Movie Reviews: Kung Fu Panda, Mongol, Mother of Tears
BOMB IT Graffiti taggers wearing masks, lurking in the shadows, watched by security cameras and running from the police inevitably suggest a different kind of resistance fighter against globalism. And their signature phrase, “Bomb it!” (i.e., paint it, tag it, hit it, put a spray can to it), places graffitists uncomfortably close to jihadists. Certainly, Jon Reiss’ briskly edited and energetic documentary captures a lot of anger. From the Bronx in the ’70s to the border walls in Palestine to the banlieues outside Paris, we hear the same basic “Fuck it!” from young people and outcasts who insist that since society won’t invest in them (often true), they’re entitled to strike back. Some taggers vow never to deface a person’s home; others maintain a more anarchist credo, attacking “whatever is paid for by taxes.” Bomb It’s uncritical survey of world graffiti culture nods to history and cave art, then basically repeats itself (in Tokyo, São Paulo, Barcelona, etc.), making no distinction between gangbangers, pissed-off teens and artists. Though street satirists like Robbie Conal and Blek le Rat appear briefly to argue their case, along with guerrilla designers Marc Ecko and Shepard Fairey, Bomb It doesn’t have the patience or the smarts for real analysis. Those who despise graffiti are made to look like old fools; those who tag are inarticulate but undeluded that their work, or names, will outlive them. (Sunset 5) (Brian Miller)
GO THE GO-GETTER Distraught over his mom’s death, adorably awkward but soulful 19-year-old Mercer (Lou Taylor Pucci) steals a car belonging to plucky boho babe Kate (Zooey Deschanel), who oddly befriends, guides and flirts with her victimizer via cell phone. Passing eccentric strangers from Oregon to Nevada, the Great American Hipster Road Trip ensues, as Mercer quests to find his estranged half-brother and roadside romance to a soundtrack jammed with Black Keys, Elliott Smith and a nifty score by M. Ward (who, along with Deschanel, makes up indie-rock flavor of the moment She & Him). And yet, if you can look past writer-director Martin Hynes’ familiar fest formula, his film modestly rewards with gorgeous sun-spotted cinematography, tender digressions in rather brave quantities, and believably charming dialogue that doesn’t all sound like it came from the same brain (listen up, Diablo Cody). A bit reminiscent of the 1992 cult comedy Roadside Prophets — if, say, that film’s Ad-Rock and Arlo Guthrie were substituted with wild child Jena Malone and a philosophical pornographer named Sergio Leone — The Go-Getter is a lovely escape, unless the idea of restaging the Madison sequence from Band of Outsiders makes you cringe. (Monica 4-Plex) (Aaron Hillis)
KUNG FU PANDA By all means, gather up the little ones and take them to this perfectly pleasant, very good-looking, modestly funny, dispiritingly unoriginal variant on the nerd-with-a-dream recipe that’s been clobbered to death in animated films for at least a decade now. Hectic as ever, Jack Black voices Po, a potbellied panda who’s stuck making noodles with dad (a goose — for reasons that escape me — voiced by James Hong), even though he lives and breathes kung fu trivia and longs to become a Master. The call comes from Dustin Hoffman as a pint-sized Zen guru, under whose grumpy tutelage Po and five other trainee critters with famous voices band together to save the world from a disgruntled snow leopard (Ian McShane). The movie’s design is striking, the colors are gorgeous and the fight sequences are pretty suave — but the adorability quotient is set a little high for this jaded palate. And is there a child around the moviegoing globe who couldn’t lip-synch by now the smug sloganeering about following your bliss, playing to your strengths and learning to be a mensch in good times and bad? Department of small mercies: For once, the moral voice (or “takeaway,” as it’s excruciatingly called in the production notes) comes more out of Buddhism than the Protestant work ethic. So we’re talking smash hit in Marin County and Dharamsala. (Citywide) (Ella Taylor)
MISS CONCEPTION A film that views heterosexual relationships with the sensitivity of a beer commercial, Miss Conception concerns the plight of Georgina (Heather Graham), a cute Londoner whose long-term boyfriend Zak (Tom Ellis) doesn’t want kids. As soon as she dumps the bum, he leaves the country and is therefore conveniently out of cell range when she discovers that she’s inearly menopause and must procreate posthaste. Directed by Eric Styles and written by Camilla Leslie, Miss Conception is one of those moronic comedies in which an emotionally complicated issue is reduced to a simplistic beat-the-clock plot device: Georgina only has four days to find someone to impregnate her! Forget for a moment that there are medical procedures available — and that the radiant Graham is hardly Quasimodo and probably could procure a man with ease. What really galls is how the filmmakers have conceived their heroine as every piggish guy’s nightmare of the hormonal, baby-crazed chick who bases her entire self-worth on popping out a little rug rat. Add to this the movie’s attempts to position Zak as her late-blooming ideal mate — in reality, he’s simply less unpalatable than the film’s other men — and Miss Conception’s dim view of women soon transcends unexamined and goes straight to offensive. (Fallbrook 7; One Colorado; Sunset 5) (Tim Grierson)
GO MONGOL You want a history lesson? Take a class. You want clanging swords, sneering villains, storybook romance and bloody vengeance? Here’s a brawny old-school epic to make the CGI tumult of 300, Alexander and Troy look like sissy-boy slap parties. “Do not scorn the weak cub; he may become the brutal tiger,” the opening title card reads, and Russian director Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains) shrewdly casts this reverent retelling of Genghis Khan: The Early Years not as the rise of an emperor but as a classic underdog tale. Using mostly real extras, stunt work and staggering locations, Bodrov recounts the 13th-century conqueror’s path from childhood enslavement to tender lover, doting dad, all-around square dealer and — oh yeah — builder of the Mongol Empire. As storytelling, aside from its unobtrusive flashback structure, the movie’s as straight as the arrows that fly in close-up — a CGI trick that, like most of the movie’s limited digital effects, is more effective for being seldom used. Mongol is powered by a quietly commanding lead performance by Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano, and by the forceful evocation of its physical details: horses traversing a field of boulders, the heft of its bulky costumes. Last year’s Academy Award nominee from Kazakhstan for Best Foreign Language Film, this is purportedly the first in a multifilm saga on the wrath of Khan; as such, it’s probably the last thing you’d expect — great fun. (ArcLight Hollywood; The Landmark) (Jim Ridley)
MOTHER OF TEARS Smashed heads! Smashed faces! A woman disemboweled and hanged with her own guts! Vaginal impalement with, er, a snap-together vagina impaler! Already a vocal cult calls the long-awaited, long-deferred final film in Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy some kind of twisted Film Moe Dee classic — but for anyone with fond memories of Suspiria and Inferno three decades ago, it’s impossible to see this awe-inspiringly awful shocker as anything but a high-camp fiasco. A regrettably restrained Asia Argento plays the innocent who must confront the return of the all-powerful witch Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears, whose arrival triggers a cheapo apocalypse in modern-day Rome. Without Argento’s once-trademark cinematic panache, all that’s left is poorly staged, protracted sadism interrupted by expository narcolepsy, abysmal acting and unintended horselaughs. Those who make a case for this as an elaborate jape get the most support from the movie’s deranged final third, which starts with a hilarious montage of cackling, clawing supermodel witches converging on Rome like a Transylvanian Sex and the City convention; it ends with Asia crawling through an excremental downpour toward a closing-shot curtain call, where she collapses in gales of cathartic laughter. If you believe someone of Dario Argento’s proven talent would make a movie so deliberately sucky, feel free to join in. (Nuart) (Jim Ridley)
THE POET It’s a setup that straddles the line between maudlin manipulation and very crude joke: A sensitive Nazi officer and a rabbi’s daughter fall in love in 1939 Poland ... And director Damian Lee, working from a hackneyed screenplay by Jack Crystal, crudely hard-sells the maudlin. After a literal whirlwind (snowstorm) first encounter leads to an improbable sexual tryst that’s presented to the audience as love at first sight, a soap opera of epic proportions kicks in: ill-fated lovers denied their true love by fate and Hitler’s madness; an arranged marriage; a hidden love child; some raunchy, Night Porter–style bump-and-grind involving the rabbi’s daughter. There’s one ludicrous plot twist after another, with no serious thought given to character or story development — or to believable dialogue — as the film races to its shocking! heartbreaking! conclusion. As the audience is herded from cliché to unintentional farce to insult-to-its-intelligence, actors Jonathan Scarfe (as Oskar, the reluctant Nazi and tenderhearted poet of the film’s title) and Nina Dobrev (as Rachel, the fallen young Jewish woman) work hard to overcome the film’s innumerable flaws, including Daryl Hannah’s accent and a lackluster last performance by Roy Scheider. It’s wasted effort. (Music Hall) (Ernest Hardy)
TRYING TO GET GOOD: THE JAZZ ODYSSEY OF JACK SHELDON Anyone who can elicit glowing tributes from both James A. Baker III and Dom DeLuise is probably worth knowing about — and Trying to Get Good, a new documentary about Jack Sheldon, is a cool refresher about the life of L.A.’s jazz trumpet icon. The first half rolls out evocative stock footage of 1950s Hollywood, which, along with some smoky William Claxon still photos, effectively places Sheldon as one of the key players in the postwar West Coast Jazz movement. The second half sags a bit, though, as directors Doug McIntyre and Penny Peyser strain to stretch what would have been a perfect short subject to feature length. The film doesn’t quite live up to its subtitle: Despite a few brief anecdotes about Sheldon being jailed in Florida for playing with black musicians and his ongoing struggle with alcoholism, most of the film feels like a breezy tribute rather than a warts-and-all biography. Luckily, Sheldon is an immensely likable subject; plus, the music and interviews (featuring an extensive list of working L.A. musicians in addition to the requisite celebrity fans and friends) ensure that Trying to Get Good never goes bad. Production values are rough, but the lack of polish serves both Sheldon’s raffish, off-color persona and the film’s argument that L.A. jazz is still alive in small nightclubs, not something confined to a much-mythologized past. (Majestic Crest) (James C. Taylor)
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