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Monday, September 20, 2010 02:26 PM
On the Viewer - Xala
 by Fëanor

The next entry in my Running with Netflix series (subtitled movies I watch on Netflix Instant on the Wii while running on the treadmill) is Xala, a movie made in the African nation of Senegal in 1975. I added it to my list of movies to see ages ago, when I read about it in a book that I bought for a film class in college. It was really hard to find a copy of it, but thanks to Netflix, I've finally been able to see it. Yay technology!

It's been a while since I've seen a movie as deep, artistic, and meaningful as Xala. That's not a mistake, either; I've pretty much been avoiding movies of that sort on purpose, because I just haven't felt up to handling them. Why watch something difficult when I can just zone out with something simple? But smart, complex movies are rewarding and entertaining in their own way, and it was good to be reminded of that.

(Warning: there are spoilers below, but this isn't really the kind of movie that will be spoiled by me telling you what happens in it, so maybe don't worry about it.)

Xala is a brilliant and dark socio-political satire about the hypocrisy and corruption rampant in Senegal right after it became independent from France. The plot is about a successful government official who, upon marrying his much younger third wife, discovers he has the "xala," or the curse - in other words, he's impotent. In his attempts to rid himself of the xala, he loses everything.

But of course the movie is really about a lot more than that. It opens with a very clever and subtly biting sequence. A group of men and women in traditional African garb storm a large, imposing building with classical Greek architecture. They invade a room where three European men sit wearing business suits. They oust the men, who leave peacefully, if reluctantly. They also remove the symbols of Europe from the room - Greek busts, etc. - and replace them with a picture of the new, African president. African ministers arrive and sit down around the table, and a speech is given - Africa for Africans! We've taken the country back! But outside, a white man orders black African soldiers to push the black African crowd back, away from the building, to make way for the European officials, who return to the room and hand a briefcase to each of the new African officials. The officials open the briefcases and are pleased to find them full of cash. The Europeans are allowed to remain in the room, now standing in the background, behind their African counterparts. We notice that in the picture of the president on the wall there is also a briefcase.

The African ministers all speak French, wear European business suits, have adopted European ways, and are flush with European cash. In short, they've become nothing but corrupt imitations of the European men they've supposedly replaced. One, known as El Hadji, uses the government's money to marry his third wife. During the reception, there's a particularly striking incident: one man tells a second man he's just returned from a vacation. The second man asks if he's gone to Spain, and the first replies that he can't go to Spain anymore because "there are too many negroes." Both men are black, of course. In another scene from the reception, two men meet on either side of a doorway, but each is determined to be polite and wait for the other to go through first. So they're both stuck waiting in the doorway.

When El Hadji can't perform on his wedding night, he and his fellow ministers immediately blame a very non-European cause - a curse - and seek non-European solutions: village magicians and fetishes. El Hadji spends more and more of the government's money on cures that don't work. When he trucks out into the middle of nowhere to a wizard who is finally able to cure him, he pays the man with a check (!) that ends up bouncing. In fact, everybody's checks are bouncing now, so El Hadji's fellow ministers finally call him to task. (It seems clear they were willing to overlook all his failings until they ran out of money.) In an angry and desperate speech that makes plain everything the movie has been subtly suggesting so far, El Hadji accuses his fellow officials of hypocrisy. They are just as corrupt as him, just as guilty of everything they're accusing him of. They embrace or reject their heritage as they choose, whenever it suits them. But they ignore El Hadji and throw him out. He has lost his manhood, his money, his job, and now he loses two of his wives. In the final sequence, a crowd of cripples and beggars invades his house. They eat his food and sit on his furniture. When he objects, they explain that when he took power, he stole their homes and their land. They're just taking back what's theirs. They gave him the xala, and they can lift the curse. All he has to do is remove his clothes and allow them all to spit on him. Desperate, he gives in to this final act of disgusting debasement. And that's how the film ends - with the once powerful man naked, surrounded by beggars, covered in their saliva.

It's a brutal, powerful, intelligent, thoughtful, angry, darkly funny movie. If it makes a misstep, it's El Hadji's too-obvious speech near the end. But it's only a small misstep in an otherwise masterful piece of art.
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), Netflix (Not), On the Viewer (Not), Running with Netflix (Not)
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Thursday, August 19, 2010 03:57 PM
(Last updated on Friday, August 20, 2010 02:28 PM)
On the Viewer - Recent Film Roundup
 by Fëanor

Ong-bak: The Thai Warrior
Recently it came to my attention that I needed to start doing some kind of exercise again or I would continue to get fatter and fatter until I was no longer able to move at all. So I've been trying to find ways to fit a 15-minute session on the treadmill into my mornings. Running on the treadmill is absolutely grueling and agonizing to me if I don't have something to distract me, but it can't be anything that involves sound, because in order for me to hear anything over the treadmill, said sound would have to be turned up to a prohibitively loud volume level. It also needs to be something with a story, or else it doesn't distract me enough - SportsCenter with closed caption on just wasn't cutting it. I settled on Netflix Watch Instantly via the Wii as a viable option, but was disappointed to discover there does not appear to be any way to turn on subtitles for a movie if you watch it this way. However, I also discovered that foreign movies have subtitles turned on by default. So, my new exercise regimen consists of watching foreign films in 15-minute increments while running on the treadmill in the morning. It's working out pretty well. Luckily Netflix WI/Wii remembers exactly where you stopped watching a movie, so it's easy to resume right where you left off.

The first entry in my "Running with Netflix" series was a martial arts film from 2003 called Ong-bak. I've wanted to see this since it came out, but for one reason or another, I just never got around to it. Until now! The story is pretty simple: an unscrupulous man named Don comes to a small, poor village in rural Thailand and steals the head of the Buddha statue (known, for reasons I have been unable to discover, as Ong-bak), hoping to sell it for a profit. The village people are convinced that without an intact statue, they are doomed, so they must choose someone to track Don to the city and get the head back. Luckily they've just had a contest to choose the village's champion, and the winner was a young man named Ting (Tony Jaa) who was taught Muay Thai (a form of kickboxing) by the local monk. There's a great scene in the movie where the monk tells Ting, "Now that I've taught you Muay Thai, you must promise never to use it." This tends to be the central dilemma of every martial arts film: the hero, to be a hero, must abhor violence, but because he's the hero of an action film, he must be forced to perform violence constantly. Thus we can enjoy watching the violence but still feel morally superior.

And so it is with Ting in Ong-bak! Almost as soon as he arrives in the immoral city, he ends up in the middle of a conflict with some local criminals - who also happen to be the same people who've stolen Ong-bak's head - and is forced to kick their asses in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of locations. Thankfully he is up to the task. Meanwhile, the person he's been told to contact for help (George, the son of one of the villagers) rejects his heritage and his connection to the village, and turns out to be a sleazy loser who just uses people for their cash and then pisses it away on gambling and grifting. George tries to string Ting along, too, promising to help him find Ong-bak while just making as much money off of him as he can. But eventually Ting's generosity, honesty, and all around decency win George over, and he helps Ting succeed while redeeming himself in the process. The story actually ends up being a lot more about George and his personal transformation than you would expect, and I'm okay with that. George goes from being a funny but despicable scumbag to being a lovable guy in a completely believable and effective fashion. Of course, while that's going on, there's also a lot of awesome fighting, including a scene where Ting kicks a guy in the head while his legs are on fire. There's even a little mysticism to the story; I really deeply loved the way the final fight ended, with Buddha personally taking a hand. My only problem with the movie was the choice to film the climactic fight scene in a dark cave. For large portions of this sequence, it was nearly impossible to see what was going on. This might have had something to do with the not-always-perfect quality of Netflix Watch Instantly, but still. Otherwise, it's not only an entertaining martial arts film - the best one I've seen in a long time - but also an entertaining film, period. Now I'm definitely going to have to check out Ong-bak 2!

Star Wars Uncut
When I first heard about the Star Wars Uncut project, I thought it was brilliant, and I looked forward to seeing what would come out of it. So when Tom Boutell announced his company P'unk Ave would be screening the finished project at their offices, I really wanted to be there. Luckily poppy was good enough to agree to look after the baby so I could make it.

If you don't know, Star Wars Uncut was a project spearheaded by a guy at Vimeo. They cut the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV - A New Hope) into a series of 15-second segments and asked anyone and everyone to upload their own, home-made versions of those segments, using any film-making techniques they wished. Then the version of each segment rated the highest by users would be integrated into the final version. Tom found a way to download and string together in order all of the most popular versions of each segment, thus creating a screenable version of Star Wars Uncut.

I was worried the resulting product might be a little too schizophrenic to watch comfortably, but seeing all the different ways people had chosen to come at the material was actually really fun and fascinating. There's traditional animation, stop-motion animation, roto-scoping, computer-animation, live-action with real actors wearing bad costumes and makeup, live-action with chin puppets, live-action with paper bag puppets, live-action with action figures, and on and on. Some people used the original audio, lip-syncing the dialog, while other people re-recorded the dialog, or wrote their own, new dialog. The tone of the segments is generally fun and humorous, with some people going so far as to make their scene more a parody of the original scene than a faithful recreation. Some of the reenactments are pretty uninspired, but most of them have at least something fresh or interesting or silly going on, and some were so fascinating some of us in the audience couldn't help but say, "Man, I'd like to see the whole movie done in that style!"

Crowd-sourcing a remake is a great concept, and crowd-sourcing a remake of a movie as beloved as the original Star Wars was bound to bring out the passion and creativity in people. And so it did. May the Force be with them all, and also with you.

The Expendables
Recently poppy and I decided to take a day off, leave the kid at daycare, and go see a movie. When she asked me if it would be okay if the movie we went to see was the ridiculous action extravaganza known as The Expendables, I knew I'd chosen the right woman to be my wife.

Poppy and I agreed afterwards that the movie is clearly a project on the level of the Ocean's movies: a bunch of guys who are buddies in real life get together in an exotic location, and while they're there, just for fun, they make a movie. I would argue, however, that the Ocean's movies are far more successful as films, and I really hope The Expendables does not become a franchise. Sylvester Stallone is the head of the gang - he co-wrote, directed, and stars in the film as the boss of a group of extremely talented and deadly mercenaries. He managed to rope in an impressive list of movie stars and fighting celebrities to co-star with him, including Jason Statham (character name: Christmas), Jet Li (character name: Ying Yang), Dolph Lundgren (character name: Gunner), Eric Roberts, Randy Couture (character name: Toll Road; Couture really has only one scene in which he speaks for any length of time, but in the short time he's talking, he makes it painfully obvious he is not an actor), Steve Austin (character name: Paine), Mickey Rourke, Charisma Carpenter, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis. Keep in mind these last three have roles that amount to little more than cameos; Carpenter's job in the film is limited to essentially answering a door a couple of times, and then watching while Statham beats up some guys. She is a living stereotype, her subplot so cliched that I was able to predict what was going to happen in it and go to the bathroom instead of bothering to watch. Meanwhile, the scene that Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Stallone all share - a scene that should be a momentous and historic occasion in the annals of action cinema - is disappointingly awful, as they just stand around spitting terrible dialog at each other for a few minutes while the filmmakers cut frantically back and forth amongst them, apparently in the misguided belief that capturing each actor's uninspired reaction to the other's dumb line is really important.

The movie's plot is simple: the mercenaries get a job to take out a random Latin American dictator on a small island. It turns out he has a hot daughter who's noble and good, and that the real trouble is less the dictator and more the ex-CIA dude who's pulling his strings. The job is clearly a dangerous setup, and Stallone's character is all set to decline - but he can't get that hot daughter out of his mind. Naturally he ends up going back to save her, and all his buddies insist on coming with. If a movie about Stallone fighting a Latin American dictator and his entire army in order to save a pretty young woman sounds familiar, you're probably thinking of Arnie's '80s action spectacular, Commando - which you should really see instead, because it's even more over-the-top and so-bad-it's-good than this movie.

The Expendables consists of just three or four extended action sequences, connected together by thin threads of plot. The action sequences are all shot with shaky, hand-held cameras, and the climactic one takes place in the dark, so it's not always easy to see the flashy violence that you'd assume would be the movie's focal point.

All that being said, the movie does have its moments. The action scenes - when you can see what's going on in them - are pretty fun, if not particularly inspired. I was actually worried about Stallone in a couple of them; there's a scene where he's running to catch a plane, and another where he's being choked, where I thought he was in real danger of dying. (UPDATE: It turns out I may have been more right than I knew; poppy pointed me to this truly wonderful article in which it's revealed that Steve Austin actually broke Stallone's neck during their fight scene.) His arms look amazing, though. There was only one sequence that surprised me and that I thought was clever and imaginative, but I don't really want to give away what happens in it in case you see the movie. Suffice it to say, it involves people getting set on fire.

Oh, and Mickey Rourke is insane. I get the strong sense all his scenes are totally ad libbed. He has a melodramatic speech halfway through the movie that's just amazing. It's kind of ridiculous and effective at the same time.

Poppy enjoyed this movie a lot more than I did. I've always had a hard time enjoying big dumb action movies. But if you like them, and you don't mind one that ends with Jason Statham reciting a really bad poem, well, they don't come much bigger and dumber than this one.
Tagged (?): Celebrities (Not), Movies (Not), Netflix (Not), On the Viewer (Not), Running with Netflix (Not), Star Wars (Not), Wii (Not)
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