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Panda... monium; Graham Young and Roz Laws review the latest films.

Byline: Graham Young ; Roz Laws

Asurvey in the mid-1970s might have revealed that westerners had two things at the top of their Chinese knowledge list.

There would have been 'kung fu', thanks to the 1972-75 TV series of the same name with the late David Carradine, and pandas - after Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were given to US President Richard Nixon in 1972.

Despite China's vastly-increased economic influence in the 21st century, our perceptions probably remain much the same thanks to the smash hit Dreamworks' animation Kung Fu Panda (2008).

"Prepare for awesomeness" went the deservedly-optimistic tagline and the film duly grossed more than $600million worldwide. Truly awesome.

Today, it still has a place in the worldwide all-time top 50 movies ahead of Pixar movies like The Incredibles, Ratatouille and even DreamWorks' own Shrek and Madagascar hits.

So you didn't need a crystal ball to predict that a sequel would be on its way sooner rather than later - or that Kung Fu Panda 3 will be on its way in due course.

The genius of the Kung Fu Panda movies is that our unlikely hero Po is a fat little boy in a world that is becoming increasingly full of them.

To prove that point Po is still voiced by Jack Black, a rotund actor whose girth has done nothing for his live action appearances in dreadful movies like Year One and Gulliver's Travels.

Take away his physicality and Black's voice seems much more nuanced in the animated world, as if he's really trying to act instead of merely filling live action screens with his bloated, gurning features.

Po was originally introduced as the laziest Panda around before he became a "chosen one" who could learn how to save the day. When the sequel opens, he's reverting to type by trying to cram as much food into his cheeks as possible.

With audiences likely to be armed with full popcorn buckets, this seems to be a perfectly appropriate way to introduce a family blockbuster to the masses who believe in the old fleapit mantra: "watch film, stuff face". Joking aside, Po has also made career progress. He's now a Dragon Warrior protecting the Valley of Peace alongside fellow kung fu masters The Furious Five - Crane, Mantis, Viper, Monkey and Angelina Jolie's Tigress.

So what can he do about a villainous peacock called Lord Shen (a typically unpredictable character for Gary Oldman) who wants to use fireworks to take over the land? Anything is going to be possible, but Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tells him that he has yet to achieve "inner peace".

Find that, and he can "harness the power of the universe".

And to find out where he's going, Po also needs to understand his past.

So that will mean explaining why his father is... a goose called Mr Ping (James Wong).

With such a neat, comical back story and plenty of action going forwards, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a solid entry in the modern world of computer-generated animations and a promising start for debut director Jennifer Yuh Nelson.

There's plenty of "violence", but only in an exciting sense.

The weapon that could spell the end of kung fu by breathing fire and spitting metal is perfectly suited to adding punch to a PG certificate.

One of the original film's problems was that the score by Hans Zimmer (Gladiator) and Londoner John Powell (The Bourne Supremacy) was often so ill-fitting. The composers struggled to blend Chinese themes with rapid action.

They seem to have had more time on this occasion but the end credits music is still no match for Zimmer's own work at the conclusion of Pirates of the Caribbean 4. A more important question is whether you should pay extra to see this in 3D or take the cheaper 2D option.

If we get a wet weekend, I'd quite like to see it again...

but this time in 2D.

When it comes to animations, I'd always rather have brighter pictures over depth any day of the week.

Especially when I noted during the first movie that "many of the scenes have such depth you'll scarcely believe it's not in 3D".

GY Honey 2 Cert PG, 110 mins Eight years after the first film - but featuring none of the original's characters - comes this entirely pointless sequel.

The first Honey was about a bartender and dancer played by Jessica Alba.

She's long gone, though where is a mystery. Instead we get a whole bunch of new people who dance in a New York centre she founded.

Maria (Katerina Graham) is fresh out of juvenile detention centre where inmates break out into spontaneous, yet perfectly co-ordinated, dance-offs rather than fights. This is the obvious answer to youth knife crime.

The 17-year-old falls back in with old boyfriend Luis (Christopher Martinez as an underpowered villain), who got her into trouble but swears he's changed.

When she discovers he's lying, she joins a new dance crew. This is where it gets horribly formulaic and predictable.

Girl from wrong side of the tracks falls for rich white college boy Brandon (Randy Wayne) and takes on her enemies in a dance competition.

There's even an ill grandma who needs the prize money to pay her medical bill.

And a cheesy montage when Brandon takes her on a tour of New York to watch different dance styles while Gabrielle warbles Dreams Can Come True.

Not quite enough stereotypes yet? Then throw in an Indian who owns a corner shop and offers her wisdom like "follow your heart".

With awful script and acting, the only reason to watch this is if you're mad keen on dancing. Even the outtakes over the end credits aren't funny.

RL Mother's Day Cert 18, 112 mins She was the nanny from hell in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. Now, almost 20 years on, Rebecca De Mornay is an equally chilling mother in this reworking of a 1980 slasher.

She looks nice enough, in her sensible shoes and cardie.

She's polite and friendly - up to a point.

Her three armed robber sons storm into a house which used to be their family home. Now it's owned by young couple Beth and Daniel, who have friends over for a party.

One of the boys has been shot after a raid went wrong. They need medical help - fortunately one of the guests is a doctor - and money to aid their getaway, so they round up the hostages at gunpoint and call in mom.

"I swear, sometimes you boys are just little savages!" she admonishes them, insisting they treat their victims better. Until they try to escape, and then she proudly watches while her sons dole out some very nasty violence.

We should expect this, as Mother's Day is directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, the man behind three of the torture porn Saw films.

The cast actually isn't too bad. Jaime King plays Beth, who discovers she can bring herself to kill when it comes to the crunch.

But the brutality is hard to stomach, the characters are paper thin and unlikeable and the camerawork is often annoyingly shaky.

It's also frustrating how the hostages pass up plenty of opportunities to end their predicament, while several characters miraculously survive being shot.

De Mornay puts in a good performance and really commands the screen, but even she can't save this film. Only watch it if you enjoy seeing people being burned, stabbed, shot or have boiling water poured over their heads.

By the end - which seems to take an age to arrive - I really didn't care if anyone survived the massacre, I just wanted it to be over.

RL My Dog Tulip Cert 12A, 81 mins I kind of admire this film for its two major accomplishments.

Firstly, animators Paul and Sandra Fierlinger have assembled an impressive voice cast, including Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave and Isabella Rossellini. It also manages to be a film about a dog which avoids any sentimentalism. Don't expect a cartoon version of Marley & Me, as this is definitely for adults rather than children. You're unlikely ever to go "aahh".

That's mainly because it deals so exclusively with the bowel movements and sex life of an Alsatian bitch called Tulip.

Based on the 1956 memoir of BBC editor JR Ackerley, it tells the story of his 15-year relationship with his pet dog.

It starts charmingly enough, with the crude handdrawn animation and narration by Plummer revealing how Ackerley rescued a young, excitable Tulip from a house where she'd been beaten.

"This beautiful creature came into my life and transformed it," he says.

Except we don't really see how this happened. Instead, we are treated to far too much detail about trying to house train Tulip and exactly when, where and how she relieves herself.

And I got very tired of the dull story of his obsession with trying to mate her.

Redgrave, in her last role, provides the voice of Acklerly's sister, but there is very little dialogue apart from the central voiceover. And not even Plummer's soothing tones can entertain us for this long, so his narration really begins to drone by the end of the film.

See it at Birmingham's MAC if you're a major lover of dogs and/or quirky animations, but don't expect to be entertained or moved.



Po (Jack Black), Tigress (Angelina Jolie) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) are back in action in Kung Fu Panda 2
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Jun 9, 2011
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