Mini-Reviews: Everything Must Go, Kung Fu Panda 2, Meek’s Cutoff
In an attempt to give readers my feelings on films as I plug away on a number of writing assignments, I’ll provide mini-reviews to give my succinct opinion on films and to give me time to finish my other projects.
Everything Must Go:
Every time Will Ferrell has pursued a more dramatic venture than normal, I’ve been skeptical. I found Stranger Than Fiction to be too meta for my taste, and Melinda and Melinda is C-grade Woody Allen at best. Regardless of the quality of the scripts, Ferrell’s performances always felt to me like he was desperately trying to not be “wacky,” so he was compensation by being dull and stiff. Here, in Dan Rush’s feature debut, Everything Must Go, Ferrell’s performance is alive and nuanced, revealing him to be extremely capable of not only carrying a dramatic scene, but delivering a great performance. It’s a fantastic little movie, full of keen observation and truth about alcoholism, relationships, and pulling one’s self up when life gets you down.
It follows Ferrell’s character after the worst day of his life: getting fired, his wife moving out, but not before throwing his stuff on the lawn and changing the locks. So Ferrell sits on his lawn in his La-Z-Boy chair and drinks. He’s content to sit, drink, and feel bad about himself. He meets neighbors and friends, all wonderfully played– special notice goes to Rebecca Hall (who is always good in everything) as a new neighbor and Christopher Wallace Jr., the late Notorious B.I.G.’s son, as a local child who helps Ferrell organize a yard sale. Every performance is honest and clear. A few plot turns and moments seem a bit contrived, but it doesn’t detract from the steady tone and engaging nature of the film. Afterward, I wasn’t walking home thinking about the scenes that could have been cut or the revelations that could have been more gracefully handled. I was thinking about Ferrell’s performance.
I’ve had a friend, as many people have, struggle with alcoholism. I’ve spoken with him about it in the past– how it feels, what drives you to drink, the temptations, the guilt, the self-loathing, the patterns that are nearly impossible to overcome. I left the theater thinking about him, and thinking about the ruts that we all sink into. Everyone has those days where you lay in bed and feel bad for yourself, and it’s hard to define exactly what we do internally to decide to get up and move on with our lives. This movie isn’t exclusively about alcoholism, but about that drive to fix the negative patterns we fall victim to. Watch Ferrell’s eyes throughout the whole film: we hear the familiar rhythms of his voice and we still laugh at the jokes, but the sad scenes aren’t forced in the slightest. His eyes convey honesty, and I was drawn in from the very beginning. Everything Must Go is a must-see, a beautiful delicate dramedy.
Kung Fu Panda 2:
The first Kung Fu Panda ranks as one of the best non-Pixar computer-animated films ever made. Now, with Kung Fu Panda 2, the franchise holds the honor of the best non-Pixar computer-animated sequel as well (admittedly, a rather specific award). It’s not quite as fun as the first one, but it pulls off quite a tricky feat– a shift in tone. Not a lot of franchises built on their earnest wide-eyed protagonist becoming a super fighter work well in sequel form (see: The Matrix). The appeal of the origin story is based on us sympathizing with the guy who feels thrust into a world in which he doesn’t belong, all the while looking around and taking as much of the overwhelming experience in as possible. Sequels require a new, less immediately absorbing conflict. Kung Fu Panda 2 is The Empire Strikes Back of bear action films, introducing a family component and pushing its hero to reach new heights. It’s less funny, and the novelty is gone, but it’s quite entertaining nevertheless.
The plot follows two parallel storylines. The first tracks an evil peacock voiced by Gary Oldman who has invented a technology so powerful that kung fu can’t stop it. The first step to making a great action movie live-action or otherwise is making Gary Oldman the villain. He’s not quite as intimidating as Ian McShane’s villain from the first, but Oldman chews every line with gusto. The peacock had all pandas in the world murdered because a prophecy predicted a panda would cause his end… we know from MacBeth how this will turn out for the peacock. Meanwhile, Po, our hero, starts remembering his early childhood and tries to piece together his memories to know what happened to his real parents. The relationship between Po and the duck who raised him (voiced by national treasure James Hong) is the heart of the second film, and even the stone-hearted will find themselves getting misty by film’s end. It’s not perfect– it only reaches the blissful heights of the first film a couple of times, and it has long lulls without big laughs that I imagine would result in some viewers getting restless. Still, it’s a great deal of fun, with a perfect set-up for Kung Fu Panda 3, which I would happily see.
The last time I saw a Kelly Reichardt film, 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, I found it to be a good idea with great acting and cinematography diminished by the plotlessness and the tedious pace of the film. It was done for a reason, but I couldn’t find myself wanting to watch. Reichardt collaborates once again with Michelle Williams for Meek’s Cutoff, and she once again finds a film which requires ample amounts of gorgeous tedium. However, this time around, the setting for the film– the Oregon Trail– has inherent tension and the very real looming threat of death just around the corner, so the long shots where little happens helps underscore the urgency of their scenarios. Get water or die, find shelter or die, avoid Indians or die. Most Westerns contain gunplay, fist fights, horses galloping, but here we have fire building, axle repairing, and river crossing. Once again, Reichardt will test the average filmgoer’s patience, but I found it to be intriguing, even if it’s mostly created to be a genre exercise, a revelation about women’s importance in the Old West, and a symbol of George W Bush’s presidency.
Most of you know by now whether you’ll see it or not, but I’ll continue. The journey West is tough for this group of Americans, played by Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, and Paul Dano among others. They put their trust in Meek, played by an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood, to lead them to their destination, but now they are stuck in the desert. They are in a position where they need water to survive, and they don’t believe Meek knows where water is or how to get them out of there. Meanwhile, they encounter an Indian who they all hate (especially Meek), but he knows where water is so they are forced to work with him. So the Americans tell Meek to give them the water they need, and Meek works with his foreign enemy, and they search forever in a situation that it seems will never end. If you see the water as oil, the Indian as Middle Easterners, and Meek as Dubya, you’ll understand what it seems that Reichardt was going for. Once this idea clicked in my mind, the dialogue seemed to beat you over the head with the metaphor. The ending of the film made the audience groan, but I saw it coming a mile away.
Its long shots are all especially gorgeous, making the desolation and dryness of the desert quite aesthetically pleasing. Williams, Patton, and Greenwood all do fine work, but the star of the film is really the execution of the story. It’s simply unlike any Western you’ve seen, for better or for worse. For better because it accurately represents what the West must have actually been like, for worse because very little happens day in and day out. It does help build the suspense and add to the stakes when things are happening… but not much in the traditional Western happens. A gun is drawn once. One person faints from illness. No one fistfights. People watch one another and walk. And walk. And walk. And walk. There’s reason for the repetition, but there’s also no way to blame those who don’t dig this style. It’s an intentionally slow film, and while it’s well-made and smartly crafted, the more impatient viewers will almost certainly want to cut off Meek’s Cutoff.