It's that time of year again when film critics connected to societies that dish out annual awards find their mailboxes stuffed with dozens of DVDs and the occasional gift or two: a bag of popcorn and Puss in Boots wrapping paper from DreamWorks, for example. Or the shooting script of The Descendants, which boasts an inane quote from Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman: "[Writer/director Alexander] Payne has become the Stanley Kubrick of serious American comedy." That sort of hyperbole transforms the usually sensible Gleiberman into the Rip Taylor of serious American critics.
Anyway, let's stalk through the DVD pile a little.
1) Steven Soderbergh's Contagion (pictured), a paean to death by bat droppings mixed with a bit of pork, is being pushed for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Laurence Fishburne), and about 17 other nominations. The studio heads only overlooked a trophy for Best Catering.
Sadly, in the Death-of-Mankind cinema category, Contagion runs a far second to the audaciously wise and ferociously entertaining Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Still, before it runs out of steam in the second half and is only salvaged by a beautifully sage and concise finale, Contagion is an engrossing love letter to germaphobes, sort of a zombie fest without the zombies.
Gwyneth Paltrow stars as an adulterous businesswoman who, after gambling in Asia, brings an unknown disease stateside, which kills her son and a huge part of the population that is still watching Two and a Half Men. Her spouse, Matt Damon, who is immune to the malady, spends the rest the rest of the picture trying to keep his daughter alive, while Jude Law plays a blogger preaching government conspiracies, Jennifer Ehle essays a scientist who will go to any lengths to find a vaccine, and Marion Cotillard, an employee of the World Health Organization, gets herself kidnapped in China.
Fast-paced and with a satisfactory score by Cliff Martinez, the film in the end is far too episodic, not supplying any of the characters with enough emotional components to make us care about their survival, with the slight exceptions of Damon, Law, and Kate Winslet as a CDC researcher. Sadly, this one can't be chalked up as an infectious entertainment.
2) Joe Wright's Hanna, a gloriously shot, jejune adventure, wants to be considered for 19 awards, and it might just win two: a Razzie for Cate Blanchett, who truly gives up the worst performance of an otherwise impeccable career, and an Oscar nom for Alwin Kuchler's startling cinematography. Seldom has a film looked so good and said so little.
A sour, empty graphic novel of an escapade from the man who once helmed Atonement, Hanna gets intensely more godawful as it approaches its climax. Sadirse Ronan stars as the titular 16-year-old girl raised in an isolated Finnish landscape by her "father" (Eric Bana) to become the most lethal post-pubescent assassin to ever graduate from a training bra. When it's decided that Hanna is ready for modern civilization, the CIA is forewarned, and Blanchett heads the posse that's out to kill the young girl and her pop, who are heading for Berlin, while massacring everyone who comes into contact with the duo.
With breathtaking visuals and Ronan's undeniable charisma, it will take you awhile to realize you're bored, but when the ennui settles in, you won't be able to shake it.
3) Jennifer Yuh Nelson's Kung Fu Panda 2 has garnered a worldwide gross of over $670 million, surpassing its predecessor, Kung Fu Panda, which I so downheartedly missed. Well, now on top of earning a billion dollars of cash in its registers for this franchise, DreamWorks is seeking a handful of medals. The company will have to settle for the dirty dough.
Admittedly, on the plus side, the art direction by Raymond Zibach and Tang Kheng Heng is phenomenally ravishing, and the cartoon's moral is uplifting: Forget your past. "The only thing that matters is what you choose now." However, the screenplay too often settles for the lame ("You should have told me you were coming. I would have saved you some stinky tofu"); the characters are indecipherable from one another, especially in the action scenes; and the voices of the leads are frequently bland.
Yes, Jack Black as the voice of the Po, the heroic yet blundering orphaned panda being raised by a goose, is pathetically spiceless. This is part of a phenomenon of the past few decades where a big name is more important to hire than a talented unknown vocalist. There are exceptions such as Robin Williams (Aladdin) and Ellen DeGeneres (Finding Nemo), but here whatever gelt Black, Angelina Jolie (Tigress), and the others such as Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, and Jackie Chan amassed was unnecessarily spent. I mean, how many ten-year-olds have seen The Graduate or Gia?
As for the plot, it has the egomanical peacock Shen (Oldman) wanting to regain his family throne, rule all of China, and wipe out the art of kung fu. He will do so by building a big cannon. Po and his animal friends, which include a praying mantis and a tigress, must unite and defeat Chen. Along the way, Po will discover why he wound up being raised by a goose.
What could up have amounted to a highly moving work of art is constantly diminished by low-grade TV sitcom humor such as can be found on any series starring Kevin James or James Belushi. All of which confirms what Woody Allen proposed in Annie Hall: “In California, they don't throw their garbage away -- they make it into TV shows.” Sadly, some of it seeps into their films. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Gay Identity in Literature" and "The Arts in New York City" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).