Kung Fu Panda 2 (PG, 2011, Dreamworks)
The original “Kung Fu Panda’s” emergence as a funny and visually impressive movie was a surprise to few, because that was all most people expected it to be. But the way “Panda” took a story about a clumsy Kung Fu-mastering panda bear and turned it into an epic “Star Wars” allegory with enough mythology and action to dazzle adults as well as kids? Yeah, that was kind of unexpected. Guess what? “Kung Fu Panda 2” does it again. Po the Panda is back, as are his friends and enemies, and the stakes are predictably higher now that the obscenely likable panda has become the Dragon Warrior and a new enemy threatens to do away with Kung Fu completely. But “KFP2’s” best trick is the way it neatly (but never cheaply) ties Po’s origin story into that main storyline. The sweet story of how Po became the son of a goose is treated with considerable care — so much so that it’s animated in a completely different (and strikingly pretty) style from rest of the story. Lest this sound a little too heavy, worry not: “KFP2” takes on many moods, but it never loses its sense of humor or taste for adventure. The action is ridiculously cool to look at, and Po and friends are as capable of a genuinely funny line in their darkest as well as finest hour.
Extras: New animated short “Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Masters,” filmmakers commentary, deleted scenes, five behind-the-scenes features, trivia track, “Learn to Speak Chinese” feature, “Kung Fu Shuffle” game, two complimentary memberships for the “Kung Fu Panda World” online game.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (PG-13, 2011, Fox)
You’d have been hard-pressed to find a sweeter toddler and child than Caesar, but the onset of adolescence has made him ornery, sulky and a bit stir-crazy. The wrinkle, of course, is that Caesar’s a chimpanzee. The wrinkle within that wrinkle is that he’s rebelling against a human parent, Will (James Franco), who brought him home after a drug experiment gone violently sideways killed Caesar’s real parents but left Caesar with an intelligence level exceeding that of most humans. That’s a dangerous combination of brains and brawn, and when the human characters in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” respond to that combination in their predictably impulsive way, the result of that shortsightedness lives up to the name on the marquee. On paper, “Apes” isn’t exemplary: Past Will, it paints most of the humans with broad strokes, and the causes leading into the ape outbreak are so customary as to practically be tropes at this point. But “Apes” strikes a great balance between telling and showing — just talky enough to flash some intriguing ideas, but not so gabby as to get in the way of letting everything play out in glorious, schadenfreudian detail. It doesn’t hurt, either, that “Apes” just looks awesome. Its bombastic delivery on the revolution provides a handsome payoff on all the buildup, and the design of the apes — unarguably and unsettlingly human in their expression, but still a generation away from even approaching anthropomorphic status — is a testament to the thoughtful side of big-budget computer graphics. No small thanks go out to Andy Serkis, whose behind-the-scenes acting brings Caesar to amazing life.
Extras: Deleted scenes, two behind-the-scenes features.
Circumstance (R, 2011, Lions Gate)
Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) loves Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), and Shireen loves Atafeh. But there’s nothing simple about two women loving each other when that love is processed through society’s crossed eyes, and when it takes place under the oppressive nose of Iranian rule, it becomes outright dangerous. In Atafeh’s case, the presence of her brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) — whose sudden strong embrace of conservative values aligns with his desire to take Shireen as his wife — makes it mentally torturous as well. “Circumstance” doesn’t attempt to light an ideological match and emerge as the be-all, end-all dialogue about Sharia law’s disconnect with the underground youth movement that quietly thrives beneath its surface. And that’s fine, because in concentrating its story around this small corner of those clashing movements, it doesn’t need to. The view “Circumstance” provides of Atafeh and Shireen’s world comes squarely through their eyes — subjective, acute, a little naive in its generalizations, but accessible, exciting and full of untold possibility squarely due to its intimacy. Down that nerve, the message is delivered, and “Circumstance’s” preach- and speech-free delivery of it makes it stick and fester in ways that regularly elude movies with more grandiose ambitions. In Farsi with English subtitles.
Extras: Safai/filmmakers commentary, behind-the-scenes feature.
Fright Night (R, 2011, Touchstone/Dreamworks)
It’s perfectly understandable to grow concerned when fellow students suddenly stop showing up for class. But when formerly-nerdy Charley’s (Anton Yelchin) still-nerdy former friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) pins the disappearances on a neighbor (Colin Farrell) he’s convinced is a vampire, Charley is similarly within his rights to dismiss Ed as crazy. Or rather, he would be if Ed wasn’t threatening to blackmail him by broadcasting his dorky past to his popular girlfriend (Imogen Poots) and friends. So begins the “Fright Night” tug of war — a horror movie on one side, a snarky teen comedy on the other, and a fun cross between send-up of and tribute to both genres in between. No one involved with this movie’s production can take full credit: “Night” cribs liberally from the 1985 original of the same name, and those who love that cult classic certainly have grounds (namely, the second act disappearing act of Ed, the original’s arguable best character) on which to take umbrage with the remake. But given the nightmarish wringer Hollywood typically puts cherished films through to make their inedible remake sausage, the new “Night” emerges in surprisingly palatable shape. It’s funny, creepy, bloody and intelligently written, and while arguments against its need to exist have their place, arguments for it being one of the year’s better horror movies have theirs as well. David Tennant and Toni Collette also star.
Extras: The complete “Squid Man” short (makes sense once you see the movie), deleted scenes (with introduction), two behind-the-scenes features (one tongue-in-cheek), bloopers, music video, trivia.