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Movie Review: Kung Fu Panda 2

Kung Fu Panda 2 Movie PosterJack Black brings back the charm of Po to KUNG FU PANDA 2 but Gary Oldman steals the show (as always) as the new villain.

Po, the crime fighting Panda is back as the Dragon Warrior, in the sequel to Dreamworks
animated film. KUNG FU PANDA 2 tackles an issue unresolved from the first film. How did Mr. Ping the goose become a father to a panda? Po starts to doubt his origins with a recurring dream about his panda mother. The villaneous Lord Shen holds the key to his  past.  Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a peacock with his own daddy issues, plans to conquer China with a secret, unstoppable weapon and destroy kung fu. Po, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and Crane (David Cross) travel far to stop Lord Shen.  

While saving the world from domination premise is not at all original, the more engaging story is Po's eventual discover of Lord Shen's involvement with his parent's disappearance. That emotional connection is what makes the two Kung Fu Panda movies work. Apart from being relatable, the animated sequel is much funnier than the first one with more adult humor.

The character of Po, voiced by the always entertaining Jack Black, continues to warm his way into our hearts with his many insecurities and love of food.  He may be the Dragon Warrior but he is still vulnerable and that is the charm of the character.

Voicing the character of Lord Shen is Gary Oldman who once again creates a unique villain. Oldman never repeats a performance especially as a viilain which he's played many times in memorable roles such as in The Professional and the Fifth Element.  He brings a sophistication to the animated comedy as the peacock.  Rather than going for the typical evil voice, The Dark Night actor brought a vulnerability to Lord Shen. The new addition to the cast definitely proved to be the best part of the movie.

The other Furious Five's roles are reduced this time except for Angelina Jolie's Tigress who hasn't quite gotten used to the bumbling Panda.  Also missing from the majority of the film is Dustin Hoffman's Shifu. Shifu's dynamic with Po was so entertaining the first time around that you miss it here.  Most of the new voices were unrecognizable such as Jean-Claude Van Damme, Michelle Yeoh and Dennis Haysbart. Michelle Yeoh as the Soothsayer was hilarious with some of the best dialogue from the film.

KUNG FU PANDA 2 has a lot more action and fight sequences the second time around.  One particularly hilarious action scene involves the Furious Five and Po taking cover under a paper mâché dragon but when they are discovered, they take on Lord Shen's henchmen by scooping them up in the dragon's  mouth.  It looked like a game of centipede and it had the audience  rolling in the aisles.  Definitely the best scene in the movie.

With a different director at the helm for KUNG FU PANDA 2, Jennifer Yuh Nelson brings a different look to the film with a red color scheme where as the predecessor used a lot more yellows in the photography. Jennifer Yuh Nelson served as the head of story for the previous film so it's no surprise the story flows between the two films.

KUNG FU PANDA 2 is a film that all ages can enjoy. And  the finale of KUNG FU PANDA 2 suggests there may be a third Po story in the works.  

KUNG FU PANDA 2 is now playing in movie theaters.

RELATED LINKS:

PHOTOS: Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Jack Black At 'Kung Fu Panda 2' Movie Premiere

VIDEO: Jack Black Meets Real Kung Fu Panda Named Po

PHOTOS & VIDEO: Angelina Jolie, Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman In Cannes For Kung Fu Panda 2

Kung Fu Panda Takes Flight

Exclusive Sneak Peek: Jack Black & Antonio Banderas Preview Dreamworks Film Add a comment

Movie Review: The Conspirator

The Conspirator Movie PosterEvery February, children all across the United States learn about Abraham Lincoln as a man who fought against slavery and kept the country together during the Civil War. But that is usually the extent of most people's knowledge and most are unaware of what he meant to the country at the time. That’s why Robert Redford's film The Conspirator is so important.

James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class), Robin Wright (Forrest Gump), Kevin Kline (Dave), and Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton) star in the historical period film.  When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated just before the conclusion of the Civil War, the country reeled. It was just as inconceivable and shocking to them as 9/11 was to us. The Secretary of War (Kevin Kline) was so intent on bringing swift justice that he vigorously pursued the collaborators and tried them in military court. One of these alleged collaborators was Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) a widow and mother.

Mary Surratt was a southerner who ran a boarding house. Her son John (Johnny Simmons) was a known confederate of John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) and based on proximity alone she was arrested. Like the Patriot Act is sometimes used today her rights were circumvented and she appealed to a well-known southern senator (Tom Wilkinson) for help. He in turned enlisted the assistance of a Union war hero (James McAvoy). This young officer was recently discharged for wounds received in action and was now returning to his law practice. He wanted nothing to do with this case, but after meeting the client and seeing how much her rights were being violated, his love of the law overcame his resentment and bitterness towards the south.

As directed by Robert Redford there are a lot of parallels between what happened then and what is happening now. Like Gautama Bay, anyone associated with the assassination attempt was thrown into prison without counsel until the military was ready to prosecute. According to the film, one detail that surprised and shocked me was that the actors in the play were arrested too. Just because they were there and some of them knew Booth as an actor they were suspected too. And another fact that was ignored during my grade school education was that Lincoln was not the only target. Three assignation attempts were made that night. This was a major plot.

The Conspirator is an excellent film in and of itself. The acting is great and the subject matter is compelling. But what makes this film even greater is that is will enlighten you as well. After seeing this movie I have become intrigued and want to learn more about that night. That is the sign of a good movie. You carry it with you and think about it long after. There is so much more to Abraham Lincoln than what we learned in elementary school. This film just scratches the surface. What an exciting provocative story. And as far as its parallels as to what is happening today, I only hope that we have more people like Frederick Aiken. I challenge you to read his defense of Mary Surratt and not be moved.
(http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/defenseofsurratt.html) Add a comment

Movie Review: Earthwork

Earthwork movie posterThe real life story of Stan Herd comes to the big screen in EARTHWORK, an inspirational tale of an artist played by Academy Award nominee John Hawk (Winter's Bones).

Some say that artists have their head in the clouds but for Stan Herd that would be quite the advantage. A third generation Kansas farmer, Stan has pioneered a new art form known as representational crop art, or Earthwork.

Using the tools that he grew up with Stan began manipulating the earth to create pictures that can only be viewed from the air. Struggling for years to bring attention to his art Stan put in a bid to do an Earthwork project on a vacant lot in New York City owned by Donald Trump. Not wanting to lose the opportunity to another artist Stan Herd agreed to do the project for free using his own funds and putting his family in tremendous debt.

The film EARTHWORK chronicles this monumental undertaking and the emotional toll it took on his family. It also shows how the community was impacted by this ambitious project.

In the past year I’ve seen several movies that centered on non-traditional artists such as Wasteland and Exit Through The Gift Shop. But as great as these films are, by making Stan Herd’s story a dramatic film rather than a documentary you are able to experience his emotional journey as well as his artistic one. EARTHWORK not only documents John’s struggle, but it shows us the impact that his work had on the street people who squatted on the land and lived in the tunnels near-by. This is something that would not have been possible in a straightforward documentary. I believe that telling Stan’s story in this way was the best choice, and Oscar nominated actor John Hawkes is wonderful in the role.

When Stan produces his art he tills, rakes and plows the soil to create texture and then adds plants, rocks and other natural materials for color and shade. From the ground you cannot see the result, but from the air everything takes form. In the telling of this story we are right there with Stan in this vacant lot scratching and digging to achieve some distant goal. With every set back we feel his pain, and with every friend he makes we feel his humanity. But like the people of New York we have to wait until the end to see the final result. The reveal is breath taking and I am now very much a fan of his art. I hope one day to meet Stan Herd or better yet fly over his work.

What a phenomenal inspirational man he is and what a tremendous awe-inspiring concept. I highly recommend this film.

Melanie Wilson  
Vvisit her blog at LAMelbox.blogspot.com


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Movie Review: Water For Elephants

Water for Elephants movie posterWATER FOR ELEPHANTS may seem like a sappy love story but the adaptation based on Sara Gruen's novel, proves to be much more.

The film starts in modern times with Hal Holbrook recounting his days in the circus as a young man during the depression era. He flashes back to his young days as the young Jacob played by Robert Pattinson, a veterinarian student who loses his parents, and runs away joining the circus. 

Interview: Robert Pattinson Wins Over Female Co-Star With Candy

Inglourious Basterd's Christopher Waltz is August Benzini, the bipolar circus ringmaster in the Benzini Bros. Circus who hires Jacob as the circus veterinarian. Jacob becomes infatuated with August's wife Marlena, the beautiful circus star played by a platinum blonde Reese Witherspoon. When Marlena's horse, the main circus act, must be put out of its misery, August purchases Rosie, an elephant. Rosie bonds the Marlena and Jacob in their love for the animal.  After witnessing August's abusive behavior towards Marlena and the circus animals, Jacob wants to rescue Marlena from his clutches.

Movie Clip: An Elephant Flirts With Robert Pattinson In Water for Elephants

Initially, there is not much chemistry between Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon but as the story progresses you start to believe the mutual attraction. While the love story binds the plot together, it's the circus elements and August's character that brings together the film. Oscar winner Christopher Waltz again takes on the role of the villain but in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, his character has moments of sympathy.  His bipolar characteristics make his character the most interesting of the cast.

Movie Stills: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon in Water For Elephants

Robert Pattinson gives a different kind of performance in this dramatic period piece. The Twilight star rarely flashes a smile on screen, and in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, we get to see a lighter side from Robert with the occasional laughter and his pearly whites. Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon gives another good performance as a flirty and sexy circus mistress. Rarely do we see her sexy side in her girl next door roles but here the circus outfits and beautiful dresses make Reese a goddess. Her circus act on the elephant was quite impressive, even more so when you find out she did all her stunts with her massive co-star.

The production quality is suberb and the depression era makes for an interesting backdrop for the love story. Director Frances Lawrence put together an entertaining and dramtic film that could've easily gone for a harlequin-style romance but it didn't.

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Movie Review: Bridesmaids Is No Chick Flick

Bridesmaids movie posterDon't let the name fool you.  BRIDESMAIDS is not a chick flick about a wedding.  Instead it's a woman's version of a bromance and a counterpart to The Hangover.

BRIDESMAIDS stars "Saturday Night Live" alums Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph as Lillian and Annie,  best friends whose friendship begins to crumble over one of Lilian's bridesmaids vying for best friend status.  Helen, played by X-Mens: First Class' Rose Byrne, is a socialite outdoing Annie, the maid of honor, in planning the wedding and bachelorette party.  Annie has lost her bakery, and is living with two annoying roommates, scraping by with the little money she has while Helen flaunts her wealth and influence.  Melissa McCarthy ("Mike & Molly"), Ellie Kemper ("The Office"), and Wendi McLendon-Covey round out the bridesmaids watching the disaster unfold in front of their very eyes.

There have been plenty of romantic comedies or dramas about women's relationship but it's always centered on a man.  In BRIDESMAIDS, men do not figure into the picture which was refreshing.  The characters come off as very real and down to earth people which makes it all the more relatable. The relationships are real but the situations are outrageous, hilarious, and often raunchy much like The Hangover but that's where the similarities end.  The characters in Bridesmaids are much more developed and in real life dilemmas.

It's no surprise BRIDESMAIDS is a strong comedy about women since the two writers are women.  Written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, and produced by bromance movie expert Judd Apatow (Superbad, The 40-Year Virgin, Knocked Up), BRIDESMAIDS works on all levels-- storywise and the humor aspect.  It's not a very girly film as most would expect, thanks to director Paul Fieg, and the raunchiness and gross-out humor is fitting with no over the top action.  

One film that comes to mind that failed terribly as a gross-out comedy for women was The Sweetest Thing (2002) starring Cameron Diaz and Christina Applegate. It didn't work because the female characters behaved like men and no one could relate to that.  In BRIDESMAIDS, the women come off as true to life characters  that happen to be in situations that leads to toilet humor.  

While the women in BRIDESMAIDS are front and center in BRIDESMAIDS, the men are relegated to the background. The normally sauve Jon Hamm is no gentleman in BRIDESMAIDS, as Annie's friend with benefits. He calls on her only for sex and she falls for it everytime. Kristen Wiig doesn't waste any time bedding Jon Hamm at the beginning of the movie in a hilarious wham bam thank you ma'am moment that sets up Jon's character as a total douche bag. Later in the film, Annie gets a love interest played by Chris O'Dowd but the story doesn't focus on that relationship as much as friendship that is falling apart.

Funny women Kristen doesn't disappoint in the film in her first leading role and surrounds herself with an array of strong women including Maya Rudolph and the hateable Helen (Byrne).  However, Melissa McCarthy steals every scene as the butchy pearl necklace wearing bridesmaid who is very confident and sexually aggressive. She is the Kramer (from Seinfeld) of this bunch.  It is so refreshing to see an actress given a plum role, and do something that is very original,  and not look like a Barbie Doll.  Kudos to Melissa for not being afraid to go without make-up and look the worst on film for the laughs.

BRIDESMAIDS is a fun time at the movies. This is one comedy everyone can enjoy and should be a sleeper hit this summer. 

BRIDESMAIDS would make a good double feature with another release later this month - The Hangover II.

BRIDESMAIDS is now playing in theaters. Add a comment

Movie Review: HANNA Delivers

Hanna movie posterHANNA is a return to good old-fashioned action movie with strong characters and an original storyline that entertains from start to finish.

In HANNA, Saoirse Ronan is Hanna, a biologically enhanced 16 year-old trained by her ex-CIA father (Eric Bana) to be the ultimate assassin and escape the clutches of ruthless CIA operative played by Cate Blanchett. Once Hanna's is ready, her father sends her on a mission, Hanna journeys stealthily across Europe while eluding agents dispatched after her by a ruthless intelligence operative with secrets of her own (Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett).  As she nears her ultimate target, Hanna faces startling revelations about her existence and unexpected questions about her humanity.

For Joe Wright's first action film, the Atonement (James McAvoy, Keira Knightly) and Pride & Prejudice (Keira Knightly) director brings his strong dramatic background to the action-thriller.  He keeps the drama going through the action scenes.  The action scenes are raw and powerful without all the fancy footwork and fast cuts.  Wright decided early on to break with Hollywood-style fight sequences and shot most of the fight sequences with his young star Saoirse Ronan and Eric Bana in one take instead of cheating it in the editing room. The decision paid off.

The 17-year-old Saoirse Ronan is believable as a groomed-assassin who takes on grown men and the hunky six-foot tall Eric Bana. The young actress and Academy Award nominee (Atonement) reunites with her Atonement director for a more grown up role three years later.  Saoirs is one to watch for as her talents get better with her young age. She has played very grown-up roles (Lovely Bones) unlike any other of her contemporaries or any adult actress, as a matter a fact. Eric Bana plays Hanna's father, an ex-CIA operative on a mission to exact revenge on his superior who killed Hanna's mother. Eric, as always, is a joy to watch on screen not only for his acting but his good looks which you can never get get tired of looking at. Cate Blanchett is a great villain as Marissa,the CIA operative behind Hanna's biological enhancements and the plot to capture Hanna through ruthless means. Marissa is void of any emotion especially any maternal feeling as we see during an interrogation with two children which made the character even more threatening. It's rare and refreshing to see two strong women characters in an action film.

The action is clean, the cinematography matches the mood with gray tones without the gloss and saturated colors.  The locations are remote -- set in snowy woods, Morocco, and Germany which gives it a European flavor and sensability.

The score by the Chemical Brothers enhances every scene and captures both Hanna's emotions and the frenzy nature of the action scenes.

HANNA is a quality film that some may not appreciate since it's not your typical Hollywood action film where action is the star but in HANNA, story takes precedence over action.  And that doesn't happen often in most films. Add a comment

Movie Review: Thor

Thor Movie PosterChris Hemsworth, the God of Thunder from the land down under, proves himself a worthy Marvel comic book hero in THOR.

The Marvel comic book comes to life on the big screen in THOR starring a relative newcomer  from Australia alongside Academy Award-winners Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman.   However, it isn't the Oscar winners who stand out in THOR.

Thor Movie Trailer

In the fantastical realm of Asgard, Thor, the soon to be king, wields his hammer with great arrogance. He is powerful but immature.  When he disobeys his father, King Odin  (Hopkins) and attacks their enemy, Odin casts out the God of Thunder to live among the humans on Earth, stripping him of his powers. When he lands on Earth, he doesn't realize  he is now like the humans - just an average Joe.

Meanwhile back on Asgard, his supportive brother Loki begs his father to bring back Thor, that is until he discovers a dark secret kept from him by his father. On Earth, Thor is helped by scientist Jane Foster (Natalie  Portman) and her mentor (Stellan Skarsgard), but one of them doesn't believe his story.  

Photo Gallery: THOR Movie Stills

Aussie Chris Hemsworth certainly looks the part of a Nordic god with his God-like stature and brawny physique. At first a bearded super hero seemed far-fetched but Chris Hemsworth  wears it well.  He plays the arrogance over the top, but it works well in the story especially when he arrives on Earth proclaiming his status as a god. Those are some of the  funniest moments on screen.  When Thor realizes his errors of his way, you sort of miss  that arrogance about him and he becomes in a way dull.  Imagine Tony Stark losing some of that selfishness - boring.

Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman lacked chemistry as a potential love interest. Neither actor really clicked with each other.  It may not have been helped by the weak women roles. Natalie Portman's dialogue often times seemed cheesy and too giddy for a character that's supposed  to be a scientist. She's no Scully.

Movie Clip: Thor Stripped of Powers

The stronger relationships in THOR are between father and his two sons. Tom Hiddleston as Loki is a welcome departure as the low-key villain of the film. While Chris Hemsworth  played the arrogance over the top, Tom was very subtle in his acting. And you believe  Anthony Hopkins is this all-powerful god.  

The father/son drama plays out throughout the film and eventually that is what holds the  film together. The dramatic porton of the film clearly has actor/director Kenneth Branaugh's stamp all over it. As a thespian, Branaugh brings that Greek tragedy feel to  the action movie. Once the story leaves Asgard, we lose some of that with the human  characters who aren't as interesting or dynamic.

Once the action takes place on Earth, the tone is more humorous with a handful of laugh  out loud one-liners.  Iron Man set that tone and it carries on in this Marvel adaptation which is appropriate given these superheroes will come together in The Avengers.

THOR looked great on the IMAX 3D screen but it didn't add too much more of a viewing  experience than watching it on a 2D screen.

THOR is no Iron Man but the film is quite entertaining although silly at times but a  little of both never hurt anyone.  

And as usual, stay until the end credits for a bonus scene.

THOR is in movie theaters May 6, 2011.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Monogamy

Monogamy movie posterMonogamy, starring Parks & Recreation's Rashida Jones and Chris Messina, focuses on how our bodies always tell the truth. Our words may say one thing, while our faces, eyes and body language may say another. The problem is we don’t always know why, so reading into things may get us into trouble. This film is about truth, lies and photography. It is also about communication and what makes a couple work. It is a fascinating character study and brings up some interesting ideas. How much do we really know about each other?

A wedding photographer who makes just enough to get by, creates a second job in order to make more money. He has always been fascinated by the real stories that pictures tell by the studying the background, body language and expressions of the subjects in them. His new business, called Gumshoot, is a service where people contract him to photograph them in public places without his presence being known. The idea is to see what you look like in candid moments, to see yourself in your own environment and how others in that environment react to you.

Theo’s (Chris Messina) new business is picking up, and as he and his live-in girlfriend get ready for their own impending wedding, Theo begins to fixate over other people’s wedding photos and how they relate to each other. He is looking for that certain something that shows when a couple is truly in love. Meanwhile, Nat (Rashinda Jones) is having her own fixations. She begins reading into everything that Theo does.

In his Gumshoot business, clients contact Theo via the Internet with a time and place to meet and what they are wearing. Theo will then photograph them in secret and process a series of proof sheets. Next they will meet in person and Theo will help the subject pick their best photos and point out things that the background says about them. When a new client contacts him, Subgirl (Meital Dohan) shocks Theo by doing some very private things in very public places.

This bold, daring blonde mystifies Theo. While entranced in her photographic shots, Nat walks in behind him and he blushes. Nat knew about the shoot upfront, but neither she nor Theo knew that the subject would be so titillating. Both try to be cool, but seeds of doubt arise. Nat wonders why Theo is so obsessed with this woman and Theo wonders why Nat keeps pulling away.

Melanie Wilson
Visit her blog at LAMelbox.blogspot.com

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