Monday, April 14, 2014

Rama-kable Fighter

‘The Raid 2: Berandal’ picks up two hours after the events depicted in ‘The Raid: Redemption’ (reviewed here:, 2011’s ‘Die Hard’ actioner starring Iko Uwais which gave the world a glimpse of the Indonesian martial art of pencak silat.  Well, not exactly.  While the first scene of the movie did pick up two hours after rookie-SWAT team cop Rama’s harrowing ordeal in the apartment complex, he wasn’t immediately thrust into another life-or-death struggle as we might expect.   Rather, he’s recruited by the super-secret Internal Affairs division of the Jakarta Police and sent on a deep-cover mission infiltrating Jakarta’s top organized crime syndicate to root out corrupt high level police officials.  Most of the events of this sequel actually occurred two years after ‘The Raid: Redemption.’
Welsh director Gareth Evans’s follow-up to his surprising sleeper hit isn’t as good as the original, but it is still an action-packed, chop-socky martial-arts film that managed to thrill and dazzle.  While the original was a gripping and tightly plotted movie from beginning to end, this sequel had pacing issues and was burdened with an overly convoluted plot.  At two-and-a-half hours, it took a while before the movie revved up the pace, and what saved it for me was that the payoff was well worth the wait.  Once again, Iko Uwais’s Rama/Yuda is a pencak silat force of nature, a ‘human tornado’ who, with his lightning fast flurries of blows and kicks, is simply irresistible to watch in action.  It’s hard to believe the fight sequences are choreographed ballets of bloodshed and death. 
Whereas ‘The Raid: Redemption’ is a martial arts ‘Die Hard,’ ‘The Raid 2' a hard-boiled crime thriller reminiscent of ‘Infernal Affairs’ and early  John Woo films.  Even more of a bloodbath than its predecessor, this movie exists in its own universe because the law-of-the-jungle world it portrays is incongruous with what we expect in a civilized society of law-and-order, but such is the nature of Asian action movies.  'The Raid 2' also has characters bordering on caricatures like those you would see in the most indulgent Quentin Tarantino movies, including a homeless bum contract killer and a pair of young assassins whom I call ‘Bat Boy’ and ‘Hammer Girl.’  Gratuitously bloody and gory, 'The Raid 2' aims to satisfy our appetite for violence on a primal level even as it mesmerizes us with its whirlwind martial-arts mayhem.

Grade: B+
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Mirror, Mirror

‘Oculus’ is one of those movies that reflect a deep disconnect between professional movie critics and the movie-going audience.  This indie, R-rated and low-budget psychological shocker starring BSG’s Katie Sackhoff earned a 72% ‘Fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus that: “With an emphasis on dread over gore and an ending that leaves the door wide open for sequels, 'Oculus' could be just the first spine-tingling chapter in a new franchise for discerning horror fans."  Regardless, its Audience rating is a lackluster 56% and Cinemascore gave it an even worse grade of ‘C,’ proving that movie watchers have no clue what a good horror movie looks like, right?
Wrong.  ‘Oculus’ is as limp and futile an exercise in suspense-building and horror filmmaking as I’ve seen in quite a while.  The subject of the movie is a not-so-scary antique mirror which purportedly has the ability to alter people’s behavior and twist their perception of reality.  However, the movie shifts so much and so confusingly between reality and what is merely perceived as ‘real’ by the movie’s two main characters, the brother and sister who try to prove that the mirror is the culprit that caused their dad to murder their mom 10 years ago while they were kids, that I stopped caring which is which halfway into the movie.  'Oculus' also recycles horror movie tropes.  The flashback scenes portraying the father’s descent into madness took a page right out of Jack Nicholson’s character in ‘The Shining,’ and the siblings’ elaborate set-up to ‘outsmart’ the mirror borrowed heavily from recent 'documentary horror' such as ‘Paranormal Activity’ and ‘The Conjuring.’ 
These transgressions might have been forgiven if writer-cum-director Mike Flanagan managed to make Kaylie and Tim Russell remotely relatable or likeable, but they're such grating personalities that it is all but impossible to even minimally invest in them sympathetically.  The siblings constantly bicker and second-guess each other throughout the movie, and rather than being paralyzed with fear or suspense I find myself paralyzed with mind-numbing apathy instead.  When the ‘shocker’ of an ending finally occurred, it actually came as something of a relief.
Grade: C-
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Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Rogers Ultimatum

I always liked Captain America.  Like Superman in the DC universe (at least, until 'Man of Steel' made him darker), Cap represents a world view from a bygone era, one that's almost naively simple and black-and-white in today's world.  However, I was disappointed with Joe Johnston's 'Captain America: The First Avenger' back in 2011.  Even for one unfamiliar with Captain America's WWII-era backstory, the movie seemed to drag on and on.  There's also a certain malaise and perfunctoriness to the action scenes in which the good Captain led his dirty dozen, the 'Howling Commandos,' in their fight against HYDRA henchmen and their leader Red Skull, sapping any sense of excitement. 

When I saw the trailer for this second installment in the Captain America trilogy, I knew it is a completely different animal from its predecessor.  And boy, was it ever!  'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' delivers the goods, folks.  It is suspenseful, action-packed and doesn't shy away from tackling topical political issues in our post-911 world.  It's 'Three Days of the Condor' meets 'The Bourne Ultimatum' in the Marvel Universe.  Tapping into our fears of Big Brother Government, TWS is a conspiracy/espionage thriller, fugitive movie, and superhero film all rolled into one.  After a slow burning-but-suspenseful initial build-up culminating in a thrilling car chase involving Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the movie shifts into non-stop overdrive as Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff and (later) Sam Wilson try to unravel the Grand Conspiracy in order to save the world in the name of Freedom and Justice for All.

Unlike 'The First Avenger,' the action sequences in TWS are gritty and realistic, filled with brutal close-in hand-to-hand combat like those you've seen in James Bond and Jason Bourne movies of recent vintage.  There's also a more interesting cast of characters in TWS, as Chris Evan's Cap is joined by Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, whom we've seen previously in 'The Avengers' and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), not to mention HIMYM's Cobie Smulders and Emily VanCamp of 'Revenge' as S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives Maria Hill and Sharon Carter/Agent 13, respectively. Then there's the villain of the movie himself, the titular master assassin known as 'Winter Soldier' (Sebastian Stan), who proved to be a match for Captain America and then some. 

Grade: A
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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Quick Bites

They're back!  It's been awhile since I posted one of these mini-reviews.  Because sometimes I don't feel like writing long rambling reviews any more than you want to read them. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel:  Wes Anderson’s latest film retelling the unlikely adventures of a hotel concierge and his lobby boy protégé is a joyous and delightful piece of cinematic confection set in a fictional winter wonderland that is not in any part of Hungary, despite the movie’s name.  A rollicking tale with a great ensemble cast including Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum and Harvey Keitel, TGBH is also an homage to old-fashioned moviemaking.  Take note of the silent film-style ‘title cards’ used to delineate the various parts of the movie, for instance.  With the too-quirky-for-some TGBH, director Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Darjeeling Limited, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore) has firmly put himself in the company of other eccentric visionaries like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and Tarsem Singh. 

Grade: A
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Bad Words:  Jason Bateman’s directorial debut is a surprisingly good indie black comedy with an interesting premise, even if it’s short on guffaws: A 40-year old proofreader of product fine prints and warranties exploits a loophole to enter a spelling bee intended for kids.  What a douchebag he is, too.  It’s not enough that he’s nearly 30 years older than the average contestant, but he will also stoop to any level to win (like putting ketchup on the chair of a chubby girl and telling her that she’s ‘blossoming' in somewhat less flowery words).  As despicable as his character Guy Trilby is, it’s refreshing to see Bateman portray someone who's the exact opposite of what we’ve seen him play mostly thus far: straight-arrow, middle-aged tie-wearing office drones who were victimized in ‘Identity Thief,’ ‘Horrible Bosses’ and ‘Arrested Development.’  Luckily, Trilby turned out to have a heart after all when he befriends a 12-year old Indian-American boy, and their final head-to-head match-up for the spelling bee title is one for the aegis. 

Grade: B+
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Sabotage:  Arnold Schwarzenegger just can’t catch a break.  ‘Sabotage’ marks his third straight box-office stinker since his return to Hollywood from politics, following ‘The Last Stand’ and ‘Escape Plan.’  I had high hopes for ‘Sabotage’ because it was directed by David Ayer (‘Training Day,’ ‘End of Watch’) and its preview trailer displayed the same gritty  ‘Cops’-style docudrama vibe of the underrated mean-streets-of-Los Angeles cop thriller ‘End of Watch.’  Unfortunately, this movie was sabotaged by a bad script, unbelievable plot, bad acting and one-dimensional characters whom you despise, including Schwarzenegger’s John ‘Breacher’ Wharton, the leader and father figure of an elite Drug Enforcement Agency SWAT team comprised of foul-mouthed, maladjusted white-trash (and one black in Terrence Howard) who constantly bicker and can't stand one another.  The elements that made ‘End of Watch’ so likeable (the chemistry and camaraderie between Gyllenhaal’s and Peña’s LAPD cops, plus the sweet romance between Gyllenhaal and Anna Kendrick) are sorely missing in ‘Sabotage,’ leaving this movie little more than an empty exercise in über-violence and gore. 

Grade: C
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