Friday, April 11, 2014

THE RAID 2: BERANDAL (2014) - A Review
This picks up two hours after the events of the first film, so we'd better start there...
The Raid: Redemption (2011) was all about an elite group of police officers in Jakarta who are tasked with taking down a crime boss who is holed up in a high rise apartment building - or, as the tagline for the film said: "1 Ruthless Crime Lord. 20 Elite Cops. 30 Floors of Chaos." The good guys soon find that getting into the building was easy, but that getting out is extremely difficult, since the bad guys lock down the entire building once they're in. This leads to an hour and a half of non-stop action and mayhem, at the end of which only two of the good guys walk (well, limp) away. One of those two is Rama (Iko Uwais), who we meet again two hours later...
...When one of his fellow police officers explains that, since Rama (Uwais again) is alive, the bad guys from the first film will want to hunt him and his family down. So it's pitched to him that the best thing he could do is to immediately go undercover - in prison, no less - to infiltrate the Jakarta syndicate and help bring them down from the inside. Rama is understandably reluctant to do so, but, because he fears for his family's safety, he agrees. He's told he'll only have to spend a few months in prison to establish himself with the crooks. Cue the title card that says it's two years later...Rama gets sprung and taken into the fold of the mob run by Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo). Rama had saved Bangun's hotheaded son, Uco (Arifin Putra), from being killed during a riot in the prison, an act which made Bangun grateful to Rama, even if he doesn't trust him entirely.
Of course, Rama isn't getting much help from his contact on the police force, either, and he's still furious that he wound up spending two years in prison. So, stuck in his new role for the duration, Rama tries to navigate the Jakarta underworld from the inside - and tries to keep Uco from breaking the truce between his family and the Japanese Goto clan.
There's more to it than that, but I trust you get the idea. At two and a half hours in length, this film unfolds in an unhurried fashion, yet is always moving forward. Films longer than two hours are a tough sell for me, but I was engaged with this all the way through. Yes, it is extremely violent in parts, but it's nothing like the essentially non-stop carnage in the first film. Other than continuing with the character of Rama, this is a very different film from the first one, which is a refreshing change from the usual sequel that is often just a remake/retread of whatever came before.

As with the first film, this was written and directed by Gareth Evans, who is inexplicably but wonderfully a Welshman working in Indonesia (again), this time with a cast that is pretty much all Indonesian and Japanese. Though I really, really hate how blurry digital photography looks whenever there's swift movement, I give Evans credit for doing a good job of keeping things fairly easy to follow, even in the midst of chaos. Even in the prison riot sequence, in which everyone involved is instantly covered in mud, Evans makes it clear who is who, and how all the flailing, fighting bodies relate to one another spatially. I also give him credit for avoiding action movie clichés in his soundtrack (no cliché grating loud rock during fight scenes) and for often choosing to slow things down for a spell, rather than try to keep the entire film going at a hectic tempo.
But hectic moments do occur fairly regularly, and action fans (like my wife, who squealed throughout the film) should be very pleased with this. There are car chases, gun fights, knife fights, hammer fights, and all sorts of very impressive martial arts work and hand-to-hand combat (co-choreographed by Uwais, a professional in pencak silat, or Indonesian martial arts). Much has been made of the elevator fight scene in the recent Captain America sequel, with Cap fighting a whole gang of baddies in that tight space. Well, Uwais totally tops that here in his first big fight scene - a fight in which he takes on about a dozen angry inmates in a toilet stall. There's also not one, but two fights in cars; a fight in a mom and pop restaurant, and in a big commercial kitchen; a fight in a subway car; a fight in a nightclub. The action scenes (though blurry) are really impressive, and very physical in the truest sense of the word.
Actually, comparisons to the new Captain America movie are appropriate. Both are second films in a series. Both are lengthy action films containing many of the stock materials used to construct such things (fist fights, gun fights, car chases, etc.). And both focus on lead characters who are unquestionably good, but who are stuck in a position of fighting evil on one hand, while quite possibly being undermined by some of their so-called allies on the other side as well.
But whereas the second Captain America feels like product turned out for an increasingly global market, The Raid 2 is full of the energy and passion of people creating something that they love. Though its central storyline is one that has been used many times before, the film feels fresh, alive and vital. As pure spectacle, the (mostly) real bodies used to create the impressive (mostly) real action in The Raid 2 absolutely trumps the cliché, CGI fireballs and flying ships that provide so many of the "thrills" in massive and expensive Hollywood film product. The fact that Evans and Uwais were able to turn out such an utterly ballistic and satisfying film on a budget that had to be a tiny fraction of what they spent on Captain America: The Winter Soldier is also worth noting, and something to give them a great deal of credit for. 
I was delighted to see that this was coming to our local multiplex. In the year that I've lived here, I have never seen them buy an ad in our local newspaper - until today, when I spotted a small ad just for this film. My wife and I went to the first show. Besides us, there was just one other person there. I suspect that the theater booked it because of the large number of Asian and international students that we have here. Unfortunately, this is opening here the same weekend that many of the Asian student associations are having their big annual events (India Night, Japan Night, Vietnamese Night), keeping lots of said students busy. Hopefully the attendance will pick up, because this is a great film that deserves to be seen, and to do well. As soon as we were out of the theater, my wife said she'd like to see it again. I would too.
P.S. - "Berandal" means thug...

Monday, April 7, 2014

MICKEY ROONEY (1920-2014) - A Tribute
What can you say about Mickey Rooney that hasn't been said already? The guy had a true one-of-a-kind life, in addition to a remarkably long life and lengthy career. He was well and truly woven into the historical fabric of 20th century America.

Mickey was one of the rare child stars who went on to become an adult star. And he didn't just become an adult star, for several years at his peak he was the star, ranked Number One at the American box office. His films as Andy Hardy and co-starring with Judy Garland are icons of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
He didn't just make a movie with Clark Gable - he played Gable's character as a child in 1934's Manhattan Melodrama. This was also the movie John Dillinger watched at the Biograph Theater just before he was shot down by the feds. Twenty-two years later, Mickey played real-life gangster Baby Face Nelson in the 1957 film of that name. Nelson and Dillinger had been cohorts, and Nelson was also shot dead by the feds in 1934. How's that for a weird full circle?
Mickey's first wife was Ava Gardner. Just that alone would be enough for a lifetime for most men.
But, in the end, Mickey had eight wives total. His fortunes went through numerous booms and busts.
Mickey was on the cover of Time magazine.

Mickey made great A pictures, and some memorable B pictures, and a few truly whacked out wonders like The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960 - he played the Devil and co-directed the picture) and the awful/wonderful Skidoo (1968).
Mickey was a hit in the movies, and on Broadway.
Mickey sang and danced and acted and wrote and directed.
Sir Laurence Olivier once referred to him as the greatest film actor America ever produced.
And on and on and on - and then on some more. Mickey Rooney in many ways embodied the expression too much is never enough.

Tonight, to mark his passing, we'll be watching him in my favorite of his films, the excellent domino noir, Quicksand (1950). I think it's one of his best dramatic roles, and it was made smack in the middle of the century he straddled like few others. (In Quicksand, Mickey has one scene with a young Jack Elam, whom I used to see almost every morning at a bakery I worked at. So for a time, I guess I was just a couple of degrees of separation from Mickey...)

I'm not going to lie and say the Mickey Rooney was ever one of my favorite performers, but I absolutely recognize and respect his place in American film history, and American history in general. He led a life in the movies, and a life that was like a movie.
Rest in peace, Mickey. I hope that Ava's there to give you a kiss.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

BAD WORDS (2013)
A Double Feature Review
In a giant multiplex setting, let's just say there are sometimes opportunities for creating your own double feature experience. So yesterday, my wife and I saw this noting-in-common combo.
First Captain America, and the goods parts therein. In movies based on comic books, the character of Captain America is probably second only to Superman in being a difficult one to portray in a way that isn't fairly corny. Literally a man out of his time, and an honestly honest and gee-whiz decent person, Captain America/Steve Rogers provides a tough balancing act for an actor. Chris Evens, once again, finds that balance. He is honest without being hokey; patriotic without being a prick about it. I don't really know if he's a great actor or not, but in this role, he does very commendable work. Anthony Mackie, as Cap's new friend and sidekick Sam Wilson AKA the Falcon, also did a good job in a somewhat thankless role. He and Evans (after a nicely set up "meet cute") have a good, believable chemistry, one which will doubtlessly serve the series well as it moves forward.
As for the rest of the film...Well, it was...okay. I thought the first Captain America movie was one of the best Marvel-based films made. It had to introduce multiple characters, straddle time periods between World War II and the upcoming Avengers movie, and generally keep quite a few balls in the air all at once - which it did. The sequel, however, seems far too content to rely on CGI effects blowing things up. Just like the second Thor film, this one, especially the "big" climax, feels like a case of deja vu all over again. The entire world in jeopardy? Check. Giant ships and superheroes battling in the skies over a major city? Check. Flames and destruction raining down on said city? Check. And color me somewhat checked out at this point, y'know?
With the plot here, as stated above, once again placing the whole world in peril (due to the machinations of the secret society Hydra, whose members have infiltrated the world-protecting S.H.I.E.L.D. organization), this films runs into the problem that often vexed characters in comic books: When the safety of the entire world is on the line, why don't these heroes ever call in their fellow (and more powerful) superhero friends? As I watched Captain America and the Black Widow running hither and yon trying to stop Hydra's evil plans, I just kept wondering, "Why doesn't Cap call Iron Man? Or the Hulk? Or..."
Not to worry, of course, since Cap manages to save the day (and the planet) in the end. Now, I don't wish to sound ungrateful for all that, but, I still left feeling a little cheated. For the character of Captain America, this felt a lot like a holding pattern, aside from introducing the Falcon. In terms of the larger, collective Avengers story arc, this didn't advance that at all. And, I'm sorry, but, I still don't buy Scarlett Johansson as a Russian, as an assassin, as a superhero, or anyone to take at all seriously in this context. (I swear she was chewing gum in several scenes.)

What will be interesting to see moving forward though, is how all these interlocking characters and plots evolve. There have been superhero franchises before, but they've always been standalones. Thus, when they ran their course (creatively and/or financially) the studios have just rebooted the character(s) involved and started over again. But that won't be possible here. Now that Cap and the Hulk and Thor and everyone else are all playing together, it's hard to imagine Marvel Studios just deciding to pull, say, Iron Man out and start all over again with the character. So far as I know, this is uncharted territory for Hollywood. Though the Marvel films have been a very mixed bag, I am curious to see how this dynamic plays out over the coming years.
Moving on now...
Generally, I think if you've made a film that really only has ten or fifteen killer minutes in it, it's probably best to put those minutes near the end, to finish on a high note, and send the audience out satisfied.
Unfortunately for Bad Words, what I think were the best ten minutes of the film were the first ten minutes of the film. The very first line had me laughing, and I was hopeful that I was seeing the start of a little gem. But, though there were other bright moments spread throughout the film, it didn't even come close to maintaining the promise of its own opening. The heavy hand of having to have "likeable characters" and a "happy ending" were obviously clamped down on this production.

Directed by and starring Jason Bateman, Bad Words tells the story of Guy Trilby (Bateman), who, for reasons unknown, has found a loophole that allows him to compete in a national spelling bee intended for children. In the beginning, Guy is presented as being, at best, a difficult person to like. His notably unsympathetic character was, in my opinion, a real strength in the first third of the film. The fact that he was acting on unknown motives was also engaging. It was possible to imagine any number of fairly dark things driving him, which only added to the film's initial black comedy appeal.
Ah, but then...We are introduced to one of his rivals in the spelling bee, nine-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand, who does do a very good job of being annoyingly adorable). Guy's initial responses to the chirpy Chaitanya are rude, crude and dismissive. But soon enough, the kid is worming his way into Guy's heart, which severely weakens the bleak, black heart of the film itself. By the time that we learn Guy's motive for entering the spelling bee, Bad Words has pretty much run out of steam.
But it never does quite run out of sexism, sadly. This film definitely doesn't pass the Bechdel Test. (Google it if you're not familiar with it.) Though Kathryn Hahn has some nice moments as the "reporter" covering Guy's progress, there were problems with much of the rest of the film. Though both of Chaitanya's parents are seen, and described as having a keen interest in their son's performance in the spelling bee, only his father gets any dialogue. His mother is seen but not never speaks. The only black woman with a speaking part in the film plays a street whore who exposes her breasts for Chaitanya. And so it goes.
What started out as a potentially nicely nasty black comedy ends up being much closer to a standard crude and sexist male farce with an artificial overlay of sentimentality. It's always a shame to see talent wasted, but that's what you get here. Hopefully Hollywood will eventually grow out of its current juvenile male period - especially given the ever-increasing body of evidence showing how having strong female characters helps films at the box office. But you know...I'm not gonna hold my breath waiting.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Well, from one side of the Iron Curtain to another, and to a rocket of a different type. I'd seen the dubbed American version of this before, in various lousy, faded, cropped prints. (You can also see part of it in the 1980 film Galaxina.) But seeing the restored, letterboxed original was a much more enjoyable experience.

Der Schweigende Stern was the first science fiction film made in East Germany, which makes it noteworthy in and of itself. Though a little slow as science fiction, there are a number of things that make it very much worth seeing, either as a historical footnote or a so-so piece of entertainment.

But first, the story. In the near future, scientists are puzzling over a mysterious artifact found in the debris of the famous Tunguska explosion - an artifact that appears to have been manufactured by extraterrestrials. After determining that the object must have come from Venus, a spaceship is launched there to investigate. But the bad news is (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!) that a message contained on the artifact is, in fact, a declaration of war on the Earth, and, it turns out that the very presence of the human astronauts on Venus activates the doomsday weapon aimed at Earth.

Now, as I've said, some of this film is just bad sci-fi silly. I can think of no reason for the members of the space team to each have different colored spacesuits, other than to show off the admittedly beautiful Agfacolor used in the film. The remarkably slow-talking, chess-playing robot is pretty corny. And the rocket launch pad located in the middle of a grassy field...Well, let's just say I could see a lot of fire and security hazards with such a set-up.

And most of the first two-thirds of the film are pretty talky, with the introduction of the plot, the various characters, and the journey to Venus. Once there, the film features some great sets, some nice sound effects and music, and some truly trippy and surreal visuals that were way ahead of their time. Not exactly what you might expect from a stolid East German studio.

Given that it is from an East German studio, and was made post-Sputnik in the middle of the Cold War, Der Schweigende Stern does contain what probably counts as propaganda, but, in my opinion, gives it a soft sell that actually makes it more effective. For one thing, the dialogue often subtly makes it clear that, in this particular future, Communist countries are seen as legitimate and valued players on the global stage. Their ideology is presented as being both intellectual and inclusive.

Thus, it's taken for granted that the Germans will take a leadership role in the cooperative efforts to unravel this mystery. When the crew for the journey to Venus is assembled, it is made up not only of scientists (men and women) from Germany and Poland, but also from Japan, Africa and the U.S. In this way, the film is once again ahead of its time, and resembles the one-of-everything casting that has become much more common in Hollywood genre films today.

Now, to repeat, if your personal definition of science fiction needs to include cool robots or lots of action, then this is probably not the movie for you. This leans more towards the cerebral, with some nice surreal special effects near the end, just so you'll know you've been to Venus. I was reminded at times of the Andrei Tarkovsky film, Solaris (1972), which makes a certain sense, since both films are based on novels by Polish author Stanislaw Lem. I don't think that Der Schweigende Stern is something I need to see again anytime soon, but it is an interesting film with much to offer students of film and/or the Cold War.