Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ong Bak 3

Yesterday I finally made it to Ong Bak 3. I had been on my way to see it a while back when the troubles began and the Sky Train was shut down. It is barely showing anywhere now so I was glad to catch it in time. Bangkok seems to getting back to normal at least for now. I walked down to the area where the Red Shirts had encamped a few days after they were driven out and it was as if they had never been there. Everything was cleaned up and all the stores had re-opened with busy shoppers inside. There still remained two very visible scars though – the burning down of a big section of Central Mall and for some inexplicable reason, the burning of the Siam Movie Theater – one of the few remaining small independent theaters in Bangkok that played a nice eclectic group of foreign movies. A real shame. Wise Kwai pays tribute to this theater here.

Ong Bak 3
Directors: Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai
Year: 2010

One might conjecture that the narrative arc of Ong Bak 2 and Ong Bak 3 was a reflection of the troubles that director and star Tony Jaa had going on in his personal life during the making of these two films. During the production of Ong Bak 2 there were numerous on and off set problems with Jaa disappearing at one point and rumors of a possible nervous breakdown. This created major dissonance between Jaa and the Sahamongkol production house that has been behind all of Jaa’s films. But things were patched up and Jaa along with his mentor Panna made Ong Bak 3 (a direct sequel to the second film but no relation to the first in terms of story). Ong Bak 2 is full of angst and pain and the sequel begins in the same manner – but by the ending Jaa’s character has come to terms with who he is and is at peace. Regrettable this resolution does not make for a particularly compelling film and Ong Bak 3 is a disappointing simplistic jumble of mysticism, brutality, action, Buddhism, revenge and redemption.

Ong Bak 2 ends jarringly with Tien (Jaa) being captured by the killers of his father and imprisoned primed for torture. This film takes the story up right from that point with Tien being literally broken with bone crushing techniques. Tien is saved at the last moment – the sword getting ready to descend with a horse rapidly approaching cheap scenario – by an order of the King and turned over to a monk for repair. Tien’s tormentor, the ever smirking Prince (Saranyu Wongkrajang) soon gets his just desserts at the hands of the even more evil Bhuti Sangkha (played by the terrific Dan Chupong – Dynamite Warrior, Born to Fight) who impressively appeared near the end of Ong Bak 2 as the Crow like fighter. Tien is made whole again – not only externally but more importantly internally – and he begins to accept the teachings of Buddha. But Bhuti makes one mistake – he messes with Tien’s female childhood friend – and now Tien has to face an entire army of killers.

None of this is particularly interesting – a martial arts revenge/redemption story that has been enumerated hundreds of times all over the world but it is made even less compelling by stereotype sketch characters – the good monk, the loving innocent girl, the evil menace, a stiff lipped hero. But come on – let's face it, no one watches a Tony Jaa film in expectations of narrative complexity – we come to see asses kicked in multiple ways and here is where the film truly is a let down. If memory serves me correctly, there are five action set pieces – one with Jaa taking on his tormentors, one with Bhuti killing all of the Prince’s men, Jaa in another small combat number against some of Bhuti’s men, the large set piece against the army and the finale one-on-one against Bhuti – and none of them really excite. Perhaps I have seen Jaa and his bag of martial arts tricks once too often but nothing here felt original. In Ong Bak 2, Jaa displayed a number of martial arts styles that were astonishing – but all the choreography in this film is basically one guy charging Jaa and getting crushed – after the first 20-30 victims it all gets a bit repetitive. Even the final showdown was less than inspiring because by then Tien was almost Buddha like and nothing could beat him. Jaa seems a lot more interested in sending a message than in generating excitement. My advice to Jaa would be to bring his films back into contemporary times and to find his sense of humor again.

My rating of this film: 6.0

Other than this, the only other films I have seen of late are the Matt Helm series from the 1960’s starring Dean Martin. The Matt Helm series of books written by Donald Hamilton was America’s answer to James Bond, but minus much of the Bond razzmatazz and save the world scenarios. Based on my reading of three of the books that the films are based on, the plots are very basic and to the point and the 150 pages or so are easily read in a day or two. In the books, Helm is an assassin for the US government. He gets an assignment to kill and amid various complications he completes his job. In their day the Helm books were quite popular and not surprisingly four of books were brought to the screen all starring Dean Martin.

A worse selection for this character is hard to imagine. In the books, Helm is a tough terse cynical operator – but Martin plays him basically like Dean Martin on a golf outing at the Playboy Mansion. He is a lady killer and no woman can resist his slight charms. In those rare moments when he is not ogling or seducing women, he tries to stop the villains but his assignment is almost an inconvenience. The films only have a passing resemblance to the book plots as well – for example in The Wrecking Crew (1969) in the book Helm is sent to Sweden to kill the communist head of a secret cell, while the film has something to do with a gold robbery and lots of gadgets. In fact, the films are little but gadgets, bushels of women and Martin smirking. They are plain awful and one can’t feel a bit disheartened that the Matt Helm character was given such short shrift – someone needs to bring the real Matt Helm to the screen.

From a strictly cheesy pop 60’s perspective, the one plus for today’s viewers are Martin’s female co-stars – some of the more popular babes of that era – Elke Sommer, Sharon Tate, Nancy Kwan, Tina Louise, Senta Berger, Ann Margaret, Camilla Sparv, Stella Stevens and Daliah Lavi.

The same thing seems to have happened to the one incarnation of the Modesty Blaise books. The books are great fun – pulp fiction somewhere between the Doc Savage books and the Bond series – tough hitting, gritty but a bit preposterous. But the film Modesty Blaise made in 1966 is so full of pop pretentions that it is painful to endure it. Modesty too needs a high budget reworking on the big screen.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bangkok Adrenaline

As armored vehicles break through the barricades, black smoke billows in the not too distant future and helicopters patrol overhead, a mournful feeling has dropped down upon the city. Things may be coming to a head here. It is all very sad that it has come to this and one has to wonder if this will turn out only to be the beginning of something much worse to come. Over the past few decades so many countries have been torn apart by civil war, but generally these conflicts have been caused by ethnic or religious differences – in Thailand it is a more old fashioned cause – a class divide between the elite and the poor. The disparity of wealth here is enormous. By setting up their headquarters in the center of the glitzy malls, the Red Shirts seemed to be making a point – we may not have the money to shop here but we can take it by force if we have to.

Anyway, in an attempt to get back to the focus of this Blog, here is a quick review of an interesting if not particularly well-made hybrid Thai film called Bangkok Adrenaline.

Bangkok Adrenaline
Director: Raimund Huber
Year: 2009
Duration: 85 minutes

Produced and written by a group of Farangs (i.e. Westerners), the film hops on the Parkour/action film bandwagon with some fine action set pieces that zip around Bangkok with a sense of fun and flair. Unfortunately, the script is a mess and the story is at times nearly incoherent. When the film isn’t flying, it is dead in its tracks with not nearly enough action to make up for its failings. First time director, Huber, shows his inexperience with numerous pointless scenes, extraneous shots that come to nothing and a pace that falls into lulls that seem to have no purpose other than adding to the running time. It also perhaps makes the mistake of adopting a lot of broad slapstick Thai like humor that didn’t feel even mildly funny to me.

Now to be fair, the DVD that I watched had the four foreigners badly dubbed into Thai and the subtitles may have made the film more confusing than it really is. According to Wise Kwai, the original soundtrack was in English but when it was released into Thai theaters only a Thai dubbed version was shown. A DVD in the UK has the original soundtrack, but the one I ended up with was purchased in Chinatown in NY and may be of questionable legitimacy.

As best as I could understand, four foreigners (Daniel O’Neill, Conan Stevens, Raimund Huber and Gwlon Jacob Miles) live in Bangkok and are doing their best to make ends meet by either theft, go-go dancing or fighting. But it’s not enough and one night they end up in a gambling den where they make the mistake of winning too often. The Thai boss doesn’t take kindly to this and threatens their lives unless they help him with a job – kidnap the lovely daughter (Praya Suandokmal) of a wealthy crooked businessman. They successfully do this but collecting the money is a different matter as the father has an unending number of martial arts minions to send after the quartet.

The revelation of the film is actor Daniel O’Neill, who has been doing stunt work for nearly a decade appearing in films such as Gen X Cops 2, Naked Weapon, Twins Effect, Tom Yum Goong and The Bodyguard 2 – but here he is front and center of the action set pieces with a dazzling array of Parkour and martial arts skills. In particular there are two lengthy chases through the streets, alleyways and roof tops of Bangkok that seem to be highly influenced by the Tony Jaa chase in the first Ong Bak. O’Neill’s moves are equal to Jaa’s though he doesn’t show nearly the power that Jaa has. It is impossible to evaluate his acting skills in this dubbed version but he clearly has the looks to become a leading action actor.

My rating for this film: 5.0

PS – it sounds like it may be over for now in Bangkok. The Red Shirt leaders appear to be calling a halt to their protest. Where it goes from now will be seen, but at least this may be thankfully coming to end without a last horrendous spasm of violence.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Bangkok is heating up

And that's not the temperature. A few days back it looked like an agreement was about to be reached between the Government and the Red Shirts, but all hell has broken loose with the shooting of a top Red leader. From a friend's rooftop, we could see and hear from Lumpini Park all the smoke, blasts and gunfire going on. Earlier, I was on my way to see Ong Bak 3 when I realized that the Skytrain had been shut down and the streets barricaded. Soldiers are all over Farangland, well equipped but how well trained is to be seen. It was a bit worrysome seeing one solider leave his automatic weapon leaning against a wall and going off to buy some food at a street stall! Nice souvenir that would have been! If my air-conditioning was working better, I'd just stay home and order in - but I need to get out. Went to McD's for an ice cream cone and Farangland looked more like Zombieland - not a lot of people around. The oddest thing though that I saw today was a line of about 25 colleged aged farang females walking in single file with two chaperones looking after them. A class trip to Bangkok in the middle of a possible civil war? What genius thought that one up?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sam Hui Movie Theme Songs

God, it's hot in Bangkok. Walking outside is like shoving your face into a microwave on the defrost setting. Daily living seems to consist primarily of getting from one air conditioned setting to another. It is so hot even some Thai's are visibly sweating. Adding to this is that the air con in my apartment is as lukecool as relations between Sandra Bullock and her husband. So with even less energy than usual, I haven't tended to this Blog garden and may not do so until it cools down to around 35 celsius (95 farenheit) or my air con is fixed. But it's easy to put up a little music, so here is Sam Hui singing 12 of his movie theme songs.