Nugget: Inception

When I have neither the time nor inclination to write a full review, I write a nugget. Sometimes its because what I saw needs percolation time and to try and write a full review doesn’t do the film justice; other times its because the film isn’t quite worth all the work of a full review.

Nugget: Inception.

This. This right here was worth the price of admission.

Everything you’ve heard is true: this is the best movie of the summer and you should see it immediately. It warrants seeing two or three times, but I’ll have to wait for video for that.

It is continually amazing to me what Christopher Nolan is doing with movies. How is what he does and what, say, Uwe Boll does the same medium? How?

But yeah, see it.

See it NOW.

Flying Fiery Feets of Fury: Ong Bak & Ong-Bak 2

I was surprised to find that the movie only had a 47% on rotten tomatoes, but on reading some of the comments I realized why: critics complained that the film bore little resemblance to the first movie, which takes place in modern times, and that it didn’t have enough action. But it seems they missed the point entirely–Tien commits some majorly bad crimes as a pirate, and thus his karma (Thailand is a Buddhist nation after all) is stained. Ultimately he is reincarnated as Tien in order to right the wrongs of his ancestor.

When it came time to make another Ong-Bak movie, Tony Jaa and Prachya Pinkeaw had a unique problem: how do you top a martial arts movie whose penultimate stunt has the lead fighting in burning pants.

Take a moment to savor it

Here’s a link with the aforementioned scene; Fast forward to 1:30, and you might want to mute it too as there’s some kind of annoying music playing. But still–a crazy airborne spin kick with your PANTS ON FIRE is pretty hard to beat.

(Also–Tony Jaa lost his eyebrows during the filming of this scene, and nearly caught his entire head on fire. Also also–Googling ‘Tony Jaa Fire Pants’ did not net the comedy gold I was hoping for.)

In 2003, Thai actor Tony Jaa appeared in Ong-Bak: The Muay Thai Warrior and was touted as the next heir to the Bruce Lee throne. While his actual training background is unclear, what is known is that he taught himself acrobatics by somersaulting off the family elephant (!!!!) into a river, and is credited with bringing awareness of muay thai to a bigger audience than just Asian action movie enthusiasts. And he’s really, really good at what he does.

The story is about Tien, a martial arts-practicing country boy who must retrieve the sacred Buddha head of his middle of nowhere village. The trail leads  him to Bangkok, where he meets up with George, a monk who spurned  rustic village life in favor of drugs, sluts, and betting money he doesn’t have on underground boxing matches. Tien wanders into one of the matches and goes through a giant Aussie competitor as though the latter were made out of fresh creamery butter, and little dollar signs light up in George’s eyes at this walking windfall. Tien doesn’t want to fight though, he just wants to find the missing Buddha head.

Some more stuff happens, Tien’s journey takes him through the seedy Bangkok underworld, which is all filmed to resemble the basement of a Las Vegas bowling alley, he retrieves the Buddha head and finally he finishes his task and attains enlightenment as a monk at the end of the film. Like most Asian action movies, which are much more honest about their purpose,  the story is really just a vehicle for showing off the lead actor’s fighting and stunts prowess.

Which is why the second Ong-Bak was such an unexpected treat: it is actually a prequel which functions as a karmic set up for the first Ong-Bak. OB2 follows the story of Tien, the karmic predecessor to modern day Tien, again played by Tony Jaa and his crazy-ass physical ability, but sets up a plot arc that is one part Thai history lesson and one part sweeping fantasy epic.

Previous Tien is the son of a deposed king, who escapes his father’s murderers only to wind up in a slave camp, fighting a giant crocodile for the entertainment of a crowd with incredibly poor dental hygiene.  He escapes by killing the crocodile, and his prowess as a fighter is admired by Chernang, the pirate king of Garuda Wing Cliff. Chernang takes young Tien under his wing and the latter learns a metric shitton of martial arts and battle tactics from the multicultural crew of pirates and fighters Chernang keeps: everything from Muay Boran (an antiquated form of Muay Thai) to Hung Gar, with weapons training as well. He uses these tactics to become the second-in-command of the pirates, but a memory from his youth of a young girl he became friends with at school makes him realize he has unfinished business in his life. Stuff happens, adventures are had,  but ultimately the story ends unfulfilled–I won’t spoil it, but I found the ending strangely satisfying, if a little abrupt.

People get dirty in this movie. I mean *really* dirty.

I was surprised to find that the movie only had a 47% on rotten tomatoes, but on reading some of the comments I realized why: critics complained that the film bore little resemblance to the first movie, which takes place in modern times, and that it didn’t have enough action. But it seems they missed the point entirely–Tien commits some majorly bad crimes as a pirate, and thus his karma (Thailand is a Buddhist nation after all) is stained. Ultimately he is reincarnated as Tien in order to right the wrongs of his ancestor.

If the first Ong-Bak introduced an unfamiliar Western audience to modern Thailand, the second was a celebration of Thailand’s cultural and historical heritage, even down to the elephants–there’s a scene where showing mastery over elephants proves Tien’s training is complete, and elephants are intertwined with Thai history and culture. The King of Thailand still keeps a herd of ‘war elephants,’ and the great beasts are to be found all over architecture and artwork. Since Thailand was a large nation near the ocean, it has a diverse population, which is reflected by the varied nationalities of the pirates who train Tien–there’s a Japanese guy who trains him in katana and swordfighting, Chinese fighters, and an Indonesian guy. There’s even a scene taking place in the evil usuper’s court showing Thai dancing and pageantry. Which is kind of beyond the scope of the usual action movie–Thailand isn’t just a setting, it’s a costar.

Apparently, the answer to the ‘firepants’ quandary was ‘Elephants.’ This scene was amazing and there was no CG or wires. Just Jaa and his magic powers.

When viewing a foreign film, I tend to take a passive role . Since I’ve never even been out of my home country I assume there is a lot I don’t know about the world and that the film might function as a source of information as well as entertainment. I realize and accept that I am not the intended audience, even if the film has been repackaged and distributed overseas to a foreign audience–sure some stories cross cultural barriers, but ultimately you are viewing the film as a ‘guest.’ Just as you wouldn’t go to a foreign country and bitch that they don’t do things just like at home, why would you hold all films to the same cinematic standard? The Western movie industry might have informed many other nations on filmmaking, but ultimately ours is not the only way to make a film.

The marvelous thing about the Ong-Bak films and part of the reason they’re so popular are the lack of CG and wire stunts. All the stunts are practical, meaning a real dude (usually Jaa since he does almost all his own stunts) is performing. The fight scenes look rough as people really get kicked in the face or chest–sometimes you can see the opponent’s torso folding around Jaa’s foot as the opponent’s body recoils from the impact and you know that poor bastard got hit hard.  Apparently though, there are almost NEVER any serious injuries on the films.

Here’s a completely gratuitous shot of Jaa in the ‘riding the elephant herd’ scene, in which he hops several times from one elephant to another.

This is known as ‘elephant surfing.’ Or it should be.

Note: Tony Jaa’s film career is kind of up in the air, as he became a full-fledged monk in May 2010. I hope he continues making films; he has a real charm and presence on camera. And he’s also just precious–he has a fairly wide acting range, and can either seem like a hardass or a sweet, vulnerable country boy, a necessary part of being an action star; otherwise they’re just a terrifying psycho with superhuman abilities.

He also isn’t a huge guy, so it’s believable when his opponents massively underestimate him–and therefore is so much more satisfying when he effectively ‘bags the trash.’

Photo taken from Cute Overload Martial Arts Demo.

UP!: A Movie for People Who Truly Hate People

If a person can view the first 12 minutes of Up without feeling anything, without feeling at least a smidgen of the pain of Carl and Ellie’s ups and downs and ultimately Carl’s heartbreak over losing her, that person is probably a great candidate for forced sterilization.

I am cheered by this image. Aren't you?

Up! is a movie that is impossible to hate. It’s also a movie that is impossible to be apathetic about.

If  a person can view the first 12 minutes of Up without feeling anything,  without feeling at least  a smidgen of the pain of Carl and Ellie’s ups and downs and ultimately Carl’s heartbreak over losing her,  that person is  probably a great candidate for forced sterilization.

Not that I think reproduction is a privilege rather than an inalienable right, but rather what child would want to grow up in such a joyless and apathetic environment? Even the most misanthropic bastard will be sniffling by the time Ellie and Carl are sitting in the doctor’s office, finding out they can’t have children.

That said, UP! is strange for being ostensibly a children’s movie. The sort of wacky children’s stuff doesn’t begin until almost a half-hour in, and there was talk at the time of its release how Disney was not heavily pushing the merchandise like they did for other Pixar films. Which is sort of understandable, if disappointing. I’m a huge fan of ‘children’s’ movies that entertain on multiple levels (ask anyone who knows me about my ‘Babe’ fixation) and so Up! couldn’t have been more perfect if Thor had descended from on high in his goat-driven chariot and handed the movie to me gift-wrapped. It’s a strange, meandering journey with a little old man as the protagonist, and it was a huge gamble as to whether children would enjoy it or not.

By and large, I think they did. Certainly in the theater I was in the children laughed when appropriate, were quiet during the somber portions, shouted in excitement during the scary parts,  and did ask questions during the introductory vignette but that’s something to be expected in a crowded theater of a children’s movie. To be honest I kind of like that sort of thing in children’s movies, since I have none of my own and I enjoy peoplewatching. I also think that entertainment which causes discussion, no matter what level, only adds to the enjoyment. I don’t want to hear  long discussion in the theater, but I do like to hear a parent explain something rather than just ignore or shush their child. The most popular entertainment of the last decade arguably has been entertainment that evokes discussion–HBO and Showtime series, LOST, or movies where people leave the theater talking about what happened.

Up! and its story of an old man, a young boy, another old man and his army of electronically-enhanced dogs and a giant bird with incredibly festive plumage has something for everyone–is it the perfect movie? Far from it–there are long moments of inaction,  lots of dialogue, and a great deal of character-based conflict. It is after all a character piece about an antisocial old man coming to terms with the loss of his best friend, and attempting to carry out the last wish of the only person he ever really cared about. Then there’s Russell, a small round boy of Asian descent going to heroic lengths for the chance that his absentee father will pay him  little attention–his mildly irritating presence provides one of the big plot complicators for Carl as he goes about fulfilling Ellie’s last wish.

Pixar has yet to make a disappointing film. I hope a day never comes where I leave the theater after a Pixar film feeling unfulfilled.


INK is the kind of film that gives critics and viewers hope that films have not completley become monetized, that there is still room for creativity, for risk. It’s undoubtedly a strange film, and there are some slow parts, and sometimes the acting (particularly of Storyteller Liev) meanders into extreme melodrama, but it’s also a breath of fresh air for anyone worn out by modern cliches and lackluster filmmaking.

"Pleasant Dreams.'

INK is the sort of fantasy movie that you would think isn’t being made anymore. The only fantasies being made are the ones with with someone famous attached, like Neil Gaiman or Terry Gilliam, and with a watered down story that has usually defanged the source material.  Now that’s certainly changed in the last two years or so, but the vast majority of fantasy films are based on books or graphic novels with an established fan base. If it’s Neil Gaiman or Terry Gilliam, there’s a good chance of it being made.

Ink is a wonderful anomaly to that pattern, since the movie was made on a budget  equal to a four-bedroom house, by a group of no-name filmmakers. The film was never even sold to a major studio–instead, the intrepid Winans went straight to DVD and Blu-Ray distributers, and the film was reportedly downloaded over 400,000 times from BitTorrent. Now the film is selling like gangbusters, and stands as a marvelous example of moving outside the studio system.

The story is resonant of the aforementioned Gilliam’s Brazil, and the entire body of Gaiman’s work. The importance of Dreams, and the high cost of allowing one’s nightmares to become one’s motivation in life are explored here. The action focuses on a young girl and her itinerant father, and on a quest between a group of people who give dreams and their battle with the Incubi, who give nightmares.

Its rare for something in a film to creep me out these days, especially a Hollywood piece. There’s just too much money at stake, think the execs, to take a real risk and show something truly frightening or unsettling, which i’m pretty sure is what led to the popularity of foreign horror and other genre films–the chance of actually seeing something NEW. I still haven’t seen Paranormal Activity, but I attribute its success to the fact that it was an underground, indie-made film. INK, another independent film, delivers on that, while still trodding ground familiar to anyone who’s studied Jungian archetypes or read fiction concerned with dreams. The Incubi, a group of rubber-clad creatures with smiling screens for faces and who serve as the film’s main villains, are suitably disturbing and owe much to Brazil’s steampunk, anachro-tech look, albeit updated with an 80’s flair.

The story centers on a man, John, who has fought and clawed his way to the top of the corporate ladder, WallStreet-style, and in the journey lost much that was precious to him. Part of the charm of the film is in the delicate unfolding of the story, so I won’t ruin it; suffice to say that much of the film is concerned with him learning a lesson, but that trite description doesn’t do the film justice.

Some very realistic fight scenes give the film necessary thrills, and though the characterizations  of the good guys trying to rescue a little girl is heavily influenced by the Matrix, they remain interesting enough to become more than just a pale comparison. Jacob the Pathfinder is particularly memorable, and though his acting is a little uneven and sometimes seems amateurish, it’s a refreshing change from the robotically poised constructs ambling across screens in many of this summer’s blockbusters. I look forward to the day that the Sam Worthington Acting Unit’s servos break down and the whole thing is shipped back to the factory, and when the Megan Fox RealDoll becomes too stained and stretched out to be filmable in anything but Jhorror rebirthing scenes. I’m sure Takashi Miike is counting the days.

INK is the kind of film that gives critics and viewers hope that films have not completely become monetized, that there is still room for creativity, for risk. It’s undoubtedly a strange film, and there are some slow parts, and sometimes the acting (particularly of Storyteller Liev) meanders into extreme melodrama, but it’s also a breath of fresh air for anyone worn out by modern cliches and lackluster filmmaking. Given half a chance, the movie delivers on its promise of reawakening hope and the joy of a pleasant dream. Which is not to say that the film isn’t suitably dark–there’s a reason it has an R rating after all, but its the kind of dark that is earned, instead of just filmed in back alleys and shitty abandoned hospitals.

The film is available for viewing on Hulu and on Netflix’s Instant Watch feature, and I highly recommend it. It washed the bad taste left by Prince of Persia right out of my mouth.

4 Life Lessons from 4 Classic 80’s Movies

Every culture in the world will eventually produce a set of maxims for behavior; from the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, to the doctrines of Thomas Aquinas, to basic Internet Etiquette, there are morals and suggestions for human interaction everywhere–you could trip over them and someone would be there to tell you what you did wrong.

While drunkenly sobbing at the end of The Princess Bride, our previous entry, I realized that a set of films I’ve grown up with contained some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten when it comes to life.

4. Gremlins

Moral – Follow the Rules

“When an old Chinese man tells you to do something, you better by god do it.”

As Americans, we value rugged individualism. We carved this country into existence with our will, with guns, with good old fashioned gumption, and without any shame when it came to screwing over someone else.

Everything that Christmas means to me, including electronics and mythological beasts.

So when some old Chinese guy tells Rand Peltzer The Rules:

1. Do not Expose to Sunlight

2. Do not Get Wet

3. DO NOT Feed After Midnight

. . . it’s understandable the old fellow takes them to be foolish superstition rather than anything worth listening to. It’s worth noting that Peltzer is an inventor–after all, America was built on individuals with the courage to challenge the status quo, to ignore boring old tradition, to invent ashtrays that allowed assholes to smoke anywhere they want!

The funny thing is, this is a much more clever metaphor than you think at first, and also an apt observation on the American mindset: after all, we have a tendency to think that no on in earth’s history has ever dealt with the things we have. Civil rights? NO ONE EVER has thought about that–certainly not the Persian empire upon ruling their conquered subjects. Some people are GAY? That’s never happened before and we as Americans are the only ones who accept that this strange new thing exists–let alone are trying to legislate it. An argument concerning a strong federal government versus states’ rights? NEVER! NEVER ANYWHERE!

With all the knowledge available in the world, especially now, it’s incredibly easy to study history in order to prevent its repetition. After all, making the herculean leap that someone else MIGHT know a little more than you about something can be surprisingly interesting. Does that mean following the rules is always the right thing to do? No, as we learn when Billy exposes the marauding Gremlins to light in order to save the town. Breaking the rules about sunlight turns out to have been the right thing to do. Now if only they’d followed the goddamn rules in the first place.

3. The Goonies

Moral – You have to grow up some time.

Ahh, the Goonies. If there’s a better movie to watch while eating pizza, drinking soda (or beer, or both!) and eating ice cream, it’s probably in my Instant Watch queueueueu.

It's also about friendship! Scary, hideously disfigured friendship.

The truffle shuffle, Data’s gadgets, Mouth’s sassy Spanish harassment of a terrified housekeeper, the whole shebang. It’s a glorious romp about childhood, adventure, fun, and saying ‘shit’ in a PG movie.

But the meat of the matter (not Chunk)  is that at some point, kids have to stop being kids.

Mikey’s speech is a deliciously syllogistic call to arms for kids: ‘Down here it’s our time. It’s our time down here!’ he cries as he attempts to rally his group of  misfits into searching for the lost pirate treasure rather than going home to safety and being separated. Their parents have always done everything for them, and now it’s time to do something for them. It’s a cracked window into adulthood, coming at a  time when a young person may still be able to slide the pane closed and turn back to childhood.

I have several friends who, now in their late twenties and early thirties, are living the truth of this.  Parents age, they become sick, and eventually, they will cease to be. Parents take care of kids (hopefully–an afternoon at the mall sometimes destroys all hope of civilization’s future) and after the kids are grown and out of the house, they take care of their parents.

Of course there are other meanings, other ways in which we grow up. People have kids, buy houses, cars, start businesses, get promotions, and all of that is great but comes with a cost– their kids aren’t copies of themselves and there’s a generation gap, their houses lose value or are lost in a disaster, their business fails, they get overlooked for promotions in favor of the boss’s son or daughter. Joy and sorrow, triumph and failure–it’s all a part of life. For a single moment in a movie over 20 years old, we all had a glimpse into that frightening world, and then it was back to wacky antics and slapstick.

2. Labyrinth

Moral – One person has no power over another

By the end of Labyrinth, I am usually completely sold on Jereth.

Not Pictured: David Bowie's Area. But it's there . . . Oh yes. It's there.

Though he puts Sarah through hell, endangers her baby brother, and probably wreaked a number on the Ozone layer after the application of all that Aqua Net, I am ALWAYS cheering and waving a little flag that reads ‘DO HIM!’ by the end.

But I digress.

Sarah, as young girl, is just beginning on the path to adulthood–part of which is negotiating the Throbbing, Moist, Thrusting Swamp of Sexuality, the set of which was probably too expensive to build. That’s the reason I’m guessing anyway.

Part of making it through that wilderness, oh yes she made it throoooogh, is learning how much of oneself to give to the other in a relationship. It’s about learning how to say ‘No’ to someone that you’ve trusted enough to experience those first steps of physical intimacy, which can be downright terrifying. It’s about learning that crucial difference between wanting someone and needing someone.

There’s a huge amount of pressure on young people to conform to societal standards, especially when it comes to sexual interactions. Sarah’s refusal to accept Jereth’s invitation of taking part in what seems like a dysfunctional relationship is a great example for people, male or female, about relationships. If it isn’t about equals, it’s about power, and there’s enough bullshit in the world concerning that.

1. The Princess Bride

Moral – Life is Pain

At 8 years old the first time I saw TPB, there was a lot to be afraid of: the shrieking eels, the ROUSs, Inigo’s wounds at the end of the movie (I thought he was going to die–HELLO TRAUMA), and the Grandfather’s taking a moment (just as happens in the book) to warn the viewer that Some of The Wrong People Die. But the moment that really stopped my tiny, sheltered heart was the Man In Black’s cruel words to Buttercup about the death of her beloved Westley: “Life Is Pain. Anyone who says something different is selling something. ”

"And you know what else? THERE IS NO SANTA."

The Man in Black has no reason to lie to her, at this moment. In a way, he did kill Westley, as the innocent farmboy she knew is gone, replaced by a fierce, dangerous man of action.

This simple assertion by the pirate that life isn’t fair almost seems like a stupid thing to say to Buttercup–after all, she fell in love with a young man who immediately was murdered by pirates (in the book, it’s clear he’s gone out to make a place for himself in the world, after which he’ll send for her–not exactly a paragon of Women’s Lib, but it is what it is) and then she was chosen to marry and bear children for Prince Humperdinck against her will. She knows full well that shit happens, yet when he barks that line at her, it’s immediately clear that she was hoping for some form of rescue, of fairness in her fate. Essentially, though shitty things have happened to her, she’s still the heroine of the fairy tale until that line breaks through–now she understands the reality of the situation, that this is no fairy tale, that she very well might die.

The moral of this story is that whatever expectations you have, be they low or high, things won’t always be pleasant, and they certainly won’t be fair. Expecting life to be fair is ridiculous, but hoping for it to be is an entirely different matter. It’s hope, after all, that makes life worth living.

So what are the deep, philosophical meanings behind this?

I’m no Existentialist– when asked ‘Why?’, I reply ‘Because.’ People exist on this planet because of a marvelously complex series of absolute coincidences, a series of events so random that the math to quantify it barely exists. And yet we are.

I’ve always found stories, in the form of books, history and movies, a helpful way to understand the world–seeing the reproduction in an art form, as simplified or unrealistic as it is, can sometimes help in dealing with the incredibly abstract reality. Obviously this isn’t the only way to view the world, but it helps.