So, there, that’s one New Years resolution out of the way for me. A few months after the theatrical release of KUNG FU PANDA 2, I was able to score an interview with its director, Jennifer Yuh Nelson. With the home video release of the film (in just about every format available, including Amazon Instant Video and a Blu-ray boxed set that also includes the first KFP and a new short film, SECRETS OF THE MASTER), I felt it was time to raise some attention for this beautifully mounted, entertaining sequel.
KFP2 was, I felt, unjustly maligned in its original release. Thing is, what most critics seemed to feel was its greatest flaw — not enough focus on lovable doofus panda Po (Jack Black) — I saw as its greatest strength. Instead of the first film’s fish-out-of-water scenario, the sequel uses Po’s elevation to kung fu master to engage in a full embrace of Hong Kong action, casting him into a story that sees the panda facing off against a megalomaniacal peacock who has developed a weapon that may render martial arts obsolete: the cannon. It’s Jackie Chan enhanced with a lush, animation style — bridging over numerous formats, including 2D and shadow puppets — and highlighted with exquisitely choreographed battle scenes; exciting, funny, and a dazzling visual feast. For the love of martial arts, or pure, bravura animation, you need to see this.
Click on the player to hear my interview with Nelson.
Ready for another visit from the most awesome martial arts master ever? Well, ready or not, Po, the legendary Dragon Warrior (and roly-poly panda) is back in this follow up to the well-received KUNG FU PANDA. And this time Po (voice of Jack Black) and his compatriots, the Furious Five — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) — are facing a challenge that threatens the whole of China: Lord Chen, a power-mad peacock with abandonment issues and a well-stocked armory of newly-invented cannons to back up his claim to the throne. Can Po overcome this threat by confronting the secret of his past that binds him inextricably to Lord Shen? And will audiences find KUNG FU PANDA 2 an exciting and innovative blend of Hong Kong action with energetic CG animation, or is this just another sequel that’s satisfied to serve up more of the same? Join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they debate the issue.
The CFQ crew is back, all rested after their holiday break and ready to tackle the new and exciting fantasy, horror, and science fiction film releases of 2011. But first, there’s GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, the big-budget adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s beloved comic novel, starring Jack Black as the titular traveler — here portrayed (in a stunning departure for Mr. Black) as an affable slacker with an undying love for rock and roll — plus Jason Segel and Emily Blunt as Lilliputian lovers, Chris O’Dowd as Gulliver’s miniature nemesis and, for no plausible reason, a wedgie-dispensing robot. Join Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they search for redeeming social value (or any value, frankly) in the last fantasy release of 2010.
Plus news, theatrical and home video releases, and all the usual stuff. Click on the player to hear the show.
CNN.com has an article on YEAR ONE, including interviews with director Harold Ramis and stars Jack Black and Michael Cera. Notably, the article does a better job of representing the film that the advertising campaign did: journalist Doug Ganley addresses the irreverent approach to Biblical themes, which director and co-writer Ramis describes as an Old Testament version of MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN.
“I told people that I wanted to do for the Old Testament what Monty Python did for the Gospels,” he said. “Which is just to kind of take a funny look and project a contemporary sensibility back to these treasured myths of Western civilization.
“It wasn’t so much to attack any particular religion,” he added. “I figure all religions are good. They all make sense on paper; it’s just the exploitation of religion that’s been a problem, by … people using religion to justify war, or to justify government or, you know, ‘God made me do it.’ “
So, you want to see Jack Black doing his familiar funny routine again? Or maybe you prefer a crude comedy filled with disgusting bathroom humor and repulsive sexual innuendo? How about a violent historical epic filled with brain-bashing, whipping, severed heads (implied rather than shown), and human sacrifice? Better yet, why not a scathing satire on Old Testament morality, in which two goofy hunter-gatherers encounter Biblical characters – both pagans and Jews – and find their practices to be equally barbaric? If you would like to see any of those – better yet, if you would like to see all of those – YEAR ONE is your movie.
As you can imagine from the above description, YEAR ONE is quite a mixed bag of nuts – actually, more like a bag of trail mix with the occasional piece of rat dung passing for a raisin, which could repulse viewers who might appreciate the satirical aspects. But if you can supress your gag reflex and sift through the film carefully, it ascends to hyperventilating levels of hilarity.
Most of the genuinely funny humor derives from the anachronism of taking two characters with 21st century sensibilities, placing them a prehistoric context, and letting them riff away on what they see around them. Steve Martin already did this in a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketch decades ago, but YEAR ONE takes the concept a step further: in the grand tradition of ironic characters like Sancho Panza, Zed (Jack Black) and Oh (Michael Cera) are benighted fools whose words and actions pop the pompous bubble of the pretentious people they meet, and some of those people are respect figures who would seem to be off-limits. You see, YEAR ONE is less intent on spoofing cinematic depictions of primitive culture (such as QUEST FOR FIRE or CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR) than on going after bigger, Biblical game – namely, the Book of Genesis.
To this end, YEAR ONE brings out heroes face to face with authority figures who are supposed to represent what is good; however, it turns out that our two ordinary guys, relying on common sense and common decency, have a better grasp of right and wrong, first preventing Abraham from sacrificing his son to Yahweh and later putting a stop to the human sacrifices in Sodom. As Abraham, Azaria is the absolute hysterical highlight; his wild-eyed fanaticism and penchant for hitting the word “God” with just the right exaggerated emphasis turn the revered figure into the equivalent of a religious wacko who today would be shouting on a street corner while passersby shied away.
This attack upon religious authority may suggest an Old Testament variation on MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN, but it comes closer in tone to ANIMAL HOUSE, with Zed and Oh standing in for the pledges of Delta House. This should be no surprise, as YEAR ONE’S director and co-writer Harold Ramis (who also plays a straight-man role as Adam) contributed to the ANIMAL HOUSE script. Here, he transposes that formula to Biblical times with mostly felicitous results; you just wish he could have reigned in some of the vulgarity for the sake of sharpening the satire.
The pandering to the summer teen crowd blunts the iconoclasm. Ramis botches the tonal shifts from slapstick to satire, and he hasn’t got the directorial chops to turn the occasional violence and death into a madcap Monty Python-ish gorefest . The one time he goes more full bore makes you realize why he held off in other scenes: the murder of Abel by his brother Cain is painfully unfunny, all the more so because it goes on and on – somehow without going far enough over-the-top to seem like black humor instead of just unpleasant brutality.
There are a other stumbling points, including a couple of scenes that end before they reach a punchline (as when the snake constricts around Oh’s neck). The briefly seen character of Lilith (who appears in Jewish tradition as either the spiritual first wife of Adam or baby-killing witch) is here portrayed as an ordinary lesbian. There is a certain humor in the uncomprehending look on Zed’s face when he hears the news, but the scene inverts YEAR ONE’s overall scheme: suddenly Zed is the ignorant primitive confronted by a character with a 21st century attitude. And it’s anyone’s guess why Oh feels the need to apologize to his would-be girlfriend after she sees him rubbing oil onto the chest of Sodom’s High Priest: she’s a slave who has to do as she is ordered, and she knows perfectly well that Oh is in the same position.
Fortunately, most of the mistakes take place early. Once Ramis dispense with the flatulence and hits his groove, YEAR ONE really works; the bright points – which include Oliver Platt as the sleazy High Priest – eclipse the failings, and the film emerges as an impressive laugh fest that really does score a few points with it satirical barbs.
It is especially nice that Ramis avoids falling into the simplistic trap of equating religion with sexual repression and concluding that the free-wheeling Sodomites are therefore the good guys. Instead, YEAR ONE depicts their so-called sexual freedom as the freedom of of an authoritarian, patriarchal society to enslave others, particularly women, for use by those in power. It is up to our ironic iconoclasts – not avenging angels of the Lord – to bring down the temple of Sodom and overturn their superstitious religious beliefs, presenting the populace with a more secular philosophy instead.
Through it all, Jack Black and Michael Cera do excellent work as this generation’s would-be Laural and Hardy. Black does his usual shtick – but it feels different here because he is so wildly out of place in these pre-historical surroundings. Cera carefully plays the second banana character in a winning way; somehow the wimpy, reactive buddy is as funny as the more overblown character. By the end, you would be happy to sit through a series of films with these guys.
YEAR ONE(2009). Directed by Harold Ramis. Screenplay by Harold Ramis & Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg. Cast: Jack Black, Michael Cera, Oliver Platt, David Cross, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Vinnie Jones, Hank Azaria, Juno Temple, Olivia Wilde, June Diane Raphael Xander Berkeley, Gia Carides, Horatio Sanz, David Pasquesi, Matthew Willig, Harold Ramis.
Jack Black and Michael Cera star as a couple of lazy hunter-gatherers who encounter various Biblical and historical figures after being banished from their tribe. The humor seems mostly based on anachronisms – having characters speak in contemporary slang even though they are in historical – or pre-historical – situations. Olivia Wilde co-stars for director Harold Ramis in this Columbia Pictures production.