Friday, August 14, 2020

The Raid: Redemption

Spoiler-free!

This energetic and brutal Indonesian action flick centers around Rama (Iko Uwais) who's a newbie member of a SWAT team tasked with infiltrating a 30-story apartment building that's run by a ruthless drug lord.

Written and directed by Gareth Evans.

The plot is simple so you can get to the action fast. But it doesn't jump straight into it either. It takes the first act to set up things. Like stakes. Rama has a wife and unborn child at home, so you don't want him to die—bam. He also has a secret secondary motive for going into the building. Bam. And, the movie wants us to see exactly how dangerous this mission is before it lets loose—resulting in some slower moments earlier on of dramatic tension-building. Bam! None of it is as deep as it might be were the film longer, or a straight-up drama; it's there to support the action. Knowing, I suppose, the tendency of people like me to tune out when there's a fight scene going on in which I don't actively like AND worry for the characters involved.

Once you care about Rama and the stakes are built properly, it's basically wall-to-wall action from there to the end—punctuated by a few breathers and moments to mount up more tension. And this is the meat of the film; the reason it exists. And I know; there are so many action movies that exist on their action and are terrible. For a recent example, The Old Guard. I cannot stand movies that rely on their middling action to be entertaining. I hate them. I do not hate this movie. The action here is phenomenal. Firstly, filmed in an accessible manner because we have to be able to properly appreciate the talent put into these fights. Then performed by actual trained fighters. I'm not sure what the style is, but it's a brutal and entertaining martial art.

You've probably seen Iko in a movie before even if you don't know it. He was wasted in a bit part in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Iko Uwais is also one of the film's choreographers, and basically everyone in the film is a highly-trained stunt man playing an acting role. Because the choreography is fast, difficult, done in-camera, and impossible to fake. The speed at which these guys can punch—or pretend stab each other—is stunning. Dizzying. Mystifying. Perfect glee-inducement for any action fan. At one point a guy is slammed into a table and the table doesn't break. If you're not as tired of rote American action tropes as I am you might not even notice things like that. A table behaving the way a table would in real life? Novel! And I suppose this flick has its own share of clich├ęs—Indonesian-brand ones—in there somewhere. The shake-up is refreshing, that's all. And you'll never find an American action flick that's this kinetic and full of hand-to-hand combat talent.

American films can be good at faking it, or maybe building around one skilled performer; this is clearly the real deal—and that's what pushes this film into must-see territory. Without the outstanding choreography and remarkable implementation of the same, The Raid could be any number of decent stabs at action filmmaking. It's got the basic but solid plot, self-contained to one main location to streamline the story and help the budget; and it has a decently fleshed-out main character to keep things grounded. But then. BUT THEN. It uses that simplistic set up, and it absolutely KILLS. Pure action is often a hard-sell for me, but I recommend this one unreservedly.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Adam Bloom

Spoiler-free!

In this coming of age drama that works beautifully to make the most of a shoestring budget, an aspiring street photographer moves in with his grandma in NYC so he can intern with an aging photographer and hone his craft.

You know how indie movies will have their characters be interested in a learnable skill (usually some form of writing) and if you the viewer have any experience in that field you can spot the fake from a mile away? Well, this movie actually understands photography. That's to do with the director, Noah David Smith who also co-wrote the script and worked as his own cinematographer. A cinematographer first, he clearly understands that there is a difference between having an eye for framing and lighting, and being able to insert that almost indefinable, magical quality into your photos which gives them life and meaning.

I used to be a photographer. And I like that this movie made me more comfortable in saying that than less. It doesn't posture about art. 

And this is what Adam sets out to learn over the course of the laid-back, and wonderfully shot little story. How to be a person: how to express himself, and make his work live. It's a simple narrative task in concept, and takes barely 80 minutes to accomplish it. It's deceptively strong and intricate work. Though the film has that indie, real-life quality to it that makes many films meandering, this one doesn't fall into that trap, and creates a clear rise and fall with its drama. I could feel the shifts and turning points in the plot without having to pay attention for them, and felt myself easily drawn into the world of unique and well-framed characters.

The reason I found and had a desire to check this out was because of how much I enjoyed watching Jake Horowitz's screen presence and naturalistic performance in this year's The Vast of Night. Here, the character is more subtle, but my hopes of seeing more of the same talent were not let down. He brings that same powerful stillness and nuance of expression that creates easygoing magnetism on screen. I sincerely hope he catches his big break soon -- one because I'd love to see more of his work, and also because he deserves it. The rest of the actors here give flawless performances too. It's not overwrought, Oscar-level material, it simply rings consistently true, which is what's important.

I really enjoyed the piano score, too. Simple but effective.

Adam's grandma Rosalia (Abigail G. Smith) especially, and also Harris Sutton (David Margulies), the old photographer he works for, are out-of-the-box characters without ruffling the feathers of realism or becoming caricatures. They speak wisdom, sometimes stating outright the ideas that hold the story together. You hardly know it though, since they are so well defined and personal. This is a credit to the script -- I already said that the story structure is excellent and the shape of the drama robust -- but even the dialogue itself and what the movie chooses to say is fascinating. I think at heart, it is searching for a way to describe the way it feels to be able to create art out of images, and it came closer than I've ever been able to articulate.

The script also has set up and pay off that you don't see coming. And in places where some films might leave your questions hanging, this one doesn't want to leave you behind. It wants you to wonder, and then it wants to answer your questions. Some of the things it makes you wonder about would seem like trivial quirks if presented without that sense of mystery. But with the natural progression of curiosity they're presented with, they instead add to the characters in memorable and engaging ways. I have to say, I wasn't expecting to see this much concentrated dedication to quality when I first sat down with this film. I suppose the makers knew that nothing less could do the subject matter justice.

There's also themes of old age vs. old soul, and the hard beauty of a slowly decaying life. The more I think about it the more I find that there's a lot to pick apart here.

After all, it's a film about a young man learning to express himself in his art; to capture what he truly sees, as Harris tells him, not just images of pretty or interesting things. The film explores the relationship that art has with emotion and strife, and it packs a strong yet tender punch on that score. It understands the need of art to express, and then it does not fail to be that itself. A sweet and charming work of -- and about -- art.