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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Kung Fu Panda Review

            Jack Black might just be the greatest hype-man in Hollywood.  Tell him to hype a movie, he’ll make it seem like the greatest movie ever.  Tell him to hype a product, he’ll make everyone want to buy it.  But Jack Black is best at hyping himself.  He has made a career out of telling the world how awesome he is.  He does that job awesomely.  Which makes him awesome.  He doesn’t need to back up his claims of awesomeness, he is awesome enough just making the claims. 

Black’s new animated movie “Kung Fu Panda” makes decent use of his hyping skills.  He hypes kung-fu weapons, artifacts, stories, superstars, and of course, himself.  It’s a good thing Jack Black is there to tell us how awesome all these things are.  Because they don’t seem awesome from what we see of them.  The weapons aren’t terribly useful in combat, the other fighters aren’t as impressive as they should be, and Black is so incompetent he gets beaten up by an inflatable practice dummy.  But at least Black’s failure is important to the storyline.

Black is the voice of Po, a panda who we know either does kung fu or will learn kung fu in the course of the movie.  “Kung Fu Panda” takes the latter path.  As the movie starts out, Po idolizes the superstars of the local kung-fu temple.  But he seems to be doomed to a life of cooking noodles.  Through a series of “accidents” (although the Temple Master insists there are no accidents), Po is appointed the Dragon Warrior.  The Dragon Warrior is the kung fu superstar entrusted with the greatest secret in all kung fu.  He is also tasked with protecting the temple and the local village.  Po needs to get really good really fast, because evil leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) has escaped from prison and is heading to the temple to steal the secret for himself. 

The Assistant Temple Master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), feels the Temple Master made a mistake.  He agrees to help Po in his training, but doesn’t take the job very seriously.  He mostly tries to overwhelm Po and get him to quit.  Po, meanwhile, is plenty overwhelmed without Shifu’s help.  The other stars of the temple only make things worse.  Tigress (Angelina Jolie) is particularly annoyed since she believes the Temple Master meant to choose her as the Dragon Warrior.  But no matter how much hardship and ostracism he faces, Po perseveres.  The film needs a message to make parents feel comfortable taking their kids to a kung fu movie.  That message may as well be perseverance. 

Even with the perseverance message, parents of young kids might want to think twice about “Kung Fu Panda”.  The film is more violent than it needs to be.  There’s kung fu violence as well as some gags inspired by Looney Toons.  A lot of it involves impact to the head and spine, which the movie downplays.  Characters are often paralyzed as a result of pressure-point attacks.  Po tries acupuncture, which also leaves him temporarily paralyzed.  There is one particularly mean-spirited scene where poor Po is trapped on a training course that is much too advanced for his skill level.  The scene is treated like a fish-out-of-water gag, but it’s still unpleasant to see the other characters watch and giggle as Po suffers nasty burns. 

“Kung Fu Panda” makes too many mistakes.  None of the other kung fu superstars (Tigress, Monkey, Crane, Viper, Mantis) have much personality to them.  The voice casting is odd (Dustin Hoffman as China’s greatest kung fu teacher?).  The fight scenes are flat (although there is a good extended sequence where Po and Chifu fight over dumplings).  There’s the problem with violence.  And Jack Black, great as he is, is used wrongly.  He spends half the movie worried about his inferiority.  The movie should have let him be a shameless self-promoter most of the time and learn humility at the last minute.  Using Black’s gift of hype correctly would have made “Kung Fu Panda” much more awesome. 


“Kung Fu Panda” is playing at the Hershey Cocoaplex (312-1300) and Cinema Center of Palmyra (838-4809).  Contact the theaters for info, tickets, and showtimes. 





7:20 pm edt          Comments

Sex and the City Review

My first review for The Sun of Hummelstown, PA

Sex And The City: The Movie – Appealing for Unexpected Reasons. 


By Bob Garver


            This past weekend, Cinema Center was the most crowded I’ve seen it in a long time.  The big attraction was Sex and the City: The Movie.  It’s always exciting to see big crowds at Cinema Center, and I understand Cocoaplex was sold out.   But why this movie?  Most people in the area aren’t going to get all the New York references.  Most people in the area aren’t going to get all the fashion references.  Most people in the area do not get HBO, so they would not have followed the TV series (although DVDs and repeats on cable are always an option).  And many people in the area despise the characters’ attitudes toward relationships. 

What exactly is the connection between local audiences and Sex and the City: The Movie?  At first, I wrote the connection off as an Other.  The logic being that local audiences are nothing like the characters, they wanted a change of pace.  But seeing more and more eager faces at my desk told me that there was something that people legitimately liked about the characters.  For this audience, seeing Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon, and Kristin Davis one more last time was like saying goodbye to a set of old friends. 

According to the concise montage that opens the movie, the series ended with the following (ignore this portion if you are familiar with the series):  Carrie (Parker) had found love with Mr. Big (Chris Noth), but their relationship was simply that they were lovers and nothing more.  Miranda (Nixon) was married to Steve (David Eigenberg) and living in Brooklyn with their son.  Charlotte (Davis) was married to Harry (Evan Handler) and living with their adopted daughter.  And Samantha (Cattrall) was in a steady relationship with movie star Smith (Jason Lewis) and living in Los Angeles. 

Over the course of Sex and the City: The Movie, three of the couples will break up.  Two will reunite.  There will be at least one wedding.  There will be at least one falling out among the group.  There will be an additional child in the mix.  I will not reveal anything regarding the rumors of deaths.  It certainly feels like someone could die.  The movie is like an additional conclusion to the series, there’s an atmosphere of finality about it.  For once, it all feels so important. 

Therein lies a big advantage of Sex and the City: The Movie over the TV series.  With the series, you know that nobody is going to die, or else there wouldn’t be a show.  On the other end of the spectrum, you know nobody is going to find true love right off the bat either.  Basically, you can safely predict that the show is going to do whatever it can to keep you watching more episodes.  But with the movie, all bets are off.  Gone is the cynicism of expecting the story to be inconclusive.  You can get emotionally involved in the storyline and not feel the need to kick yourself. 

The film even manages to introduce some new characters.  Carrie gets an assistant named Louise (Jennifer Hudson), who she dubs “St. Louise” partly because she’s a great assistant and partly because she’s from St. Louis.  Although a bit naïve, Louise’s youth and positivity remind Carrie that romance can be magical.  Hudson won an Academy Award for her performance in Dreamgirls, but this role makes no use of her greatest asset in her singing voice.  Hudson still manages to be a credit to the film.  Not such a credit is the puppy that Samantha gets while trying to take her mind off her hot new neighbor (Gilles Marini).  The dog has an obscene habit that is highlighted every time director Michael Patrick King wants to go for a cheap laugh.  It’s not the type of humor that the movie needs. 

Scatological gags aside, the plot of Sex and the City: The Movie is very well-done.  But audiences don’t love Sex and the City for its plot, they love it for its characters.  What is it about the characters that fans love so much?  If it’s their notorious immorality, we’re all in for disappointment.  I’ll be disappointed that fans of the show look at the characters as role models.   Fans will be upset that there is little if no partner switching in the movie.  Relationship talk still abounds, but it’s one relationship per character. 

Maybe the fans love the characters for their fashion and their concentration on (some would say obsession with) fashion.  So often on the show there are lines like, “Nobody in Gucci as fabulous as yours should ever feel guilty.”  The movie won’t let fans down on this front.  There’s hardly a scene without either fabulous designer clothes or mention of a fabulous designer.  It’s nice to picture a lifestyle where fashion is one’s biggest concern.  Not to mention that the characters possess seemingly endless bank accounts and credit lines.  But I don’t think it’s the reason that viewers are drawn to the characters. 

The thing that the characters have that makes them so appealing is their friendship.  It cannot be stressed how much the four care for each other.  They are willing to put their families and careers on hold for one another.  Samantha in particular is dedicated, traveling from Los Angeles to New York at the drop of a hat for the other three.  When one goes to Mexico heartbroken, the others follow, working as best they can from their cell phones.  Breakups bring the four closer together than ever.  As do weddings.  As does the baby.  As does moving from one apartment to another.

           The women of Sex and the City are great friends in the best of times, but they are greater friends in the worst of times.  The audience for the movie (local and not) either has friends like these or they wish they did.  If they do, it makes them appreciate their friendships. If they don’t, it makes them eager to get some.  The ads for Sex and the City: The Movie tell audiences that the movie is about relationships.  The secret the ads hide is that the movie’s most important relationship is the one among the friends. 


Sex and the City: The Movie is playing at the Cinema Center of Palmyra.  Other movies currently playing at this theater include The Strangers, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Speed Racer, What Happens in Vegas, Made of Honor, Iron Man, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall.  Check theater listings for showtimes.


Sex and the City: The Movie is also playing at the Hershey Cocoaplex.  Other movies currently playing at this theater include Iron Man, Made of Honor, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and What Happens in Vegas.  Check theater listings for showtimes. 


Robert Garver is a guest columnist who lives in Palmyra.  He is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University.  He is the owner and operator of www.bobatthemovies.com.  He spends his weekends working at Cinema Center of Palmyra so he can be closer to the movies.  He can be contacted at rrg251@nyu.edu. 



7:18 pm edt          Comments

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