Monday, June 30, 2008

WALL∙E / **** (G)

Featuring the voice talents of:
WALL∙E/M-O: Ben Burtt
EVE: Elissa Knight
Captain: Jeff Garlin
John: John Ratzenberger
Mary: Kathy Najimy
Ship’s Computer: Sigourney Weaver

Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios present a film written and directed by Andrew Stanton. Running time: 97 min. Rated G.

As a true film buff, I am fascinated with the magic of the motion picture experience. Even the most mundane movie has the potential to fill me with a sense of awe when experiencing it for the first time on a big screen with a booming soundtrack and those moving images washing over my field of vision. I often wonder what it must have been like to experience movies at their birth, when no one had ever seen a moving picture projected onto the screen before. And when sound was added, it must have been so shocking to see it synced up with the picture for the first time. There is something in the impact of those thoughts and possibilities that suggest the great potential of film as an art form. There is so much for it to live up to.

“WALL∙E”, the latest movie from the incredible minds at Pixar Animation Studios, is a film that comes close to realizing the perfection of the form. Perhaps the fact that the animated images of this film are computer generated is the natural progression of an art that is shaped from the artifice of capturing still images and placing them in a progression that suggests movement and reality. Does that make the fact that this is a movie about two robots who fall in love and show the human race how to become human again an irony or the inevitability of an art form that can do the same?

Pixar has a history of creating beautiful CG images in movies that are equally accomplished entertainments. In “Toy Story” we saw toys living in a world just as inventive as any kid’s imagination. “Finding Nemo” blended the ocean life we had seen in nature documentaries with a tale of love and hope as deep as the blue sea. The iconic feel of the road given to us mostly by movies was awarded a vibrant new perspective as a world populated by vehicles in “Cars”. But with “WALL∙E” it is like the shackles of convention have been cast aside—while not entirely thrown away—to give us a world, not so much based on another as it is explored for the first time by the characters within it.

The WALL∙E of the title is a janitor robot, seemingly the last of his kind. He was left on Earth as part of a worldwide cleanup project developed once the level of garbage from our throwaway society had gotten to the point where the planet could no longer sustain life. The project was conceived as a five year venture before humans could return. 700 years later, WALL∙E is still stacking cubes of compacted garbage into enormous towers.

One day a ship arrives and quite literally rocks WALL∙E’s world. The ship deposits another robot on the planet and leaves. This robot is EVE. EVE is looking for something. She—I say “she” because the filmmakers clearly suggest the male and female genders of the robots—is sleeker and more advanced than WALL∙E. For him, it’s a case of love at first sight despite the fact that her first instinct is to destroy him. Eventually, WALL∙E gains EVE’s trust and begins to introduce her to the pleasures of personality by showing her the vast collection of human memorabilia he has amassed during his years alone on the planet, including a video of “Hello Dolly” from which he has developed his own sense of romance and love.

The most amazing aspect of these introductory passages is the fact that all the story and emotions are conveyed without the use of dialogue. In this way, the movie is like a silent picture. The images become more important, and the audience is drawn further into the story than they might otherwise have been. And what beautiful images they are. The opening shot establishes so much of the plot’s details just by looking down on WALL∙E at his work amongst the garbage and the towers he has stacked. There is a sequence where the two robots exchange their names, but they seem to speak different languages at first, and so this limited conversation becomes a learning experience for both the characters and the audience.

When EVE finally finds what she was looking for, her ship is automatically notified and returns to retrieve her. WALL∙E stows away on the ship and discovers there is even more in the universe for him to explore. It is at this point that a genuine plot kicks in, and I suspect many critics will claim the portion of the film involving the humans is what might keep this visual masterpiece from being a total work of genius. But without the humans and their directive to return to Earth, two other important elements of what make for great filmmaking would be missing—the treasure of buried meaning and the thrill of entertainment.

The humans have spent their time devolving on a giant luxury space cruiser. Like the ultimate Carnival vacation, the humans spend their time doing nothing worthwhile. They are each carted around on their own personal floating deck chair. They never get or do anything on their own as their every need is attended to by robots. The entire ship is automated, and when EVE’s discovery and WALL∙E’s precocious personality disrupt the automated balance, the robot staff goes into lock down mode. One little robot named M-O is so focused on his job of scrubbing away any foreign substances that he develops his own psychologically imbalanced personality.

The presence of WALL∙E and EVE also peaks the Captain’s (voiced by Jeff Garlin, HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) interest to the point where he becomes the first human in 700 years to ask questions about Earth and why the automation works the way it does. This sudden interest by a human in his own fate causes the autopilot to mutiny and our heroes are thrown into a thrilling action adventure. The sequence where EVE attempts to save WALL∙E from being ejected into space with the trash had me—dare I say—on the edge of my seat.

Throughout this entire plot the visual mastery of the picture remains its spotlight. The movie’s most beautiful sequence comes when WALL∙E and EVE dance through space around the giant star cruiser. WALL∙E is aided in flight by a fire extinguisher.

Even the closing credit sequence is a visual masterpiece. The backgrounds tell of a sort of new evolution for man where they return to Earth and learn again to care for themselves and the Earth, and evolve through a second industrialization of the world. The backgrounds start the story through hieroglyphics, then as each leap in civilization is made the art style changes from ancient forms through modern ones. The question is will history repeat itself, or do we get it right this time? We have so much to live up to. This movie does it.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Get Smart / *** (PG-13)

Maxwell Smart: Steve Carell
Agent 99: Anne Hathaway
Agent 23: Dwayne Johnson
The Chief: Alan Arkin
Siegfried: Terence Stamp

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Peter Segal. Written by Tom J. Astle & Matt Ember. Based on the television series created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. Running time: 110 min. Rated PG-13 (for some rude humor, action violence and language).

So often in today’s box office-driven movie market, you’ll see a trailer for a comedy with all the best jokes revealed. More often than not, the jokes in the trailer are the only laughable entries in the entire picture. The trailer for “Get Smart” has a great deal of good jokes in it. But it also gives the impression that it may contain the only good ones with the way it strikes all the cookie-cutter beats of the typical action comedy trailer. Serious introduction of villainous plot to goofy introduction of incompetent hero to introduction of remaining cast members, sight gag here, verbal insult there, explosion, explosion, comedic visual and verbal button, “come see our movie!” But low and behold, “Get Smart” breaks the mold by offering even more jokes throughout the movie, including good ones in scenes that aren’t even in the trailer.

Yes, “Get Smart” is quite smart. It remembers the work of the original show’s creators Mel Brooks and Bucky Henry, whose careers as comedy writing legends are based on the notion that even silly comedy can be smart. The screenplay by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember (both previously co-wrote “Failure to Launch”) never dumbs itself down for the audience. Even more impressive is that it treats it characters with respect. The bumbling covert agent Maxwell Smart would be an easy character to treat as a fool, but here he is not. He is quite competent as played by Steve Carell (NBC’s “The Office”), if just a little unaware.

The filmmakers give us a genuine villain in Siegfried (Terrance Stamp, WB’s “Smallville”), a weapons dealer for the criminal organization KAOS. And Control operates like a legitimate covert ops branch for the United States government, where Smart is a top analyst. He dreams of being promoted to field agent status, but is told by The Chief that he is too valuable as an analyst.

Control is populated by a variety of spy and office characters. There are Bruce (Masi Oka, NBC’s “Heroes”) and Lloyd (Nate Torrence, NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”), Smart’s analyst buddies who are hurt by his desire to switch teams and work with the physically intimidating agents. David Koeckner (“Semi-Pro”) threatens to steal every scene he’s in as the bully agent Larabee, but the screenplay keeps him in check by limiting his screen time to just the jokes.

The larger roles are treated more seriously by the filmmakers but are still not beyond reproach. Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) retains his unique brand of pitch-perfect dry wit as The Chief. And Dwayne Johnson (“The Game Plan”) plays the nearly perfect Agent 23 but still finds himself the butt of a couple of jokes and the deliverer of a couple of guffaws. Johnson once again shows a natural ability for comedy here that is unexpected from a man of his physically impressive stature.

When the names of all of Control’s top field agents fall into the hands of KAOS, a plot to eliminate them forces Control to recall all active agents and place new agents in the field. This is Smart’s big break into the spy game. His is paired up with an experienced pro, Agent 99. Her identity was not compromised in the security breach because she had just undergone major reconstructive surgery to her face. She now looks like the beautiful Anne Hathaway (“The Devil Wears Prada”) but used to look like the sexy Cameron Diaz.

Carell and Hathaway make a surprisingly good match together on screen. Agent 99 spends most of their first mission saving Max’s life, and Hathaway’s sturdy performance allows you to believe it. Carell is a master of understated delivery and the film would not work without him. Director Peter Segal (“The Longest Yard”) wisely does not play up the goofiness of Smart’s ineptitude but rather allows Carell to keep Smart’s mistakes as a character quirk instead of outright buffoonery. When Agent 99 begins to fall for Smart, Hathaway’s ever-so-slight glimpses into her emotions and Carell’s portrayal of Smart as an intelligent klutz make the idea of their romance more acceptable.

The plot offers nothing exceptional in respect to the spy genre. It involves a threat by KAOS to hold the world at ransom with their stockpile of nuclear weapons. To prove the validity of their threat, Siegfried plans to assassinate the President while he is attending a benefit concert performance in Los Angeles. James Caan (NBC’s “Las Vegas”) has fun with his brief role as the President, poking fun at our current President’s mispronunciation of the word “nuclear.”

But the movie is not really a send up of the spy genre so much as a parody of its characters. To spoof the genre would involve employing stupidity for laughs, while concentrating the comedy just on character allows for silliness in the context of intelligence. “Get Smart” will not ever be considered a classic, but it pays homage to the original television series without trying to copy it or mock it. There are a few signature lines the writers give to Carell to connect his Maxwell Smart with Don Adams in the series, but Carell never imitates Adams. However, the filmmakers do find an interesting way for Carell to replicate Adams’s nasal delivery for his famous line, “Missed it by that much.” “Get Smart” pays tribute for those who remember the original but exists on its own for newcomers. Most of all, it is just good fun.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Love Guru / *½ (PG-13)

Guru Pitka: Mike Myers
Darren Roanoke: Romany Malco
Jane Bullard: Jessica Alba
Jacques Grande: Justin Timberlake
Coach Punch Cherkov: Verne Troyer
Guru Tugginmypudha: Ben Kingsley

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Marco Schnabel. Written by Mike Myers and Graham Gordy. Running time: 87 min. Rated PG-13 (for crude and sexual content throughout, language, some comic violence and drug references).

Sometimes I see a movie and just want to sigh afterward. This is not a good sigh. This is a “what were they thinking?” sigh. I didn’t want to sigh all throughout “The Love Guru”, just at the end. This is because during the movie I sat in eager anticipation of a joke that might actually be funny. I sat and sat; and finally when it was over, I sighed.

“The Love Guru” is a one joke pony. That joke is Guru Pitka himself. As played by Mike Myers, Guru Pitka is yet another in a line of weirdo comedic characters who could’ve been funny, if there were anything else going on besides his shtick. But Myers’s character is the only joke in the movie and he’s a joke we’ve seen done better in previous projects, like the “Austin Powers” spy spoof series. Resembling the multitude of characters Myers canonized in those films, Pitka is a man who seems out of place in his chosen profession. American-born but raised by Indian gurus, Pitka is exactly the opposite of what we all imagine an enlightened self-help guru to be. He has a juvenile mentality, finding the utmost joy in riding his motorized pillow around and generally bringing attention to himself.

In a flashback scene from Pitka’s childhood, we get a good example of a joke that should be funnier than it is. Instead of hiring a child actor to play the young Pitka, the filmmakers superimpose Myers’s adult head onto a young boy’s body. While the image is awkward enough to garner a chuckle at first, no comment is ever made on the motif to distinguish it in a humorous manner. The joke fizzles under the plot. We learn here that Pitka’s flaw is that he is too concerned with what other people think about him to achieve true enlightenment. This is brought to his attention by his teacher Guru Tugginmypuhda (Ben Kingsley in yet another project unworthy of his talents) who, along with sporting a goofy name, is severely cross-eyed. This handicap is commented on by the screenplay yet still isn’t funny.

Pitka is repeatedly told, “Before you can truly love another, you must first love yourself.” If this were some sort of original concept, we might need to be reminded of it once or twice; but come on. Now the entire plot is spelled out for us. Pitka will learn to love himself, so he can love another. We don’t have to be concerned about being confused by some crazy romantic comedy twist. Phew!

Any doubts are defused when we are introduced to Jane Bullard (Jessica Alba, “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer”), owner of the struggling professional hockey team the Blue Maple Leafs. For the first time in thirty years, the Leafs have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup; but Darren Roanoke (Romany Malco, Showtime’s “Weeds”), their star player, has been choking since his wife left him for a rival team’s goalie Jacques Grande (Justin Timberlake, “Alpha Dog”). Bullard hires Pitka to get them back together, but her interest in Pitka is obviously more than just professional.

I lied when I said the Guru Pitka character was the only joke. Timberlake’s Grande is nicknamed “Le Cocque” for good reason. Timberlake tries his darnedest to make this lame bird fly but, beyond an unhealthy obsession with Celine Dion, isn’t given much to work with.

The amazing thing about the screenplay by Myers and Graham Gordy is its insistence of concentrating its energies on nothing other than the strangeness of Guru Pitka. Roanoke’s wife should be a major element of the plot; but poor Meagan Good (“Stomp the Yard”) is barely given more lines than an extra to play her. The play-by-play and color commentators (comedians Jim Gaffigan and Stephen Colbert respectively) of the hockey games are given more plot involvement.

Even Pitka’s love interest disappears from the story for a good third of the movie while Myers persists in forcing the same jokes that worked for Austin Powers and Doctor Evil down the audience’s throat in an incessant loop. Example: Once again Verne Troyer (Mini-Me from “Austin Powers”) is employed for Myers to make verbal insinuation jokes regarding his size, such as, “I didn’t catch your gnome… name!” And there’s always the comedic standby involving committing acts of violence against little people. But all these jokes fall flat. We’ve either seen them before or are given no emotional investment in which to base our amusement.

Perhaps by playing only one character, Myers hasn’t given himself enough to do as the love guru. In the “Austin Powers” series—which I admired—he was able to develop several characters with slight variations in the jokes each committed. Too bad he doesn’t have confidence in other actors to match his comedic chops. Of course, after this fiasco, that may not be such a tall order.

There was one joke that had me laughing. When Jane Bullard first shows interest in Guru Pitka, he has a fantasy sequence in which the two characters find themselves in an Indian Bollywood-style musical, with each singing in the popular Indian manner. Indian musicals have a very distinct atmosphere to them and director Marco Schnabel captures it perfectly in Pitka’s fantasy. However, this is a joke that only someone who had seen a Bollywood musical would get, and I doubt much of Myers’s target audience has seen one.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Incredible Hulk / **½ (PG-13)

Bruce Banner: Edward Norton
Betty Ross: Liv Tyler
General Ross: William Hurt
Emil Blonsky: Tim Roth
Samuel Sterns: Tim Blake Nelson

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Louis Leterrier. Story and screenplay by Zak Penn. Based on characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Running time: 114 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense action violence, some frightening sci-fi images, and brief suggestive content).

With so many superheroes, their powers are both a blessing and a curse. Perhaps no other superhero is as cursed by their powers as the Hulk. If you make the meek scientist Bruce Banner angry, he transforms into a giant, green, hulking beast. He loses most of his personality to the beast within and becomes an instrument of destruction. He’s really not much good as a hero unless there is meaner giant beast who he can pummel into the earth.

In 2003, Ang Lee gave us his version of “Hulk” but failed to provide that other beast as a villain, allowing Hulk to achieve his limited potential as a hero. Instead, most of Lee’s battles for the Hulk existed within his psyche and the action of the movie involved the military shooting bigger and bigger guns at the tortured hero with no effect beyond making him angrier. Most audiences and critics were disappointed that the action was not the driving force of Lee’s story. In my original review of that film I described it as “a long, laborious, intellectual struggle that lacks all the sentimental hope, raw passion and outright fun of earlier versions.”

“The Incredible Hulk” is the film we all wanted to see back in 2003. The filmmakers were obviously fans of the television series. They cast TV’s Hulk Lou Feriggno for Hulk’s voice and give him a screen cameo as a security guard as well. An early scene has Craig Armstrong’s score echoing the well-known “walk away” theme music. The filmmakers also use that series’ signature of providing a close up of Banner’s changed green eyes to signal to the audience that he had been angered enough to transform into the Hulk. Instead of the introspective personal issues Lee used his film to explore, this “Hulk” was made for the fans by fans.

Foregoing the traditional superhero origin story by depicting it in montage during the opening credit sequence, the story begins in Favela, Brazil where Banner has taken refuge as a fugitive from the U.S. military. The only thing more impressive than the filmmakers’ creation of a fifteen foot tall green man are the images of the rooftops of Favela where there seem to be apartments stacked upon apartments up and down the Brazilian hillside. The city makes for an impressive and original landscape in which to introduce most of the main characters.

Banner (Edward Norton, “The Illusionist”) is hiding out as a handy man in a Favela bottling factory when a drop of his blood finds its way into a bottle of soda. When a man in the States (Hulk creator Stan Lee in a cameo) dies of Gamma poisoning, General Ross (William Hurt, “Vantage Point”) is able to zero in on Banner. He brings in a specialist to capture him, a former Russia agent named Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth, “Funny Games”). Blonsky is fascinated with the power of the creature Banner turns into during the failed attempt to capture the Jekyll and Hyde character.

Just before Banner’s cover is blown an unknown scientist discovers a possible cure for his ailment. Banner returns to the states to retrieve some important data and meet his savior. This course brings him back into contact with his former lover Betty Ross (Liv Tyler, “Jersey Girl”), who also happens to be the daughter of Banner’s nemesis, the not-so-good General. It was at about this point that I noticed a pattern emerging. It is a pattern that worked perfectly well for episodic television twenty years ago, but becomes redundant to see over and over again during a two-hour movie. Banner is hiding out. Banner is discovered while trying to fix something. He gets smacked around by the authorities, hulks out and runs away again. I am reminded of complaints against “Titanic” that decried the characters running away from water for the last hour and a half. They were surrounded by it. It was inevitable they were going to get wet.

Eventually, the morally reprehensible and not entirely bright General Ross injects Blonsky with some of the “super soldier” serum Banner was working on when he was initially turned into the Hulk. Blonsky ultimately turns into a giant man-beast himself, The Abomination; and finally Hulk has his nemesis who he must stop from destroying New York City.

Louis Leterrier (“Unleashed”) directs a good looking movie. It is gritty and moves along at a tight pace, starting with the stunning chase sequence through Favela, seizing a daylight gothic look for the fight on the university campus—which I believe is supposed to be Princeton, although it was filmed in Canada—and finally reaching for the mock reality of “Cloverfield” during Hulk’s final showdown with the Abomination in the streets of New York. The Hulk is no longer the clunky cartoonish green man of 2003’s “Hulk”. His muscle structure is more defined and skin color—while still suggesting green—is something of a more organic nature.

For all its excitement, “The Incredible Hulk” feels strangely empty after it’s over. The skin is always greener… or something like that. But darn it all if I don’t miss all that pathos of Lee’s “Hulk”. I recently watched that movie again and found I had changed my mind about it. “Hulk” was introspective and intellectual in the way it explored the violent nature of man and the dark secrets that drive us in our aggression. “The Incredible Hulk” barely even gives us the aggression. Banner does more running away than attacking here. Considering that “Hulk” has the intelligence, but not the action; and “The Incredible Hulk” has the action, but not the depth; perhaps a happy medium can be achieved with “The Astonishing Hulk”.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Fond Farewell

It is a sad week for A Penny in the Well. The end of an era, of sorts.

For the past two years, I have been graced by the guiding editorial hand of my good friend Scott Downing. Scott has helped me to temper my meandering mind into a more focused flow of thoughts about the films I see. He taught me the intricate uses of the em dash, and whittled vigilantly away at my over dependence on commas. He nearly wiped the redundant use of the phrase “of this film” completely from my reviews. And he never stopped short of calling me out when I was cheating my way toward a point.

My writing has grown immensely since the day—a little more than two years ago—when Scott sent me an e-mail with the proposal that I let him edit my reviews. I was humbled and honored by his request. We agreed that we would end it if at any point either of us felt uncomfortable about the intrusion into each other’s creative lives. We seemed to fit from the start. I know he didn’t always agree with my opinions, and I’m sure I spoiled more than a few movies for him before he got a chance to see them. But he took pains to ensure that my voice and intentions were never changed.

Scott is a very detailed editor, always adding more to my reviews than just grammar correction. There were a few occasions where I declined a suggestion from him, but considering he edited over a hundred reviews for me, those differences were fractional exceptions. My rule was that if I had even the slightest doubt about my choice, I would always go with Scott’s. There were many times I simply abused his services, submitting drafts with full awareness of glaring errors I would trust him to fix rather than working it out myself.

At the time we began our writing collaboration, Scott and I were pretty much friends by association. We shared mutual friends and had spent four or five extended weekends with our friends together. We knew our interests were quite similar and had formed a fairly strong friendship considering the brief time we had spent together. During the past couple of years, however, we have built an enduring camaraderie. Our bond formed so quickly, I insisted he invite me to his wedding should he ever marry. He did a year later, and I attended a celebration that was as meaningful to me as it would have been had we known each other all our lives.

When I received Scott’s e-mail entitled “A Sabbatical” earlier this week, I knew our grand experiment had come to its end. I was able to accomplish a great deal because of our collaboration. I’m very happy with the web site I’ve built, a passion greatly fueled by Scott’s efforts to take some of the creative pressure off my shoulders and by his enormous encouragement. Most importantly, though, was that his involvement allowed me to develop a discipline that is so much harder to accomplish on your own. It is a discipline I have already begun to use in larger projects.

The term “sabbatical” suggests that this departure will not be permanent, and I certainly hope to work with Scott again. He is more than welcome to return to The Well at any time he wishes to recommence his spot in the editor’s seat. But he has his own writing assignments to follow, and I have mine. For now, I am happy with the time Scott so graciously (and voluntarily) spent helping to shape me as a writer and an artist. I can’t thank you enough, buddy.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Kung Fu Panda / *** (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Po: Jack Black
Shifu: Dustin Hoffman
Tigress: Angelina Jolie
Tai Lung: Ian McShane
Monkey: Jackie Chan
Mantis: Seth Rogen
Viper: Lucy Liu
Crane: David Cross
Oogway: Randall Duk Kim

DreamWorks Animation presents a film directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson. Written by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger. Story by Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris. Running time: 92 min. Rated PG (for sequences of martial arts action).

Since CGI animation has become the standard format for family-oriented entertainment, it has become subject to the same quality ups and down that 2-D animation was privy to after its first few years. Gone are the days where the format ensured a certain degree of quality—either visual or content wise—due to the filmmakers’ passion for the projects. Now the studios are churning them out like factory products, and CGI animation can be as basic and uninspiring as any other family film. But occasionally, it can still achieve the visual splendor of not just some of the greatest animations, but of any film. The content of “Kung Fu Panda” is not incredibly original, but the stage it sets allows for some of the most splendid visuals in recent memory.

Po (voiced by Jack Black, “Shark Tale”) dreams of becoming a Kung Fu master and protector of the land like his idols the Furious Five. But as a large, clumsy Panda bear, he is an unlikely hero. He doesn’t really seem to fit in anywhere, even in his father’s eatery where he is being groomed to take over the family business. He barely fits between the tables and the question of how a Panda came to be the son of a duck is an awkwardly avoided question.

One day, the temple master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim, “The Matrix Reloaded”) holds a celebration to choose the next great Kung Fu master, the Dragon Warrior. Through a series of mishaps and just plain being out of shape, Po fails to arrive at the temple in time to get into the ceremony. He fashions himself a device to carry him over the locked gate, however, and somehow ends up becoming Oogway’s choice for the Dragon Warrior. In Oogway’s words, “There are no accidents.”

It is no surprise that the Furious Five are upset about the choice of Po as the Dragon Warrior, having dedicated their lives to the martial arts. Their master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman, “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium”) determines to scare Po out of the temple within a day so one of his lifelong students can claim the mantle, but in a beautifully written and rendered scene Oogway convinces Shifu that Po’s claim as the Dragon Warrior is no mistake. Oogway’s words of wisdom are simple poetic nuggets of Zen philosophy that are hard to argue against.

Meanwhile, Shifu’s former protégé Tai Lung (Ian McShane, “The Golden Compass”) escapes from a maximum security prison where he has been held since he rebelled against Shifu when Oogway denied him the Dragon Warrior rights. Shifu determines to prepare Po as the Dragon Warrior, while Tigress (Angelina Jolie, “Beowulf”), bitter about being overlooked, leads the rest of the Furious Five into battle against Tai Lung.

All this plot makes the movie sound like a serious martial arts actioner, and, in the scenes with martial arts, it is. But first and foremost it is a family comedy. Jack Black’s name above the title of the movie is no mistake either. This movie is pure Black, and if you don’t like him, you probably won’t like this movie. Po is cute, obnoxious and pathetic, but he wins you over fairly early. And like so many family films, you can’t really knock the lessons about accepting yourself and others for what you or they are.

But the most impressive element of this movie is the animation—or more specifically, the action of the animation, which is approached by the animators as if it were live. There are scenes in which a double focus is used. Characters come from out of focus into focus as if the camera couldn’t keep up with the speed of the action. Slow motion is used more fluidly with the action than in most modern movies, where it has become custom since “The Matrix” to suddenly slow down and speed up the action to show the audience how great the CGI effects are. Here the CGI seems to exist more as a natural state.

Perhaps the action seems so natural because so much attention is paid to the details of the environments in which they take place. There is great beauty to be witnessed in this virtual world that embraces its eastern philosophical roots so warmly. The peach tree where the characters go to contemplate their fates has the majestic beauty that so many Chinese martial arts films work hard to achieve. In his scenes of action and klutzery, Po seems to achieve a strange balance of cartoonish buoyancy and natural magnificence. Even in the dark action of Tai Lung’s breathtaking escape, there is a vibrancy that is unique to modern martial arts films, like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or “House of Flying Daggers”. And Po’s opening dream sequence is a stunning example of inspired 2-D animation.

The inherent silliness imbued with Jack Black’s personality and the entire premise of talking animals as martial arts experts—Shifu is some Asian raccoon relative while the Furious Five are collectively a tiger, a monkey, a praying mantis, a snake, and a crane—keep this movie firmly in the light entertainment category. But the writing is sharp, the action is fun and the comedy is intelligent. There is plenty to enjoy in “Kung Fu Panda” for kids and adults alike.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Recount / *** (TVMA)

Ron Klain: Kevin Spacey
James Baker III: Tom Wilkinson
Katherine Harris: Laura Dern
William Daley: Mitch Pileggi
Warren Christopher: John Hurt
Michael Whouley: Denis Leary
David Boies: Ed Bagley, Jr.
Mitchell Berger: Bruce Altman
Ben Ginsberg: Bob Balaban
Joe Allbaugh: Stefen Laurantz
Mac Stipanovich: Bruce McGill

HBO Films presents a film directed by Jay Roach. Written by Danny Strong. Running time: 115 min. Rated TVMA (for adult content, mild violence, and adult language).

Films about politics can be difficult to discuss. A critic tries to talk about the film in terms of how it works as art, but all most people see are the politics. Of course, most films are political in some sense, but when they aren’t centered on politics, any messages gleaned by the critic are seen as insight. When the film is explicitly political, however, any commentary or criticism is just seen as political bias.

HBO’s new film “Recount” about the contested 2000 presidential election results in Florida is biased, as just about any story must be to be effectively told. Reflecting the liberal leanings of Hollywood, the Democrats are nobly trying to do the right thing, however clumsily, while the evil Republicans are willing to sell the American people with whatever sleazeball, used-car-salesman technique they can conjure up. It is not for me to say whether this depiction of what went down in the 2000 election is accurate or not. But the truly important thing to remember about that historic election is that our voting process broke down in a frightening way, revealing a system of fraudulent activity within our democratic process upon which our fundamental freedoms are based. It is the people of this country that elect our president and, in order for that to be true, every person must be allowed the same opportunities as any other person to express their opinion in that matter. That did not happen in the 2000 election, and we should all be ashamed.

“Recount” methodically reconstructs the events of that fateful month and a half from the initial back-peddling of the network news coverage that initially gave Gore the win in Florida, then declared Bush the victor, then retracted all predictions until the Supreme Court awarded their backhanded decision in mid-December stating that while the Florida ballot recount was justified, without the time to finish before the deadline, it would have to be abandoned. One thing a film like this can do is bring to light facts the public may not have been aware of. I was surprised to learn the court’s ruling contained a clause that stated their judgment was only for the “isolated” event of that particular election. At the time and to the Gore legal team, this must have seemed like some sort of copout of responsibility from the court—and it may well have been—but I believe it also means that in the future, the 2000 election cannot be used as some sort of legal precedent.

In director Jay Roach’s (“Meet the Parents”) and screenwriter Danny Strong’s efforts to tell the entire story, they have presented a pastiche of real-life political characters who had their hands in the process. The cast is large and covers everyone from Gore’s original legal team leaders of Warren Christopher (John Hurt, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”) and William Daley (Mitch Pileggi, “The X-Files”) to the people running the recount process in Florida. The cast includes American cinema and television luminaries, Bush and Gore impersonators, and a great deal of archival footage to lend legitimacy to the staging. Denis Leary (FX’s “Rescue Me”) gives a particularly impassioned supporting performance as political strategist Michael Whouley.

However, the film focuses primarily on three major players: Gore’s general counsel and former chief of staff Ron Klain, Bush’s chief legal advisor James Baker, and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Kevin Spacey (“Superman Returns”) provides a strong anchor as Klain, who, like many Americans, doesn’t even know if he likes Gore. Despite the depiction of the Republican tactics to impede the recount process, Baker is portrayed by Tom Wilkinson (“Michael Clayton”) as a man with conviction and respect. He condones the actions of those below him as an inherent part of the political process, but there is a sense that he accepts the process no matter the outcome as part of the American will and way. But then that is an easy stance for the winner of the spoils.

Laura Dern (“Inland Empire”) provides the pivotal performance as Harris. Hers is the role most critical of the person being portrayed, depicting Harris as a puppet who is more interested in basking in the spotlight than in making any stance of her own. Much is made of her statements that only the occurrence of a natural disaster, “such as a hurricane,” could allow for a legal recount of ballots under Florida law. She’s found her loophole and she’s sticking to it. It is noteworthy that both in entertainment and in politics, women’s equality has finally come far enough to allow for flaws and blame to be placed on them.

While “Recount” is an entertainment, the mere fact that a film depicting these events had to be made is a frustration. It is disappointing that in today’s media climate we have to be reminded that such a travesty has befallen our democratic process so recently. But it seems that many Americans have forgotten what happened to our democratic foundation in 2000. It is also disheartening to consider that the media is able to spin the political climate so easily. The 2000 election may not have developed the way it did without the news media’s over eagerness to predict a winner so early in the voting process, and their approach to predicting elections has changed little since 2000. As this film depicts, everything that followed was an attempt from each side to keep the media spun in their favor. Even this very film is presented with such bias that what it has to say can’t be trusted as accurate.

“Recount” is valuable, however, in that it draws our attention back to an important turning point in American history. Since the 2000 election, the list of events of which Americans can be ashamed has grown exponentially: the occupation of Iraq, the absence of WMDs, the state of our health care system, the growing and unaddressed issues of the environment, the Katrina response, rising fuel prices in light of record profits within the oil industry, the placement of greater importance on celebrity gossip above actual news in our media. It is as if taking the election process out of the hands of the people and placing it into the legal system started off a chain reaction of sorts that lead to a breakdown in life as we knew it. Is it possible America is broken? While many of these issues existed long before the 2000 election, they didn’t really set their roots until we as a nation embraced apathy in the wake of our democratic collapse. Perhaps we are all still in shock over those events. Like Ron Klain at the end of this movie, we are stuck asking ourselves, who really did win that election?