The Raid 2 (2014): A Review

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When it was released in 2011, The Raid (or as it was known here in the states, The Raid: Redemption) was an absolute breath of fresh air for action movie fans.  Directed by the Welsh-born Gareth Evans, the Indonesian film was 90 minutes of non-stop action. The story of an ill-fated SWAT team sent to raid an apartment complex controlled by a drug lord, the movie introduced the world to the fighting style of silat, a brutal form of hand to hand combat, which seems to focus almost completely on bashing the head and neck.  The movie was brutal – yet exhilarating – and a new director, along with his lead (Iko Uwais) were made cult legends.

Now, three years later, The Raid 2 has hit US shores, and last evening, I had the pleasure of taking it in.  Weirdly enough, while the US release for the first film added a subtitle, the second film lost its subtitle – Berandal. Berendal in English means thug, and that’s precisely what our hero from the first film, Rama (Uwais) has to become here.  Set just moments after the ending of the first film, The Raid 2 places Rama in a unique situation. Having proven that the deadly raid of the first film was caused due to police corruption, he wishes to expose all members of the police force involved in organized crime. Unfortunately for Rama, this requires going deep undercover – entering into prison, and entering himself under a new identity into the massive crime world.  This world is built around the tense alliance between two crime families – one of Jakarta, one of Japan – and as you can imagine, things go incredibly wrong. And luckily for us action fans – they go wrong in an incredibly violent way.

Serving as writer, director and editor, Gareth Evans aims high with the second installment of this series. In a jarring comparison to the first film – the movie lasts a whopping two-and-a-half hours, a sprawling crime epic.  And in an Icarus like scenario, attempting to fly so high is what burns the film.  There are characters upon characters upon characters here – each crime family is incredibly fleshed out, and in all honesty, I had moments where I struggled to recall which character the dialogue was referencing (an issue perhaps enhanced by the fact that I was watching a subtitled print). But even with the greater scripting ambition, the heart of what has made this series so great remains – awe-inspiring action.

With an increased budget ($4.5 Million versus the first film’s $1.1 Million), Evans goes all out, not only shooting his film in some incredibly beautiful locations (a fantastic juxtaposition to the first film’s dank, dark apartment complex fights), but increasing the scale of each battle. From a mud-soaked prison riot to the craziest car chase I’ve ever seen, to an intense, goosebump inducing final one-on-one fight, you will be completely taken in by the set-pieces found here.  For however many issues I may have with the plotting, they can easily be ignored for the scope and scale of the action found here.  In short, these sequences are epic – in the proper sense of the word, not the bastardized version the Internet gives us these days.

Acting is top-to-bottom solid, but to be honest, not why we’re here. Some veteran actors of Indonesian films give the crime families appropriate gravitas, but the characters that leave the most impact have the film’s smallest amount of dialogue.  Look for the brother-sister duo known as “Baseball Bat Man” (Very Tri Yulisman) and “Hammer Girl” (Julie Estelle) to become action movie icons.  Also, at this point, if the people who are putting together the major action franchises in Hollywood aren’t bugging Iko Uwais to appear and bash some heads, there’s something very wrong (come on, Fast & Furious franchise).

Aiming high to serve as a massive crime family drama, yet bogged down at times by an iffy script and a too-long run time, The Raid 2 is not as perfect as its predecessor – but it continues to deliver heart-racing action that innovates and redefines what can be done in the world of action film. For this reason alone, it is a must see for fans of action films, martial art films, and massive head and neck trauma. Besides, what does it say if we can’t love a film for it’s ambition? Give it a go before it leaves theaters – or be one of the many to discover it on DVD or VOD.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014): A Review

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Picking up where The Avengers left our World War II hero, Captain America: The Winter Soldier features a Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as a man out of his time, struggling to keep up with the world around him mentally – even as advanced as he is physically.  Doing his morning runs throughout the most photogenic portions of Washington DC, he’s 95 years old (on paper), but remains as verile as ever, thanks to his super soldier serum.  But he’s trying to grasp everything he’s missed in his time frozen in ice – and those who he lost as well – as impossible a task as that may seem.

The world around Steve Rogers has changed. Not just due to the progress of time and technology, but morals and ethics as well. He was a simple man who only wished to give his life to something greater. Now, S.H.I.E.L.D. is a massive organization built around tactical takedowns – but also the obtainment of information. No matter the cost. And it’s this cost that both drives the film, and renders its most important element -the film’s commentary on the world today.

Like the best Marvel Comics before it, Captain America: The Winter Soldier acts as a comic book style canvas to speak of greater things ailing the world, even if it’s solved by punches, CGI and explosions. It’s a discussion of privacy, personal values and freedom – and the bold risk to use a “superhero movie” as the backdrop for a paranoid, 1970′s style government conspiracy drama makes this installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe one of the best yet.

But don’t worry – just because bigger concepts are in play does not mean that the film isn’t a joy to watch. The action is fast, frantic and expertly shot, a great thing given today’s world of shaky cam and hard to follow battles.  From a Metal Gear Solid-esq extraction scene to kick off the film (including a great one-on-one fight between Captain America and UFC Champion Georges St. Pierre, playing lame-duck French villain Batroc) to some incredible car chases, a brilliant elevator fight scene, and some Raid-inspired close quarters fights, you get your action quotient, even when headier things are being discussed.  It’s a testament to the skills of directors Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely how effortless this balance feels (a tip of the hat should go to editor Jeffrey Ford, as well) – it’s easy to see why this team has been asked to return for another Captain America installment.

Chris Evans has grown comfortably into the role of Steve Rogers, and even as the stakes get higher and his personal life becomes messier, he does a fantastic job of retaining the characters key optimism and core values. Somehow, he plays the “boy scout” without feeling forced or cloying. Much how Downey is Stark, or Helmsworth is Thor, Evans has completely embodied Captain America, continuing his great run as the American legend. I was pleasantly surprised by Scarlett Johansson, returning as Black Widow – she plays a great sidekick to Evans, even as her character remains somewhat secretive and cut off. The returning Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury continues to have his secrets to hide, but the biggest x factor of the film is legendary actor Robert Redford. Redford adds an incredible level of gravitas to the film, starring as Alexander Pierce, a fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. leader who has his own skeletons in his closet. It must be a prerequisite to join the agency, I suppose.

The movie twists, turns, and surprises every step of the way, including some surprise cameos from characters you may not expect – plus some hints towards the future. That said – for as great as it is, it’s not without its own nits to pick.  Anthony Mackie is incredibly adept as Sam Wilson (later, The Falcon), but his character feels really tacked on. Its as if they plotted all of the cool flying sequences and forgot to give him something more to do. His chemistry with Evans is spot on though, and if Mackie is to return in future films, I can’t wait to see them work off each other more.

The other disappointment? For as incredibly imposing as the film makes him, the titular Winter Soldier (I won’t spoil who he is, although, it’s pretty clear) feels secondary to a much larger issue, rending him almost as an also-ran. Again, I feel like there are bigger plans for the character down the line, but he felt short changed.

Even with those issues - Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a great time at the movies, and arguably, the first great sequel to come from Marvel Studios. It’s truly the Dark Knight to The First Avenger‘s Batman Begins, a fantastic escalation to an already great franchise. Serving as the ninth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, its proof of how well Marvel gets it right. In any other hands, we could be wishing for the films to die off, instead, I can’t wait for the next one. Bring on Guardians of the Galaxy, bring on Avengers 2, bring on the next 14 years of films. If they’re all this great, we’re in for an incredible run.

POST CREDIT SCENE NOTES: There are two, one “mid-credits”, one at the end. The mid-credits scene is incredibly important for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You can skip the end credits scene, if you need to head home.

At Least I’ll Have Plans: Marvel Studios Plots Through 2028

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In one of those stories that I had to read, and re-read, before I believed it, Disney CEO Bob Iger gave a unique insight into the long-term planning by Marvel Studios.

It’s a part of a much longer read over at Business Week (which I recommend if you find the time) all about Marvel Studio’s head Kevin Feige, but check this out:

People might show up for The Avengers, meet the Black Widow, and come back for her movie, too. There’s a map of films reaching far into the next decade on the wall of Feige’s office. “It’s like looking through the Hubble telescope. You go, ‘What’s happening back there? I can sort of see it,’ ” he laughs. “They printed out a new one recently that went to 2028.

Yeah. They have at least 14 more years of Marvel films in the planning stages.

Given that Marvel Studios has had a nearly flawless run this far – and this Friday’s latest installment, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, has added to a fantastic portfolio, if reviews and international impressions are to be believed – I say, MAKE MINE MOVIES, MARVEL!

Gallery 1988 Celebrates 30 Years of Ghostbusters with a Traveling Art Show!

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In a moment that certainly makes me feel old, this year marks the 30th Anniversary of Ghostbusters.

There are many things planned – we’ve already seen images of the forthcoming LEGO set and Record Store Day release of the iconic theme – but the coolest might be the traveling art show, as curated by the folks at Gallery 1988.

Details are still early, but the Ghostbusters 30th Anniversary Art Show will have four stops, and the first two are completely announced.

April 19th-26th, the show will debut in New York City, with the show moving to Gallery 1988 West in Los Angeles May 17th through June 1st. Two further appearances are planned for later in June in Chicago, and (of course) San Diego Comic Con in July.

All the details will be available at Ghostbusters30th.com as the shows get closer.

We’ll try to get you the art as it’s revealed, but one such piece being featured is the super cool NYC Subway Map art above, as drawn by Anthony Petrie.

Mark Wahlberg Is F**KED: New ‘Transformers: Age of Exitinction’ Poster

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The fourth installment of the Michael Bay version of the Transformers franchise definitely has a different feel than the prior three, and the sense of scale is certainly larger. The change has never been more apparent than in the new poster for Transformers: Age of Extinction, found above (thanks, Blurppy!)

I think that giant spaceship is about to make Wahlburger’s outta him.

Speaking of Transformers: Age of Exinction, it looks like an ARG is about to kick off, if this site is any indication.

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At the least, we’re getting cool graphics from it so far, like the one above. Maybe it’ll lead to a new trailer, or free screenings, or other goodies. Stay tuned!