Jack Black and Bryan Cranston in Kung Fu Panda 3KUNG PU PANDA 3

Did the makers of Kung Fu Panda 3 not get the memo that second sequels in franchises are traditionally supposed to suck? Because this thing, to quote Jack Black’s hirsute and animated alter ego Po, is “Awesome!!!” with all three exclamation points.

I was a bit worried at the start. Even though Po’s eventual nemesis Kai was being sensationally well-voiced by J.K. Simmons, this über-villain’s plan for world dominion – forcibly collecting the chi of kung-fu masters and imprisoning their souls – was too generically comic-book-y for my tastes. That, however, was the last time any variation on “generic” entered my brain regarding directors’ Alessandro Carloni’s and Jennifer Yuh’s superbly designed, riotous, unexpectedly moving comic adventure. As always with this series, I adored the gorgeous visual detail and quick-witted verbal and physical slapstick, and the older I get (and the older he gets), the more I recognize Dustin Hoffman’s voice as a thing of singular, scratchy beauty. But the storyline here is resolved with particularly satisfying Eastern-philosophy tidiness, and there’s no end of smart, frequently hilarious grace notes: the crowd’s incredulity as Po and his newfound dad (perfectly voiced by Bryan Cranston) don’t recognize their shared lineage; the Panda Village scene in which dozens of bears rush to greet Po and have to stop halfway through the rush to catch their collective breath; Po’s panda re-training requiring him to be as lazy, and to eat as much, as possible.

Best of all, the movie keeps knocking the wind out of its own potentially pretentious sails. Even the most dire of circumstances are treated here with a gentle wink and a soft elbow in the ribs: When Po finally confronts Kai, he unleashes his climactic purity of spirit with a light round of playground teasing; when Angelina Jolie’s Tigress dolefully informs Po that their home city has been destroyed, Po’s manic duck stepdad (the priceless James Hong) immediately shrieks, “But how’s my restaurant?!” Add to all this a lovely message for kids about how “learning to be you” is the path to true fulfillment, exceptional animated choreography, and ceaselessly winning voice work (by the additional likes of Seth Rogen, David Cross, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, and an absolutely delightful Kate Hudson), and the expected second-sequel blahs are wonderfully well-avoided here. Thank you, Dreamworks Animation, for Kung Fu Panda 3. Please don’t eff everything up with a Kung Fu Panda 4.

 

David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh in AnomalisaANOMALISA

Leave it to that demented genius Charlie Kaufman to not only present Anomalisa – the writer/co-director’s painfully acute and trenchant meditation on loneliness – via stop-motion-animated puppetry, but to do it in a way that somehow feels even more humanely, and humanly, grounded than Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Not much happens in this 90-minute outing (currently playing at Iowa City’s FilmScene) by Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson: A married, middle-aged customer-service guru (David Thewlis) travels to Cincinnati for a conference, coerces an ex-lover into an uncomfortable reunion, heads back to his hotel room, meets a scarred yet ceaselessly optimistic soul (Jennifer Jason Leigh), initiates a passionate affair, and starts to re-question his life decisions. But within the story’s narrow and decidedly downbeat parameters, this restrictive, suffocating world created by Kaufman and Johnson explodes with creative life. From the narratively essential decision to have every single one of the film’s dozens of supporting characters voiced by Tom Noonan (performing award-worthy duties here) to the sublime running gags about Cincinnati’s zoos and chili, Anomalisa keeps your brain humming throughout, and in the vocal personage of Leigh, it also does quite a number on your heart. (You may never have thought of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” as a number to make you cry. Leigh, infinitely more nuanced here than she’s allowed to be in her Oscar-nominated Hateful Eight turn, will convince you otherwise.) Given Kaufman’s mind-bending filmography – and I didn’t even mention his sorely unappreciated Synecdoche, New York – it’s almost a disappointment here when the one fantastical scene you’re praying won’t be a dream sequence turns out to be one. But that’s actually also a measure of the film’s unanticipated power. Animated or not, the film’s insight and humor and devastating emotionalism are so real that you don’t want Anomalisa to be unreal even for a moment.

 

Casey Affleck in The Finest HoursTHE FINEST HOURS

Some critics have complained that The Finest Hours is a Disney-fied version of The Perfect Storm. They’re not wrong; director Craig Gillespie’s oceanic rescue saga is a Disney release, and follows the rough arc of Wolfgang Petersen’s 2000 maritime hit. But do none of those critics remember how frequently, maddeningly phony Petersen’s film was? This new outing, concerning a seemingly impossible Coast Guard rescue from 1952, doesn’t have similarly sharp editing or monster waves comparable to Petersen’s. But in almost every other way, Gillespie’s film is an improvement. For too much of its length, it does resemble The Perfect Storm re-designed as a triumph-of-the-underdog sports flick, with all the contrivances, telegraphing, and cornball dialogue that entails. (Unsurprisingly, Gillespie’s credits include Disney’s baseball dramedy Million Dollar Arm.) Yet the serviceable effects and scenes of peril do their jobs, and, more importantly, the cast absolutely does its. Hoary material aside, you completely believe in the honest, unassuming portrayals of seafarers Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, John Ortiz, Kyle Gallner, Beau Knapp, and others, and Chris Pine and Holliday Grainger wholly deserve their characters’ initially pushy A Love for the Ages build-up – they’re magical together. (They’re also magical independently; Pine pulls off even the “Not on my watch!” cliché with impressive, heartfelt authority, and Grainger manages to beg Pine’s commanding officer to “Please call him back” five times in a row with incredible emotional acuity and variance, and without ever resorting to actual begging.) The movie is formulaic as all-get-out, but the title The Finest Hours still might accurately reflect your time spent at it.

 

Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton in Jane Got a GunJANE GOT A GUN

About 15 minutes into Jane Got a Gun, Natalie Portman strolls into a dusty, dilapidated town past a sign reading “Welcome to Lullaby.” Had that image appeared in the first two minutes, we might’ve had a better idea of what to expect. Director Gavin O’Connor’s dramatic shoot-’em-up finds Portman’s Wild Westerner recruiting former fiancé Joel Edgerton to protect injured husband Noah Emmerich from a dozen murderous outlaws. That’s about it – or would be, if O’Connor and the film’s screenwriters (Edgerton among them) didn’t include so many awkwardly incorporated flashbacks to Portman’s tortured past, violent surroundings, and gauzy romantic dalliances, one of them in a hot-air balloon. (No one involved appears to have remembered Roger Ebert’s legendary “Balloon Rule,” which simply states: “Good movies rarely contain a hot-air balloon.”) It’s not a bad bad movie; there are satisfying narrative twists and strong performances by the leads and the quickly-becoming-invaluable Boyd Holbrook, and the makeup is subtly excellent throughout. (Couldn’t, though, those responsible for all the scraggly incisors and Ewan McGregor’s overbite have done something to de-perfect Portman’s teeth?) But this dull oater still could’ve used more memorable imagery and less dead air in between lines of dialogue. Jane Got a Gun, which began shooting in 2013 (!), is nearly legendary for its production troubles. It turns out to not have been worth the trouble.

 

Marlon Wayans in Fifty Shades of BlackFIFTY SHADES OF BLACK

The motion-picture Academy is currently under fire for, among other offenses, recognizing only Sylvester Stallone for Creed despite the film’s many on- and off-screen talents of color, and citing Straight Outta Compton merely for its quartet of white screenwriters. How much flak will I be taking for saying that, in the gross-out slapstick Fifty Shades of Black, the one sustained performance is given by Jane Seymour, and the closest thing to an inspired shock is the casting of Florence Henderson? Fifty Shades of Grey, despite my moderate enjoyment of the movie, is eminently worth satirizing. But Marlon Wayans and Michael Tiddes, the star and (white) director of the A Haunted House comedies and this new assault, don’t do satire. They do replication with pop-eyed comic apoplexy and boner jokes, and their ribbing of E.L. James is almost astoundingly lame: grimly unfunny, tonally stupefying, and so grossly self-satisfied that you want to physically smack it on a minute-by-minute basis. Kudos, then, to lead Kali Hawk for even attempting a semblance of a consistent portrayal, and to the satisfyingly copious shots of decorative white wine. Raspberries to nearly everything else, including Wayans’ painfully forced and gratuitous mugging, Fred Willard looking dangerously unwell, and the line, regarding James’ bestseller, “Was this written by a third-grader?!” Those who release Fifty Shades of Black really shouldn’t throw stones.

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