THE RAID 2: BERANDAL Review: When More Is Less

The Raid 2 PosterThe movie sequel.  Historically speaking, it’s almost as old as the movie itself.  To make a sequel - especially one that follows-up a popular title or cult classic - is a temptation from both artistic and financial perspectives.  The former can allow the creator of the original material to go places narratively that they might not have had the opportunity (read: budget) to visit with the original installment.  Or maybe it can allow a new filmmaker to put their own spin on old material.

From a financial perspective, if a film is a hit, a sequel will (for the most part) guarantee an automatic financial draw from fans of the original installment, meaning the studio releasing the film is taking less of a financial risk.  The film is the brand, the sequel its product.

And with every sequel comes the hope that the execution and reception of the film is closer to that of 1974′s The Godfather: Part II than it is to that of 1987′s Teen Wolf Too.  In almost all cases, it’s somewhere in between.

According to MovieInsider.com, there are 30 major sequels slated for release in 2014.  As of this writing, eight of those have already been released.  As of this past Sunday, I had only seen one: the excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  As of this past Monday, I doubled that tally with a screening of The Raid 2: Berandal.  The original film, 2011′s The Raid: Redemption, has the artistic punch and the rabid fan-base that has made it ripe for a sequel since the day the film opened.  The new day – and the new film – has finally arrived.

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Beginning mere hours after the conclusion of The Raid: Redemption, that film’s protagonist, Rama (Iko Uwais), is recruited to infiltrate a mob family by endearing himself to the boss’ son, Uco (Arifin Putra).  His incentive? If he doesn’t do it, his police mentor, Bunawar (Cok Simbara), cannot protect Rama’s wife, child, or father from the people who want to remove from existence anyone affiliated with the events of (the first film).  Rama reluctantly agrees, but there is a problem: Uco is in jail, so Rama must get himself arrested and spend his two years behind bars – and away from his family, who has no idea where he is – making friends with the criminal.  Once released from jail, Rama’s mission is simple: weed out corrupt cops from the inside.

Rama, acting as Uco’s right-hand man, soon learns more is going on than he bargained for. Uco is growing impatient to take over the family from his father, and making bad decisions to expedite that process.

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Unlike more popular sequels of today (sequels that are probably better described as chapters of a greater overall story, like The Hunger Games and the MCU/Avengers franchise), The Raid 2: Berandal is a high-octane action sequel structured in the classic ’80s high-octane action sequel mold. It cashes-in on the popularity of its predecessor, it slaps a number after its title, you do not have to have seen the first film to understand the second, and it has a direct connection to the original film (by way of the lead character and a couple of peripheral characters). Like almost all sequels (’80s action or otherwise), though, this one is also inferior to its predecessor. Unfortunately, what diminishes it when compared to the first installment is what also hurts it as a stand-alone film.

One of the things writer/director/editor Gareth Evans attempts to do with this sequel is to make it bigger than the original – bigger in both narrative and visual scope.

In the original film, the plot is simple: Rama enters the building, fights his way upstairs, and tries to get the bad guy. There is a small but interesting subplot about police corruption, a pair of innocent bystanders who are placed at risk, and a compelling twist (no spoilers) that turns the film into more than a video game; there are real consequences for Rama’s actions other than his own safety and who wins or loses. The simple, straight-forward, and compelling story is just as critical to the film’s success as the action is because it never gets in the way of that action. Instead, it gives the action a vehicle.

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Not so with the sequel. Evans opts to raise the narrative stakes by abandoning the intimacy found in the story of the first film and instead attempting to craft a major Asian crime epic. As a writer, he isn’t up to the task of that scope. The plot – about crime and corruption, fathers and sons, and trust and betrayl – has been done before, and often, and to greater effect, by filmmakers with far better storytelling skills (from in and out of Asia). Not only is the overall story here murky, the dialogue is uninteresting to the point of being forgettable and parts of the storyline are woefully underdeveloped or simply forgotten. But the greatest sin to this bigger approach is that so much time is spent developing the parts of the story where Rama is nothing more than a witness as opposed to being the protagonist. Any sense of what Rama is thinking or feeling about his predicament is mostly overshadowed by the larger dialogue-heavy parts of the story … until it’s time for him to fight, of course.

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This clunky, sometimes arduous narrative (creating an unnecessarily doughy running time of 150 minutes) also gets in the way of the action, instead of advancing the story to the action. In the original film, breaks in action were moments for characters and viewers alike to catch their collective breath. Here, it’s mostly breathing that takes place, with spikes of action peppered in, at least in the first two thirds of the film (the final third is heavily action-loaded). Overall, though, the action falls victim to the same problem the story does: trying to go bigger.

The most mesmerizing aspect of the original film is the action, but not simply the volume and intensity of it all. What really sells it is how much action takes place in such confined spaces. The film is practically claustrophobic, with epic battles between scores of men taking place in small rooms and stairwells and hallways. In this sequel, that happens, and those are the best sequences in the bunch, but there are too few of these moments.  There is an early confrontation in a bathroom stall, a fight in a hallway, one in a kitchen, and a fight inside a car. These battles are intense and even the car chase that follows the fight has great claustrophobic elements, as the streets are perilously busy. (That entire spectacular car sequence is one for the history books.)

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But there are larger-scale battles, too – one in a muddy prison courtyard, one in a nightclub, one in the street – that lack any sense of excitement, and feel like they were put there as a way for Evans to show he can choreograph and film bigger battles. He can’t, or at least he needs to work on it; those sequences are the worst of the film and another detriment in a tale already encumbered with other issues.

Perhaps feeling unencumbered by the tight nature of his first film, Evans also throws in some things that feel like inserts for shock value (a gender-bending porn shoot) or gimmicky characters like Baseball Bat Man (who uses an aluminum bat and a baseball as his weapons of choice) and Hammer Girl (a deaf-mute who uses claw hammers as her weapons).  Baseball Bat Man and Hammer Girl?  This isn’t a superhero movie. Evans then gets too clever by half and takes Hammer Girl’s potentially spectacular train battle and all but ruins it when he edits it into pieces and interweaves it with the slower, sillier exploits of Baseball Bat Man.

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Julie Estelle (HG) and Very Tri Yulisman (BBM) do very well as – what? – the Dynamic Duet, but for how intense the film is and how serious it tries to be, they feel like they should be in lighter, wire-fu fare.  (Forgive me for mentioning this, but when Baseball Bat Man actually does the Babe Ruth point at his victim, I laughed out loud for all the wrong reasons.)

Let me be clear: Gareth Evans is a sensational martial arts director, and both Raid films contain some of the best fight choreography, direction, and (most importantly) editing that I’ve seen. The filmmakers even displays a nice artistic eye with some impressive wide shots and selective use of slow-motion in this installment. But overall, the film starts sagging 15 minutes in and doesn’t get mean and lean again until near the end.

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The Raid 2: Berandal‘s inferiority to its predecessor is not for lack of trying. Unlike many sequels that look to milk franchises for money rather than attempt to make good films, this one actually tries – and hard – to be an improvement on the first. It simply doesn’t have what it takes to do that, substituting bigger for better, with the net result being a mediocre film with some great moments.

3Star

DOM HEMINGWAY Review: Sometimes Bad Is Bad

Dom Hemingway PosterEverybody loves a good bad guy, and Hollywood history is full of great ones representing all eras and genres:

- 1930s horror: Bela Lugosi as 1931′s titular Dracula
- 1940s noir: Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in 1944′s Double Indemnity
- 1950s drama: Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsacker in 1957′s Sweet Smell of Success
- 1960s horror: Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in 1960′s Psycho
- 1970s sci-fi: David Prowse as Darth Vader in 1977′s Star Wars
- 1980s action: Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in 1988′s Die Hard (my personal favorite)
- 1990s horror: Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in 1991′s The Silence of the Lambs
- 2000s superhero: Heath Ledger as The Joker in 2008′s The Dark Knight

What makes these and other villains so great is that they are compelling, often layered characters that are sometimes charming and always evil, and we either love them or love to hate them.  In either case, love is involved, and while we might want the good guys to win at the end of the film, if something should happen so that the bad guys win, well, that wouldn’t be so bad after all.

I tend to think the leading bad guy of the 2010s is Tom Hiddleston‘s Loki from 2012′s superhero blockbuster, The Avengers (as well as from other MCU titles), but there is a lot of decade left.  The latest entrant in the “Am I A Charming Bad Guy?” contest is the title character of director Richard Shepard‘s latest film, Dom Hemingway.

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As the film opens, Dom Hemingway (Jude Law) is released from jail after serving 12 years for an undisclosed crime.  His first major course of action is to reunite with his criminal partner, Dickie Black (Richard E. Grant).  The two men travel to France so that their Russian boss, Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir), can financially compensate Hemingway for being a stand-up guy; Hemingway did his time and didn’t drop dime on anyone.

But at the villa, things don’t go quite as Hemingway had planned, and the baddie finds himself looking for new work with a new boss.  Meanwhile, Hemingway also has some unfinished business with a daughter whom he hasn’t seen in over a decade.

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I was a little misleading in my summary of the Dom Hemingway.  It actually opens shortly before Hemingway is released from jail.  He is receiving oral sex from a fellow inmate and throughout the entire encounter, he rambles incessantly about the glory that is his erect penis.  Is it funny at first?  A little. But he prattles on and on and on about it, and it’s in this scene that you learn almost everything you need to know about the character: he maintains an off-the-charts level of self-absorption and he never shuts up about it.

Oh, while I’m being honest here, his first MAJOR course of action when he is released from jail is reuniting with Dickie and getting his money, but his true first course of action is to go to the workplace of the man who eventually married Hemingway’s ex-wife (and helped raise his daughter) and beat the living hell out of the guy who got with his wife, even though he was in jail and he and his wife were in the middle of a divorce.  NOW you know everything you need to know: Hemingway is a narcissistic gasbag with a violent streak (oh, who can’t hold his liquor despite his extolling the virtues of his own liver, clearly his second favorite organ).

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The filmmakers cast their lot with a screenplay that thinks violent + egotistical + bombastic = charming.  It’s bad math.  It’s like they’re trying to make Dom both the setup: the erudite hothead bad guy … and the punch line: one with no sense of when to adjust his own volume and/or when to simply shut up.  What they fail to realize is that just as speaking louder to a foreigner won’t make them understand your language more, speaking louder (and more verbosely) to your audience won’t make you more funny.

Making matters worse is that the film has no narrative whatsoever, and with 93 minutes to fill, it becomes a series of sketches that asks, “What kind of trouble can Dom Hemingway get himself into and out of next?”  And into and out of trouble is what Dom gets best, and he has no one to blame but himself, because Dom Hemingway is the only person Dom Hemingway cares about (yes, he often refers to himself – sigh – in the third person).  So, when the time comes for him to attempt to make something of his failed relationship with his daughter (way too late in the film), it rings entirely untrue because his character is completely self-absorbed with exactly zero redeeming qualities.

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The film is not without some small merit.  Grant is quite good as Dickie, really the only friend that Dom has.  He plays the role with great subtlety and gives Law all the room he needs to make Hemingway the center of attention.  As for Law, there isn’t a piece of scenery he doesn’t gnaw on, and he does the best with what he has to work with, but when the character is deplorable and the comedic material is unfunny and the dramatic material is disingenuous, an actor can only do so much.  There is a very entertaining scene late in the film where Hemingway must crack a high-tech safe in ten minutes (or else suffer the loss of his favorite organ), but that’s like saying the dessert was good on a sinking ship.

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Dom Hemingway is made like its being targeted for teenage boys in the 1980s: it has lots of foul language, plenty of violence and substance abuse, and a few topless hookers.  It substitutes humor with shock and plot with situations, with the pre-requisite, late-film attempt at conscience and morality.

Unlike those ’80s types of films, the cast (at least at the head of the list) is top-notch.  But like those ’80s types of films, this one is destined to wind up at the bottom of a bargain bin.

1star

 

OCULUS Review: Reflecting on the Past

Oculus PosterThe history of film is full of horror movies that are centered on something being haunted (or possessed or controlled) by an evil force.  Sometimes it’s a person, sometimes it’s an entire house, and sometimes it’s an object.  Objects Of Evil include, but certainly aren’t limited to, specific rooms in a house (the attic, the basement, a closet), dolls, books, televisions, cars, and so on.  My favorite horror film Object Of Evil is the mirror.

I like the mirror as the Object Of Evil (either as a possessed object or as a portal to hell and other such nasty places) because of what a mirror represents to us in our everyday lives.  For many, a mirror is an object of vanity.  Even people who are not narcissists at least use mirrors to make sure they look okay.  Evil never looks okay and never wants to look okay, so the object that gives someone a little self-confidence or a little reassurance is, in a horror movie, the antithesis of that.  For others, a mirror is an object of self-loathing.  Many people have a poor body image or are unhappy with some physical aspect or attribute of themselves.  Evil feeds on unhappiness.

Ultimately, mirrors are a reflection of the people who look in them – happy or sad, content or dissatisfied, proud or disappointed.  So when an evil force manifests itself in or via something that is a reflection of the person looking in it, is that evil force really an evil force, or the true nature of the person looking into it?

You see now why I like mirrors in horror films.  It’s just one reason why I like Oculus.

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A decade ago, youngsters Kaylie and Tim Russell (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) suffered the ultimate childhood loss when their parents, Alan and Marie (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff), were murdered in their house.  The children were witnesses.  In the aftermath, Tim was institutionalized while Kaylie went through the foster home system.

Ten years later, newly-minted adult Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has been given a clean bill of mental health by his doctors and he is discharged from the hospital.  Awaiting him is his now-23-year-old sister (Karen Gillan).  No sooner is Tim out of the hospital, Kaylie is holding him to their lofty childhood promise that they would never forget what happened when they were kids: that an evil spirit was the cause of their parents’ death, and that that evil spirit manifested itself through an antique mirror that their father had bought just weeks before the tragedy.

Despite adult Kaylie’s acquisition of the mirror; despite her incredibly thorough research on the piece and the tragedy that befell its previous owners; and despite her Ghostbusters-for-the-21st-century set-up in their old house (which again contains the mirror placed in the same spot as when they were kids), Tim is incredulous, offering arguments both scientific and logical against the notion of evil spirits.  But when things start to happen that first night in the house, Tim wonders if his logical memory is actually deceiving him.

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Calling Oculus a horror movie feels like one of those instances where you need to assign it a primary genre in the interest of putting it in the most fitting section of the video store.  Yes, it is a horror film first, and a very good one, although it’s mostly the creepy kind of horror.  Granted, it has its startling moments and bloody moments, but the creep factor outranks the others, both visually and by way of the story itself.

Beyond the horror aspect of the film, it has an efficient procedural component.  Kaylie, having had a decade to plan how she would lure and combat the evil spirit she believes possesses the mirror, has done exhaustive research on the previous owners and presents their stories to her brother like a prosecutor building a case against an evil defendant.  She also takes numerous precautionary measures to protect herself and her brother, as well as some tactical steps to understand the spirit’s range and location.  Almost all of it is handled – and well – in one large scene.  To have tried to communicate that much detail into the other activities going on would have been clumsy and would have hindered the rest of the story.

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The quality writing from director/writer/editor Mike Flanagan and co-screenwriter Jeff Howard continues as it weaves an intellectual thread into the film in the form of a debate between the siblings about the spirit world vs. the real world which, when you think about it, essentially represents a debate about faith vs. science.  The exchange is passionate and never really resolved (although, because it’s a horror movie, of course Kaylie wins the debate).

But the best aspect of the film is how it plays like a thriller.  Unlike other horror films, where you already know the past when the present begins, this film tells you the siblings’ stories in parallel – past and present.  Throughout the film, there are flashbacks to when the siblings were kids.  This is where Flanagan takes off his “good director” and “very good writer” hats and puts on his “excellent editor” hat.  The transitions from past to present and back again are seamless and coherent, and as the film gains momentum and a torrent of action is unleashed in the third act, Flanagan maintains the parallel storytelling style, at times even overlapping the two stories as if they are happening simultaneously.  This is difficult to pull off and Flanagan does it masterfully.

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Among the players, everyone is perfectly fine, with Cochrane portraying quite well the unravelling father.  But it’s Gillan who is the star of the film and a standout by a mile.  Whether as preacher or prosecutor, sister or ghost hunter, woman-in-charge or damsel-in-distress, or even some combination of those, she delivers.  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how the camera loves her (even with a mouthful of blood).  Cinematographer Michael Fimognari recognizes this and capitalizes on it, lighting her perfectly but never exploiting her.  She is no bubble-headed Scream Queen, but rather a fully realized female lead.  This acting strength, combined with her popularity from her stint on TV’s Doctor Who (as Amy Pond) and her upcoming role in Guardians of the Galaxy (of the Marvel Cinematic Universe), positions Gillan to take her career to the next level.

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Throw in a very good, seat-rumbling score from The Newton Brothers, as well as one of the best endings to a horror film I’ve seen, and you have Oculus: a good scare, a great thrill, and the horror film to beat in 2014.

4stars