Ramping Up

Yes, my writing contract is finally renewed/resurrected/whatever. No, my entry did not win the focus group sweepstakes. I’ll still be writing it, as the scope of the project has expanded. I’m being literally literal about that: My entry, which was once a diverting little Twilight Zone-type yarn, has suddenly become an end-of-the-universe tale. Trying to wrap my head around that has been… entertaining. The conflict which the story’s previous version was based upon now seems rather trivial. Except the characters are the same, and it’s not trivial to them.

I’d be in more of a tizzy if I hadn’t just spent a half-hour at the local washateria (turns out 25 year-old washing machines can suddenly decide to just not work. Who knew?) and that half hour was spent with MP3s blaring through earbuds and yours truly scrawling out four pages worth of handwritten story notes. This might turn out to be not so bad.

Many times I find I can come across the solution to a problem by not thinking about it. So I didn’t think about it by watching a couple of movies that were pretty much diametrically opposed in their audiences, except where those two audiences intersected, ie., me.

The-Raid-2-Australian-poster_JPG.jpgThe first was The Raid 2. I have rhapsodized about its predecessor and its predecessor’s predecessor, so this was inevitable. I was down with the flu the one friggin’ week this was playing at cinemas, thanks a lot Sony. Finally, it came out on blu-ray – of course, the month I was beyond broke. Thank God for Next Projection and a promotional giveaway, which I won, and was finally – finally! – able to watch it.

The words holy and shit get used a lot when you’re watching The Raid 2. Also ow and oof and gaaaaaaah. If you consider The Raid and The Raid 2 as one long story – which it is – and if you get a bit delusional and consider that one long story to be a toothpaste tube, with plot being the toothpaste, then all the plot toothpaste got squeezed over to the Raid 2 end. If you want to find any nits to pick, it would be that the plot is very familiar.

The Raid‘s Rama (Iko Uwais) finds out that surviving the first movie has put himself and his family in real danger. There is a very large portion of the police force that is corrupt, and he finds himself on a very small task force that is bent toward taking the bad cops down. To this end, Rama is sent to prison to get close to one of the mob boss’ son (Arifin Putra). After two years in prison, Rama is released and joins that gang, just in time for an upstart mobster (Alex Abbad) to start a gang war.

raid09That’s a setup we’ve seen many times, from numerous Hong Kong dramas to the TV series Wiseguy. There are certainly enough top-drawer fight scenes to keep holdover fans from the first Raid interested (hell, Rama basically beats up a wing of his new prison home barely 14 minutes into the film), but the final hour of this two-and-a-half hour movie shifts into action movie overdrive, becoming as tense and relentless as the first movie, and culminating in a seven minute-long hand-to-hand fight scene that had yours truly (hardened veteran of more martial arts movies than you’ve had hot meals) curled up into a ball in his easy chair, with a pained grimace on my face.

After three movies which I have loved, there is no doubt in my mind that Gareth Huw Evans is one of the premier action movie directors of our time. He is aided in no small part by Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian (who was killed as Mad Dog in the first movie, and returns as another off-kilter assassin in this one), who have formed the core of his repertory company as actors and fight choreographers. It’s surprising how these two, basically martial artists, have developed into such good actors (a quality evident in the team’s first movie together, Merantau). Iwais in particular has magnetic star quality.

I anxiously await the next one. I’ll still have these three movies to keep me warm (and grimacing ow!) until it arrives.

The Raid 2 on Amazon

legoNow, to grind the gears as we do a bootlegger turn of the imagination: The Lego Movie.

This was something of a surprise hit earlier this year when released in February, traditionally No Man’s Land for movie openings. Once again we have a terribly familiar plot: a prophecy, a doomsday weapon, the Chosen One, the Hero’s Journey. But The Lego Movie has a lot of silly, satirical fun with that increasingly misused plot. The creativity on display is bracing, with little details proving the care the animators put into this. The dazzling, shared Lego universe provides for a lot of surprising cameos, and it’s all such infectious fun I really resented it when the Real World intruded on the story. But that was unavoidable, I suppose, and it does give rise to the best ending twist I’ve seen in a long time.

One of the best reasons to watch it is to consider that the movie’s villain is named Lord Business, which meant that every right wing pundit in the universe was decrying it as an anti-capitalist movie. Right. A movie based on a highly successful toy line and a marketing tool for that highly successful toy line is anti-capitalist. Pull the other one, idiots.

I’m not saying anymore about the movie itself; this is a joy of discovery type movie. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, you should do so at your earliest opportunity.

Now I need to go translate my handwriting.

The Lego Movie on Amazon

After Ebert: More Movies 2

Having survived covering the City’s Independence Day festivities (two days of grueling remote television work), I should probably finish playing catchup on my movie watching.

vhs2First off, about a year ago I held forth on V/H/S, a horror anthology where all the stories were presented in the found footage format. Bucking the trend, I like it if it’s done well – my definition of “done well” is apparently far looser than most others. Then again I also recognize shades of quality between “Excellent” and “Worst Thing EVAR”. Like any movie anthology, V/H/S had its high and low points, and was successful enough to spawn a sequel. I wish they’d stuck with the original title, SuperV/H/S, but that was probably deemed too obscure a reference, so V/H/S 2 it was.

This time there are only four stories, which proves to be beneficial. As usual, our primary concerns with the found footage format is 1) Why is there a camera running? and 2) Why does whoever’s running this camera keep shooting while the story unfolds around them?

The first story, “Phase I Clinical Trials” circumvents both of these by presenting us with a man who lost an eye in a car accident and is fitted with an electronic eye that restores his sight, but also has an embedded chip recording everything for clinical test data. The catch (and there had to be a catch because this is, after all, a horror movie) is that he starts seeing some very unfriendly-looking ghosts. Not the most original concept, but it helps that he’s found by a woman who had a similar cochlear implant some time before, and who can hear the ghosts. This first story gave me at least one jump scare (even when I knew it was coming), some chills, and even a couple of laughs. Its only crime is that it could have used a little more development.

The second story,  “A Ride in the Park” by The Blair Witch Project‘s Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale, kicks the quality up a considerable notch. A bicyclist attaches a GoPro camera to his helmet to record his *ahem* ride in the park, which is interrupted when he rides into the zombie apocalypse. Okay, a first person view of the ZomApoc has been done, but this time the cyclist gets bitten so it becomes a first zombie view. “A Ride in the Park” makes use of what has become common knowledge of zombie tropes to form a lean, mean story that is exactly as long as it needs to be.VHS2_Still02

I might have been satisfied with “Ride” being the best in show, except next up was the real reason I was jonesing to see V/H/S 2, the segment “Safe Haven” by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans. I blush to admit that I am unfamiliar with Tjahjanto’s work, but I became a fan of Evans when I saw The Raid: Redemption and Merantau in the same day.

“Safe Haven” involves a TV crew finally getting permission to tape an interview with a controversial religious leader in his equally controversial commune. It turns out that this guru, a combination of Jim Jones and David Koresh, has agreed to let the crew in because their presence coincides with his cult’s horrific endgame, which proceeds to play out in real time.

2013-05-23-vhs2_havenEvans and Tjahjanto open up the found footage concept neatly; not only does the crew have two cameras, but each member has a spy camera concealed in the top button of their shirts (they’re hoping for a muckraking expose, not the fair and balanced story they promised), but once they arrive at the commune, the directors can also rely on the extensive closed circuit TV network. “Safe Haven” is the longest of the stories (and the probable reason for four rather than five stories in this outing), and that really pays off. There’s even a bit of character development, for pete’s sake.

The last story, “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” probably suffers from following “A Ride in the Park” and “Safe Haven”. You might remember some years back, back in the Alien Autopsy years, there was also a tape floating around that was supposed to show an alien abduction in progress at a family gathering. That’s what this is, with better special effects. This time the GoPro is put on a dog for a prank, so there’s a novel point of view, but I found it needlessly confusing and didn’t give a tinker’s damn for anybody but the dog.

But the first three are well worth watching.

I had wanted to embed the less spoiler-iffic green band trailer, but that one has links to other pages all over it (insert cursing here), so here’s the red band trailer, with some unnecessary commentary (oooh, there’s some hypocrisy right there):

Land-of-the-Dead-2005-Hollywood-Movie-Watch-OnlineAfter that, I put aside my long-standing moratorium against zombie movies to watch George Romero’s Land of the Dead. Italian zombie movies just about did me in, then the Resident Evil movies combined with Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead informed me that the zombies of my youth were no longer edgy and scary, they were a cardboard commodity to be thrown at the screen while the director did his best Count Floyd: “Oh Look! Eesn’t it SCARY keeds! A-WOOOOO!” Something broke in me that day, and I walked away.

Land of the Dead, though, was like a breath of fresh air. Romero posits a pretty realistic outcome from his last three zombie flicks: humanity in a fenced-off enclave, at the center of which is a tower block where the rich live in luxury while the rest of the populace is either guarding the perimeter, scavenging supplies from surrounding towns overrun by zombies, or living a Thunderdome-type free market existence.

land-of-the-dead-1I knew John Leguizamo was one of the scavengers, but I was caught off-guard by Simon Baker playing their leader. As ever, Romero proves himself ten times more thoughtful than almost anybody working in the genre; the zombies are falling into their former life patterns, as implied in the earlier movies, but  Alpha Zombies are starting to emerge, and as Herbert West would point out, they’re starting to use tools. One of the city’s raids pisses off the emerging alpha zombie, and he leads a march on the distant tower; there’s a reason people refer to this as the Occupy Wall Street of zombie movies.

People rushed onto my Twitter timeline to inform me that the movie sucked or Romero should have stopped right there. Well, it didn’t, and I don’t know about him stopping. But I’m more willing now to find out, and picked up a copy of Diary of the Dead at Half-Price Books the next day. Take that, nattering nabobs of negativity!

Kill_List-2011-MSS-poster-02Kill List would likely have flown under my radar were it not for the ardent advocacy of Internet film critic Scott Weinberg, who championed it on Twitter. A British movie directed by Ben Wheatley, Kill List introduces us to Jay (Neil Maskell), a hit man who’s suffering a form of PTSD after an assassination went very wrong in Kiev eight months earlier. The money is running out and his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) is none too happy about what she perceives to be his indolence. Jay’s old mate Gal (Michael Smiley) shows up with a high-paying job, a chance to get back on the horse.

Jay and Gal are given a list of three people to murder, and they go to it with the ease of professionals comfortable with their work; things start to go awry almost immediately, though, when their first target, a priest, spots them before he shot through the head, smiles, and says, “Thank you.”

Their next target is known only as The Librarian – the library he presides over is a series of torture/snuff films, which sends the already edgy Jay right over that edge. He tortures the Librarian to find out where the films are made, and while Gal is upstairs looking for clues and money, the Librarian sincerely tells Jay it is an honor to meet him, and thanks Jay after every blow with a claw hammer.

killiist2Something really weird is going on, and after Jay makes a detour to kill everyone in the snuff film production company, Gal manages to walk him back to a sane enough place to try to back out of the contract, but their Client will have none of it: Jay is the man for the job. So Jay and Gal seek out their last target, an MP on his own country estate, at which point things begin to really go to shit.

Kill List has a very intriguing tone; it feels like a low-budget indy relationship film that loses its way and strays into Charles Bronson territory, then, totally lost, careens into a Dennis Wheatley novel. As Jay and Gal struggle through their trip to the end of the Kill List and the corresponding heart of darkness, things get stranger and more disorienting; it all leads to a gut punch of an ending, making it one of the more memorable horror movies of the last few years.

My only problem with it – and this is a personal failing – is that I find the indy relationship parts uncomfortable and in some places, mere filler. The uncomfortable part means the director and the actors are doing their job well; I’m just a slob who wants to get to his scary stuff.

I finished up my week of weirdness with Holy Motors, and now I am going to have to try to describe it.

holy_motors_ver5_xlgDenis Levant is M. Oscar, an actor who is driven around town in a limousine, chauffeured by Edith Scob (yes, Eyes Without A Face Edith Scob) to his various assignments. The limousine is a self-contained costume and makeup shop. Oscar has nine assignments that day, and he will become nine different people.

This sounds like some espionage movie, but it’s not; it’s a surreal collection of short scenes that have no relation to each other, played out for the benefit of who-knows? He will become an elderly beggar woman, a bizarre troll-like creature, the father of an awkward adolescent girl, an old man on his death bed. He will meet two other such actors (at least). He will get killed twice, none of which seems to matter.

Any attempt to describe it further would simply involve a listing of every event. It is a deuced odd film. Its surrealism is not on the extravagant level of Alejandro Jodorowsky, but attempts to assign logic and a through-line to it would likely cause headaches if not serious damage. If nothing else, it is a great showcase for the talent of Denis Levant; If you want to mutter to yourself “What the living hell-” for two hours (and have no Jodorowsky available), it will fit the bill.