Thursday, October 22, 2009

All's Fair In Love And War

Normally, linking three productions together on the basis of body language would be one helluva stretch. But as I thought about some recent dramatic offerings, I couldn't stop visualizing images I had seen depicting man's evolution from the apes.

Looking at changes in posture and body language as we move forward through history, it's interesting to see how man's stature has so often been geared to his needs. As we advance in chronology from the Neanderthal era to Asia's Pithecanthropus erectus, and from Homo erectus on to primitive tribes, men were often depicted in a crouched position as they hunted animals, hid from predators, and farmed in early agrarian cultures.

As humans became more mobile following the invention of the wheel, artists began to depict them in more stalwart poses as heroes, athletes, soldiers and conquerors. Take a good look at some of the people around you these days and you'll notice many slouching in their chairs, hunched over their computers, or seeming to carry the burden of the world on their sagging shoulders. Are we regressing?

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One of my favorite Bollywood epics is the 3-1/2 hour-long Jodhaa Akbar, a magnificent spectacle which includes this famous battle between the hero and an elephant:

Thus, it should come as no surprise that as soon as I saw the trailer for Ong Bak 2: The Beginning, I was eager to see what kind of escapades Thai action star Tony Jaa had in store for his elephants and enemies. I got much more than I expected.

Normally, I tend to avoid films with excessive violence and gore. But there was something special that made me eager to see this film. It wasn't the cast's astonishing lack of orthodonture or the profuse tribal tattoo art decorating every warrior's body. Something was obviously different about this film. I couldn't quite put my finger on it until I read Jaa's detailed explanation:
“When we were developing the concept for Ong Bak 2: The Beginning, we were really thinking hard. Master Panna and I tried to find a unique storytelling angle. Then we thought of a short film Master Panna and I had done as a proposal to Boss Jiang (Somsak Techaratanaprasert), called Venomous Man. The intention of that film was to show all kinds of martial arts from all over the world in one film without discriminating whether one is a fighting technique of Thailand, China, Japan, Korea, or any other nation.
From that idea, I went on to study as many styles of martial arts as possible. For example, ancient Thai boxing, Chaiya Thai Boxing, Korat Thai boxing, Lopburi Thai boxing, Kung Fu, Ninjutsu, Taifudo (a combination of several kinds of martial arts including Aikido, Kung Fu, Judo, and Muay Thai). Several masters had given me advice, philosophies, and the spirits of each martial arts style. So I decided to portray all of these important values in Ong Bak 2: The Beginning."
Tien (Tony Jaa) subdues a herd of elephants

Although the film is a nonstop action spree with breathtaking stunts and tricks (including acrobatic back flips off an elephant's tusks), Jaa (who co-directed, co-choreographed the fights, and stars in Ong Bak 2) and his artistic team wanted to weave a strong cultural thread into the movie.
“While we were making the film, I had a chance to hone my acting skills with Thailand’s famous acting coach, “Teacher AewOrchuma Yuthawong. I learned how to control my inner state of mind. I learned that the most powerful force is inside my body and learned how to unlock that force. She taught me about the origin of each person’s identity. Teacher Aew also introduced me to Teacher Chet (Pichet Klunchuen, winner of the 2006 Silapathorn Award in Performing Arts). He is an extraordinary person, the 'teachers’ teacher' among performing artists -- especially for Khon (Thai masked dance).

He taught me the way of Khon and I started to think about blending Khon and martial arts together. Would it be possible to make this combination into fighting moves? When we tried it out and watched the tape of the workshop, we got to see the energy of both forces, which was both strange and fascinating. It became a new style of fighting. Each of these fighting moves is one of its kind. I found out later from boxing masters that Thai boxing moves actually come from Khon, and there are sword and pole dancing and boxing moves in Khon, too. So I decided to go see carvings and sculptures at ancient sites.

I found rock sculptures of Hanuman from Ramayana in grappling moves. There are carvings of Rama and Lakshmana fighting Ravana and the demons. There are carvings of monkeys, garudas, and giant serpents. So I finally was able to piece all the puzzles together and invent a new martial arts style that is totally different from the first Ong Bak and The Protector. It is the fusion of Thai dancing and martial arts to create 'Natayuth; fighting style. 'Nata' means dancing, and 'Yuth' means fighting. So 'Natayuth' is the use of dancing moves to combat (which requires conscience, concentration, and intellect to perform). I am confident that there’s no other fighting style like this in the world.

Tien (Tony Jaa)

This is what we invented specifically for Ong Bak 2: The Beginning (besides demonstrating as many styles of martial arts in the world to the audience, including Kung Fu, Muay Thai, Sword and Pole, Samurai Swordplay, etc.). I believe each action film, no matter which country it is from, has its own philosophy to guide the story. Because we wanted to incorporate both the newly invented 'Natayuth' fighting style and profound philosophies into the story, the story line needed to be logical and smooth. We want Ong Bak to be a philosophical action film that offers action as well as Buddhist teachings."
Because everything happens so fast in this film, it's often hard to keep track of who is getting beaten, killed, gouged, chopped, or challenged to a fight. The basic characters are:
  • Tien (Tony Jaa), a courageous, dark-skinned, muscular young man who is unyielding, strong-willed, and obsessed with exacting revenge on the people who killed his parents. After Tien has proven his potential by wrestling a huge crocodile, he is raised by martial arts masters at the Garuda’s Wing Cliff (where he is trained to become a weapons expert and the ultimate martial arts fighter). "Normally, I would only have one face in a film: the 'Arrrgh!' face," explains Jaa, "but for this film I needed to let run my emotions run deeper. When I was taking acting classes with Teacher Aew Ornchuma, she teased me that it was time to change, that I don’t have to yell every time I’m beating people up. She asked 'Why do stunt people have to yell at each other every time they meet?'"
Tien (Tony Jaa)
  • Lord Sihadecho (Santisuk Promsiri) is a high-ranking soldier sent from Ayodhaya to collect tribute from colonies. An honest and loyal warrior, he is known for his superior sword skills.
  • Lady Plai (Pattama Panthong) is Tien's mother, the gentle and kind-hearted wife of Lord Sihadecho.
  • Men (Petchtai Wongkamlao) is a wild and crazy childhood friend of Tien and Pim, who is fixated on dancing art. He lives in Master Bua’s village and, despite some erratic behavior, poses no harm.
  • Master Bua (Nirut Sirijunya) is an expert in herbs and medicine as well as the kind-hearted, respected master of dancing art. The adoptive father of Pim (and a friend of Lord Sihadecho when he was in the army), Master Bua teaches Tien how to meditate and seek inner peace.
  • Pim (Primrata Dej-Udom) is a cheerful, kind, beautiful dancer, the adoptive daughter of Master Bua whose smile has always been the light in Tien’s otherwise dismal life.
Pim (Primorata Dejudom)
  • Lord Rajasena (Saranyu Wongkrajang) is good-looking on the outside, but vicious on the inside. A cunning, power-hungry, high-ranking officer who is a skilled archer, he plots the assassination of the governor and then accuses Lord Sihadecho of the murder.
  • Chernung (Sorapong Chatree) is the leader of the Garuda’s Wing gang of bandits who takes Tien in and raises him as his adoptive son in the hope that Tien might become the gang’s next leader. Ruthless and ferocious, Chernung is a feared sword fighter.
Not too many martial arts films come to a grinding halt to feature a display of traditional dance. But no sooner is Pim starting to make an impression than Tien arrives to wreak havoc on the surroundings. One thing which may surprise audiences about this film is the stunning cinematography by Nattawut Kittkhun. With a running time of 98 minutes, don't even try to remember who did what to who in Ong Bak 2. Just sit back and enjoy all the action, bad teeth, hunky bodies, elaborate costumes, and lush jungle spectacle. Here's the trailer:

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Fast forward from the jungles of Thailand to Paris, February 11, 1840. It's opening night of Gaetano Donizetti's new opera, La Fille du Regiment at the Opéra Comique (by that time Donizetti had composed more than 50 operas). His feisty Marie, who has been raised by an entire regiment of soldiers acting as her collective father, yearns for the sound of battle and is determined to marry the man she loves -- rather than the simpering fool who has been chosen for her in a marriage arranged between the Marquise de Berkenfeld and the Grand Duchess of Krakentorp.

When one thinks about how director/costume designer Laurent Pelly has updated the action in Donizetti's opera from Napoleonic times to World War I without sacrificing an ounce of the opera's wit or charm, it's really quite amazing to see how well La Fille du Regiment holds its own. It's even harder to believe this opera will celebrate its 170th birthday in a few months! Listen to Pelly talk about the production in the following interview:

As I sat watching this production (which originated at the Royal Opera Covent Garden before traveling to the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera), I suddenly realized how refreshing it was to see a performance in which both the lead tenor and soprano were extremely athletic actors with strong comic chops. Having seen a few too many performances of La Fille with such beefy singers as Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti, for once it felt like I was watching a genuine love story instead of a diva fest.

Juan Diego Flórez as Tonio (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

I also noticed something I'd never before seen on the operatic stage. Juan Diego Flórez (the tenor singing the role of Tonio) was doing something genuinely amusing with his body during Act I. Dressed in lederhosen and knee-high stockings -- with his shoulders hunched forward -- the tenor (who enjoys playing soccer with his friends when he is at home) was moving about the stage like a marionette.

When he reappeared in a soldier's uniform (after having enlisted in Marie's regiment), his body language had completely changed. By the time Flórez made an entrance late in Act II astride an army tank, he had evolved from a goofy Pinocchio-like Tyrolean doofus to a genuine romantic hero. How many tenors can pull off an acting stunt like that and effortlessly deliver all nine of the high C's in Tonio's big aria: "Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!" with such vocal freshness and purity of tone?

Juan Diego Flórez as Tonio (Photo by: Terrence McCarthy)

This production (originally created as a showpiece for Flórez and Natalie Dessay) introduced audiences to a new Marie, with Diana Damrau making a feisty, note-perfect debut in the role. Like her co-star, Damrau has strong comic instincts and is so refreshingly secure from a vocal standpoint that her performance proved to be a delight from start to finish.

Diana Damrau as Marie (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Choreographer Karine Girard had some great fun with the use of body language in two lighthearted sequences. At the beginning of Act II, she had the maids cleaning the Marquise de Berkenfeld's chateau repeat a series of movements designed to capture their haute ennui. Later in the second act, as the remaining members of the decrepit Tyrolean aristocracy arrive for Marie's wedding, the chorus was given a delightful exercise in the slowed motion of geriatrics which drew quite a bit of laughter.

Bruno Praticò made a roly-poly Sulpice while veteran Sheila Nadler hammed it up as the Grand Duchess of Krakenthorp. Contralto Meredith Arwady continues to impress me with her booming voice and solid stage presence. I especially liked the witty set design by Chantal Thomas, whose use of giant military maps gives this bel canto comedy a renewed sense of fun. Conductor Andriy Yurkevych kept a firm musical grip on the proceedings, allowing Damrau and Flórez to shine in their softer, more plaintive and lyrical arias ("Il faut partir," "Par le rang et l’opulence," "Pour me rapprocher Marie").

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Unlike Laurent Cantet's The Class (which examined classroom behavior from an adult's point of view) or Judd Apatow's recent movies about sexually inept youth, Riad Sattouf's hilarious French Kissers (which will receive its West Coast premiere on opening night of the San Francisco Film Society's 2009 French Cinema Now minifestival) examines the trials and tribulations of high school through the eyes of two horny teenagers whose lousy posture is the least of their problems.

Hervé (Vincent Lacoste) and his best friend Camel (Anthony Sonigo) are two 14-year-olds with perpetual hard-ons who can't stop fantasizing about what it will be like when they can finally start kissing girls. As they try to get through classes in a suburban high school with a large percentage of Arab students, both become easy targets for school bullies like the handsome Loic (Baptiste Huet). Both are completely lacking in any kind of social grace, although Camel (with his ratty mullet, facial acne, and idiotic horny boy-logic) is really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Hervé (Vincent Lacoste) and Camel (Anthony Sonigo)

When Hervé mysteriously attracts the attention of the smart, sexy Aurore (Alice Trémolières), his sexual ineptitude only makes things worse.

  • While riding a bus, he reaches out to hold onto a pole and instantly develops a throbbing erection.
  • A slight shift of his body during one of his first attempts to make out with Aurore triggers an embarrassing premature ejaculation.
  • His single mother, who has been suffering from depression, keeps barging into the bathroom whenever he is trying to practice French kissing with himself in the mirror.
  • After Aurore invites Hervé to a party at her house, he must try to find a way to keep Camel (who was not invited) from crashing the party. To make matters worse, Hervé's mother, who has severe issues with boundaries, decides to invite herself along to the party.
The film is littered with scenes that will make perfect sense to adolescent boys who can't keep their hands off their dicks. In one of the funniest setups, Hervé and Camel are each masturbating into a sock as they stare out the window of Hervé's apartment into the bedroom of a woman in an adjoining building who frequently has sex without knowing that she is fulfilling all of their voyeuristic fantasies. When the woman suddenly reacts to something she sees through the window, and starts wildly gesticulating toward the boys, they are convinced they've been caught spying on her.

After a brief respite from beating off, Hervé decides it would be best to handle the situation like a real man and talk to the woman to explain that they meant no harm. As he begins to shout out the window to her, the body of his biology teacher falls past his apartment balcony as the man commits suicide.

The French Kissers is filled with such moments of black humor. Be careful to note the last few seconds of this clip, in which the look on the face of the actor playing Mahmoud (Yanis Aït-Ali) perfectly captures the essence of a horny boy caught fantasizing about sex:

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