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Looking Back at 2010s Films: Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

12 Nov

By Tanner Smith

One of the best, most surprising animated treasures of the 2000s was DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda,” starring Jack Black as a panda who learns kung fu…thinking about what I just wrote baffles me for how stupid it seems and yet delighted that it actually worked.

And it definitely worked. Released in 2008, “Kung Fu Panda” was not only beautifully CG-animated and very funny AND wonderfully choreographed (for animation, providing as many kung fu styles as possible takes incredible skill)…but it was also rather moving and beautiful when it needed to be, and it taught a valuable lesson that speaks to both kids and adults: we all have unique skills that help make us who we are.

Three years later, in 2011, we got “Kung Fu Panda 2,” which was even better. More atmosphere, more action, more visual treasures, and most surprising of all, more emotions–you will believe Jack Black as Po the Kung Fu Panda will make you feel things!

I could make a Looking Back on 2010s Films post about “Kung Fu Panda 2,” but honestly, I think I’d rather write about “Kung Fu Panda 3,” my favorite of the trilogy.

Yes, it’s a trilogy with a conclusion…unless DreamWorks decides to go the PIXAR/”Toy Story 4″ route and meet back up with familiar characters years later. (I’d be fine with that, if it’s done well, like with “Toy Story 4.”)

With each passing film, we see a neat progression in Po’s character. In the first movie, Po was a mere kung fu enthusiast (and flabby panda) who was chosen to become the Dragon Warrior to combat a dangerous villain and bring peace to the valley. No one believed in him until he was able to find the skills within himself to get the job done.

But with “Kung Fu Panda 2,” we’re reminded that it’s not as simple as that to become what you desire to be. Po had to search within himself to find out who he truly is and not just who he wants to be. (Oh, and he also had to find out about his origins, as his father’s a duck who obviously adopted him.) Through it all, he finds inner peace. A satisfying resolution for an even more satisfying sequel. Where can we go from there?

Well now we have “Kung Fu Panda 3.” What are we going to tackle with this one? Well, this time, Po has to be a teacher. Already, I’m intrigued. Po is still excitable and energetic. He has mastered many of the ways of kung fu, but we see he still has a lot more to learn. Now, Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) is stepping down as master of the Furious Five and appointing Po as the new guy in charge. But even Po knows he’s not ready for this responsibility–and thankfully, we get a scene early on in which Master Shifu states the reason he wants Po to teach is so Po himself can learn something new, because he shouldn’t get used to what he already knows. Pretty good point there.

Anyway, Po is visited by another panda in the valley, named Li (Bryan Cranston), who it turns out (GASP!) is Po’s birth father! It’s a happy reunion that turns into more than that when it turns out Li may be able to help in defeating a new all-powerful villain, the chi-stealing warrior Kai (J.K. Simmons). You see, pandas possess the hidden secrets of the power of “chi,” which translates to “life force” or “energy flow.” The more Kai can possess from those he comes across, the more powerful he becomes. Thus, Po has to travel with Li to the secret panda village to learn chi. But it’s going to be harder than it seems, as Po is interacting with his own species and finally learning how to be…a “panda,” for the first time in his life.

Oh, and Po’s adoptive father–you know, the goose (James Hong)–is understandably jealous of Po’s new attachment to the father he never knew. Thankfully, this subplot isn’t as annoying or even as distracting as it could have been. And its resolution is actually kind of touching…but not as effective as…

You know, it’s baffling and kind of disconcerting that “Kung Fu Panda 3” didn’t get the attention it deserves. Critics recommended it mildly at best. It was released in January, when it could/should have been a fitting summer release. And of the three “Kung Fu Panda” movies, this was the only one not to be nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.

People just see it as just another “Kung Fu Panda” movie, which is a shame, because…I love this movie.

Why do I favor this one over the previous two? Because it’s a definite proper conclusion in this sense: it’s the only one in the trilogy that came through with its original promise. You ever notice that what usually defeats the previous villains is some kind of magic that was never fully explained, defeating the purpose of the message the films try to get across, that it’s best to find your own inner strengths? Well, this time, even though the mystic Wuxi finger hold (which I still don’t get) plays a role in the climax, the focus is still on what Po is able to teach his fellow pandas in the ways of kung fu. He teaches them to use their abilities to their advantage, and in a fresh, inventive way, it truly works. There’s an ancient Chinese saying that kung fu lives in everything we do–this is a Kung Fu Panda showing us how! As strange as that may sound, it’s truly effective.

Now, I can just predict some troll commenting, “Haha I’m writing an angry comment on your blog–is THAT kung fu? XP” To that, I say, “It just might be.”

And as Po learns who he himself really is, it’s actually very emotionally satisfying. I can’t help it–the “Kung Fu Panda” trilogy is better than it had any right to be. With the right skills and writing and technical wizardry, you can make even the silliest ideas work wonders.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Captain America: Civil War (2016)

8 Nov

By Tanner Smith

In 2015, the MCU had a confusing time. Fans were outraged at “Avengers: Age of Ultron” for not living up to the standards of “The Avengers,” yet they were enthralled with “Ant-Man,” a romp in which our hero shrinks to the size of an ant. Sounds a bit topsy-turvy, doesn’t it?

What would we get next? 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War”–the film everyone proclaimed the real “Avengers” sequel (minus Hulk and Thor).

This film was awesome–this was what really pushed the MCU to the next level, which is what we needed in two years. It did more than its set formula required.

After the tragic casualties of the events in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” along comes the question of a government agreement to control the Avengers. Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) wants to go along with it, since he feels guilty for the innocents who perished in their battles. But Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) isn’t sure what to think, especially when it comes to what should be done with his old friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan), who was brainwashed to become the lethal Winter Soldier. Should he be brought to justice for his crimes or should there be an alternative, since he did things beyond his control? The more things go on, the more a rift occurs between the Avengers, as many of them don’t agree with each other and a line is drawn and eventually crossed.

Thus…one of the greatest sequences in any MCU movie…as Captain America, Sam Wilson aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) are confronted by Iron Man, Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Vision (Paul Bettany) at an airport where they engage in battle!! Did I miss anybody? Yep! Two important figures–T’Challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the prince of an African nation called Wakanda who has immense strength and wants to avenge his father who was assassinated by the Winter Soldier; and Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland), a New York teen with spider-like abilities who is recruited by Stark for a quick favor and then it’s back to Aunt May’s, mister (it’s a school night, after all).

It’s hero against hero, skill against skill–how will this awesomeness conclude?? This sequence was only as ongoing as it needed to be.

Oh, and there’s a villain pulling the strings here. His motivation is that he wants to see the Avengers suffer for their actions that claimed many lives. Even he’s not the strongest Marvel villain, we can understand what brought him here.

What makes this one so compelling is that we know exactly why something has to happen when it does. We get what drives our heroes in this scenario. And it was also a pleasant surprise to get behind Stark again, after I was aggravated by his idiotic decisions in previous MCU movies. (In “Iron Man 3,” he shouted his home address to a terrorist on live TV. Where did he think he was going with that??) Here, he put his abrasive, cynical ego aside for a while to think about the consequences of many actions that he was partially the cause of.

It’s weird that when the film was advertised, the marketing asked fans if we were on Team Captain America or Team Iron Man, as if there was a clear choice to make. I don’t think there was, and that’s the beauty of it. It’s just different ideologies clashing, and you understand both of them. It’s tough for me to decide whose side I would choose. I bet if Peter knew what each side was fighting for, he’d have trouble thinking about it too. (But dude! Tony Stark is asking me for help! This is cool!! I better suit up!)

Speaking of whom, Tom Holland nailed it as Spider-Man. After seeing him in this movie, I was more than excited to see what he would do in future MCU movies. He’s very likable, has great quippy one-liners, and feels like a real kid caught in the middle of such craziness. (Yeah, he’s not really Spider-MAN yet so much as Spider-Boy, but that’s the fun of a coming-of-age journey–we knew he’d earn that title eventually.)

Black Panther is an interesting, compelling figure, and while his vengeance motivation is clear and obvious, what kept me interested was where he was going to go once he found out who was truly behind his father’s assassination. Once his resolution came along, I was behind him.

And trust me, I’ll get to his 2018 movie soon enough–that’s one of my absolute favorites in the MCU. But first, I gotta talk about all three MCU movies from 2017: a great year for Marvel movies (and not just for Logan, either).

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

8 Nov

By Tanner Smith

David Lowery’s “Pete’s Dragon” is a remake of the 1977 Disney romp of the same name…in name only. There is a boy named Pete and there is also a dragon…that’s about it. And I am very OK with that.

Let’s face it–the 1977 version, which I grew up with, is too silly and corny to try to replicate. I’m surprised Disney even considered a remake of it at all. But with the recent collection of Disney live-action remakes that we’ve been getting (and are still coming), they saw an opportunity for SOME nostalgia that could bring in SOME profit. So, why not give us something new with that title?

Well, when I first saw the trailer, I was very cynical about it. It didn’t look like anything new–it looked like “E.T. with a dragon.” So, I missed it in theaters, even despite film critics praising it.

But my fiancee insisted we watch the Blu-Ray (which she bought for me as a Valentine’s gift) together. So, I gave it a chance…and I was pleasantly surprised.

Don’t get me wrong–it does have the very things I was afraid it would have: an antagonist who doesn’t listen to reason and a rousing climax in which the dragon is captured and needs to be rescued. But it also has some deep, powerful, emotional moments that I didn’t expect–enough to make for an impressive, memorable, and quite lovely family film.

But it didn’t start very promisingly. It opens with a happy family, so you can predict just how quickly the parents are going to be out of the picture so that the little boy can go off on his own adventures. This is followed by whimsical music and a whimsical voiceover narration from Robert Redford as the local old coot who tells the kids the same stories about a dragon that lives within the nearby forest. And of course, his daughter, a park ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard), continuously brushes off his tales, even in front of the kids (oh come on!).

I thought to myself, “Oh, this is gonna hurt.”

But then, it quickly caught my interest with a neat sequence that could almost be compared to “The Black Stallion,” as we see how this little boy from the beginning has grown in the wild for six years thanks to the help of his lone companion: a green, cute dragon named Elliot (named after a character in a storybook).

Watching these two together, I strangely buy their connection. For one thing, the dragon looks great, with wonderfully convincing CGI and a remarkably expressive face that gets a lot of character across. For another, the kid is a very good actor (Oakes Fegley) and genuinely acts as if he’s playing with a big imaginary beast. And the filmmaking is very well-done here as well. Director David Lowery (whose previous film was the underrated “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and later films would be “A Ghost Story” and “The Old Man & The Gun”) knows to capture the atmosphere and environment just right if this is going to work. And the quiet moments with Pete and Elliot together work wonderfully. (Considering his experimental work and Disney’s studio tactics, I take it this is another case of a director not arguing with studio demands but instead compromising with them, just as Mike Flanagan did with “Ouija: Origin of Evil”–different movie, but the point still remains.)

I would’ve liked to see more of how Pete and Elliot survive together–that could have made a whole movie on its own. But we still have this story to get to, so let’s see what we got. Pete is discovered by the ranger, who takes him in to meet her family as she tries to figure out where he came from. Sounds about right, you say? Well, even this is well-handled, as Pete, who’s been away from civilization for far too long, struggles with his new surroundings. But he does come to trust the ranger and her daughter, who’s about the same age as Pete, and he does give it a chance because he feels like this is the closest thing that came close to a family for him since his parents were tragically killed. This is what I like; I care for this…now let’s talk about what I don’t care for.

The ranger’s hotheaded brother-in-law (Karl Urban) sees the dragon in the woods and is determined to catch it. And just as Pete takes the family into the forest to introduce them to Elliot (P.S. I like that the dragon is revealed to them in the middle rather than the end of the story), the jerk tranquilizes Elliot and takes him away, resulting in the kids and the ranger racing to save him in one big chase scene… The point of this whole sequence, outside of Disney thinks the audience needs to be woken up from time to time (note the unnecessary chase scenes in “Christopher Robin” and “Mary Poppins Returns,” for example), is that Pete has to come to terms with the reality that a dragon isn’t what he needs when there’s a family that will care for him. But I think this point could have been made in other ways.

To be fair, the brother-in-law is not a one-dimensional bad guy–he does see the error of his ways. But did we really need this whole situation? I was really getting into the scenes with Pete adapting to civilization, Pete befriending the family, and Elliot looking on as he knows he’s losing his best friend. Those scenes are the heart of the story.

But they do make up a good portion of the movie, so as long as they’re well-done, I guess I’ll have to accept the climax that will of course end well for our main characters.

And I will take it over “brazzle, dazzle days” in which our oh-so-jolly good guys are having so much fun painting lighthouses and cleaning windows with their clothed buttocks. (Man the original “Pete’s Dragon” was WEIRD. If you haven’t seen it, check out CinemaSins’ video about it on YouTube.)

It’s easy to call this new “Pete’s Dragon” the best of the modern Disney live-action remakes, because it does something completely different from its source material (which, let me remind you, wasn’t all that special to begin with). But while I obviously don’t think it’s great, I do think it’s good–Lowery’s head was in the right place overall and he came up with a satisfying film even if it could have been improved in some areas. There are many things for me to keep coming back to it and to tell others to check it out as well.

NOTE: There is another Disney live-action remake I really like that did stay true to its original source but also adds and improves upon certain aspects of it: Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book.” I’ll probably write about that one too.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Invitation (2016)

24 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!!!

Sure, Tanner. Don’t analyze “The VVitch” because it scares the hell out of you. But “The Invitation?” No problem at all. Let’s just do it…

First, an excerpt from my review: “It requires a lot of patience and attention to get to where “The Invitation” ultimately builds up to, and I’ll admit my patience was tried a little with each possible answer they could give us to rising questions (without giving us the actual answers most of the time). But somehow, I knew the answer wouldn’t be as rational as characters would like Will to believe (or the audience to believe, for that matter), so I stayed with it, wondering what would happen, when it would happen, and how it would happen. And as much as I would love to talk about the back half of the film, when everything in the story goes to hell, I will leave it for you to discover, because believe me…it is worth it.”

Screw it, I’m gonna talk about the ending of “The Invitation” now. So, SPOILER ALERT and all that. Here goes…

All throughout the film, there are talks about how pain is optional and can easily be taken away. The hosts of this dinner party are part of a cult that two other guests (whom the others never met before) also belong to. They claim this isn’t a conversion, but it sure feels like one, especially when they bring up uncomfortable subjects that are obviously brought on by the cult’s teachings. They even show a video about the cult which features an onscreen death. But it’s no big deal, they say, because the person’s pain went away with her–but the guests are unnerved, because it’s A FREAKING DEATH ON-CAMERA!

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is worried the more the night goes on, but when he addresses concerns, there’s always someone there to make them unwarranted. One of the party hosts, Will’s ex-wife Eden, seems happier now that she’s part of the cult, which itself is strange considering the emotional wreck she became after something terrible happened with their son. (But even she has her moments, such as when one of the guests labels her new philosophy about pain as “bullshit” and she slaps him harder than I’ve seen anyone slap anyone even in a comedic film.)

Will has pain inside him because of the incident, and he’s learning to control it and not let it define him or drive him insane. He seems to have a nice relationship with Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), who helps him keep his feet on the ground, so it can be argued he’s doing much better than Eden…that is, until the climax, in which it’s painfully clear that she just could not take living with her pain anymore and wanted to take everyone with her…

That brings us to the finale, in which the hosts propose a toast. Even though Will has been proven wrong and was chewed out for his suspicions, he still believes something is terribly wrong. He snaps and takes everyone’s glasses of wine and breaks them all, shouting “DON’T DRINK IT!” Of course, people are arguing with him again, so this might be just another one of those things in which he’s not going to come out looking good…and then one of the cult members attacks! “You’ve ruined it!” she exclaims before lunging at him and scratching him crazily.

This chick was already seen as crazy before (walking around the house naked, for example), so it may not be anything to prove Will was right…but then, it turns out Gina (Michelle Krusiec) has collapsed and died, having drank the wine. Will was right. The wine was poisoned and everyone was meant to drink it and die. The hosts, the guests, everybody–this whole night was not meant to be a conversion for the cult; instead, it was meant to be a mass suicide (or, actually, a mass homicide, since only four of these people were willing to die and they gave the others false pretenses).

This is when everything goes to total sh*t, with the apparent Plan B being to attack and kill all of the guests that resist (so, when we think one of the guests left the party early to go home…I don’t think she’s alive anymore). Thus, we now have a fight to survive, as Will, Kira, and everyone else tries to find a way out of the locked-up mansion before it’s too late. This is what the film was building up to, and by God, did it deliver the goods. This is one tense thrill ride with a ton of suspense and even a lot of drama, when Eden realizes everything she’s done has been for nothing, despite her new husband David reassuring her that they’re doing this for a good cause (to free people of pain…by killing them…).

And then, after Will and Kira and Tommy (Mike Doyle) survive and make it outside, we get…one of the most disturbing final shots I’ve ever seen in any movie! You see, earlier, Will noticed a red lantern hanging over the front of the house, which seemed odd. But now, he and Kira look over the Hollywood Hills and find that there are SEVERAL red lanterns lit at various different houses. Los Angeles is in chaos, with helicopters roaring and sirens escalating. What does this mean? It means that this was not an isolated incident. Other cult members must have been in on the same plan Eden and David tried to pull off, making this a night of death…

That…is incredibly disturbing.

And it made the film all the more memorable and scary. Just when I thought I was getting tired of the buildup “The Invitation” was giving me, it gave me one hell of a payoff that I will never, ever forget.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The VVitch (2016)

24 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

I can’t bring myself to watch Robert Eggers’ masterful horror film “The Witch” (or “The VVitch” as it’s more commonly labeled) more than once a year. Why? Because it always scares the hell out of me.

No, I’m serious–the first time I watched this film (on DVD and on a small TV screen, no less), I had trouble sleeping that night.

It’s a real slow burn with gloomy atmosphere and many disturbing implications and subtle imageries that just makes the final act all the more terrifying. It’s a good thing I went in as much detail in my original review as I did (without spoiling anything), because that’s really as much energy as I would like to put into describing “The VVitch.”

I even began the review by stating how proud I was of the many terrific horror films that came out in 2016 (many of which I already talked about in this Looking Back series). “The VVitch” came out much sooner than the rest (and was already labeled by critics as the best horror film of the year if not the whole decade), but I waited until late in the year to check it out. Even in my “2016 Review,” I couldn’t argue that “The VVitch” was the best horror film of 2016 because it was the only one that truly got under my skin…but “Hush” was still my favorite simply because it was entertaining. (There’s a difference between “best” and “favorite.”)

See? What new material can I add to my review of “The VVitch” that I didn’t already cover? (I mean, aside from I can only watch it once in a long while…) Well…let’s look to the IMDb Trivia:

-Stephen King was terrified of this film.

-Corn can be seen with signs of ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus that many attribute to real-life stories of possession and witchcraft.

-Most of the film’s dialogue and story were based on writings from the time.

-It is widely believed that a witch cannot recite the entire Lord’s Prayer, which makes it all the more uncomfortable when the two younger siblings are unable to.

Oh boy, I just read one about why the baby was taken in the beginning of the story…that just makes me feel even more unnerved, so I’ll just leave it alone. The scene is scary enough as is.

It’s always nice to know after admiring a film that the writer/director actually did his homework, and that the master of horror himself (King) praised it as a result.

I have nothing else to add here, except I look forward to seeing Eggers’ next film “The Lighthouse” very soon.

My original review for “The VVitch” can be found here: https://smithsverdict.com/2016/12/10/the-witch-2016/

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

15 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

How did this happen? How did a prequel to a subpar horror film turn out to be so good? It’s as if the first “Halloween” movie to be released was “The Curse of Michael Myers” (the sixth, and arguably worst, of the franchise) and then it was followed up by John Carpenter’s “Halloween.”

That’s how impressive “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is.

This is the prequel to 2014’s “Ouija,” which was about a group of teens who play a Ouija board game to communicate with spirits, and of course, evil demonic forces take hold of their lives and slowly but surely kill them off. “Ouija” was overwhelmingly panned by critics, calling slow and nonsensical.

“Ouija: Origin of Evil,” its follow-up, was given the opposite reaction, with highly positive reviews from critics who noticed the significant amount of improvement over its predecessor.

Here’s how I think it happened. Director/co-writer Mike Flanagan (who had already impressed me with quality horror films such as “Oculus” and especially “Hush”) was focused on making a good movie as well as compromising with the studio system. What did the executives want to see?

They wanted to see kids playing the board game, like in the original film. Fair enough–so, Flanagan wrote in a scene in which one of the leads, a teenage girl, plays with her friends and introduces the audience to the rules of the game.

They wanted a jump-scare early into the proceedings. Ugh, fine–but Flanagan, who hates fakeout jump-scares as much as I do, used it for comedic effect.

And he had to tie up all loose ends from the original. How do you do that, when it seemed the ending twist of the original “Ouija” didn’t seem to make sense? Well…Flanagan found a way to fix that too.

And surely there were more studio notes like that, but Flanagan chose not to fight against them but to use them as a benefit. You know what? Freaking KUDOS to this guy!

So, now that Flanagan used the studio notes, what was he going to give us in “Ouija: Origin of Evil?” Story! Characters! Atmosphere! Caring! He thought of giving us all of that before throwing in the terror! By God, it’s A MOVIE!

Thus, what started as a deplorable work-for-hire turned into one of the most surprisingly good horror films of the decade.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Don’t Breathe (2016)

14 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

“Don’t Breathe” is a tense white-knuckler that seems like a fun thrill ride until you’re suddenly thrust into WTF-land! Imagine a rollercoaster that starts slow, picks up speed, takes you on terrifying close calls, brings you ups and downs…and then all of a sudden, instead of giving you one quick downward finish, it stops at the top of the track, shakes violently, backtracks real quickly, and then goes back to its usual route (THEN it gives you the quick downward finish)!

That’s this movie!!

“Don’t Breathe” could’ve worked as a well-done b-movie…and then it delves into sick, serious territory with a torture scenario that’s as outrageous as it is terrifying. I won’t give it away, but…yecch!

That could easily be a slam against the movie, but it works as a solid horror film nonetheless. I didn’t see the twist coming…I’m never going to forget it either. I’m getting chills just thinking about it.

And no, I’m not giving it away here.

Our protagonists are three young thieves (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto) who burglarize enough wealthy homes to get enough cash to leave their hometown of Detroit. They hear about a house in a sketchy neighborhood that supposedly has a bundle of money stashed somewhere inside. They decide to steal the loot at night, while the house owner (Stephen Lang) is asleep. The guy is an old military vet, and he’s blind–he wouldn’t cause any trouble if he woke up and discovered someone was in his house…would he?

Oh yes….yes he would.

So now, our heroes are trapped in the house with a blind man who’s not as helpless as he appears. And he’s not about to let his burglars leave…alive. They try everything they can in order to escape, but the guy is one step ahead of them most of the time, and…it turns out there’s a very disturbing secret he’s hiding…that’s all I’ll say about that.

It’s all a lot of fun, until it gets to that revelation, when we’re just thinking to ourselves, “No no no no no NO NO NO NO NO!!!” (Or maybe that was just me.) The film does pick up speed again during the climax, which features a tense killer-dog moment that rivals any moment I’ve seen in “Cujo” or ‘Man’s Best Friend.”

Seriously, that twist reminds me of something I’d find in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”…fittingly enough, this film’s director Fede Alvarez also directed “The Girl In the Spider’s Web.”