Category: film reviews (page 3 of 3)

‘Damsels in Distress’ review: a cult director’s wobbly but welcome return

Whit Stillman, gone from movies for 13 years, brings his familiar dry tone to a tale of college students with crackpot ideas.

Damsels in Distress Gerwig Tipton.jpegGreta Gerwig (l.) and Analeigh Tipton in "Damsels in Distress"
It’s such happy news that we have a new movie from Whit Stillman -- the first in 13 years, in fact -- that one feels positively churlish responding to it with only lukewarm enthusiasm.  But hopefulness aside, “Damsels in Distress,” the long-awaited comeback from the creator of the chatty, urbane 1990s trilogy of “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco,” reveals a familiar talent needing still to work out the rust.  

Set at the fictional Seven Oaks College (itself played by a historic sailor’s retreat on New York’s Staten Island), the film centers on the romantic and social aspirations of a presumptuous, daft upperclassman Violet (mumblecore It Girl Greta Gerwig) and a willowy, thoughtful transfer student named Lily (Analeigh Tipton of “Crazy Stupid Love”).  

At the start of the school year, Violet takes Lily under her wing, introducing her to a little knot of vaguely priggish, stiff-mannered girls who run a suicide prevention center, make a project of ennobling dimwitted frat boys with their companionship, and aspire to change the world with a new dance craze.  They’re not snobs or mean girls, not nearly.  But they are disconnected from modern reality in a way that’s at once comical and creepy.  And the men in their lives -- a pair of idiotic frat boys (hilariously played by Ryan Metcalf and Billy Magnussen) and a pair of, as one girl terms them, “operator” types -- are simultaneously disconcerted and magnetized by them, though neither stops them from acting like cads or worse.

The plot is hardly the thing in a Whit Stillman film, but “Damsels” (which adapts its title, a song and a minor character from a 1937 Fred Astaire film), is choppier than its predecessors, comprised, really, of a string of incidents and even gags that are more connected by tone and setting than logic.  Some of it is dazzling in its drollery and quiet cheek.  But more than a bit of it underwhelms, and some is appallingly flat.

And yet Stillman and his actors do things that you just don’t see and that you wish the movies had more of.  Gerwig is a charming vessel for the director’s pithy depiction of an entitled mind gone slightly off track, there are cleverly built bits involving soap and dancing and half-hearted suicide attempts, and there is wonderful, quirky, keenly honed talk all throughout.  Whitman might require a few more films to get the storytelling and staging aspects of his art back to full muscularity, but his ability to capture a certain strain of the American vernacular and the American mind hasn’t deserted him in his hiatus.  And it’s delightful to behold it anew.
    
(99 min., PG-13, Fox Tower) Grade: B


‘The Raven’ review: Poe show a no-go

Edgar Allan Poe is imagined as an action hero in a shrill, bloody mystery.

The Raven.jpgJohn Cusack in "The Raven"
Befitting a film about Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven” is dark and grisly and ghoulish. But it also has qualities that Poe’s work never does:  It’s dull and mechanical and, most of all, phony.  With characters who never seem alive, a plot that never feels clever, stakes that never grip you, and irredeemably weak stabs at horror, tension, and humor, it plays like the first draft of a modestly cool concept, not a finished, polished product.

John Cusack
, who, goateed, bares a passing resemblance to the real Poe, plays the great, neglected, alcoholic writer in his final days, when Baltimore is plagued by a madman who kills people in imitation of Poe’s stories.  When the fiend kidnaps Poe’s beloved (Alice Eve), the writer joins forces with the police to rescue her.

Director James McTeigue showed real flair in his debut, “V for Vendetta,” but this film is based on much weaker source material, and his visual embellishments feel perfunctory.  The script is filled with expository dialogue, and you can’t tell from the actors’ approaches either what century they think they’re in or what tone it’s all meant to bear.  Cusack is especially guilty, throwing energies around willy-nilly as if unsure whether to play for laughs, terror or dry irony.  It doesn’t finally matter, as there’s so little in the film worth taking any attitude toward whatsoever.
 
(110 min., R, multiple locations) Grade: C-minus


‘The Five-Year Engagement’ review: in love for the long haul, without many laughs

Jason Segel and Emily Blunt can't quite seal the deal...and neither can this dull, overlong rom-com.

The Five-Year Engagement.jpgJason Segel and Emily Blunt in "The Five-Year Engagement"
Comedy means different things to different people, but I’m pretty sure that most everyone agrees that it’s best when it’s quick and funny.  

“The Five-Year Engagement”
is neither.  

Oh, there are some titters in the tale of the long-gestating romance of a San Francisco chef (Jason Segel) and his psychology student fiancée (Emily Blunt) who keep putting off their big day.  But they are fairly few and very far between in this lumpy, meandering, overlong and relentlessly phony film.  All the goodwill that the lead actors bring to the table can’t overcome the sheer ordeal of watching this wan story play itself out.

Nicholas Stoller
directs his cowriter Segel, as he did on “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (the pair also wrote “The Muppets”).  They aim for that Apatow-verse sweet spot of raunch and sentiment, but the vulgar bits are more naughty than shocking and the sentiment -- like virtually all of the acting and film craft -- reeks of artifice.  At two-plus hours, it makes for a dispiritingly long courtship for which no honeymoon can compensate.

(124 min., R, multiple theaters) Grade: C


Levy’s High Five, April 20 – 26

The five films playing in Portland-area theaters that I'd soonest see again.

The Cabin in the Woods lab.jpg"The Cabin in the Woods"
1) “We Need to Talk About Kevin” Lionel Shriver’s novel about a mother dealing with the emotional repercussions of her son’s homicidal schoolhouse rampage becomes a devastating tour de force for director Lynne Ramsay (“Morven Callar,” “Ratcatcher”) and stars Tilda Swinton (as the mom), Ezra Miller and Jasper Newell (as the boy at different ages).  It’s colorful, musical, airtight, horrifying and staggeringly vivid.  You’re reminded of how humanity has made art of the most awful events -- from Greek tragedy through “Schindler’s List” -- and how a masterful filmmaker can mold a transforming experience out of utterly dire material. Deeply disturbing, deeply beautiful, deeply compelling. Fox Tower

2) “The Raid: Redemption”
An ultra-violent, wildly kinetic martial arts film that virtually strips itself of the narrative conventions of plot, theme and characterization to create a white-knuckle thrill ride.  Writer-director Gareth Evans, a Welshman living in Indonesia, takes the simplest story -- a squad of cops attacks a Jakarta apartment house where a crime lord is ensconced -- and uses it to string together wild action sequences that leave the viewer as exhausted as if he or she had fought them.  His stars -- Iko Uwais as a baby-faced cop and Yayan Ruhian (who also choreographed) as a stringy-haired bad guy -- are dazzling.  The whole thing is pure cinema: the human body rendered as a machine capable of mayhem, daring, and, yes, grace. multiple locations

3) “Bully” An emotionally overwhelming documentaries about threads of violence in our social fabric.  Focusing on five or children who’ve been tormented and abused by schoolmates, two so relentlessly that they took their own lives, documentarian Lee Hirsch advocates without the use of any talking heads, statistics or editorial posturing.  Rather, his film actually depicts everyday acts of bullying and -- worse -- the ineffective and even hurtful responses of school authorities.  At times, the pity, outrage and empathy the evokes threaten to drown you.  But there’s a hint of light, too.  At moments you might feel slightly manipulated.  But when you look into the eyes of two fathers whose sons killed themselves rather than continue to be bullied, quibbles about journalist practice vanish from your mind. Fox Tower

4) “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”  Jiro Ono is the owner of a Tokyo sushi bar with 10 seats and 3 Michelin stars, and David Gelb’s gorgeous and intimate documentary about the man and his obsession gives you an idea of how that can not only be so but be fitting.  Jiro and his two sons (bound to the chef’s apron strings, almost literally) devote untold hours of work and thought to the perfection of sushi-making, turning a sometimes makework form of cookery into indisputably high art.  At 85, the old master still works virtually every day, and the fruit of his focus is in servings of raw fish and warm rice photographed so lusciously that you can almost taste them.  A mouthwatering film:  literally.  Hollywood Theatre, Living Room Theaters

5) "The Cabin in the Woods" A slasher movie inside a horror movie of another sort inside yet another narrative, one which looks out and the audience and asks why they (that is, we) keep lining up to watch other people get slaughtered.  A group of college students head to the titular location for a weekend’s bacchanal, only to be preyed upon and killed in grisly fashion, as per the familiar genre rules.  At the same time, a group of bureaucrats/scientists in a control room manipulate the victims and their killers in the service of...something.  Director Drew Goddard and his co-writer Joss Whedon have fun in the vein of “Scream” and in the vein of “The Truman Show” -- and they come up with an intriguing theory to explain the allure of horror films as well as a (literal) hell of a climax. Bloody, funny, clever. multiple locations



‘Marley’ review: a full-bodied bio of an artist taken too soon

The reggae superstar is the subject of an epic documentary.

Marley.jpgBob Marley
It’s more than 30 years since Bob Marley died of cancer at the horribly young age of 36, and he has become more famous and influential in the decades since his passing than he ever was in his lifetime.

This point is made quite subtly and hearteningly at the very end of the documentary “Marley,” by Kevin Macdonald (who also directed “Touching the Void” and “One Day in September” and the dramatic feature “The Last King of Scotland”). After copiously detailing the life and times of his subject, Macdonald takes us on a journey to every continent of the planet to watch as a pied array of singers, professional and not, perform Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” and “One Love.”

Those two songs indicate nicely the range of Marley’s work and spirit:  He was at once a revolutionary outsider preaching fiery justice and a holy fool imploring humanity to embrace its best angels -- and always with great hooks and an infectiously tight band.  It’s no wonder that Marley’s image has taken on the same sort of universal currency as those of such diverse icons as Elvis Presley and Che Guevara:  he is both a musical lodestar and a symbol of political aspiration.  And his influence transcends borders, cultures and even generations in a way that very few artists have ever imagined.

The coda aside, “Marley” doesn’t track the impact of Marley as carefully as it does the days and deeds of the man.  The film is built around interviews with a stunning array of sources.  Marley’s mother, wife, children, lovers, bandmates, teachers, business associates, half-blood relations and so on all appear: a complete who’s-who of his life.  

There are chats with Marley himself, piles of photos and film clips (including cellphone-quality images of Marley and Stevie Wonder performing in 1975), tawdry and frightening headlines (an affair with Miss World, an assassination attempt), music biz intrigues, political tussles, family complications, and Kremlin-like maneuvers within his bands.  You learn about the rise of ska and reggae music, the roots and meanings of Rastafarianism, the political and cultural climate and history of Jamaica.  It’s a thoroughly satisfying, full-bodied portrait.

Marley’s life has been the subject of perhaps a half-dozen aborted feature film projects over the years, and this film gives us an idea of why:  there are almost too many irresistible tangents, compelling songs, and colorful characters.  “Marley” runs nearly two-and-a-half hours without having to establish dramatic characters or expand small incidents into structured scenes.  It may, finally, be the best and last word on the man, his music and his myth that we ever get on film -- an estimable achievement in itself.
    
(144 min., PG-13, Hollywood Theatre, Living Room Theaters) Grade: B-plus


Levy’s High Five, April 6 – 12

The five films playing in Portland-area theaters that I'd soonest see again.

The Raid redemption dreadlocks.jpg"The Raid: Redemption"
1) “We Need to Talk About Kevin” Lionel Shriver’s novel about a mother dealing with the emotional repercussions of her son’s homicidal schoolhouse rampage becomes a devastating tour de force for director Lynne Ramsay (“Morven Callar,” “Ratcatcher”) and stars Tilda Swinton (as the mom), Ezra Miller and Jasper Newell (as the boy at different ages).  It’s colorful, musical, airtight, horrifying and staggeringly vivid.  You’re reminded of how humanity has made art of the most awful events -- from Greek tragedy through “Schindler’s List” -- and how a masterful filmmaker can mold a transforming experience out of utterly dire material. Deeply disturbing, deeply beautiful, deeply compelling. Fox Tower

2) “The Raid: Redemption”
An ultra-violent, wildly kinetic martial arts film that virtually strips itself of the narrative conventions of plot, theme and characterization to create a white-knuckle thrill ride.  Writer-director Gareth Evans, a Welshman living in Indonesia, takes the simplest story -- a squad of cops attacks a Jakarta apartment house where a crime lord is ensconced -- and uses it to string together wild action sequences that leave the viewer as exhausted as if he or she had fought them.  His stars -- Iko Uwais as a baby-faced cop and Yayan Ruhian (who also choreographed) as a stringy-haired bad guy -- are dazzling.  The whole thing is pure cinema: the human body rendered as a machine capable of mayhem, daring, and, yes, grace. Cinema 21, Lloyd Center

3) “Undefeated” In February, this film came out of nowhere, seemingly, to win the Oscar for best documentary feature, and that’s just about right for a movie about an impoverished Memphis high school football program willed into quality by the heart and will of a volunteer coach and his raggedy squad.  Bill Courtney, a white man who has succeeded in business sufficiently to dedicate himself to his passion, has given himself to the boys of Manassas High School for about six years, and he’s finally turned the perennial doormat team into genuine contenders.  With a college-bound superstar, an academic achiever who suffers a career-threatening injury, and a gifted hothead among the players, directors Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin have the stuff of gold on their hands, and they mine it tastefully, gracefully and movingly. Fox Tower

4) “Chico & Rita”  A handsome, enthralling and grown-up animated feature film from Spain that was a surprising but highly deserving Oscar nominee earlier this year.  Three directors combine to tell the story of a pianist and singer who fall madly in love in pre-revolutionary Havana and are separated by the vagaries of careers, money and passion.  There are frank sequences of sexuality, drug use and violence, but there are also exhilarating scenes of music, including appearances by Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban jazz legend Chano Pozo.  It’s a gorgeous dream of a film, traveling the world -- New York, Paris, Las Vegas -- but as passionate and intimate as a bolero. Fox Tower

5) “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”  Jiro Ono is the owner of a Tokyo sushi bar with 10 seats and 3 Michelin stars, and David Gelb’s gorgeous and intimate documentary about the man and his obsession gives you an idea of how that can not only be so but be fitting.  Jiro and his two sons (bound to the chef’s apron strings, almost literally) devote untold hours of work and thought to the perfection of sushi-making, turning a sometimes makework form of cookery into indisputably high art.  At 85, the old master still works virtually every day, and the fruit of his focus is in servings of raw fish and warm rice photographed so lusciously that you can almost taste them.  A mouthwatering film:  literally.  Hollywood Theatre, Living Room Theaters



‘Footnote’ review: the father-son warfare is bad enough, but they’re SCHOLARS…

A charming Oscar-nominated comedy about blood ties, academic rivalries and very close reading

Footnote.jpgLior Ashkenazi (l.) and Shlomo Bar-Aba in "Footnote"
‘Academic politics is so bitter,’ goes the old saw, ‘because the prize is so small.’  In writer-director Joseph Cedar’s Oscar-nominated “Footnote,” the internecine scrapping between a community scholars is even uglier than normal because it feeds on the uneasy relationship between a father and son.  Throw in the fact that they’re Talmud researchers in Jerusalem, where you can actually gain celebrity by studying sacred Jewish texts, and you’ve got a way for both the stakes and the bitterness to rise to dizzying heights.

The elder combatant in the struggle is Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba), who has slaved unrecognized in an obscure corner of textual analysis for decades, his chief fame arising from his being cited in a footnote by a legendary scholar.  His son, Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), has gained real prominence and even celebrity in the same field, transforming lessons gleaned from the study of the Talmud into a kind of pop psychology phenomenon.

Stereotypically, the younger man’s success ought to be a source of naches, or parental pride, in a Jewish household.  But Eliezer is a bitter, exacting scold, barely able to disguise his disdain for of Uriel’s glib and, in his view, slipshod scholarship.  Whenever the son is accorded some sort of grand honor, which is often, the father cannot warm himself or approve.  Instead, he tends to denigrates the honor itself as a trifle bestowed upon dilettantes.

And then, one day, out of the blue, a phone call:  Eliezer has been awarded one of Israel’s top cultural prizes -- a life-affirming endorsement of his career.  It’s a blessing for all, really.  Or it would be, if only things were as simple as they initially seem.

Nominated for an Oscar as best foreign language film, “Footnote” is a bright, smart and funny movie that evinces a real feel not only for the daily work of scholars but for the bloody minefields of academia.  Cedar, who made the memorable war film “Beaufort,” contrives several witty passages in which some of the processes of academic researched are mimicked as storytelling techniques.  As fun as these are, though, you wish he had either committed more deeply to them or excised them altogether.  As it stands, they impart an incomplete or less-than-fully-baked quality to the film, a note which is underscored by the deliberately inconclusive ending.

Still, it’s a fine, clever movie with a real feel for the milieu of academia, some truly memorable turns of character and story, and some wonderfully persuasive acting -- all of it much more charming than dedicating your life to ceaseless study of forgotten texts or being related to someone who has chosen that path.

(103 min., PG, Fox Tower) Grade: B-plus


‘Comic-con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope’ review: a breezy romp among the freaks and geeks

A visit to the world's biggest sci-fi/comics/fantasy gathering without having to wait in line.

Comic-con Episode IV -- A Fan's Hope.jpgThe gang's all here: "Comic-con Episode IV -- A Fan's Hope"
There’s much to enjoy in the lively, fun and fresh documentary “Comic-con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope,” but chief among them may be that its director, Morgan Spurlock, is nowhere to be seen.

Not that the sight of Spurlock is awful, or anything:  in his films “Super Size Me” and “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” and his TV series “30 Days,” he has presented himself as an agreeable Everyman out to expose some of our culture’s ordinary but vital hidden truths.

In “Comic-con,” though, Spurlock turns his lens on the massive crowd of nerds, geeks, freaks, and dreamers who annually descend on San Diego for the world’s largest gathering of fans of all things comic book, fantasy, sci-fi and such.  And the resulting film is so spry that you feel like you’re watching the director recharge his creative batteries in real time.

The film loosely follows a half-dozen or so attendees: a comic book dealer, two aspiring illustrators, a costume designer, a toy collector, a guy who wants to propose to his girlfriend in the midst of the mayhem, and so on.  Alongside are casual interviews with celebrities such as comics legends Stan Lee and Frank Miller, filmmakers Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith, actor Seth Rogen, and cartoonist Matt Groening.

Does it have a “big” “point” to make?  No.  But it’s bright and breezy and gives you a real sense of being at Comic-con without the hassle of actually, you know, being there -- which appears to be, given the cost and crowds and ever-increasing commercialization of the thing, something of a gift to the viewer.
    
(88 min., unrated, probably PG-13, Hollywood Theatre) Grade: B-plus


‘Once Upon a Time in Anatolia’ review: mysteries unravel and pile up in the Turkish provinces

The search for a body buried in the wilderness leads to the unearthing of uncomfortable truths.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.jpg"Once Upon a Time in Anatolia"
For a long time (and it is a looooooong time), writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” feels like a wild goose chase:  a half-dozen or so cops drag a pair of suspects around the steppes of Eastern Turkey looking for a corpse which the pair have buried.  

In the course of an long, uncomfortable evening, the characters are revealed in sometimes fleeting snatches and sometime long and open-ended exchanges of dialogue:  a frustrated police chief (Yilmaz Erdogan), an imperious prosecutor (Taner Bisel), a cagy doctor (Muhammet Uzuner), a detail-obsessed soldier (Emre Sen).  When night lifts, a number of subtle realities emerge -- along with the decidedly unsubtle body.

There’s a very lifelike feel to Ceylan’s film, from the murk of the night and the frustration of the search to the hidden truths that become clear but nevertheless remain tacit or unacknowledged.  Ceylan (“Three Monkeys,” “Climates”) has a fine cast on hand, and he’s not afraid to let uncertainty linger in the air, just as it does in the real world.  With its wide-open setting and taciturn, macho characters, it’s a film that earns the right to use the “Once Upon a Time” title that Sergio Leone made so perversely famous.
    
(155 min., unrated, probably R, Hollywood Theatre) Grade: B-plus


Levy’s High Five, March 30 – April 5

The five films playing in Portland-area theaters that I'd soonest see again.

The Raid -- REdemption -- Taslim and Ruhian.jpgJoe Taslim (l.) and Yayan Ruhian in "The Raid: Redemption"
1) “We Need to Talk About Kevin” Lionel Shriver’s novel about a mother dealing with the emotional repercussions of her son’s homicidal schoolhouse rampage becomes a devastating tour de force for director Lynne Ramsay (“Morven Callar,” “Ratcatcher”) and stars Tilda Swinton (as the mom), Ezra Miller and Jasper Newell (as the boy at different ages).  It’s colorful, musical, airtight, horrifying and staggeringly vivid.  You’re reminded of how humanity has made art of the most awful events -- from Greek tragedy through “Schindler’s List” -- and how a masterful filmmaker can mold a transforming experience out of utterly dire material. Deeply disturbing, deeply beautiful, deeply compelling. Fox Tower

2) “The Raid: Redemption”
An ultra-violent, wildly kinetic martial arts film that virtually strips itself of the narrative conventions of plot, theme and characterization to create a white-knuckle thrill ride.  Writer-director Gareth Evans, a Welshman living in Indonesia, takes the simplest story -- a squad of cops attacks a Jakarta apartment house where a crime lord is ensconced -- and uses it to string together wild action sequences that leave the viewer as exhausted as if he or she had fought them.  His stars -- Iko Uwais as a baby-faced cop and Yayan Ruhian (who also choreographed) as a stringy-haired bad guy -- are dazzling.  The whole thing is pure cinema: the human body rendered as a machine capable of mayhem, daring, and, yes, grace. Cinema 21, Lloyd Center

3) “Undefeated” In February, this film came out of nowhere, seemingly, to win the Oscar for best documentary feature, and that’s just about right for a movie about an impoverished Memphis high school football program willed into quality by the heart and will of a volunteer coach and his raggedy squad.  Bill Courtney, a white man who has succeeded in business sufficiently to dedicate himself to his passion, has given himself to the boys of Manassas High School for about six years, and he’s finally turned the perennial doormat team into genuine contenders.  With a college-bound superstar, an academic achiever who suffers a career-threatening injury, and a gifted hothead among the players, directors Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin have the stuff of gold on their hands, and they mine it tastefully, gracefully and movingly. Fox Tower

4) “Chico & Rita”  A handsome, enthralling and grown-up animated feature film from Spain that was a surprising but highly deserving Oscar nominee earlier this year.  Three directors combine to tell the story of a pianist and singer who fall madly in love in pre-revolutionary Havana and are separated by the vagaries of careers, money and passion.  There are frank sequences of sexuality, drug use and violence, but there are also exhilarating scenes of music, including appearances by Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban jazz legend Chano Pozo.  It’s a gorgeous dream of a film, traveling the world -- New York, Paris, Las Vegas -- but as passionate and intimate as a bolero. Fox Tower

5) “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”  Jiro Ono is the owner of a Tokyo sushi bar with 10 seats and 3 Michelin stars, and David Gelb’s gorgeous and intimate documentary about the man and his obsession gives you an idea of how that can not only be so but be fitting.  Jiro and his two sons (bound to the chef’s apron strings, almost literally) devote untold hours of work and thought to the perfection of sushi-making, turning a sometimes makework form of cookery into indisputably high art.  At 85, the old master still works virtually every day, and the fruit of his focus is in servings of raw fish and warm rice photographed so lusciously that you can almost taste them.  A mouthwatering film:  literally.  Hollywood Theatre, Living Room Theaters


‘The Raid: Redemption’ review: non-stop martial arts action gets, thrillingly, to the essence of movies

A bloody, nearly plotless Indonesian action film is exhausting and exhilarating.

Nothing actually mov
The Raid -- Redemption -- Uwais.jpegIko Uwais in "The Raid: Redemption"
es in movies.  The motion in motion pictures is an illusion, created (at least in the century prior to the digital age) by the flickering of frames of film through a camera (and, afterwards, a projector) at such a rate so that a series of still photos shown in sequence seems to show something moving -- just like in a flip book, but using light and chemically-treated celluloid instead of paper.  

Because of this, there is a case to be made that the essential theme of the cinema is (or ought to be) motion, and, more specifically, mechanical motion, and, more specifically still, the mechanical nature of the human body in motion.  From Charlie Chaplin through Fred Astaire through Bruce Lee, the spectacle of the human body expressing its physical angularity, muscularity, jointedness, aspiration, and finitude is, in many ways, the acme of film art.  Movies are (or, again,  ought to be) about moving, and nothing is more interesting to watch in motion than a person.

Lots of people move in “The Raid: Redemption,” chiefly in violence against one another.  Writer-director Gareth Evans, a Welshman living in Indonesia, has pared his film almost utterly of the things that other filmmakers often overdo and get wrong -- namely plot, character, moral, and meaning, aspects of literary and dramatic art that cinema inherited from other media when it emerged as a narrative form.

Instead, Evans expends his considerable gifts building sequences of sheer mayhem involving martial arts combat and gunplay, creating a boggling spectacle of raw thrills that should make other directors ashamed of calling their work ‘action movies.’  “The Raid: Redemption” is almost entirely action -- or, when it catches its breath, the tense pauses leading up to explosions of action.  It viscerally indulges itself in one of the cinema’s most elemental functions, and it overwhelms.

Plotwise, the film could not be simpler and still be said to tell a story.  One grey morning, a squadron of policemen, including the soft-spoken Rama (Iko Uwais), stage an assault on a Jakarta apartment block where a crime lord (Ray Sahetapy) is bunkered on the top floor.  The mission is to go in, apprehend the bad guy, and drag him out.  But the villain isn’t up there defended by hopes and wishes, and from the moment the cops get to the building they’re engaged in a fight to the death.  Rama, displaying superhuman capacities of speed, strength and agility and defying the bad fortune of uncovering several twists and deceptions, stays the course, determined to see the mission through and emerge alive.

The cinematography is dark and sweaty; the electronic music ominous; the location seedy; it’s a splendid bit of B-moviemaking.  But what truly dazzles is the wall-to-wall violence and pervading sense of incipient danger.  Evans has created a raw and pure and kinetic film that hits the audience with wave after wave of energy.  His action stars -- chiefly the baby-faced Uwais and the oily, stringy-haired Yayan Ruhian, who also choreographed the fights -- are quick and lithe and deadly and seem to declare the morality of their characters in their combat styles.  That is, you can read into the hearts of Evans’ characters by observing the ways they use their bodies: Uwais moves and fights in clean, direct lines, while Ruhian, playing a fellow aptly named Mad Dog, is sinuous and deceptive.

That, and not the barbaric glee of seeing bodies break and bleed, is what makes “The Raid:  Redemption” such an impressive achievement: it locks on to a primal aspect of the cinema and of the human animal and celebrates, albeit in the cloak of blood and death, the intersection of motion and character.  You can get a similar thrill from dance:  witness “Pina” or certain sequences, including the climax, of “The Artist.”  But the life-and-death stakes here heighten the whole question.  

There will be those, no doubt, for whom the boilerplate plot and slender characterizations of this film are cause to dismiss it as a trifle.  Others will find it dark and violent and, perhaps, inhuman.  But one thing they can’t say is that it isn’t a moving picture.  Indeed, this is the sort of film for which the phrase ‘movie-movie’ was coined -- and coined as a term of highest praise.

(112 min., R, Cinema 21, Lloyd Center) Grade: A-minus


‘Chico & Rita’ review: a sexy, moving animated musical for adults

A star-crossed romance plays out in pre-revolutionary Havana and bebop-era Times Square.

Chico & Rita.jpg"Chico & Rita"
“Chico & Rita” is full of surprises.  

The first is that it was nominated for an Oscar as best animated feature in February, even though it hadn’t played in the US except in festivals.

The second is that it’s a foreign-language animated film with adult content: nudity, sex, profanity, drug use, violence, and bloodshed -- though none of it in excess.

And the third is that it’s totally captivating, a handsome and touching film about fiery love and cold pride, soulful art and calculating careerism.  Its Oscar nomination and grown-up tenor make it a curiosity; its quality and craft make it a treat.

Set in pre-revolutionary Havana and bebop-era New York, it tells the story of Chico, a gifted pianist, and Rita, a talented singer, who meet, spark, fall hard and then separate, painfully, while she follows a chance for stardom in the USA and he dedicates himself to his music.

There are appearances by jazz greats Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo, scenes of sensuality, luxury, daring and exotica, glimpses of the old and new Havana and Las Vegas, a nifty dream sequence, and, throughout, wonderful music.  It’s hot and sweet and made with inspiration and cheek.  And it is not your children’s animated fare -- which, in this case, is a recommendation.

(94 min., unrated, likely R, Fox Tower) Grade: A-minus


‘Undefeated’ review: the valiant heart of a high school football team

An Oscar-winning sports documentary lifts the spirit.

Undefeated.jpg"Undefeated": coach Bill Courtney and star player O. C. Brown
Given how many ‘inspirational’ sports films are based on true events, it seems inevitable that we should get a movie like “Undefeated,” a documentary about...an inspirational sports story.

What isn’t inevitable, though, is that “Undefeated” should be so intimate, warm, gripping, and moving.  Winner of the best documentary feature prize at February’s Academy Awards, the film by Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin peers empathetically into a tiny world and opens it up for its audience, who, in turn, will surely open their hearts to it.

The focus of “Undefeated” is the football team of Manassas High School in North Memphis, a perennial doormat of a program in a poverty-stricken neighborhood.  The school can’t afford to pay a coach, so its football program is run by Bill Courtney, a local businessman dedicated to giving young men the sense of self-worth that he himself never had growing up.

In the course of a single surprising football season that has more ups than downs, several personalities emerge:  a gifted, sweet-talking big man en route to a college scholarship -- if he can get the grades; a hothead who would make a good player if he can focus his anger; a good student who cares more about football than his grades and then suffers a season-threatening injury.

Chiefly, the film has Courtney, a big-hearted man whose love of football and his players with an earthy, infectious zeal.  “Undefeated” puts us inside his locker room, and you simply cannot fail to be moved by the human affection, commitment and passion you feel there.
    
(112 min., R, Fox Tower) Grade: A-minus



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