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

Indonesian Double Feature

It seems that most of this year I’ve had two movies relentlessly hyped to me, and surprisingly, one of them wasn’t The Avengers. Well, Avengers has been relentlessly hyped, but honestly,  something that high-profile hardly even registers on my admittedly off-kilter radar these days. I’m sure I’ll see it, but… well, it’s odd for me to think of a comic book movie as mainstream, y’know? What strange world is this?

No, there were two movies that were pretty much marketed straight to me, that just burrowed under my skin and stayed there until I could see them. One was The Cabin in The Woods, which I wrote and squeed about earlier this week, and the other was the movie that finally came to be known as The Raid: Redemption.

The setup here, as you can see, is very simple: It’s Die Hard with a SWAT team instead of Bruce Willis and a building full of coked-up crackheads and gangsters instead of a crew of mercenaries.  That’s an efficient delivery system for some of the most brutal, intense hand-to-hand fighting scenes I have seen in any movie. The end credits list something like twelve doctors and paramedics and at least half that many massage therapists. They earned their money on this movie, and so did those stuntmen.

The camera work is frequently stunning, but several times, it’s just as annoying. In the fight scenes it follows the frenetic action perfectly – there’s even a time or two that the camera looks around quickly after an opponent is felled, just as any character in the fight would.  Unfortunately, that carries over into the still scenes, as the shaky cam seems to take over arbitrarily, like a prize fighter bouncing on his heels to keep warmed up. Still, frantic as the violence becomes, the viewer is never in doubt as to what is happening, never puzzled about the geography in which all this is taking place, MICHAEL BAY AND EVERYBODY IN HOLLYWOOD WHO FANCIES THEMSELVES AN ACTION FILMMAKER PLEASE TAKE FUCKING NOTE.

Generally, every time I see a movie that proclaims itself to be wall-to-wall action, it becomes wearisome by the final half-hour. The Raid, however, doesn’t do that. The pacing is skillful, and the fights constantly switch the odds. It never get boring, and at a lean 100 minutes, doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The “Redemption” part of the title was apparently added when it was decided that The Raid would be the first movie of a trilogy. It’s going to be interesting to see where director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwais take this from here.

Speaking of Evans and Uwais, I had the evening free and remembered that their first movie together, Merantau (2009) was on Netflix Instant. Fully aware there was no way it could be as frantic as The Raid, I fired it up.

Merantau is a more typical martial arts movie, very firmly in the country-martial-artist-comes-to-the-big-city-and-winds-up-fighting-crime mold, along with The Big Boss and Ong Bak, just a lot grimmer. Uwais is the rural fellow hoping to find a job in Jakarta teaching silat, his martial art of choice, but his country morals and chivalry keep getting him involved in stopping a human trafficking ring led by two white devils. Unlike in Ong Bak, Uwais doesn’t pull out any cutesy Jackie Chan physical stunts, he is too concerned with kicking ass. (This is not to denigrate Chan or Jaa in any way. As I said, this is a fairly humorless movie.)

Relentless or not, things still get pretty intense; it’s rare that Uwais is ever up against only one person – in fact, the movie has the class to let him lose his first major fight. But after that, with a damsel in distress, he gets up and proceeds to lay the field to waste.

The major difference you are going to find between Merantau and The Raid is the camerawork. The handheld shakycam is nowhere to be found here, it’s all smooth dollies and Steadicam. A second major difference is the vibrancy of colors; Jakarta is a very colorful city, even (or perhaps especially) in the lower-income and seedy urban areas where Merantau takes place. That is another major difference from The Raid, where the color scheme is drab, drawn from crushed dreams and urban decay.

A unique thing in Merantau‘s favor is the two main bad guys, the white devils (Mads Koudal and Laurent Buson) can not only fight, they can act as well, and you don’t usually get that combination in Asian film (especially in Chinese movies, my usual flavor). That really adds to the quality of the movie, that this much care is put into its construction; those parts aren’t huge, but they are important.

The best part of seeing Merantau almost immediately after The Raid is seeing the repertory company forming; Doni Alamsyah is still playing Uwais’ brother, and the comparatively small Yayan Ruhian is still playing a badass ready to give the hero a run for his money (as Mad Dog in The Raid he’s absolutely a force of nature).

So that was a day well spent. Indonesian action flicks have come a long way from The Stabilizer and Jaka Sembung and The Devil’s Sword. If there’s a major renaissance in their film industry, I welcome it, and I am definitely looking forward to whatever Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais have for us in the future.