Sunday, January 31, 2016

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) (Movie Review)

       Jack Black returns as the voice or Po, the proclaimed dragon master or Kung Fu and star of the “Kung Fu Panda” series, which can now safely be called a trilogy. Looking back at the first movie that premiered way back in 2008, I thought it was going to be terrible, but was very surprised with just how good it was. Then a sequel came out in 2011, which also looked silly and passive, but turned out to be a really great sequel in its own right. You’d think that I’d have learned my lesson by now because once again I thought that “Kung Fu Panda 3” was going to be a lazy, uninspired sequel meant to cash in once more on the success of its predecessors. Well, surprise, surprise! This was another excellent sequel that continued the story further, combined fast comedy with classic martial art philosophy and ended this series on a proper high note.

     On this adventure, Po is reunited with his father and taken back to a secret village where the last of the pandas live. There he learns of his origins of his heritage and masters the art of “Chi”, in return he educates the pandas to better themselves and move forward from just being lazy bears in a safe haven. On the other side of the valley is the emergence of a monstrous new villain that just escaped from the spirit world and aims to steal the “Chi” from all Kung Fun masters. A good set up, but I was pleasantly surprised with just well everything was presented. The comedy was funny and fast enough without overstaying its welcome. The pacing was also very good, and knew just when to be subtle or action packed. Best of all, the moral substance was meaningful without coming off as preachy. I’ve been around the block with films that go on and on about the supposed message, where as this film can just some things up in one short sentence ... “The more you take, the less you have.” That’s it, that’s all it need to say, and it’s just one example. For a silly animated children’s comedy, this film’s not without some really good material for both kids and adults to hear.

       The animation is beautiful, incredibly detailed, wonderfully designed, and very colorful. Despite being a CGI animated film, it clearly has lots of respect for traditional hand drawn animation, which is also incorporated into the film with great style. If I was to pick at anything, I would have liked to see more of the side characters, who are functional and present, but they seem to be over shadowed more often than not. The villain was also very good, and found that proper balance between being both scary and funny all at once. I know I’ve been praising this film up and down, but I also don’t think it’s one of the greatest animated movies ever made. Like its two predecessors, it’s a solid film that proved to be better than it really even needed to be, and the effort should not go unappreciated. Now that I think about it, this trilogy is kind of a perfect package. The first film was all about training to be a hero, the second was about facing your past before you can move forward with a future, and the third is about teaching the next generation what you’ve learned and discovering your place in life. So very naturally, everything has come full circle, and I think this is the right place to end the series. It’s been fun, funny and is one of DreamWorks best offerings.

                                             I give “Kung Fu Panda 3” 4 stars out of 5. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) (Movie Review)

       Comedy is my absolute favorite category of film, why, because nothing brings me more joy then well timed laughter. Unfortunately the turn of the century as seen a serious decline in quality comedy, most of them are forgettable, uninspired and just plain laugh free. Think back to the late 70’s and 80’s. That was the great golden age of comedy, and when films like “Animal House”, “Airplane!”, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and “Caddyshack” were all the craze. Comedy’s now day’s just don’t stand out like that anymore, and I can think of maybe 5 from the 2000’s area that were actually great. One of my personal favorite comedies from this age is the 2004 film “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”. Like “Airplane!” before it, this is one of those comedies that has the makings of a classic, from its quotable lines, to its memorable scenes, and of course it’s wildly inspiring sense of silly hummer.

      The film takes place in San Diego during the 1970’s, and Ron Burgundy is the biggest newsman that everybody watched. At his side are three bumbling co-anchors that have their own distinct flair and persona that help boost the ratings of their news show. Now at this point in time, women didn’t get much publicity in the news world, and only covered smaller stories. Enter a bright young news lady named Veronica who aims to go above and beyond as a female news reporter. As her carrier progresses, the once adored Ron Burgundy finds himself facing some heated competition. Before too long, the clash of these two TV people becomes a personal war for the network broadcasting spotlight. Hijinks ensue, a romance is born, betrayal is committed, and we the audience are laughing all the way.

    Let’s first talk about the cast, particularly Will Ferrell in the lead role of Ron Burgundy. To be honest, Will Ferrell is one of those on and off again comedians who turn out just as much crappie work as they do comedic gold. His first break out movie in 2003 “Elf” was especially funny, and a promising start for his carrier. Then came “Old School” that same year, and while I really wasn’t a fan of that film, it proved that Will Ferrell was a strong new force in the world of comedy. In the case of Anchorman, his buffoonish portrayal of a clueless newsman is admittedly one of the movies biggest strengths. This is one of the rare times in which I felt that Will Ferrell actually created a funny character, as opposed to just about all his other films in which I feel Will Ferrell is just acting like himself. He’s definitely silly as Ron Burgundy, but with just enough restraint to keep him from being off the rail stupid. Christina Applegate is fine in the role of Ron’s female rival Veronica, but the character just never came off quiet as funny or attractive as the film tries to imply.

    The supporting cast is mostly perfect and help to give some variety to the jokes. David Koechner plays the upbeat and extremely fun loving Champ Kind, a guy who lives his life like one big party. Paul Rudd (of recent “Ant-Man” fame) plays Brian Fantana, the chill, laid back guy of the group, and personally my least favorite character as he’s the one with the most insufferable puns. Let’s not forget Steve Carell as Brick, the lovable, absent minded dufus of the news team. This is one of my favorite characters that Steve Carell has ever played, and launches most of the films funniest lines. Some of the supporting cast like Fred Willard, Seth Rogen and Vince Vaughn all do credible jobs, but it’s the celebrity cameos from actors like Ben Stiller that really crack me up. My favorite cameo comes from a punked out, motorcycle riding Jack Black, who has a side splitting encounter with a discarded burrito ... I dare not say any more then that because it’s really funny.

      I’m not going to lie, even though I love this movie, it can be really inconsistent with just how funny the comedy is. Some of the gags are side splitting, while a noticeable hand full of jokes are dry and uninspired. The first half hour of the film is especially pretentious with stale sexual innuendos, and a slow pace. But the film sure has its highlights, and definitely picks itself up. It’s one of those comedies that takes place in a setting where the real world is like a live action cartoon, and just about anything can happen. A slapstick street fight breaks out between various news stations for no apparent reason, Ron Burgundy breaths fire through a Jazz flute in front of a live audience, and a dog can get kicked off a bridge, fall several stories and still get back up on its feet completely unscathed ... sure, it’s just that kind of cartoony word where silly, unpractical events are the norm. The News room itself is a very fun and lively location that just feels like a fun place to work in. It’s hard to pick out a favorite scene out of so many memorable moments, but the Jazz flute scene never fails to crack me up. There’s a scene when two lovers spend the night together, and instead of a typical grotesque sex scene, we’re treated to this hilarious animated dream sequence with the two of them transported to the colorful world of “Pleasure Town”.

      The first big belly laugh comes in the form of a cologne brand called “Sex Panther” – “17% of the times, it’s guaranteed to work ... every time.” Then there’s the song “Afternoon Delight” performed by the cast, and while it’s an admittedly juvenile song, it makes for a really catchy harmony. My friends and I have actually tried to pool off our own harmony version of this song but it was only half as good as in the film ... I’m just not that good of a singer. On that note, this really is one of those films that is a lot of fun to discuses, reference and joke about with a big group of friends. The previously mentioned gang war between all the news stations is one of the greatest slapstick action scenes to be featured in a comedy. Characters pull medieval weapons out of their pockets, people are riding horses, and there's just no limit to how over the top the fight can get. The climax provides another funny slap stick action scene involving a hungry group of bears out for anchor-meat.

      Now there was a sequel that came out in 2013 and reunited the cast, but surprise, surprise ... I’ve actually never bothered to see it. Even though I heard it was a half way decent spoof, I typically don’t trust comedy sequels. There was a magic to that first film that I feel could never be captured again, but who knows, maybe I’ll see it someday. As for the first Anchorman, well, it can be a little inconsistent with its hummer, but when it’s funny ... hot damn is it ever funny. To this day, it’s still one of my favorite comedy’s of the modern age, the silly antics are inspiring, and it’s one of Will Ferrell’s most memorable performances. This is the kind of film that's perfect to watch with a rowdy group of friends looking for a big laugh and a good time, so take that for what it’s worth.

                           I give “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” 4 stars our of 5.       

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Hatful Eight (2015, Movie Review)

       Okay, let’s talk about Quentin Tarantino for a second. In short ... the dudes a genius, and arguably one of the greatest writer/directors of our time. Some of his best movies include “Pulp Fiction”, “Django Unchained” and the “Kill Bill” movies. Unfortunately, even when it comes to writers and directors that I love, there bound to occasionally do one or two movies that I honestly just didn’t like, and that came in the form of his latest 2015 western titled “The Hatful Eight”. I really wanted to love this movie, and it’s not without some obvious Tarantino highlights, but when the movie ended, I just shrugged and said to myself ... “nope, I just didn’t like that one”.

     The film takes place in a post Civil War western setting, with a group of strangers isolated in a secluded cabin on a mountain side. Snowy weather keeps them contained, but little do they know that there are killers hiding among them. Through a series of events, the people start dropping one after another, a mystery unravels, clues are all around, and the survivors need to discover who the killers are. This is an awesome set up, and almost like an R rated version of the game or the movie “Clue”. Make sure you know what you’re getting into because I saw this movie with a group of people expecting a fast paced western with lots of gun play and traveling. What they got was a film set in one location and the pacing wasn’t always that fast, in fact it could get really boring at times. Let me first address the highlights of the film, Tarantino still proves to be a master of writing exciting dialog for the characters and his direction is as sharp as ever. The music is very good, and the cinematography is beautiful.

     Best of all, the cast is outstanding. Most of the actors in “The Hatful Eight” are Tarantino regulars like Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell and Tim Roth, just to name a few. Every actor is at the top of their game, but I can’t say that I liked any of the characters themselves. Most of them are just plain terrible people, and I even thought Samuel L. Jackson as the lead anti hero was kind of distasteful. Looking back at other Tarantino films like “Django Unchained” and “Kill Bill”, they all had characters that I loved cheering for, I wanted the Bride to get her revenge, I wanted Django to put the bad guys in their place, but this film just didn’t give me anyone to latch onto. Also, the over the top violence, gore and dark comedy just felt like over kill in this film. I know those are common tropes in everyone of Tarantino’s movies, and there usually done very well, but this time it just didn’t work for me. I think it all came down to the characters once again, and how much they sickly enjoyed inflicting pain on others. Finally, while I loved the set up of the plot, I also found the mystery very predictable, and I found myself figuring out the obvious before the characters figured it out.

     Overall, if you’re a long time Quentin Tarantino fan, you’ll probably be satisfied with this film, its direction, its cast and it’s over the top action. I wish I could have liked this film as much as his earlier films, but it just didn’t do much for me personally. I do hope this reignites westerns because it’s been such a dying art, and it’s always great to see one in this modern age. While this wasn’t the film for me, I know it has an audience that might like it, so it’s really up for them to judge. For all my grapes with it, I will say that Tarantino is a great talent, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with in the future.

                                             I give “The Hatful Eight” 2 stars out of five.   

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Disney’s Pinocchio (1940, movie review)

       It’s been called one of Disney’s greatest animated treasures, the late great Roger Ebert called it his absolute favorite animated Disney movie he grew up with, and on the popular movie reviewing website “Rotten Tomatoes”, Disney’s “Pinocchio” is still the only one that has a perfect 100% ratting out of all the other animated films. This was Disney’s second animated feature, and even though it was initially a box office failure, it’s gained lots of respect and admiration over the years. It’s even regarded as a landmark film achievement in general. I personally didn’t like “Pinocchio” that much as a kid, and even to this day it’s not one of my personal favorites to come from the studio, but I have grown to admire the film over the years, and I definitely see why so many regard it as one of the best, if not the best of Disney’s animated offerings. First of all, this was a very ambitious project, when Walt Disney could have played it safe with another fairy tale like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, he decided to make a movie adapted from a novel that was actually really dark and twisted. Sure the movie isn’t without its dark moments, but the film has a heart at the center, and it conveys some genuinely strong morals that kids should be exposed to at a young age.  

       Our story begins with a carpenter named Gepetto, an old man who makes wooden toys and clocks for children. One day he creates a wooden puppet named Pinocchio, and wishes it could be a real boy, that way he would no longer be a lonely old man. One magic night, a mystical Blue Fairy rewards Gepetto for his kindness by granting his wish and placing a spell on Pinocchio. The puppet is giving the ability to move and talk, but he can’t become a real boy until he’s proven himself brave, selfless and several other things that would make him a good kid. Enter a little insect named Jiminy Cricket who volunteers to be Pinocchio’s contagious and guide on his journey to be a real boy. For lack of better terminology, I love how this movie humanized Pinocchio and made him feel like a real child. He’s bright eyed and innocent, but he doesn’t always make the right decisions and doesn’t even know the differences between right and wrong. It’s a great coming of age story, and a perfect way for young viewers to learn some meaningful life lesions as they follow this character who gets himself from one situation into another.  

       Let’s look at the characters, starting with Jiminy Cricket who’s become one of Disney’s most iconic and well known characters. Personally, I never liked him that much, even as a kid I found him kind of dull. But I do like what he represents, and I wish more animated Disney films would feature characters like this. The only other two I can think of are the mouse Timothy from “Dumbo” and the crab Sebastian from “The Little Mermaid”. These are genially likable side kick characters that will be there for moral support, but convey it through their own charm and charisma. I honestly think current day Disney films rely too much on over the top comedic relief characters and wacky sidekicks. Jiminy Cricket would return in the animated 1947 Disney movie “Fun and Fancy Free”, and his status as one of the most iconic animated characters only progressed from there.

       Aside from Jiminy Cricket, we also have some colorful side characters. There’s the gold fish Cleo, and a mischievous little cat named Figaro. This character somehow escaped the confines of the movie and became a classic cartoon character often featured in both Mine Mouse cartoons and her own individual cartoons. To be honest, I keep forgetting that Figaro came from “Pinocchio”, I always think of her as Mine Mouse’s classic pet, which is wired now that I think about it ... a mouse has a pet cat. My favorite character in this movie is Gepetto himself. Despite being an old man, he still has the heart and spirit of a kid, and he’s just a real joy to have on screen. He also has some really funny reactions, and I especially love the scene when he discovers his wooden puppet has come to life. I almost wish that this was Gepetto’s movie, because he’s almost more interesting than our title character.

       As is tradition with these animated Disney films, there has to be a villain. However, “Pinocchio” might just be the most unique in this regard. There isn’t one main villain, there’s actually several that change with each act of the movie. In act 1 the villain is a traveling performer named Stromboli, who kidnaps Pinocchio and forces him to perform in his show. In act 2 the villain is the Coachmen, who makes money off of children he's collected, and I’ll talk about that in more detail later. Then in act 3 the villain is the giant whale Monstro, who’s eager to make a meal out of Gepetto and his family.
Stromboli is the only antagonist that’s considered part of the official Disney villain line up, but personally, I actually found him to be the most boring and forgettable of all the characters. My favorite of the films villains by far is actually a character named Honest John, a swindler who always steers Pinocchio down the wrong path. This is the guy I always think of when it comes to “Stranger Danger”. He’s soft spoken and charismatic, but you just know you shouldn’t trust the guy, and I think it delivers a good message to kids. I especially love the design of this guy, in contrast to all the other human characters seen in the film, Honest John and his cat side kick are the only anthropomorphic characters featured in the film. I always took it as a metaphor, the other characters may actually see him as a person, but we the audience see Honest John for what he really is ... a tricky and deceptive Fox.

      Ironically, I’ve always remembered “Pinocchio” as one of the scarier animated Disney films that I grew up with. There are some tense situations like when Pinocchio is kidnapped and caged by Stromboli, and there’s some really freighting imagery. That evil smile from the Coachman always kept me awake at night. On that note, lets finally talk about the wicked Coachman. This guy takes advantage of some juvenile children, has them transformed into donkeys, which are then turned into his slaves and prisoners. While Pinocchio is lucky to escape, the coachman is never defeated, and the kids he has imprisoned are never set free, which really bothered me as a kid. That makes the scary imagery and child transformations all the more disturbing with no happy ending, at least for them. The film also features some suggestive themes and content that I don’t think would fly so well today. For example, this movie shows in detail children smoking, drinking, and the word “Jack Ass” is thrown around a lot. Yes, I know there referring to jack ass donkeys, but even before the donkeys were featured in the film we had characters saying “Jack Ass”.  

      This may seem like a really big problem for the film, but all the darkness actually works to the films advantage, and it helps children respect the messages in the movie even more. When most people think of the message from “Pinocchio”, they think of “make a wish, and your dreams will come true”, but there’s actually a lot more to this movie then just that. This is a coming of age story that teaches children the values of being truthful, being selfless, never trust strangers and the visuals used to convey these morals still stick with us to this day. Pinocchio’s nose growing longer when he lies, the kids turning into donkeys when they're selfish, these are all memorable moments that convey a sense of wisdom and helps make the movie a more valuable experience rather than a time waster with some pretty visuals.

       On that note, the artistry on display in this film is very impressive, especially for an early animated film. There’s a scene when Pinocchio is submersed under water and explores the ocean world, and while the layout is very colorful and lively it also introduces some new techniques. This was the first time an animated character was ever featured under water, which meant new challenges for the animators to convey the illusion. They would draw individual bubbles when both the character and fish moved, and they’d also play with the lighting. This whole under water section was probably a big influence on the next generation of Disney artists that worked on “The Little Mermaid”. The locations all have a lot of detail and personality that brings this magical world to life. Gepetto’s work shop for example is one of the most colorful and lively locations I’ve ever seen in a Disney movie. Seeing all his detailed wooden clocks and musical toys come to life is just a real treat. The world of the “Pinocchio” is also very unique. It’s not exactly a fantasy world, but it’s a world where anything can happen, whether it’s a magical blue fairy or an anthropomorphic fox person, and I always love films that can just have strange things happen.  

     I also think the movie is a lot more exciting then we give it credit for. It may not be a swash buckling action adventure or anything, but the thrilling moments in this film are still really good.  The climax with the giant whale Monstro is very intense and exciting to watch. Actually, the more I think about it, this was the very first big action scene to be featured in an animated movie. The beast itself is one of the most frightening creatures to ever come from Disney, in fact I’d say that Monstro is just as thrilling as the giant squid from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”. Something about the design, the deep sounds he makes, and those burning eyes of his that really set the intimidation mood. 


     Now let’s talk about the music, as that played a big part in “Pinocchio’s” longevity. In fact the movie won two Oscars for both original song and instrumental music. Well, the instrumental music is wonderful, those first five notes heard during the opening title screen always get me in the warm nostalgic “feels”. The songs themselves are very memorable, but I’ve never really loved them either. I liked them more for the individual scenes as opposed to the songs themselves. For example, the musical number titled “Little Wooden Head” is very colorful and shows off how lively Gepetto’s workshop can get, but the song itself does nothing for me.  I think most of us remember the musical titles like “I’ve got no Strings on me”, or “Give a little Whistle”, but we don’t really hum them to ourselves, and there just not as fun as other classic Disney song numbers. I will say that Honest Johns villainess song titled “Hi-Diddle Dee Dee” is extremely upbeat, and it has that kind of bouncy melody that still plays in the sub-continues of my head. Of course there’s that classic Oscar winning song “When you wish Upon a Star”, which shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and just appreciated as a wholesome and deeply nostalgic tune. This song is practically Disney’s anthem, and it’s still a really good one that just takes me back to my child hood every time I hear it.  


     Overall, “Pinocchio” still isn’t one of my absolute favorite Disney offerings, and it’s not one that I watch often, but it is special, and the movies positive reputation is well earned. I think children can gain a lot from the wisdom conveyed in the film, and it can definitely spark the imagination in viewers both young and old alike. It’s a film that I’d want kids to see at a young and impressionable age. I didn’t love this movie as a child, but it still left a small impact on me, and I still remember it as I’ve grown up. Ranging from bright and colorful, to dark and sinister, going from fun and adventurous, to beautiful and uplifting ... “Pinocchio” may not be a personal favorite, but it’s a well disserved Disney classic that I sincerely hope continues to be discovered by children of each changing generation.

                                                I give “Pinocchio” 4 stars out of 5.