Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Assailant...

Ok. So, this week we decided to veer hard to the left, nearly fall off the known road and try a new martial arts genre, Capoeira.

In case you have NO IDEA what Capoeira is, it is a native martial arts form from Brazil believed to be born out of slavery, as well as the fighting techniques of the indigenous people of Brazil. It is complex as everything, has a ton of swaying and sweeping motions, and is the foundation up which this week's film choice is built.

And, in case things are still sorta vague... do you remember that temple fight scene in The Protector where Kham (Tony Jaa) fights that totally "cut" dude in the fiery fight of death??? Yeah, THAT is Capoeira.

The Assailant (English Title), or Besouro (the original Portuguese title) is a 2009 film  by director and writer Joao Daniel Tikhomiroff, and writer Patricia Andrade. It chronicles the life of young Besouro (Beetle), a legendary Capoeira fighter who helped shaped modern rights for former slaves and the practice Capoeira. His story is deep, but pretty accurately represented in this film from what we've been able to gather. The actors aren't famous, the budget wasn't huge, but they set out to make a film about a hero who shows off some mad skills, and that's what we're all about, right?

Tip #1 for watching this film: Press play, then go make some popcorn, check your twitter, and poke your head in on the kiddos to make sure they're sleeping. Why the big production? Because an awful lot of companies had their hands in this film, and after a minute all the logos flashing on the screen start to make you dizzy. No, seriously. There are at least 3 minutes of company logos to get through before the movie starts.

Now get yourself comfy on the couch and get ready for 90 minutes of crazy. To provide a little bit of background, the events of the film take place in 1924. While slavery has been abolished, Brazilians of African descent are still treated as inferiors, and Capoeira has been outlawed. The fighting style is practiced less in an actual fighting environment than as a game, where a circle of people, called a roda, play music to which two fighters 'dance', showing their skills without necessarily connecting any blows or knocking their opponent down.

This guy is a turd. You're not going to like him.
The outlying areas of Brazil are overseen by Colonels, important landowners of mostly Portuguese descent that have been appointed by the Brazilian National Guard to keep everything running smoothly. In our particular area of interest is Colonel Vanencia, who is very good at publicly feigning an "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" approach to leadership while always keeping his best interests in mind.

On the other hand we have Master Alipio, the Ip Man of Capoeira and a respected leader in the black community, who has spent the last 20 years of his life teaching Carlton Banks... err, Beetle, I mean... his beautiful art with the sweeping legs and such.

So now that we know what the heck is going on...

Being his most beloved protege, Beetle is Master Alipio's main protector from the evils of Vanencia and his men. Because honestly, if some dude is running around teaching people how to defend themselves, somebody is obviously going to want to kill him. So one morning, Beetle is in the street playing an impressive Capoeira game with his friends Dinora and Quero-Quero when Master Alipio decides to take a stroll and get a bite to eat.

This is obviously a bad idea, because he is quickly gunned down by one of Vanencia's men, and Beetle, having been oblivious to the fact that there was trouble, shows up about 30 seconds too late to do anything about it. But he does disarm the shooter in impressive fashion before being instructed by a dying Master Alipio to carry his master away to the old slave quarters so they can have a moment alone.

Now if I were Master Alipio, I swear I would fire that boy on the spot, but he's far more forgiving than I. While Beetle laments his lapse in diligently protecting his master, Alipio basically says:

"Bah... you're my favorite. 
You rock at this Capoeira gig. 
You should take over my job, 
because I'm obviously bleeding to death. 
Peace out." 

As Alipio passes away, we see over Beetle's shoulder the presence of an unidentified Warrior, which will come into play in a little bit. In the meantime, Beetle runs off into the woods, ashamed of himself, and his people proceed to place the blame on him for all that happened.

Alipio's funeral is seven days later, and everyone pretty much says Beetle better not show up if he knows what's good for him. And he doesn't, he's still busy hiding in the woods trying to figure out why on earth Alipio appointed him guardian of all things Capoeira. He watches from afar while his friends pay tribute to their master with the Capoeira music and dancing he taught them all. Then he wanders off, feeling sorry for himself.

Seriously... did he dip in dippety doo?
The celebration of Alipio's life though is soon interrupted by Noca de Antonio, a rather sticky looking fellow who works for Colonel Venancia, on horseback with his band of merry murderers, who ride shooting into the clearing, hollering about how fighting is illegal. One man stands up to Noca, telling him that Capoeira is a dance, not fighting, and that dancing is not illegal. When Noca orders his men to attack, everyone flees, but the young man is caught and his legs are broken with the butt of a rifle... in a really sickening, bones sticking out all over the place kind of way.

Next scene please!!!

Now for the girlie parts of the movie... Quero-Quero is in love with Dinora, and very anxiously plans to marry her. She on the other hand seems rather put off by the whole Beetle situation, and is a little cold to Quero-Quero for no apparent reason. They have a short discussion about how she thinks Beetle has handled the whole thing very poorly, and Quero says little in his defense. And so the division begins between the three lifelong friends, and the plot thickens like a good custard.

But back to the topic at hand...

Dude has got some serious glow going on.
So remember that random warrior dude who showed up earlier when Master Alipio died? A couple of mornings later, Beetle tries his first venture back into the city, only to end up in a fight with this invisible warrior god that only he and a few others can see, and everyone thinks he's lost his damn mind. Turns out this warrior is Exu, a trickster type character in Brazilian mythology, who in return for the appropriate respect and obedience will help protect Beetle from his enemies. So after much Matrix-like flying around and destroying of the marketplace, Beetle bows down to his warrior guardian... and then is immediately chased out of the market by Noca, who drives him over a cliff into a river and writes him off as dead.

So then Vanencia comes along into the market and makes a big show of helping clean up the mess Beetle made, in an effort to get the black community to trust him. And amazingly, that crap works... on most people, anyway. Meanwhile, Beetle, having washed up on a shore far below the cliff, dreams another lesson from his master, nature, and the naked warrior goddess before being revived by Zulmira, the local healer. And, with no disrespect meant to the culture behind the film or its creators, everything gets a little trippy here. There is much to do with a frog and a half naked warrior goddess, along with visions of his dead master, that help Beetle on his way to becoming ready to defend the city.
This whole thing is then followed up with the piece-de-resistance (you're following this, right?), Zulmira gives Beetle a pendant to wear at all times, telling him that his body is "sealed" and his enemies ain't got jack on him. So he heads out the door with pecs-a-twitchin' looking to start a war.

And, at this point in this review, we're pretty sure that we forgot to mention that Vanencia owns a sugar plantation, at which most of the black community "works". And, by "works", we mean gets beaten and words hours upon hours of hard manual labor to earn mere pennies all so white folks can have white sugar cubes in the afternoon tea. (Remember this. It's important)

Now, in an effort to get the ball rolling by striking the first blow against Vanencia, Beetle lights the sugar field on fire one night, and the blaze is out of control almost immediately. But of course someone rats him out to Noca, not that there would have been a doubt in anyone's mind as to who it was. And then Noca, looking stickier than usual, has to report in to Vanencia, who is drinking his coffee that morning, with no sugar, that he neglected to make sure Beetle was dead when he jumped off that cliff.

Then we quick change gears to Dinora, who is gradually realizing that it is Beetle, not Quero, she has loved all along. And then back to the sugar plantation (now we're really rolling here...) where everyone is being forced to work twice as hard to make up for the damage caused by the fire. Dinora also happens to work there, and after an awkward experience serving Vanencia his coffee she storms out, fed up with the state of things. Turns out the Colonel has a nasty habit of using his house servants for sex, that would be enough to put off any self-respecting woman.

Aaand, now we whoosh out to the desert where Beetle is becoming pretty bad-ass with all his practicing. Vanencia is running around the town like he's God's gift to mankind, and Noca is going a little overboard at the plantation, whipping the already tired "workers", who have rapidly declined into a state of glorified slavery, but not slavery because that would be illegal in this quasi non slavery slavery scenario. Chico (the guy with the broken legs) tries to convince everyone that Beetle is indeed NOW following the path of Master Alipio, and Beetle himself sabotages the equipment at the plantation, leading Noca and friends on a wild goose chase that results in one of their own men being killed.

(tsk, tsk) Noca, Noca, Noca.... will you never learn...

So now Vanencia is all kinds of pissed off, and Noca is pretty sure Beetle can fly, so they go out in search of their very own Capoeira fighter. They approach a group of fighters playing in a street, including Quero-Quero, and ask them to show their fighting skills to determine which of them is the best. Quero is of course the winner, and he is quickly persuaded to choose the Colonel over Beetle. Dinora is livid to hear Quero writing Beetle off and defending Vanencia, so she calls off their engagement. More than once, and in no uncertain terms. But he's a dummy, obviously, and it takes a while for the very clear words "DUDE!!! It's over" to sink in.


Free of the relationship she obviously didn't really want, Dinora goes to the wilderness to track down Beetle and warn him about Noca and Vanencia's latest movements. Commence most freaking adorable scene in the history of cinema. An entirely too flirty game of Capoeira breaks out in the grass, resulting in what appears to be a tango, and then some very serious smooching, which is witnessed by a spying, jealous Quero-Quero. Followed by a pretty fleshy nudey scene slightly beyond the norm.

Did we mention to make sure the kids were sleeping before the movie started? If not, oooops. Sorry about that. You're conversation around the dinner table tomorrow night is guaranteed to be a lively one.

Ok, so Quero-Quero, being stupid and ridiculous, goes to tattle on Beetle. He spills some information to Noca in a bar about a knife made of a certain kind of wood that can injure people with sealed bodies, like Beetle. Then Quero is immediately made fun of, tossed out of the bar, and feels like an idiot. So when Noca comes out of the bar a short while later, Quero fights with him and (mostly unintentionally) kills him.

We hate to rejoice over the death of anyone, but... yaaaaaaaaaay no more greaseball! 

Then Quero runs away, finds Beetle, gets all uppity about stealing Beetle stealing Dinora and hiding in the wilderness, gets efficiently told off about what a cocky jackass he is, and ends up in a fight that goes from land, to tree, to land, to vicious excellent double kick (Beetle's signature move) to the bloody backstabbing face of Quero.

Dinora goes to warn Beetle that the Colonel is coming, while Vanencia and his men ready their pointy sticks. And guns, yes, they have guns too. The bullets seem to glance right off him... but the wooden knife works, and Beetle his killed.


Take that Mr. Sticky Poke Gunny Mc. Shooty pants!!!

But yes, he dies and his soul runs through the city, inhabiting briefly the bodies of Chico and Dinora, allowing them to kick the living crap out of Vanencia and some of his men. He has a final conversation with Master Alipio about death, and then his spirit is borne away by the warrior goddess.

But wait! That's not the end! Dinora gives birth to a little mini-beetle, who learns Capoeira from Chico, and stares daggers through Vanencia as he passes by their home on horseback. Take that, jerkface. Nice try.

Is it the best martial arts film we've ever seen? No, not really. MJ actually enjoyed it far more the second time through, after doing some research on the mythology and traditions that we've briefly summarized here. The first time around, we have to admit, we honestly had a hard time following the story because we were trying so hard to figure out why people kept appearing and disappearing and turning into animals. So... getting some background information is helpful so that you are spending less time concentrating and more time enjoying the film for what it is.

Given that it is rooted in historical fact and is a good introduction to the art of Capoeira, we recommend at least giving it a try. The version available on Netflix for instant viewing is dubbed in English, so you don't even have to read subtitles.

But, if you want to see some really fancy and incredible Capoeira skills, we still might recommend that you look up that temple fight from The Protector on youtube. Because those were some wicked flips. Not that Beetle's triple-axel kick to the face isn't soul-crushing... there just isn't much here by way of really exciting face-squooshing fighting. Not our normal cup of tea, but worth the shot nonetheless.

- The Mavens

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