Hey, everyone. Due to my recently concluded time at the Sundance Film Festival and an upcoming trip to London, I’m missing a fair number of press screenings, so I likely won’t have reviews of releases such as The Finest Hours, the Coen brothers Hail, Caesar!, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or the collected Oscar-nominated Shorts packages opening at the Landmark Century Center Cinema this week (Animated and Live Action) and the Music Box Theatre next week (Documentary). But I have seen a couple of this week’s releases, so let’s dive in…
KUNG FU PANDA 3
I’ve always gotten a good feeling from the Kung Fu Panda films, the first one being better than the second. But Kung Fu Panda 3 might be my new personal favorite, thanks in large part to the filmmakers not being afraid to change things up a little bit, both in terms of the story and the animation style in certain sequences. Depending on the environment or what dimension the characters are occupying, co-directors Alessandro Carloni (a long-time animator, first-time feature director) and Jennifer Yuh (who previously co-directed Kung Fu Panda 2) completely alter the visual landscape and animation techniques for a couple of flashbacks and scenes that are meant to take place in something resembling a spirit world, from which springs a great new villain, Kai (last year’s Oscar winner J.K. Simmons).
With abilities born of the supernatural, Kai escapes this other dimension and arrives in China looking for the creature (namely the Jack Black-voiced panda Po) who he has been told will be his only true challenge in his quest to acquire the souls, or chi, of all kung fu masters. But before he makes it to Po, another visitor makes his way to where Po has just been made a teacher by his master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). Po is terrible at being an instructor to his friends, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), and the one with all the best lines, Seth Rogen’s Mantis.
One night, into Po’s life wanders a panda named Li (Bryan Cranston), the first panda, in fact, that Po has ever seen. Li brings with him a story about losing his son, whom he’s fairly convinced is Po. Li spins tales of a wonderful panda village, and Po is desperate to see how other pandas live, which is exactly what he does despite breaking the heart of his adoptive father, Mr. Ping (James Hong). With Po promising to come back, he and Li head out to the panda village where Po meets the likes of “famed” dancer (in the panda community) Mei Mei (Kate Hudson).
Kung Fu Panda 3 continues with strong messages about having faith and confidence in oneself, and not to get too hung up on body shaming. With the other pandas, Po doesn’t look as heavy or clumsy. The other pandas have turned these shortcomings into a way of life. Why run down a steep hill, when you can roll down it, for example. There are also old stories that claim that the pandas in the village are gifted kung fu masters who hold the key to defeating Kai. What I kept expecting was for the other shoe to drop regarding all the other pandas (which happens to a degree but not enough to distract us from the thoroughly enjoyable main plot), that maybe they weren’t all good or trustworthy, but that doesn’t happen; it doesn’t need to.
Po finally decides to head back to Shifu and seek his advice about becoming the Dragon Warrior, the greatest kung fu master of them all, but by the time he gets near, all of his Furious Five friends/students’ souls have been taken by Kai. And so Po must fight his own friends, possessed by Kai, wanting to eliminate his only true rival. I realize now that this story sounds a bit heavy, but the truth is, the serious and more death-defying moments of Kung Fu Panda 3 are balanced out by the expected brand of humor, especially from Black and Rogen.
It’s nice to see all of the familiar characters return, even if many of them have little relevance in this chapter of the franchise, but I was far more interested in the new ones. Simmons is particularly good using a deeper, almost unrecognizable voice here that really underscores just how nasty a beast Kai is. On the other hand, Cranston is about as affable and adorable as his son—certainly more “Malcolm’s Dad Hal” than “Walter White.” What I wasn’t expecting from the father-son reunion aspect of the film was how deeply Li regrets the time lost and how desperately he wants to make up for what was lost. Cranston’s acting chops make Li something more than a cuddly ball of energy; there’s a sprinkling of guilt in there as well.
Not surprisingly, the final battle between Po and Kai takes place in the visually experimental Spirit World, where gravity and physics are flexible. It’s a stunning sequence that casts real danger onto Po’s amateur status as a Dragon Warrior, thanks to Kai being able to use Po’s friends’ abilities against him. Kung Fu Panda 3 plays a few things by the numbers, but I like the emphasis on ancient Chinese culture, art and skills as a backdrop for this story, even if there are maybe a few too many jokes about how much Po eats or doesn’t eat, depending on who you ask. I’m sure there will more of these films, and despite how much I really did enjoy this one, I think three wraps these adventures up nicely. Rather than keep making them until the quality begins to slip below some invisible line, end things on a high note. Imagine that.
SON OF SAUL
One of the most highly regarded films of 2015 (capped recently by an Academy Award nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category) is the Hungarian production Son of Saul from first-time director and co-writer László Nemes (who penned the film with Clara Royer). Set in the Auschwitz crematoriums, circa 1944, the story follows Hungarian Jewish prisoner Saul Ausländer (newcomer Géza Röhrig), who is a member of the Sonderkommando—prisoners selected by the Nazis running the camp to deal with the most horrid aspects of the facilities, including herding new arrivals into rooms to disrobe, moving them to gas chambers, and removing their dead bodies from the chambers to the crematorium.
The winner of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix and recent winner of Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes, Son of Saul is a grim and brutal film, but it’s also a moving story of defiance and finding a way to die with dignity. The Sonderkommando team members are only allowed to keep their positions for a few months, but they’re never sure exactly how much time they have, so they live with the threat of death hanging over their heads every minute. While doing his job, Saul comes across a young boy who is not quite dead after being gassed, and he believes the young man is the son he was separated from when he arrived at the camp. In reality, this doesn’t seem likely, but Saul is convinced this is his boy and sets about stashing the body so that he may give him a proper burial, complete with a recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish by a rabbi, whom Saul seeks out in the camp population.
During the course of the two days in which the film takes place, Saul calls in many favors, makes many deals, and is lied to as often as he is told the truth in his search for a rabbi, all the while he’s hiding this slight body in various corners of the confined quarters where the Jews were housed. Son of Saul is a cry of desperation, and the immediacy in which director Nemes stages this tale is almost too much to comprehend, let along watch play out in a series of long, unbroken shots, focusing primarily on Röhrig’s face, while atrocities occur in the background, usually out of focus but quite visible.
Working with relatively new (to features, at least) and masterful cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (Miss Bala, James White, The Quiet Ones) and shooting on 35mm, Nemes has pieced together perhaps the most immersive, intimate non-documentary about the Holocaust I’ve ever seen. The film doesn’t show us these terrible events; it drops the viewer directly on the assembly line of this death factory, and I’m guessing this immediacy will simply be too much for many. Adding to the chaos of Saul’s experience, some of the prisoners are planning a rebellion and escape, which, to Saul, seems secondary to his quest. To add to the authenticity of the experience, the soundscape of the film is almost overwhelming with noises, screams and what seems like a multitude of different languages, primarily Yiddish, which is quite moving to hear spoken by so many again.
Son of Saul is the embodiment of one man’s guilt for performing tasks that he knows are unforgivable; perhaps more than that, Saul is racked with guilt over not protecting his child when they first arrived. His thinking is that if he can’t save his own soul, perhaps he can send this boy’s soul to heaven in a way faithful to his faith. Despite the grim setting, this man’s struggle provides the slightest ray of hope for a type of kindness. The entire film rests on the face of Géza Röhrig, and I promise you, you’ll remember his performance here for far longer than any of the Oscar-nominated male performances of 2015. The film is ferociously determined to burn into your brain and never leave, and I don’t think there’s any chance that won’t happen, especially with the substantial gut-punch of an ending. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre, where a 35mm print will be screened.