Those Cats Were Fast As Lightning

Po, the schlubby, lovable, kung fu-fighting panda, returns to help kick off the summer movie season in the highly enjoyable Kung Fu Panda 2.  As far as sequels go (and Dreamworks looooves sequels), this was a solid effort.

First off, the animation is stunning.  Just astonishingly beautiful.  Vibrant colors, sweeping landscapes, and tons of fireworks.  I love fireworks.  I chose NOT to see this in 3D, which I started to regret about 3/4 of the way through.  I hadn’t heard one way or the other if it was worth it or not, and I always err on the side of NO 3D when it comes to blockbusters.  That being said, it might have been a mistake.

The plot centers around the maniac outcast Lord Shen (Gary Oldman) trying to take over China with his powerful new weapon, a cannon.  Surely kung fu is no match for massive gunfire, or is it?  (What do you think?)  Along the way, the fact that Po is a panda and his father is a GOOSE is addressed, and you find out where he really comes from.  You better brace yourself though, it is really, REALLY SAD (Baby Po is the cutest THING EVER).  No surprise then, that this one had more emotional heft than the first.

The cast is capable enough.  I don’t find the vocal talents of the “Furious Five” – Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, David Cross, and Seth Rogen (yucky voice) to be anything so remarkable that you couldn’t fill those roles with somebody else, however some characters are cast perfectly.  Jack Black’s manic goofball energy is well suited to an animated persona, especially somebody like Po.  Several of the more minor characters had voices that worked very well with their role – Dennis Haysbert as Master Ox, James Hong as Mr. Ping, Po’s father.  The award for most exciting, expressive, and generally awesome voice goes to  Gary Oldman (can he GET any cooler?), who is delicious as the evil villain, a peacock who has been denied his birthright and shunned by his parents.  His voice conveys unhinged regal authority with expert ease.

The score by John Powell (who did the killer score for How To Train Your Dragon) and Hans Zimmer (who has done amazing scores for shitloads of amazing movies) is lovely.  And scores matter.  (Future post to come)

I enjoyed this about as much as the original, although there’s a little less comedy this time around.  Who knows what the future holds for the third one (that’s right) because there’s a shocking final scene that pretty much guarantees a trilogy.  With a killer setup, more gorgeous animation, and (hopefully) another enchanting story, Dreamworks can breathe a sigh of relief, because I’m already looking forward to buying that ticket.


I Get Nervous I Get Breathless

I finally watched the British flick Cemetery Junction this weekend, another collaborative effort by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, who wrote and directed it together.  This one is much more serious than what they usually come up with, but still quite good.  It was a simple enough story and one we’ve all heard in one form or another before: a young man, Freddie, grows up in a lower-class neighborhood, Cemetery Junction, feeling he’s missing out and struggles to find his own path.  Not only have we all heard it, most of us have felt it.  But that’s not to say it still can’t make for a good movie.  He has 2 best friends, Bruce, the good-looking “bad boy” who’s chalk-full of angst and contempt for his out-of-work father and the town in which they live, and Paul, the overweight, slightly dim-witted sweetheart who’s constantly putting his foot in his mouth.  All three male leads were likable and very easy to relate to.  Christian Cooke (Freddie) and Tom Hughes (Bruce) played their roles very well, so well it took no time at all to find myself championing them in their journey.

Though the film revolves around Freddie, it’s Bruce, so passionately played by Hughes, who stole my attention.  The evolution of his relationship with his father and the cop who’s always bailing him out of trouble held my interest every bit as much as Freddie’s story, which centered around his efforts to get a “real” job instead of ending up working in the factory where both his father and Bruce work.  Freddie reconnects with a childhood friend, Julie, who is the daughter of his new boss.  She also happens to be engaged to the guy who trains him at his new job selling insurance.  Ralph Fiennes plays a small but important role as Julie’s father and I have to say, he’s so good at being the cold prick that I find it harder and harder to like him.  Freddie and Julie have undeniable chemistry and similar hopes & dreams but she’s reluctant to give up the security her current situation offers.  SPOILER: she and Freddie do eventually decide to leave Cemetery Junction and Julie’s fiancee behind them.  I so wish Bruce would have left with them in the end, but other than that, I have no real criticisms.  This is much more of a drama than a comedy, which is what we’re used to getting from Gervais & Merchant.  And, though comedy is their greatest strength, they’re clearly above average in the dramatic arena as well.  Overall, this flick isn’t as monumentally brilliant as The Office or Extras, but it’s well worth a watch.

In my opinion, what makes The Office and Extras and the best parts of Cemetery Junction work so damn well is their impeccable timing.  Gervais and Merchant have this amazing sense of the rhythm of a story; they hook you early on so you’re fully invested in the characters and then string you along so that by the time they finally give you what you want – Tim’s gift to Dawn in the Christmas special of The Office that prompts her to leave her loser boyfriend for him; Andy’s heartfelt apology/confession to Maggie into the camera on that terrible reality show in the Extras Christmas episode; Freddie’s big decision to leave with Bruce and his endearing plea to Julie to accompany him in Cemetery Junction – you’re not only a little convinced it’ll never happen but you’re also so desperate for it, it draws tears from your eyes and gasps from your chest.  Gervais and Merchant are funny, witty, and undeniably clever, but it’s in the timing of their storytelling that their ABSOLUTE GENIUS lies.


It’s Not My Problem If You Don’t See What I See

I’ll never forget going to see A.I. Artificial Intelligence in the summer of 2001.  I was with two of my very best friends, who were dating at the time, and while they loved to watch movies, they didn’t have the intense love/hate that I tend to feel for the creative endeavors of others.  As the movie went on (and on), I could feel their annoyance, boredom, and general “WTF is going on?” as they proceeded to sigh, shift in their seat, and whisper shit to each other.  Annie’s enjoyment = halted.  The MOMENT that movie ended (and I was trying to muffle quiet sobs and wipe away tears) they started in.  “How STUPID was that?!  I don’t even know what it was about?  Are you CRYING?!  What’s WRONG WITH YOU?”  “What’s wrong with YOU heartless, brainless idiots?!”, is what I should have said.  Hindsight.  Anyway, I muttered some nonsense and spent the drive home in silence, as they continued to tear the movie (and my heart) apart.  Annie, you might ask, why do you care if other people hated a movie you liked?  (Because I have a personality disorder?)  And also, Annie, how did you actually LIKE A.I.??  And also, Annie, do you have a personality disorder??  (Maybe?)  Listen, it was flawed, and overly long, and very polarizing, but it was also a touching, terribly sad story of a boy trying to find love and a home.  The final scene, of little David finally, FINALLY, getting to have his best day ever, with his mom, at long last, giving him real love and affection, and then going to sleep (or dying?? I was always a tad confused..) next to her dead, cloned, body, absolutely destroys my soul.  So, when my terribly shallow friends trash-talked, completely misunderstood, and practically defecated on something that moved me so deeply, it felt personal.  It felt like a stab to the heart.  And it has never stopped feeling like that, even now that I’m a grown-ass woman and should know better than to ever care what others think.

It’s like this shit becomes a part of me.  When you attack it, you attack me, and that hurts like a bitch.  I’ve read The Four Agreements.  I know that number two is “Don’t take anything personally.”  It seems an impossible task.   Watching movies, listening to music, these are activities that are more enjoyable when shared, and hell yeah, if the person I’m with shares my opinion, it’s great.  If I have to watch a movie with somebody who doesn’t like what we’re currently staring at, or turn on music in a car that somebody else hates, it utterly destroys it for me, and I’d rather just shut off the TV/ipod/radio/computer and sit in dead silence.  Even if that person never says a harsh word.  I know they don’t like it, and that fact alone fills up my thoughts.

I know everybody’s entitled to their own opinion and that makes the world go round, yada yada yada, but it sho’ hurts my feelings.  It’s both super exciting and terribly crushing to be a creature with such passionate likes and dislikes.  So hey, everybody I know, you better start liking all the same shit I like, or else we can’t hang out!  Capiche? 😉


Only Shooting Stars Break The Mold

Turns out, animated films are much harder to rate than I expected.  I loved Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty, Robin Hood, Lady and the Tramp, The Lion King…I could go on forever.  Monsters, Inc., Kung Fu Panda, The Rescuers…okay, seriously.  Gun to my head, these are my top 6:

The Sword in the Stone: This awesome flick made in 1963 was so fucking magical to me as a kid.  And no, I was not yet alive in 1963 but I did see it a couple decades later and it made me laugh and swoon and cry and feel every other warm and snuggly feeling a little girl is capable of.  Even thinking about it now gives me goosebumps.  The songs and the magic and the animals and the wizard’s duel with Madam Mim.  And the fact that it’s such a total underdog story – yes, even then I was a sucker for the underdog.

Toy Story: Though I did enjoy the 2nd and 3rd sequels, neither really compared to the original.  Tom Hanks and Tim Allen set a new standard with regard to cartoon voices.  They totally sold it- the humor, the conflict, the banter- immersing their audience completely in the secret lives of our toys.

How To Train Your Dragon: Toothless and Hiccup are the most adorable, heartwarming duo since Shaggy and Scooby Doo.  I watched this because my nephew insisted on it and, not knowing what to expect, I assumed it’d be as cute and bland as most animated films made in the past few years.  Within minutes, I knew this was something truly special – something as magical and stirring as my favorites from childhood.  Since that first viewing, I’ve watched it three more times (with no child around to “make” me) and each time, found myself engrossed in the story and characters and loving every minute of it.

Beauty & the Beast: The French countryside, the ominous castle, the animated teacups and candlesticks, the threatening woods and wolves, the forbidden west wing, the enchanted rose, the music, the dancing…what could be more magical and captivating than all of that?

Finding Nemo: The very thought of this movie makes my heart swell like I’m the Grinch on Christmas.  From Bruce the great white trying to conquer his carnivorous appetite to Dory speaking whale- this flick made me laugh out loud as well as tear up.  The genius of it!  A fish with short-term memory loss?  A neurotic, control-freak clown fish?  A totally gnarly surfer-dude sea turtle?  Each and every character is not only cute and warm, they’re cool as hell.  Nemo and Marlin and Dory- if I believed in reincarnation, I’d pray to come back as an inhabitant of their sea anemone.

Shrek: This flick was the first (that I could remember) animated movie that aimed to entertain both kids and adults, with the adult-oriented humor artful enough to go right over the heads of the children and the child-oriented humor silly enough to keep them interested.  It’s just so fucking smart!  I saw it in college and laughed almost non-stop.  I loved the pop culture references (the Otis Redding throw-back, Monsieur Hood and the Merry Men) and the spin on the old-as-time fairy tale.  And Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy were completely PERFECT.  Topping it all off, the fantastic soundtrack!  From Halfcocked’s “Bad Reputation” to the soul-wrenching “Hallelujah,” sung so poetically by John Cale, each and every song fit so well and helped turn this child’s movie into a film to span the generations.