Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

Hello! It’s been a while since I posted a non-Criterion review on this site, so let’s jump back in. Cinemas may now be (more) open in certain parts of the world, but home streaming is still A Thing, and probably… always will be? Well, time will tell, but here’s another week of “random stuff I’ve watched on Netflix” because it’s still the most popular option.


I’d watched the first two instalments (several years ago) and honestly couldn’t remember much of the plot. I wrote little capsule reviews at the time, but they’re not much longer than a sentence and barely convey any information beyond “it was quite fun”. Then again, it’s been a day or two and I don’t remember much of the plot of this one either now, so I don’t think that’s really the key to the trilogy and won’t affect your enjoyment. Basically, it’s about our rotund hero Po (voiced by Jack Black) ‘finding himself’ and discovering his powers and his empathy as part of a quest to defeat a legendary big bad guy, Kai (J.K. Simmons), who has just managed to return to the mortal realm. Po has his buddies and he has his antagonists, and I’m not sure the plot itself is particularly deep but it’s also fairly blandly positive so I can’t really fault it for that, but it’s a good excuse to get together some cute characters and show off the fine animation skills of the DreamWorks artists. I do raise my eyebrows somewhat at the writing team for this China-set film, along with getting notably non-Asian actors to voice some of these characters (Dustin Hoffman as an elderly sage called “Master Shifu”??), especially when they are called on to do an accent — but Jack Black at least isn’t doing that and isn’t really intended to be anyone but himself, and he and the filmmakers make it a likeable enough ride and an excellent conclusion to the trilogy.

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)CREDITS
Directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson 여인영 and Alessandro Carloni; Writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger; Starring Jack Black, J.K. Simmons, Bryan Cranston, James Hong 吳漢章, Dustin Hoffman; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Saturday 3 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 431: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Criterion release of this film has a commentary by Scorsese and Coppola, and you can understand when you watch it what might appeal to them. Would that every era of cinema had such a colourful and inventive spectacle and I can see that children exposed to this in the 1940s or 50s might have had little to compare it to in terms of the effects it achieves. There’s a gloriously saturated colour scheme in the filming and the production design and costuming that heightens the magical wonder of the storytelling. It’s just that watching now makes for a more problematic experience and it’s not that I’m out here calling for any ‘cancellations’ or whatever your term du jour is when you read this for the idea that maybe art has certain responsibilities. After all, things that seem a bit racist now (or orientalist or just a bit misguided, depended on your point of view) might have been equally so back then, it’s just that there was an unexamined expectation that putting dark makeup on very white English actors and having them enact Middle Eastern-set stories was perfectly fine and nothing to be concerned about. Of course, compared to some contemporary films, there was certainly worse racism in othering depictions of such parts of the world and their people, but that doesn’t excuse what at best just seems a little painful now, however well-meaning it might have been. There’s plenty to enjoy here, and those who find it easier to tap into the childlike spirit at play will be rewarded more handsomely than those hatchet-faced killjoys like myself who’d rather not watch fully-grown and very English gentlemen (along with a German, an Indian and an African-American) play dress-up as Arabs.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan [as well as Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda and William Cameron Menzies, uncredited]; Writers Lajos Biró and Miles Malleson; Cinematographer Georges Périnal [as “George Perinal”]; Starring Conrad Veidt, John Justin, Sabu, June Duprez, Miles Malleson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 27 May 2021.

Finding ‘Ohana (2021)

I feel as if my themed week of Netflix has just made the case that they are good at formulaic, brightly-coloured confections, and if so today’s review won’t change that opinion. Maybe it’s true. There is some good, nuanced, interesting stuff on there too (they’ve added a bunch of Youssef Chahine films, and now some Swedish silents I gather), so who knows maybe one day it’ll be a great service for everyone. In the mean time, there’s Mubi if you like austere arthouse and Amazon if you like to support the exploitation of workers (also they have some good content of their own), so really it’s a great time for online streaming.


Unlike the Netflix film I reviewed yesterday, the Chinese movie Monster Run, which felt a bit like a kids’ film, this very much is a kids’ film. There’s little point in me complaining some of the child acting is a bit lacking in nuance (that would be absurd) or that the plotting can be silly. After all, when we get the flashbacks to the ye olde times white explorers, it’s narrated in a Drunk History style, and they’re played by Chris Parnell and Marc Evan Jackson, so clearly silliness is the point. The set design feels like a Disney theme park version of Hawai’i and the film ends up basically being an advert for the place, but that’s certainly forgivable too. These are all intentional choices and they make sense for this film. It’s a likeable, brightly-coloured reimagining of The Goonies in Hawai’i and while it’s unlikely to have that film’s enduring (cult?) appeal, it does everything it’s supposed to do and has its heart in a good place.

Finding 'Ohana film posterCREDITS
Director Jude Weng 翁菲菲; Writer Christina Strain; Cinematographer Cort Fey; Starring Kea Peahu, Alex Aiono, Lindsay Watson; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 18 February 2021.

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

I thought I’d throw in an extra film this week on the Saturday because it’s another date-appropriate release, which is to say it’s a film that deals with the story of Passover and we are now in the middle of that Jewish holiday. It’s a classic animated film, of sorts, depending on who you are; it’s my first time coming to this film so I apologise if my analysis is a little shallow.


I don’t know if I’m really in a position to critique this, but it’s a telling of the story that informs the Jewish holiday of Passover, and it cleaves to a lot of the Biblical narrative fairly closely really, but with songs. It does feel, though, like it’s trying to grapple with the big question in terms of the extent to which God’s punishments of Pharaoh (Ralph Fiennes) impact on his people, which is to say how much is Moses responsible for the death, and that bit doesn’t quite resolve. Killing the firstborn is after all pretty bad whoever does the act. But this is a story of revolutionary anger leading to political change, and the niceties can sometimes be lost. In a sense it’s applicable even now: revolution requires action, which means that difficult choices sometimes need to be made. The original story, and this film too, is fairly clear that you can’t effect change by being a pacifist, and some level of fundamental disruption is going to occur. Perhaps that’s a message people need to hear, but it’s always going to be a hard one to pull off, especially in an animated family film.

The Prince of Egypt film posterCREDITS
Directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells; Writer Philip LaZebnik (based on the religious text שְׁמוֹת Shemot “Book of Exodus”); Starring Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Friday 10 April 2020.

Two Black Women Filmmakers with a Budget: Mudbound (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

I concede this is a fairly tenuous connection to make in order to lump together reviews of these recent films by two of the most successful of recent Black women directors, but I wanted to give them some attention during my week of Black American women filmmakers, despite having reviewed already a good number of their more famous works.

Obviously Ava DuVernay has become the most well-known of the two, primarily for Selma (2014), but she made some low-key dramas like Middle of Nowhere (2012) and I Will Follow (2010) which I like even more, as well as documentaries starting with This Is the Life (2008) but recently the high-profile 13th (2016), and graduated to the big budgets with this Disney-produced fantasy adventure film.

Meanwhile, Dee Rees made a splash with one of the best coming-of-age movies of the decade, Pariah (2011), before turning her attention to the (in my opinion) underrated biopic of Bessie Smith, Bessie (2015). Her budget for her World War II-set period drama Mudbound may only have been a fairly modest US$10 million, but you can see a lot of that up on screen, one of the earlier films in Netflix’s recent run of big prestige productions which have had some crossover between online streaming and big screen presentation.

Continue reading “Two Black Women Filmmakers with a Budget: Mudbound (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018)”

ホーホケキョとなりの山田くん Hohokekyo Tonari no Yamada-kun (My Neighbours the Yamadas, 1999)

Looking back at my favourite films I saw for the first time in the past year (ones that I haven’t already written up), it always feels somehow seasonally appropriate to talk about Studio Ghibli’s animations — not because they’re about Christmas, but they’re often about the idea of family and finding some kind of strength and shared communality with your family, which may not always be a lesson people take from Christmas, but it seems like it should be. My Neighbours the Yamadas may not be the most famous of Ghibli’s output, but it deserves to be better known, given it gently pokes fun at ways that families come together and fall apart, while also showing what can be good about them.


I feel like I’m still just starting my journey into Studio Ghibli’s animation, having not seen any until Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya about four years ago, and since having watched a number of the Miyazaki films (almost all extraordinary). In a sense, My Neighbours the Yamadas is less easily categorisable, given it has the sense of a serialised comic strip (which it is, after all, based upon), just these little self-contained stories, introduced by titles and often book-ended by a haiku. The animation focuses on the details that matter, so this isn’t the kind of richly-detailed visual worlds that you get in Miyazaki or, say, Your Name. (2016). Instead, there’s a caricaturists’ sense at work in capturing the personalities of these six characters (grandma, mum and dad, son and daughter, and pet dog), which, while setting it aside from some of these other titles, also gives it an immediacy and vibrancy that is somehow even stronger. In telling these little stories, it’s elucidating something of the mystery (to us as Western viewers, but perhaps even to them) of Japanese life and customs, while also showing the evident care that works within the family. The humour is all very gentle, and this is ultimately a likeable, sweet film about family life.

My Neighbours the Yamadas film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Isao Takahata 高畑勲 (based on the manga series ののちゃん Nono-chan by Hisaichi Ishii 石井壽一); Starring Toru Masuoka 益岡徹, Yukiji Asaoka 朝丘雪路; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 November 2019.

Zootopia (aka Zootropolis, 2016)

Another solid Disney animated film after Frozen and Big Hero 6, this deals with a world of anthropomorphised animals where the big threat is the reversion by the predator animals to ‘savagery’ (i.e. their ‘natural’ animal state). Our hero is Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny rabbit from a country carrot farm with dreams of serving on the metropolitan police force (called “Zootropolis” in the UK version, but “Zootopia” everywhere else), yet despite her ambition, she seems thwarted by the unfeeling old timers on the police force, led by their buffalo captain (Idris Elba). However, after falling into the ambit of small-time grifter fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), they team up to help solve a series of kidnappings. When you look at the character list, it all does seem very silly, but into this buddy-coppy fantasy adventure format, the film is trying to push some pretty serious ideas about civic corruption (Jenny Slate voices the assistant mayor, a sheep if not always sheepish), not to mention racial intolerance and understanding — all enfolded up into the big mystery of the savage animals which Judy and Nick are tracking down. Even aside from the thematics — and I have no idea how they’d play to children, as some of the ideas are pretty complex — the animation is gorgeously detailed and replete with all the expected blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual puns in the backgrounds, not to mention sly hommages to various films (few of which would be known to kids, unless The Godfather and Chinatown are considered typical viewing for that generation these days).

Zootopia film posterCREDITS
Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore; Writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston; Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Chelsea, London, Thursday 21 April 2016.

Descendants (2015)

I don’t intend to make a strong case for High School Musical auteur Kenny Ortega’s latest film, but it is brightly coloured and likeable in a fairly anodyne way, as befits a made-for-TV Disney Channel movie. The premise is that Disney’s famous villains, having been sent away to live on the Isle of the Lost, far from the good guys, have grown up and a number of them now have children who are to be reintegrated into the mainstream world of Auradon, where their parents hope they will continue to spread their legacy of evil-doing. As ever, the hierarchical society is premised on benign royalty (Beauty and the Beast in this case) ruling justly over a fluffily-updated mediaevalesque world populated by bland white prep kids. It’s up the bad guys to inject some colour (not to mention people of colour, for that matter) and they are all so clearly far more interesting than the ‘heroes’ that this amounts to its own form of critique. Certainly brief book-end appearances by musical veterans Kristin Chenoweth (as Maleficent) and Kathy Najimy (as the Evil Queen) lend a bit of Broadway pizazz to the older generation (which also includes a Black Cruella de Vil and an Iranian-American Jafar), though generally the film could do with more music and dance numbers — I understand these were only added at the late arrival of Ortega to the project, so at least there are some I suppose. The kids are all pleasant to watch, with Maleficent’s daughter Mal (Dove Cameron) being the purple-haired highlight. There’s not a whole lot more to say, and for what it sets out to achieve it feels like it’s generally a success.

Descendants film posterCREDITS
Director Kenny Ortega; Writers Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott; Cinematographer Thomas Burstyn; Starring Dove Cameron, Sofia Carson, Kristin Chenoweth, Kathy Najimy; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 27 January 2016.

High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)

The conclusion to one of film’s most joyful trilogies finds Kenny Ortega with a far higher budget and even a cinematic release. He doesn’t squander the pennies, either, in mounting a few glorious numbers, including “I Want It All”, which liberally tips its fedora to similar sequences in classic Hollywood films. Sure, as a whole it doesn’t sustain the momentum quite as well as the second film — Gabriella and Troy remain an underwhelming screen couple, and the other pairings are sidelined by a largely charisma-free bunch of new recruits (who I believe were originally intended to take the series forward into a new generation) — but it’s in the musical sequences that it finds its raison d’être. There’s little more invigorating in cinema than a good dance number, and High School Musical 3 has several, even if some of the fashions and heteronormative couplings already seem a tad old-fashioned.

High School Musical 3 film posterCREDITS
Director Kenny Ortega; Writer Peter Barsocchini; Cinematographer Daniel Aranyó; Starring Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Thursday 31 March 2011 (and many more times on DVD, most recently Saturday 19 December 2015).

Bill (2015)

As far as kids-oriented comedy/thrillers based around the life of William Shakespeare go, this one is pretty good fun. In fact, for the quality of filmmaking and even set and costume design on show, I’d say it gives Shakespeare in Love a decent run for its money, and is frankly more enjoyable in many ways. If there’s a style it’s going for, then probably early Blackadder with a hint of Monty Python would about sum it up. Mathew Baynton’s Bill is a down-on-his-luck provincial type with a dream of making it in the big city as a writer, and so he ups sticks, leaving his wife Anne (Martha Howe-Douglas) behind and tries his luck — running into little success, but meeting Christopher Marlowe (Jim Howick) along the way. Meanwhile the Spanish King Philip (a properly moustache-twirling bad guy with a nifty line in stupid disguises, played by co-writer Ben Willbond) is plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth, all laid out courtesy of an actually rather thrilling pre-credits sequence. He duly takes advantage of the foppish Earl of Croydon (Simon Farnaby), who has been picked to write a play to be performed in front of the Queen (the perfect place for Philip’s plan), but knowing nothing of the dramatic arts has enlisted as ghost-writer… Bill! So it’s all very silly, and silliness really is the watchword, for while the film is not always as historically far-fetched as you might expect, it’s just mostly very silly indeed. Which turns out to be a good fit to the subject matter, hence an enjoyable film. I’m not sure if it’ll really play well to kids though, but what do I know. All I mean is, there’s plenty for grown-ups too.

Bill film posterNEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Richard Bracewell; Writers Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond; Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Mathew Baynton, Ben Willbond, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Thursday 24 September 2015.