Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Raid 2 Radiates Excitement

     As I mentioned in my last review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, one film has soured the taste of nearly all modern American action films: The Raid: Redemption. Its incredibly brutal and realistic hand-to-hand combat and blood-squirting violent gun and knife play has propelled the film into cult hit status, satiating the dying hunger of action fans who are tired of confusing quick-cut fight scenes and over-the-top characters and corny gore. The story of Rama and his floor-by-floor fight to the top of a crime and thug-ridden apartment complex was all set up for bone-crushing punches and kicks. But there wasn't too much of a story: it was a 100 minute adrenaline pill. The sequel, The Raid 2 (sometimes shown with the subtitle, Berandal), fixes that issue. Continuing the story of Rama (Iko Uwais, a man you just have to root for) after he escapes death at the apartments, The Raid 2 is a much bigger story with complex relationships. There is downtime between the action this time around (other than the last hour), but it allows for even more building of intensity. If the first Raid is a small watercolor painting of pain, The Raid 2 is the Sistine Chapel: big (2 and a half hours), beautiful, and utterly breathtaking, especially when the action kicks in.
     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.
     Much of the first half of the film deals with Rama's slow rise from the henchman in Uco's family. The action and tension is there: but it comes in short frenetic bursts that spike your heart rate in a teasing fashion, cutting you off at peak moments of excitement. During this first half, you might find yourself itching for a little more fighting, a little more payoff for the growing story. But just wait: The Raid 2's slow build eventually reaches its threshold of pressure and it explodes into a frenzy of some of the best action in film since...well, ever really. The characters are memorable, funny, and scary: a fan-favorite machete-wielder from the first Raid who has become long-haired and homeless, a deaf woman whose skill with a pair of sharp hammers puts Kill Bill's The Bride to shame, a dangerous thug who bashes skulls in with an aluminum baseball bat (and sometimes a baseball, too)--these fights reach a crescendo of action poetry that is unrivaled in modern fight films.
     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

Captain America: A Tale of Two Soldiers

     Of all of the Marvel films that star one of the Avengers individually, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) was my least favorite. There was nothing particularly bad about it: some of the pulpy story and action was enjoyable enough. But it had nothing memorable--no classic lines or brilliant action set pieces--to grasp onto. Since then, namely with The Avengers and Iron Man 3, the comic company has perfected the art of must-see superhero entertainment, stories filled with humor, tension and action scenes that showcase their 100+ million dollar budgets. So now we ride along to the second film in the Captain America series, The Winter Soldier. It's a solid--if unremarkable--spring movie. Showcasing a story where our hero Steve Rogers's foe is more of a corporation than a specific villain, The Winter Soldier is a more thoughtful Marvel film with notions of politics and surveillance. It's Captain America finding his way through modern America.
     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.
     These individual Avenger films follow a pretty specific formula--it's rare that we feel true danger for these characters, so there needs to be other entertaining aspects from them to stand out. Other than the focus on a political story, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the uniqueness comes in two new characters and the intense hand-to-hand fight scenes. It's interesting to see Robert Redford in a superhero film--the man doesn't appear on screen very often, so it's intriguing watching him portray Alexander Pierce, a higher-up in S.H.I.E.L.D. who clearly has motives of his own. He's a nice presence in the political intrigue. The Winter Soldier in the title is a villain who's as powerful as Captain America, and maybe they even have a connecting thread. He's a good antagonist: violent and ruthless. And when the two soldiers are pitted against each other, it makes for great superhero fight scenes.
     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

A Customer Complaint at The Grand Budapest Hotel

     It's become a bit of a cliche for Wes Anderson films. A reviewer will see his latest (undeniably pretty to look at) creation and state: "It surely won't change your opinion about Wes Anderson and all of his eccentricities!" Yes, I think we all know at this point: you either "get" Anderson and his never-fail Doll-House style film making, or you don't. To me, he's always been a bit hit or miss. For every Rushmore--a coming-of-age full of hilarious sarcasm--there's a Darjeeling Limited--a film that combined all of Anderson's quirks in the worst possizzzzzzzzzzzz...sorry, I fell asleep just thinking about it. And that's the thing about Wes Anderson: his films inspire wonderful praise or intense hatred depending on who you talk to. The Grand Budapest Hotel, his new one, has all the makings of classic Anderson: a great cast, a luscious and exotic setting, and stellar reviews. But nothing sticks. Peering into the past for a story (mainly) about the bond between a talented hotel concierge and his lobby boy, Budapest doesn't have characters as much as thinly-drawn caricatures. It's a Hotel that left me feeling vacant.
     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.
     Many other actors--like flocking birds--appear throughout The Grand Budapest Hotel: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, and the always-present-for-Anderson Jason Schwartzman. But rather than showing up to become fully (or even partially) fleshed-out characters, their purpose more-often-than not seems to be a wink at the audience. Oh, look who just popped onto the screen, Bill Murray, haha! Like in The Darjeeling Limited (Anderson's worst film), Budapest tries to be funny and clever but it rarely makes you laugh. It's full of emotional themes that could easily have some resonance but end up getting sucked below the eccentricity.
     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)