Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Kung Fu Panda; Vantage Point

Kung Fu Panda

Often celebrity voices in big-budget animated features are used as a selling point and don't necessarily work for the benefit of the film or the characters.
Thankfully, Kung Fu Panda does not have this problem at all. Very few people could say "awesomeness" with such conviction or enthusiasm as the inimitable Jack Black as panda Po, and Dustin Hoffman brings the right level of stern gravitas to his role as Shifu. Angelina Jolie submerges herself in her character of Tigress, avoiding any grandstanding for what is a supporting role, whereas Michael Clarke Duncan's gravelly bass is recognisable but also a perfect fit for the part of the head of security Commander Vachir, in charge of keeping the deadly Tai Lung inarcerated. Tai Lung himself, in the grand tradition of plummy English-voiced baddies, is here played by the post-Deadwood Ian McShane, making the voice subservient to the character as with Jolie.

Beyond the voice talent I'm happy to say that Kung Fu Panda is a delight. What could have easily been a throwaway cash cow of fighting funny animals not only delivers some choice dialogue thanks to Black, but great slapstick and genuinely thrilling action scenes in what is a loving homage to Kung Fu flick tradition. The martial arts scenes themselves surpass most action to have have come out of the West in 2008, and a good deal of what made it over from the East, thanks to the possibilities opened up by CGI in impossible camera angles and rubber-limbed actors. Whilst action flicks from Hong Kong, Korea, Japan et. al are embracing the use of CGI more and more, the juxtaposition of live action and clearly CGI shots still have yet to cross the uncanny valley.
In Kung Fu Panda nothing is real, so everything is real.
Speaking of animation, the art style is wonderful, giving the right mix of anthropomorphism that retains each species' integral features whilst opening them up for a bit of rubber-faced emoting - the rigid bulk of rhinoceroses, the spindly limbs and necks of the storks, the wrinkled skin and lethargy of the tortoise. By 2008 the CGI technicians had developed just enough to bring textures to life, and the film is full of hair, crumbling masonry, exploding fireworks and millions of other incidental details that keep you firmly rooted in the world so that you can pay attention to the story of Po and his trials as the supposed Dragon Warrior, said to protect Peace Valley in its time of need.

I was luckily enough to catch this at the cinema and enjoyed it very much indeed, but it's after repeat viewing that I realise the care that the production of the film has been lavished with. If you have any affection for either old school kung fu (Jackie Chan cameos as Monkey) or decent CGI animation, you owe it to yourself to seek out the Kung Fu Panda.
In 2011 the release of the sequel, Kung Fu Panda: Kaboom of Doom, is expected. Whilst the writers and the main voice cast are due to return, the directors are not, so it remains to be seen how much of an influence they had on the look of the film.

Vantage Point

Not far into this I was thinking "Rashomon lite directed by Tony Scott", and by the end of the film I didn't have any reason to alter that summary much.
During a summit in Santander, the President of the USA is shot and then some bombs go off. Lots of people are involved in the events that unfold, and we are treated/condemned to following the story from a number of their perspectives, including a network TV crew, secret service agent, Spanish policeman, tourist with a digicam and those responsible for the violence that occurs.
Things start off well with Sigourney Weaver in charge of editing and selecting live footage on the fly in a mobile news centre - the ideas of perspective are laid down, showing the importance that can be played in your particular 'vantage point', if you will. After the climax of an explosion in the square where the summit was being held, we rewind back to the start, at 12 noon, and then follow things through the eyes of secret service agent Dennis Quaid (in squinting constipation mode), who we learn has only recently returned to active duty after foiling a previous assassination attempt by taking the bullet himself. Next comes a local Spanish cop played by Eduardo Noriega, and the first hints that some characters may be closely linked to the shooting and bombings, and then the always reliable Forest Whitaker as the tourist Howard Lewis, followed by William Hurt as the President himself.
Speaking of which, it felt a little bit much at the end, when Quaid had finally saved the president and it was a happy ending, ignoring the dozens of innocent bystanders mashed up by the bombings, shootings and Quaid's crazy driving through the course of the movie. It's hardly unique among Hollywood blockbusters in its importance pecking order of President>Americans>everyone else, but somehow feels cheaper in what is trying to sell itself as a bit more intelligent what with the "Look! I'm playing with time!".

As each segment unfolds we are dropped more and more hints about who is behind the conspiracy and how, but curiously not why. After Hurt's section the film loses its way a little and rather than give the time to another character, it splits between a half dozen or so, turning it into yet another post-2001 thriller and losing the main differential it had in order to stand out from a fairly crowded bunch.
Admittedly the action/chase sequences are relatively well executed, making for a tense experience and excitement, but ultimately once the pieces fall together and the 'vantage point' conceit is abandoned, it ends up failing in comparison with more temporally traditional thrillers.
It's fine, really, not something you'd feel wasteful for having watched, and as cinematic excursions for actors in hit TV shows go it's not a bad little movie for Lost's Matthew Fox, especially as the success or failure doesn't fall on his shoulders, it being an ensemble piece.
"Tony Scott's Rashomon lite" may be a little generous, in retrospect.


David N said...

Fucking hell. Right, a couple of points of constructive criticism.

You'll burn out fast if you keep up with reviews of this length and thoroughness, with the number of movies you watch.

Capsule reviews are the way to go because otherwise, nobody wants to wade through reviews of bad or mediocre movies, unless they're designed to be hilarious slams, and that isn't generally your style.

Plus maybe a little looser stylistically, because who wants to know any actual information about the plot of Vantage Point? thats what wikipedia/IMDB are for. Just tell us what you thought, and do it fast, I would suggest.

But hey, as your blogroll says: Everybodys got an opinion, and you're probably right to ignore mine..

Monsieur Le Capuchin said...

I'm thinking my style will become more focused after the first couple of dozen. I've got four more that I'm working on right now, I've a feeling that Daybreakers will be pretty hefty.
Also I'm not so mental as to think that anyone will ever read any of these.

The literal titles will help filter for those interested in the odd thing I've seen. I look forward to the first comment moaning about spoilers.

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