Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is a thin, wiry and likeable 12 year old from Detroit. Leaving America with his mother, who is relocating to Beijing for work (his absent father is mentioned only once, in a memory-laden height chart) - he's got his work cut out. He can't speak Mandarin well at all, he's got next-to-no-friends, he's bullied by particularly violent kids schooled by Master Li (Rongguang Yu), a "No Weakness, No Pain, No Mercy" mantra-spouting kung fu instructor, and Dre has from his time in America is a skateboard from his best mate, and memories of Spongebob Squarepants dubbed in English.

Like the original, there's even a rather atypical love story with Meiying (Wenwen Han), a sweet English-speaking girl Dre's age. They have a fairly nice meeting, and evolving friendship. She is driven by her strict parents to practice the violin constantly - a not terribly subtle comment on the high expectations placed upon modern Chinese youth. It works well, forming a charming prepubescent romance. After Dre suffers a particularly brutal attack from his tormentors, the apartment maintenance man, Mr Han (Jackie Chan) steps in, and promises to teach him “real kung fu” and train him for a tournament where he will face the bullies.

All in all, so 1984 - and it's at this point, too that you stop caring that it's a remake. The film, directed by Harald Zwart, is a great step up from his previous efforts The Pink Panther 2 and Agent Cody Banks, and is illustriously photographed by Roger Pratt (the first two Harry Potter pictures). It is about as good as one can expect - a faithful update of the source story by Robert Mark Kamen, by newbie screenwriter Christopher Murphey.

Jaden Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) is a terrific find, with no "cartoon black kid" nonsense clogging up the work. He's particularly good at the alienated, sensitive and easily hurt kid who's longing for the past; he instinctively knows how to act for the camera - and is evolving into one of the most natural child-performers I've seen in a very long time. He's Will and Jada-Pinkett Smith's son - so screen charisma may be in the family.

The fanservice Miyagisims from 1984 are present and correct - Mr Han finds a new, and considerably more practical way of catching a fly with chopsticks, and lovingly restores a very special car with doses of wax-on wax-off. The fight scenes are mostly over-edited and undershot, with lashings of shots to the sternum and wince-inducing thumps on the soundtrack. Mr Han's defense of Dre is the best fight scene by far. Watching Chan take on six 12 to 13 year olds to humiliate, but not injure them is very clever, but it's a real fight, not at all a weak-sauce effort. The 56-year old Chan has still got it.

The training montages are obvious, present and correct - but the update of "Pat" Moriga's training is strains credibility at first - but like the original, it kind of works. "Kung Fu is in everything we do!" exclaims Mr Han - as Dre grasps the significance of picking up, putting on and pulling his jacket off with perfect form.

The movie features Jackie Chan's best English language performance. There's pathos, depth and honest-to-goodness acting - and he truly sells the idea that student and teacher fit together like the yin-yang. It's corny, but they're good enough to give the movie its humanity and depth. He doesn't remind us of Noriyuki "Pat" Morita's Mr Miyagi, the little clipped man from the original whom noone pays attention to until it's too late. Chan and the script make a halfway decent effort to combine the post-Imperialist China backdrops with the innate sense of being more than just Postcard Exotic Locations. There's a really good story thread where Dre and Han visit the Great Wall, on an equally potent voyage of self-discovery - and refresh themselves with waters real, and metaphorical.

The Karate Kid is a good movie, with a pleasant and engaging story - but it's about half an hour too long; at 140 minutes it tests patience. It's not particularly great cinema, it does nothing at all that's fresh or invigorrating and doesn't replace or outdo the original. It's just different - and equally worthy. Also, it's infinitely better than this year's other 1984 remake, A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Oh, and there's no Karate. Perhaps that's for part II?

"When I became a man, I put away childish things."

Toy Story 3 is a dazzlingly confident and magical picture that recalls Paul of Tarsus's quote, but its makers have never forgotten what it feels like to be children. Pixar Animation Studios continue their near unbroken run of animation masterpieces with a colourful and emotional return to the best toy box in moviedom.

In the first emotional sting of the tale, the first scene delves into a loosely-tethered and spectacular imaginary recreation of the time where we all devised our own worlds and stories with toys. But Andy has finally grown up, and is preparing to go off to college. His toys (the gang's mostly here, though some have left, through age, breakage and yard sales) are devastated with his paucity of playing - going so far as to  contrive elaborate schemes to remind Andy of playtime. It doesn't work. They're heartbroken, but pragmatic - "Every toy goes through this".

The week before college, Andy's mother asks Andy to separate the toys he wants to keep for the attic, those for the trash. In a mixup, Buzz Lightyear, Mr & Mrs Potato Head and the rest barely escape from heading to landfill (under the untouched recycling bin) and head to the local day-care centre. The fluffy teddy-bear Lotso, driven bitter and angry by his owner replacing him, spearheads a chilling and wholly corrupt totalitarian regime within the centre. Our heroes are stuffed into the Caterpillar Room for toddlers and barely escape with their lives, if not their dignity.

Lotso enforces discipline with an iron will, eventually reprogramming Buzz to serve him - the effort to get him back to normal leads to the most inspired animation gags of the movie. The rest of the film is basically a wonderful mashup of Toy Story and Prison Break in the most exciting U-rated action adventure I've seen since, well, Pixar's last. (Some moments may disturb very young children - the all-seeing monkey should be a monster on Doctor Who!)

The character animation has come on leaps and bounds since Toy Story 2. Humans are far less plasticy and better animated. And the performances of all the main characters are richer and more nuanced. This is essential for the drama that is to come. Barbie and Ken ("I'm not a girl's toy!", "You're a purse with legs!") have their own delightfully amusing strand, and the voicework remains as invisibly wonderful as always. A particular standout is the Fisher Price Classic Chatter Telephone, an old timer in the centre. Teddy Newton's work combines with magnificent animation (acting by eyebrow has never been so sublime!) to create an incredible world-weary performance.

Pixar have always delivered magnificent scripts, and this is no different - what a delight it would be to be a fly on the wall of their story meetings. The storytelling mixes huge laughs and rich pathos, seemingly without effort, and leads to a finale that will leave few with dry eyes. Pretty much perfect.

And stick around for the credits, the gang all get their closures - including Rex's 'dominant predator' status and videogame addiction.

Blank City

Jun. 18th, 2010 02:34 pm

I'm a sucker for documentary films that show me an outlet for unadulterated and exuberant passion. In and among the poverty of Seventies and Eighties New York, Celene Danhier's remarkable film Blank City gives us a compelling and well worked out cinematic essay on the politics and artistry of the place and time. Ultimately, it is your basic talking heads documentary, interspersed with footage that redefines cinematic cool. The speakers are far too numerous to list - choice cuts include: Eric Mitchell, John Waters, John Lurie, Amos Poe, Steve Buscemi and Jim Jarmusch - and most of them are fascinating to hear.

The city was in massive debt, and without a government handout, most of the occupants of the Lower East Side were fearful to leave their urban dungeon homes. This melting pot of poor, struggling artists - christened "freaks and crazy people" - lead to a cultural revolution. "An explosive movement - a meeting of minds." A richly cut explosion of iconographic imagery opens the film, and we find it hard to argue with these "Iterian kings"; certainly with the raw, explosive and risk-taking results of their artistry.

These directors shot anywhere, borrowed their friends and jumped into abandoned houses for sets, scavenged for equipment and scrounged materials. Ultimately, their picobudget concerns did not stop them from obtaining the money and equipment - by any and all means necessary. They openly confess to committing "crimes to pay for films - that is what we did." Setting fire to their property and scamming for insurance money was a particularly popular hustle. Amos Poe is first up in the roughly chronological story. His anecdotes about the gestation of first Super8 picture Blank Generation are amusing and very much of the time, describing the editing process in the Maysles' Brothers suite while they were off their tits on amphetamines. Also, breaking and entering was not beyond these grunge poets - James Nares' hilariously high-camp Rome '78 was largely achieved by madmen in bedsheets, crafty camera angles, and sneaking inside buildings which look like architect's wet dreams.

Richly observed urban fairytales like Downtown 81, starring Jean-Michel Basquiat, are equally contemporaneous and take the breath away. Blank City also charts the rise of the musical revolution, and shows how it links with the downtown NY film scene; how filmmakers and musicians kept feeding off one another for their next creation. Almost anyone who was anyone was roped into being a punk rocker, the sound aptly described as "trying to make music as though no-one had ever made it".

Lizzie Borden is another participant who made politically radical films - most potently a strongly left-wing picture featuring the destruction of the World Trade Center, using large minatures and and glitter. Her films included G-Man and the audacious Black Box, sharp satires on the reactions to the threat of terrorism.

Many, many more anecdotes and wild stories await you. (I tried keeping notes, but was swiftly beaten down by the sheer volume.) And yet, Danhier's film feels organic in its construction, leading effortlessly from one story to the next with very little dead-time between them. It is an outstanding achievement - and for those of us not part of the movement, a deliriously fun ride.

Ancient Greeks and modern life meets zombies in a timeywimey action horror. Sounds like a laugh, right? Wrong.

An ancient evil is released (don't ask how - the movie doesn't say), and a handful of survivors must hole up against a gargantuan zombie horde. The streets are deserted, other than the pockets of very fast-on-their-feet zombies. It's like 28 Days Later, but with better gore effects and an even weaker story.
 
This is almost certainly the goriest film you will see this year. Each of our main characters is introduced by a swift dousing in stage blood - think Noel Edmonds and the gunge tank in slow-motion. Start as you mean to go on, I guess. The messiness doesn't stop at the ceaselessly inventive Savini-shaming effects - the script is shockingly incoherent.

Evil In The Time Of Heroes feels like a manic storyteller who won't shut the hell up when he's whizzing off on a tangent, and knows nothing about storytelling ebbs and flows. Characterisation is minimal, the storytelling rushed and undercooked, dishing out (actual) Deus Ex Machinas - spouting "WTFs" when it should be inspiring "Woah!" There's a couple of good giggles - the before/after shots of a football stadium zombie attack have the rhythm of a well-told joke.

In definitely the coolest cameo of the year, Billy Zane does his best Time Lord meets warrior monk impression - "Like a Jedi? You know, Luke Skywalker". And admittedly, the filmmakers do their best to make him look awesomely cool. His scenes don't make a lick of sense, and often take on the appearance of a really bad LSD trip.

There's a dozen reasonable ideas, none of which are developed into fruition - especially the time-travel stuff. A bit of a waste, really. The script is a collection of a movie-loving fool's mad ravings. The movie is highly competent in the technical aspects, and is well-shot. It falls down towards the end, where shakycam upturned what was left of my stomach.

There's a strange lack of emotion in the affair. No fear, no big laughs, no social satire - if it had held on a couple of months, perhaps the story could have leached some timeliness from the economic situation in Greece's near-bankrupt government. You know, zombies being used for what they usually are - a satirical infection to be purged, preferably with fire.

A wasted chance, but hopefully it'll lead to more interesting and coherent things for all involved.

"We killed every man, we killed every child, we killed every goddamn dog! And we rode all the women, and when they couldn't ride no more, we killed them!"

Set in Glory, Texas and the Mexican border - The Last Rites of Ransom Pride is a rather dull action Western. The story deals with prostitute Juliette Flowers (Lizzie Caplan) and her quest to claim the body of her murdered lover, the titular scoundrel Ransom Pride (Scott Speedman). However, the body is being held by Bruja (Cote de Pablo) a mysterious, disfigured leader of a town in Mexico with an axe to grind against Ransom. So, Flowers proposes a deal - she will bring Ransom's younger living brother, Champ (Jon Foster) and trade him for Ransom. Champ's father, Preacher (Dwight Yoakam) doesn't take this lying down - and sends bounty hunters after them. Each side gathers a somewhat bizarre motley crew, and the movie cues up the gunfights.

It sounds like a reasonably cool springboard for a plot. It could be, in the right hands. The cast of extended cameos are excellent, Kris Kristofferson as chief baddie, Peter Dinklage as a dual-doublebarrel wielding, and somewhat philosophical Dwarf. The cast acquit themselves nicely with the anorexic material, especially Caplan - obvious leading lady material. The characters and the story are thinly sketched, with precious little meat on their bones, the scripting is perfunctory - although it boasts a few nice one-liners and visual gags (3D Porn - What will they think of next...? Oh, wait). It interleaves the quest with a series of black and white flashback scenes, leading to a rather steamy - if lacking in skin - sex scene.

Technically, the film is good, the costume and set designs are sparse but effective - leading to a Deadwood-lite funky feel and a slick, well-realised pulp comic-book style, which is only partially ruined by a barrel of cinematographic and editorial tricks in an attempt to manufacture a raw and edgy energy. It doesn't quite work that way. First up is the strange and brief recaps, where each scene is summarised into a handful of its constituent frames, and blasted back at the audience. It's akin to writing using exclamation points for every sentence. It's tiresome, and not particularly clever.

Many off details - not limited to anachronistic petrol-powered vehicles and a semiautomatic pistol that looks decidedly modern, poorly staged action sequences and messy plotting stack up against the film. The stop-start repetitive road-movie feel and insipid script will likely consign this to the inhospitable direct to video market than as the cult favourite as was doubtlessly intended.

Outcast

Jun. 18th, 2010 02:28 pm

Outcast is a strange concoction of occult fantasy and social drama - think Ken Loach meets Angel Heart and you're on the right track. An Irish woman, Mary (Kate Dickie) and her teenage son, Fergal (Niall Bruton) move to a lower-class council estate somewhere in "Bonnie Scotland, Lothian" and try to settle down. They are being chased by a pair of hunters, Cathal (James Nesbitt) and Liam (Ciarán McMenamin) - sworn to rid the world of a beast which is following Mary and Fergal. Their next door neighbour Petronella - a Scottish/Romanian girl saddled with a mentally-challenged tank of a brother and an alcoholic mother - catches Fergal off-guard and they start a too-good-to-be-true relationship. In the sidelines, very bad things are happening to innocent people (Doctor Who's current assistant - Karen Gillan turns up as Dead Teenager #1), and pain-in-the-backside social workers.

Performances in Outcast are almost uniformly very strong. The magnificent Kate Dickie is quite simply incapable of giving a bad performance and her Mary is a screen-commanding creation: an intense, stony and full-on sorceress, unrepentantly vicious when her back is in the corner. James Nesbitt as Cathal is a crawling, brutally insane nightmare of a man, both blessed and doubly drunk with booze and supernatural powers, sporting a "shiny new skin". Hanna Stanbridge as Petronella, is less impressive, the various fast and tough choices that she must make within the story are mishandled. It's a fine debut, however, and the camera loves her. The main cast make a marvellous ensemble - every quality performance illuminating a world beyond the one portrayed in the there and then. Sadly, most of the rest of the cast has been drawn from central casting, and let the side down - even if it's just for a few minutes.

Director Colm McCarthy knows his genre - and how to provide a fresh sting in the tale. The script astutely blends Celtic folklore, creepy occult sorcery and strong social drama into a strange, and rather original fusion. All of this clever worldbuilding nonsense is given good shift by the excellent - Sylvain Chomet (The Illusionist) knows how to make Edinburgh look achingly beautiful? McCarthy and his excellent director of photography Darran Tiernan make it look like a great gothic dungeon. Additionally, the sound design is superior and adds immeasurably to the atmosphere.

McCarthy divines his strongest suit in the movie early on, the unrepentant vein of voracious carnality that drives the chased and the hunters. Two of the film's best scenes are quite simply well-edited sequence of bodies. Fergal and Petronella's bodies are cross-cut, dreaming of one another in the dead of night, and in tender solo masturbation. The other is Mary and Cathal locked in a naked psychic conflict - heavy breathing and howling for enraged one-upmanship.

For much of its runtime, Outcast may be the best British horror film since The Descent, and keeps hearts in the right place - our throats. Occasional breaks in its verisimilitude (such as the aforementioned crummy side-cast) and a rather bog-standard monster movie finale keep it from top marks. That being said, it's a wonderful calling card for a feature debut, and I look forward to more in the future.

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