The Karate Kid scores a hit, and Please Give yields a pleasing, perceptive satire

by Mark Burger

The latest Hollywood remake, The Karate Kid, is one of the better ones — in part because the filmmakers have changed enough of the surface elements while retaining the crowdpleasing elements of the first film, a surprise hit in 1984 that spawned three sequels, each of increasingly diminished quality (and box-office returns).

In the new film, competently directed by Harald Zwart, Jaden Smith plays Dre Parker, a 12-year-old boy still mourning the loss of his father. His mother (Taraji P. Henson) accepts a job assignment in China, figuring that the change of scenery will do the boy good. Dre, naturally, is resentful of being uprooted.

In quick succession (literally on the first day of school, no less), Dre clashes with the culture — in the form of Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), a pompous bully who summarily pummels Dre with his martial-arts ability.

It takes a few more altercations with Cheng and his equally pompous posse before Dre takes real action and asks the local handyman, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) for some pointers in the finer art of self-defense. It’s an uneasy alliance at first, but before too long the punches are landing and their hearts are melting. Corny? Undoubtedly, but also effective.

Then and now, The Karate Kid is less about the karate than about the kid and his relationship to his mentor. Without that core component, the story would collapse into simple-mindedness.

The acting is pleasing all around, with Smith a likable protagonist who learns a few things about himself under Mr. Han’s tutelage, Henson warmly amusing as Dre’s mom, Wenwen Han as Meiying, the girl who catches Dre’s eye, Rongguang Yu as Cheng’s win-at-all-costs teacher and Wang as the antagonistic Cheng.

There’s also a particularly good turn by Chan, who only occasionally displays his own martial-arts mastery here. He’s required to give a full performance, very much in a character vein, and does so admirably. The original Karate Kid scored an Oscar nomination for its screen mentor, Pat Morita, and it’s not inconceivable to envision Chan in the running for this version.

Screenwriter Christopher Murphey has wisely avoided a straight remake of the original 1984 film. The basic blueprint is the same — Murphey’s not about to tamper with success — but these aren’t the same exact characters as before, although they’re not entirely different either.

Although it’s never dull, the film could have been trimmed a bit. Just when the momentum is building toward the climactic tournament, there’s yet another detour to the Great Wall of China for a bit more training. The film is nothing if not picturesque, yet occasionally it seems as if the filmmakers were transfixed more by the sights than by telling the story at hand.

Little of this matters in the long run, however. The formula still works, and the “new” Karate Kid will likely find favor among its generation of filmgoers, much as the original found its generation a quarter-century ago.

Please Give (opening Friday at the a/perture cinema in Winston-Salem) is the latest film from writer/director Nicole Holofcener, and it’s one of her best to date. With an eclectic ensemble cast operating at full strength, aided and abetted by Holofcener’s sharply observant script and judicious direction, this is a winner.

Oliver Platt and Holofcener regular Catherine Keener portray Alex and Kate, a successful couple who sell antique and vintage furniture, much of it procured from the estates of the recently-deceased, and are contending with the adolescent angst of their daughter Abby (Sarah Steele).

Living next door in their Manhattan apartment building is Andra (Ann Guilbert), a cantankerous 91-year-old widow who’s become totally dependent on her granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a medical technician who has sacrificed her own social life to keep Andra content — a sheer impossibility given the old woman’s penchant for always saying exactly what’s on her mind, even when no one around her is paying attention.

As for Rebecca’s sister Mary (Amanda Peet), she evinces little concern for either Andra’s health or Rebecca’s happiness, being blithely bitchy to one and all.

These characters’ periodic interactions, coincidental or accidental at first, become more frequent, and in some cases more profound, during the course of the film. They’re not sure of themselves and they’re not sure of each other. Only in finding the first can they find the second.

The film mocks their neuroses with subtlety and insight, yet it’s never mean spirited or judgmental. Even at their selfish, thoughtless worst, there’s some empathy for them, quirks and all. Indeed, who among us hasn’t done or said the wrong thing at the wrong time? That doesn’t make them bad people, just misguided — and sometimes hilarious — ones. Yet the comedy is tinged with melancholy that lends the story, and its characters, a bit more texture.

Understandably, Holofcener has always fashioned good screen roles for women, which is refreshing under any circumstance (and still a too-rare occurrence in most Hollywood films), yet this is no standard-issue “chick flick.” The male characters may be outnumbered, but they’re not caricatured. There are good roles for everyone.

Other familiar faces on hand, some just briefly but none wasted, include Thomas Ian Nicholas, Lois Smith, Kevin Corrigan, Elizabeth Berridge, Amy Wright, Jaime Tirelli (as the apartment building’s little-seen but oftspoken-of superintendent) and National Public Radio correspondent and satirist Sarah Vowell. Nevertheless, against some heavy competition (particularly Peet and Platt), it’s the venerable Guilbert who steals every scene she’s in.

It’s also particularly impressive is that the film maintains an indie-friendly individuality yet comfortably fits into the mainstream. There’s no reason that a smart and genuinely funny movie such as this shouldn’t find acceptance beyond the arthouse crowd. Please Give is the kind of movie that Woody Allen used to do so well — and, perhaps, should be doing again.

MOVIE TIMES for Triad Theatres!