8/10/05 Edition

KUNG FU Craziness

Andy Reviews Stephen Chow's KUNG FU HUSTLE
Plus: WINN-DIXIE and The Muppets Visit Oz!

Thanks to the efforts of Jackie Chan and character-driven pieces like the over-praised “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Hong Kong cinema has completely broken through into mainstream entertainment in the United States.

Decades ago it would have been difficult for a movie like Stephen Chow’s KUNG FU HUSTLE (***, 2004, 102 mins., R; Sony) to get a release of any kind in the U.S. Now, this thoroughly absurd, outlandishly imaginative confection from the star-director of “Shaolin Soccer” seems right at home on the big-screen, where -- in spite of its excess -- it offers more colorfully amusing entertainment than most anything we’ve seen in recent domestic cinema.

Chow’s film is essentially a parody of the HK kung fu opus, with the star appearing as a down-on-his-luck loser who -- along with his overweight sidekick -- attempts to become a member of the nefarious “Axe Gang” in 1940s China. Chow tries to prove his worth to the Axe Gang by assassinating a group of seemingly benign, older folks who live in a poor section of the city, but instead finds among the bickering residents a group of legitimate kung fu masters trying to live out of harm’s way.

“Kung Fu Hustle” is indescribable in many respects: Chow’s movie is a surreal mixture of wild comedy, slapstick, and self-parody, with some extremely graphic flashes of violence and gore thrown in along the way. It can be a jarring experience to watch zany, cartoon-like hyjinks one moment and then almost Tarantino-esque violence the next, but that mixture of extremes is -- if nothing else -- one of the unpredictable elements in Chow’s film.

This is a movie where heroes are good, bad guys are despicable, love can be summed up by a lost lollipop, and chases virtually take the form of the Road Runner and Coyote going to head-to-head. There are also plenty of special effects, including a thrilling sequence involving a pair of Axe Gang assassins who try and take down our heroes, and a poetic ending that has a bit of emotion and heart behind it.

“Kung Fu Hustle” isn’t a film for everyone, but it’s unique, consistently entertaining and creative in its action and antics. Some of the violence may be off-putting (even though Sony trimmed some of it for its R-rated American release), but there’s no denying the surprise one feels while watching its story line play out. Recommended!

Sony’s Special Edition DVD offers up some solid special features with a bit of a kick. A few brief deleted scenes are included with outtakes and bloopers, plus a subtitled commentary with Chow and members of his cast. There’s also a fun, hour-long Making of TV special (also subtitled) and an interview with Chow and martial arts genre expert Ric Meyers about the creation of the film.

Visually, the 2.40 widescreen transfer is excellent, with strong colors and little grain. The Chinese soundtrack is available with English subtitles in 5.1, while a predictably zanier, English-dubbed track is also available in 5.1 as well. Interestingly, some profanity was apparently added to the American version, as the English subtitles indicate alternate (and occasionally less profane) language in the original Chinese dialogue.

Also New This Week

BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE (***, 106 mins). 2005, PG, Fox. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Two commentary tracks; a pair of featurettes; gag reel; 1.85 Widescreen, Full-Screen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Earnest, entertaining family film, based on Kate DiCamillo’s popular children’s book, about the bond that develops between a precocious young girl (Annasophia Robb) and a furry, tall pooch she dubs Winn-Dixie. Jeff Daniels essays her father in this superior film from director Wayne Wang and screenwriter Joan Singleton.

“Winn-Dixie” may have a predictable structure, but kids will love the story and adults will appreciate the excellent performances turned in by veterans like Daniels, Cicely Tyson, and Eva Marie Saint, while a top-notch crew includes cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub and composer Rachel Portman, whose score strikes just the right note of tenderness and nostalgia.

Fox’s DVD includes two commentaries (one by young Robb, another with Daniels and producer Trevor Albert), plus a gag reel, behind-the-scenes featurette, and a “Diamond in the Ruff” segment on dog training. The 1.85 widescreen transfer is just fine, the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound likewise satisfying, and there’s a full-screen version also included on the disc’s flip side.

THE MUPPETS' WIZARD OF OZ (**, 100 mins). 2005, PG, Disney. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Outtakes; Making Of featurette; Extended Quentin Tarantino interview; Full-Screen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Since Jim Henson’s untimely passing, the Henson Company has output an uneven assortment of Muppet theatrical and TV films to decidedly mixed results.

The wonderful “Muppet Christmas Carol” was as satisfying as any of the Muppet movies produced prior to Henson’s death, but “The Muppet Treasure Island” was an endless cinematic sojourn matched only by the relative inanity of the forgettable “Muppets From Space.” After a few years off (while the Henson group’s ownership passed from one company to another), Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo and the gang popped up in the terrible TV film “It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie,” which sought to be “adult” by adding some bad language into the Muppet vocabulary (sure, the Muppets may have always been a bit “edgy,” but they were never profane!).

Their sophomore made-for-TV outing, “The Muppets Wizard of Oz,” sadly only fares marginally better, though Disney’s DVD helps out a bit by extending the running time to 100 minutes (I’m guessing it must have been 10-15 minutes shorter when it aired on ABC earlier this spring).

This mostly dull fantasy stars Ashanti as Dorothy -- here recast as an aspiring Kansas diva who wants to break out of her trailer-park home and waitressing job so she can entertain the masses. Along the way, though, a tornado transports her into a magical land where she meets up with all the principals from L. Frank Baum’s novel, including the Scarecrow (Kermit), The Tin Man (Gonzo), and the Cowardly Lion (Fozzie), all of whom try and avoid the nefarious Wicked Witch of the West (Miss Piggy).

Under the direction of Kirk R. Thatcher (“Very Merry Muppet Christmas”), “Muppets’ Wizard of Oz” offers only intermittent pleasures. The laugh quotient is surprisingly low in the Debra Frank-Steve Hayes-Tom Martin-Adam Goldberg script, and the star cameos by the likes of Quentin Tarantino serve only to drag the story down. What’s worse, the music -- a primary asset in the original Muppet movies -- is completely disposable, with bland songs and a disappointing score from Michael Giacchino both failing to liven up the preceding.

Disney’s DVD offers a decent full-screen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound (blame the somewhat drab cinematography on DP Tony Westman). Extras include a few bloopers, a Making Of featurette, and an extended interview with Tarantino as conducted by Pepe, which -- like the Q-Man’s appearance in the movie -- wears out its welcome pretty quick.

NEXT TIME: SIN CITY and More as we wrap up August on DVD!
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