Of pandas, hellboys, and horror

For a change of pace, I thought I’d post some reviews of films on DVD I’ve been watching in recent weeks. They go from Kung Fu Panda to Hellboy, X-Files to Stephen King.

I’ve had the last week off work, on holiday – mainly dedicated to doing something about Christmas shopping, which I’m happy to say has been relatively painless and pretty successful – and meant to use some of the time writing blog posts. Well, that didn’t happen, so I hope you’ll accept this set of quick reviews in lieu.

Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Wasn’t entirely keen on this film initially – had no interest at seeing it at the cinema, and only when the DVD reviews started giving it four stars did I think, “Well, maybe …” And I’m glad I did.

When Po (Jack Black) is on screen, the film is packed with some great laugh out loud funny moments: let’s face it, the image of an overweight panda as a kung fu action star is hilarious right from the start anyway.

There are some great visual touches and sight gags, and the animation overall is quite beautiul – strongly evocative of the Chinese location in which it is set. Still other parts cheerfully rip off Hollywood action films: The Karate Kid most obviously, but even – with the underground prison scene – part of The Lord of The Rings.

So it’s always interesting and keeps your attention; but it’s also uneven and struggles to reconcile the slapstick with the surprising amount of serious stuff in there about fathers and mentors, dreams and rejection, which slow down some sections rather too much for young children.

With the film also veering into straight all-out Matrix-style kung fu action sequences it’s difficult to work out who exactly it’s aimed at, and the whole thing should have been knitted together a little more smoothly and elegantly.

Still, for 88 minutes, this is a fun evening’s entertainment, and Po the Panda himself is never less than a delight.

Rating: ***

Hellboy (2004)

The original, not the new one – thought it was about time I got around to seeing this so that I can then procrastinate about seeing Hellboy II. For the record, I watched the Director’s Cut – not sure exactly how much it differs from the theatrical cut, but I think there’s some more character moments and

I’m not sure I’m as huge a fan of Guillermo Del Toro as other people are, but there’s no questioning the incredible sense of visual style the guy has. Many of the visuals in this film are truly spectacular, stunning and beautiful. It’s a film full of the the usual del Toro hallmarks, and also evokes many other films as well – Men in Black, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Relic, Lord of the Rings and many others come to mind when watching Hellboy – but the end result is truly unique and unlike any other film around.

The Scotland-set prologue in WW2 is a particular highlight – if that had been the entire film I think I would have been completely happy. The main character is certainly one of a kind, and Ron Perlman is quite brilliant (correctly, del Toro says there can be no Hellboy movie without Perlman).

With strong villains (the Nazi undead assassin is truly grotesque and unforgettable) the other characters tend to pale into the background somewhat, with the exception of the ever-classy John Hurt and the bizarre Abe Sapien – but both are written out halfway through. Most of the remaining cast are there to feed lines to Hellboy, serve as romantic interest, rival or comedy relief.

So all in all, a ‘typical’ del Toro film: inspired, gorgeous to look at, surreal, very different, admirable for its ambition – and if it doesn’t entirely succeed in parts, well – at least they had the guts to go for it. That’s worth at least half a star all by itself.

Rating: ****

The X-Files: I Want To Believe (2008)

First thing you should know, I was a huge X-Phile back in the 90s. CompuServe’s X-File forum was the first online community I ever joined after getting online and some of my best online friends still date from that time. So despite the poor advance word of mouth, I was nonetheless still keen to see the second X-Files movie.

This is a perfectly solid film. More of a TV movie than a motion picture, if truth be told. While it looks great, especially with the the snowy vistas, and the sound is impressively ominous and enveloping, that’s always been the case with the X-Files – the show was unusually cinematic, which is why the fact that the new movie is only a (good looking) TV episode is somehow disappointing.

It could still have worked had the story not been so low key and frankly rather devoid of X-Files material – essentially the story of a psychic who leads the FBI to murder scenes has been done in almost every police procedural. And there just isn’t anything else ‘spooky’, so long-time fans will go away disappointed. It’s as though Chris Carter is looking to jump start his career by doing ‘grown up’ films with none of the stupid sci-fi of old – no aliens, monsters or super powers, just emotional relationship angst, religious debate and stem cell controversy.

It’s fine – solid, even – but the end of the film feels more like something out of Hostel than the X-Files. Nice though it is to see Mulder and Scully (and Gillian Anderson is, as ever, quite superb) the film never really rates much above ‘average’. Sorry.

Rating: ** 1/2

The Mist (2007)

Recent Stephen King adaptations just haven’t been very good. Arguably only “Shawshank Redemption” and “Green Mile” have really done a decent job, and the director of those two films – Frank Darabont – has returned to King country and taken on his first out-and-out horror story from the Maine Maestro.

This is a film very much in the post 9/11 mode, with much to say about the reaction (fear and panic) to a sudden, inexplicable attack by an unseen and unknowable foe. In some respects this is like the lower budget, less flashy but far more grown up counterpart to Cloverfield, all the time reminding you of people taking cover and reacting to the unknown enemy.

There’s even one scene – a little obvious and thudding, but well-intentioned – where the heroes warn that when the mob is frightened, they will blindly follow anyone who offers them hope (not referring to Dubya and the NeoCons, surely not?)

This film is reminiscent of all kinds of B-Movies and especially the modern takes on B-Movies such as Tremors, Eight Legged Freaks and Evolution, but while those are generally played for laughs and fun, this is a film that intends to scare not so much with the CGI monsters (although those are pretty above average for a genre film) but with its bleak, cynical and all-to-true take on human nature and how fast we turn on each other when things fall apart.

Some good performances in here, notably from Toby Jones and Marcia Gay Harden; and the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere and astonishingly downbeat ending have seldom been done this well since the original Night of the Dead.

Like that film, this is best viewed in black and white (a de-colourised version of the film is on the two-disc DVD, surely a first but also extremely effective and how the film really should be seen.) The extras are pretty good, too, and Frank Darabont proves a remarkably fun, lively and interesting guy.

Rating: ****


  1. Seb Crump

    Glad Hellboy wasn’t too much of a disappointment for you. Don’t think we’ll bother with Kung Fu Panda – too spoilt with Pixar these days to go for the knock-off versions. The others really aren’t my cup of hot beverage although. Keep ’em coming.

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