Thursday, July 14, 2011

Movies I've just seen

I used to have a rule that for every post, I'd try to have an image to "spruce it up" a bit. Because Blogger has been messing up the white space when I add images, you may possibly have noticed that I've mostly stopped doing that. Trying to get the text to format correctly around them isn't worth it anymore. Anyway...

I just watched Indonesian martial arts movie Merantau last night. I've actually had this on my saved queue at Netflix for months, maybe even over a year. And on a whim I looked at the detail of it, and although you can't get it via DVD, it's available to stream. So, without further ado, I added it to my queue and watched it after the kids went to bed.

I'll get to the plot in a moment, since plot isn't really all that important, robust, or explored in these kinds of movies. This movie had basically two modes: exploration of mood and, well, martial arts stereotypes. It reminded me in many ways of Ong Bak. However, unlike that movie, it doesn't really have any interesting stunts except the fights. Ong Bak gave us the strange tree-climbing opening scene, a great chase scene through the streets, and the wonderfully choreographed tuk-tuk chase, in addition, of course, to great martial arts. It also gave us some comic relief in the form of Humlae and Muek, the two comic scam artists who the main character falls in with. Merantau offers none of these advantages, but at the same time, there's a lot of wonderfully evocative images and music that set perhaps a more intriguing mood for some of its more quiet times.

The threat that our hero faces is perhaps more serious than that in Ong Bak, but then again, the crimelord stuck in a wheelchair, speaking through an electrolarynx and smoking cigarettes through the hole in his neck is really quite classic and brilliant. And his scheme of running off with the Buddha's statue's head and selling it to art collectors overseas isn't perhaps as compelling as the villains in Merantau, who are kidnapping, raping, killing, and selling Indonesian girls overseas.

The villains are played by Mads Koudal and Laurent Buson, a Danish and French actor respectively, who speak in English (as opposed to most of the rest of the film, which is subtitled.) In a curious reversal of yellow peril, I've noticed in many of these Asian martial arts films, but extremely pronounced in this one, white people are portrayed as nothing more than ruthless predators who's only role is to exploit the local population. And the solution, in both Ong Bak and Merantau, is a hero with a strong, traditional, rural upbringing, who comes to the big city (Bangkok and Jakarta respectively, from the two movies), reluctantly gets involved, and then basically kicks everybody's butt. The poor local girl, seduced by the pleasures of urban life, needs to be rescued but at the end finds herself enjoying the virtuous country living in the village where the main hero comes from.

Despite finding it a bit annoying to be on the receiving end of a reverse yellow peril propoganda film, and that nobody seems to think that there's anything wrong with that (although admitedly, that could be because the film is pretty obscure) let's face it; the reason we watch these movies is for the martial arts. Here, they went out of their way to showcase a new style of local martial arts tradition, silat, which was fun to watch because I haven't seen much of it in other martial arts movies. It's pretty fast, it's pretty brutal, and it's pretty impressive in many of the same ways that the new Thai movies are these days... here, see for yourself, here's the trailer.

However, the movie doesn't really stand out. In fact, it felt like it was trying to ride the coat-tails of the Thai movie industry by being, essentially, the exact same kind of movie that they're putting out.

Granted, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. I thought Ong Bak was a really fun movie that left my jaw on the floor more than once at some of the wild and crazy stunts, had a vastly entertaining sidekick and villain, and heck, Tony Jaa wasn't too terrible as a leading man, as long as they didn't spend too much time trying to get him to act. But after seeing half a dozen or more Thai stunt/martial arts movies now, as well as a long tradition of Hong Kong movies before that, Merantau doesn't feel particularly innovative or special. It's a good movie for watching some martial arts, and it's got a few other well-done features, but at the end of the day, it's essentially forgettable.

Other than Merantau, I've also been watching a lot of newer superhero animation. Most of these shows are meant for kids, and they appear on networks like Cartoon Network or Disney XD. And heck, my younger two boys in particular love them (aged 7 and 9.) I've also been impressed, however, with the sophistication of the shows compared to what I used to watch when I was their age. When I was about that same age, I was also watching a lot of superhero cartoons--but these were largely syndicated re-runs of the old 1960's animated shows, or slightly more modern early 80s animation. And frankly, these are quite stupid. Even my kids think that they're crude and lame, which indicates that the drive for more sophistication has percolated down to them as well. I suspect that this is in part because of folks who get older, but who refuse to "grow up" (like me) and keep in touch with what's going on in the world of superheroes entertainment. Not only are the movies big, hugely successful blockbusters, but the animation is actually pretty good, with clever writing and good stories. And although aimed at children's audiences, it's clearly also got a secondary target of grown-up superhero fans, and it attempts to be smart enough and good enough to keep them entertained and satisfied as well.

I've watched some of these before, including the Spectacular Spiderman animated show, which was sadly cancelled before it should have been after two seasons, Wolverine and the X-men, another show which was pretty successful but which somehow couldn't get its stuff together to get funding for a second season. I've also watched most of the direct to DVD Marvel animation, including some Avengers stuff that was loosely based on the Ultimates comic book title, some Hulk stuff (vs. Thor, vs. Wolverine, and Planet Hulk), an Iron Man, and even a Dr. Strange cartoon... and probably a few others that I can't remember off-hand. These were, in fact, rated PG-13 in many cases, and were more explicitly targeted at older and more sophisticated audiences.

Most recently, I've actually been watching Young Justice, which is kinda sorta a Teen Titans for the 2010s, and Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes which is, well, it's the Avengers. It retells in abbreviated and animated form some of the classic stories of the storied superhero group. I've been enjoying both well enough to continue watching, and it has made me curious and thoughtful about the entire notion of adults watching cartoons. I know a lot of people who read this blog are probably already familiar with that notion, since anime-watchers are also common amongst science fiction fans and gamers and whatnot--although I am not one myself. What's more curious to me is that the market is clearly adapting. Heck, it wasn't that long ago that comic books themselves were seen as fundamentally a kid's type of entertainment. And before that, so were many of the pulp magazines. Yet all of those same venues--animation, comic books, and pulp-type stories--are gaining in prestige and are clearly targeting older and more sophisticated audiences, while at the same time retaining a lot of the same traits that made them popular with children in the first place. I'm not sure exactly what's driving this strange social/entertainment neoteny, but it's curious nonetheless.

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