DVD Review: Kung Fu Panda

kung-fu-panda-dvdI’ve never been a huge fan of Dreamworks Animation’s features. While the first Shrek was, at the time, kind of funny the subsequent films have just been loose excuses to hang a bunch of too-cool for the room pop-culture references and off-color humor that just stops shy of being inappropriate for young audiences.

That’s why Kung Fu Panda is such a refreshing change and, honestly, might be one of the most enjoyable movies I’ve seen this year.

KFP is the story of Po, a panda who works with his father (a goose, a disconnect that’s hinted at just enough to be funny without being beaten into the ground) in a noodle shop in a small village. But in between slinging noodles Po dreams of being a kung fu master, idolizing the Furious Five, a group of kung fu prodigies who protect the village. Through a variety of circumstances, Po comes to be chosen as the warrior who will ultimately defeat a former student of master Shifu who turned to evil ways when he felt he was being overlooked.

The great thing about Kung Fu Panda is that it’s free of all the things that have cluttered the computer-animated features from just about everyone but Pixar. No characters break into Godfather lines, no one all of a starts laughing at a Star Wars joke. And, most surprisingly, there aren’t 78 crotch or poop jokes. Instead Po is good natured and well meaning and, while he’s not the most talented cat on the block, he never ridicules those who are more skilled than he is. He just keeps trying.

That’s why I’m so anxious to watch the movie with my kids. It’s completely appropriate for them, without any content that I would find objectionable or which I would worry about them emulating, resulting in my telling them to stop it. If there is it’s so miniscule I didn’t even notice it. That sort of situation has been in rare supply outside of overtly moralistic properties like Veggie Tales (which we love, just for the record). Everything is either completely, almost condescendingly pure or all about the fart jokes and telling people to shut up.

The DVD, available now, comes packed with extras that are geared toward kids, including activities and fun little featurettes that go behind the scenes of the movie and its characters. Some editions also come packaged with a bonus disc titled “Secrets of the Furious Five.” That short feature (about 22 minutes) goes behind the stories of the others that Po is training with. It’s animated in a more traditional style, one that’s very reminiscent of Japanese paintings and art. It’s quite enjoyable in and of itself, though obviously more so if you’ve seen the main movie. That disc has its own batch of bonus features that further expand on things.

I enjoyed Kung Fu Panda to a great extent. As I said, it ranks right up there with Iron Man as one of my favorite movies of the year and it’s highly recommended.

DVD Review: Mystery Science Theater – 20th Anniversary Edition

mst3k1If you’re a fan of Mystery Science Theater you’re going to absolutely love this 20th Anniversary Edition box set. The set features four episodes of MST3K: First Spaceship on Venus, Laserblast, Werewolf and Future War. While these might not be the best of the best of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 vault they are definitely solid entries and perfectly representative of what the show was all about in its tenure on television.

It’s always good to go back through the old episodes of MST3K. Since I made the decision to ditch the vault of VHS tapes full of episodes taped off of Comedy Central and then Sci-Fi, my collection has (until now) been limited to Mitchell, Manos the Hands of Fate and MST3K: The Movie. And honestly it had been too long since I had pulled any of them out. So watching these four episodes was, not to sound too corny, pretty sweet and very much needed.

There are two things about this set, aside from the episodes themselves, that make it completely worth owning. First is the cover art for the individual discs. Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot get illustrated in a pulp comic style along with some characters from the movie. The images are absolutely fantastic, much better and much more unique than just the movie’s poster or something like that.

The second is the main extra that’s spread across the first three discs, titled “The History of MST3K.” It’s a series of interviews with just about everyone who had something to do with the creation of or glory of Mystery Science Theater, from Joel Hodgson to Mike Nelson to Mary Jo Pehl and everyone else you can think of. Some of the stories you’ll hear in those segments are repeated in the main bonus feature on the fourth disc, a video of the cast and crew’s 20th Anniversary Reunion Panel at this year’s Comic-Con. But even so some of that might be familiar, the banter between them and moderator Patton Oswalt makes it enjoyable in and of itself.

If you’ve got a Mistie (fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000) on your list of people needing Christmas presents, this set will make their day.

DVD Review: Hellboy II – The Golden Army

hellboy-ii-dvdI wrote a full review of Hellboy II – The Golden Army over at SpoutBlog. It’s sort of half a review of the movie and half an examination of how Hellboy fits into the pantheon of stoic, emotionally stunted male action heroes.

The three-disc special edition I received to review contains a digital copy of the movie you can transfer to iTunes, possibly my favorite feature that’s being added to DVDs right now.

In Hellboy’s case, his laconic “Oh crap” is a massive sarcastic understatement when he’s faced with, as in one scene in The Golden Army, a massive flower god that’s spreading itself all over Manhattan. But while he works to betray little in the way of uncertainty in situations like that, the thing that’s causing him the most pain – his relationship with the human fire-starter Liz Sherman played by Selma Blair -  is always at the tip of his tongue. The fact that he can’t figure out her wants and needs continue to be the one problem in his life he can’t punch away, and that’s incredibly frustrating to him.

At the end of the first movie the narration intoned that embracing his love of Blair’s Sherman had fully made Hellboy a man. But he continues to act out in a decidedly immature way throughout the second movie. That changes, though, when he finds out that Sherman is pregnant with his child. That knowledge is, quite literally in the story, what gives him the will to live. Even though at that point he still acts first and thinks things through later, he does step up in the final showdown and embrace, if not his role as destroyer of worlds, certainly his role as the leader of the societal subset he and his cohorts inhabit.

DVD Review: Tropic Thunder

1There’s little that’s not completely and utterly offensive about Tropic Thunder, aside even from That Issue, the one that got a lot of headlines and attention, but which is such a small actual thing in actuality.

The movie, of course, carries the title of the movie that we’re watching being made. And the movie we’re watching being made is going horribly, horribly wrong.

A bunch of stars – a cocky action star whose stock is falling, a flatulent comic looking to break out a from his rut and a method actor willing to fully immerse himself in a character – set out to make a Vietnam war movie with a first-time director at the helm. But when egos get in the way and the movie is being threatened with shut-down, the director decides to take those pampered stars out into the real jungles and shoot the movie in what he hopes will be a more realistic fashion.

Things, of course, go badly.

What works the most about the movie is that every one involved seems fully committed to the roles they’re playing. Stiller is completely believable as a Tom Cruise-ish actor with a huge ego and little talent. Downey, as the method actor who undergoes skin-pigmentation surgery in order to play an African-American, never winks at the audience about the absurdity his role. Even Black, famous for his inability to not mug to the camera, makes his role as the broad comic work on a level it really shouldn’t.

Adding to that are small roles by Tom Cruise (oh shut it – it’s not a spoiler at this point) as the profanity-heavy studio boss and Matthew McConaughey as Stiller’s character’s agent, obsessed with making sure his client has his on-location TiVo.

The funny thing is that I actually don’t think Tropic Thunder works very well as Hollywood satire. That’s largely because there’s simply too much of it in the movie for most of the jokes to actually have time to land. Instead it’s the performances that shine through. So it’s a good thing those performances are so strong.

Movie Journal: The Incredible Hulk

As a longtime fan of Marvel Comics characters I’m having a blast with all the movies that have been coming out in the last eight years or so, going back to 2000′s X-Men. But while they’ve been alternately fun or exciting it’s just now that it’s getting interesting, with Marvel now tying all their movies together in anticipation of 2011′s The Avengers.

The Incredible Hulk is quite good, and this is coming from someone who actually more or less enjoys 2003′s Ang Lee-directed Hulk. Edward Norton does a good job as Bruce Banner and everyone else, including Liv Tyler, is enjoyable as his love interest Betty Ross.

What The Incredible Hulk manages to do is both be more serious and be more of a comic book movie. It’s fast-paced and exciting. Plus there’s a lot of inside Marvel stuff going on, including a lot of stuff about the Super Soldier serum that’s likely to tie into the upcoming Captain America movie.

Movie Journal: Clerks, Clerks 2 and Mallrats

I decided, prior to the release of Zack and Miri Make a Porno (which I’ve yet to see) to watch a few Kevin Smith flicks. But instead of doing them in the usual order (chronological by release) I decided to just watch both Clerks and Clerks 2 and then, because I had just been talking about it with FilmCouch‘s Paul Moore, Mallrats.

Can’t say as I got much new out of them, though this was also, I think, the first time I’d watched both Clerks movies back-to-back for some reason.

Movie Journal: Death at a Funeral

Gotta say, having just seen it, that I’m greatly disappointed by the news that Hollywood is planning a Chris Rock-starring remake of Death at a Funeral.

The movie is laugh out loud funny as it tells the story of a British family dealing with the death of its patriarch, whose funeral becomes the forum for airing out all sorts of hidden secrets. Things go from bad to worse throughout the course of the movie as lies are piled on top of each other as members of the family attempt to hide certain revelations and developments. On top of all this Alan Tudyk’s characer, who has accidentally taken a heaping helping of hallucinagens, gets increasingly paranoid and naked and inadvertantly becomes the instigator of much of the troubles at the wake.

If you’re someone who enjoys the dry wit of the British you’ll definitely enjoy Death at a Funeral.

Movie Journal: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is just an enormously funny movie, even if I’ll never really be able to look at Jason Segal the same way now that I – and the entire rest of the movie-going world have seen his unwrapped package.

There’s actually not much more I can even say about it. It’s one uncomfortably funny moment after another, with everyone having a lot of fun with what they’re doing.

Movie Journal: Speed Racer

It’s actually kind of funny that Speed Racer wound up being the in-flight movie on my return trip to Chicago from San Fransisco. It’s funny because at The Converation, one of the graphic artists who worked on the movie was on a panel and joked, after showing a clip, that the amount of people who had seen footage from the movie had just doubled.

I did not think Speed Racer was as bad as some of the release reviews made it sound. In fact it’s quite enjoyable if you decide to go with the flow of the movie. I’m still no fan of Emil Hirsch (insufferable in Into the Wild) but he’s not bad here. And the rest of the cast performs admirably, especially John Goodman as Speed Racer’s mechanic father.

It’s fast and light-weight, and the comments about the colors popping off the screen certainly hold true even on a tiny airplane seat-back screen. And I think the opinion that it was made for and perfectly acceptable for kids is more or less true. Sure there are some things that are going to have to be explained but that’s true in just about anything that’s not Blue’s Clues.

After watching such a poor presentation I actually found myself looking forward to watching it again on a bigger screen and so have kept it in my Netflix queue.

Movie Journal: Be Kind Rewind

My enjoyment of Be Kind Rewind was probably hampered by the fact that I watched it on an airplane. But even giving it the benefit of the doubt I have to say it was not very good. At least I didn’t quite get what Michael Gondry was going for with it.

I get the story – two local characters try to save a neighborhood video store when one of them somehow becomes magnetic and accidentally erases all the tapes by shooting their own versions of the movies and renting them to an unsuspecting clientele. But it’s the execution that gets in the way of my enjoyment. Black is mostly just annoying as the cause of the problems and Mos Def tries to be charming as the one who takes charage of the store’s revitalization but he’s just not that good an actor.

Plus, there’s this whole thing where occassionally the screen fills with static like Black’s magnetism is effecting the camera that’s shooting the movie and that wound up just bugging me the more often it happened. I have no problem with breaking the fourth wall but this little affectation served no purpose other than to make Gondry seem clever.

It’s not a bad movie, it’s just pointlessly amused with itself.