Archive for March, 2012

Review: The Raid

Posted in Review with tags , , , , , on March 29, 2012 by freedonialives

The interplay between police and criminal organizations has long been a topic of interest for filmmakers, and it’s the blurring of those two groups that The Raid is interested in exploring. Although set in the slums of Jakarta, Indonesia, the film works with existing action and martial arts archetypes making it easily readable for international audiences. The visually rich and inventive action moves the story along, with sparse dialog during moments of relative calm filling in what can’t be conveyed with bullets, blades, or fists. A run down tenement building in Jakarta’s slums run by local organized crime offers refuge for the city’s most dangerous criminals, making it too dangerous for police to even approach under normal circumstances. The film follows a group of SWAT police as they attempt to take control of the building and capture the crime lord who runs it, although that can’t being to describe the violent chaos that makes up the bulk of the 101 minute running time.

In the sparse few minutes before the titular raid begins, the film establishes the SWAT police as a well trained and equipped force, decked out head to toe in black uniforms, ballistic vests, and helmets. This also serves to dehumanize them slightly, making it more difficult to establish individuals from the group. They approach the apartment block with all the stealth they can muster, neutralizing spotters and tenants in silence as they move up into the heart of the structure. A spotter slips through their grasp, informing the big boss that the police have arrived. Using the building’s central intercom system, the boss gives the signal to lock it down, and promises free room to anyone willing to assist in taking out the police. Within the space of a few minutes, the situation appears entirely reversed, the clockwork professionalism melting away into gunfire, darkness, and blood.

The criminals that live in the building lack the glamour that is often given to underworld figures in film. No finely tailored suits or street fashions here, just the threadbare sweat stained clothing of the desperately poor. Almost all of them look terribly thin and haggard, like they haven’t had the luxury of eating to the point of fullness for years. Their desperation is made so plain to see that it’s easy to understand why they would risk their lives for any chance to make their lives more stable, even if it means killing cops. They swarm out from dark, damp, and dismal rooms to confront the invaders only to meet their ends in quick bursts of gunfire. The SWAT team can’t kill them fast enough, and they retreat to an apartment and barricade the door.

That’s act 1, maybe 15-20 minutes of the movie; the speed that the director Gareth Evans is able to establish the situation and stakes is quite impressive. There’s an economy to the storytelling that is very uncommon in Hollywood movies today. Working with a budget of  $1,100,000 there is simply no room for fat in the screenplay, so the action scenes tend to be very dynamic, moving the characters through multiple locations, introducing new adversaries, and furthering the plot all without slowing down. So it’s while the SWAT team is on the run that they learn their white haired lieutenant has been hiding some key facts from them, like that the raid was never authorized by headquarters, so not only can they not call for help, but no one knows they’re even there. It’s during this sequence that their imposing uniforms begin to degrade as they’re shed piece by piece over the course of the film. With less gear in the way, their faces and personalities become more clear, but they also start looking less and less like cops. Without any ammo left, their weapons also shift away from the impersonal violence of firing guns, to clubs and knives, to finally their bare hands.

Pencak silat, the native Indonesian martial art that is demonstrated in the film, seems to be a very no nonsense style with every strike attempting to end the fight as quickly as possible. This makes for some very brutal and bloody fight sequences, as the style incorporate the knife, police baton, and the machete. Iko Uwais plays Rama, a rookie member of the SWAT team, who is able to retain his basic humanity even while committing amazing acts of violence. The film’s use of violence is very interesting in that there’s a lack of glorification to any of it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a crook or a cop that’s stabbing someone, they’re both filmed in a way that provokes revulsion, shock, and horror. So even when Rama, the hero of the movie, stabs someone in the thigh it’s a disgusting unpleasant act; the film does nothing to sanitize his violence even though his character is acting with police authority.

Warning: above video is not suitable at all for work, and contains acts of violence. Also contains minor spoilers.

The film also displays a post-structuralist understanding of the nature of urban combat, which seems to be an increasingly common theme in action movies these days. Both the SWAT team and the criminals opposing them understand that walls, floors, doors, windows, etc… are more symbolic than hard immutable structures. All can be altered to better fit the current situation, especially in a decaying structure like the one the film is set in. Each time these symbols are deconstructed, the overall level of tension is raised; if the normally solid boundaries that make up a room are no longer sacred, then danger could come from anywhere at any time.

The Raid treats the home as merely wood, the human body as meat, the police as corrupt, and the criminals as unglamorously poor and desperate, but it manages to avoid nihilism. Love, compassion, kindness, duty, honor, and family are treated with respect even during the most chaotic moments. Rama doesn’t triumph by dehumanizing himself, but by embracing his humanity. The film’s full name in Western markets is The Raid: Redemption, and while it makes for a clunky title, it does speak to the more uplifting theme of the movie, that no one is too far gone to start being a moral person. It may not absolve them of their previous actions, but the world would be a much better place if more people were brave enough to change their ways. Which is a hell of a thing to say about a movie with this many knife wounds.



Review: Coriolanus

Posted in Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2012 by freedonialives

Fascism and cinema have a long and uneasy history together, filled with tyrannical directors that push auteur theory to authoritarianism. A unification of group effort towards the vision of one man above all else, a leader who creates an orderly narrative out of the chaos of the real world. In Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes asks the viewer to follow the journey of Caius Martius Coriolanus as he walks the path of hatred, oppression, and power. Other directors may have softened the lead character, but in doing so would twist the narrative to an even darker tale. A fascist leader in an anti-fascist story can’t be the good guy, as that undermines the whole point.

Fiennes’ Caius Martius is a man more at home in the battlefield than the halls of power in his home city of Rome, or even resting in his palatial estate with his mother, wife, and son. There seems to be a clarity of purpose in war that makes sense to him; there’s an enemy that must be defeated, and every action taken is in service of this goal. The path to that goal may be paved with the gruesome horrors of war, but it’s an approach to life that makes sense to him. The endless politicking in the capital disturbs him greatly, both in it’s apparent pointlessness, and as a reminder that this is the supposedly great civilization that he’s been fighting for his entire life.

Martius’s contempt for politicians is only trumped by his hatred for the citizens of Rome. They’re presented in the film as a collection of peoples from all over Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and even Asia. What they lack in ethnic unity is more than made up for by their collective poverty, and very real hunger. Martius begins the film tasked with preventing the protesting citizens from raiding the city’s grain stores, relishing the chance to show them just what he thinks of them through the cudgels of his soldiers. He’s called away to fight the external threat of the Volscians before he gets that chance, but not before making enemies of the people.

The Volscian commander Aufidius(Gerad Butler) is a bitter rival of Martius, the two having fought many times before. While their respective armies are fighting for the city of Corioles, they’re much more interested in defeating the other. They wallow in the cruelties of modern urban warfare, understanding the post-structural nature of it, the way that it undermines human preconceptions of constructed space.

this space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. […] The question is how do you interpret the alley? […] We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. […] I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war.

Martius finds Aufidius, and the two resolve to end the conflict through single combat with knives. The ensuing combat is partially reminiscent of West Side Story in it’s ritual aspect, while also bringing to mind the brutal fight between Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live. Before a clear victor is decided, Aufidius’s men pull him away, and retreat from the city. Cauis Martius has taken Corioles for Rome, and gains a cognomen in honor of this victory: Coriolanus. Soon enough, this is the only name he has left.

Cauis Martius Coriolanus returns to Rome a hero, is thrust into the world of politics by his family and so called friends, and leaves the city an exile, stripped of title, rank, name and surname. Only Coriolanus remains, only the warrior conqueror who desires revenge upon Rome. His contempt is so great that he entrusts his life to his old enemy Aufidius, who accepts him with brotherly arms. A cult of personality grows around him, his shaved pate becoming a symbol of allegiance, the barber’s chair his throne. With his intimate knowledge of Roman defenses, the army easily pushes into Rome. While his wife(Jessica Chastain) and child try to appeal to mercy, it’s his mother(Vanessa Redgrave) that forces him to break down in tears to spare the city. A peace treaty is signed, but Coriolanus acted against the wishes of Aufidius, and he is killed on the road in an unceremonious group stabbing. It’s the kind of the end that fascist leaders often face.

Fiennes does not hesitate to make his Coriolanus hateful, easy to dislike, and yet filled with a brutal masculine charisma. The film’s modern aesthetics contrast wonderfully with the Shakespearean language, creating a world that is alien and chillingly familiar. The audience is privy to all the backhanded scheming of the consuls, so that the violent simplicity of Coriolanus seems refreshingly honest. The viewer is invited to become complicit in his contempt, his rage, and his hate mirroring the charms of fascism. The simplicity of viewing the world in stark black and white terms is made much more appealing when the shades of gray are so perfidious. The pair of opposing Roman consuls, Brutus and Sicinius, are so brazen in their attempts at destroying the political future of Coriolanus that it’s shockingly easy to forget that they’re completely justified in trying to prevent him from gaining any more power.

The tragedy of the film isn’t just that of Coriolanus, but of our own history.


Revisited: Kazaam

Posted in Revisited with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2012 by freedonialives

Kazaam is a terrible movie, but there’s a treasure trove of subtext to be explored. It offers insight into Shaq’s faith, rap career, and the darker side of being an NBA player. It’s a harsh critique of white American culture circa 1996, but also of the country’s long history of slavery and exploitation, all while offering up a caricature of Arabs that would seem racist by Bugs Bunny standards.

Made at the height of Shaquille O’Neil’s stardom, Kazaam tells the story of a magical genie rapper who lives in an old boombox that helps  young rich white kid Max reunite with his scumbag father, and come to terms with his new stepfather. Unlike Disney’s beloved Aladdin, Max never concerns himself with trying to free the djinn bound to serve him, or even create a pretense that he’s considering it. Once Kazaam proves that he’s not a mentally ill homeless man by granting Max’s first wish of junk food that rains from the sky, Max quickly accepts that he owns a sentient magical being, and calls him his slave. It should be noted that when Kazaam first emerges from his boombox prison, he’s wearing traditional African garb, and speaks English with what seems like a North African/Middle Eastern accent. O’Neal is a Muslim, so these out of place elements that allude to Arabian mythology, and the African slave trade might not be as inexplicable as they seem. Later in the film, he emerges out of Max’s bedroom dressed like a Black Muslim, complete with bow tie; it’s hard to believe that all of this is coincidental. He also speaks almost entirely in rhyme, foreshadowing entire segments of the movie designed to highlight O’Neal’s would be rap career:

The shady looking Mr. Malik (Marshall Manesh) in that last clip is only clear antagonist of the movie, who realizes that Kazaam is a djinn of legend, and seeks to gain ownership of him at all costs. In his pursuit, his goons assault Max’s deadbeat music pirate father, and later throws Max down a open elevator shaft. With Max dead, and in control of the boombox, Malik summons Kazaam to be his slave, but in a very unclear sequence the djinn is able to overpower him. Now free, Kazaam crushes his body into the shape of a basketball, slam dunks him into a garbage disposal, and lets out a howl of rage. If the intended tone was goofy, the scene reads as horrific and gruesome.

Then this happens:

It’s not often that a kid’s movie has a black man ascend into a new plane of spiritual being, becoming an angelic creature of light that can bring back the dead. Maybe O’Neal is a fan of Sun-Ra?

Kazaam is without a doubt a bad movie, but as a cultural artifact it shines. It’s hard to imagine a movie about a rich white kid owning a rapping slave coming out today, and that’s probably a good thing.

Review: Safe House

Posted in Review with tags , , , , on March 2, 2012 by freedonialives

Safe House is a mediocre movie that contains worthwhile commentary on the state of US intelligence operations abroad, and the nature of what it means to be a spy. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t quite up to the task to do that commentary justice. Shot like The Bourne franchise with the color palette of mid-2000s Tony Scott, the film is visually abrasive. This makes for a very harsh, and very shaky image, with an amazing amount of film grain and visual noise, and characters who are almost always in shadow.

Ryan Reynolds is Matt Weston, a CIA agent with what he considers a garbage detail running the agency’s safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. That name sounds familiar, but it may have been borrowed from the original screenplay for this movie, which was passed around Hollywood long enough to end up on The Black List. Denzel Washington plays Tobin Frost, a rogue CIA agent that has been operating as a lone wolf for a decade, selling secrets to whoever is buying. Reynolds is itching for a more prestigious posting, and after Washington turns himself in to escape being killed by a hit squad, he’s taken to Reynolds’ safe house. Of course, things aren’t simple in the cloak and dagger game, and the situation rapidly deteriorates putting Reynolds far out of his comfort zone as he tries to keep Washington in his custody, and keep both of them alive.

Robert Patrick, Brendan Gleeson, and Vera Farmiga all show up as CIA agents in secondary roles, but the movie doesn’t give them much to do beyond grimace, bark orders, and do the same while talking into cell phones. They serve little purpose but to give exposition and help transition from action scene to action scene. They do what they can to make these small roles more interesting, but the writing just isn’t there to support their talents. Gleeson in particular feels very squandered, as his character’s relationship with Reynold’s is left almost completely unexplored. He’s introduced as a senior CIA agent who acts as a mentor to Reynolds, but the movie doesn’t go into more detail than that. Exploring what it means to trust someone implicitly in an organization so rife with deception and duplicity would have served the themes of the movie very well, but the filmmakers seem more interested in focusing on the action elements than the characters.

That shallow approach undermines much of the film, but the element that it hurts the most is Washington’s character. While he’s introduced as a master manipulator, a rouge figure whose gift of gab is more dangerous than any weapon, he only gets a few chances to demonstrate those skills. Undermining his character further is that the audience knows too much about the situation from all the exposition back at Langley, so that when he begins to turn Reynolds to his side, there’s no ambiguity to it. For there to be tension in Reynolds being turned, there has to be doubt that he’s making the wrong choice. In pursuit of clarity, the movie manages to remove the paranoia from what should be a paranoid thriller.

There’s a sequence about halfway into the film where the stars, the location shooting, the plot, and the cinematography all come together to shine, showing what could have been. Awake for over 24 hours, Reynolds is out of the titular safe house on the run from a death squad in pursuit of Washington. In this state, he brings Washington with him to a football stadium so that he can retrieve a bag of supplies that the CIA have left for him. In the chaos that is endemic to sports events, Washington is able to escape from his custody, leaving him in a state of desperation. In an instant, he’s lost all control over the situation, and there’s little he can do to talk his way out; it’s not as if he can just say he’s a CIA agent. Pushed into a corner, he finds that he has more in common with Washington’s character, and that thought terrifies him more than any of the gun battles or car chases in the film.

Had the filmmakers made better use of the talent, Safe House could be a new classic, but that’s sadly not the case.


Review: Act of Valor

Posted in Review with tags , , , , , , on March 2, 2012 by freedonialives

Act of Valor may be the most troubling film of the year, if not the last few years. There’s no way to evaluate it as anything other than propaganda, making many of the narrative choices rather disturbing. Although it began as an internal recruitment film for people already in the American armed forces, the filmmakers convinced the Navy to let them turn it into a feature length film for theatrical release. This makes for an oddly paced, strangely plotted narrative filled with non-actor active duty Navy SEALs in the hero roles.

None of the SEALs are credited, ostensibly to protect their identity, but the effect is oddly dehumanizing when combined with their stilted wooden acting. It’s as if they’ve subsumed their personality and identity completely to the military completely, no longer even retaining their names. That they’re noticeably  not Hollywood caliber actors isn’t a knock against the SEALs, it’s explicitly not what they’re trained to do, and they had no real choice in appearing the film as they’re acting under orders. It’s not clear if they were paid to appear in the film beyond their normal military pay, and it’s faults are certainly not on their shoulders. It’s not like they could just quit.

Opening with a white Muslim terrorist bombing an international school in Manila,Philippines using an ice cream van so that he can kill the most children possible, the film makes it very clear that subtlety has no place in this narrative. Same with character motivations, as the terrorists never make it clear what their goals are beyond killing innocent people, and hurting the American economy. That level of understanding may work on Fox News, but providing some kind of insight into the antagonists’ motives is normal in a narrative; James Bond villains are typically better developed. He has help in maybe the most antisemitic character in modern American cinema, an international Jewish businessman who seems to be funding South American drug cartels, Eastern European textile sweatshops, and inexplicably the Jihadi from the opening. Later in the film when he’s pressed to explain this, even he has no answer. Their plan is to use their global network of anti-American allies to sneak suicide bombers into the US through Mexican drug cartel controlled tunnels under the border. It’s a conspiracy so insane that it’s taken seriously by the far right wing in US politics. The SEALs only stumble onto this plot when they rescue a CIA agent who has been kidnapped and tortured by Columbian narco-terrorists. The sequence where they rescue her is the most coherent in the film, but also filled with strangeness.

Since the action scenes were originally shot to demonstrate official tactics and Standard Operating Procedure, there’s an odd lack of tension every time a battle occurs. It’s as if every pedantic complaint about the lack of realism in action films was taken seriously, and then some. The SEALs operate so perfectly that despite the attempt to be as real as possible, it feels like a videogame. Every shot is a headshot, they’re able to move unseen like ghosts, and not a moment of fear or trepidation is expressed. There are numerous shots from the first person point of view, looking down the sights of their guns which only adds to the videogame-like nature, but the moment that pushes it over the edge is when a SEAL who was shot in the head seems to self-resurrect. One moment he’s in the back of a truck with a gunshot to the face and no pulse, the next he’s alive, awake, and talking. That the CIA agent was tortured with a powerdrill so that she has wounds resembling stigmata can’t be accidental either. In this film there is a God, and he’s on the side of America.

While the SEALs are slightly dehumanized, the antagonists outside of the two villain characters are completely faceless. The ease with which they’re killed by the SEAL team makes them feel like animals being culled. As the SEALs close in on their compound, the film intercuts their actions with a shot of a spider in it’s web, trapping and killing a flying insect. Within the film, it’s only natural that these faceless foreigners die at the hands of SEALs. They’re portrayed as both a serious threat to America, and totally incompetent. Not only does this make for disturbing subtext, but it’s bad cinema. The narrative limitations of a recruiting film prevent the technical excellence of the filmmakers from shining through on an almost constant basis.

Connecting the action sequences is a story that highlights two of the white SEALs as brothers in arms, and it’s this element that might be the most troubling. One is a family man with 5 children, the other is an expectant father who deploys hoping to get back home in time for his child’s birth. The interaction between these two men is almost exclusively focused on family, and how military service is an integral part of their family life and history. On top of that is the near constant narration by one of the men, pushing the themes of blood and honor to levels that approach parody. It’s implied at one point that an old family flag carried under the body armor of one of them is what protects him from taking an RPG to the chest. As in, a rocket propelled grenade hits his chest, bounces off, and doesn’t explode.

Roger Ebert’s review contrasts the film with a documentary, Hell and Back Again, about Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris and his experiences serving in Afghanistan.

I have a feeling that the teenage Nathan Harris, who wanted to kill people, would have loved “Act of Valor.” But “Hell and Back Again,” in describing his life today, doesn’t play like a recruitment film. A great deal is made by the directors McCoy and Waugh that actual live ammunition was used in the making of their film. Actual live ammunition was also used in “Hell and Back Again.” If you asked Sgt. Nathan Harris what he thought about using live ammo in a Hollywood action movie, what do you suppose he would say? My best guess is, he would say they were damned fools.

Act of Valor’s attempt to be as realistic as possible ends up as a twisted jingoistic mess, on a similar level to the recent sci-fi tinged Air Force recruitment ads. Audiences deserve better, and the troops sure as hell deserve better.