True Beauty

Ugh. What can I say besides, “Shame on you ABC for putting such a stupid show with such dumb people on TV!” Okay, so don’t get me wrong, I love ABC, but the show that they’re running is TERRIBLE! In “True Beauty,” six gratingly earnest gorgeous babes and four cloyingly narcissistic hunky dudes get to live together in an L.A. mansion, where they attempt to successfully duplicate nuclear fission. As if! Actually, what they do is closer to bidding farewell to their remaining brain cells. Well on last nights “wonderful” episode, the idiots were faced with yet (surprise) another challenge. They had to model for a buffet with just food. Now I know what your thinking, but when I read this I’m thinking two things: 1. OMG! NO CLOTHES! and 2. BITCH! CLOSE YOUR LEGS!!! The contestants (if you want to call them that) were also tested (like animals) to see if they would help whats-her-face dig her ring out of the trash. Most of the lovely idiots did help all except for one, the strange David guy. After whats-her-face told him she lost her ring all he did was sit on his booty bumper and say, “Oh, thats terrible!” I mean, seriously??!! That man wouldn’t get off his ass if the damn chair was on fire! You could watch True Beauty next week on Monday night, but I strongly discourage it.

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The World Cup, and Such

Ever hear the one about the guy who does something wrong but gets away with it but the guilt eats away at him and affects everything he does until he finally implodes? Ladies and gentlemen, meet L’equipe de France, 2010. Star player is sent home, trainer quits, senior exec quits, players refuse to train and let the manager know via an open letter to the media … and that’s just in the past 24 hours. C’est une bitch, la karma!

Meanwhile England may not be competing very well on the pitch but they are mounting a good challenge to France for the title of “team least able to hold it together.” Wayne Rooney seems to think that fans who cashed in their retirement funds to come support him in South Africa should be happy he showed up. What? They wanted him to actually kick the ball as well? Well Rooney has a message for them: “Fuck ‘em all.” Oh and by the way that US goal that Rob Green let in? Turns out he was moping over his recent break-up with lingerie model, Elizabeth Minett. By the way, have you seen the commercial where the fans hold up cards to show a sexy woman to distract a goalie? The Spanish are claiming their goalie was too distracted by the sight of his gorgeous reporter girlfriend on the sidelines to be able to stop that Swiss goal. You know these guys make in an hour what I make in a year and I still deliver a good work product whether my relationship is going well or in the toilet.

I’m beginning to have great hopes for this tournament. It could really be the year that the minnows shine. It may not be good money for FIFA to see the big guys threatened with a Round 1 departure but I think it’s great for the game to see less dominance from the same top teams every four years. How about those Kiwis? Spectacular performance against Italy. Look at the Aussies playing with 10 men and holding their own against Ghana. Paraguay is looking very strong. Serbia scores against Germany. I’m still hoping Argentina goes far because I love watching the crazy (sadly it’s highly unlikely we’ll see an England-Argentina match at this point: that would have been a real treat). And wouldn’t it be great if this was Mexico’s year: They’re playing really well as a team.

Do we want to talk about the disallowed US goal v. Slovenia? Or do we want to talk about the bigger problem, which is the impenetrable old-boy network at FIFA that manages to turn every controversial call into an issue that clouds the sport? I’m not a supporter of bringing in the instant replay. It may be my age, but I think it would slow the game down far too much and open the door to challenges from the sideline which would be disastrous for the sport. But look, there are three officials out there (and a fourth watching on screen) and they’re wired these days, yet we have seen refs consistently refuse to seek feedback from their linesmen on what they saw before deciding on a call. Couldn’t we at least ask FIFA to require the refs to use their linesmen effectively? I think that would reduce the arbitrariness of these calls by about 70 percent.

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Toy Story 3

With each successive film, Pixar Animation Studios pushes the limits of computer animation to create increasingly dazzling worlds of texture and light, but not until Toy Story 3 have those talents felt so squandered. Granted, the film isn’t exactly terrible, and it does have moments of genuine suspense and terror, one of which is freighted with such dark and awful and adult emotions that the characters are left with no words for what they’re experiencing. But it was in that riveting moment that I realized just how flat and uninvolving the rest of the film had been. What once felt natural now felt forced; what once seemed effortless now groaned under the weight of just a few too many characters, too many twists, too many missed opportunities. No film exists in a vacuum, and Toy Story 3 has the unfortunate task of being judged with the rest of Pixar’s body of work, against which it feels too much like a half-baked spin-off.

The problem comes with the fact that the third film in the Toy Story franchise feels so obviously cobbled together from fragments of the first two films, only here they lack the gleam of inspiration and originality that brought the earlier films to life. For lack of a better word, the film often feels too pedestrian to have sprung from the creative well that’s made some of the best animated films of all time. For instance, one montage, intended to be comical, shows a Ken doll (Michael Keaton) trying on a variety of outfits to the tune of Chic’s “Le Freak.” It’s such a rote and predictable moment, especially considering how careful the earlier films were to create a real world that wasn’t our own and that didn’t rely on bad pop music stings to convey easy points. The same thing happens in the moment Ken and Barbie (Jodi Benson) lock eyes to the tune of Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver.” On one hand, of course they do, but on the other, how could a Pixar film feel so predictable? The earlier Toy Story films relied on original compositions and used them to great effect; this film reaches for the easiest joke and runs with it. It’s as if random scenes were shipped over from DreamWorks Animation and spliced into the final print. Too often the film manages to try too hard and be lazy at the same time, which results in a frantic and often unmoving experience.

The premise of the film is that Andy (John Morris), no longer a little boy, is heading off to college and will have to leave his toys behind. He initially opts to take Woody (Tom Hanks) to school as a keepsake and toss the other toys up in the attic, but the sack of toys is accidentally taken out to the curb to be thrown away. Only Woody and we the viewers know Andy was going to keep his old playthings, but that doesn’t stop the other toys from ganging up on Woody and assuming that Andy meant to throw them out. This, by the way, is lifeless plotting in which misunderstandings are meant to carry the same weight as intentional acts by characters. It’d be one thing if Andy or his mom (Laurie Metcalf) tossed the toys but then reconsidered, or just donated them to charity in the first place before having a change of heart. But Andy clearly wanted to keep his toys, and the “Three’s Company”-level misunderstanding that ensues just feels too broad, like it’s just another excuse to let Hamm (John Ratzneberger) and Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) be their fickle, prickish selves. Pixar movies have ably demonstrated depth of character before; why start sliding back now?

After saving Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), and the rest of the toys from the trash heap, Woody and the gang are taken to a daycare and donated. Woody promptly escapes and attempts to return to Andy, only to wind up being taken in by a young girl from the daycare with a small toy collection of her own that warns Woody that the daycare group is actually run by a dictatorial leader intent on destroying newcomers. It’s true: Over at the daycare, Buzz and the rest meet Lotso Huggin Bear (Ned Beatty), a superficially charming toy who turns out to have a wicked mean streak and a penchant for torturing toys that don’t behave and pay their dues, which at the daycare means doing time in the preschool room and suffering at the hands of snot-filled toddlers. The main action of the film involves Woody’s return to the daycare to break out his friends and their subsequent attempts to find freedom and get back to some kind of good life.

The best sequence of the film is the prolonged prison break, and it’s here that director Lee Unkrich, who co-directed Toy Story 2 and edited the first two films and A Bug’s Life, does his best work. The suspense and pacing are great, and the prolonged chase scene that eventually leads to some pretty dark places is relentless and often breathtaking. He also winds up getting the characters into one of the darker moments a family film has ever done, in which they believably confront not just their danger but their own mortality. It’s a shocking sequence that totally earns its pathos and resolution, and it’s only here that the film succeeds in achieving the nuance and resonance for which the studio is rightfully known.

The problem is that most of the rest of the film feels unconnected from this centerpiece. Staging The Great Escape with toys is a fun idea, but the script from Michael Arndt (from a story outlined by Pixar big guns John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter with Unkrich) jams in a few too many characters for any of the new faces to have even a fraction of the impact of the established cast. The new toys Woody meets at the little girl’s house are wonderfully realized and given life by a fantastic group including Timothy Dalton, Bonnie Hunt, Kristen Schaal, and Jeff Garlin, but we’re given so little time with them it’s tragic. In a weird twist, the flipside is also true: The remaining central cast is smaller than it used to be, with the absence of characters like Bo Peep, Weezy, and Etch-a-Sketch explained expositionally as Woody laments the passage of time that brings garage sales and trips to the dump. It’s a clunky way to back into a story that as a result never quite rings as true as the earlier ones.

Are there moments in Toy Story 3 that work? Yes, and when they hit, they’re very good, which is what makes the film’s overall mediocrity so much harder to take. Seeing glimpses of something bracing and riveting lurking beneath a sodden exterior is sadder than just watching a forgettable movie. Instead of a new chapter in an ongoing tale, the film mostly feels like a tired retread, one step too far for a story that once hit great heights. When Lotso’s backstory is laid out for the viewer (narrated by a hilariously depressed clown toy named Chuckles), it’s meant to highlight his abandonment issues and show the darker side of the loving bond between child and plaything. But for anyone who’s seen Toy Story 2, the sequence feels like a copied and pasted version of the history of Jessie the Cowgirl, only stripped of the power and poignancy by its repetition. With their latest film, Pixar has indeed done something new: They’ve gone backward.

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The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid

Will Smith must be wholly determined not to become the type of parent characterized within his rap songs. The evidence of Smith’s particular parenting ways is fairly obvious from his purchase — as producer of The Karate Kid remake — of a movie star career for his 11-year-old son Jaden. Further, it was no insurmountable hurdle that Jaden wanted to be a movie star now, for a few quick strokes of the pen are all it took to change a protagonist’s age from a high-schooler to a preteen. Similar changes followed in rapid succession; now, the story takes place not in Reseda but in China, and the martial art in question is no longer karate but kung-fu. These changes not only make it more convenient to justify the casting of Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan but — at least to a non-discriminating audience — can be explained away as mere trifles and easily forgiven by a family-based audience that’s got nothing better to turn to in this cinematic void.

By the very nature of a remake, comparisons to the original are inevitable. Ultimately, this remake is utterly disposable and gratuitous at best. Admittedly, the 1984 original was not a masterpiece nor a classic, but it resonated with an entire generation — not for the formulaic and predictable plot but for its iconic characters — and the remake takes great care to back itself into the same exact plot but kicks character aside (thanks to screenwriter Christopher Murphey) in lieu of providing an abundance of eye candy. Original director John Avildsen (Rocky) placed great emphasis on the relationships between the characters and how their individual past experiences shaped their beliefs and actions. Those characters were motivated by a deceptively ornate quilt of multiculturalism that made actions believable and genuine. Remake director Harald Zwart (Agent Cody Banks) suffers from a distinct lack of focus and sacrifices the original’s emphasis upon the all-important bond between teacher and student for sweeping views of a lush Chinese landscape. Sure, there’s still the same basic story with obligatory buildup to the tournament crescendo, and the players mirror the motions, but the characters themselves are very different creatures, which results in the omission of key elements within the remake.

Since these new characters pantomime their requisite motions without reason, the rare explanations that do occur function like a slipshod duvet cover that doesn’t fit terribly well but appears adequate enough on the outside; this attitude carries to the remake as a whole. On the surface, The Karate Kid is a structurally faithful remake with the same underdog-takes-all sort of ending, which forms a fairly convincing mirage sufficient enough to stir nostalgic feelings of the original’s fans, but it certainly has nothing — other than a bigger budget and a 140 minute runtime — that the original didn’t have to offer. Unfortunately, the differences between original and remake run much deeper than geography and the switch from “wax on, wax off” to the more convenient “jacket on, jacket off.” Through pomp and circumstance, the end result is a crowd pleaser but a hollow one at that.

As already mentioned, the framework is familiar: Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) moves with his recently widowed mother (Taraji P. Henson) from Detroit to Beijing, China. Dre soon encounters seethingly violent school bullies — even though preteens have no reason (definitely not the rush of hormones coursing though adolescent veins) to act in such a way — who have been taught kung fu by Master Li (Rogguang Yu). The bullies beat up Dre, who convinces his apartment building’s maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), to school him in the ways of kung-fu. Many training sessions are held at gorgeous locations such as the Great Wall, and there’s a field trip to the Forbidden City. Dre also takes interest in a cute violinist named Meiying (Han Wenwen), who dances around saucily to a Lady Gaga song. Her parents get very angry when she ignores her violin lessons. Cue violin-related drama and a squicky kissing scene. Oh, and there’s a tournament, and you already know how that ends. In short, you’ll probably enjoy this remake from a popcorn-crunching standpoint, but if that’s not enough for you, keep on reading.

Throughout The Karate Kid remake, performances are adequate considering that these are pancake-thin characters. I suspect that Jaden Smith plays himself more than he does a character; and although the kid nails the kung-fu moves, Dre comes off with much arrogance, which almost makes his beatings seem welcome. Jackie Chan does some actressin’ but, physically, his Han just doesn’t physically resemble Miyagi, who appeared deceptively soft, whereas Han is basically Jackie Chan with facial hair. No matter how well Chan shuffles about with averted gaze, the man’s still built like a brick shithouse. Even if you’ve somehow managed to never see Chan in his real-life martial arts capacity, his sheer physical presence is a dead giveaway, which ruins the element of surprise during his fight scene. (Of course, Pat Morita, who received an Academy Award nomination for his performance as Miyagi, didn’t know any karate moves before filming the original Karate Kid. Jackie Chan may be known in his native country for his martial arts proficiency, but he’s no Pat Morita.)

Even more troubling — ironically — is the virtual absence of multiculturalism within the remake, despite abundant opportunities other than the obvious language barrier and Chinese preoccupation with Dre’s funky hair. Further, the remake’s “insignificant” fact changes have a profoundly adverse effect on the mentor character that runs to the core. As a mentor, the Okinawan-born Miyagi was quite playful and slyly sadistic in his methods; but he was an ultimately honorable WWII hero and suffered inwardly for the childbirth-related deaths of his wife and son. In the updated version, Han — excepting his comically inventive fight scene — shows himself to be a much gloomier character; he also mourns for his wife and child, who died in a very different manner. So, while Miyagi and Han both appear to be wise Asian martial arts masters who just happen to be automobile hobbyists, their characters’ essences are quite different, and when Han spouts Buddhist aphorisms, it sounds much less believable and quite scripted. This entire character has suffered from removing his background and replacing it with a personal tragedy but no larger context.

Another related problem exists in the remake’s abandonment of the Miyagi/Kleese dichotomy. Miyagi — a dedicated military hero who faced German forces in WWII — understood that “fighting always last answer to problem.” Kreese — an ex-Special Forces Vietnam Veteran who was obviously not over the U.S. loss — trained his students that “an enemy deserves no mercy.” As if to emphasize the differences between the two teachers, Kreese was referred to by his students as “Sensei,” which is actually seen as a derogatory term by Japanese and Okinawans and implies a cult-like adherence by Kreese’s students. All of that made sense in the original because of the historical context, which the remake strips away by a switch in geographical location and nothing to fill in the gaping void. In the original, Kreese’s Nam-related issues were to blame for his teachings, but the remake’s Master Li has no true basis for “no mercy,” — well, other than just being a bad guy. The failure of the remake to flesh out important characters — both Han and Master Li — is more evidence of a lazy and entirely unnecessary remake.

Of course, many people won’t care about the characters enough to want realistic backstories for their motivations. If you’re interested in watching a skeletal reenactment of The Karate Kid as surrounded by ultimately distracting Chinese landmarks, then go right ahead and buy that ticket. However, you must certainly realize that my point is already somewhat proven by the new The Karate Kid theme song, which is no longer “You’re the Best” but a Justin Bieber number instead. (Nice bangs… too bad about the inner vacancy.)

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