MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: The Rest. Kung Fu Panda 2; The Expendables; Buck


  Kung Fu Panda 2 (Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Two or Three Discs) (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2011 (DreamWorks Animated)

 Kung Fu Panda 2 is a cute, likable movie, done with a lot of skill and A-level talent, and with all the visual virtuosity we expect by now from big-budget cartoon features — especially from sequels to gigantic hits, like the first 2008 Kung Fu Panda from DreamWorks. But  Panda 2 didn’t connect with me, especially in the way the first film did. This one seemed sweet but stilted, spectacular but more muted, likable but more artificial. My mind wandered.

 That ’s no accurate gauge, of course, of how the core “Panda” audience (kids and parents) will react. I expect children will like it a lot, since it‘s mostly pitched to their key. But I had no trouble getting engaged by the first “Panda,“ and that enlarged appeal isn’t necessarily on tap here.

 The new movie is directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson (the storyboard artist on the first Panda) and it’s scripted by the original scenarists, Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. All three, plus the usual crackerjack DreamWorks animation team, help return us to a magical cartoon realm that many audiences thoroughly enjoyed: that historical Chinese wonderland, derived partly from storybooks and Chinese martial arts period movies (Zhang Yimou’s The Curse of the Golden Flower and Hero, and Ching Siu-Tung’s A Chinese Ghost Story), where talking animals roamed and Jack Black put the voice and the sass into roly-poly panda and superhero-wannabe Po.

 In the original, Po was a nebbish who wanted to be a superhero, and, after some comical humiliation, he teamed up with the Furious Five — not Grandmaster Flash‘s old rap group but the first movie’s kung fu quintet of Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross), and went on quests and fought foes (including Ian McShane as the super-villainous snow leopard Tai Lung) and finally became the Dragon Warrior.

 Like many others, I was entertained and charmed by that original, with its unlikely panda hero and its delicate yet deep visual style — its look of Chinese scroll paintings mingled with choppy-socky action films, its likeably childish jokes (with the usual smart-assery from Black) and its puckishly assembled cast , which also included James Hong as Po’s goose of a father Mr. Ping and Dustin Hoffman as wise old Ratso — excuse me, Shifu.

 Most of that voice cast is back (McShane excepted), abetted this time by new additions vocalized by Michelle Yeoh (a soothsayer), Jean-Claude Van Damme (Master Croc), Dennis Haysbert (Master Storming Ox), Victor Garber (Master Thunder Rhino) and Danny McBride (Wolf Boss) — as well as a brand new sinister and sadistic villain, Gary Oldman as Lord Shen. Shen, done with every ounce of vanity and evil Oldman can muster, is a vicious peacock who wants to rule all China, has a new super-weapon to help him do it, and who, we gradually learn, played an undisclosed part in Po’s still obscure past.

 What happens afterwards is almost exactly what you’d expect — since, like the mega-mega-hit The Hangover 2, this movie tries to hew to the tried and usually true sequel formula of “The Same, but Bigger.” Still, the expanded cast means there’s even less screen time for The Furious Five, who, I thought, were somewhat short-changed in the first movie. And the filmmakers apparently have yet to decide on some romantic tnterest for Po, unless they’re brewing up something with Tigress, or more pandas pop up and get larger roles.

 None of this is offensive or boring, of course. Kung Fu Panda 2 is a movie that’s hard to dislike. It’s just not especially interesting, especially if you’re above the age of six. It’s a good-looking movie — director Yuh Nelson is a gifted artist and she has one wonderful flashback sequence in 2D, a showpiece that reminds us how unnecessary the 3D effects are here, once again. The movie has moments of tenderness and poignancy. It even has Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) as a creative consultant. But it’s not engaging and exciting in the way the first movie was. 

 Maybe these projects get too top-heavy. If you’re going to do a big hit movie all over again, and yet also try to be innovative and fresh and bring new qualities to it, you may inevitably tighten up a little. You may lose some of the freedom-within-confinement, and the spontaneous but controlled flow of ideas that are the very essence of art — and probably of martial arts too.  I’m not saying that Kung Fu Panda 2 should have been more of an “artistic project” — though both films are more artistically ambitious than most cartoons, or most movies. I’m saying it should have, could have been more fun — and not just for six-year-olds.

Extras: New Adventure: Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Masters; TV Episode “Kung Fu Panda Legends of Awesomeess”; Commetary; Featurettes; Trivia Track. 


The Expendables (Two  Stars)
U.S.; Sylvester Stallone, 2010 (Lions Gate)

Sylvester Stallone could have been a contender.

In fact, once upon a time, he was the contender, even almost the champ. Stallone‘s 1976  sleeper hit movie Rocky — from his original script, starring Stallone himself as Rocky Balboa, the seemingly washed-up but tender-hearted Philly boxer who gets a shot at the heavyweight title from the Muhammad Ali-like champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) — won the 1976 Best Movie Oscar, as well as Best Director honors for John Avildsen.

Sly’s Rocky was in some ways a formula heart-tugger, but it was inspired by the best. The part was probably heavily influenced by Brando‘s washed-up pug Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, considered by many the finest male performance in any American movie.

As for Stallone, he got beaten out that year for best original screenplay, by Paddy Chayefsky, for his scalding TV-behind-the-scenes classic “Network — but that’s no disgrace. Stallone was also bested as 1976’s best actor by the late Peter Finch, playing the plum part of Howard Beale, the psycho TV news anchor who was the first man to say on the air, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” (Other Psychos, including real-life ones, followed Beale and stole his catch-phrase.) And that’s no disgrace either.

Stallone was young, he was on top, and, at the Oscar show, Muhammad Ali came on stage to fool around and joke with him. Stallone could do, it seemed, anything he wanted. Surely, someday, he would win the Oscar that he missed that time out.

So he acted in a hit Ted Kotcheff movie, First Blood, that introduced the long-haired one man killing machine Vietnam vet Frank Rambo. And he started out multi-tasking again by writing, starring in and directing another movie, of some Coppolesque, Scorsesean ambition, called Paradise Alley. It didn’t work.

Stallone the went for different stakes at a bigger, more expensive table. He started making movies, often sequels to his big smashes Rocky and First Blood,  that were calculated to make a lot of money, and not to take too many chances on art. Rocky the series began to look like a string of hits afflicted with progressive elephantiasis. Each new Rocky movie was like a weird inflated dream taking place in the head of the Rocky from the movie before.

The Rock re-fought for the title with Apollo, and this time he beat him. Then he fought another contender, who was like a much, much nastier version of Apollo (Mr. T) and he beat him, with Creed‘s help. Then, Rocky beat the entire country of Russia…excuse me, he thrashed Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the Crusher from the Kremlin, in Rocky IV, the Cash-Cow from Moscow.

Something similar hampered to Rambo. First Blood  was halfway-plausible, a good drama as well as a thriller, and it introduced a terrific cop-actor antagonist, in Brian DennehyRambo: First Blood 2 and Rambo 3 were wilder, crazier, and more gaseously inflated. Then times changed. Stallone tamped down Rocky, eventually scaled down Rambo, played punchy, tried to grab at our heart-strings again. Charlie, Charlie, you don’t understand…

Now comes The Expendables, an action movie for moviegoers who miss the ’80s. (Personally, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to forget them.) Sly is back, and he’s playing Barney Ross — not the heroin addict boxer portrayed in Andre De Toth’s Monkey on my Back, but the deep-voiced, heavily-muscled,  mellowed but kick-ass leader of a gang of mercenaries that includes a whole Dirty Dozen or so of once or current upper-echelon action heroes: Lundgren as the scarred hothead Gunner Jensen, Jason Statham as London’s “Lock, Stock”  basher Lee Christmas, martial artist Jet Li as Chinese mauler Ying Yang, wrestler turned actor Stone Cold Steve Austin as Paine, Terry Crews as Hale Caesar, Randy Couture as Toll Road — enough action stars or superstars it seems to start a new country, Actionland, whose national motto is “Mess with the Best, and Die Like the Rest.”

Sending them on their way is a stern C. I. A. schmoozer named Church (played with an admirably straight face by Stallone action rival Bruce Willis). Making a cmeo appearace, but sitting the action out is another Stallone rival, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the smirking Trench. (“He wants to be President,” Barney mutters.) The main villain is Eric Roberts, in another headcase role as James Munroe (not the president). The love interest is Gisele Itie as Sandra, the radicalized daughter of the evil general of a wild and woolly banana republic. Peddling bananas, and Uzis, is Jose Carioca, of the Three Amigos. (Just kidding.) And giving the guys tattoos, as Tool, is Mickey Rourke, Roberts‘ costar in that neglected 1984 NYC street classic The Pope of Greenwich Village, a great ’80s movie that a lot of people have forgotten or never knew. Co-writer Stallone gives Rourke an aria, and he steals the entire movie.

I’d be lying if I said it wasn‘t sometimes enjoyable to watch these guys, in their muscle-flexing, exploding fireball of a class reunion, or mega-basher’s convention. But I’d also be lying if I didn’t say it was a second-tier action movie that doesn’t make much sense. (“But that’s the point!“ hard-core ’80s-lovers will lecture us “dumb-ass critics.“ “It’s from the ‘80s! It’s not supposed to make sense. It made money!“ ) Oh yeah? If this movie had a lot more humor, more camaraderie and less phony cojones, more Mickey Rourke and Roberts, and even some more non-action Stallone, it could have been a lot better. Instead, it’s an occasional hoot, but expendable.

Buck (Three and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Cindy Meehl, 2010 (MPI/Sundance Selects)

Documentary films are often especially good at human portaiture, and this well-draw picture of Westerner and horse trainer Buck Brannaman, who was able to reclaim his life after a brutal childhood, is warm and touching, an often remarkable remarkable piece of work by the sympathetic director Cindy Meehl.

 Buck and his brother were child cowboy roping prodigies and local media sensations, but there was a darker side to their fame. They were tyrannized and beaten by their father to keep up their skills. When Buck finally was pulled from his home (by a court judgment), a child who had bee beate and terorized for years,  he was healed and transformed by the kindness of his new foster parents, and he made an extraordinary success in a new field: communicating with and training “problem” or difficult horses.

 Buck, whose methods of dealing with animals involve a healthy measure of kindness and empathy, worked on the Robert Redford film The Horse Whisperer (based on Nicholas Evans’ novel), and he became one of the was one of the models for Redford’s character, a similar horse trainer. Buck, as we see him here, is a good man with a great gift, a person who not only loves animals but truly understands them. We hear his story, see his skills. The surrounding Western landscapes are a fittingly poetic backdrop. This is a very impressive, very human drama and one of last year’s (deservedly) best loved  documentaries.

Extras: Commentary with Buck and with director Meehl and other filmmakers; Deleted scenes; Trailer.     



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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon