This film is so much like Judge Adam Arseneau's dreams, it's scary.
Inspire an artist. Ruin his life.
The Art of Pain is a wet dream for geeks that somebody caught with a butterfly net, stuck into a jar, and released onto DVD. Why more filmmakers fail to pair ninjas and zombies together in the same movie is beyond me. Simply put, it's a winning combination.
Facts of the Case
Jack (Anders Erickson) is an aspiring painter stuck at a dead-end job at a movie theater in Chicago. His life is a comfortable rut—he has a girl (Lauren Bishop), a best friend to discuss comics with (Greg Brookens), and enough pocket money to scrape by. He has considerable artistic talent at his fingertips, but inspiration is tough to find.
In stark contrast, a new employee arrives, a leather-clad ninja-in-training named Marcus (John LaFlamboy). Rough, tough, and callous, he is bitter about being expelled from his dojo after failing to impress his sensei. Now excommunicated, Marcus is furious with repressed rage. Already loose and rattling in the common sense department, Marcus gets it into his head that the way to redemption—both personally and from his master—is to inspire Jack to paint—and everyone knows great art comes from great pain.
Jack's zombie-like existence is about to get a ninja foot right up in the rear.
A film written by nerds, and filmed and created for nerds, The Art of Pain is a love letter to genre cinema in all its tawdry, glorious trashiness. The best parts of low-budget buffoonery get sandwiched together into a tour-de-force spectacle of micro-budget filmmaking—zombies, martial arts, comics, you name it, this film has it. It's a pretty tall order to deliver, but amazingly, The Art of Pain holds its own, fleshing out the limitations of its tiny purse strings with healthy doses of dark slacker comedy, loving homage, and general wackiness. In short, this is the film you and your friends get drunk and discuss making, but never get around to. Well, these guys did.
Indie director brothers Matt (who directs) and Greg Brookens (who plays the nerdy sidekick of the protagonist) are growing faces on the independent genre circuits, having collaborated on a number of short films in recent years, but The Art Of Pain is a big step forward in production and scope, venturing tantalizingly close to mainstream marketability. The jokes are funny, the special effects are cheap but passable, the cinematography is impressively sophisticated, and the acting is endearingly cheesy. Honestly, I've seen worse films receive much more marketing and distribution. In particular, Anders Erickson, who plays the hapless Jack, does pretty darn well in the role, especially as his life starts to go to pot.
While there is nothing particularly profound or groundbreaking going on in The Art Of Pain, with most of its best ideas heavily borrowed from other filmmakers like Kevin Smith, Lloyd Kaufman, the Shaw Brothers, George Romero, and other geeky purveyors, great respect is given to the material. This is homage at its most praising and respectful—ideas are not stolen so much as gently polished and reassembled into something fun and fresh. We've seen all this before, but not quite in this order, and definitely not all at the same time. Any film that has bikers, ninjas, zombies, slacker comedies, and cyborg masks within the first 30 minutes is okay in my book.
What I love best about the film (beyond its curious obsession with swamp-dwelling ape-men) is how when you subtract the pesky ninjas, the flesh-eating zombies, and the comic book geekery, you still have a fully functioning film. Sure, the zombies and fighting and visceral fun is all nerdy and great, but the most satisfying moments of The Art of Pain come in the form of good old-fashioned comedy. The screenplay is loaded with solid, witty banter and flashes of brilliant dialogue, so when the martial art moves get a bit corny, and the zombie makeup looks worn through, the foundation of The Art Of Pain remains strong, carrying the film through its occasional rough patches.
Ultimately, most people are going to gravitate towards this film because of its fan service to splodgy comic book nerds everywhere. As they should! The Art of Pain delivers in its faithful imitation of the best of Troma, cowboy westerns, drive-in, grindhouse films, and all manner of B-roll cinema, sticking ninjas into a teen comedy, zombies into a ninja film, and science fiction geekery in whatever spots still remain. Fans even get a fantastic cameo by Lloyd Kaufman as zombie director "George Romano," and if that isn't delicious enough, he says amazing things like, "Sometimes we had drugs up the ass!" This is a hell of a line. I'd see any move that has that line in it, sight unseen.
The technical specs of this DVD are good, but erratic. Keep in mind, this is a low-budget film, so judged on merits of indie cinematography and filmmaking, The Art of Pain is entirely presentable. Black levels are okay, but degrade into grain and digital artifacts pretty easily. Colors are nicely saturated in some scenes, and oddly muted in others. The audio is a simple stereo presentation which is a bit muted and mixed quieter than expected—some volume fiddling is required to keep dialogue clear. It looks a bit rough at times, but I have seen films with bigger budgets with worse DVD presentations.
For a single disc set, extras are comfortably packed. We get six deleted scenes, some blooper outtake reels, a "Mitchumentary" (the cast and crew making a faux documentary about their sound guy), and some product placement for the Brookens brothers: a 12-minute short film, "Son of Roni," and a teaser for "Skunk Ape." Add on some trailers and teasers, and you're good to go. One thing becomes immediately clear: the Brookens brothers managed to land a lot more money to make The Art of Pain than their previous work. Good for them—I hope to see more from these guys.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One feels a small amount of guilt ragging on a small independent film for flaws well outside its budgetary restraints to correct. The weakest part of The Art of Pain is its numerous martial arts sequences, which are edited so blindingly fast to obscure the lack of proper martial art training by its cast. I'm inclined to cut the film slack on this front. It is hard to find good ninjas these days. The fighting might be a wee bit on the jagged side, but the love is there.
Great art indeed comes from great pain. While The Art of Pain may not be great art by accepted standards, its unrestrained enthusiasm for corny cinema is nothing short of infectious. Goofy to be sure, but decent production quality, a solid script, and witty repartee elevate The Art of Pain from B-cinema into letter fractions above. Fans of low-budget cinema will definitely approve.
Not guilty by reason of ninja and zombie saturation.
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