Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Young Shen, a peacock, was supposed to lead Gongmen City when he grew up. But when Soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh), a goat, predicted that someone in black and white was going to thwart his thirst for power, Shen (Gary Oldman) decided to kill pandas all over China. When he returned home, his parents banished him from the city. Years later, bitter Shen reappeared, equipped with newfangled metallic weapons and ravenous but dim-witted wolves, to take back the city, eliminate kung fu, and gain control of China. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, was a hasty but scrumptious sequel filled with non-stop action, cuddly rabbits, funny jokes about the anthropomorphic characters, and gorgeous animation. With a relatively simple storyline, the film wasted no time in sending Po (Jack Black), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) to release Gongmen City from the evil peacock with feathers as knives. But it was far from an easy task. Each successive action sequence became increasingly difficult for our heroes which meant more complex plans of attack and trickier camera angles. It also meant more scenes where Po had to clandestinely blend into the environment to no avail. I loved the aerial shots especially when the Dragon Warrior and his friends attempted to sneak into the city while in a dancing dragon costume. Looking down, it looked like a helpless caterpillar desperately trying to find its way out of a labyrinth while avoiding nasty predators. I also enjoyed the scene in which our protagonists had to run to the tip of a building as it slowly collapsed. There was a real sense of peril as Po and company were thrown around like rag dolls. Since Shen wielded a myriad cannons, the city was eventually thrown in a state of calamity, its residents dispersing like flies. Although potentially too violent for kids, the filmmakers found a way to hide certain realities. For example, someone who was hit by a cannonball was almost always immediately shown as only slightly wounded but ultimately safe. There was an interesting subplot involving Po’s origins. Po finally realized that Mr. Ping (James Hong), a duck, wasn’t his biological father. Mr. Ping was heartbroken from the prospect of Po treating him differently other than the father who found him in a box, raised, and fed him tons of radishes when he was a baby panda. Fragments of memories began to manifest themselves and they caused turmoil in Po’s mind. It proved to be inconvenient because the only way he could learn a special kung fu move, with the aid of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), was to find inner peace. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” directed by Jennifer Yuh, was surprisingly fresher than newly dug radishes. It is a product of synergy among comedic asides, kinetic martial arts, and the more sentimental scenes between Po and his dad. Most of all, it is a testament that sequels need not rely on typicalities to duplicate the successes of its predecessor. Its ambition and execution make it a solid companion piece.
The Graduate (1967)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Graduate,” directed by Mike Nichols, became a pop culture icon since its release so I just had to see it. I wasn’t impressed with it but I was satisfied because it had moments of genuine sadness inside of the comedic happenings on the outside. Dustin Hoffman stars as a recent graduate who we came to meet during a graduation party that his parents threw for him. He was deep in thought about something but we didn’t immediately know why. What we did know, however, was the fact that Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) wanted to have an affair with the twenty-year-old after he took her back to her house and had a drink with him. I didn’t expect this picture to be as mature as it was. In fact, I was expected it to be a slapstick or a gross-out movie of sorts. I really admired the way Nichols used Hoffman’s alienation to drive the story forward, often in unpredictable (and sometimes jarring) directions. When Nichols placed Hoffman’s character in that scuba diving suit, it was such a bold statement; even more daring was the decision to place the audience in the lead character’s point of view as he saw the world and familiar faces with such disconnect and great frustration. From that moment, even though I thought Ben was pathetic because he often whimpered his way through strange situations, I wanted to root for him. That scene was a stand out because it really captured the loneliness and the confusion that Hoffman was going through from the minute the film started to the subtle but brilliant final sequence on the bus. What didn’t work for me was the “romance” between Hoffman and Katharine Ross. I can understand that maybe it wasn’t supposed to feel real because the characters were young and perhaps didn’t know what they really wanted. It’s just that I think the movie would have been more effective (and I certainly would have cared more) if the passion felt genuine instead of just feeling like Hoffman was stalking Ross all over campus. Still, I thought the movie was strong because it was able to articulate the internal and external battles that the main character was going through. It was also difficult not to love the perfectly-timed soundtrack and it enhanced the experience instead of serving as a distraction like in a lot of coming-of-age movies nowadays that try too hard to be hip or cool. It’s easy to classify “The Graduate” as the movie where the main character had sexual affairs with a much older woman. I think it’s so much more than that; to me, it’s more about the temptations that the protagonist surrendered to because he ultimately didn’t know who he was. Since he didn’t know who he was, no matter what he did or what he accomplished, he couldn’t seem to feel happiness even at the most basic level.
The Tale of Despereaux (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
A lot of people were disappointed by this animated flick but I must say that I enjoyed it. It may not be as intelligently written or have as deep a story as most Pixar films bit it had enough heart to keep me interested from beginning to end. Matthew Broderick lends his voice as Despereaux, a mouse of small stature with big eyes, big ears and a strong sense of smell. He’s not like any other mouse because he doesn’t know how to be scared of certain things like a typical mouse should. In fact, he thrives on the excitement of acquiring cheese from mousetraps and reading books instead of eating them. I thought the first part of the film was fascinating in a psychological point of view because Despereaux, a youngster mouse, is encouraged to be scared of pretty much everything. Even though he is a mouse, he describes himself as a gentleman who is brave and honorable. The joke/reverse psychology works in its own universe and as a lesson for younger viewers. However, what did not work as well for me was Roscuro (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) and Miggery Sow (voiced by Tracey Ullman). Roscuro accidentally “killed” the queen (via drowning in soup or a heart attack?) which drives the king to banish rats out of the kingdom as well as cooking soup, which is the kingdom’s source of happiness. As the kingdom plunges into a depression, Roscuro feels extreme guilt and, like Despereaux, he feels like an outcast and seeks redemption. The third outcast is Miggery Sow who I initially thought had some sort of a mental disorder but, with a little bit of psychoanalysis, I eventually came to a conclusion that she wants to be treated like a princess (instead of actually being one as she portrayed) because she wasn’t loved as a child. Although her character wasn’t as developed as I wanted it to be, what I liked about her part of the story was that it was open to interpretation. I thought it was weird how Roscuro and Miggery Sow, one way or another, become a villain and I wasn’t sure of the filmmakers wanted the audiences to think that. This is one of those films that could’ve benefited more if it had a longer running time. It tried to tackle three main characters but it wasn’t successful because the last two I mentioned weren’t explored enough. Other notable voices include Emma Watson, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Frank Langella, Richard Jenkins and Christopher Lloyd. Based on Kate DiCamillo’s books, “The Tale of Despereaux” may not have been a critical success but the animation is impressive and it has enough implications for the older audiences if one were to look closely.
Tropic Thunder (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
This is not as funny as everyone made it to be. I thought it spent too much of its time showing people shooting guns and not enough time telling Hollywood jokes. For a two-hour film, I thought it would reach some sort of balance. Written and directed by Ben Stiller, he has some really funny sketches such as the fake trailers prior to the main feature, Robert Downey Jr. as a method actor, Tom Cruise as the over-the-top movie mogul, and not to mention the Oscar scene. Other than those few elements, I simply chuckled through the rest (if they were at least somewhat funny). Jack Black and Ben Stiller weren’t as funny as they could have been. Compared to Downey Jr. and Cruise, Black and Stiller were trying too hard to get noticed; instead of enhancing the experience, it became distracting. But I appreciated the cameos from Tyra Banks, Jennifer Love-Hewitt, Lance Bass, and Alicia Silverstone. They made me pay attention when nothing was going on on screen. What made this movie slightly above average at times was its self-awareness. It’s unabashed when it comes to making references to war pictures like “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket.” I love the scene where Downey Jr. recalled the films and actors that focus on mental retardation: Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump,” and Sean Penn in “I Am Sam.” If they would have appeared, it would have been that much better. But what really did not work for me was the jungle scenes. When people are shooting guns and running away from the artillery, it becomes chaotic. Those “action” scenes feel like fillers when the jokes are not in the foreground. This is supposed to be a comedy but I didn’t see the comedy behind the violence. Perhaps if this had been a dark comedy film, it would’ve worked… but it wasn’t so it didn’t. The story becomes slow and it feels like the actors are not reaching their full potential because they are left to just run around screaming. If this movie would have been tilted toward the show business instead of the actual war scenes, I think I would’ve enjoyed it that much more.