The 80s are back with The Karate Kid and The A-Team. Or you can look far back to a woman's struggle in 400 A.D.
THE KARATE KID: It was a major hit 26 years ago, spawned three sequels and now comes back in a shiny new version. The good news is it works. The mood, the performances and the message (“Life may knock us down but we can choose to get back up”) combine for a decent inspirational tale. Jaden Smith, Will’s son, is confident in the role Ralph Macchio made famous. He’s taken to China where he’s charmed by a violin-playing girl, bullied by a jealous punk and taught kung fu (not karate) by a run down maintenance man (Jackie Chan) who claims it’s a technique for peace. Jaden just wants to whup the bully in a big tournament. The film has a nice deliberate pace working through the initial culture shock and the training, up to that showdown. Note two issues, though. At 140 minutes, the film is long, due partly to several colorful side trips to tourist attractions like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. And the fighting, both in the schoolyard and the kung fu arena, gets quite violent. A rival instructor sets that tone with his maxim, “We do not stop when our enemy is down.” That’s far more severe than the original a generation ago.
(Oakridge, Scotiabank, Dolphin, and 10 suburban theatres) 3 out of 5
THE A-TEAM: This re-grouping of the popular TV squad from the 1980s just wants to entertain. And it does, if you’re up for a mindless summer blast to eat popcorn to. The action is big and often outrageously cartoonish, most famously when the guys are “trying to fly” a tank that’s fallen out of a plane. A sequence I liked better was a spectacular escape and chase down the side of a tall office tower, possibly on Burrard Street, one of the many locations from here to Kamloops used in the film. Liam Neeson now heads the team as cigar-chomping Hannibal while a UFC fighter, Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson, takes over from Mr. T. and two actors who hit it big last year, Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) and Sharlto Copley (District 9) fill out the quartet. They all do the job more than adequately. The story updates and pretty much matches what the series used to do. The team is framed (in Iraq this time, not Viet Nam) and on the run, from among other people, Jessica Biel, the first woman given a significant role. There’s rough boy humor, lots of stuff exploding and containers on a cargo ship tossed around like toy bricks.
(Oakridge, Scotiabank and many suburban theatres). 3 out of 5
MOTHER AND CHILD: Let’s celebrate a when a film brings us real characters, living out real lives and real crises. This film is a quiet but emotionally devastating example. It links the lives of three women over the issue of motherhood.
Annette Bening plays an aloof physical therapist who sets out to find the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was a teenager. Naomi Watts is clearly that daughter, just as cold in manner and a hard-driving lawyer. Kerry Washington plays a woman who can’t have children and wants to adopt. Their stories unspool separately - Naomi sleeps with her boss Samuel L. Jackson, Annette pushes Jimmy Smits away, Kerry tries to make a deal with a pregnant teen - and finally twist together in a conclusion that’s a bit too convenient but mostly satisfying and tragic. The relationships these women have with the people around them and the theme of mother-daughter love drive this movie. The performances by the main cast plus a large number of secondary characters are all tops.
(5th Avenue) 3 ½ out of 5
AGORA: Unusual for this time of year, here’s a film of ideas. Too many perhaps. They clash with each other and also struggle for supremacy against the sword-and-sandal events going on at the same time. It’s an odd coexistence.
Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia, the astronomer and philosopher working in the great library of Alexandria, Egypt, in the 4th century A.D. Carl Sagan spent a whole chapter of his Cosmos series to her story. Judy Chicago had a place for her at her Dinner Party. Here she’s both an advocate for women’s rights and a visionary about the mechanics of our solar system. She leads a class of students to ponder exactly how the earth revolves around the sun. Out in the streets, a mob of Christians (dressed in black like modern punk anarchists) is rising to battle pagans and later Jews. They don’t take kindly to her unorthodox thinking and eventually sack the library. Much of that seems to have been true. The film though goes further. While the turmoil is building outside, and she labors to keep the academic inquiry going, a slave and two students fall in love with her. When she rejects them all, they take different sides in the religious battles. The film works hard to promote tolerance both then and now, mostly through intense speeches delivered in classical English cadence. With fine sets and costumes and huge crowd scenes, it looks like a Biblical epic of old, or maybe the Rome mini-series.
(Tinseltown) 3 out of 5
MICMACS: The summer festival of French films is back starting with this whimsical item that also carries a serious message.
Dany Boon plays a man with a grudge against arms manufacturers. He lost his father to a landmine and has bullet in his skull from a drive-by shooting. He discovers the weapons came from rival factories situated across the street from each other. He enlists the help of an eccentric group of scavengers, inventors and misfits to fight back. They engineer a series of complicated Rube Goldberg processes (or shenanigans as French title says it) to besiege the two company heads, expose their personal lives and set them against each other. It’s intricate and clever and never violent. It’s also great fun to watch, highly imaginative and close to impossible. Still, it works, much like the physical comedy of silent movies. It has a retro storybook feel and yet by the end there’s U-Tube with a key role in the plot. The director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, is best known to us for Amelie and the film is being promoted with that connection. But you have to go back to his Delicatessen and City of Lost Children for something close to the odd-ball tone and quaint look of this latest film.
(Ridge Theatre) 3 out of 5
EXCITED: I wasn’t that impressed by Bruce Sweeney’s new film when I saw it at last fall’s Vancouver International Film Festival. I thought the story dealing with a man’s problems with premature ejaculation was thin and belabored. I did think, though that Gabrielle Rose as a domineering mother is very funny and the best part of the sex comedy. And also Vancouver itself, looking soggy but nice. (Just like recently, I guess).
Well, the film picked up four awards at this year’s Leo Awards, BC’s Oscars. Gabriella Rose got one, Laara Sadiq another (she plays a new woman in our hero’s life), and Bruce Sweeney for directing and producing. Another look seems to be in order.
Excited is playing at the Ridge on Monday (a special presentation with the director and cast in attendance) and again June 16-17 at the Fifth Avenue Cinema.
SOUNDTRACK FOR A REVOLUTION: The audience voted this the most popular film last year at the Film Festival. It was also nominated for an Oscar in the documentary category. It’s a fairly standard piece of work but definitely carries both a punch and great deal of both nostalgia and cry for justice.
It’s a look at the civil rights movement in the American south during the 1960s through the songs that moved it. There’s a great collection of old news clips (including sit-ins, marches and police beatings), recent interviews (with people like John Lewis, Andrew Young and Julian Bond who were there and went on to important political careers) and new musical performances (by The Roots, John Legend, Richie Havens, The Blind Boys of Alabama, a too-sexy Joss Stone and others). The elements don’t always work together properly but the material is all strong.
(Pacific Cinematheque) 3 ½ out of 5