Friday, June 18, 2010

The Karate Kid (2010)

Overall verdict: 9/10

The Good: endearing protagonist, story is easy to relate to, natural cast chemistry, amazing stunts, near perfect acting, more insightful than it seems

The Bad: stunts are "unbelievably" good, title discrepancy(he learns kung fu, not Karate), less true to the original.

Current Availability Status: in cinemas

One might get the wrong impression when a film’s title has nothing to do with its subject matter. The film in question is called “The Karate Kid”, presumably a remake of the 1984 coming of age classic starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita which has absolutely NOTHING to do with karate. The martial art featured in the film is Chinese kung fu and barring a few similarities in the broad story strokes, 2010’s “The Karate Kid” bears little resemblance to its source material. So instead of “Karate” we have Kung Fu. Instead of a high school senior love triangle with teenager testosterone rivalry, we have pre-pubescent puppy dog crushes, playground bullies and the very familiar “new kid in a strange new land” story combined with a garden variety underdog tale of a bullied protagonist who gets back on his feet and perseveres against all odds to come out on top. Now the underdog tale is nothing new, all that is different is the “sport” that serves as the story backdrop; Rocky had boxing, Fast And Furious Tokyo Drift had drift racing.

In “The Karate Kid”, A heartwarming opening montage introduces us to Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) who is made to move from Detroit to Beijing when his widowed mother gets a job transfer. Back home, he was well loved by his friends and neighbours, but now in China, Dre is a true “fish out of water”, unable to speak the most basic of Chinese or even get the building’s maintenance man, Mr Han (Jackie Chan) to fix his new home’s broken water heater. Before his first day at school, Dre develops a cute crush on a demure Chinese girl called Mei Ying and manages to incur the wrath of the school bully, Cheng, who so happens to be a top kung fu student. Dre learns that last fact the hard way by getting beaten up, bullied and humiliated every day. Determined not to back down, Dre decides to stand up to his adversaries. But that only results in a near lynching until he is saved by Mr Han who reveals himself as an ex-kung fu master. After easing Dre’s injuries, Mr Han takes the boy to go and make peace with Cheng’s Master, Li. However, the cruel Master Li, who teaches his students an exceedingly brutal form of kung fu, threatens Han and forces Dre to competing in a Martial Arts tournament. With no other choice left, Mr Han begins to teach the boy "real kung fu", which is far from being just a means of fighting.

"Karate Kid" is a rare type of film that plays very close to the heart without giving the impression of forced melodrama. Anyone who has ever been through childhood would probably be able to relate to the trials young Dre goes through; from wanting to step away from his parent's overprotective shadow to learning to assert his own individuality. It is a painful but valuable lesson in growing up that Dre goes through and his turmoil is effectively conveyed thanks to the superb acting by young Jaden Smith.

The twelve year old son of veteran actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith shows off his wide acting talent in his first lead role. He brings a natural sense of earnestness with just the right mixture of attitude to his role. As a result, Dre comes across as very easy to relate to and a likable protagonist whom the audience might gladly cheer on. All the other child actors are impeccable in their roles tothe point where it is easy to forget that they are acting and get totally absorbed into the story and its characters. Special mention goes to Jackie Chan in his role of Mr Han. A departure from his usual comedic roles, Mr Han is played as a stern middle aged man whose quirky ways and wise traditional kung fu teachings masks a tragic secret. Easily the most interesting and well developed character, maybe even more so than the protagonist, and a solid effort by Chan.

Hidden beneath "Karate kid's" layered narrative is a smart jibe at China's modernisation and increasingly competitive education system. The contrast between Mr Han's traditional ideals of Kung Fu as a skill that leads to self mastery and Master Li's dogma of kung fu as a merciless means to dominate one's opponent highlights the very real system where everyone would do anything, even playing it dirty, to get to the top; where tradition is regarded more as a hindrance, where parents expect nothing but the best from their children and where second place means utter disgrace.

As realistic as the story and characters are, some suspension of disbelief is required when it comes to the actual kung fu fighting. Seeing young boys, years away from breaking their voice, throw flying flip kicks with a level of professional expertise beyond any world class Olympics champ, puts a great strain on anyone trying to take the film seriously. The stunts are perfect, the fights are beautifully choreographed, but perhaps it was too good a job that resulted in a lessening of the realism factor.

Complemented by a roaring soundtrack by James Horner, "The Karate Kid" has all the makings of a timeless classic just like the original film it is based on. It is fun, smart and touches on themes that anyone who has ever had a childhood might be able to easily relate to. All one has to do is put aside the discrepancy between the title and the featured martial art in order to fully enjoy this gem of a movie.
*****************************Review End******************

Go For it: if you are a fan of feel-good "underdog" triumph stories, if you had a childhood or if you want to see the breakout role of a bright young star in he making.
Avoid it: if you expect a faithful recretion of the old Karate Kid film or if you cannot look past the errornous title.

Entertainment: A
Story: B+
Acting: A
Characters: A
Music: A-

Replay value: A-
"Brains": B+

Friday, June 11, 2010

The A-Team (2010)

Overall verdict: 7.5/10

The Good: Never-before-seen action sequences that defy expectations, commendable casting, witty humor, incredible character chemistry, extremely true to the original, well developed themes of trust and camaraderie.

The Bad: choppy camerawork, overly complex conspiracy plot, retains the flaws of the original show (convenient plot twists, "A-team firing", formulaic story), poor use of CGI.

Remakes are big business in Hollywood these days. Disregarding horror movies, classic TV series have had their fair share of remakes ranging from great to terrible. Mission impossible, S.W.A.T, Starsky and Hutch, Miami Vice, the list goes on. "The A-Team" is based on a popular 1980s TV series famous for its over-the-top cartoon-like violence, formulaic episodes, memorable characters and "Mister T". Barring the mandatory re-setting of the film in present day instead of the 80s, the creative team manages to craft a remake that remains extremely true to its roots. Instead of following the trend and going for a more realistic, gritty feel with a darker storyline, A-Team shamelessly embraces the over-the-top nature of its source material, cheesy flaws and all.

Eight years after a fateful (and explosive) mission in Mexico united four unlikely Army Rangers,
the "crack commando unit" led by Colonel Hannibal Smith(Liam Nesson) and stationed in Iraq are sent on one final mission by CIA agent "Lynch"(Patrick Wilson) into the heart of Baghdad to retrieve a set of stolen money printing plates that are a threat to national security. Hannibal and his team, comprising of suave con-man "Faceman" Peck, burly B. A Baracus and comically insane "Howling Mad" Murdock, succeed in their mission. However, upon returning to base, their superior officer General Morrison is seemingly killed in an explosion, along with all evidence of the team's mission. The team, in the wrong place at the wrong time, are charged with "a crime they did not commit", dishonorably discharged and sent to separate prisons. Six months later, agent "Lynch" meets with Hannibal Smith and offers him a chance to escape, break his teammates out of their respective holding facilities, and attempt to clear their name by tracking down a mercenary named "Pike"(Brian Bloom) whom Hannibal had a bitter history with.

What follows is one of the most spectacular jail breaks in the history of modern cinema culminating with our heroes in a free falling tank taking on two sub-sonic combat UAVs in mid air. Now, still wanted by the government, and pursued by Faceman's former flame, Captain Charisa Sousa (Jessica Biel)this team of four must uncover a secret conspiracy involving the printing plates. A conspiracy that originates from within the CIA itself.

Though slightly convoluted, "The A-Team" highlights every single aspect that made the original TV series such fun to watch. For starters, the characters are marked by very distinct personalities complete with their own individual quirks such as Baracus's intense fear of flying. The A-team members themselves are an extremely likable bunch, with impeccable chemistry. Their witty banter, peppered with familiar one liners, is the highlight here particularly Sharlto Copley stealing the show as the loony Murdock. Helped along by spot on performances from a perfectly cast set of actors, the movie totally sells its theme of trust and camaraderie among the most unlikely of allies. Another improvement over the original series is that the main characters are given more depth, such as Baracus's crisis of conscience and Hannibal's disillusion at being betrayed by a country he fought so hard to protect.

But just before the film gets bogged down by drama, another spectacular action sequence is throw in, and followed by another, never allowing the adrenaline pumping pace to let up. The near unintentionally funny, but thoroughly epic opening sequence in Mexico sets the tone for the entire movie that follows; ridiculous, over the top and absolutely awesome. Audiences would thrill to see how each member of the team brings their unique set of skills to a mission in order to make a plan "come together".

The one thing A-Team suffers from is its camerawork, Extreme close-up shots are used once too often during frantic combat scenes making the action a little difficult to follow. Also, A number of the bigger set pieces were rendered in CGI that seem to clash with the scenes of real practical special effects.

But that being said, "The A-Team" might be one of the most entertaining summer blockbusters to come by; lots of action with a sharp sense of humor, just like the original show. It captures the sense of fun and enjoyment that seemed to have been all but forgotten amidst the many recent movies going for the "darker and edgier" feel. Those expecting a realistic rendition of the campy 80s TV series would be sorely disappointed as 2010's "The A-Team" manages to take every single element of the original and ups the ante on them. For a film that banks solely on its action, characters and comedy, it succeeds at every turn.

***********Review End*********

Go For it: if you loved the original TV series and or would like an entertaining high octane action flick with a sense of humor.
Avoid it: if you never did like the original TV series or if you prefer more serious action movies.

Entertainment: A

Story: B-
Acting: A

Characters: A
Music: B
Replay value: A-
"Brains": C-

Friday, June 4, 2010

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2010)

Overall verdict: 7.5/10

The Good: stays true to the spirit of the original games, action packed, fast paced, exceptional production design, likable characters, interesting deeper themes.

The Bad: no lull in the action for dramatic development, derivative characters, erratic camerawork, simple characterisations.

Current Availability Status: IN CINEMAS NOW

Video game adaptation movies never had a good track record, especially so following 2009's critically panned financial faliure "Street Fighter: Legend of Chun Li". But Prince of Persia: Sands of Time looks set to break that trend, boasting a blockbuster level budget and a screenplay by the original creator of the video games himself, Jordan Mechner. Mr Mechner had stated that he did not wish to do an exact translation of the "Sands of Time" game onto the big screen, but instead "taking some cool elements from the game and using them to craft a new story". The result is a fun summer blockbuster romp that is remarkably true to the spirit, look and feel of the video game franchise.

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time takes place in a fantasy world based loosely upon the 6th century Persian Empire. After witnessing the courageous act of a young street orphan named Dastan, the King of Persia adopts him. Fifteen years later, Dastan (played by a buffed up Jake Gyllenhaal) has grown into a skilled warrior and, along side his royal blooded foster brothers Prince Tus and Garsiv, prepare to lead the Persian army to invade the city of Alamut. Spies working for Nizam, the persian king's brother and court adviser, have uncovered proof that Alamut was selling weapons to the enemies of Persia. The ensuing battle is swift and decisive, largely thanks to Dastans unorthodox methods and his street honed agility. During the seige, Dastan kills a royal guard and comes into possession of an ornately designed dagger formerly belonging to the princess of Alamut, Tamina. All is going well for the three brothers with Tus having decided to marry princess Tamina against their father's wishes. However the Persian King is mysteriously murdered and the blame falls on Dastan. Now on the run and with princess Tamina in tow, Dastan alone thinks he knows the truth; that the king's death was orchestrated by Tus, his natural successor. With his loyalty to his brothers shaken, the plot thickens as Dastan discovers the secret power of the dagger he procured and the magical "sands of time" which gives the user the ability to rewind time itself and change past actions thus changing the future. Secrets are unveiled, hidden agendas brought to light and what is might not be what it seems as Dastan travels across the vast empire in search of a way to clear his name, return the sacred dagger to a hidden temple and stop an evil scheme involving the sands of time that might alter the fate of the world forever.

Progressing at a breakneck pace, the plot may seem convoluted but is actually no more confusing than a classic adventure story straight out of the forgotten "Arabian nights" genre of films. Similarly, the story plays on the audience's expectations of predictability and then shatters it; just as one expects that Dastan is about to clear his name, a new unexpected revelation is thrown the audience's way. Smarter than your average blockbuster, Prince of Persia does a respectable job of fleshing out its theme of brotherhood. That trust between the three royal brothers is put to the test as each suspects the other of treachery. This plays on the viewer's expectations of the typical "Jealous other sibling who wants the throne for himself" type of story but manages to believably turn it on its head with some well placed twists. Some viewers might find themselves overwhelmed by the heavy story alone.

Apparently, Prince of Persia's lighter elements seem to come from its characters, both in skin tone and in dramatic development. True to its Arabian adventure roots, each character is simplistically depicted; the hero is a handsome hunk, the feisty damsel is exotically beautiful, the villains look genuinely sinister and so on. The impeccable cast does a wondrous job in "becoming" their roles and delivering one solid performance after another. A point of constant critisism of this movie was the lack of actual middle eastern actors as opposed to the mostly british cast selected for this movie. What some might forget was that Charlston Heston was not Israeli when he starred in "Ben Hur", nor was Yul Brynne an Egyptian when he played the role of a Pharaoh. It can be argued that Jack Gyllenhaal is as "Persian" as the American actors who played Sinbad or as Tom Cruise was German in the film "Valkyrie". Looking past the apparent racial dissonance of the cast, one could come to appreciate their earnest performances. Of particular note is the amazing chemistry between Dastan and Princess Tamina which may call to mind the "wise cracking scoundrel/haughty royal woman" relationship between Han Solo and Princess Leia from "Star Wars".

Like any good summer blockbuster, Prince of Persia is delivers a hearty mix of action and humor. Unfortunately, director Mike Newell seems to favor "jerky cam" shots as a way to make his action scenes feel more frantic. This seems to work for some scenes, such as Dastan's incredibly choreographed rooftop "Parkour" sequences but renders other scenes, like the sword fights, rather difficult to follow. There are also points in the movie where our heroes traverse the great middle eastern deserts within moments and hop from city to city as if Persia itself were no bigger than Singapore.

Nitpicks, simplistic characterisations and its seemingly rushed nature aside, Prince of Persia is a worthy addition to that near extinct hollywood-made Middle East fantasy genre. Its rich narrative is peppered with wit and the familiar charm of old period pieces while themes of trust and destiny are woven into an apparently familiar plot that is really as unpredictable as Dastan's own fighting style. Fans of the video game may thrill at seeing key scenes and signature combat moves faithfully recreated in live action on the big screen while casual viewers can enjoy a fun, refreshing and energetic adventure movie that might soon become regarded as the best video game adaptation to date.
*****************************Review End******************

Go For it: if you were a fan of "Prince of Persia" video game series or would like a witty, refreshing tribute to a fading film genre.
Avoid it: if big fantasy themed summer blockbusters were never your thing to begin with.

Entertainment: A
Story: C
Acting: A-
Characters: B
Replay value: A-
"Brains": C+