Retrospective Reviews #1: Kung Fu Coens

I’ve done a few retrospective reviews on their own on this blog, but I’ve forgotten how time consuming they can be. So, I’ve instead decided to collect all the older films I’ve either watched before or just watched for the first time and put them all together in one article on a (roughly) weekly basis.

1/26/16: Kung Fu Panda (Re-Watch)

kungfupanda

Dreamworks Animation

With a film called “Kung Fu Panda” starring Jack Black from Dreamworks, one would immediately expect the worst. This was especially true in 2008, coming off the massive disappointment of a Shrek the Third and the lingering burns of the previous Dreamworks/Black collaboration Shark Tale. Yet, the first Kung Fu Panda, much like its titular lead character, is much more promising than it sounds. With a clear love for Shaw Brothers martial arts films, Kung Fu Panda manages to create a dynamic sense of conflict and scope through its action sequences. More so than any piece of western animation, this film gives each of its animal characters their own distinctive styles that both clash in quarrel and symphonically move in a dance. It builds the stakes of each battle while also showing off the elaborate fighting moves and production design of this mythological version of China the animators have built. Yet, the characters and their arcs are still key here, mainly in terms of the unusual version of a “chosen one” narrative that mainly builds on the cryptic mysticism and honing of one’s skills rather than the simple nature of a bland prophecy. Plus, the eclectic voice cast is filled with astonishingly prolific yet appropriately cast actors, particularly the oddly fitting chemistry between Black and Dustin Hoffman, the mistrusting Angelina Jolie and the genuinely intimidating yet still hilarious Ian McShane. Some of the gags can be a bit too modern and show some of Dreamworks’ issues with adding generic comedy lines on to physical gags. Yet, Kung Fu Panda still manages to be a cut above their previous fare and gave way to a great new era in the animation studio’s history.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Noodle Bowls

1/27/16: Kung Fu Panda 2 (Re-Watch)

kung-fu-panda-2

Dreamworks Animation

A masterful follow up to such a fascinating surprise. Instead of merely wadding the same waters of the original film, Kung Fu Panda 2 genuinely develops its world and characters. Po isn’t only given the chance to find out about his mysterious past, but also has to find the balance in his technique to allow him to find inner peace. This creates the emotional core of the film, which is sustained by the genuinely heart wrenching vocal performances of Jack Black and James Hong as well as the notably gorgeous use of 2D animation for the flashback sequences. The side characters from the first film even get more of a chance to shine, particularly as Angelina Jolie’s Tigress shows a more complex emotional range. All of this is conveyed with even more gorgeous examples of animation than the first film, particularly with the vibrant color palette infused into every scene and extensively grand scale sense of scope found in every establishing shot. The ancient version of China created for the last film is given more vibrancy, particularly as the complex past of the surprisingly intimidating peacock antagonist of the film (voiced by the reliably sinister Gary Oldman) is revealed with his ties to Po. Not only does this sequel build more on the promise of the original Kung Fu Panda, but it surpasses that potential in every way imaginable.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Dragon Warrior Sized Dumplings

1/27/16: The Ladykillers (1955)

the-ladykillers-1955

Ealing Studios

A blackly comedic crime caper that works best at its most nasty. The conceit of these criminals trying to fool an old lady is one that’s admittedly a bit thin, even for the film’s 90 minute run time. The first hour or so is mainly built around these colorful characters trying to fool said elderly woman into believing they’re musicians instead of criminals, which can only go so far without growing tiresome. Of course, there are plenty of funny moments had within the first hour or so, mainly due to the hilarious performances from Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Katie Johnson & Herbert Lom. Yet, the premise’s comedic potential sort of wanes when it heavily relies on the sort of farcical antics that Johnson’s character attracts, including a lengthy diversion of street chaos that lingers on endlessly. The Ladykillers does steadily pick up the pace as the distrust within the group steadily increases, causing a rising tension that’s released in a darkly comedic fashion that’s highly entertaining. Plus, Johnson’s growing awareness of the situation and pleasant presence only strengthens the comedic cowardice and destructive nature of the group.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 False Musical Instruments

1/27/16: The Ladykillers (2004)

the-ladykillers-2004

Buena Vista Pictures

While the original Ladykillers has a fair amount of charm that ages well, it’s not above being remade and by filmmakers as exemplary as The Coen Brothers no less. Surely, they could put together an over the top comedic treasure from source material that fits their character driven and morbidly cartoonish sensibilities. Yet, in practice, their remake is a complete mess of a comedy. The cartoonish nature provides ample amounts of silly characters, like Ryan Hurst’s monosyllabic lunk of a man or Tom Hanks’ southern educated gentleman, with the latter managing to entertain far more than the former or quite frankly any of the other characters. This is especially true of the more awkwardly problematic characters, such as the quiet “mysterious” Tzi Ma and the foul mouthed and ignorantly stereotypical Marlon Wayans. Given the lack of black characters in The Coen Brothers’ filmography, the later is especially cringeworthy, with every black character showing a severe lack of genuine satire that translates more as a couple of middle aged white men getting their cultural commentary from misreading OutKast music videos of the time. Regardless of horrible stereotypes, this version of The Ladykillers misses the dark yet comedically escalating edge of the 1955 film and just starts from minute one as a goofy cartoon where the stakes never seem to matter and the relationship between Hanks & the old lady (played here with decent chops by Irma P. Hall) provides more sitcomish circumstance than the then-nearly 50 year old original film. It’s such a hodgepodge of ideas and concepts that never coalesces into anything truly worthwhile. Easily the worst in the entire filmography of The Coen Brothers.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Work Tunnels

1/28/16: The Big Lebowski (Re-Watch)

the-big-lebowski

Universal Pictures

The stand out comedic masterpiece of the Brothers Coen despite its confused nature. In a style similar to the mystery works of Raymond Chandler, The Big Lebowski feels like a story ripped from a man’s hangover infused dream. One filled with bizarre seemingly disconnected characters and events that seem straight out of an intoxicated retelling. The stream of conscience style of the storytelling helps sell the silliness of these characters as their genuine thought processes, though it helps that Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Jullianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman and all the other members of the cast don’t bat an eye at any of this strange behavior. It all feels natural in this universe, which makes their antics all the more ludicrous and hysterical when populating this existing LA environment. The Coens are also some of the few people in mainstream cinema that know how to visually craft comedy, lingering on facial expressions and empty shots for the exact amount of time needed. Even Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography manages to mix expansive landscapes and quiet close ups for the sake of an individual joke’s situation. It’s an odd beast, but an incredibly memorable one.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Bowling Balls

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