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 Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Many years prior, Merlin had three apprentices: Balthazar (Nicolas Cage), Horvath (Alfred Molina), and Veronica (Monica Bellucci). However, Horvath decided to team up with the evil Morgana (Alice Krige) and take over the world. Veronica decided to sacrifice herself, through a series of magical spells, by emprisoning Morgana’s soul in her body. Fastforward to the 21st century, Balthazar recruited a geeky Physics student (Jay Baruchel), Dave, who he believed to be the so-called Prime Merlinian, Merlin’s successor, to prevent the release of Morgana and defeat Horvath once and for all. Naturally, nerdy Dave had other things on his mind like romancing a girl he knew when he was still in grade school. There was a lot of unnecessary backstory in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and it did not have a lot of payoff. Special and visual effects were abound, some were, admittedly, impressive (I highly enjoyed the scenes when statues would come to life and attempt to kill the protagonists), but what it lacked was a strong and defined emotional core. As much as I like the adorable Baruchel as an actor, I believe he might have been miscast because he failed to inject multidimensionality to his character. Yes, Physics and the girl were very important to him but what else was he passionate about? When he found out he was supposed to be the next Merlin, there was no sense of wonder and I did not feel a conflict moving enough to keep me wanting to see how things would unfold. Furthermore, I felt as though Cage was too campy for the role and most of his one-liners fell completely flat. It was almost desperate. The writers should have trimmed the parts when Cage made heavy-handed speeches about embracing destiny and focused more on the twenty-year-old who was supposed to wield a great power but did not know what to do with it. Considering that the picture was essentially a Disney film, perhaps it felt the need to cater toward children and that was the reason why pretty much everything was oversimplified. However, I think a bit of edge could have greatly benefited the movie in terms of tone. Not for a second did I believe that the bad guys had the upper hand over the good guys. Directed by Jon Turteltaub, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” delivered many action-packed adventures all over New York City but, other than occassional thrills, it lacked a range of other emotions. Its references to “Fantasia” were highly enjoyable but since the filmmakers did not take the material to the next level, I’m not quite sure if modern audiences (especially younger kids in which it catered toward) will recognize the allusions.
The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, “The Adjustment Bureau” was about a U.S. Congressman named David Norris (Matt Damon) and his accidental discovery of men in hats (John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, Terence Stamp) whose jobs were to make sure that fate went according to plan. The event that triggered it all was David’s chance encounter with Elise (Emily Blunt), incidentally, the night David was destined to lose the election. The moment David and Elyse met, they immediately felt a spark, a signal that perhaps they just might spend the rest of their lives together. But the mysterious men in hats and their boss upstairs knew that David and Elyse were not meant to meet each other, let alone be together, so they were willing to do whatever means necessary to keep them apart. The film was a successful hybrid of romance and science fiction. Its casting should be recognized. From the moment David and Elyse met in the men’s restroom, Damon and Blunt convinced us that their characters were perfect for one another. They played each other off with ease. From the awkward “What are you doing in the men’s restroom?” look to the way the their bodies moved closer to each other as their first conversation went on, the picture convinced us that they had chemistry. Casting was fundamental but critical because if their interactions lacked charm, we wouldn’t have been emotionally invested. If we didn’t want them to end up together, the conspiracy that wanted to keep them apart would have been ineffective. I admired the fact that there was not a defined good versus evil. The agents of the Adjustment Bureau were assigned a job and their job just happened to involve separating forces that greatly attracted each other. There were some plot holes, especially since the film took the liberty to fast forward in time for several years without explaining some events that happened in between, and misplaced expositions designed to explain what was happening and why certain things had to happen a certain way, but such elements were almost expected in high concept movies. For me, what mattered more was the material always looked forward so its pacing was steady. Like people in love, as long as I remained curious about the mystery and how the romance would eventually turn out, I learned to live with its imperfections. Unlike most films with romance in their veins, David and Elise’s fate as a couple wasn’t perfectly clear. There was a discussion of death which could serve as a foreshadowing. There was a question whether we should leave someone we love if we knew that our presence in their lives hindered them from reaching their potential. But there was also an implication that if enough unpredictable ripple effect were created, perhaps fate could be changed even in the slightest ways. Directed by George Nolfi, “The Adjustment Bureau” was able to reach a balance between intelligence and heart. But what it required from us was a little bit of imagination.
★★ / ★★★★
A couple played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins decided to flip a coin because they couldn’t make up their mind regarding how to spend their Fourth of July holiday. Once the coin was flipped, we were immediately taken on two paths: the couple spending their time with the girlfriend’s family (the talented Olivia Thirlby among them) and the couple finding a cell phone in a taxi which criminals desperately wanted in their hands. I really liked the concept of the movie but it just didn’t move me in any way because it was very uneven. I understood that a big part of the picture was its use of contrast but I felt like it spent more time developing the thriller aspect (the cell phone) instead of balancing it with drama (the family). They could have done so much with the family such as expanding the tension between the boyfriend and the girlfriend’s mother or perhaps going deeper into the uncle’s illness. Instead, the movie focused on the characters running all over New York City; while initially it was exciting because I was curious about why certain people wanted the cell phone so badly, over time the tension caught a bad case of diminishing returns. I just grew tired of the couple making one bad decision after another. I was even surprised that they managed to survive for so long. I found it difficult to believe that the couple trying to survive was the same as the two who were having dinner with nice and welcoming people. While the events were very different from one another, it would have been nice if we saw certain characteristics of the lead characters that crossed boundaries set by the cinematic style. There was also a disconnect between the level of acting between Gordon-Levitt and Collins. When the former tried to achieve depth, the latter almost always decided to go for the obvious, not just in the way she said the lines but the body language lacked subtlety. I wished that Thirlby was the lead female instead because, from what I’ve seen from her other films, she can achieve subtlety without sacrificing charisma. Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, I saw potential in “Uncertainty” but it took far too many missteps and I lost interest in it over time. While the use of contrast was nice, it didn’t quite break out from the usual patterns to go for that element of surprise. It needed more time to ponder over why one small decision could lead to big (and sometimes unfortunate) events in our lives. I guess I needed the movie to actively connect with its audiences instead of just being stuck in its own universe. With such an interesting premise, I thought it would be more versatile in terms of its tone (especially since McGehee and Siegel both directed one of my favorite films “The Deep End”–the masterful balance of thriller and drama) and it wouldn’t be afraid to take risks time and time again. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
The Best of Youth (2003)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“La meglio gioventù” or “The Best of Youth,” written by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli and directed by Marco Tullio Giordana, runs for six hours long but I was so invested in all of the characters so I wanted it to run longer. Its focus was on two brothers named Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni) and how the choices they made back when they were young in the 1960s have impacted their respective futures all the way to the 2000s. This is one of those films where it’s difficult to describe what it’s about because it’s pretty much about everything. Let’s just say that this is about life and the beauty that comes with it–how cruel yet generous fate can be, how ironic situations are despite the sharply fluctuating sadness and comedy, and how the people we meet can help shape who we are. Yes, it’s about two brothers who are very different from each other (one became a psychiatrist and one became a cop) but what I liked about the picture is that it didn’t paint them as rivals. In fact, they genuinely loved each other even though their political views and how they interpreted situations that faced them were vastly different. I also liked the way the director effortlessly sewn in the Italian history into their lives. I didn’t find it at all distracting because the movie always worked at a personal level. There was always something going on on the surface and underneath it all was a lot of hurt, disappointment, regret and what ifs. I was also amazed with how the movie started off with the actors looking really young and look of the picture reflected that of the 1960s. But as we made our journey through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s, the same actors looked older and the look of the movie became sharper and more modern. It was fascinating to watch and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. As the movie went on, the focus shifted from the brothers to their parents, siblings, lovers, and children. I really felt like I was watching someone’s life unfold before my eyes. As the characters often reflected on a certain memory when they were younger, I actually had a picture on which memory they were talking about as well as the circumstances that surrounded that event. It’s so much more interesting than in other films where a character talks about his or her memory and we can only build from what he or she is saying. I’m so happy to have seen “The Best of Youth” because not only did it inspire me to love the people in my life more but it also gave me an idea of what I could possibly write about for my personal statement for medical school. This film is a treasure and it should not be missed by anyone who loves stories that deftly cover several decades.
A Serious Man (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Ethan Coen and Joel Coen directed this film about a Jewish family led by Michael Stuhlbarg, a physics professor who one day finds himself unable to roll with the punches that life sends his way. His very unhappy wife (Sari Lennick) wants a divorce to marry another man (Fred Melamed), his son (Aaron Wolff) discovers and experiments with drugs, while his daughter (Jessica McManus) seems to care more about her friends than her family. Meanwhile, a family member who is currently staying in their home is addicted to gambling. To top it all off, he has to deal with a student who bribes him with a lot of money to pass the course and death seems to be all around him. Like most Coen brothers movies, what I love about this project is its offbeat style of storytelling that is capable of going in a million directions. Also, the dark humor is so unrelenting to the point where I can’t help but wince whenever the characters go through very uncomfortable and uncompromising positions. Observing the nature of humanity and picking different kinds of people apart is their forte and that is constantly at the forefront of this picture. No matter how different each characters are in the Coen brothers’ films, I can’t help but find bits of myself in them. That universality is priceless and I believe that’s why I’m always excited whenever I see a movie by the Coens. While I agree with other critics that this is probably their most personal film yet, I just couldn’t get help but feel cheated because of its ending. I love depressing endings (and endings that goes completely against the idea of living happily ever after) and even unconventional ones (such as “No Country for Old Men), but there was something about this movie’s particular ending that rubbed me the wrong way. Even though a friend that I saw this movie with explained to me why the ending was justified (and even brilliant because it supported the film’s central thesis), I can’t accept the fact that it ended right when everything started to come together and the characters were about to meet their respective fates. I admired the film’s ability to truly embrace a Jewish community in 1967 without being condescending and I was fascinated with the characters whether they were Jewish or not. But I was left hanging in the end; the more I think about it, the more disappointed I feel instead of feeling impressed. I’m giving “A Serious Man” a recommendation because it was definitely entertaining and I could feel the Coen brothers’ passion for making movies in every frame. They do whatever they feel like doing without fear of annoying their audiences and that in itself must be commended.
Sin Nombre (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
The debut of writer-director Cary Fukunaga was loved by critics and audiences alike, but I was not that impressed with it. “Sin Nombre” was about two groups of people–one from Honduras and one from Mexico–who take a train headed to the border of United States and Mexico. The first group was Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and her family who attempt to move to America to lead a better life. The other was Casper (Edgar Flores) who was being hunted down by Mara Salvatrucha, a gang he was once a part of, because he committed a crime against them. While I do agree that the film was protrayed in a gritty and realistic way, I found it difficult to identify with the main characters. I felt as though they had this wall that lasted from the beginning of the picture all the way to finish line. I understand that their journey on the train was literal and symbolic but I had trouble sticking with it because of that lack of connection between the characters and the characters to its audiences. I felt as though their situation or story was told in a much better way from other films. If Fukunaga had taken the time to cut off some scenes from the first twenty minutes and expand on the scenes when Sayra and Casper were interacting with each other, it might have had something brilliant to offer. Instead, I felt as though the experience can be summarized as merely glossing over the shell of characters who were going through very difficult times without truly getting into why they were complex. Their motivations were apparent (survival and a better life) but the filmmakers failed to take the story to another level. I noticed that the director tried to inject contrasting images and concepts but those weren’t enough to make up for a lack of a strong core. I had high expectations coming into this film and I couldn’t help but feel more and more disappointed as the fate of the characters began to unfold.
My Dinner with Andre (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by and starring real-life friends Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory essentially star as themselves in “My Dinner with Andre.” Wallace/Wally agreed to meet up with his old friend for dinner and admitted to the audiences that he had not seen his friend in years. The whole film took place in a real-time conversation over dinner between the two actors as they discussed practical and philosophical questions. While both of them were able to offer very insightful questions and commentaries throughout, I had a big problem during the picture’s first thirty minutes. Andre pretty much talked non-stop for several minutes without Wally uttering more than two sentences. I thought that the premise of the film was about two friends who were at an equal intellectual level but very different outlook on life. However, the first thirty minutes did not reflect that. Instead, I intially felt as though Andre was the wiser of the two and Wally was a child getting an education from an elder who has been all over the world. Eventually, however, Wally was given the chance to speak and it was refreshing because even though he did not sound as formal or worldly (or pretentious?) as Andre, I found myself agreeing with a lot of the points he brought up because he expressed his thoughts in simple and frank manner. I thought the film reached its peak when the two stopped agreeing with each other and began expressing how differently they viewed the world. In a nutshell, Wally did not believe in fate and that things were simply an accumulation of random coincidences. Andre, on the other hand, believed in fate and that having a purpose was not always necessary because purpose almost always equated to habit and habit was the lack of awareness and therefore a lack of “real” living. They were able to tell each other a plethora of stories that covered the two basic themes and it was fascinating to sit through. This movie made me think of how many friends I could converse with in a similar level and even I have to admit that there are not a lot of them. Younger viewers and people who are not that into plays may not understand the references that the characters have made (it would probably help for a deeper understanding) but it was still an enjoyable rumination about the beauty and ugliness of life. I could certainly connect with both of the characters so I did not at all find it difficult to keep paying attention with the words and the little nuances in their voices. This is an art-house film, which may mean it is not for everyone, because it “only” consists of two people talking to each other like in “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” (which was definitely influenced by this picture). That said, “My Dinner with Andre” is highly rewarding.