Monday, June 28, 2010

Man on Film: The Karate Kid

To say that this summer has been a shitty one for theatrically released movies would be a grotesque understatement. To drive this point home, when Peter and I were trying to decide on a movie, we were relegated to deciding between the reportedly awful Jonah Hex, Toy Story 3, and The Karate Kid.

What the fuck?

Now I am sure Toy Story 3 is all fine and dandy, but after Jeff Van Gundy creeped me out last week, there is no way in hell you are going to find me going to a children's movie with another dude, no offense Peter. I will wait for video on that one.

So given the dearth of options at our disposal, we settled on The Karate Kid.

Before I get too far into this review, we should probably establish just how much the original film meant to Young Josh, as that would most certainly affect how one would react to this film. As a child, I watched the first two installments a lot. They were taped off TV. I remember the first one was on a tape given to us by a family friend, taped directly off of the pre-commercial-break Disney Channel. Part II was taped off on NBC, with commercials no doubt crudely edited out with the pause button at the hand of an over-eager ten-year-old Old Man.

That being said, I haven't seen either of the first two in at least 15 years. What I have seen in that time are The Karate Kid, Part III and The Next Karate Kid. While there is a certain degree of nostalgia that seeing the poor man's Steven Seagal, Terry Silver*, try to corrupt Daniel LaRusso and then watch Danielle from "Camp Wilder" try to fill Macchio's shoes in the final installment, they hardly instill one with anything approaching wonder.

*I'm sure he's got a name, but who gives a fuck? Oh, right. I do. Because I have to know everything stupid like this I looked it up. Thomas Ian Griffith, the fourth-billed actor in John Carpenter's Vampire$.

Now, there is a problem with that last non-tangential (but needlessly drawn out) sentence: the "Macchio's shoes" statement. Any honest assessment of the original Karate Kid franchise cannot be completed without wondering how Macchio was given a film franchise. He'd been on a season of "Eight Is Enough" and The Outsiders, and neither would seem to have pointed toward a future box office superstar.

In retrospect, it would seem that Morita is probably a little lacking in acting chops as well. Having recently happened to catch the scene in which Mr. Miyagi mourns the death of his wife on the event's anniversary, I can safely say that objectively the film is not without its flaws, and many of those lie in the fact that the lead actors (the always stunning Elisabeth Shue excepted) cannot actually do what they were paid to do--act.

I think any objective observer would quickly come to the conclusion that Jackie Chan is a far more interesting personality to watch than his Japanese counterpart. His star power alone sets this remake/relaunch on a slightly new level in terms of a starting point for the casual observer. Sure, Pat Morita was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but he was basically a caricature, and the 1980s were awful for Oscars. While the original film had John Avildsen* at the helm, Harald Zwart, auteur of such gems as Agent Cody Banks, One Night at McCool's, and The Pink Panther 2, is inarguably the lesser director.

*Heart-string pulling director of For Keeps?, Lean on Me, and 8 Seconds. Oh, and Rocky, too, although one could argue that being at the helm for the only shitty Rocky installment, Rocky V, should outweigh some of the goodwill earned by having directed what can very reasonably be deemed the greatest sports movie of all-time.

With the casting of the mentor and the respective directors essentially working out to be a push, we're left with Jaden Smith and Macchio. Maybe it's just me, but I don't actually think those are big shoes to fill. While the Fresh Prince's kid isn't necessarily great, he is serviceable, and it would probably be tough to argue that he was worse than Macchio*. Hell, Jonathan Brandis was better than Macchio in Sidekicks.

*I think it would be very easy to argue that Macchio's turn in The Karate Kid is about as bad as Mark Hammill's in Star Wars. Neither can really act a lick, but they are each intrinsically linked with a loved piece of many of our childhood's. Sure, we loved those films when we were 10 and seeing them again as adults takes us back to that innocence of childhood. If they were to come out now, though, they'd be hokey. I suppose that contributes largely to their charm to our generation, but The Karate Kid and Star Wars are both pretty damn corny when it comes down to it.

Now, The [New] Karate Kid is not without its issues.

While I do like its marriage of the best parts of The Karate Kid, Part II and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, there is the two issues that KRD touched on a few weeks ago:
...why is the karate kid (oops! the Kung Fu Kid!) 12? I mean, the original film was a teen flick. Jaden Smith is not a teen. Ergo, this is not a teen flick. What's with that? If they had to have him, couldn't they have waited until he hit 16?
Point 1: Yes, kung fu, not karate. While I get wanting to preserve the title for branding purposes, is it really necessary to have a movie with a kung fu competition as its climax have an entirely different school of martial arts in the title? Ultimately, it is a minor point, but it is still irksome.

Point 2: A 12-year-old? For the future of a potential franchise, I suppose it makes sense to cast the almost 12-year-old Jaden Smith in the title role. Macchio was 22 when The Karate Kid was released in June of 1984. While the original was a teen flick, technically, I think it ultimately played to a younger audience than some of its raunchier 80s teen flick counterparts. Perhaps given the youth sports movie angle, it is a cagey decision to take it to a Mighty Ducks age-group starting point. When Jaden Smith is Pacey in the "Dawson's Creek" relaunch, we'll all have a hearty laugh. It still feels a bit off with the Karate Kid being a 12-year-old.

Now, I'm 1,100 words in to this thing, and I've still not really gotten to the film itself.

In a vacuum, the movie works. That is probably the most important part here. Outside of Taraji P. Henson, who just seems out of place cast in this role, there really isn't a glaring weakness in the film. Asian John Kreese pulls off being a totally imposing dick well, even if his motivation for being one is foggy at best. Dre's (Smith's character) nemesis, while not necessarily imposing in stature (as one would expect from a tween), certainly excels at having that look of disdain on his face for every instant he is on the screen.

The set design for the outdoor festival (the name has escaped me) is pretty great. The soundtrack, while not appealing specifically to me, works in the film for the most part. Getting to shoot in China allows for some much more arresting backdrops than its predecessor had in sunny Southern California.

A couple of sidenotes that I don't have the energy to segue into:
  • I like the assertion that the film makes in moving the family from Detroit to China. Things apparently are so shitty in Detroit that China is a better option? Awesome.
  • The fly scene was a tasteful and humorous homage to the one in the original.
  • Loved the uncredited Michelle Yeoh cameo.
  • Wen Wen Han was very cute as Mei Ying.
  • Does anyone else think it was totally bizarre that the first person to befriend Dre in China was a poster child for the Aryan race? I understand that some eight-year-old white kid in small town North Dakota who has never seen an Asian or black person in real life might have a hard time finding a character reflecting him/herself in this film, but do we really need one of the kids from The Village of the Damned? The character is so thinly fleshed out and superfluous that it seems he was only put in for this reason.
All that being said, on its own merits and separated from the fact that it is exploiting what many of my generation have cherished for 15 years, The Karate Kid as an enjoyable little film, and Jaden Smith seems to be on the verge of being a big star in his own right.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Diversions: Ben Affleck, My Friend, Lock Up Your Children

If there is one thing that readers of this blog should already know, it is that Ben Affleck is my main man. Now, unlike Ahmad Rashad, I don't go around slapping that label on just anyone willy-nilly. I have One Main Man. It is Ben Affleck.

Yes, I feel very strongly about the genius that is Nic Cage, but we all know there's only one Ben Affleck.

I say this all (and really we're just reiterating a proven fact, aren't we?) because tonight my alarm bells were a-ringin'.

Like many of you, I was watching the ultimately disappointing Game Seven of the NBA Finals this evening when a shocking development transpired. It appears as though Jeff Van Gundy saw Ben Affleck's daughter, Violet Anne, out eating at a restaurant with her mother, Jennifer Garner. As they spoke of this on air, Mark Jackson raised the first warning flag. Jackson stated (and I'm paraphrasing here) that Van Gundy had embarrassed them with his [presumed] googly eyes. It was after this that Van Gundy began to talk about how cute Violet was, segueing into an open offer to baby-sit for the Affleck/Garner clan. He then went a step further and said that he felt like he'd seen her grow up before his eyes in the pages of US Weekly and People.


Something is very, very wrong here. I know that Chad, Mark, and I were all worried for Violet's well-being when Jeff Van Gundy made his disturbing revelation.

Mr. Affleck, please do not let Jeff Van Gundy baby-sit your children.

Can you imagine what would the world would be like if Ben Affleck had been stripped of his innocence at such a young age? I sure as hell don't want to think about it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Man on Film: Get Him to the Greek

Despite the fact that Nicholas Stoller's directorial debut, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, might just be my favorite of the Team Apatow productions*, I was not exactly excited for the latest Apatow Productions film, Get Him to the Greek.

*Now, it should be noted that Step Brothers is a film that I've seen approximately 30 times (unfortunately, none of those times were in the theater). It's weird because despite the fact that the Apatow Productions title card is in front of the film it feels like this is not a product of Team Apatow. Perhaps it's the "Freaks and Geeks"-lessness of the cast, but they seem only loosely related to one another. I do love Step Brothers but am reluctant to put it in the conversation with the other Apatow products.

Yes, I really loved FSM, but a lot of Get Him to the Greek relies on Jonah Hill, something I was reticent about heading into the film. Generally speaking, I like almost all of the films Hill has been in, yet I often feel like he is one of the weaker links in the film. While he is certainly capable of being very funny, there is something about his energy that can be off-putting. Luckily for us all, Get Him to the Greek is not a film in which that holds true.

Since my reluctance (and I do not believe I am alone in this) lied in the film's obvious reliance upon Hill, I will start by talking about him. As the regular music fan who got into the music industry because of his fandom, Hill's character, Aaron Green, is ideally constructed to suit his strengths. He isn't supposed to play anything that lies outside of his wheelhouse. As a regular dude who has ceded any semblance of a social life to his girlfriend's schedule and her desire to watch "Gossip Girl" (or maybe it was "Grey's Anatomy") on DVD, Jonah Hill is not only believable but also likable.

With the potential dilemma of Hill having been addressed, the success of the film lies largely on the shoulders of Russell Brand, whose reprisal of the character Aldous Snow is pitch-perfect. He is larger than life and unabashedly self-centered. As the caricature of the drug-addled rock star with a posse of enablers, Brand hits every note with aplomb. It is Snow's ridiculously destructive and self-serving behavior that drives much of the comedy and nearly all of the drama within the film. When he is called on to have a withdrawal-fueled freak out, he kills. When called on to deliver the bloated pomposity that is "African Child," he imbues the song with a clueless sincerity not matched since Paul McCartney ripped off David Hasselhoff* for his egregious post-9/11 *cough* anthem "Freedom."

*This reminds me that despite my repeated assertions about Rocky IV and the David Hasselhoff performance above having won the Cold War, I've not blogged about it in this space. For this, I am sorry. Hopefully I'll have the time in the near future to tackle this at length and in detail.

Now Brand is great to be sure, but he is not alone. In his limited role as the executive at the label, Sean Combs is outstanding. From the dressing down of his employees in the staff meeting to his on-set argument with Pharrell, he is hilarious. More surprising (because if you remember Made, Combs's hilarity isn't necessarily unprecedented) is how fucking amazing Rose Byrne is as Snow's ex-lover Jackie Q. Seriously. If you need proof, I'll refer you to the shockingly lewd anal sex single embedded below (stick around through the end).

Despite my hesitancy to embrace Byrne in years past, I am fully on board, as she has been great in everything I've seen her in for a few years now.

Past the cast though, the film works. At its heart, Get Him to the Greek--as so many of the Team Apatow films are--is a film about male bonding and the perils of getting too close to your idol. On both counts, Stoller & Co. succeed. Despite all his faults, Snow ultimately finds value in what Green brings to the table, on a personal and professional label, even if he ends up vomiting on himself at least once a day.
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