Archive | Reviews RSS feed for this section

Family Night: ‘Ramona and Beezus’ true to Cleary’s books

9 Nov

Rated G for some thematic elements (appropriate for all ages)

Run time: 104 minutes Directed by: Elizabeth AllenWritten by: Laurie Craig, Nick Pustav  Starring: Joey King, Selena Gomez, John Corbett, Bridget Moynahan, Josh Duhamel, Sandra Oh Continue reading

DVD Spotlight: Underrated Pilgrim still rocks ‘World’

9 Nov

Running time: 112 min. Rating: PG-13 for stylized violence, sexual content, language and drug references. Directed by: Edgar Wright Written by: Michael Bacall and Edgar Wright

Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Brandon Routh, Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman, Kieran Culkin, Ellen Wong, Allison Pill, Mark Webber, Anna Kendrick Continue reading

Movie Review: Pixar’s ‘Up’ soars in 3-D

1 Jun

alg_up_movie

cinemagrade A

Pixar’s Up is a grand adventure and a heart-warming drama that reaches new emotional heights for the animated film team. It’s not surprising that Up works as a superb family entertainment; after-all Lasseter and gang have yet to really miss. What is surprising is that Up, similar to last year’s brilliant Wall-E, manages to raise the bar for Pixar and gives us a film that exceeds both our expectations and the boundaries of its own premise. Like its protagonist Carl Fredrickson, Up takes off early and heads into the stratosphere, floating with ease for its entire running time and finally coming down to bask in the glow of the voyage.

For Pixar, Up marks a more adult journey than its predecessors. After Toy StoryA Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2,  Pixar had cornered the market on wonderful children’s films that appealed to both young tykes, their parents and everyone else in between. However, they were still, essentially, “kid’s films’. With Monster’s Inc. this began to change. The world of Monsters was a complete original and it took childhood imagination and married it to working class comedy and embedded something at the heart; a parent/child bond between Sully and little Boo. It was an enticingly complex and poignant relationship for a mere children’s film and it signified the move to a broader genre camp–the ‘family’ film. Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo boldly launched the company forward into that kind of family epic, and Brad Bird improved it with The Incredibles. And then, using the enjoyable Cars as a transition piece, the Pixar films changed. Ratatouille, Wall-E and now Up all share the fact that they don’t have a simple or easily marketable idea at their core; a rat who wants to be a French chef, a little worker robot who doesn’t speak and spends the first half of the movie puttering around an abandoned Earth, and now, the story of an old curmudgeon sailing his house to South America via thousands of balloons anchored through his chimney.

Picture%2010

 The new Pixar films aren’t limited to being simply kiddie or family pictures but are capable of functioning simply as ‘good movies’. Up(directed by Monsters helmer Pete Doctor) is like that, starting with an emotionally charged set-up and moving into a captivating lost world adventure worthy of a 30’s fantasy serial.  The animation has reached such a level of sophistication that Pixar can combine stylized representations with nearly photo-real imagery and it all blends together perfectly. Some of the visual enchantments include a floating house lifted into the sky by thousands of shimmering balloons, a massive air-ship releasing canine-piloted planes, and characters who represent their own brand of animated evolution; an old man squared down by age and experience and a small, round little asian boy who has yet to encounter the defining and shaping events of life. All of it looks spectacular and there is a mesmerizing beauty to the soaring sky sequences and the passages that occur in South America.

Up’s strongest feature is the writing and character development. Carl Fredrickson is an old, house-bound widower who has ceased making contact with the outside world. The house that he bought and fixed up with his loving wife is still intact, but all around high-rises and skycrapers have cropped up and businessman are pursuing Carl’s property. Shortly after meeting the young and determined Russel, an overweight and clingy boy scout, Carl is faced with the possibility of losing his  house and all the memories of his beloved wife along with it. His solution is the massive clot of balloons he attaches to the house which propel it airborne, tearing it from its foundation and floating away towards Paradise Falls, a lost world in South America that he and his wife had long dreamed of going to.

pixar_up

 To say more of the journey, or how exactly Carl and Russell happen to be stranded in the floating house together would be to rob the film of some of its best moments. What is important is the way in which the filmmakers imbue Carl with a heartfelt quest and a desire to have one more great adventure for the sake of his wife. Their relationship is presented to us in the first fifteen minutes of the movie, when a young boy meets a hyperactive tomboy dreaming of far-off lands and exciting travel. That fifteen minutes, nearly as silent as the early parts of Wall-E, are the most emotional of the film; I was in tears half-way through. Ed Asner as Carl brings a weight to the role that carries all of that emotional currency with him through the fast-paced adventure segments. Russell, the little boy that accompanies Carl is primarily a bundle of energy but his home life has issues and he has latched onto this old man in a way that forces Fredrickson to consider something besides his own loneliness for the first time in years.

The theme of Up is refreshing as well. In the face of time and tragedy, which moments of our life are the ones that gave it meaning? The wide-eyed thrills or the smaller pieces? What Up does is give care and craft to both; the human drama is stronger here than it is in any ten live-action Hollywood dramas. The adventure in South America has a high-flung, good natured excitement to it and the action scenes in the air are far more rousing than anything in the last Indiana Jones film.

3126944

How about the 3-D? For the first time, I was enthralled by its use. When it requires dropping an extra four dollars to see a film in three dimensions instead of two, it really needs to work if I’m going to recommend seeing something that way. I totally recommend Up in 3-D. Instead of focusing on a series of “set pieces’ the animators have  painstakingly designed each sequence of Up in a way that it immerses the viewer into the world of the movie. The 3-d only accentuates and deepens this immersion. Whether its seeing Carl’s house sail under darkening storm clouds or watching Russell dangle thousands of feet above the jungle, the 3-D opens up the animated world like a cinematic version of a pop-up book. There is a weight and texture to the flawlessly concieved art.

In any form, Up is worth a look. It stands at the forefront of this year’s most ambitious movies and so far it’s the best.

Now Playing: Oscar winning ‘Departures’ embraces life and honors the dead

1 Jun

 

Departures (Page 1)

Okuribito (Departures) (2008) rated: PG-13 for thematic material. 130 min. Japanese with english subtitles.  directed by: Yojiro Takita. written by: Kundo Koyama. starring: Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue, Kazuko Yoshiyuki. cinematography by: Takeshi Hamada. Original music by: Joe Hisaishi.

cinemagrade A

The wanted ad says the position will help others find ‘peaceful journeys.’

Freshly unemployed 30-something cellist Daigo didn’t just lose a job when the orchestra he was playing for disbanded, he lost a direction and a purpose. When he comes across the ad during his job hunt, he thinks it describes the work of a travel agent. That will do, especially if it pays well. He has sold his cello and is ready for something new–but maybe not this. His prospective employer is eager to have him and explains that the ad was misprinted; the proper translation should be ‘departures’. Daigo is offered a substantial salary and encouraged to give this job a try, even if its different than what he expected.

The actual position is that of a nokanshi, or ‘encoffining master’ who works in tandem with the funeral homes to prepare dead bodies for burial in ceremonies that take place in front of the deceased’s family. Daigo didn’t plan to sign on for this, but he and his wife Mika, have just moved out into his family home (his mother is dead and his father abandoned him when he was young) and he has promised her a fresh start. He takes the job, but keeps its nature a secret from her. And thus begins Yojira Takata’s Departures, a japanese film that won the Oscar for best foreign language film at the 2009 Academy Awards. 

2gyryol0

Departures is a surprisingly moving film that combines poetry and humor with a rich sense of cultural awareness. That may sound stuffy but it isn’t. To this westerner’s eyes, the process of ‘encoffining’ seems sterile, detached and perhaps a bit morbid; the family sits in front of the nokanshi as he bathes, cleans and prepares the body and then gently but expertly wraps it for its final journey. The entire process plays out like a somber dance, one final waltz whose purpose is clearly intended to benefit not the deceased but the living. The film is helpful in drawing out and exploring the assumed stigma that Japanese culture has towards death.

What Takita and his screenwriter Kundo Kayama do is instructively draw the lines between an aversion to death and a respect for the transition between life and death. If Departures were merely a study into the process of encoffining and an observation of its intimate details that would in and of itself make for a compelling film. The uncommon strength of Departures is that it manages to be so much more than just an explanation of a ceremony; it’s a warm and thoughtful exhaltation of the joy to be found in living and the catharsis that comes from properly acknowledging grief.

okuribito_main_rgb_r

Motoki as Daigo narrates the film but never gets carried away with it. He is the neophyte into this world and through his eyes we see his own progression; not simply from a cellist to a nokanshi, but from a man without a purpose to an artist embracing a passion and a talent he never would have guessed he had. Daigo isn’t sure about the job at first and a few days are rough, like a visit to an elderly shut-in whose body has been in the house for over two weeks. But the first time he watches his boss, played by veteran Tsutomo Yamazaki, perform an encoffining ritual he is intrigued and enraptured.

There is an artistry to it, like playing the cello, and a strange thing happens to the family present. They move from inconsolable grief to a mournful but visible peace. It isn’t complete and sudden, but it does happen and in one instance, a man even credits Daigo and the job he has done with helping him accept his son as the person he was. The purpose that Daigo latches onto isn’t related to the aesthetic and precise nature of the work but to the people who attend the ceremonies. He, the typically despised nokanshi, becomes a guide of sorts, not ushering the passed away into the land of death, but leading the grieving to a place of closure and acceptance.

photo_10_hires

Its hard to describe exactly how Departures ends up being as great as it is. A large share of the credit goes to the excellent cast who embody their characters so perfectly that they convey their essence mostly through action and only occasionally with dialogue. In a film like this that spends so much of its time immersed in imagery, custom and tradition, long conversation scenes explaining processes and protocol would be tedious and besides the point. Motoko, who has had a long career as a Japanese pop star, is excellent here as a sensitive young man searching for his purpose and struggling with the memory of the father who abandoned him. Instead of just playing as a footnote in Daigo’s painful youth, the film expands and internalizes that conflict. Motoko makes it a large part of who the character is and how his new-found profession is bringing that pain back to surface and eventually calls it to be dealt with.

Yamazaki as the old boss does top-notch work and provides much of the comic relief without really saying much. Usually a film like this would revere the old pro and give him plenty of wisdom and perhaps even make him a father figure to Daigo. None of that ever happens, explicitly. Yamazaki’s master is a professional and a man who has organized a philosopy and lifestyle around what he does;he is completely at peace with it. Being in such close proximity to the dead amplifies everything in life and he models this for Daigo; the boss and his employees eating chicken with a discernable fervor right after an encoffining is a scene both odd and insightful.

okuribito

The remainder of the cast do their jobs wonderfully and I honestly couldn’t find a single poor performance. So well crafted is Departures that even the dead have been chosen with care and the family members at the deathbed have some of the juiciest roles. The film takes it time and has a natural flow and rythym which is good for a story that tends toward the melodramatic. Instead of being mawkish, it’s moving and wise in the way it visualizes its narrative. The cinematography and score are two of the strongest elements and they are the backbone of the film; they don’t simply accentuate the story, they give it the power it has. I was reminded of the way a master like Akira Kurosawa would construct deep and meaningful structures out of simple quiet life moments. The  encoffining ceremonies are numerous and each one is presented in almost its entirety. This would almost assuredly be boring if it weren’t for the fact that when each one happens it means something different and the characters are learning and growing during them.

Not unlike Kurosawa’s Ikiru, Departures is a masterpiece of Japanese cinema and though it might be grudgingly recieved over here as solid but overly sentimental, it deals with mortality in a mature and expressive way. This is not a story of  grief but a call for embracing every facet that life has to offer, each in its own time and in its own way. We shouldn’t be surprised when it turns out that Departures is not a tear-jerker but a triumphant, humorous and satisfying drama that inspires us to consider the joys available to us that are all too often taken for granted.

2009_departures_004

Departures is one of the very best films I have seen this year and I encourage you to check it out. It’s completely wonderful and hearkens back to the work of the Japanese masters of the 50s and 60s while embracing the same kind of big-hearted entertainment that made 1996’s Shall We Dance? such a delight.

Movie review:Terminator–Rise of the McG

25 May

 terminator-salvation_71

Terminator: Salvation,2009, (PG-13), 116 min.

cinemagrade b-

After abstaining from blockbuster fever for the better part of this long weekend, my wife and I, with both sets of parents in tow, finally got a chance to check out Terminator: Salvation yesterday afternoon. There has been a dark cloud looming over this movie for awhile, and most of the fingers have been pointing at the film’s director McG, who constantly gripes about the attention his name brings and then allows it be featured not once, but twice, in the opening credits. Given that I didn’t see this one on Thursday, I got a chance to watch the reviews roll in and the critical consensus wasn’t good. Then I began to hear from visitors to this site, and from friends, that the film was just fine and worthy of the Terminator name. Now, having seen it, I’m ready to weigh-in. But first, a confession.

I really dig The Terminator films. Not just one, but all of them. The original is easily the best; a dark and thrilling triple-decker action film that blends time-traveling sci-fi paradoxes with a killer-stalks-girl horror motif, both being used to prop up the central speculative fiction that posits a world where the machines are the masters and they won’t give up their hold. The sequel is one of the greatest popcorn entertainments I have ever seen, and having just re-watched it this weekend, I can attest  to the fact it still holds up.  Arnold gives, allowing his limited range, what amounts to a great performance with plenty of humor and authority mixed in; I bought the fact he was a machine. Everything about the sequel is trumped-up but it works because the movie provides a heart. Enough of a heart, in fact, that it carried over to Terminator 3.

Rise of the Machines is the one I’m not supposed to like, but am actually quite fond of. Arnold more or less slept-walk through the role, but given the character, it was often hard to tell. I wasn’t a huge fan of the female Terminator, but the action scenes were terrific fun and the interplay between Claire Danes and Nick Stahl, including a fantastic ending, endeared me to it. It was a little too much like what had preceded it, but it got the job done. And now we have McG’s version in Terminator: Salvation, chronicling that long impending future-war.

terminator-salvation_192

Turns out that not only does the film evade suckitude, it’s also a solid bit of summer sci-fi goodness that really captures that post-apocalyptic energy of many a forgotten 80s film. In the Terminator cannon, it can’t compete with Cameron’s work but is well above Mostow’s entry. I was entertained from beginning to end, and for the first forty minutes I was completely enthralled. Visually, the movie looks great. A gritty grimy filter covers everything, but instead of murky night scenery or dreary camera work , there is a hard-edged clarity to both the expansive desert and the movie’s extraordinary special effects. Without a doubt, the machines and terminators in the series have never looked this good. The sky is filled with menacing Hunter-Killers who patrol looking for human captives, giant Harvester robots crash and crunch across the California desert and creepy robo-cycles careen down the abandoned highways. In only a scant few years(the movie is set in 2018 and SkyNet went operational in 2003) the machines have appropriated the world their human creators once owned. And yet, with all of their resources and cold calculating logic they have failed to destroy the human beings. Enter John Connor and the resistance.

Christian Bale may be the epitome of professionalism, but he brings absolutely nothing else to this role at all. There isn’t a hint of shading or variation to John. He literally growls his way through the movie like he just wants it to be over. Granted, since he is playing the hardened leader of a resistance who has been hunted by robots since he was 12 and is now facing the possibility that the humans might actually win, maybe that actually qualifies it as a great performance.

 Bryce Dallas Howard, as his wife, manages to suggest that she is the same person that Claire Danes played in the third film, but the movie gives her so little to do that it makes Story the Narf look like a complex role. It doesn’t matter though, because John Connor is not the focal point of this movie. He isn’t even the prophesied full-fledged leader yet–that would be Michael Ironside,  playing General Ironside, I think.

MarcusFaceTrl2

No, the spotlight this time out goes to Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a convict from 2003, sentenced to death by lethal injection, who sells his body to Helena Bonham Carter (representing Cyberdine) for a kiss. She’s dying of cancer and he tells her “So that’s what death tastes like”. Classy.

After that, he wakes up in the wasteland of 2018, wandering across the burned out cinder of Earth and runs into a spunky young resistance fighter and a mute child. The young man is  Kyle Reese and when he hears the voice of John Connor coming across a busted radio he knows he must meet the man. Anton Yechtin gives the best performance in the movie, channeling the essence of Reese from the original film but giving him nuances that clearly didn’t exist in the script itself. Yechtin, who has been nothing less than great in everything I have seem him in from Hearts in Atlantis on up, is definitely an actor to keep an eye on. If his Kyle Reese had been the focus of the story, Salvation might have been something more than just a couple hours of summer fun.

Worthington, as Wright, is just fine but his role is clearly designed to sort of echo Arnold. He’s a tough but compassionate warrior, fighting against his nature to be something more than what he is. He doesn’t understand this new world, or the fact that while his heart beats human, the stuff under his flesh and blood is all metal panels and circuitry. If Arnold had played this role, it would have had more impact, and made more sense. Marcus is the latest and greatest from Sky Net but when Connor comes up against the newest model later in the movie, it bears not the visage of Sam, but Arnold–looking buff and imposing despite the fact he’s pretty much just flawless CGI. So, at some level, it feels like the script was written with someone like Schwarzenegger in mind for Wright. When Worthington fails to mine it for subtlety or variation, thats probably more a fault of the writing than his acting.

terminator-salvation-still

The script is the weakest aspect of Salvation, and really brings the picture down. There is a revelation late in the game involving Sky Net and their knowledge that Kyle Reese is Connor’s father. Instead of killing him, they hold him hostage for Connor and the Resistance. Maybe I was just operating in a post-lunch haze, but I couldn’t figure why they didn’t just cap him right there unless the Machines are covering their bases and decide that killing Connor and his father would be  like an insurance policy. More importantly, it fails to truly humanize any character in the movie with writing alone. Some of the actors manage to find sparks of individuality on their own, but none of it exists in the writing which feels like a cold exercise in franchise building.

Which is why the credit for this film rests primarily on the shoulders of one individual: McG. Terminator: Salvation would be a wet-rag of a movie if he wasn’t at the helm. He pulls all the pieces together and delivers some really exciting action scenes while building the world after Judgement Day with a realistic and not overly cluttered sense of the desolate. I enjoyed a scene where Bale uses an old boombox and the Guns N’ Roses T2 anthem “You Could Be Mine” to bring down one of the machines.

The movie is fast-paced and exciting even when it isn’t giving us any in-depth human drama. In this way, McG is borrowing an important page from the Cameron playbook. Emotional responses aren’t elicited solely from character depth or dramatic interaction, but can be sparked too by well-structured action that is both clear and dynamic. There is no shaky cam in this film and the battles between the humans and robots don’t have that feel of being heavily edited so we never see the blows and the movie gets a PG-13. There is a strong sense of the craftsman at work in this pic, and yea, maybe it doesn’t get to the heart of the Terminator franchise but that isn’t because McG hasn’t given the film his all. His Terminator film is perhaps the most spare of the three, and the one with the darkest tone but in its own way, and despite its flaws, it adds to the series without detracting. So in the end, McG came through just fine.

Mark my words. He’ll be back.

MFF review: Life, Death, Summer and Zombies

25 May

                                  46422895

Make Out With Violence (2009) 105 min. Director: The Deagol Brothers. Writer: The Deagol Brothers, Cody DeVos, Eric Lehning. Starring: Eric Lehning, Cody DeVos, Brett Miller, Leah High, Tia Shearer, Shellie Marie Shartzer.   Cinematography: David Bosquet, Kevin Doyle, James King. Film editing: Brad Bartlett, The Deagol Brothers. Original music: Jordan Lehning and The Non-Commisioned Officers.

 

cinemagrade A- John Hughes meets Night of the Living Dead meets Tarkovsky’s Solaris. That’s how one of the Deagol Brothers, directors of the indie horror comedy Make Out With Violence,  pitched the film before it’s screening at the Maryland Film Festival on Friday May 8th.

It’s true, the film incorporates all of those above mentioned elements but that description only gives you a point of reference, it doesn’t prepare you for the kind of film Make Out With Violence really is. The Deagol Brothers, a filmmaking troupe who arent really brothers or named Deagol, have put together something really special here; a teenage comedy with heart-felt laughs, an art-house drama with real pathos, and a horror flick with a human dread that reaches down into the bones. Make Out With Violence carries the kind of quirk that made previous indie faves like Guatemalan Handshake and Napoleon Dynamite so endearing and it embraces the darkly comic in a way that few films have since Heathers.

Its much more than that though. Make Out With Violence, at its core, is a summer seranade to that most certain of constants: loss.

High school has ended forever for five friends and the summer before the rest of their lives sits in front of them. The sleepy small town they call home is in the midst of a balmy warm spell and cicadas chirp in the nearby fields. Each day has that hazy golden promise of runs through the sprinklers with friends and revelatory late night conversations by the pool-side. But nothing is as sweet as it should be for the Darling twins Patrick and Carol, their friend Rody and gal pals Addie and Ann. Wendy is missing. In fact, Wendy, the sweet and gentle core of this breakfast club has been missing for awhile; well before graduation. So long that the town has given up looking for her, and as the movie opens Patrick, Carol and their little brother Beetle(who narrates the film) are on their way to Wendy’s funeral.

02_makeoutwithviolence_indiememphis2008_l

The details of the funeral and the various car rides, half-finished conversations and long walks back from the service all feel uncomfortably real. Three years ago, on May 11th, my wife and I lost a mutual college friend of ours who was taken suddenly in a tragedy that was hard to process.  It was a bracing jolt of reality and sadness, and it hit not only us but almost our entire community of friends. Something had changed for us; one of us was gone and it was a strange feeling. The next few days were different for everyone. The filmmakers understand this. They also understand that while the funeral wil be the end of it for many, there will always be that group of people for whom it is only the start of something more painful and complicated.

The characters at the fore-front of Make Out With Violence, regardless of how close they might have actually been to Wendy, have all been hit exceptionally hard by her passing from their life and the rest of the film addresses what happens after that long trip back from the cemetary. There is a scene outside of a darkened home when Patrick returns and realizes no one else is back yet. He doesn’t go inside, but simply sits on the porch and stares. Going in would assuredly be worse, especially for Patrick. He was in love with Wendy.

 

2009 2 049 

One of the Deagol Brothers after the MFF Friday night screening of Make Out With Violence

Things fall apart for the little group after the funeral. Carol, who has been pining for Addy since day one,  follows her around like a puppy dog and tries to be emotional available to her after Wendy’s death. Addy is having none of it. She’s too busy feeling guilt and apathy and providing Wendy’s grieving boyfriend with what the movie snarkily refers to as “sleaze comfort.” Abby’s friend, Ann Huran, in turn, has been eyeing up Carol for quite awhile and he is all too aware of it.  Ann Huran is the kind of girl who is so forthcoming and deliberate that it never dawns on anyone to use anything less than both her first and last name everytime they see her.

Beetle, who at 10 or 11 is significantly younger than the others, spends alot  of time drawing pictures of Wendy as an angel, and thoughtfully observing the patterns and new behaviors of his friends and family in the wake of this tragedy. Patrick, he notes, is taking the death of his friend particularly close to the heart and making sure that everyone around knows it. He was in love with her  but never told her, and now he spends all of his time considering the lost words, memories and possibility that left with Wendy. His friend Rody dodges the entire thing by leaving for the summer and entrusting the care of his parents’ home to the Darling boys.

And then, Wendy comes back. From the dead.

 With this turn of events,  Make Out With Violence springs to new life and quickly became one of the most compelling viewing experiences I have had this year.

00_makeoutwithviolence_indiememphis2008_l

 Beetle and Carol are wandering in the woods hunting cicadas and find Wendy…alive. Sort of.  Her body has been tied between two trees and she stands there, head lolling to the side, body decaying as she violently struggles against her bonds. Carol approaches her and sees the truth– She is a zombie. A full blown, creepy make-up, R0mero-would-be-proud, zombie. Beetle and Carol take her down, wrap her in a tarp and take her to Rody’s house where they show her to Patrick and he decides to keep her in the bathtub.

From this point on, Make Out With Violence follows the brothers down a two-lane, twisted highway to Wierdsville. On one hand, the story continues to develop as a wide-eyed John Hughes coming of age rom-com would, with each of the brothers struggling to connect with their beloved and agonizing over the newly presented possibility that their secret longing might be finally professed. Patrick and Beetle send Carol out on a step by step quest to win Addie’s heart while Patrick dotes on his lost-but-found love in the same way that those other Darling boys did with that other Wendy in Peter Pan.

On the other hand, everything is beginning to look like The Twilight Zone; Wendy is a freakin’ zombie, Addy is emotionally vulnerable, distraught and sleeping with her dead best friend’s beau, and as Patrick becomes uncomfortably obsessed with the living-dead girl he and Carol start drifting apart.  Beetle is on the sidelines watching it all and stumbling over new, disquieting realizations like “Dead things come back different. They can’t ever be what they used to.’

Everything that takes place in the second half of the film is more or less the pay-off for the film’s set-up–if a film like Make Out With Violence can really have a traditional pay-off. It may play by the rules of narrative storytelling and realistic character development but its primarily an internal, evocative meditation on loss and the way it can become a catalyst to new beginnings. It just happens to do this with alot of knowing detail and humor. It embraces the hokey self-seriousness that accompanies first crushes and unrequited loves and doesn’t shy away from the grislier physical aspects of death.

The going is tough for the Darling boys. Yes, Wendy was once their friend and they loved her but everything that is left behind has a stench, and a darkness, and theres the little problem that all she wants is living things to eat. At one point the brothers make a shake out of raw meat and she simply pukes it back into the tub. They try a rat and she seems to like this fine. Later Rody’s parent’s dogs find their way into the bathroom and….nevermind, you really don’t want to hear.

makeout_violence

The Deagol Brothers are really talented as both technicians and artists, and if you take some time to check out the cast and crew on this thing you will realize that alot of the efforts here are interconnected. The acting is very good for an indie film of this nature, and the actors, especially Addie, really understand the ways in which people shut-down and close-off in some areas while opening up in others when something catastrophic happens to their world. Wendy, as the zombie gets to play a rotting shadow of the thing she once was and her greatest gift to the movie is making lost motor functions and grim eating habits hilariously poignant and queasy. Brett Miller as Beetle narrates the movie in a small, meek tone that reminded me of Linda Manz’s narration in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Speaking of Malick, it’s clear the Deagols are fans of his because it shines through in the way their movie looks.

The cinematography is amazing. There really isn’t another word for it. The entire town is caught in a never-ending summer, and both shadows and sunshine are made to be menacing. There is care and detail and patience in the way shots are framed and scenes play out. The screenplay, the visuals, and the soundtrack(more on that in a sec) are perfectly in sync. A night-time rendezvous by the pool between Addie and Carol is a perfect example. As the two grow closer all of the information on screen builds to an emotional peak and before she feverishly kisses Carol, Addie exclaims “Lets get AWESOME!’ It’s funny, it’s a pay-off, and it adds resonance to the scenes that follow it.

The films finest piece, however, is a morbid candle light birthday dinner between Patrick and the now putrifying Wendy. Eric Lehring as Patrick gives a detached performance that seemed like the work of a fledgling actor early in the going, but upon reflection he captures perfectly the self-delusion necessary to keep viewing this walking husk as his lady love.  He bakes her a cake, dresses her up, lights candles and sits with her, and for a moment it could be a sequence from a different movie. This would be the point where Eric Stoltz or Anthony Michael Hall would finally win over the girl with their earnest and selfless devotion. Instead Wendy makes a shambles of the cake and falls head-first into the carpet. The following interplay between the two works as drama and as a portrait of the film’s themes played out visually.

03_makeoutwithviolence_atlanta2008_l

 The soundtrack is one of the film’s strongest elements. A stirring collection of 80s style glamrock, otherworldly ambient tracks and pieces both poppy and disturbing, its been designed to fit the movie so well that it isn’t absurd to think of Make Out With Vi0lence as a musical at times. Its all original music, done by the Non-Commisioned Officers who happen to inlcude Eric Lehring(who plays Patrick and helped write the film) and Jordan Lehring (who plays Rody). I was so impressed, that when I learned that the Deagol Brother present at the screening had copies he was selling, I immediately bought one. They can also be picked up off the film’s website HERE.

In closing, Make Out With Violence is a wonderfully strange and challenging film. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it after the first viewing. In the days that followed, it grew on me quite a bit. It attempts so much, and brings so many disparate pieces together, that its abrupt ending is rather jarring. But then, loss is also like that and to make the decision to leave the audience in the middle of that feeling rather than give them an artificial sense of closure is ultimately the right decision. It ends the film the same way it began; with a hole punched right into the middle of the world. Death can do that. Expect to hear more from me on this one, as I’m sure it will be present on any end of the year’s best list I might do.

I’ll also keep you posted on the film’s progress and if it gets a theatrical, dvd or any other kind of release.

albumcover

Bartleby Abroad: Ong Bak 2 raises the bar for martial arts action

23 May

 

poster

 

cinemagrade b

Let’s start simple. Ong Bak 2 kicks ALL kinds of butt. Crocodile, elephant, pirate, ninja, crow-sorcerer–if you are in Thailand and possess a posterior it probably has Tony Jaa’s footprint on it. This is one of the most kinetic, ambitious martial arts films I’ve ever seen. Jaa not only eclipses his previous efforts, but he proves himself to be a very gifted action director.

All of the bizarre stories involving Jaa hiding out in a cave and nearly going crazy cease to matter when basked in the energizing glow of Ong Bak 2’s lush, aggressive vision. I don’t hold any of it against Tony. I nearly lost my mind just watching the freakin’ thing; he’s excused if he lost his making it. By changing the time period, and ramping up the mythological aspects of his Thai setting and his mysterious hero, Jaa has done something unexpected: He’s made the greatest Conan movie we can probably ever expect to see on film.

Ong-Bak-2-movie-pose

The first Ong Bak was a great audience movie; perfect for friendly gatherings, conventions, bar mitzvahs, you name it. The story wasn’t important. We watched as a new action hero was born and we reveled in every obstacle leapt over, every cranium busted by an elbow, and every flaming leg kick connecting with its target. There was, however, plenty of room to grow. The budgetary constraints were obvious. Replaying each action scene from different angles grew tiresome. Jaa was a silent, strong hero, but when he wasn’t in fight mode he had all his scenes stolen by his sidekick, Dirty Balls.

I like that first film a lot, but feel it functions better as a demo reel for what Jaa is capable of than as an actual movie. I’m a bigger fan of The Protector, which was sillier but had more heart. Jaa fighting for his elephant seemed awkward at first, but it gave the movie a center. The elephant added one more shade to Tony’s stoic ass-kicker, and we like our heroes to have layers, even thin ones. Now, there’s Ong Bak 2 which has as much connection to the original film as Protector had, but brings with it a greater technical prowess and a more layered story. 

ongbak2_st_06
The most significant difference that separates Ong Bak 2 from its predecessors is the overall scale of the production. The film takes place in 15th century Thailand and all the money spent shows up on screen. This is one of the most sumptuous looking movies I’ve seen this year. There is a sense of perfectionism in each shot. Every temple, every town, and every river is captured in gorgeous golden-green hues. 

The battles are filmed in a way where we understand the geography and position of the fighters and the punches and kicks they are throwing. The action is breath-taking. Warriors on horseback  ride through fields of flying arrows, and Jaa’s character, Tieng is captured in his childhood by raiders who throw him into a crocodile pit where he must fight his way out to freedom. Both sequences utilize practical fx, and as a result the scenes are almost seamless. I’m not convinced they didn’t let a kid in Thailand wrestle a real crocodile.

 Early in the film, adult Tieng runs across the backs of an elephant herd, making his way to their leader. After sparring on the ground with this elephant, he swings himself up on it, swats it on the head, and forces it to its knees in submission. As Tieng stands there on the elephant, with his dark hair flowing in the wind, we see the rest of the herd bowing down before him. The entire thing has a certain comic-book majesty to it. 

ong-bak-2-elephants

There is overall, less action in this film than the original Ong Bak. For a long time, Jaa is building this world and the back-story for Tieng. It’s a simple revenge tale, like the original Conan the Barbarian. Tieng’s parents are brutally murdered and he is rescued by pirates whose leader raises him as if he were his own son. When Tieng comes of age, he is placed through a series of trials where he must master different facets and styles of martial arts. The early action scenes display this training and allow Jaa to show us that his skills extend far beyond the world of muy-thai. The later passages follow him as he pursues revenge against the growing forces responsible for his parent’s death.

The tension mounts slowly, until we arrive at the film’s final half hour, which is an extraordinary piece of action filmmaking. There’s a new standard thrown down here. We don’t mind that we have seen maybe one knee to a forehead since the film’s opening. This time, Tony Jaa uses a SWORD. We aren’t talking, parry, parry, thrust. Imagine balletic, complex moves mixed with slashing, clanging metal weapons. I’ve never seen swordfights as exciting as these.  What this man can do with a blade is frightening and astonishing.

Jaa himself is also a trained khon mask dancer, so it isn’t surprising that he brings this into the film as a significant part of Tieng’s background. It’s the one thing that helps soften him. When he returns to find the girl he lost as a youth, he discovers her dancing for his enemy. He joins in too, wearing a mask to hide his identity, and the entire sequence slows down the film’s pace but builds the drama and tension. Then he releases this tension in a fury of kicks, knee-smashes, spear chucking, rope swinging, elephant gymnastics and blade throwing. The adrenaline cherry topping this action sundae is a fight scene atop an elephant with  Tieng battling  a dark shaman-like creature. It’s impressive and I’d wonder how they did it, if I weren’t too engrossed in the film to care.

ong_bak_2-4
There is much I haven’t said about the movie, because primarily, it’s an experience. Ong Bak 2 is a full fledged adventure; its pacing is strong and  its hero possesses enough complexities to keep him central in our focus. As a purely visual experience it has no other live action equal so far this year.

So, what’s the catch? What’s the flaw? Well, it seems like it’s only half a movie. Ong Bak 2 just  ends after only a 111 minutes. Our hero is in a seriously dire straight and just like an old serial, we are told that’s it. More next time. We see him older and bearded, much like a certain Cimmerian, but what happens to him in in his current trial we never see.

ongbak2_st_20

To give you an idea of what’s done in Ong Bak, imagine if Conan the Barbarian ended with Ahnuld finishing his speech to Crom, the warriors of Thulsa Doom bearing down on him, and then it went to black, the narrator stepped in, and asked you to send all your positive thoughts out to Conan, that he might be able to survive this trial. And then we see him there on the throne. No, really. That’s essentially what happens here. It’s kind of frustrating, but it isn’t crippling to the film. After all that has come before, how can it be?

 The ending reflects Buddhist philosophy better than most anything I’ve seen, and it’s a clever strategy for Jaa. Guys like Jackie Chan and Jet Li have made movies for years where the stories didn’t matter. They were just showcases. Jaa has made himself a serialized franchise here. He can tell a little bit of this epic story each time, build a character with some depth, and still keep it down to a brisk film that delivers the action fans want. The ending is a sticker at first, but when your singular complaint for a movie is that you want to see more of it, that’s not a terrible thing. Me, I’m ready for Ong Bak 3 right now.

Hey, who am I kidding. I’m ready for Ong Bak 2 again. Get lost Star Wars; Tony Jaa is the only Thai-fighter we need.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.