Do It Yourself


A silent suicide.

(2017) Crime Dramedy (Artsploitation) Konstadinos Aspiotis, Makis Papadimitriou, Mirto Alikaki, Christos Loulis, Argyris Xafis, Panos Koronis, Themis Panou, Aris Antonopoulos, Stephanos Mwange. Directed by Dimitris Tsilifonis

 

When you are trapped in a working porn studio, having made what’s intended to be a viral video confession exonerating a crime boss who is in jail for murder, and you are surrounded by gun-toting killers employed by said crime boss, escaping with your life may require a little do-it-yourself inventiveness.

That’s exactly the situation that small-time criminal Alkis Vidalis (Aspiotis) finds himself, conveniently enough for this review. He is no criminal mastermind nor is he much of a fighter. He’s more of a run away and hide sort of guy. With the building crawling with armed guards who are, fortunately for Alkis, they are not nearly as bright as he is. Using whatever he can find which includes some porn film accouterments, he will have to figure out a way to get out alive and with time ticking down until the film is loaded to the Internet, the prospect of a life extending more than an hour or two are looking mighty bleak.

This Greek action-packed dramedy owes a lot to both Tarantino and Scorsese in equal measures. If that sounds like a great combination to you, then this is your jam. Tsilifonis takes great care not to make anyone too awful or too likable. Everyone in the movie is a criminal in some way shape or form – even the crime boss’ lawyer (Alikaki) is fully aware that once the video goes live Alkis will have outlived his usefulness. This is a film with no clear bad guys (Loulis as jailed crime boss Daniel Bezerianos comes closest) and while we have a rooting interest in Alkis, no clear good guys either.

There are some genuinely funny moments that lighten the frenetic mood, as well as some ingenious Rube Goldberg-like inventions that Alkis creates. The cinematography is slick and crisp which give a sense of realism to the film. However, the thing that keeps this from being an unreserved recommendation is that Tsilifonis has a tendency to get a bit cute, using Go-Pro-like shots on moving objects (such as a wheelchair) more than he needed to. Once is fine; twice is okay; more than that is repetitive and annoying.

The performances are solid, with Aspiotis in the lead being particularly satisfying. He gives Alkis a kind of hangdog air that makes him appealing, but as he promises in the voice-over narration, he does things that aren’t cricket. Papadimitriou as the killer tasked with whacking Alkis once the word comes down also gives a nice balance of menace and moronic.

Movies like this don’t come on down the pike very often and while the film is certainly flawed, the entertainment value is pretty high all things considered. It is subtitled and during the initial sequence in which the circumstances are essentially explained through the use of newspaper headlines, a bit hard to read so you might find yourself rewinding and pausing so you can actually read the entire subtitle. Speed reading can come in handy here. Anyway, devotees of movies full of hoods who can’t shoot straight will find this one right in their sweet spot.

REASONS TO SEE: Overall, very entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times, Tsilifonis gets a little too cute for his own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, brief drug use, some sexual content and a fair amount of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tsilifonis’ 2012 short The Way of Styx is also included on the Blu-Ray edition.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play,
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Raid: Redemption
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Terror 5

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Blue Iguana


The gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

(2018) Heist Comedy (Screen Media) Sam Rockwell, Phoebe Fox, Ben Schwartz, Peter Ferdinando, Simon Callow, Amanda Donohoe, Frances Barber, Al Weaver, Peter Polycarpou, Anton Saunders, Jenny Bede, Andre Flynn, Vic Waghorn, Glenn Wrage, Peter Singh, Pedro Lloyd Gardiner, Paul Chan, Danny Granger, Martin Muncaster, Jack Silver, Pamela Cook. Directed by Hadi Hajaig

 

Stephen Soderbergh is famous for depicting teams of con artists and thieves who are cool, competent and clever. Most times, criminals are anything but those three things. Generally, people go into crime because they don’t have the skills to make a living honestly nor any inclination to obtain any. They want to do things the easy way, not knowing that if you want to get away with a crime it takes some planning, foresight and knowledge.

Eddie (Rockwell) and his buddy Paul (Schwartz) are both ex-cons working in a New York diner while out on parole and trying to keep their noses clean. Into the diner walks a pushy English rose named Katherine Rookwood (Fox) who is the lawyer for an Eastern European businessman named Arkady (Polycarpou). She needs to use the two schlubs for a job in London which would be a clear parole violation but she’s got that all covered.

What she needs is for them to steal a gym bag at one of the museums. If she retrieves the bag, it will erase a crushing debt she’s been trying to work off to the businessman. However, things don’t go entirely to plan; it turns out that the two Americans are way over their heads. Arkady has in his employ a mullet-wearing thug named Deacon Bradshaw (Ferdinando) who has serious mommy issues particularly since his mom (Donohoe) is oversexed and abusive. There are also much bigger fish to fry, particularly after Eddie and Paul – and Katherine as well – are double-crossed by Deacon and his violent thugs.

They work out a plan to take back what they lost and maybe get a little bit more – ok a lot more – than they would have gotten out of the deal; that is if they can keep their butts out of the crossfire. Not necessarily an impossible task since nobody in either gang can shoot worth a damn.

The first thing that came to mind as I watched this was that it’s Soderbergh on a budget. It crosses British gangster films with American heist movies which is a natural mix but one that really hasn’t been tried often until now (other than by Danny Boyle to my knowledge). In addition, it has the always watchable Sam Rockwell leading the cast.

He’s watchable enough here but he’s not nearly as manic as he normally is. The movie could have used a little more energy from Rockwell surprising to say and at the end of the day it is Fox who commands most of the kudos for her performance here. Her character does a lot of eating and if anyone can look endearing with a blog of ketchup on her chin, it’s Fox.

There is a lot of quirky charm in the movie; I liked Ferdinando as the volatile thug Deacon. He goes on profanity-laced rants when his underlings mess up which is just about all the time. Few can curse as well as a Cockney and Ferdinando makes a running gag out of it; in fact, Rockwell makes a point of trying to learn how to do the Cockney accent although to judge how effective he is you’d have to ask a true Cockney. My guess is “not well.”

Towards the end things start getting increasingly violent and that’s where the movie shines. There are several demises that are extremely bloody (particularly the very last one) and Hajaig handles them with a deft comedic flair. There were some moments that left me chuckling (although none that left me doubled over with laughter) and a few moments where I thought they missed the mark, particularly early on. One of my favorite running jokes is that nobody in the film can shoot worth a damn; I’m talking couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a basketball from five feet away type of shooting.

I like these sorts of movie and while the reviews thus far have been pretty poor, I actually thought this was a solidly entertaining and often fun piece of work. Yeah, there are a lot of clichés – you know that Eddie and Katherine are going to get romantic and they do – but for the most part, the fast pace and the humor keep you from wanting to check your cell phone too much. You may think that’s faint praise but in 2018 that’s actually an accomplishment.

REASONS TO GO: Quirky but entertaining. There are some truly inventive moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Rockwell’s performance is oddly subdued.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good amount of profanity, violence and a smattering of gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The blue iguana is an actual breed of iguana that is indigenous to the Cayman Islands.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 30/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan Lucky
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
An L.A. Minute

The Blood of Wolves (Korô no chi)


Sometimes you can’t tell the cops from the criminals.

(2018) Crime Drama (Toei) Kôji Yakusho, Tôri Matsuzaka, Gorô Ibuki, Yoko Maki, Yôsuke Eguchi, Hajime Inoue, Megumi, Tarô Suruga, Renji Ishibashi, Takuma Otoo, Kyûsaku Shimada, Junko Abe, Marie Machida, Takahiro Kuroishi, Eiji Takigawa, Pierre Taki, Shun Nakayama, Joey Iwanaga, Tomorô Taguchi, Ken’Ichi Takitô, Tomoya Nakamura, Katsuya, Issei Okihara. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

In movies there are actual touchstones; Hitchcock for thrillers, Chaplin for comedies, Ford for Westerns and Scorsese for gangster movies. Scorsese himself was influenced in turn by Asian crime dramas which in its own way is somewhat ironic and circular.

Shiraishi says that the 1973-74 five part series Battles Without Honor and Humanity was his main influence for his work but that in turn was influenced by some of Scorsese’s earlier work such as Mean Streets. This film, based on the novel of the same Japanese name, is set in Hiroshima in 1988 at the height of a gang war. The Odani-gumi Yakuza gang have been in control for 14 years; the Machiavellian leader of the Irako-kai gang (Ishibashi) has cut a deal with the volatile leader (Shimada) of the Kakomura-gumi to retake the territory the Irako-kai had lost – and then some.

Trying to stave off what would be another bloody gang war is a cop as rumpled as the packs of cigarettes he smokes incessantly Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) who has just been saddled with a naive straight arrow partner named Shuichi Hioka (Matsuzaka). They are investigating the disappearance of an accountant from a financial institution that is actually a Yakuza money laundering front. As tensions between rival gangs grow, Ogami – who never met a rule he wasn’t willing to break – utilizes informants including his best friend Ginji Takii (Taki) who is a low-level guy for the Odani-gumi to get closer to the rival gangs. Soon Hioka suspects that Ogami is protecting the Ogami as well as himself – there are rumors that the last gang war ended because Ogami, then a uniformed officer, murdered a top man for the Irako-kai. That has been neither forgotten nor forgiven.

In between chasing down sadistic Yakuza and indifferent bureaucrats, Ogami and Hioka hang out in a bar administered by the beautiful but volatile Rikako (Maki) whose past is key to the last gang war and what is leading to the next. Sake will flow and blood will spill – sometimes in buckets – in this brutal, bloody Yakuza film.

Very often during a movie there will be periods where my interest wanes and my attention will wander a little bit. Not so with The Blood of Wolves – there wasn’t a moment that my attention wasn’t focused to the goings-on onscreen. While there is a fairly large cast of characters and many are essentially disposable Yakuza foot soldiers and cops, the main characters are well-developed and especially veteran actor Yakusho deliver some marvelous performances.

As here in America, the gangster film has fallen on hard times in Japan. Once a staple of their film industry, in recent years the Yakuza film has been relegated to the periphery. This particular one is old school and has that epic quality that the best films of such genre greats as Scorsese and Coppola possessed. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good examples of the genre still being made in the Land of the Rising Sun and this is an example of it. It has already screened at the New York Asian Film Festival this year but as the powerhouse Toei studio is behind it there is a pretty good chance further American audiences will get a chance to see it and this is absolutely worth seeing; it is one of the highlights of the Festival this year.

REASONS TO GO: The comparisons to Scorsese are unavoidable in a good way. The story keeps you riveted to the screen. Yakusho gives a compelling performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the violence may be too much for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of brutal violence and some over-the-top gore; there is also plenty of profanity, some nudity, sexual situations and references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel that is itself a fictionalized version of a  actual gang war that took place in Hiroshima and the neighboring suburb of Kure.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gangster’s Daughter
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Rock in the Red Zone

The Gangster’s Daughter (Shaowu the Bad)


There’s nothing like a quiet dad-daughter meal.

(2017) Drama (Wild Dog Productions) Jack Kao, Ally Chiu, Ko Yu Luen, Stephanie Lin, Wu Min, Huang Jih Ping, Kao Meng Chieh, Ma Ru Feng. Directed by Mei-Juin Chen

We all lament lost opportunities. When those rare occasions come along that give us second chances, the smart thing to do is to grab them with both hands. The thing about second chances though is that they aren’t always easy.

Keigo (Kao) is a gangster in Taipei. It’s a life that garners him success and respect but costs him his marriage; eventually his wife and daughter Shaowu move to remote Kinmen Island, a county I Taiwan that is geographically closer to mainland China than it is to Taipei. The two women move in with Keigo’s former mother-in-law who has nothing but contempt for her ex son-in-law.

Years later Shaowu is a hard-to-handle teen. Her mother has passed away unexpectedly, leaving her with her grandmother as sole adult guardian. She has a brief meeting with her dad at her mom’s funeral but returns to school where bullies pull a mean prank on her best friend. Shaowu reacts by dumping a pail of manure on the head of her tormentor. Unfortunately, the boy is politically connected and grandma is forced to reluctantly call in Keigo to handle the situation. Realizing she can’t handle her granddaughter who has been expelled from school, she entreats Keigo to take her to Taipei.

Keigo mainly runs a karaoke club where his girlfriend Coco is hostess. At first, Shaowu has a hard time adjusting but soon she makes friends at her school and Keigo’s crew takes a liking to her, particularly Coco who acts like a surrogate mom. He begins to allow himself to dream that he can have a normal life with Shaowu, opening up a restaurant with her someday.However the idyllic family in the making is disturbed by two events; the return of Keigo’s boss from an extended trip to Thailand with plans on extending his interests into narcotics, and a feud between some of Keigo’s younger gang and a corrupt cop. When a shoot-out leaves two of his closest friends dead, Keigo knows he has to act, even if it will leave Shaowu an orphan. Shaowu for her part has strongly identified with her dad and yearns to take up his criminal career, something her dad definitely does not want for her. Something has to give.

This Taiwanese film was a big hit at the box office in Taiwan but has struggled to find an audience outside of where it was made, a troubling trend in Asian movies as of late. The movie recalls some of the great gangster movies of Hong Kong of the 90s with a certain reverence for the criminal lifestyle which many in Asia equate with true freedom. We rarely see Keigo doing anything criminal other than getting into an occasional bar fight and he takes a definite stand on selling drugs which most true gangsters wouldn’t hesitate to do.

Kao, who has been called “the Asian Al Pacino” has an engaging smile and a brooding demeanor. He’s not above losing his temper with his men or his daughter for that matter. He’s made a lot of mistakes in his life and he wears every one of them on his face. Most of all, he doesn’t want his daughter to follow in his footsteps and dissuades her at every opportunity. There is a soft side to him that comes out unexpectedly at times but when he need to be hard, he’s like iron.

Chiu and Kao have a very realistic relationship and the two have a chemistry that would be enviable in almost any film. The heart of the movie is the bond between the two and the veteran Kao and the ingénue Chiu bring it to life. Chiu is an expressive actress with a face that shows an array of emotions even when she isn’t doing much physically. She has a truly bright future as an actress and I hope more of her films make it to the States.

This isn’t what I’d call action-packed even though the title contains the word “gangster” but it isn’t typical of that genre. There are a few scenes that are violent but by and large the criminals are just chatting amongst themselves or chilling in the karaoke bar. There is the shoot-out we spoke about and a reckoning late in the movie but mostly, this is about a slice of life more than it is about a slice of death.

The acting can be a bit stiff for American tastes particularly early on in the film and the movie might be a little longer than American audiences can tolerate in a movie that is paced this slowly but it is certainly worth the patience to check out. The characters are richly drawn and there is a sweetness at the core of the film that I liked very much. This is certainly a film to hunt down and check out.

The New York Asian Film Festival is a wonderful event that exposes the cinema of Asia to an appreciative audience; I only wish that more non-Big Apple residents could experience some of these films, few of which will make it to neighborhood art houses let alone VOD. Hopefully a few of them will get some wider exposure somewhere down the line; otherwise interested viewers will have to do some digging to find an online service that specializes in streaming Asian films like Fandor and AsianCrush that might carry some of these fine films down the line.

REASONS TO GO: Kao and Chiu have a remarkable chemistry. Chiu is certainly a star in the making
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is a bit stiff in places. The film is drawn out a bit too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mei-Juin Chen is best known for her documentaries; this is her first stab at a narrative feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Six
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Look & See:A Portrait of Wendell Berry

Sing


Ta-da!

Ta-da!

(2016) Animated Feature (Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, John C. Reilly, Tori Kelly, Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson, Garth Jennings, Nick Kroll, Peter Serafinowicz, Beck Bennett, Jay Pharoah, Nick Offerman, Leslie Jones, Rhea Perlman, Laraine Newman. Directed by Garth Jennings

 

It is said by some, not without justification, that this is the golden age of animation. Studios like Pixar, Ghibli and Laika consistently turn out features that enchant, illuminate, entertain and excite. They don’t dumb down their movies to basic levels because these studios have more respect for kids than that; they create stories that address things that matter, create unforgettable characters and transport us to worlds that elicit wonder.

And then there’s Illumination. The studio, which has a long term deal with Universal, hit their first pitch out of the park with Despicable Me but their output since then has left a lot to be desired. Their world building has been haphazard and their stories basic, utilizing cliché over imagination and marketing opportunities over characters. It is, in every sense of the word, corporate animation.

Sing is meant to appeal to those who find American Idol and America’s Got Talent to be supreme entertainment. It sends a message that anyone, no matter how large or small, can achieve their dreams if only…if only…well, if only someone markets a singing contest, which Buster Moon (McConaughey), a koala with a somewhat slippery moral compass, organizes in order to save his theater which is overrun by creditors and about to be seized by the bank. However, his ditzy assistant accidentally ups the amount of the prize from $1,000 to $100,000. Oops.

And so all sorts of animals inhabiting Anthropomorphic San Diego come crawling out of the woodwork to audition, including put-upon piggy mom Rosita (Witherspoon) who is in a perpetual state of exhaustion from taking care of 25 piglets and a seemingly uncaring husband (Kroll) who takes her for granted like a boss; Mike (MacFarlane), an arrogant mouse who cons his way through life and croons like one of the rat pack. Then there’s Ash (Johansson), a punk rock porcupine determined to emerge from the shadow of her boyfriend, and Meena (Kelly) an elephant with a case of stage fright as big as…an elephant. Finally there’s Johnny (Egerton – who has the best voice in the movie) who is the scion of a gorilla criminal and has the leather jacket to prove it, although just because this is a kid’s movie, Johnny has absolutely no criminal intent whatsoever. Get that kids? Crime doesn’t pay!

There are something like 85 songs (mostly snippets) that have at least some vague familiarity and are mostly from the last five years or so. In fairness, most of them are sung well or at least competently but it points out another depressing flaw in modern culture; we have become all about the singer and give absolutely no thought about the song. Apparently dreams should be about becoming stars, not becoming artists. Make money, not a lasting contribution to our culture is the message here.

Egerton is an amazing singer and McConaughey’s voice is virtually unrecognizable but it is still a fine vocal performance. To be fair the movie picks up steam in the second half and the finale is pretty nice, if predictable. While most of the animation is fairly rote it is at least entertaining to the undiscerning and some of the images are cute.

And it is this last adjective that really drives the movie; they’re not going for great, they’re going for cute. They want to see these characters on action figures, video games, fast food meals and whatever cross-promotional activity they can think up. You’ll walk out of the theater remembering none of the characters who were in it, nor will you be affected by the story in any way. What you will remember are the songs and if that’s all you’re after, that’s fine but what this amounts to is a 90 minute karaoke contest that really isn’t going to inspire repeated viewings unless you are six years old or the parent of one. Unless you have a child who absolutely insists on seeing this, there is far better movies that deserve your attention.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the animation is engaging and some of the performances are cute.
REASONS TO STAY: This is more of a marketing opportunity than a complete movie, with little thought given to characters other than how they’ll do as toys and absolutely no thought to story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor but nothing most parents would be offended by.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marks the first occasion that Illumination has released two films in the same year. It is also the longest movie to date that Illumination has produced.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Idol
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: La La Land

Brighton Rock


Sam Riley resists going back on set.

Sam Riley resists going back on set.

(2010) Thriller (IFC) Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, Helen Mirren, Andy Serkis, John Hurt, Nonso Anozie, Sean Harris, Philip Davis, Craig Parkinson, Geoff Bell, Steven Robertson, Maurice Roëves, Steve Evets, Francis Magee, Adrian Schiller, Pauline Melville, Mona Goodwin, Kerrie Hayes, Lexy Howe, Harry Lloyd-Walker, Dennis Banks, Helen Kingston. Directed by Rowan Joffe

Good and evil are meant to balance each other out. You can’t have one without the other; they are opposing forces, a yin and yang of morality as it were. And as such, they often attract one another.

Pinkie Brown (Riley) is a gangster wanna-be. He is vicious and calculating, sometimes cruel and absolutely without any morality. He meets waitress Rose (Riseborough) in the restaurant of a grand hotel in Brighton and walks her down the pier, passing by a thug from a rival gang. Pinkie goes back afterwards and kills the thug. Later Rose realizes that she saw the man whose picture has been published by the newspapers.

Ida (Mirren), the manager of the restaurant and surrogate mother to Rose, warns Rose away from Pinkie. As it turns out, she is very well acquainted by men of his ilk. She enlists the aid of her friend Corkery (Hurt) to help Rose out, but he has other worries, one of them being Pinkie’s boss, the urbane but evil Colleoni (Serkis). When Rose gets married to Pinkie, she no longer can testify that Pinkie was in the vicinity of the murder victim. Can that be the only reason that Pinkie married Rose? Or does the gangster actually have a heart?

Graham Greene wrote the novel this movie was based on back in 1938, at the height of prohibition in the United States and the golden age of gangsters and in some ways the tropes of that era carry over not only in the novel (as you would expect being a product of those times) but here as well. In order to distance the film from those tropes – and from the English noir movie that starred a young Richard Attenborough as Pinkie – Joffe elected to set this version about 25 years after the novel was set, in an era when Mods and Rockers were rioting in Brighton. It’s actually a bit of a brilliant move; the era was evocative (as captured by the Who in Quadrophenia) and appeals more to filmgoers today than perhaps the pre-war era would. The translation between eras is spot-on, particularly since the filmmakers captured the 1960s Brighton so well.

Riley is an actor better-known to admiring critics than he is to the general moviegoing public and that’s a shame; in my opinion he’s one of the best actors working today. He has an amazing intensity and the ability to take on vastly different roles while retaining his own style which is no easy task, I can tell you. I’ve sometimes thought of him as a Johnny Depp without the mannerisms and that’s about as close as you’re going to get.

I think because his looks are more unconventional than traditionally hunk-ish or handsome he has largely been ignored by American filmmakers and audiences, which shows a deep shallowness on our part. I have seen him in movies where he is the only good thing about them and so good was he that he was worth seeing all by his lonesome. If some artsy-fartsy pretentious douche hipster filmmaker decided to make a Dadaist version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – or worse, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – as a one-man show, if that one man was Riley I’d go see it anyway.

The rest of the cast is pretty terrific; Mirren is another actress whose presence in a film is all  the recommendation I need to go see it. Hurt is a veteran character actor who brings rumpled gravitas to the role, and Serkis is serpentine as the gangster in a smoking jacket, an ape in a velvet coat.

There is a thin veneer of civility over the violence which can come suddenly and shockingly which I found fascinating. However, one of the movie’s great flaws is a curious lifeless feeling to it; there’s little energy, as if the actors are all sleep-deprived. Riley is the lone exception although even he at times seems somnolent. Perhaps that was an effect the filmmakers were intentionally trying to create?

One of the major plot points is that both Pinkie and Rose are teens, but curiously Joffe (who wrote the screen adaptation) chose to bury that particular lede; it’s a major plot point but I get the sense that he presumes you know it already (note to Joffe: not everyone read the book). It does eventually get revealed, sort of, but by then it changes the dynamic tremendously and unnecessarily. I would have wished that Joffe made this salient point clear from the get-go, but again, that’s just me.

Other than suffering from script obfuscation, the writing is actually pretty good most of the time and the acting, despite the odd lack of inertia, is top notch. I would have liked to have rated this higher (and some critics did) but I just wasn’t inspired to like it any more than a mediocre, middle-of-the-pack number. In this case, the sum of the parts is much greater than the whole.

WHY RENT THIS: Riley is intense. Great period depiction. Terrific cast.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit muddled. Curious lack of energy. Omits a crucial story point early on needlessly.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of rough language, a fair amount of violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second adaptation of the Graham Greene novel; the first was made in 1947.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Mostly standard, but there are some interesting interviews with the principle cast and crew.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.8M on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental and Steaming), iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Krays
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Films 4 Foodies begins!

The Raid 2 (The Raid 2: Berandal)


Talk about Hell's Kitchen...

Talk about Hell’s Kitchen…

(2014) Action (Sony Classics/Stage 6) Iwo Uwais, Julie Estelle, Arifin Putra, Oka Antara, Yayan Ruhian, Donny Alamsyah, Alex Abbad, Tio Pakusodewo, Cecep Arif Rahman, Ken’ichi Endo, Ryuhei Matsuda, Very Tri Yulisman, Marsha Timothy, Kazuki Kitamura, Epy Kusnandar, Cok Simbara, Roy Marten, Fikha Effendi, Hecky Solaiman, Zack Lee. Directed by Gareth Evans

Action movies have evolved over the years because we have changed over the years. Bombarded by videogames and the frenetic martial arts movies from the Far East, the old Hollywood action films have become more and more dinosaur-like particularly as our action heroes have aged.

The Raid: Redemption, filmed with Indonesian actors by Welsh director Gareth Evans, sought to set that evolution spinning into something new and proceeded to do just that. While some decried the lack of character development (legit) and sneered at the non-stop barrage of bloody fight scenes and action sequences (not so legit), the movie has had an effect on action films the world over and is in line to be remade Hollywood style.

The sequel has now hit American shores and is it more of the same? Yes and no. Rama (Uwais), the rookie cop from the first Raid is pulled aside by Andi (Alamsyah), the leader of a small underground task force and warned that he and his family will now be targets of those above the vicious gang lord of the first film. He will be willing to protect Rama’s family – provided that Rama goes undercover in one of the major gangs in Jakarta. In order to get in, Rama will have to go to jail and make friends with Uco (Putra), the pretty boy son of Bangun (Pakusodewo), the aging crime lord. Rama winds up spending two years in prison, but manages to save Uco’s life during a muddy prison riot which was meant to be a diversion so that inmates could assassinate Uco.

Upon release a grateful Bangun offers Rama a position as a goon, complete with new clothes and a new small but expensive apartment. Rama will be assigned to Uco but under the watchful eye of Eka (Antara), the second-in-command in the organization. Uco is eager to take over the family business but has a bit of a temper problem so Bangun deems his son unready, further chapping Uco’s posterior. Bangun has kept the peace with Japanese Yakuza leader Goto (Endo) but the two rivals are always a heartbeat from war. Ambitious new player Bejo (Abbad) looks to play one side against the other with Rama caught in the middle.

There is a little more plot and character development here, but oddly none of it regarding Rama who we discover little more of than we knew from the first film. Instead, the movie tends to put more personality in the side players, including flashing killers like Hammer Girl (Estelle) whose talents are self-explanatory, Baseball Bat Man (Yulisman) whose talents are likewise self-explanatory and martial arts expert Prakoso (Ruhian) who just wants to bond with his estranged daughter.

Some of the stunts and fights here are epic – a lengthy car chase is one of the best on film since Bullitt and The French Connection  and the fight between Rama and the Assassin (Rahman) in a restaurant kitchen is the very best in either film. However, the movie suffers from a martial arts film cliche – solo fight syndrome. Other than one scene in the prison, every fight has a group of bad guys take on Rama one by one and of course he kicks the ass of each thug in turn. And of course there is the other lapse in logic, a complaint I have not just with this film but other martial arts films in general. To wit; these are all gangsters. You would expect them to have access to guns. So why do none of them carry any? One well-placed gunshot is going to trump anybody, no matter how skilled a fighter they may be.

The movie does slow down somewhat during the expository scenes, but Evans seems to be taking cues from Scorsese in setting up his gangs which is a good thing. Uwais, a mixed martial arts pro, also makes for a charismatic action hero but his acting skills are somewhat limited, although he is much better here than he was in the first film. I can see him becoming a legitimate action star a la Jet Li and Jackie Chan with some further experience.

At nearly two and a half hours, the movie is a little bit on the long side and fills up much of the time with fight scenes that seem more forced and repetitive of the others in the film  – Rama encounters a group of goons and then beats them up as they attack. One. By. One. Still, if you don’t mind sitting through a few redundant action vignettes, you’ll be rewarded by the last third of the film which is well worth sitting through the first hour and a half for. While I don’t know that this is necessarily better than the first film which added a claustrophobic element that is missing here, in the final accounting the good outweighs the not-so-good here and for those who love martial arts and gangster movies with plenty of action, this is manna from heaven.

REASONS TO GO: Some breathtaking action sequences and stunts. Compelling storyline that has some elements of Scorsese in it. Uwais a legitimate action star.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many repetitive and unnecessary fight scenes. Too many gangster film cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  A ton of violence and bloodshed, some of it extreme. There’s also some foul language and brief sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was actually written before the preceding The Raid: Redemption but the Malaysian producers thought it would be too expensive to make, so it was shelved in favor of the lower budgeted one. When that became a massive hit, the script was rewritten slightly to insert the main character of The Raid: Redemption in as the main character here.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dredd

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Mission Congo