouseau (or at least Peter Sellers) look like Charlie Chan. In Murder by Death. Not a good film, the wonderful Eileen Brennan aside.
Ready? I was born ready, myself...
CINEMA: Kung Fu Panda 2 3D (Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2011) - This is a beast every bit as rare as a panda that can do kung fu: a superior sequel. A mix of heart, humour and action, the first outing raked in $600m at the box-office, so here’s a follow-up, helmed by first-time director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who devised the original’s striking opening sequence. Po, voiced by Jack Black, is the Dragon Warrior - a kung fu master and perpetually hungry panda. When a villainous peacock (Gary Oldman) looks to wrestle control of his valley via a dock-off cannon, our hero is sent to face him down, accompanied by his trusted cohorts, the Furious Five. The first thing to say is that the film looks incredible, packed with sumptuous landscapes dominated by vast mountains, dappling rivers and towering pagodas. Its 3D is rarely used to fling props at the audience, but rather to provide depth to its vividly-realised world, allowing the viewer to wallow in that sheer opulence. Few modern movies have realised the possibilities of the big screen in such an assured, ambitious manner.
Perhaps even more importantly, the film boasts an engrossing, engaging and affecting story that’s never worthy or, ahem, po-faced, and reveals just why Po was raised by a goose. Its humour is rich, intelligent and unpretentious, epitomised by a terrific set-piece in which a ceremonial dragon filled with our brave warriors consumes and dispels a series of baddies; the most heightened display of toilet humour you’ll ever see. And the other action sequences are similarly superb: vastly superior to those in the first outing, with tremendous variety and imagination. There’s a fight to save a village that throbs with energy and invention, a breathless, hilarious rickshaw chase and a quietly destructive cannonball climax. Such wizardry is augmented by effective voicework, a lovely score from Hans Zimmer and John Powell, and an unashamedly sentimental punch-the-air slo-mo moment in which Po turns to his buddies and simply yells: “I love you guuuuuuuys!” Fast, funny and fleshing out its story with emotional wallops, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a total triumph - and knocks even its predecessor into a conical hat. (3.5)
Just to refresh your memory:
Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, 2008) - A rotund, clumsy panda (Jack Black), obsessed with martial arts, is selected to be the mythical Dragon Warrior, setting him on a collision course with a psychotic, power-hungry snow leopard (Ian MacShane) who's planning to lay waste to his valley and see off his former father figure, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). The film begins in striking fashion with a manga-ish dream sequence, stutters for a while, then judders back into life around the half-hour mark, courtesy of an intensely moving flashback. After that it never looks back. It isn't perfect, but it's a fun mix of gags, fight scenes and pathos with an impressive visual sense and a very strong second half. (3)
Dan in Real Life (Peter Hedges, 2007) – There’s a lovely feel to this offbeat picture, which mixes family comedy, human drama and broad farce to unexpectedly effective, affecting ends. Steve Carell is a newspaper columnist, widower and father-of-three who visits his parents for the holidays and falls for a girl (Juliette Binoche) in a bookstore – only realising later it’s his brother’s new love. As he struggles to contain his feelings, he awaits news of possible syndication and faces the slings and arrows of outrageous daughters, who want to drive, date boys or just have his attention for a moment. The jumble of elements gels surprisingly well, thanks to neat scriping, Carell’s excellent performance and a fine ensemble that includes John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest. It’s an extremely satisfying movie. (3.5)
The Cheyenne Social Club (Gene Kelly, 1970) – Cowboy Jimmy Stewart arrives in town to collect his inheritance and finds his brother has left him a brothel, in this very funny Western comedy. The picture’s a little stagy in its mid-section and there’s the odd joke that misses the mark (a couple just don't make any sense at all), but the story is involving and amusing, there are a dozen big laughs and the chemistry between Stewart and tactless, chatty pal Henry Fonda is a joy to behold, old pros and real life best buds that they are. Elements of tension, action and human drama are also incorporated quite elegantly. After all, what would a Western be without a gunfight or two? (3)
Give a Girl a Break (Stanley Donen, 1953) – Three girls compete for the chance to headline a Broadway show in this trim, straightforward MGM musical. The simple story is just something to be diverted from – and the frequent numbers are a treat, particularly two each pairing Marge and Gower Champion, and Debbie Reynolds and Bob Fosse. The latter pair made The Affairs of Dobie Gillis the same year, which is a minor classic. (3)
See also: Did I mention that I met Debbie Reynolds? Yes I did, several times. MGM had a plan to remake all of Fred and Ginger's films, starring Marge and Gower Champion. They only managed one, turning Roberta into Lovely to Look At.
Run, Fatboy, Run (David Schwimmer, 2007) works as far as it does - and that's a lot further than you might think - on the strength of Simon Pegg's performance. He's excellent as a hopeless schlub trying in vain to ingratiate himself with the heavily-pregnant fiancee he left at the altar five years ago. His solution: to tackle the marathon her new fella is about to take on. The plot is overly formulaic - though the race is cleverly conceived - the material variable and the product-placement excessive, but Pegg is a brilliant comic actor, wringing laughs out of almost every situation. (3)
Shallow Hal (Bobby and Peter Farrelly, 2001) is the ultimate in high-concept romcom shenanigans (yep, I said shenanigans), as superficial skirt-chaser Jack Black's perception of the laydeez (yep, I said laydeez) becomes based entirely on their inner self, causing him to fall heels-over-head for morbidly obese charity worker Gwyneth Paltrow, whom he sees as a slimline hottie. The film's a little confused in places, relying on fat jokes whilst peddling its "appearances aren't everything" message, but its heart is in the right place and it's frequently both sweet and funny. At least until the Farrellys indulge their old bodyshock fetish with all that stuff about a tail. The film's main virtue is Black's sparring with similarly misguided buddy Jason Alexander, which works really nicely. Alexander's timelessly juvenile one-liner may be my favourite of the year so far (I am really sorry): "You're right. l'm probably more immature than you, but at least l have a bigger willy." (3)
*I.e. a film based on a one-line premise; "high-concept" makes it sound clever and admirable, which it rarely is.
The City of Lost Children (Mark Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1995) – A gaggle of misfits – a brain, a midget, four clones and a mad scientist – take to stealing children in order to experience the one thing their creator could never give them: dreams. On their trail is good-hearted, taciturn circus strongman One (Ron Perlman), who’s looking for the perpetually-hungry little brother they swiped from his caravan. The big guy is accompanied by Miette (Judith Vittet), a streetwise orphan who’s fallen in love with him. This fantasy is disjointed, muddled and almost self-consciously peculiar, but worth seeing for a knockout opening sequence, a couple of very special performances from Perlman and Vittet, and an astonishing visual sense. (2.5)
Catch-22 (Mike Nichols, 1970) – As an attempt to film an unimpeachable, untouchable, unfilmable book, it’s OK: a meeting of the sublime and the ridiculously useless in both scene and characterisation, with a passage of utter dullness to offset each sequence that works, and a lot of yelling to contrast with every bit of spot-on comic anguish. Alan Arkin is superb as Yossarian and Jon Voight makes a suitable Milo, but Martin Balsam is all kinds of shouty wrong as Col. Cathcart. (2.5)
Bulldog Drummond Escapes (James P. Hogan, 1937) – Lively entry in the comedy-adventure series, with a slightly manic Ray Milland (in his only appearance as Drummond) looking to rescue damsel in distress Heather Angel from beardy villain Porter Hall, who’s got the young heiress locked up and drugged. The plot’s nothing new and the staging can be a little static, but the young Milland’s eager, slightly over-ripe characterisation keeps proceedings buoyant and there’s fun support from series regulars Reginald Denny and E. E. Clive. Kudos also to the writers for creating a bolshy love interest who’s not averse to whacking someone over the head. Sometimes even the right person. (2.5)
A film so poor that even J. Carroll Naish is bad in it. He's still impressibly unidentifiable, though.
Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (Louis King, 1937) – The first Drummond entry starring John Howard starts off terrifically, with vengeful crooks swiping his girl and promising a series of riddles he must complete to save her life. Sadly they’re incredibly tedious and not even the great John Barrymore, whose role consists of trying on some fake noses and pretending to be Scottish, can save this one. (1.5)
You see how this isn't very good?
Bulldog Drummond’s Bride (James P. Hogan, 1939) – As a devotee of '30s and '40s mystery-comedies, I've been pretty unimpressed by this series, even while acknowledging that it's a serial-like affair placing the accent on adventure. This entry is poorly-written, with misguided comedy interludes and a one-note performance from Reginald Denny, while Drummond (John Howard) is a simply awful detective, boasting the sole virtue of persistence. (1.5)
See also: To see how this sort of thing is really done, check out the Michael Shayne series. The last film in the series was Time to Kill.
Shorts (Robert Rodriguez, 2009) looks like it was made by kids, as well as for kids, with plenty of elements that will appeal to the nine-year-old in your life, but a shaky grasp of narrative and a staggeringly misguided chapter about a giant, murderous bogie. Perhaps realising his story wasn’t up to scratch, Rodriguez split it into sections and shuffled them, so it’s essentially like Pulp Fiction, if Pulp Fiction was a disappointing film about a magic rock. There are crocodiles that run on their hind legs, tiny, destructive aliens and a contraption that makes the iPhone look like a calculator watch, but the lacklustre plotting, heavy-handed moralising and sometimes wooden acting mean it’s a bit of a letdown. The best gag, with the aliens and that much-maligned bogie, is saved for the credits. (2)
See also: Rodriguez used to make great kids' films, like Spy Kids and Spy Kids 2. I'm afraid he also made Spy Kids 3. He also makes kids for grown-ups. You can read about his Mexico Trilogy here.
Happy Feet (George Miller, Warren Coleman and Judy Morris - let's name and shame them, 2006) - It's as if March of the Penguins had been remade by Satan. This is an embarrassingly ill-conceived animation about a community of singing penguins and the travails of one plucky little member (his plumage like an evening suit, his face and voice reminiscent of Elijah Wood), who's tone deaf but can dance. The makers seem to have no concept of storytelling, the visuals are dull and undistinctive, and without wanting to sound like Mary Whitehouse (a sure sign that I'm about to), a lot of the material is just incredibly inappropriate for kids. Would you pay someone to stand in front of your beloved, toddling offspring and talk about booty and - well - sexing? Because I probably wouldn't. The Amigo Penguins are pretty funny and the first chase sequence is exciting, but the rest of this is just absolutely excruciating. (1.5)