Sunday, April 10, 2016

Retro Trio: Bridget Jones's Diary (2001); Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011); First Blood (1982)

Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)

Director: Sharon MaGuire

One of the stronger, more accessible rom coms that I've seen, if not exactly a movie that I'll put on my all-time favorites list.

The title character (Renee Zellweger) is a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, unlucky-in-love, 30-something bachelorette who works at a publishing company. She makes a resolution to cut down on her vices and make every effort to find a decent man. Unfortunately, she soon falls for Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), a handsome, funny, womanizing rogue who is a manager at her company. Bridget engages in a fun, sexually satisfying affair with Cleaver, though she does remain curious about another man on the periphery of her life, Marc Darcy (Colin Firth). Darcy is a much dryer, serious lawyer whom Bridget knows through family friends. Bridget's feelings become even more confused when more details emerge about Cleaver's past friendship with Darcy, and the former's unwillingness to fully commit to Bridget.

This is a more singular rom com, as its protagonist is unusually degenerative. Jones's loneliness is fairly standard fare for the rom com genre, but her humorously chronic attempts to drown her sadness with booze and cigarettes make her much more accessible than similar, more poised and innocent protagonists. She is a nervous type who has "diarrhea of the mouth," which results in her embarrassing herself more than any other person possibly could. It all makes for solid comedy.

The two most appealing aspects of the movie are the acting and the adult nature of it. I can appreciate the foul-mouthed exchanges, mostly between Bridget and Cleaver, which make the characters more enjoyably earthy. The actors are all perfect in their roles, with Hugh Grant especially standing out as the attractively hedonistic and sleazy Cleaver. Colin Firth plays the stuffy Darcy masterfully, and these two polar opposites offer plenty of opportunity for Renee Zellweger to show off her comedy acting chops.

My viewing partner for this one was my wife, who has seen the movie more times that she can count. It was nice to be informed that the movie, just as the source novel, drew from Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice (I suppose Colin Firth playing a character named Darcy should have given it away). I can appreciate such updates, and it gives the tale some welcome intelligence and literary heft.

While the Bridget Jones character may come off as an incompetant clown a little more than her creator, author Helen Fielding, might have liked (my wife assures me that this is the case), it hardly spoils anything in a light-hearted film like this one. This is never going to be a movie that I'll go out of my way to watch, but I'll be happy to put it into the holiday rotation to see every year or two.

Don't lie - you know you enjoy the cuteness.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

Director: Jennifer Yuh

A fun enough sequel, though not as enjoyable as the original (which I reviewed here).

The tale picks up some time after the first movie. Po (voiced by Jack Black) is now a legitimate kung-fu master, working with the Furious Five, defending locals from evil-doers. Not far away, the exiled son of a powerful family - Shen (Gary Oldman) - plots to return and overthrow the country. Shen also has an obsession with avoiding a prophecy which states that a black and white warrior will utterly defeat him. This is about all there is to the main story, which is far less interesting than the story of Tai Lien in the first movie.

The other story elements include learning much more about Po's past, and it also follows Po's quest to further master kung fu by "embracing inner peace," as his master Shifu puts it. These parts to the story are fine, but the tale isn't quite as engaging as the previous movie. This is the general theme of every aspect of this sequel: decent enough, but a weaker version of the original.

From the dialogue to the visual action, all aspect of this movie are slightly less clever or entertaining versions of the themes and gags set up in the first movie. Plenty of the lines are funny, but not quite as funny. Some of the action is a visual treat, but not as much of a treat as the original, as this movie relies more on overly long fighting sequences. You get the picture.

Unlike the first movie, which was a complete story in and of itself, this second movie clearly had an eye on an assumed third film. Panda 2 plants seeds the for a plot which will obviously bear fruit in the next film (released earlier this year, in fact). This is fine, but it leaves more dangling plot threads by its end, which can make for a slightly less satisfying narrative.

This is still a good series, and I'll check out the third film. I do hope, though, that it can be a little more like the original.

First Blood (1982)

Director: Ted Kotcheff

Somehow, some way, I had never watched First Blood at any point in my meat-eating, suburban-living, red-blooded, all-American Gen-X'er male life. I finally decided to fill in this glaring blank on my dance card of '80s tough guy movies, and it was well worth it.

Based on a short novel of the same name, First Blood follows several brutal days in the post-war life of Vietnam veteran John Rambo. Rambo is a drifter of sorts, and he wanders into a small town in Michigan after finding out that one of his platoon buddies had died from complications of exposure to Agent Orange. In the town, the local police officers try to bully the somewhat ragged-looking Rambo out of town. The quiet veteran, however, civilly refuses. He is then promptly put in jail.

In the jail, while being physically abused, Rambo suffers a severe PTSD flashback and lashes out, badly beating several police officers and escaping into the nearby woods. Over the next few days, the police refuse to back down, hounding Rambo to the point that he accidentally kills one of them in self-defense. The situation escalates to the point that more troops arrive, along with Rambo's former commanding officer, Colonel Troutman. It becomes clear that Rambo was not only a war hero but also one of the fiercest and most capable soldiers he had ever trained. What unfolds is a showdown between an ignorant local law enforcement team and a man who has been trained into a lethal killer but who also suffers from untreated psychological trauma.

It's easy to see why this movie obtained such respected status. Yes, it is a survival story and a case of one-versus-many, which both have a certain macho appeal. On these fronts, the movie still hits its marks. Beyond this, though, the movie taps into some very dark psychological territory that standard action movies were rarely exploring in the early 1980s. Rambo is presented as a tragic figure, rather than simply as the "wrong man to mess with" which so many imitation characters tried to emulate.

Some of of the scenes and sequences are a bit overlong, and a few points are belabored a bit much. Still, this was a really good movie that I wish I had seen long ago. It does further beg the question, too, of what if Sylvester Stallone had managed to keep his narcissism and ego in better check? The guy was in some outstanding movies early in his career, with First Blood being of particular note. If he had aspired a little more towards artistic integrity over fame and cash, he probably could have many, many more excellent movies on his resume, and far fewer movies like Rambo III, Cobra, and Rocky 5.