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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mortal Kombat


Title: Mortal Kombat

Year of Release: 1995

Date Viewed: August 14th, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Mortal Kombat was a landmark arcade game of the 1990s because it was the game that every kid enjoyed playing even though they weren't supposed to be playing it at all. As an adult in his mid-twenties, I've seen enough movies to have my personal tastes become at least moderately sophisticated. In other words, artistic films are equally appealing as those that are made for cheap thrills. I'm an aspiring film studies student who has many unwatched classics yet to be appreciated. Yet when the chance to upgrade my knowledge came around, I opted for a DVD that I had no business watching. The movie adaptation of Mortal Kombat; a favorite from adolescence that I had the pleasure of watching roughly a dozen times before. It has no innovative direction, no timeless wisdom and plenty of cheap thrills. But sometimes guilty pleasures are so fun that there is no room for regrets. That's why the arcade was so popular to begin with.

In the Kombat universe, inhabited worlds are divided into realms with Earth being only one of several. The elder gods that control these realms cannot legally cross over to others unless their native warriors defeat their enemies ten consecutive times in a once-a-century martial arts tournament called Mortal Kombat. Having lost their previous nine endeavours, Earth is now in jeopardy of Outworld invasion. 

The final hope in preserving humanity lies with three mortals who are initially oblivious to their true importance. They enter the Mortal Kombat tournament for personal reasons. Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) is a Special Forces officer on the trail of wanted criminal and murderer Kano (Trevor Goddard). Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) is a Hollywood action movie star frustrated by press rumors that he uses a stuntman and special effects for his fight scenes. And Liu Kang (Robin Shou) is a former Shaolin Monk out to avenge his brother's death at the hands of sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.) Earthrealm's guardian Lord Rayden (Christopher Lambert) takes a special interest in the three warriors because he senses one of them will be the swing factor in determining Earth's fate. The group journeys to an Outworld island that's literally off the map where they will face nightmarish foes that no one had ever lived to tell about.

The Mortal Kombat franchise had been conceived as an homage to the 1973 martial arts epic Enter the Dragon. The story of warriors gathering at an island for a deadly tournament is very similar to that film. The character of Liu Kang was modeled from the late Bruce Lee. But the true appeal behind the game was the creative thought that went into each character design and the fast-paced ruthless fighting style. The finishing moves were especially brutal and unlike anything that had been seen in mainstream videogames before. For better and for worse, it got people's attention.

The intelligence of videogame fanatics is often underestimated. Rarely is very much serious thought put into movie adaptations of popular games because studios assume flashy fireworks across the screen is all that's needed to please the target audience. The reality of modern games is that the stories are often strong enough to appeal to folks that never even picked up a controller in their life. The Kombat universe was wide enough to invite future expansion (which it certainly did) and stimulate the imagination. Those who pay money to see videogame movies want to see them live up to the visionary quality of the original idea. Fortunately for Kombat fans, screenwriter Kevin Droney and director Paul W.S. Anderson understood this. Unfortunately for them, the ultraviolent finishing moves known as "fatalities" had to be watered down in order to satisfy the PG-13 rating; a guideline probably set in place to draw more teens into the theater. So if the gamer crowd couldn't get a film that looked like Mortal Kombat, they'll have to settle for one that feels like it. Anderson's crew made sure that the fight scenes had impact and that every strike felt important. It's a fine line between fancy kung fu showboating and hard-hitting ferocity. Everything that could be wished for a Kombat movie except the gore.

The casting of Robin Shou was a huge help in reaching that high bar. As an actor, he plays his hero role confidently without the overdramatic mannerisms of Bruce Lee. As a real-life martial arts master, he assisted in some of the fight choreography and carried a good load of the important action sequences. The stunt work is effective enough to hide the lack of experience from Shou's co-stars. But it still remains clear in the final cut that Linden Ashby and Bridgette Wilson were in an inferior league, and as a result, some of their moves looked stiff and awkward. To Ashby's credit though, he hangs tough to participate in the movie's second best fight scene.

The script is very true to the game, but some of the dialogue is questionable. It's odd how the film exhibits confidence in knowing what its audience wants to see yet remains so self-conscious about making sure everyone can follow along. Every time a new character enters the story, there's usually someone there to immediately identify him/her by name. There's no need to spoon feed like this and it's especially annoying to those already familiar with the franchise. Other than that, brains don't really need to be checked at the door, unless you're somehow expecting something realistic from a tale about gods, sorcerers and ten thousand year-old princesses. Mortal Kombat is far from a flawless victory but earns a solid three-round knockout.

Rating: 7

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The King's Speech


Title: The King's Speech

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: August 13th, 2011

MPAA Rating: R

My name and presence is announced to everyone in the room. All eyes are now looking in my direction. I swallow and take a deep breath before walking to the designated standing area. Everything is silent. My professor and fellow students wait patiently to hear the speech's content. The act of breathing is for once a conscious action. The heart is pounding. I clear my throat and take a quick glance at the note card that has handwritten cues on the topics to be covered. It's no use. I've already forgotten how to begin the speech and there is nothing else except my nervous brain to depend on. All those hours of practicing didn't prepare me for being placed on the spot for the most crucial time for a crucial graded assignment for a crucial semester. That was a typical week in my college speech communication course. Nothing else is needed to explain why I had to re-take it twice to receive a passing grade.

Most polls on phobias report that public speaking is a person's strongest fear. Death usually comes in second place. As comedian Jerry Seinfeld put it, most people would rather be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy. So does that mean speeches are a fate worse than death? All those "kill me now" moments in class sure made it seem that way. Yet as agonizing as that experience was, I had it easy compared to King George VI (played here by Colin Firth), who lived with a speaking disorder all his life while his career depended on communication with an entire country he represented. The opening scene in The King's Speech captures all the fear and general overwhelm one feels when forced to be center of attention to a large crowd. Twenty classmates is bad enough. How about trying a filled Wembley Stadium?

The future King's public address at the 1925 British Empire Exhibition is a disaster. Stammering all around and long pauses between simple words. It sounds like a child attempting to read a book for the first time. This wont do for anyone, much less a public figure. So the King's advisers and especially his devoted wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) persuade him to seek treatment in a recluse setting under the tutoring of speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Some of the seminars include unorthodox exercises and Logue's personality keeps things erratic. But it's only right for an exceptional situation to be given a novel answer. After all, it's the stuff movies are made of.

The King's Speech follows the deadline structure but doesn't share the traits typically found in this type of narrative. Great Britain is on the verge of declaring war against Germany and the rising Axis Powers. For the sake of national rally and to defy the enemy, its leader needed to act like one. And speak like one. And learn to do it fast. It's not a race against time so much as it's a race against loss of momentum, both politically and militaristic. History will have to wait to learn about Lionel Logue's role in serving his country. King George has bouts of resistance from his teachings but the country can't afford to wait for results much longer.

I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded reviewer. But there were a few pre-conceived issues about this movie that were tough for me to shake off even after completion. And that also explains why I was late to the party in watching this award-winning film. The story is basic enough to be summarized in three sentences and the plot doesn't have enough layers for a drama to draw upon. And the idea that leaders and politicians will inevitably suffer a loss of support because of poor public speaking is something I have misgivings with; both in moral and factual analysis. I'll admit that there's probably an underlying reason why George H.W. Bush was the U.S. President while Dan Quayle was the understudy. As I'm typing this, President Obama is revealing his new jobs plan to Congress in a national broadcast. The confidence in his words is so emotionally stimulating that I almost overlooked how all of his speeches are basically the same. But anyway, it always makes more sense to judge someone by actions over talk. It's especially true in period pieces such as this where public figures were not as easily accessible as they are today.

Although the movie's construction process is pretty much flawless and the result is smooth enough to win respect from film scholars, the end result feels too reserved for something that won so many prestigious awards. One might think I'm holding it to an unfair higher standard but I swear this isn't the case. It might have actually been that "safe" feeling that swung the votes to its favor. Beyond that, the film has a lot of fine technical achievements to be proud of. Every set design has as much given care and attention as that crucial opening scene. The characters are very likable even through their most incompetent moments. (The classic belief that those who don't want help won't get help is the secondary theme.) And the movie is smart in understanding how timing is more important to comic relief than abundance. As we watch poor King George angrily pace around Logue's office and shout obscenities to calm the frustration, it's hard not to laugh and remember that familiar piece of therapy that soothed our souls since an early age. If at first you don't succeed, try try again. Then take Logue's advice and shout your favorite curse word. Then try again.

Rating: 6