Kung Fu Panda 2 * * *

Genre: Animation

Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Writers: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger

Voice Cast: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Angelina Jolie,  Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Lucy Liu, Michelle Yeoh, Jean Claude Van-Damme

Running Length: 90 minutes

Synopsis: In Kung Fu Panda 2, Po (Jack Black) is now living his dream as The Dragon Warrior, protecting the Valley of Peace alongside his friends and fellow kung fu masters, The Furious Five (Angelina Jolie, Jackie Cham, David Cross, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu) .  But Po’s new life of awesomeness is threatened by the emergence of a formidable villain Shen (Gary Oldman), who plans to use a secret, unstoppable weapon to conquer China and destroy kung fu.  Po must look to his past and uncover the secrets of his mysterious origins; only then will he be able to unlock the strength he needs to succeed.

Review: Two words encompass what Kung Fu Panda 2 would mean for most cinemagoers – crowd-pleaser. Although it doesn’t even try to deviate slightly from the formula set in the first film, and perhaps exactly because of this, Kung Fu Panda 2 has a lot of ticks in the right checkboxes. It’s a beautifully animated, consistently funny film with a good number of well-choreographed action set pieces that will be able to entertain both children and adults (more the former), despite being very light on plot and completely wasting the numerous A-list stars found in its voice cast. Somewhat surprisingly, I found myself enjoying Kung Fu Panda 2 even more than the original film, which, believe it or not, means this franchise shares a common trait with the Godfather movies.

Jack Black, despite his manic intensity and crazed performances, is not always an asset to a movie (case in point: Gulliver’s Travels), but as the voice behind Po, it is a partnership that works very well. Perhaps it’s because we never really see Jack Black in the flesh, and the panda persona is actually far more cuddly and crowd-friendly than his real self. Gary Oldman is a new addition to the voice cast, but is perfectly in his element as the central villain in the film, and his nuanced vocal delivery helps to give Shen some much needed dimensionality. The same cannot be said of any of the very well-known actors who have lent their voices to the film, especially when a few of them have literally nothing more than a handful of lines to deliver.

The world of Kung Fu Panda 2 is lushly detailed and richly coloured, which really needs to be seen without 3D glasses and their dimming effect to be fully appreciated. Coupled with the facts that pretty much nothing significant happens in the third dimension, and that some of the action sequences can be quite hard to follow in 3D, there’s very little reason to shell out more to watch this film in 3D.

Although Kung Fu Panda 2 does try to introduce a little pathos with the somewhat clichéd origins story behind both the villain and the protagonist, the plot is not the film’s strong suit. There also seems to be a rather ill-advised attempt to create some romantic tension between Po and Tigress, which seems rather out of place and never gets resolved fully – perhaps it’s waiting for a second sequel. However, the film is so entertaining with its witty banter and action sequences that the little flaws pretty much cease to matter. This isn’t a revolutionary animated film by any measure,  but it’s entertaining and accessible, and is the most family friendly film to be released this summer season so far.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)


Fast and Furious 5 * * *

Genre: Action
Director: Justin Lin

Writer: Chris Morgan

Cast: Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Jordana Brewster, Dwayne Johnson

Running Length: 130 minutes

Synopsis: In this instalment of the Fast and Furious series, former cop Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) partners with ex-con Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) on the opposite side of the law. Since Brian and Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster) broke Dom out of custody, they've blown across many borders to elude authorities. Now backed into a corner in Rio de Janeiro, they must pull one last job in order to gain their freedom. As they assemble their elite team of top racers, the unlikely allies know their only shot of getting out for good means confronting the corrupt businessman who wants them dead. But he's not the only one on their tail. Hard-nosed federal agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) never misses his target. When he is assigned to track down Dom and Brian, he and his strike team launch an all-out assault to capture them. But as his men tear through Brazil, Hobbs learns he can't separate the good guys from the bad. Now, he must rely on his instincts to corner his prey… before someone else runs them down first.

Review: Although this is ostensibly the fourth sequel in the Fast and Furious franchise, Fast and Furious 5 is a departure from the series’ street racing roots. More a heist movie along the lines of Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job, there are almost no “true” racing sequences in the film apart from the climactic finale – street racing and car enthusiasts may feel a little cheated, but action fiends will find themselves with quite an adrenaline rush at the end of the movie.

The laws of physics have never really come into play for movies like this one, but Fast and Furious 5 goes one step further and totally ignores the existence of physics. It’s a grand visual spectacle for sure, especially the final reel – but one must not allow any rational thought to seep in or the reality check will ruin the proceedings.

Like all heist movies, the truly fun part of Fast and Furious 5 is when the crew is put together and the caper executed, and this is done pretty well despite the collective lack of acting skills. However, the film runs at least a half hour too long, and some judicious editing will really have helped to move things along. Much as the action sequences are well choreographed, more than two hours of high octane action and literally thousands of quick cuts makes the viewing experience a little more fatiguing than it should be.

An interesting addition in this instalment is Dwayne Johnson, who plays an FBI agent who’s doggedly on the crew’s trail. Both Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson were pipped to be the spiritual successors to Schwarzenegger and Stallone, and while both have not really lived up to this expectation, the close quarters combat sequence between the two action stars is one of the highlights of the movie.

This is the quintessential Summer blockbuster – loud, mindless action that is actually very enjoyable once you look past its flaws. Stay for mid-credits sequence that features a surprise cameo and promises at least one more movie in the franchise – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering how Fast and Furious 5 has turned out.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)


Water for Elephants * * 1/2

Genre: Drama

Director: Francis Lawrence

Writer: Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel of the same name by Sara Gruen

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz

Running Length: 120 minutes

Synopsis: During the Great Depression, Jacob (Robert Pattinson), a penniless 23-year-old veterinary school student, parlays his expertise with animals into a job with a second-rate traveling circus. He falls in love with Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), one of the show's star performers, but their romance is complicated by Marlena's husband August (Christoph Waltz), the charismatic but unbalanced ringmaster and owner of the circus.

Review: There’s no doubt that one of the biggest draws of Water for Elephants would be Robert Pattinson, especially for Twilight fans who are craving for the next Edward fix, but unfortunately he happens to be the weakest link in the movie. Although Francis Lawrence manages to showcase quite well the nuts and bolts of running a circus during the Depression era, there is precious little chemistry between Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, and the romantic angle never really works due to this.

It’s not that Pattinson is acting badly, but the role of Jacob requires him to just stand around looking handsome and broody most of the time. Reese Witherspoon tries her darndest to up the energy level with a rather spirited performance but the two simply are unable to generate any sparks. It’s not surprising, then, that Christoph Waltz steals every scene with his nuanced, mesmerising turn as the psychologically disturbed ringmaster. It’s a great performance, but is slightly undone near the end when he transforms into a scenery-chewing, comic book villain.

Fortunately, Water for Elephants does have its fair share of high points, such that the fizzled romance doesn’t kill the movie entirely. The production design and art direction are very impressive, and really manages to recreate some of the old school Hollywood charm that is lacking in movies these days. There’s a great sequence which shows the Big Top being set up and other glimpses that seem authentic to how a circus would be run in the 30s.

Water for Elephants is also beautiful to look at – not only are the leads pleasing on the eyes, the cinematography is sumptuous with some really impressive set pieces. However, as all these components play second fiddle to the central romance, the end result is a movie that falls short of expectations. One may leave the cinema wondering if the film would actually be improved if the focus is shifted instead to August and the nuts and bolts of running a Depression-era circus.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of four stars)