Thursday, August 30, 2012

Netflix This: "The Raid: Redemption"

     Now, the title of this blog post is "Netflix This:". One would assume that the following text would give the reasons to why one would want to Netflix a certain movie. But for this one, there is a disclaimer: Netflix This only if you are a fan of totally badass martial arts, incredible stunt-filled fight scenes, blood that spurts in every single direction and out of every single human orifice, and a plot that involves only one thing. Violence. Lots and lots of violence.
     The story--what little there is--is simple and sparse: deep in the ghetto of a city in Indonesia, a huge apartment building becomes the safe house for some of the city's most notorious and dangerous criminals. These are not the type of people that the general public wants to mess with. Crime lord Tami Riyadi is the sickest of them all, torturing and shooting rival gang members and even the police.
     Rookie cop Rama and a 20-man SWAT team lead a mission into the building to rid it of the criminal scum. Floor by floor, they have to slash (or shoot, or stab, or dismember, or bone break, or impale, or bludgeon, or smash, etc) their way higher into the decrepit pit of an apartment building. Challenges await at every turn: doors are blocked, men with automatic machine guns wait around corners, stairways are in rubble. The lead gangsters live near the top of the building with plenty of high-tech gadgetry and cameras to keep tabs on the ever-dwindling SWAT team. Not everyone in the building is a hardened criminal, though they all are loyal to their frightening landlord. Most men attack the police squad, and kids act as spotters to slow the team's already-slow progress.
     There's a very simple way to determine whether or not you will enjoy The Raid: Redemption. Take a look at this fight scene. Most in the film are different variations of this--senseless and ultra-violent killing with martial arts and incredible fight choreography:

     It's best to the leave the discussion about the place of violence and killing in film at the door with The Raid. Someones you're just in the mood for a visceral experience that is basically unrivaled in its absolute non-stop action and bloodshed. Once the SWAT team is in the building, downtime is minimal. There cant be much more than 15 minutes of dialogue in the entire film (unless you count grunting and the weird high-pitched noises that every martial artist yelps when they land a hand-to-hand blow as dialogue). As one might except--like in the older Steven Seagal or JCVD showcases of violent revenge--some of the fight scenes obviously get a bit repetitive at times. But Welsh director Gareth Evans sure knows how to stage amazing stunt-packed fight scenes, and there's enough innovation to keep your attention throughout the entire 100 minute run time. Almost like an intricate ballet or a gymnastics performance, The Raid: Redemption sucks you in to its sophisticated action while shooting your arm with a needle filled with 100% adrenaline.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Reborn Bourne Leaves a Lasting Legacy

     When we first meet Aaron Cross, the new hero of the Bourne franchise that is still surprisingly good, he's hanging out in Alaska, popping mysterious pills like an Oxycontin addict, making superhuman leaps and having a William Tell-esque marksmanship with his high-powered rifle. He is seemingly in a training exercise to see how the human body responds to horrendous conditions and unknown medications that he has to take at certain time intervals. The first bit of this new entry in the hugely popular franchise could pass for an original thriller that wouldn't need to draw connections to Matt Damon's trilogy. However, The Bourne Legacy--with its new plot, new star, and surprising innovation to the formula--morphs into a perfectly good and worthwhile entry into the growing franchise that is better than any viewer should expect it to be.
     As the plot moves along, we realize that this is a Bourne film through and through, with all of its secret backroom government discussions and brutal hand-to-hand combat fights that work incredibly well. Much of the success has to do with the Bourne franchise's new star, Jeremy Renner: yes, ever since his intense turn in 2008's The Hurt Locker (easily one of the best films of that year), Renner has taken a role in just about any franchise that will write him a paycheck (Marvel's superhero universe, Mission Impossible), but he really shines bright here. It helps that he always brings an intensity that is rare in young, modern actors; he's a guy that thinks before he acts, yet always seems to make the right decision, usually in life-or-death situations. Unlike Matt Damon's portrayal of Jason Bourne, who was surprised at his own killing skill set (just as the viewer was surprised that Matt Damon could be such a force to be reckoned with), Renner is fully capable from the beginning, showing an aptitude for pulling off I-can't-believe-that-just-happened maneuvers.
     Speaking of Jason Bourne and his escapades, Aaron Cross (obviously) gets put in a similar situation: flushed out from a secret government project, similar to "Treadstone" in the previous Bourne films, he goes on the run to hunt for a way to have all of the abilities that his daily medication gives him without having to pop the pills. So he meets up with Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), an expert on the blue/green pills and the way that they interact with human genes. She has problems of her own, as she knows way too much information on this secret government project once the metaphorical excrement hits the oscillating air device.
     Leading the charge to take out anyone and everyone who knows far too much about this dangerous program is Eric Byer, played with seriousness by Edward Norton, an actor who is a natural at playing intense characters that always seem to be trying to fix something. The rest of the cast contains a bunch of notable names, whether they are in the film for five minutes or five seconds. Usually it's quick flashes of dialogue or arguing about video surveillance footage or drone radars--all of these scenes show the most modern of spy-type technology: it would come as no surprise that in the inevitable Bourne 5 these electronics-fueled government types will be able to tell where Aaron Cross last ate lunch from a Google Earth image of a post-poo toilet bowl.
     This wouldn't be a Bourne film without some great action scenes, and Legacy has plenty of them. The first scenes in Alaska are cool and cold, as Aaron battles wolves and the elements like Liam Neeson in The Grey. The scenes involving Weisz's Doc involve an added tension, as Aaron has to battle two things at once: bad guys wielding automatic weapons and Marta's ineptitude at hurting people without emotion. A chase around the rooftops in Manila starts off strong, with leaps, bounds, and plunges up and down the uneven metal roof terrain. This chase finishes with a vehicular chase, kind of a signature of the Matt Damon films, but Legacy's was a bit unrealistic (particularly when Aaron grinds down a stair-railing with a motorcycle better than Tony Hawk could have done with a skateboard). The finish was brutal and unexpected, though.
     This fourth entry in the Bourne franchise was directed by Tony Gilroy, who had previously written or co-written the three previous entries. He also directed the slick (and good) George Clooney thriller, Michael Clayton, about backroom mental breakdowns and lawsuits at a major corporation. He is plenty fit for this job: The Bourne Legacy looks great and moves at a breakneck speed, even when there are long scenes of dialogue on the screen (and even when the plot becomes indecipherable at certain moments). Ultimately, even though the film ends quite abruptly with a (Spoiler Alert!) set up for the inevitable sequel, The Bourne Legacy, with its interesting addiction plot and the addition of agents with better strength, stamina and intelligence, is a step in a certain direction. Not a step forward, nor a step backward: a step sideways...into intriguing territory.     (B+)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Netflix This: The Hunter

     Willem Dafoe is one of those actors that is so recognizable that just a glimpse of his sharply-lined face and jaw or the soothing (yet dangerous) sound of his voice can flood your mind with memories of myriad great films: specifically, one of his wonderful first roles in Platoon, his cult-like-status character in The Boondock Saints, or his absolutely brutal turn in Lars von Trier's Antichrist. It's easy to forget--what with all the small, bit character roles that Dafoe is so great at (and the fact that he's been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars instead of Best Actor)--that Willem can carry an entire film on his own shoulders. He does so in The Hunter, an interesting and weird little Australian film that clearly showcases Dafoe's ability to captivate an audience. Although the plot is somewhat muddled and occasionally predictable, The Hunter (much like another very solid 2012 film, The Grey) relies on its solitude-enveloped performances and incredible wilderness cinematography to tell a story about hunting and human survival.
     There used to be an animal called the Tasmanian Tiger. For real. Check it out, HERE. They have thought to be extinct since 1936, and before that they mostly inhabited the grasslands and wetlands of continental Australia. The Hunter revolves around this animal: Martin (Willem Dafoe) is a mercenary with good aim and better instincts. He gets hired by a mysterious company to try and track down this elusive, thought-to-be-extinct creature, to harvest its organs and genetic material for experiments. He poses as a scientist and travels to Tasmania, where he gets set up with a family while he conducts his under-the-radar hunting. But this family has some dark secrets: two young kids, Sass and Bike, run around without supervision as their mother, Lucy, is laid up in bed, addicted to prescription medication. The father, Jarrah, has been missing for a significant amount of time. He may or may not have been looking for information on the same dangerous, phantom animal up in the dark woods.
     The plot gets even thicker as The Hunter's run time moves along: the locals don't take too kindly to a "foreigner" coming into town, shacking up with a family and conducting mysterious business in the treacherous forest. Things only get much tougher for Martin as he inches closer and closer to loving his host family. A decision will have to be made: will Martin be able to overcome the ever-growing dangers of the angry town locals? Should Martin continue his research in the hazardous landscape? And even if he found the extremely elusive Tasmanian Tiger, does Martin have to intestinal fortitude to murder it for research?
      The Hunter looks incredible. The entire film was shot on location in Tasmania, and much of it was shot in the beautiful Central Plateau Conservation Area and the Upper Florentine Valley. The landscape is a character of its own, with plenty of gorgeous cliffs and threatening old-growth forests permeating from each scene. It's a thought-provoking movie, with plenty of questions about ethics, environmental protection, and survival. Yes, the plot is occasionally predictable, and the townsfolk have a Straw Dogs-ish staleness, but the slow-burn satisfaction of Dafoe's understated performance raises it above most any typical survival thriller.

(Available on Netflix Instant Watch)