Monday, April 28, 2008

The Kung-Fu Is Strong: FORBIDDEN KINGDOM Reviewed - Plus: Simpsons, KOTH, Family Guy, and MORE

Ah, it's good to eat bread.

I have to say though, I was pretty good this passover. I give some credit to the Warner Bros. commisary across from my building, as they have an excellent and well-stocked salad bar, which allowed me to eat chametz-free lunches throughout the work-week that were healthy to boot. And though I got by on crouton-free salads, orange chicken, matzoh-pizza, macaroons, and Crispy-O's ... well, it was nice, as always, to do the traditional post-passover pig-out of real (albeit West Coast) pizza, at post-Pesach staple CPK, with plenty of pieces of pre-meal bread, naturally.

All in all it was nice to have a relaxing weekend after last week's fun but exhausting trip to San Diego. Hung out with some of the NBC Page crew on Saturday in North Hollywood, took in a movie on Sunday, and generally watched a ton of NBA playoff basketball. I was happy to see the Suns live to fight another day and finally hand the Spurs a sound defeat. I was surprised to see the Celtics lose a game to the Hawks, though pretty impressed with Josh Smith and co in Atlanta. And I really enjoyed seeing yet another classic Houston vs. Utah matchup, gotta love watching those two teams go down to the wire yet again.


- THE SIMPSONS last night was a very mixed bag - the premise, of Bart getting overly attached to a cow he befriends as a member of 4H, only to see it sent to the slaughter - wasn't all that original or compelling. But this episode kept getting pulled back from the brink by a regular stream of funny moments or lines of dialogue. It was one of those episode where, just when I was feeling frustrated by the been-there-done-that nature of the plot (Bart gets married - again?!?), a great joke would surface and make me thing "hmm, this episode is actually not bad." (like all of Cletus' kids being named for what they would eventually do). I was also pretty impressed with the episode's stubborn refusal to branch out into random B-plots. Like the classic episodes of days gone by, this one took the whole half hour to tell its story. Maybe that's why, even when the plot felt like a retread or some of the jokes fell flat, this felt like a more substantial, more fully-realized episode than most modern-day eps. Was the plot all-over-the-place? Yep, pretty much, and it recycled the well-worn Bart-loves-a-doomed-animal plot to boot. But considering all that, this one was surprisingly solid.

My Grade: B

-I've talked about this before: sometimes, KING OF THE HILL will forego its solid but at times formulaic ways for an episode that can only be considered *really weird*. Last night was one of those strange episodes, an installment that felt a bit darker and more adult than a typical KOTH episode. The plotline was a bit convoluted, to be sure - After a string of terrible birthdays, Peggy decides that this will be the year where her party is the talk of the town, so she arranges to take part in a murder-mystery train ride - a 70's disco themed murder mystery, to be precise. At the last minute, Luanne is enlisted to replace one of the murder mystery actors, and before the production even begins, she tips off Dale as to the killer' identity. Dale promptly spoils the game, and Peggy's birthday seems to have been ruined yet again. The REAL strangeness begins when Hank tries to comfort a distraught Peggy, and in doing so, Hank does something very out of character, as he engages in ... "relations" with his wife right there in the train's restroom! Kahn notices some steamy footprints in the bathroom, and starts up a new murder mystery, enlisting the train passengers to figure out which of the many couples on board did the deed. Like I said - a very atypical KOTH plotline, and I was surprised how many different twists and turns it took, going from a story about Peggy's cursed birthday parties, to Hank and Peggy's sexual escapades (which I have to say, though odd for Hank, it was kind of hilarious to see his reaction, worrying that he could receive the "propane death penalty" as punishment), to the weirdness of having all the characters decked out in 70's disco apparel. In additon to all that randomness, there was the very strange subplot that saw Bobby, Joseph, and Connie home alone while their parents were away. Despite all three being young teens, they decided to spend their time ... building a fort? Hmmm, okay. So it was a pretty disjointed episode, with a somewhat adult A plot contrasting sharply with an oddly innocent B plot. Still, there were a ton of dialogue gems throughout. From Hank's approval of the train conductor ("fun in a controlled atmosphere!") to Lucky's expertise on solving mysetires via years of watching detective-show reruns. A strange, random episode - but definitely a memorable one.

My Grade: B

- Now, while both Simpsons and KOTH had enough going for them to make me forget some of my plot-oriented criticisms, FAMILY GUY last night had a few laughs but mostly just grated on me. I agree with some comments I've read on The Onion and elsewhere that Brian is usually most effective either when paired with Stewie or Peter. When Brian is meant to carry a story, especially as in last night's ep where it was alongside a one-shot character, you often get a flat-feeling episode. Overall, I tend to sour on FG when it feels more mean-sprited than satirical, and last night's ep was full of some pretty bitter humor. From Brian's old flame turning out to be a hideous monster, to his bastard son mostly being a murderous psycho, to an extended joke basically mercilessly bashing Matthew McConahay (sp?), I just found a lot in this episode to be generally pretty off-putting. I also thing this episode is a great example of how a joke is often funnier the more subtle it is. Back when Stewie was merely an effeminate baby with a murderous streak, he was often flat-out hilarious. Now that he's a full-on gay baby, the joke was already stale halfway through the episode as we were continuously beat over the head with this new out-and-proud status quo. It's too bad, because I thought FG was really gaining some momentum during its last run. It's a shame to see it devolve into a show that embraces its own worst tendencies.

My Grade: C

- Okay, now for a movie review. Because while last week I didn't end up getting into the free screening I was supposed to attend, this weekend, nothing would stop me from seeing Jet Li go at it with Jackie Chan in a kung-fu dream match. And thus I present to you:


- How great is your kung-fu? That was the question I asked of The Forbidden Kingdom as I sat down in the theater. And it was two hours later that I had my answer: the movie had a silly script, some wooden acting, and a nonsensical, acid-trip of a plotline. But was it's kung-fu grip strong? Indeed it was, Daniel-san. Indeed it was.

Basically, this movie is a kung-fu version of The Neverending Story. Same basic premise - picked-on loner type kid gets magically swept away into a fantasy world of high adventure, eventually returns to his world a better and stronger boy, and finally teaches those schoolyard bullies a lesson or two to boot. In this case, our hero is a geeky, martial-arts obsessed kid from Boston who looks like a cross between Shia LaBuff and a young Scott Bakula. His room is a shrine to Bruce Lee and The Shaw Brothers (it probably would be to Chan and Li as well, but that would be a bit weird, continuity-wise). He collects bootleg kung-fu flicks that he finds at a shady pawn shop run by a wise old Mr. Miyagi type. And yet, he's still kind of a geek, at the mercy of a bunch of cartoonish thugs who seem ripped out of the pages of 1970's comic book, complete with thuggish, "street" dialogue that might make Stan Lee cringe.

To sum up what happens from there ... well, let's see ... the thugs decide to rob the old man, things get (somewhat shockingly) violent when the lead thug shoots (!) Mr. Miyagi. But before he goes, the shop owner bequeeths some magical staff to our hero, Nice Jewish Boy, and - bam! - the staff transports the kid from Boston to a mythical land of kung-fu adventure that's like a mix of Crouching Tiger and Mortal Kombat.

There's then an overarching plot about how the staff is being sought by a ruthless warlord type, who used it to imprison a mythical monkey-king centuries ago. Thus begins the journey to free the monkey dude, as our young hero is joined by the Drunken Master himself, Jackie Chan (playing, well, a Drunken Master), a young warrior-woman with a knack for flinging deadly throwing-darts (a prerequisite for this type of movie), and by, well, Jet Li, playing a silent monk (I think he is actually named Silent Monk), who is in fact an aspect of the Monkey guy (so he too wants to get the spear back to Monkey, etc.).

Of course, all of this is essentially window-dressing so as to ppave the way for a number of sweet fight scenes. Now, a lot of what we see here is pretty typical wire-fu stuff. If you've seen Crouching Tiger, Hero, Iron Monkey, or House of Flying Daggers ... then you've probably seen a lot of the action stuff here done really well already. But the thing I appreciated about Forbidden Kingdom was that it knew what the real main event was - Chan vs. Li, baby. When the two first meet midway through the film and ave the inevitable misunderstanding resulting in fisticuffs, it feels like a bigtime brawl, baby. The film really nails the iconography inherent in two of kung-fu's all time legends going at it for the first time ever, and I was on the edge of my seat watching the two exchange flurries of punches, kicks, and countermoves. Sure, it was all under the guise of a kid-friendly fantasy flick, with both wearing goofy period costume and such, but somehow, it all worked. It's in part because, for all its wackiness, Forbidden Kingdom serves as a somewhat heartfelt tribute to the great martial arts movies. It is in a way an homage to Chan and Li, painting them as rival masters not of this world but of some mystical kung-fu land where each is like a god. It's goofy and fun, yet there is a real kind of love-letter dynamic at play. It's evident from the opening credits, which are displayed over a montage of old-time kung-fu movie posters. From the get-go, the movie gets you primed and ready to rumble.

Chan and Li are huge presences, but there are some other fun turns as well. Our lead villain is a classic pulp antagonist, hissing his EVIL dialogue with the prfect amount of reptilian venom. There's a white-haired witch, looking like an anime character come to life, who uses her retractable, silken hair as a deadly weapon. There's a lot of cool characters, that's for sure, and the movie has them frequently and satisfyingly fight it out early and often, with all the acrobatics, elaborate choreography, and crazy kung-fu stuff that you could hope for.

So yeah, the film brings the pain, but it also tends to bring the pain, if you know what I mean. Some of the dialogue really is painful, and oftentimes just plain hard to understand. As charismatic as Jackie Chan is, he still struggles to speak English and to really be an effective actor other than when the script calls for broad humor. Li is a bit more of an effective dramatist, and its a blast seeing him play both a strong and silent monk and the crazy, hopped-up Monkey King ... but again, his stilted English combined with the flat script does produce some cringe-worthy moments. What's most disappointing about the movie is that it has some great visuals, great action, two icons in Li and Chan, and a proven, time-tested and kid-friendly premise - but too much of it feels thrown together. If just a little more care had been given to the bookend scenes in the real-world, for example, the movie could have had the same kind of fairy-tale effect as kids classics like The Neverending Story. But we never really focus on the awe and wonder that would go along with being swept away into a fantasy world. Everything is just kind of taken at face value, and it gives the movie a somewhat sloppy feel. It's the kind of movie that COULD have been a real kids' classic with some better storytelling chops, but is instead frustrating in that it really misses the mark in terms of giving us a classic hero's journey. Our main character is swept away into this other world, almost instantly accepts his fate, and within minutes goes from geeky teen to martial arts master - with a character arc that feels haphazardly handled at best. It's a shame, because the movie reminded me of all those great kids movies from back in the day, and at times it really had that same sense of fun, awe, and wonder. But as is, Forbidden Kingdom is a movie chock full of kung-fu action, an iconic throwdown between Jackie Chan and Jet Li, but a movie that feels too hastily-thrown together to be measure up to the classics.

My Grade: B

- And with that, I'm out like a ninja, baby.

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