It Just Keeps Coming at You

In my last post, I mentioned “The Raid: Redemption,” a truly excellent Indonesian action flick. I wasn’t going to write about it specifically, but after watching it again I changed my mind.

If I had to pick one word to describe this movie, it would be this: AWESOME. This is one of the most streamlined, badass, highly entertaining action movies I have probably ever seen. Simply put, it is nirvana for action fans.

The setup is simple: a notorious gangster has set up shop in a rundown apartment building which has become a haven for killers, gangsters and drug addicts. A team of 20 elite cops is sent in to the building, with one very simple objective: take out the gang leader.

And so it begins. As expected by anyone watching the movie, things do not go as planned. The SWAT team’s cover is promptly blown when they encounter spotters soon after entering the building, and they become trapped, pinned down, and hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned.

That’s the gist of the plot. Like Expendables 2, it’s pretty simple, but The Raid manages a few interesting twists along the way, which I’m not going to spoil because seriously, you really need to see this movie. And, like Expendables, The Raid is all about action, and man oh man does it deliver.

This movie is packed with some of the most well-choreographed and incredibly brutal fight scenes I’ve ever seen. The actors performing these fights are clearly very good at the different kinds of martial arts employed, and the fights are unexaggerated and completely convincing. I know nothing whatsoever about martial arts, all I know is that the fighting style used in The Raid is called pencak silat, and it’s an Indonesian martial art.

The fights in this movie really are pretty amazing to behold. The remarkable thing about them is that they are believable and come across as realistic. The viewer gets the impression that these men really are capable of fighting like that. Suspension of disbelief isn’t really necessary since it’s obvious that the actors performing the fight scenes are very good at them.

The Raid was directed by a Welshman named Gareth Evans. I’m not really sure how a Welsh director came to be directing in Indonesia, but whatever. He clearly establishes himself as a director to watch. He edits the fights in a way that makes them easy to follow, so the viewer isn’t confused by it and doesn’t find it difficult to follow what’s happening onscreen. The action is as smoothly edited as it is well-choreographed.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints about how action scenes in modern movies are often edited so quickly that it can be hard to follow what’s going on. This is a criticism frequently directed at Paul Greengrass’ two “Bourne” movies, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. I’m a bit tired of hearing this complaint honestly, since the kind of editing employed in those films has never really bothered me. I think it actually serves those films pretty well, as, to me anyway, it enhances the intensity of the action.

But at the same time, I can see why people would find it off-putting. I did too, the first time I saw The Bourne Supremacy in the second row of the theater (my sister and I hadn’t anticipated that there would be so many people at the theater that night). Those kinds of people should be able to follow the action in The Raid with little difficulty.

Another great thing about this movie is that the fights don’t get boring. A movie with as many fight scenes as this one has runs the risk of becoming repetitive, but Evans is clearly aware of this and he varies the camera angles during the fights so that each one feels different. He also varies the setup for each fight: one where the protagonist takes on a hallway of bad guys with a nightstick and a combat knife, one where he fights a gang of thugs with machetes, a couple of one-on-one fights, and a two-on-one fight where the one is very evenly matched against the two.

This last one in particular is a marvel to behold: it lasts for about seven minutes straight and easily tops anything Michael Bay has ever done. The two protagonists battle the aptly-named Mad Dog, who can’t be much taller than five-foot-six or –seven but more than makes up for it, as he thrashes the protagonists and nearly beats both of them.

Ultimately he doesn’t, of course, because he’s a bad guy. His inevitable death is bloody and brutal, but the great thing is that since the viewer has already seen him take so much punishment, you’re half-expecting him to get up again. And Evans clearly knows this, since the camera lingers on Mad Dog’s bloody corpse as the protagonists leave the room, and the viewer is almost expecting him to get right back up and start handing out beatdowns again.

As you may have gathered, The Raid is not for the faint of heart. It’s brutal, bloody and relentless, and like Mad Dog, it just keeps coming at you. But it is also AWESOME, and is more entertaining and inventive than most Hollywood movies.

Gareth Evans for Expendables 3, anyone?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

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They’re BACK.

I love action movies. Roger Ebert always complains about how he doesn’t like action movies and turns his brain off whenever a car chase starts. I have a huge amount of respect for Mr. Ebert, he’s pretty much the Godfather of movie reviewing, but I couldn’t disagree with him more. I like movies that are exciting and get your blood pumping. I like movies that no one else seems to for just this very reason. I liked the new Total Recall. I liked G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. I liked the first and third Transformers movies (the second one was terrible). I liked Clash of the Titans AND Wrath of the Titans. I like every action movie Arnold Schwarzenegger has ever been in (except Batman and Robin).

I like all of these movies for one very simple reason: they’re FUN. I go to the movies primarily to be ENTERTAINED, and I like movies that accomplish that.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that every movie should be an action movie, or that movies serve no purpose beyond entertainment. Part of the appeal of movies is that they’re versatile. Movies can tell any kind of story you want them to. So I’m not saying that every movie has to exist solely for the purposes of entertainment, all I’m saying is that when I go to the movie theater, 9 times out of 10 it is just to have fun.

Which is why I’ve been spending quite a bit of time at the theater lately. Over the past month, I’ve been to the theater seven times, which I’m pretty sure is a record for me. Four of those trips were to see The Dark Knight Rises (tying another personal record for me that has stood since 2004, when I saw Spider-Man 2 four times). I’ve also seen Total Recall, The Bourne Legacy, and, this past Friday, The Expendables 2.

Expendables 2 was my second-most-anticipated summer movie, after The Dark Knight Rises of course (Avengers came out in May so I didn’t really count it as a summer movie, though I guess it kicked off Summer Movie Season). I enjoyed the hell out of the first Expendables movie, as you can probably imagine. Take all the biggest action heroes of the past few decades and put them together? Yes, please. The sequel, of course, promised more of the same, with the more-than-welcome additions of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, and expanded roles for Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. All of this was just fine by me, so I headed out to the theater last Friday afternoon, and am happy to say that my expectations of a rollicking good time were largely met.

I say “largely” instead of “entirely” because the movie was mostly missing two elements that are common to most movies, said elements being plot and character development. As in, there were none. Of either. The plot amounts to this: Bad guy (Jean-Claude Van Damme, playing a guy named Vilain, just in case you somehow missed the point that VILAIN is a VILLAIN) wants to get plutonium so he can sell it or something. Good guys don’t want this to happen.

Seriously. That’s it. That’s the entire plot summary, right there. Vilain the villain is given no motivation and no personality whatsoever, aside from one seemingly random moment where he yells, “Let’s make some MONEY!!” or something to that effect. Pretty much nobody in the movie has any personality or really gets to do much of anything remotely interesting.

Jet Li, for example, exits the film after about 10 minutes and does not show up again. He does get to thrash a roomful of henchmen using nothing more than a pair of frying pans however, so I guess that helps make up for it. Chuck Norris appears randomly midway through the movie, shoots some dudes, disappears for a while, and then randomly shows up a little later to shoot some more dudes. He has maybe four lines.

Ditto for Willis and Schwarzenegger. They toss off a few one-liners, blast some bad guys, and that’s about it. The movie’s climactic final battle consists almost entirely of hordes of faceless henchmen being machine-gunned en masse by our motley group of heroes while they toss off one-liners. So from any traditional way of judging a movie’s quality, Expendables 2 was more or less a complete disaster.

But was I entertained? Yes. Absolutely.

It was fun, so I liked it, despite the aforementioned laundry list of flaws. It brought together a ton of recognizable faces, and even though none of them got to do much of anything, it was fun to see them all onscreen together. The action scenes were badass and there were lots of ‘em, although I was a bit disappointed with the final battle. And even though none of those familiar faces got to do anything interesting plotwise, at least they all got to kick some ass.

And let’s face it, a movie like this barely even needs a plot anyway. It’s pretty much just an excuse to bring a bunch of badasses together and let them go town on some bad guys. And you know something? I am okay with that. Expendables 2 is pure entertainment, no more, no less.

I probably liked the first one more since it felt fresher and at least had a semblance of plot and some small amount of character development, and the final battle was more satisfying. But both movies are lots of fun for action fans such as myself, enjoyably self-deprecating about how old some of their stars (especially Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Stallone) are getting. Who needs plot when you can have 100 minutes of straight-up ass kicking? That’s what these movies are for, and they succeed marvelously at being exactly what they set out to be.

And for my fellow action fans, may I recommend “The Raid: Redemption,” an excellent Indonesian martial-arts film that is already something of a cult classic. It’s really, really badass, and there’s already talk of an American remake which will no doubt be nowhere near as good as the original.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

The Closest I’ve ever Felt to Death at the Movies

I mentioned a while ago that I was going to write about death in movies, and here it is. You probably don’t need me to tell you that this isn’t going to be very much fun, but it’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a while so here it is. Instead of talking about the general portrayal of death in films, I’m going to talk about three specific films that really affected me in this regard. Those films are Saving Private Ryan, Aliens, and The Grey. There will be spoilers for these movies, so be aware of that also.

A quick clarification. The title of this piece is meant to be FIGURATIVE, NOT LITERAL. I stress this in the wake of the horrible shooting in Colorado at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. I have never been in a situation like that and I pray to God I never will. My purpose in writing this is not to try to make light of a tragedy, it’s to explore something meaningful to me that films have helped me think about. Though I suppose you could say that the Colorado shooting brought some of these thoughts more to the forefront of my mind.

Besides, I don’t think there’s anything I can say about the shooting that Christopher Nolan hasn’t already said himself: “I would not presume to know anything about the victims of the shooting but that they were there last night to watch a movie. I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me. Nothing any of us can say could ever adequately express our feelings for the innocent victims of this appalling crime, but our thoughts are with them and their families.” I wanted to share that quote from Nolan because he really is a class act, and like I said, there’s nothing I could really add that Nolan hasn’t already said himself far more eloquently than I would be able to.

Now that I’ve said all that, let’s move on to the actual films I’m going to talk about here. First up is Saving Private Ryan. This is already a fairly infamous movie, both due to its extremely graphic violence and the fact that it somehow lost the Best Picture Oscar in 1998 to Shakespeare in Love, which was good but not that good. Saving Private Ryan is one of those movies that is amazing but that I’ve only managed to actually watch all the way through maybe twice. There’s a lot to say about this film, from the fact that the opening D-Day invasion scene is so realistic that WWII veterans who saw it had flashbacks, to the fact that Vin Diesel of all people is in it, and so much more. But there is only one scene I’m going to focus on here, a scene that has haunted me since the first time I saw it and remains indelibly burned on my memory.

This particular scene happens during the final battle of the film. One of the outnumbered American soldiers (I think his name was Mellish) is holed up in a wrecked building and is attacked by a German soldier. The Mellish’s friend has been shot in the throat and lies gurgling on the floor while Mellish desperately fights the German soldier in hand-to-hand combat. It’s an almost unbearably tense scene, and the desperation inherent in both combatants is elevated by that other soldier, lying on the ground choking on his own blood while all of this is going on.

But the worst part comes when the German soldier gets the upper hand, and starts slowly, agonizingly, moving a knife towards Mellish’s heart. Mellish pleads with the German soldier, imploring him to stop, but the knife slowly, inevitably, pierces Mellish’s chest and you can see, you can feel the life ebbing away from him. His body shudders as the blade goes in deeper, with the German soldier whispering to him hauntingly the entire time. I don’t speak German, but according to IMDB this is what the German soldier says as Mellish dies: “Give up, you don’t stand a chance! Let’s end this here! It will be easier for you, much easier. You’ll see it will be over quickly.”

I have a high tolerance for violence in movies, as you may have gathered, but all of this combines to make a scene that is nearly impossible for me to watch. Steven Spielberg films it in such a way that he makes you feel Mellish’s death almost as much as if you were actually there. It’s also remarkable that Spielberg manages to humanize the German soldier who kills Mellish, as he could easily have come off as a soulless monster. But he’s just a soldier too, doing his duty like everybody else. There are other agonizing death scenes in the film, but this is the one that made the biggest impression on me.

Next up is Aliens. Now I know that the inclusion of this film here may seem odd, since it’s an 80’s sci-fi action flick directed by James Cameron, but stick with me. There’s a scene late in the film where Sigourney Weaver’s famous heroine Ripley and the few survivors of previous alien attacks are fleeing from yet another alien attack, and one of them, a Marine named Vasquez, falls behind. The Marine sergeant, Gorman, tells the rest of the group to keep going while he goes back for Vasquez. It’s basically a suicide mission, as Vasquez is too badly injured to walk, and Gorman soon runs out of ammunition. Knowing the situation is hopeless as the aliens are closing in, Gorman pulls a grenade, looks at it, and activates it.

What follows is roughly five seconds of the most excruciating cinema I’ve ever seen, as Vasquez and Gorman wrap their hands around the grenade and wait for it all to end. Cameron draws out the moment, and like Spielberg, he makes you experience every single nerve-shredding moment of it right along with the characters. The first time I saw Aliens, I almost felt in a way like I too had only a few seconds to live along with these characters. Those few seconds were over in a flash, and yet at the same time felt like they went on forever. It was extraordinary and terrifying at the same time.

Last is The Grey. I wrote about this film a few weeks ago, but I left out some things about it since I wanted to save them for later. So, here they are now. I want to talk about the way this film depicts death. It’s surprisingly intimate, really. After the plane Liam Neeson’s character Ottway is on crashes, he makes his way back to the crash site, where some of his fellow passengers are trying desperately to save a man who has clearly been severely injured. He’s been graphically cut open and blood spurts from his wounds. He’s understandably starting to panic.

The men with him look to Ottway for help. Ottway puts his hand on the injured man’s shoulder and says, very simply, “You’re going to die.” The man is understandably unwilling to accept this, but Ottway manages to reassure him. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” he says. “It’ll slide over you, it’ll start to feel warm, nice and warm. Let your thoughts go. Who do you love? Let them take you…” and the man dies, peacefully. Ottway knows he can’t save the man, but he manages to make the end easier. It’s a remarkable scene, graphic and disturbing yet also beautiful and intimate and heartfelt.

The thing about this film is that it doesn’t cheapen death. Often in films, death is portrayed almost casually. I fully admit that this is especially true of the action movies I love. But The Grey treats it with seriousness and compassion. One of the characters who survived the crash starts taking wallets from the bodies of the dead until Ottway stops him, telling him vehemently that “we’re not looting dead bodies for swag.” The man reluctantly relents, and the group collects the wallets and takes them with them as something to give to their families if they make it back alive, knowing that they probably won’t. The wallets become a reminder of every life lost. At the end of the film, after he has stumbled into the wolves’ den, Ottway takes the wallets out of his backpack and looks through them, seeing the pictures of wives and children that he has heard about but never met, and never will, and who will never see their husbands and fathers again. The film acknowledges that the dead are gone but never forgotten.

A character asks Ottway later in the film if what he said to the dying man in the plane is true. “Does it slide over you? Is it true?” and Ottway says, “Yes.” How does Ottway know this? How could anyone still living know what death is like? I don’t know, but The Grey is a film that brings you closer to knowing.

One more scene, then I’m done. It pains me to even think about this scene, let alone write about it, but here goes. When there are only two characters left, Ottway and an extremely likable fellow named Hendrick, they are struggling along as best they can when the wolves show up again and start chasing them. Hendrick trips and falls into an icy river, where he is swept along by the unforgiving current. His foot gets stuck between some rocks, and his face is just inches below the surface of the water. Ottway tries to free him, to life him up to the air, but he can’t quite do it.

Hendrick drowns, mere inches away from air.

Drowning is one of my biggest fears. The idea of being completely helpless as darkness overwhelms you terrifies me beyond words. The thing about this scene in the film is that it’s agonizing even if you don’t look at it, as Hendrick’s desperate gurgling cries underwater are as heartrending as anything else in the film. It’s made even more unbearable by the fact that Hendrick is the most appealing, reliable, and genuinely likable character in the film, and watching him die so painfully is nearly impossible.

Well, there it is. The closest I’ve ever felt to death at the movies. I’m sorry this post was so dark. I don’t want to depress people, and I don’t want to trivialize something important. I just really wanted to write about this, it’s one of those things I just couldn’t shake. It was difficult to write and probably difficult to read, but it was worth it to write and hopefully worth it to read. I promise to do something more lighthearted and uplifting next time.

I find it truly extraordinary how art is capable of making us feel like we can actually know the unknowable. Life is precious, and I’m grateful to these films for reminding me of that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

Bane’s Tears

It was totally worth it.

That was my first thought once the movie was over. It was completely, totally, absolutely worth it. All the hype, all the buzz, all the long months of rabid anticipation have paid off.

I could tell you a lot of things about “The Dark Knight Rises.” I could tell you about how epic it is in scale. I could tell you about how it’s technically flawless. I could tell you about how great the acting is. About how Michael Caine doesn’t get much screen time but easily warrants a Best Supporting Actor nomination, if there were any justice in the world. About how Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman provides a bit of levity in an otherwise incredibly dark story, or about how every time Bane speaks, chills will run down your spine.

I could tell you about all of these things.

But I won’t.

If you’ve read any reviews of this film, you’ve probably heard about all of these things already anyway, and from people much more experienced in describing them than I.

Instead, I’m going to tell you about what this film meant to me.

To put it simply, it meant a lot. Christopher Nolan’s entire Batman trilogy has been something of a dream come true for me and for plenty of other Bat-fans. It’s meant a return to prominence for the Dark Knight, and a return to the character’s dark, serious roots. I walked out of the theater after having seen Batman Begins in 2005 with the incredibly gratifying sense that, after nearly two decades of mediocre-to-terrible Batman films, my hero had finally been done right.

I’ve been a dedicated Bat-fan ever since I got my very first Batman action figure. As best as I can figure, this was around 1992, when Batman Returns was in theaters. I had no idea then who Batman was, all I knew was that my uncle was very kindly going to buy me a toy, and the dude with the pointy ears looked coolest. I still have that action figure. His joints are loose and his colors are faded, but he’s still kicking.

The biggest part of my Bat-education when I was a kid was the still-awesome Batman Animated Series, which I think ran in its original incarnation from around 1992 to around 1994. I could look that up, but I’m lazy so I’m not going to.

Man that show was awesome. To this day, the voices of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark “Luke Skywalker” Hamill as the Joker are the voices I hear in my head whenever I read a Batman comic. I remember that show also scared the hell out of me sometimes — there were a few episodes that were incredibly creepy. The entire series recently become available on DVD, and I had fun reliving those memories. That series is also the primary reason I have always had a huge crush on Catwoman, and needless to say, Anne Hathaway was a worthy successor to the Animated Series’ Catwoman, who had always been my favorite.

But enough with the nostalgia. I’ve seen “Rises” three times now (once in IMAX, which was AWESOME) and I can safely say that anyone who tells you they were disappointed by it is completely full of shit.

Aside from the sheer dizzying scale of the film, here’s part of what makes it so impressive: it feels like a natural continuation of the story begun in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. In so many cases, sequels feel tacked-on or unnecessary, and rarely make any sense plotwise. Take the Matrix or Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, all of which were largely unnecessary and mostly incomprehensible.

Not so with The Dark Knight Rises. It builds upon the story begun in the previous two films in a way that feels organic and logical. Everything that happened in BB and TDK is important and has an effect on the story of the third film. So many times with sequels, the story that was established in the earlier films is ignored or restructured in order to make room for a half-assed plot in a movie that would never be as good as the original in the first place (look at Spider-Man 3 for an example of this). This is not the case with Christopher Nolan’s third Batman film. Everything that happened in the previous two films is acknowledged and unchanged, which makes these three films feel cohesive and strongly connected to each other, like they’re really all part of the same story.

That’s really all I have to say on the film for now. There’s plenty more I could say about the plot, but I won’t give it away for those of you who haven’t seen it yet (and if you haven’t, seriously, go see it ASAP). Between Nolan’s epic Batman trilogy and the similarly excellent “Arkham Asylum” and “Arkham City” Batman games, it is a good time to be a Bat-fan.

A word about Bane. I’ve read some reviews and such online that didn’t like Bane, the movie’s primary villain. That his voice was too hard to understand or his character was underdeveloped or some such. I disagree. While there are some differences between Bane’s portrayal in this film and his comic book backstory, I can easily forgive those differences. The version of Bane in this film makes sense because it is so strongly connected to the previous two films. And even if his backstory isn’t the same as it was in the comic book, it doesn’t really matter because the essence of the character remains unchanged.

Tom Hardy’s performance in the role reminded me of Hugo Weaving as V in V for Vendetta, since the mask he’s wearing for the entirety of the film means that you can’t see his facial expressions. But give Hardy and Weaving a lot of credit, both of them invest a lot of emotion into characters that could seem like mindless automatons. Both performances are strongly dependent on body language and vocal inflections, and in my opinion, both actors knocked it out of the park. Watch Bane during the final battle with Batman, and as how he becomes more desperate, he starts to fight more ferociously, like a wounded animal. It’s something I didn’t really notice the first time I saw the film, which is why you really need to see it more than once. And in the end, a single tear from Bane is enough to humanize the most monstrously evil cinematic villain since, well, since the last Batman movie.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch (namely, The Dark Knight Rises).