Movie Review: “Kung Fu Panda 3″

Starring
Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Bryan Cranston, J.K. Simmons, Kate Hudson, Dustin Hoffman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Jackie Chan
Directors
Alessandro Carloni & Jennifer Yu

It would be fitting if this turned out to be the final installment in the “Kung Fu Panda” series, because the moral of “Kung Fu Panda 3” is “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Those were the last words of the last song on Abbey Road, the last album the Beatles made together. (Yes, there is a snippet of a song after it called “Her Majesty,” but that was the engineer’s doing, and was never supposed to be on the final master tape.) It’s an excellent piece of advice, and makes for a very touching finale, but there is a sameness to these films that cannot be denied. Po is the animated, martial arts equivalent of Dr. Gregory House, the one who continues to get it wrong before finally getting it right.

There is a great disturbance in the spirit realm, as the ox Kai (J.K. Simmons), a onetime friend of the recently deceased Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), is vanquishing all departed kung fu masters in order to steal their chi (think of it as channeling the energy of the universe) and use it to cross over to the mortal realm and continue his reign of terror. Oogway chose Po (Jack Black) to be the Dragon Warrior knowing that this was coming, though no one in the mortal realm has much faith that Po will succeed.

Po also receives a visit from his biological father Li (Bryan Cranston), much to the consternation of his adoptive father Ping (James Hong). Li lives with a group of pandas in a hidden location, and he brings Po (and Ping, reluctantly) back with him to learn the art of chi, as well as how to be a proper panda. Po doesn’t have much time, though; soon after crossing over to the mortal realm, Kai makes short work of the Furious Five, save Tigress (Angelina Jolie), and is coming for Po.

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Movie Review: “Goosebumps”

Starring
Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee, Amy Ryan
Director
Rob Letterman

If you were a child of the ‘90s, or a parent of school-age children during that decade, you’re probably familiar with R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps,” the best-selling series of kid-friendly horror novellas that captured a generation of young readers. In fact, the astonishingly prolific Stine is still publishing new books to this day – a sign of the series’ continued popularity that suggests a “Goosebumps” movie has been long overdue. Though this isn’t the first attempt at bringing the YA horror series to the big screen (Tim Burton was attached to produce a film version in 1998 that never came to fruition), it’s a harmless slice of family entertainment that evokes the goofy humor and PG-rated scares of other Halloween classics like “Hocus Pocus.”

One year after his father’s death, mopey teenager Zach (Dylan Minnette) relocates from New York City to Madison, Delaware with his mother (Amy Ryan) when she accepts a job as the vice principal at the local high school. Zach quickly makes friends with the charismatic girl next door, Hannah (Odeya Rush), but when he suspects that her creepy, overbearing father (Jack Black) is harming her, he breaks into the house with new schoolmate Champ (Ryan Lee) to investigate. Once inside, they discover a bookshelf filled with “Goosebumps” manuscripts that have been mysteriously sealed with a lock, and after Zach unwittingly opens one titled “The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena,” the eponymous monster magically leaps from the pages into the real world. As it turns out, Zach’s neighbor is R.L. Stine himself, whose imaginary creations actually exist and must be contained under lock and key. But when another book is opened amid the chaos of the Abominable Snowman’s escape and evil ventriloquist doll Slappy the Dummy (voiced by Black) is released, he steals the remaining manuscripts in order to free his fellow monsters from their hardbound prisons and wreak havoc on the entire town.

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Movie Review: “The D Train”

Starring
Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor, Russell Posner
Directors
Andrew Mogul & Jarrad Paul

If you followed the news coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, then you know that it was a very busy year for acquisitions, including Andrew Mogul and Jarrad Paul’s directorial debut, “The D Train.” Of course, not every movie that gets purchased at Sundance is a surefire hit, and based on the tepid reaction that the film received from attendees, it makes you question why IFC would spend a cool $3 million for the distribution rights. Though it boasts a pair of bankable stars in Jack Black and James Marsden, and features a surprising twist that’s better left unspoiled, this dark comedy about how far someone is willing to go to become popular falls disappointingly flat.

Black stars as Dan Landsman, a schlubby loser who works for an antiquated consulting firm in Pittsburgh and serves as the chairman of his high school’s alumni committee. After seeing popular classmate Oliver Lawless (Marsden) in a Banana Boat sunscreen commercial on TV one night, Dan devises a plan to fly out to Los Angeles and convince Oliver to make an appearance at their upcoming 20-year reunion in the hope that it’ll get more people to attend and earn him the respect of his peers. Dan doesn’t have any trouble tracking Oliver down, but when a wild night of partying takes an unexpected turn (hint: it gives the term “bromance” a whole other meaning), he becomes strangely infatuated with the struggling actor, leading to much bigger problems in his personal and professional life.

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Hidden Netflix Gems: Bernie

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday. 

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: “Bernie” (2011)

When you live in a small town, everybody knows everyone else. They know what you’re like, who your parents were, what you do for a living, whether or not you go to church, and probably a few too many “dirty little secrets” that they use to gossip behind your back. For Bernie Tiede of Carthage, Texas, small town life led to some speculation over whether his effeminate personality indicated he was gay. But it also meant that everybody knew him as the kindest, warmest, friendliest and most generous man they knew. Nobody was more well liked than Bernie.

Then he killed Marjorie Nugent. And despite the logic of that fact, while Bernie Tiede’s life changed, public opinion didn’t.

That’s the stranger than fiction basis of Richard Linklater’s 2011 film “Bernie,” which stars Jack Black in the title role. He’s a 39-year-old assistant funeral director loved by one and all. Kind-hearted soul that he was, he always delivered a gift and checked up on those the deceased left behind. Nobody made him do it, he wasn’t getting paid, he just cared. That habit leads to his befriending 81-year-old millionaire widow Marjorie Nugent, who’s portrayed by Academy Award winner Shirely MacLaine.

Contrary to Bernie, nobody much cares for Mrs. Nugent. Even her own family hates her—she hasn’t spoken to two of her grandchildren in years after they sued her in an effort to get some of her husband’s money. She’s mean, nasty, and entirely lonely, but unwilling to bridge the gap of emotional connection. Until Bernie knocks on her door. Soon they’re eating meals and going on expensive vacations together. Eventually, Tiede even became the sole benefactor of Nugent’s will. She became controlling and jealous. Tiede was on call 24 hours a day, more a servant than a friend, but unable to walk away due to his inherent goodness (not to mention all the money being thrown his way). It was a clash of personalities, and Nugent’s hate beat out Tiede’s love. In a moment of weakness, Tiede snapped and shot Nugent in the back four times.

On paper, it was an open and shut case for Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), the county’s district attorney. A young gay man had gotten wrapped up in the luxurious lifestyle that friendship offered a rich older woman. He was already getting a handsome amount of money, but stood to be the sole benefactor if she was out of the picture. So he killed her, end of story.

Only it wasn’t. Despite the facts, despite Tiede’s confession, the people of Carthage refused to believe their Bernie could have done such an awful thing. Those who would admit it would indicate the old bat had it coming to her. Believing he’d be unable to get a fair decision out a jury made up of people from Carthage, Davidson asked for a change of venue for the trial—a common request of defense lawyers, but a rare occurrence for a prosecutor.

In “Bernie,” Linklater takes the “small town folks who won’t believe the facts” idea and milks it for every bit of comedic and dramatic juice it’s worth. And it works, the film has a 92 percent rating on the Tomatometer. Linklater’s co-writer was Skip Hollandsworth, whose 1998 Texas Monthly article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” was the basis for the film.

“Bernie” uses a mockumentary style to give it that small town gossip feel. It often cuts to interviews with fictional East Texas residents (portrayed by real East Texas residents), who weigh in on its events. The question of whether they were genuine accounts was on my mind until McConaughey appeared on screen.

The film offers one of Black’s best performances to date. Perhaps the only role that could could compete came in 2003’s “School of Rock,” another Linklater project that allowed Black to mix in his quirk and musical talents. The actor makes you believe Bernie Tiede is someone who really could (and did) exist. He’s got funny characteristics, finds subtle humor in effeminate movement and body language, but never delves into the realm of the cartoonish. You understand why Bernie might’ve picked up that rifle, you might even approve (as the people of Carthage seem to).

Enjoyable and easy to watch, “Bernie” is a black comedy that mixes just the right amount of both ingredients. It seems to mock the eccentric Southern personalities it contains in a fashion that is loving rather than cruel while implying greater questions about the dangers of faith trumping fact.

Check out the trailer below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman

  

Weekly Web Series Review: Drunk History

Derek Waters’ “Drunk History” is one of the strangest, funniest, most absurd concepts in web series history. Playing on the inherent comedy of drunken incompetence and memory loss, each of the series’ six episodes takes a different comedic actor or writer, puts way too much booze in them, and then follows their muddled, profane accounts of important historical events. The episodes then cut between these slurred, rambling monologues and dramatic reenactments of the events, featuring famous actors such as Jack Black, Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel. The genius of these reenactments is how closely the actors follow the exact words of the inebriated nonsense that forms the basis of their script, lip-syncing the dialogue perfectly right down to the inadvertent sniffles and hiccups of the actual speaker.

The first episode features Mark Gagliardi recounting the story of Alexander Hamilton’s famous duel with Aaron Burr after drinking a bottle of Scotch. Though it is unclear how large the bottle was, it was clearly quite a bit of liquor, as he spends most of his segment reclined on a couch with a bucket nearby, just in case. Hamilton is played by a suitably innocent-looking Michael Cera in the reenactment, but the real show-stealer is Jake Johnson in a brilliantly shifty-eyed performance as the loathsome Aaron Burr. In episode 2, Eric Falconer takes on the famous story of Benjamin Franklin‘s discovery of electricity, expounding upon his theory that it was actually Franklin’s “bastard son,” William (Clark Duke), who actually flew the legendary kite with the key tied to it. This is also the series’ first instance of vomiting in the midst of the storytelling, but not its last, so be warned that the series is not for the weak-stomached. Jack Black portrays Franklin again in a special volume 2.5 episode, in which Falconer tells a hilarious tale of Franklin’s sexual deviance.

Episode 3 features Jen Kirkman‘s account of Oney Judge (Tymberlee Hill), a female slave of George Washington (Danny McBride) that is especially funny because of the way the actors incorporate Kirkman’s frequent hiccups into their performances. The fourth episode features J.D. Ryznar‘s unwise decision to drink vodka and beer together, which obviously leads to more vomiting, and his account of the U.S. president William Henry Harrison (Paul Schneider), who died after only 32 days in office. Jen Kirkman returns for episode 5, in which Don Cheadle gives a hilarious performance as Frederick Douglass; there is something especially funny about Kirkman’s slurred words coming out of this revered actor’s mouth. Finally, in episode 6, Duncan Trussell follows six beers with a half-bottle of absinthe, and more vomiting ensues. He also tells the story of Nikola Tesla (John C. Reilly) and his contentious relationship with Thomas Edison (the always intensely weird Crispin Glover).

These are the only official episodes of the series (plus a very special Christmas episode included below), so beware of the unofficial knockoffs, most of which are pretty terrible. In fact, the one I linked to there is pretty much the only one that’s watchable, and it’s still nowhere near as good as the real thing. In addition to the recognizable stars, look for Waters’ name and also that of series director Jeremy Konner to avoid being duped.

  

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