Friday, September 08, 2006

The Protector: Never Mock a Man with a Red Scarf If He Asks You about Elephants

The Protector opens by introducing us to Thailand and the family of Kham (Tony Jaa). Kham's family raises elephants. The plot is set when a prized elephant is stolen before it can be offered as a token of devotion to His Majesty, the King of Thailand. Kham is charged with retrieval and protection of the elephant and its offspring. This is a role that his family has traditionally played, protecting the elephants from attacks from below while they were ridden into combat. Fortunately, Kham is a master of Muay Thai martial arts. He will need this training as he tracks down the Asian gang that kidnapped his charges.

And that is about as much plot as you'll get as The Protector revs into high gear and sets off on a roller coaster ride of martial arts mayhem. The story will pop up again as the action unfolds, but only long enough to send you careening into the next action sequence. If you are a fan of martial arts, this won't bother you a bit. Tony Jaa is amazing on screen as he dispatches a seemingly endless supply of nameless villains in scene after scene. It is all the more spectacular when you realize that there is no wire work, no CGI and no stunt doubles. The crowning achievement is a four minute, non-stop, unedited action sequence that has Kham fighting his way up a four story staircase.

The Protector was originally released in Asia in 2005 under the title Tom-Yum-Goong. The version being shown to American audiences has been cut by nearly 30 minutes. The original soundtrack has been supplemented by RZA, founder of the hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan. Also, the movie has been endorsed by Quentin Tarantino and is presented by him in the opening credits.

So, what can we learn from The Protector and Tony Jaa? Well, apart from a stunning number of ways to snap a human limb like a twig, he does demonstrate an astounding degree of devotion to his calling. He fearlessly presses on no matter how insurmountable the odds seem to be. And it is clear that he has spent many, many hours learning the skills necessary to excel at his art. While I don't think many of us will be engaged in a hunt for stolen elephants or confronted by an army of Asian gangsters, it probably wouldn't hurt us to consider applying these same traits to the more mundane problems we encounter as we journey through life.

Should you see The Protector? If you have an interest in the martial arts, you won't want to miss it. On the other hand if you're not already a fan, there really isn't enough of a story here to hook you. The attraction isn't the depth of the storytelling, but the physical artistry of highly skilled warriors captured on the big screen.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Factotum: Living on the Edge

Factotum is based on the book of the same name by acclaimed author of prose and poetry, Charles Bukowski. This movie is semi-autobiographical. The main character, Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon), is considered by most to be Bukowski’s alter ego.

The movie follows Chinaski through a series of dead-end jobs and alcohol induced periods of unemployment. He can’t seem to hold a job any longer than it takes to earn enough money for the next binge. In between he scribbles short stories and poetry and tosses manuscripts in the mail with reckless abandon. Henry writes for himself, because he is a writer and he must write.

On his journey he meets Jan (Lili Taylor) and Laura (Marisa Tomei). Through his relationship with each of them we catch a glimpse of the man beneath the surface and the demons that drive him. At one point, success seems to be his. He has money, nice clothing and a taste of the “good life.” Alas, it doesn’t last for long. This new life is too alien and he soon sabotages himself and slips back into the life he knows best. It is this life that provides the muse for his writing.

The advertising copy for Factotum refers to Chinaski as a man “living on the edge.” And it is the edge of a dark chasm that threatens to consume him as he falls further and further into the darkness. As he spirals down his job opportunities dwindle, he abandons relationships, until finally all he has left is his booze and his writing.

The movie is dark in tone but still manages to pull a few cynical chuckles from the audience. The acting is superb across the board. The thread of the story jumps here and there through a series of vignettes that include inspiration from other short stories by Bukowski. They are tied together through voice over provided by Dillon.

Honestly, I was amazed at the degree to which I was sucked into this film. I wasn’t overly familiar with Bukowski’s work prior to the film or the work of writer, director and producer Brent Hamer. It proves to be a compelling combination. Factotum is well worth seeing if you are a fan of Bukowski or are just looking for a character driven film devoid of special effects.

Reflecting on the film, this is a story that we all probably have experience with. Oh, I don’t mean drinking, losing your job, and bottoming out. I’m referring to the struggle to overcome the familiar conditions that trap us where we are in life. How many of us accept the situation we find ourselves in, simply because sticking with what we know seems safer than letting go in the pursuit of something better?

In Chinaski’s case, was he able to write only because of the life he experienced? Can we change our circumstances without changing who we fundamentally are? Must we change our circumstances if we want to change our behaviors, our habits, or the path we trod? It is a subject worth meditating on.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Miami Vice: A Journey Into Darkness

Not too far into the movie, Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) comments to Crockett (Colin Farrell), “There’s undercover, and then there’s which way is up?” That simple statement defines the tension that drives Michael Mann’s Miami Vice as it explores the dark world of the illegal drug trade.

I remember the original television show. I wasn’t particularly a fan but I watched it from time to time. I remember bright colored clothing, sunny beaches, hot cars, fast boats and attractive women. The movie retains the cars, boats and women but overall the look is much darker, more oppressive. It is filmed in a gritty, realistic way using HD cameras. Many scenes are shot from a perspective that puts the viewer in the middle of the action. I found it to be very effective at pulling me into the movie and keeping me enthralled.

Miami Vice starts in an interesting way. I don’t know if it was intended or an error in the screening I attended but the movie begins with no opening credits, no title sequence, just “bang” right into the action. I’m curious enough that I’m going to have to see a regular theater showing to find out if it was deliberate. I can’t say I’ve seen this technique before. I’m not sure I liked it as I kept waiting for the opening credits and they never arrived. The absence was a bit distracting but I soon got over it.

From nearly the very beginning things go wrong for our characters. Crocket and Tubbs receive a mysterious phone call from a former informant. An undercover deal has gone badly; a high-level, law enforcement insider has leaked information. Soon, the two partners are recruited to go undercover again. This time, to find out who is betraying their fellow officers. To do that they need to infiltrate the cartel run by enigmatic, drug lord Montoya (Luis Tosar).

To me, this is the heart of the movie, struggling to remember who you really are while you are immersing yourself in another role. For our undercover agents, it’s not enough just to put on the clothes and talk the language. They must become the role, live the life and prove themselves before they can infiltrate the dark world they must travel to complete their assignment. The danger of course, is that they may reach the point where they are no longer undercover and become the thing they set out to fight against.

This is a cautionary tale we can all benefit from. If we’re not careful we’ll simply adopt the beliefs and behaviors of the people around us. It takes an effort to learn who you are and what you believe. And then continuous reminders to avoid following the currents of the culture in which we live. It’s not until the very end of Miami Vice that it becomes clear which path Tubbs and Crocket will choose.

Miami Vice is an entertaining film with plenty of action. There are a few gratuitous scenes of a suggestive nature. And let’s not forget the violence. Still, whether you are a fan of the original series or not I think you’ll find it an interesting thrill ride.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

You, Me and Dupree

Mash-ups seem to be all the latest rage in the music industry. A producer takes a song or portion of a song from one artist, and then combines it with material from a second artist. In the process something new is created that hopefully transcends the sum of the original, individual parts. I’m not sure, but “You, Me and Dupree” may be the first time I’ve seen this technique applied to a movie. At least, I think that’s what directors Anthony and Joe Russo were trying to do.

The basic premise is simple; as the movie opens Carl (Matt Dillon) and Molly (Kate Hudson) are getting married. Dupree (Owen Wilson) is the best man. From the very beginning we come to know Dupree as a career slacker. He arrives at the wrong Hawaiian island for the wedding, he loses his job for taking time off to attend the wedding, and winds up being evicted from his apartment. Where does he turn? Why, to his best friend Carl of course. This sets the stage for the movie to really get rolling.

I looked forward to seeing this movie, as I am a fan of Owen Wilson. I wasn’t expecting art but I thought it might be fun. As the movie progressed I have to confessed, I found it more and more puzzling. Then it dawned on me, I was actually watching two movies. One a light, romantic comedy. The other a coarse, crude buddy film. I enjoyed the former; I could have lived without the latter. As each scene opened I never knew which of the two I was going to be watching.

Most of the humor in “You, Me and Dupree” comes from the situation created when Dupree moves in with the newlyweds while he searches for a new job and then presumably, a new place to live. Just for a few days of course! It shouldn’t be difficult to imagine the conflicts that emerge from a scenario like this, some with disastrous results. Ultimately, the movie is about Dupree as he comes face-to-face with his “slack-ness” and its effects on the people around him.

So, would I recommend this movie? Let me think about that. There are several very funny situations and plenty of chuckles through out. The down side is the presence of several scenes that seem to be included simply for shock value. They don’t advance the story or really contribute in any meaningful way. Frankly the movie would have been better off without them in my opinion. Still, I have to confess that I did laugh out loud more than once and I did enjoy most of the movie. If you’re looking for a few laughs and not expecting anything deeper than that, you might find this one entertaining.

This movie is rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief nudity, crude humor, language and a drug reference. Honestly, I think it’s pushing right up against the edge of an R rating and I wouldn’t recommend taking even your young teenagers to see this one.

In addition to Owen Wilson, Kate Hudson and Matt Dillon the movie also stars Michael Douglas as the father-in-law.