Review: ‘Kung Fu Panda 4,’ starring the voices of Jack Black, Awkwafina, Bryan Cranston, James Hong, Ian McShane, Ke Huy Quan, Dustin Hoffman and Viola Davis

March 7, 2024

by Carla Hay

Po (voiced by Jack Black) and Zhen (voiced by Awkwafina) in “Kung Fu Panda 4” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Kung Fu Panda 4”

Directed by Mike Mitchell; co-directed by Stephanie Ma Stine

Culture Representation: Taking place in a mythical version of China, the animated film “Kung Fu Panda 4” features a cast of characters portraying various talking animals.

Culture Clash: Grandmaster Warrior/kung fu fighter Po (a panda) and a rebellious fox named Zhen go on a quest to defeat an evil, shape-shifting villain named The Chameleon. 

Culture Audience: “Kung Fu Panda 4” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise, the movie’s headliners, and predictable but entertaining animation films that blend comedy and adventure.

The Chameleon (voiced by Viola Davis), center, in “Kung Fu Panda 4” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Kung Fu Panda 4” sticks to a certain formula that’s made entertaining, thanks to a talented voice cast, light comedy and dazzling visuals. The absence of the Furious Five in this story will disappoint some viewers, but the adventure doesn’t get boring. “Kung Fu Panda 4” is the type of sequel that exists to set up a continuation of this franchise with perspectives that were different from previous “Kung Fu Panda” movies.

Directed by Mike Mitchell and co-directed by Stephanie Ma Stine, “Kung Fu Panda 4” is part of the franchise series that began with 2008’s “Kung Fu Panda” and continued with 2011’s “Kung Fu Panda 2” and 2016’s “Kung Fu Panda 3.” In the first three “Kung Fu Panda” movies, the title character Po (voiced by Jack Black) had adventures with a group of kung fu masters called the Furious Five: Tigress (voiced by Angela Jolie), Monkey (voiced by Jackie Chan), Viper (voiced by Lucy Liu), Crane (voiced by David Cross) and Mantis (voiced by Seth Rogen). Po evolves from being an awkward panda to being a full-fledged kung fu warrior, under the guidance of an elderly mentor named Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), who also trained the Furious Five.

It’s mentioned at the beginning of “Kung Fu Panda 4” (which takes place ina fantasy version of China, just like the previous “Kung Fu Panda” movies) that the Furious Five are off doing separate heroic deeds. (In other words, the “Kung Fu Panda 4” filmmakers couldn’t or didn’t want to pay the money it would take to bring the original Furious Five voice actors back as principal characters for this sequel.) Po is now a famous Dragon Warrior who loves to fight and almost always wins his battles against criminals where he lives in the Valley of Peace.

And that’s why Po is surprised when Shifu tells Po that Po is being “promoted” to become the Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace, as a replacement for the retiring Master Oogway, an elderly Galápagos tortoise. Po doesn’t think of himself as having enough knowledge about spirtuality to be qualified for this position. He only wants to do what he knows he’s good at doing: “Kicking butt and taking names,” Po says. Shifu gives reluctant Po the task of choosing Po’s successor as the next Dragon Warrior, but Po doesn’t think he’s qualified to do that task either.

Because he is the reigning Dragon Warrior, Po has been given possession of a magical staff that can open different realms. The staff only works if it is in the possession of someone who has been given the staff, not someone who steals or buys the staff. It should come as no surprise that this staff becomes the sought-after object in this story of good versus evil.

Po soon meets a female Corsac fox named Zhen (voiced by Awkwafina), a wily and sarcastic thief from Juniper City, a place that is bustling with high energy but also danger. It’s the type of place where innocent-looking kids can turn into mean little terrors within a split second. Zhen soon gets caught during a robbery and is tossed in jail.

Zhen tells Po that there’s an evil shapeshifting sorceress named The Chameleon (voiced by Viola Davis), who has super-strength powers and an army of Komodo dragons. The Chameleon who wants the staff, in order to have world domination. The Chameleon is already wreaking havoc by having several crime lords under her control in the surrounding areas. She forces these nefarious bosses to give her at least half of their bounty. The crime lords hang out at a place called the Den of Thieves, where they are led by Han (voiced by Ke Huy Quan), a pangolin who can change himself into a ball the size of a boulder.

Po naturally wants to stop The Chameleon. Zhen tells Po that she knows how to find The Chameleon. Po makes a deal with Zhen: He will get Zhen out of jail and get her jail sentence reduced if she can bring him to the place where The Chameleon is. Po figures that if he will soon have to gve up the title of Dragon Warrior, he wants to go out in a blaze of glory. The majority of “Kung Fu Panda 4” is about Zhen and Po’s quest to find The Chameleon and encountering several obstacles and challenges along the way.

It’s a secretive trip that Po doesn’t disclose to his family. Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong) and Po’s biological father Li (voiced by Bryan Cranston)—whose rivalry was resolved after they met in “Kung Fu Panda 3″—join forces in “Kung Fu Panda 4” to find Po when he goes missing. Mr. Ping is a nervous goose, while Li has a lot of masculine bravado, so these two opposite personalities (who occasionally argue) are fodder of a lot the comedic rapport between these two fathers.

During the time and Zhen and Po spend time together and get to know each other better, they find out that they both spent most of their childhoods as orphans. Zhen says she was taken in and raised by someone who taught street smarts to Zhen. It’s at this point in the story where it might be very easy for some viewers to figure out what’s going to happen.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” voice cast members Black and Awkwafina have done several animated films where they are larger-than-life, comedic characters. It’s a skill set that not all performers have, but Black and Awkwafina excel at it, even if some viewers might think Awkwafina’s voice is irritating. As for the Chameleon character, Davis gives a very divalicious performance as a villain who is both glamorous and menacing.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” also marks the return of snow leopard Tai Lung (voiced by Ian McShane), who was the chief villain in the first “Kung Fu Panda” movie. Other supporting characters in “Kung Fu Panda 4” are Captain Fish (voiced by Ronny Chieng), a green arowana living in a pelican’s mouth; Granny Boar (voiced by Lori Tan Chinn), who uses her tusks and weapons; and PandaPig (voiced by MrBeast), a pig with certain panda characteristics, who is at the Dragon Warrior Tournament. One of the best-looking fight sequences in “Kung Fu Panda 4” involves Po and some of the other characters in shadows.

Sometimes, when there’s a long gap between movies in a franchise, the movie that closes that gap can be a very stale cash grab that seems outdated. However, the throughline between “Kung Fu Panda 3” and “Kung Fu Panda 4” manages to keep the story and characters fresh enough to deliver a crowd-pleasing film. “Kung Fu Panda” is not going to win any major awards, but it fulfills its purpose to be pleasant diversion that people of many generations can enjoy.

Universal Pictures will release “Kung Fu Panda 4” in U.S. cinemas on Mach 8, 2024.

Review: ‘American Star,’ starring Ian McShane, Nora Arnezeder, Adam Nagaitis, Oscar Coleman, Sabela Arán, Thomas Kretschmann and Fanny Ardant

February 27, 2024

by Carla Hay

Ian McShane and Adam Nagaitis in “American Star” (Photo by José David Montero/IFC Films)

“American Star”

Directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego

Some language in Spanish and French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place on the island of Fuerteventura, which is part of Spain’s Canary Islands, the dramatic film “American Star” features a white and Latin cast of characters (with one black/biracial person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A jaded assassin gets emotionally attached to a young woman he is supposed to kill, and she sees him as a somewhat of a father figure/substitute for her deceased biological father. 

Culture Audience: “American Star” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about assassins that are more about psychological repercussions than about high-octane violence.

Nora Arnezeder in “American Star” (Photo by José David Montero/IFC Films)

“American Star” is a deliberately paced, artful-looking story of an assassin who is emotionally torn over killing or saving a young woman who is his target. People expecting a fast-moving action film will be disappointed. This drama is a character study.

That’s not to say that there is no violence in “American Star.” The violent scenes in the movie are bloody and brutal. However, the violence is not the focus of “American Star,” which is more about what happens when an assassin gets emotionally attached to someone he is supposed to kill.

Directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego and written by Nacho Faerna, “American Star” doesn’t have the usual stereotype of the assassin falling in love with his target. The woman he is supposed to kill sees him as a father figure instead of a potential lover. This type of affection catches him off guard while he is under pressure to complete the “assignment” of murdering her.

The British assassin who is the central character in “American Star” is named Wilson (played by Ian McShane), a world-weary killer who is contemplating retirement. Wilson has traveled by plane to the island of Fuerteventura, which is part of Spain’s Canary Islands. (The movie was filmed on location in Fuerteventura.) Although it’s a beautiful location, and Wilson is staying at an upscale hotel, the weather in Feurteventura during this time of year is often cold and windy.

Someone else is in Fuerteventura to keep an eye on Wilson: his nephew Ryan (played by Adam Nagaitis), who is also an assassin. Ryan and Wilson also have the same boss. Ryan has been sent to be Wilson’s “backup” in case anything goes wrong or if Wilson can’t complete this hit job. Wilson has resentment that Ryan is there because, as Wilson tells Ryan: “I work alone.”

Wilson and Ryan (who is the son of Wilson’s sister) have a relationship that can best be described as “prickly,” for reasons that are somewhat vague and go back for many years. Ryan, who is dishonest and creepy, enjoys being an assassin and thinks Wilson is going “soft” in this assassin work. For reasons that are unexplained, Ryan has been lying to his mother by saying that Ryan is still living in Paris. This is the type of lie that is upsetting to Wilson, whose sister (Ryan’s mother) has no idea that Ryan and Wilson are hired hit men.

Besides being assassins who are family members, another thing that Wilson and Ryan have in common is that they both used to be soldiers in the British military. Ryan makes a comment to Wilson that being an assassin and being a soldier are similar, because they are both jobs where they get paid to kill people. Ryan thinks it’s better to be an assassin for these reasons: “Private work, less risks. We still carry guns and take orders.” Wilson insists that being an assassin and being a soldier are not the same thing.

Wilson has also been given the assignment to kill two people who live in a sleek luxury home in Fuerteventura: a wealthy man named Thomas (played by Thomas Kretschmann) and his significant other named Linda (played by Sabela Arán). But there’s someone else who’s on Wilson’s hit list: a cantina bartender named Gloria (played by Nora Arnezeder), who is originally from France. Gloria has been living in Feurteventura for the past six years. The reason why she’s been targeted for murder is revealed in the movie.

Wilson introduces himself to Gloria at her job by pretending to be a tourist who works in “personal security.” He asks for Gloria’s help in looking for a famous shipwreck in the ocean called the American Star, which is in a remote part of the island. Gloria offers to take Wilson to the American Star. And that’s the start of them getting to know each other better.

The American Star is a giant and very rusty ship that is still upright in the ocean and is partially hidden by cliffs. It’s quite a sight to behold. When Gloria takes Wilson to see the American Star, she explains the history behind how the ship ended up there.

The ship got wrecked in the early 1900s. There was talk of turning it into a prison, but those plans were canceled. In 1939, a tugboat was taking the American Star to Greece to turn the ship into a floating hotel, but the tugboat’s towline snapped, and the ship got permanently stuck in the ocean. In 1939, then-U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt had even christened the American Star, but the next day, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The ship has stayed in this part of the Atlantic Ocean ever since.

Viewers who look beyond the surface of what this movie is about can see that the American Star is a symbol for how Wilson feels about himself at this point in his life: an old relic who feels “stuck” in his existence. This is one of the reasons why the movie shows that Wilson becomes fascinated with the American Star. This lone ship in the ocean is a reflection of how lonely Wilson is. He doesn’t reveal much about his personal life to Gloria except to say that he’s not married, he lives alone, and he has no children.

Gloria tells Wilson that he reminds her of her deceased father. It’s hinted that Gloria’s father had a dangerous lifestyle of criminal activities, and he died because of it. Gloria eventually introduces Wilson to her mother Anne (played by Fanny Ardant), a real-estate agent who has been living in Feurteventura for the past 15 years. “American Star” shows that although Wilson doesn’t like to talk much, he gets into engaging conversations with Gloria, who is very talkative and curious, because he genuinely likes her. The feeling is mutual.

The movie has a somewhat unnecessary tangent showing Wilson having occasional friendly talks with a boy of about 8 or 9 years old named Max (played by Oscar Coleman), who is staying with his frequently quarreling and neglectful parents at a hotel room on the same floor as Wilson’s hotel room. Max is often left to do things on his own, which is how he gets acquainted with Wilson, who treats Max like a playful grandson. There seems to no real purpose for these scenes except to show that Wilson isn’t as cold-hearted and cruel as a lot of people might think he is.

McShane’s understated but effective performance in “American Star” is one of the main reasons to watch the movie, since almost everything that Wilson says or does has consequences in this story. Arnezeder is quite good in the role of Gloria, but Arnezeder has played ths type of “female character who exists to make the central male character feel good about himself” in other movies. “American Star” doesn’t sugarcoat or glorify what an assassin does in the act of killing, but it does give an up-close and interesting look at what happens when a meticulous assassin who likes to plan ahead ends up experiencing something that is unplanned—compassion and friendship for someone he’s been hired to murder.

IFC Films released “American Star” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 26, 2024.

Review: ‘John Wick: Chapter 4,’ starring Keanu Reeves

March 22, 2023

by Carla Hay

Keanu Reeves in “John Wick: Chapter 4” (Photo by Murray Close/Lionsgate)

“John Wick: Chapter 4”

Directed by Chad Stahelski

Some language in French, Japanese, German and Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, France, Japan and Germany, the action film “John Wick: Chapter 4” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Notorious mercenary John Wick fights several opponents in various countries, in order to be released from his servitude punishment from the High Table, a council of 12 crime lords who oversee the underworld’s most powerful criminal groups. 

Culture Audience: “John Wick: Chapter 4” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “John Wick” franchise, star Keanu Reeves, and action-packed movies that can get very violent.

Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgård and Marko Zaror in “John Wick: Chapter 4” (Photo by Murray Close/Lionsgate)

“John Wick: Chapter 4” is the most stunning and stylish-looking of the “John Wick” movies. Elaborate fight scenes are the movie’s biggest assets, but there’s also plenty of suspense, well-placed comedy and a meaningful story of humanity at the heart of this ultra-violent movie. “John Wick: Chapter 4” is an ending chapter of this franchise, but an end-credits scene in the movie hints that the saga will continue in another storyline.

Directed by Chad Stahelski, “John Wick: Chapter 4” was written by Shay Hatten and Michael Finch. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival. It’s an epic movie (with a total running time of 169 minutes) that is filled with adrenalin-pumping action that is never boring but can be overwhelming or offensive for people who have a low tolerance for violence in movies. At this point, most people who want to see a “John Wick” movie already that “John Wick” movies have a lot murders and mayhem. Everyone else should be prepared for ths onslaught.

It’s not necessary to see the previous “John Wick” movies, but it helps give better context to some of the relationships in the movie. The plot of “John Wick: Chapter 4” is fairly simple: Notorious mercenary John Wick (played by Keanu Reeves) fights several opponents in various countries, in order to be released from his servitude punishment from the High Table, a council of 12 crime lords who oversee the underworld’s most powerful criminal groups. The current leader of the table is a ruthless sadist named Marquis (played by Bill Skarsgård), who is based in Paris. Even among these criminals, there are rules and codes of conduct that must be followed.

John’s quest leads him from his native United States to various other countries, including Japan, France and Germany. Some of his allies can turn into enemies, while some of his enemies can turn into allies. The characters he encounters include Winston (played Ian McShane), owner of the Continental Hotel in New York City; Continental Hotel concierge Charon (played by Lance Reddick, who died on March 17, 2023, one week before the release date of “John Wick: Chapter 4”); and Bowery King (played by Laurence Fishburne), leader of the Soup Kitchen, a New York City-based underworld intelligence network that is disguised as a homeless shelter.

In “John Wick: Chapter 4,” John has two hit men who have been hired to kill him: blind assassin Caine (played by Donnie Yen) and bounty hunter Tracker (played by Shamier Anderson), who is accompanied by his loyal German Shepherd. While in Japan, John interacts with Shimazu (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), the manager of the Continental Hotel in Osaka, as well as Shimazu’s daughter Akira (played by Rina Sawayama), who is a high-ranking manager at the hotel. Also in the movie are a Russian mafia princess named Katia (played by Natalia Tena); Chidi (played by Marko Zaror), who is Marquis’ second-in-command henchman; and Harbinger (played by Clancy Brown), who is a high-ranking member of the High Table.

Visually, “John Wick: Chapter 4” is the most vibrant of the “John Wick” movies. Dan Laustsen’s exquisite cinematography has gorgeously rich hues and eye-popping camera angles. Some critics might argue that this movie makes violence took glamorous, but there’s no denying that “John Wick: Chapter 4” is an achievement in visual arts for action films. And let’s be clear: The movie has no ambiguity in rooting for who the “good” characters are.

“John Wick: Chapter 4” takes on many qualities of a comic book come to life, such as the way that word fonts look on screen, how the action scenes are choreographed, and the manner in which some of the villains are portrayed. (And to its detriment, “John Wick: Chapter 4” has very simplistic dialogue, similar to a comic book.) Scott Adkins plays a German crime boss named Killa (the leader of the High Table’s German operations), who is a character that looks like he was inspired by the Kingpin villain in Marvel Comics. Killa is a massive thug who wears a business suit and has gold-plated front teeth. You can imagine how those gold teeth will be used as comic relief in one of the fight scenes.

“John Wick: Chapter 4” certainly has some very cartoonish violence. However, the violence gets much more realistic in the last third of the movie. There’s an unusual and somewhat comedic action sequence involving a long flight of stairs that is sure to be one of the most memorable aspects of “John Wick: Chapter 4.” And the last 15 minutes of the movie just might make some viewers cry. “John Wick: Chapter 4” goes beyond what typical action movies do by not just offering unique fight scenes but also stirring up complex emotions for the main characters in ways that can be unexpected.

Lionsgate will release “John Wick: Chapter 4” in U.S. cinemas on March 24, 2023.

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