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Film Reviews: 'The Hangover Part II,' 'Kung Fu Panda II' and 'The First Grader'

* * 1/2 The Hangover Part II
Directed by Todd Phillips. Written by Craig Mazin & Scot Armstrong and Todd Phillips. With Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis. (R)

How do you follow the top-grossing R-rated comedy of all time? Copy it exactly, even if you can’t step in the same mud puddle twice. The Hangover Part II finds preening jerk Phil (Bradley Cooper), uptight dentist Stu (Ed Helms) and needy manchild Alan (Zach Galifianakis) waking up in a trashed hotel room in Bangkok with a monkey and a severed finger. This time it’s Stu who’s getting married, and they’ve lost his future brother-in-law Teddy (Mason Lee), a 16-year-old Stanford pre-med and cello prodigy who stirs pathological jealousy in Alan. If the first Hangover, in which the boys woke up in a trashed Las Vegas hotel room with a baby and a tiger (and Alan’s future brother-in-law, played by Justin Bartha, was missing) had the engine of a mystery, The Hangover Part II is propelled by the question of how the characters are going to do the same thing all over again while trying to avoid their previous missteps. The first few scenes replicate the first film almost exactly, then Phil detonates an even more offensive word than he did in the first film (the only one that’s left), Bartha is shunted to the side, and Stu, who has woken up with a Mike Tyson facial tattoo, discovers that he still has a thing for hookers.

With frequent power outages, the language barrier, the humidity and a bit more of psychotic naked gangster Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), the stakes are somewhat higher this time; Thais and expats shake their head, saying of the missing Teddy, “Bangkok has him now.” There are monks whacking the boys with bamboo sticks, a rival gangster (Paul Giamatti), a grizzled tattoo artist (Nick Cassavetes replacing Liam Neeson replacing Mel Gibson), and one really marvelous flashback from Alan’s perspective in which he and his friends are played by children. And when you come down to it, as Alan says, “When a monkey nibbles on a penis it’s funny in any language.”

To its credit, Part II confronts the first film’s homophobia — which I think can be more properly understood as a safety valve for anxious male bonders — although the wrong character gets the humiliation. As in the first film, the really dirty stuff is saved for the snapshots that run during the closing credits. Since these involve professional sex workers instead of Heather Graham, it’s a mystery how these got past the MPAA.

* * * Kung Fu Panda 2
Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson. Written by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger. With the voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, James Hong, Dustin Hoffman and Gary Oldman. (PG)

For the makers of Kung Fu Panda 2, the road to sequeldom is better paved. They’ve got both the routes of martial arts and superhero sequels at their disposal, and take both, setting their panda Po (voice of Jack Black), now the celebrated Dragon Warrior, in search of his ancestors and pitting him against a supervillain assembling a fireball-shooting superweapon. That these two roads are intertwined is not so much coincidence as destiny, in a film that remains driven by the original’s shaky blend of Asian philosophy (the aforementioned destiny that must be fulfilled) and American self-help (you have to make it happen).

Finally noticing that his father (James Hong) is a goose, Po becomes haunted by dreams (rendered in anime-style drawings) of his birth parents and an evil peacock (Gary Oldman) who now threatens to destroy China. Po is once again accompanied by his Furious Five, who have been immortalized in wooden action figures: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross), although only Jolie and Rogen make much of an impression this time. Less plot means more time for action, and the animation remains top-notch, the animals rendered as cuddly Steiff toys with hard, plastic eyes. If the first film’s murky message was that all you have to do is believe in yourself (and train a lot), the second is that, as Po’s Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) says, “Everything is possible when you have inner peace,” for which it is necessary to let go of the past (“because it just doesn’t matter”), which is an absurd lesson for children, and suggests that the writers have spent too much time in psychotherapy.

* * * The First Grader
Directed by Justin Chadwick. Written by Ann Peacock. With Oliver Litondo and Naomie Harris. (PG-13)

In 2002, when the Kenyan government first offered a free primary-school education to all, an 84-year-old villager named Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge showed up at his local school’s gates demanding to be enrolled in the first grade. Maruge became a national celebrity, promoting literacy on billboards, and would ultimately address the United Nations. But first he had to learn how to hold a pencil.
The First Grader may sound like an inspirational sapfest, but the context gives it a needed edge. Maruge (Oliver Litondo), as revealed in flashbacks, was in the Mau Mau Uprising and a prisoner of the British for most of the 1950s. And even in contemporary, self-governing Kenya, underneath those suits and ties and inside Nairobi’s modern office buildings, the old tribal alliances still hold. The school inspector (Vusi Kunene) who insists that Maruge attend adult education classes, is a member of the tribe that collaborated with the British. “Can’t we just put the past behind us?” pleads his teacher, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris), but when a man shows up in Maruge’s house demanding a bribe and the teacher’s husband (Tony Kgoroge) receives phone calls insinuating his wife’s infidelity, it’s clear that old ways die hard.

Litondo, in his first starring role, was an anchorman in the 1970s, and director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) has surrounded him with actual village children, none of whom have acted before. During recess he dances with his cane and leads the children in a chant of “Uhuru! Freedom!” as the young staff looks on. He fought for their freedom, and yet must go to Nairobi to fight for his education, where, to paraphrase Pete Townshend, the new boss may be just the same as the old boss.,0,7883550.story

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