Sunday, April 13, 2014
The Raid 2 is one of those rare films, a sequel that is masterful at exploring the themes of the first while exceeding every expectation along the way. Rama is back, and he has to go deep undercover and get involved with a dangerous mob, gaining trust with the leadership to gain vital information about crooked cops. The Raid: Redemption was confined and claustrophobic--all of the action took place in one building, and only in the beginning and at the end did the film leave the confines of four walls and a ceiling. But the sequel takes the story in some fresh directions (even a masterful car chase battle) with numerous memorable locales. The film gets room to breathe, though much of it will leave viewers breathless.
Some two hours have passed since the end of the first film, and Rama becomes convinced to get thrown in prison to buddy up with a son, Uco (a charming Arifin Putra), of a powerful crime lord. When Rama proves his worthiness during a muddy prison riot, Uco gives him a job working for the family once Rama gets released. The story is pretty intricate--you will read a lot, unlike the sparse dialogue in the first Raid--and all characters and crime factions have different motivations. The main tension deals with three groups: Uco's local family, a rival Japanese gang, and Bejo (Alex Abbad) and his cronies, a rising group of gangsters that threatens the power struggle between the two violent families. The story is stellar and serves the action well, but let's be honest: that's not what we're here for.
And the credit really goes to director (and writer) Gareth Evans, a Welshman who become fascinated with film making and the Indonesian martial art called pencak silat which is prominent in his films. With The Raid 2, Evans has propelled himself to the forefront of action directors working today. His ability to make you feel like you're in the middle of the fight--with the innovative camera angles, jarring direction changes, and brutal efficiency--rather than just watching a fight is incredible. No American film will match the excitement of the last hour of The Raid 2 this year. It's essential viewing for any un-squeamish movie fan: a choreographed master-class in excess and excitement. (A)
Sunday, April 6, 2014
In a world where it's nearly impossible to determine who to trust, Captain America must navigate the throes of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, as always led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). At the beginning of the film, Nick sends our Captain, a group of soldiers, and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) on a mission to a submarine that has been taken over by pirates--not Somalian like in the other Captain movie, Phillips, but Algerian terrorists. It showcases some of the fast-paced, more intimate fighting that Captain America performs. The Widow downloads some secret information, they save the hostages, and they head back home. Soon after, Fury himself gets attacked (seemingly because of the information of the zip drive that's now in his possession) while driving, and it becomes clear that a nameless force with infinite henchmen and government resources is trying to become a superpower, wiping out targets across America.
This paranoia--that same worry that some Americans feel in this present day of Drone strikes and traffic light cameras--is present throughout Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Much of the film is spent with Captain America and Black Widow on the run (along with a new bird-like friend, portrayed by Anthony Mackie) , enemies of the state and of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself. If it feels familiar, that's because this notion has been explored before (and more skillfully) in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. It's almost impossible to not see the similarities though, and it makes The Winter Soldier feel much more real than its WWII-set predecessor.
We all know that Marvel films can showcase some of the best action set pieces in the universe of big-budget film making. And though Captain America: The Winter Soldier contains large-scale Avengers-esque battles and explosions, it's the smaller fight scenes that are the real star of the action--the battles that are fought on the ground rather than in the air. Not too many American films can convey excitement when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, not after films like The Raid: Redemption that show you how realistic movie fighting can look, but The Winter Soldier performs admirably: they don't leave you breathless, but they seem much more brutal and real than the cartoony (but still fun) action in the Iron Man films.
Chris Evans portrays Captain America as a man who is vulnerable--maybe not vulnerable to fists or bullets (he's quite capable of handling those), but to finding his place in a modern world that he still doesn't quite understand. It's a naivety that is charming, like the first few scenes in Thor after Chris Hemsworth crashes onto Earth. It's funny (enough) and likable. A few scenes drag in The Winter Soldier, and it could have been more concise, cutting a few of the plot points that lower your adrenaline too far. But the film is a thoughtful spring superhero film that is well-worth watching once: completely respectable and an above-average entry into the Marvel canon. (B)
Thursday, April 3, 2014
Anderson's latest doohickey of a film is a story within a story within a story, a sort of Russian nesting doll that takes place over 3 different time periods, though one (the period starting in the year 1932, the beginning of the end of the hotel's glory days) is significantly more prominent (and also shown in a different aspect ratio, making it feel older). The main story revolves around Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, who performs admirably enough), the Hotel's concierge who sees to the "needs" of the older women clientele who frequent the establishment. He befriends a new Lobby Boy, Zero (Tony Revolori [as a kid] and F. Murray Abraham [as an adult]), and when one of his most-loved older women dies, Gustave and Zero try to outmaneuver her family dealing with the inheritance, mainly a painting titled Boy with Apple that's basically priceless. They decide to make off with the painting rather than wait for the legal proceedings.
They meet a wide assortment of characters during their caper journey, the most entertaining being Harvey Keitel as a fellow prisoner once Gustave gets tossed behind bars. Adrien Brody pops up as the deceased Madam's son, Dmitri. Needless to say he's not happy with Gustave showing up to take a portion of his inheritance, so he sends a henchman, J. G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe, who doesn't so much as act as sneer and growl), to pursue the pair. The story then unravels through Anderson's detailed imagination jumping from location to location, the history of the coming war in the background.
I did enjoy Fiennes as Gustave (at least in the first half of the film), and since he's the main star, he gets most of the screen time, allowing us to relate a little bit more than the other actors who are playing dress-up. But his shtick, full of the colorful and quirky language (this time with a 1930's flair) that Anderson is well-known for, still grows tiresome by the time the credits roll. The good Anderson films contain funny characters and idiosyncratic dialogue too: but they allow allow their characters to live and breath. There are moments of silence...moments of thoughtful emotional plangency. The Grand Budapest Hotel barely has any--it's plot point after plot point, location to different situations. Nobody grows. There's just a lot of narration. And when the climax travels back to the start of it all, the lobby (more incredible set design) of the Grand Hotel, I was too busy checking out of my room to care. (C)