Skadoosh! “Kung Fu Panda 3” Offers a Delightful (Possible) Conclusion to the Trilogy

Kung Fu Panda 3

Kung Fu Panda 3 (Alessandro Carloni/Jennifer Yuh)

In the interest of full disclosure, I must announce that I went to college with one of the two screenwriters – Jonathan Aibel – of this new DreamWorks Animation picture. He and his longtime writing partner, Glenn Berger (whom I have never met), after first making a name for themselves collaborating on scripts for the FOX TV show King of the Hill, and then anonymously script-doctoring on feature films, finally received their first on-screen movie credit for Kung Fu Panda. They did not originate that screenplay, but changed enough of it that the WGA, in arbitration, determined that they should share credit with the original screenwriters.† That film was a success, and they were then contracted for the sequel (along with other films for DreamWorks, and other studios, such as Monsters vs. AliensAlvin and the Chipmunks: ChipwreckedThe SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water and the upcoming Trolls). Whatever conflict of interest that may present for yours truly (check out my review of SpongeBob to see that I am capable of mixing praise with criticism, however mild, to a friend), I am happy to report that the latest installment in the adventures of Po, the Panda, is a winner, even if not quite as sublime as its predecessor. If you enjoyed the first two films, you must see this one, as it offers what feels like the perfect conclusion to a lovely trilogy. Of course, if it makes money, there might be another one, but let’s pretend, for now, that the series ends here. After all, how many times can Aibel and Berger (sorry, Aibel & Berger*) work their considerable magic to create yet one more interesting journey of self-discovery for their main character?

The first Kung Fu Panda was released in 2008; the second in 2011. When we last we saw Po, he had come more into his own – after embracing his destiny as an unlikely kung fu master in the first movie – defeating a powerful enemy of China and saving his friends, the “Furious Five.” He had also discovered that he was adopted (i.e., not the son of his goose dad), and we had seen, in the final scene, that his biological father was alive and well, living in a secret village of fellow pandas. Kung Fu Panda 2 confirmed that it is possible for a sequel to enrich an established world and add a profound backstory to its characters (Aliens and The Godfather: Part II also stand out, for me). All the while enjoying the witty banter, amusing antics and beautiful animation, I found myself quite sincerely moved by the tale of Po’s origins in that second installment. It was a masterpiece of family entertainment, good for kids and adults, alike.

Here, we pick up that family thread, and learn much more about the power of pandas. But don’t worry, all of our old friends are back, with Jack Black (Bernie) as Po, Dustin Hoffman (Chef) as Shifu and character actor James Hong (R.I.P.D.) as Mr. Ping (the goose), as well as the Furious Five, all of whom have various well-known actors voicing them, even if they have few lines, including Angelina Jolie (Maleficent) and Lucy Liu (Elementary). Bryan Cranston (Trumbo) joins the cast as Li, Po’s father, as does J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) as Kai, this movie’s villain. To complement that considerable array of vocal talent, DreamWorks has pulled out all the stops and given its animation department enormous artistic freedom, allowing them to create a gorgeous world of carefully  designed landscapes that surround the characters and immerse us in a truly cinematic experience. I have always been impressed with what DreamWorks can do (How to Train Your Dragon 2 was especially beautiful) – they are, for me, the only animation studio that can rival Pixar in loving attention to visual detail – but here they have outdone themselves. Not only is the 3D animation a delight, but the way they mix in 2D and multiple-panel storytelling, as occasionally befits the narrative, feels truly inspired.

As the movie opens, Po is satisfied with the place he has found among his friends, happy to be recognized for his previous accomplishments. Of course, this contentment cannot last (or we’d have no movie), and the unraveling begins first with the arrival of General Kai, freshly returned from the land of dead, ready to reconquer China, and second with the arrival of Li, who wants Po to reconnect with his panda roots. Just as his country needs him, in other words, Po stands torn between his duty to the cause and his duty to family. It’s a good dual conflict, with high stakes for all. Along the way, despite the threats to peace and prosperity, there are plenty of jokes, most of which land, and a good time is had by all (of us). Skadoosh, indeed!

[*Here’s an interesting bit of trivia, in case you have ever wondered about the difference between “and” and “&” in screenwriting credits. An “and” means that people have worked separately, as in you did your draft and I did mine. An “&” means that they have worked together, in collaboration, as in Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger always work as partners. If you see both both, that means that there were multiple drafts credited, and at least one of those drafts was written by a pair or group of people, together.]

[†Correction from later on 1/29/16, courtesy of Jonathan Aibel, himself: As an FYI, DreamWorks isn’t a WGA signatory, so there is no WGA arbitration on their movies. Credit is determined internally. On the first Panda, the story credit was given to the two writers who first fleshed out the title (they came up with the basic premise of the five animals representing the five styles of kung fu, for instance). After they wrote a draft or two, other writers came on. At least 3 by my count. Then we joined, starting more or less from scratch. So in the end, there wasn’t any debate over the credit – we didn’t originate the premise (so didn’t get a story credit) – but we were the writers for every scene in the final movie (hence, screenplay credit). Because we originated Pandas 2 and 3 and wrote them all the way through we have ‘Written By’ credit: that’s the writing credit that incorporates both story and screenplay.”]

After a Strong Start, “The Finest Hours” Drowns in Melodrama

Finest Hours

The Finest Hours (Craig Gillespie, 2016)

Based on the daring 1952 rescue of the oil tanker Pendleton by a Massachusetts-based Coast-Guard crew – or, rather, based on the book about that rescue – The Finest Hours does its best to immerse the audience in the derring-do of its heroes – and succeeds for a while – before merely submerging us in the overflow of its melodramatic waters. Directed by Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm) and starring Chris Pine (Star Trek: Into Darkness), Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) and Holliday Grainger (Cinderella), among others, the film is not without its qualities, and is, in fact, quite gripping in its first half. Unfortunately, like some of the ships in its story, it loses its way in an attempt to take the already harrowing events and prolong the agony of their unfolding for the sake of (failed) tension. Still, while it works, it works quite well.

When we first meet Bernie Webber (Pine), it is just before a date with Miriam (Grainger), a young woman with whom he has frequently spoken (on the phone), but never met. We are told that he is extremely handsome (and he is Chris Pine, after all), but his manner is not that of a ladies’ man; quite the contrary. He’s all shyness to her brash confidence. Later, she is even the one who proposes. Interesting. Will this film – ostensibly about a true-life drama – offer a revisionist take on 1950s sexual politics? Sadly, that is not to be, as Miriam eventually finds her way – quite literally – to the kitchen, like a good little girl, and all is right with the world (I’m kidding, but she is in the kitchen).

But enough about that part of the story. You came here for adventure! And so we get it. It’s February, and a nasty winter storm breaks apart a large oil tanker. Make that two oil tankers, one of which is unable to signal its position. That would be the Pendleton. Its bow section sinks rapidly, but its stern still has power, and ship’s engineer Ray Sybert (Affleck, giving the best performance in the film) thinks he can keep them afloat long enough for the Coast Guard to arrive (if they’re even coming). Back on shore, Webber is told to head out to sea to save the Pendleton after all the other ships go in pursuit of the other tanker. It’s a suicide mission, but he agrees to go, since, as we’ve learned by this point, he always does his duty. And so, with a crew of three other unlucky sailors, off he goes, in a 36-foot boat, into the waves and the wind.

So far, so good; well, mostly, as we have to wonder what Eric Bana (Hulk) is doing here as Webber’s commanding officer, since he almost singlehandedly ruins the film. As we cut between Webber and his mates and the seemingly doomed crew of the Pendleton, the truth is that it is a thrilling ride. But then, at some point, Gillespie begins to mishandle the story. I think the score is a major part of the problem – although I normally love the composer, Carter Burwell (who is Oscar-nominated this year, for Carol) – as we do not need its swelling chords; the swelling waves are enough. But it’s not just the music; we also must deal with what begins to feel like endless and manipulative dramatic pauses in the action on both vessels, as well in what happens on land (remember Miriam?). And so it goes. It’s not a total wash, but it never lives up to the promise of its initial set-up.

“Mojave” Gets Lost in Its Own Desert

Mojave

Mojave (William Monahan, 2015)

The best I can say about Mojave is that it improves significantly as it proceeds. However, since its opening is a dismal dramatic wasteland, that is scant praise, indeed. Starring Garrett Hedlund (On the Road) and Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), and written and directed by William Monahan (Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Departed, with one previous feature as a director – London Boulevard – under his belt), the film is a showcase for ostensibly fine talent wasted in the service of self-indulgence. No one emerges from the exercise unscathed; in fact, the beatings suffered by the main characters, the one upon the other, are a perfect metaphor for the movie’s effect on our view of their skills. The vapid dialogue forced through the mouths of Hedlund and Isaac by Monahan reduces all three of them to mostly amateurish beginners. Here’s hoping the actors, anyway, recover.

Hedlund plays Thomas, whom we will eventually discover to be a Hollywood star (or director, or producer … we’re never quite sure). As the film opens, he talks to the camera (in what will later turn out to be footage from a documentary of which he is the subject). Cut to him leaving a bedroom where a semi-conscious woman lounges. It almost looks like he’s robbing her, since he slips off her watch and is dressed in ragged clothes. Next we know, he’s off in a jeep, headed towards the desert, grabbing alcohol along the way. As the sun sets, he drinks himself silly, yipping away at the local coyotes off in the distance. The following morning, we watch as he wrecks the jeep and heads off on foot into the wilderness. Is he suicidal? On a walkabout? Before we can dwell too long on these questions, Thomas runs into Jack (Isaac), who looks even shabbier than does he. We’re about 10 minutes into the film, and so far the mystery has not been unpleasant, but now we’re in for a rude surprise, once the dialogue starts. The two strangers face off across the fire and trade pseudo-metaphysical musings about life and … Shakespeare. And then they fight, a battle which sets in motion a cycle of revenge that can only end with one of them left alive. This fireside chat is the nadir of the movie, but though things get better, we never quite escape the initial clumsy and forced set-up.

Along for the career-damaging ride are Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight), Mark Wahlberg (Ted 2) and French actress Louise Bourgoin (The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec) – whose strong accent makes her English-language lines near indecipherable – none of whom are better served by the screenplay than are the leads. This is the kind of movie where no one behaves in a way that makes sense, except to justify the next plot development. There’s something to be said for the existence of smaller films like Mojave as alternatives to the excess and explosive violence of so many of today’s blockbusters, but since, ultimately, we get no less violence here than there – and without the craft that makes some of the big movies palatable – then what, exactly is the point? None that I can see.

“Roughly Speaking” on the 2016 Oscar Nominations

Rodricks Oscar Noms

Today, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – joined Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” where we discussed the just-announced 2016 Oscar nominations, giving our opinion on what we agreed with and what we didn’t (here are my own lists of the best films, the best acting, and the best artistic and technical work of 2015). We also talked about the fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has, once again, mostly ignored people of color in its choices.

Here is the link to the show.

Enjoy!

“Reel Talk” – with Chris Reed and Ann Hornaday – on “Anomalisa,” “The Hateful Eight,” “The Revenant” and the Best Films of 2015

Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, w/ Ann Hornaday, "Washington Post" Film Critic

Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, w/ Ann Hornaday, “Washington Post” Film Critic

Welcome to the third episode of the 2015-2016 season of Dragon Digital Media‘s Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed . My guest this time was Ann Hornaday, film critic for The Washington Post. We reviewed three films, as usual – AnomalisaThe Hateful Eight and The Revenant – and added an additional segment where we discussed the best films of 2015 (or, at the very least, our personal favorites – here’s my list, and here’s Ann’s). In Howard County, Maryland, you can watch the show on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), and you can watch it online from anywhere. You can also still catch the first episode and second episode of this season, as well.

As always, the amazing Dragon Digital Media team did a fantastic job putting this together, especially producer Karen Vadnais and director Danielle Maloney. Our next episode will premiere in March of this year, just after the Oscars (and we’ll include a segment on the awards, don’t you worry). Until then, if you want to watch more of our work, you can check out last year’s episodes in full – Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5Episode 6 – or watch the various segments from each episode on our YouTube channel. Enjoy! And we’ll see you at the movies!

“Anomalisa” Is Typical Kaufman, for (Mostly) Better and for Worse

Anomalisa

Anomalisa (Duke Johnson/Charlie Kaufman, 2015)

As a screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman has been responsible for some of the most inventive scripts of the past two decades, starting with Being John Malkovich, in 1999, and continuing through such superior examples as Adaptation. (the period is in the title) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in the early aughts, to name my favorites. Then, in 2008, he finally directed his first feature, Synecdoche, New York (which he also wrote). In each of these films, Kaufman explores similar topics, which include: the alienation of modern life; the banality of that same modern life; the fear of losing one’s individuality amongst said banality; and the struggle to remain true to whatever one’s particular individuality may be. Sometimes, even in his most brilliant moments, he can be almost a little too clever by half, with a screenplay that weaves its story threads into such perfectly constructed knots that unwrapping the whole can be tiresome for those who just want a simple tale well told. But the rewards are always great, and the intrepid viewer, hungry for liberation from the banal blockbusters of our day, will find much to love in a Kaufman film.

Now, with Anomalisa – which Kaufman wrote (based on his “sound play” of the same title) and co-directed with stop-motion animation specialist Duke Johnson (for whom this is the first feature, though he has previously made short films and TV episodes) – we have a continuation of the same themes and story styles that manages to feel simultaneously old and new (if also tedious, at times, much as was Synecdoche, New York). Or maybe a better way to describe it is to say it is extraordinarily ordinary, much as the central female character, Lisa, appears to the protagonist, Michael. There’s nothing special about her, and yet she is the most unusual person he meets. Similarly, nothing much seems to happen here, yet the film is about momentous events in a man’s life. That paradox is at the heart of Kaufman’s appeal, and also part of the problem. Even after seeing the film twice, I wonder whether it is really about that much at all. Which may be the point. All I do know is that the film remains a vivid memory, and probably will for some time.

When we first meet Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis, Duncan in the recent Macbeth), it is only after we have first been surrounded by voices, all of which sound the same, even though they appear to be conversing. Then we see a cloudy sky, into which a plane flies. That must be where the voices are coming from, we think. But no: one of the voices remarks on the appearance of the plane, and then the camera pulls back, revealing that we are, in fact, in another plane, where Michael sits, watching the sky. It’s a lovely hint at Kaufman’s technique of revealing layers beyond the obvious. Soon afterwards, Michael lands in Cincinnati, grabs his bag and hails a taxi. By this time, we have begun to notice that everyone but Michael not only sounds the same, but looks the same. They also all – including Michael – have seams showing at the eyeline (a deliberate choice by the directors, since these seams are what allow one to manipulate the facial expressions of the puppets, yet they chose not to mask them in post-production).

By the time we get to the hotel, we have learned that Michael is here to give a talk (he lives in Los Angeles). We will soon also learn that he is a well-known author and “customer service” specialist and married with a child. And we will confirm that everyone else is, in fact, voiced by the same actor (Tom Noonan, Sammy in Synecdoche, New York), and decorated with the same face, no matter their age, size or gender. In other words, this is Michael’s world, where everyone blends together (including his wife and child). Until he meets Lisa, a middle-aged woman staying in the same hotel, whose voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh, currently also starring in The Hateful Eight) rings out in the midst of all the homogeneity. Can she save Michael? Is Michael capable of being saved?

This is a film about a 50-something man going through a nervous breakdown, and whatever you think of the often depressive reality of his life as represented on screen, it is hard to argue against the brilliance of the visual and aural conceits of the film. Noonan is a wonder, and much of the humor (it is often quite funny) of Anomalisa comes from him, though Ms. Leigh is also delightful. It’s a beautiful film to look at, too, as the animation stands out from the plastic sameness of so many studio releases. If I can’t quite make up my mind about how I feel about the whole, that doesn’t mind I didn’t enjoy the experience of watching it. At only 90 minutes, it’s a brief affair, and will hopefully stay with you as it has with me.

Mr. Reed’s Metaphysical Neighborhood Presents the Best Technical and Artistic Film Work of 2015

Best Artistic Techincal 2015 Collage

This coming week – on Thursday, January 14, in fact – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce its 2016 Oscar nominations. Before that happens, I would like to finish with my annual “best of” lists: I already posted my “best film” and “best acting” lists, so today’s post – about the (often) unsung artists and craftspeople who are essential to the filmmaking process – completes the triptych. As always, each movie title’s hyperlink will take you to my review, when I have one (if not, I have a note explaining where the hyperlink takes you). I also hyperlink the artists’ names, as well (mostly to IMDb, but sometimes to their own personal websites), so you can see what other work they have produced over their careers. In the case of best score, I link to the movies’ soundtracks on iTunes, as well. Occasionally, I add a note after the entries, to briefly explain my choices.

For each category, I stick to 5 candidates, in alphabetical order. These are the films where I thought that the work in that particular area truly enhanced the quality of the movie. Enjoy, and feel free to leave comments after you look it over!

Best Screenplay:

Best Cinematography:

Best Editing*:

[*3 of these are documentaries, which are among the hardest kinds of films to edit, given the huge amount of material to work with, from which one must, somehow, extract a coherent story.]

Best Production Design*:

[*I include the Production Designer, Art Director(s), Set Director and Costume Designer, in that order, for each film]

Best Special/Visual Effects*:

[*Too many people to mention all, so I include just the supervisor from the various teams, though the credits are complicated enough that I may be missing folks – or including too many – and for that I apologize]

Best Original Score*:

[*These scores all worked beautifully with their movies, adding much to the storytelling without overwhelming it.]

“Roughly Speaking” on Tarantino and González Iñárritu; “Hammer to Nail” on Bagnall

Hateful Eight Revenant Collage

On yesterday’s edition of Dan Rodricks‘ Baltimore Sun “Roughly Speaking” podcast, we discussed the two new (ultra-violent) Westerns out this week: Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant.

Here is the link. I come on just shy of 40 minutes. You can subscribe to receive these podcasts automatically (instructions at the bottom of the link’s page). Enjoy!

Funny Bunny

Also this past week, I reviewed Funny Bunny for Hammer to Nail. Enjoy that, as well!