Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Raid 2 solidifies Gareth Evans' status as the next king of action

After winning over audiences and critics alike with The Raid: Redemption in 2012, Gareth Evans could've just done the same thing over and over and many would've been satisfied.  After all, the no frills story and brutal, kinetic action was so unlike the rest of the current action movie landscape that it seemed like he had carved out his own niche to explore.  But in between The Raid and its sequel, Evans proved just how versatile he could be by directing "Safe Haven," a 20 minute short in the horror anthology V/H/S 2.  It was there where he showed that he could translate the insanity of his action movies to horror, and his bugnuts short was easily the best entry in a very scattered series.

In The Raid 2: Berandal, Evans has done a similar thing, trading in the streamlined beat-em'-up style of the first movie for a sprawling crime epic.  While there may be a two-year gap between the two films, this sequel picks up two hours after the events of the first film.  The apartment block that he just fought his way out of was apparently only the tip of the iceberg, as Rama (Iko Uwais) learns of the deep roots of corruption within his police force.  He's forced to go undercover and infiltrate the complicated web of the Jakarta crime syndicate, in order to weed out the dirty cops who want the heads of himself and his family.  The film slogs through a mesh of exposition just to set up this story, and the resulting first 30 minutes are pretty slow and unfocused.  All of The Raid 2's scope gives it an ambition that the first one didn't have, but it also threatens to rob the sequel of what made its predecessor so special.  Evans gets far too bogged down in this fairly standard family crime story, chronicling the uneasy truce between the Indonesian and Japanese mobs that Rama finds himself caught in the middle of, and there are long stretches of the first half where its just a bunch of cliched politicking and no action.

But when that action does kick in, the film takes on a giddy energy that's much needed.  In the years between The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2, Evans has improved exponentially as an action director, because the fight scenes exhibit so much more style and visceral thrills than in the first one.  There's a level of poetry to the bone-crunching, blood-spewing fights, which are presented at clear angles and distances from the combatants.  Unlike many modern American action movies, The Raid 2's fight scenes aren't shredded to pieces -- most of the shots last more than just a second or two and they're cut together in a logical manner.  It's a perfect mixture of classical and chaotic action: visceral enough to give the audience the feeling of being in it, but fluid enough to allow for a clear sense of geography at all times.

Not only does The Raid 2 provide better action, but it contains different action too.  Where the first film was handcuffed by its single setting, this installment takes full advantage of the open world it's set in.  Fights occur in mud pits, on trains, between cars -- the amount of inventive scenarios is nearly endless.  And though the 148 minute length may be a bit unwieldy, the spacing of the action does wonders for managing fatigue.  By the time the two-on-one fight arrived at the end of the first Raid, the audience had been through so much nonstop fighting that the impressive climax lost a bit of its power.  Here, Evans builds things more effectively, so that by time the bonkers thirds act rolls around, the audience is begging for it.

While the gore may be disgusting, the movie is actually one of the most gorgeous action films of the last few years.  An increase in budget and experience has allowed Evans to make the visuals as impressive as the choreography.  The film is full of vivid, crisp colors, which just make the action feel even more dynamic.  Coupled with the way the camera moves and contorts to follow the fisticuffs, the movie feels like a full-body sensory experience.  The Raid 2 is the work of a director who has honed all of the pre-existing tools in his toolbox and added a few along the way.  And unlike Rama, he's only just getting started.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Silicon Valley

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Sundays on HBO at 10:00 PM

Mike Judge knows a thing or two about workplace satire, having written and directed the 1999 cult classic, Office Space.  Silicon Valley is like a spiritual successor to that film, providing a more modern spin on the ins and outs of the tech world.  It follows a group of programmers who are living together and making ends meet at small-scale software companies, until one of them (Thomas Middleditch) stumbles upon an app with a compression algorithm that will revolutionize the industry.  Here, the comedy is just as dry as it was in Office Space, but the satire has a little more bite to it.  The pilot gets alot of mileage out of tech speak mumbo jumbo and the ridiculous nature of the faux-hip startup culture in the Silicon Valley area.  The entire cast is solid, from Kumail Nanjiani as Dinesh to T.J. Miller as the quasi-leader of the pack.  If there's one knock against the pilot, it's that it's a little slow, and I can see the show lacking drive because of the way it coasts.  But I can also see it really falling into a solid rhythm, one that takes a few episodes to get into before it truly clicks and makes sense.  In the hands of Judge, I'd bet on the latter.

Grade: B-

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Is Hannibal vs. The Americans the new Breaking Bad vs. Mad Men?

During the years that they were both on the air in the same calendar year, Breaking Bad and Mad Men were the two shows that battled it out for the unofficial title of Best Show on Television.  For the most part, there was very little question about the two shows' superior quality.  Both had a hand in ushering in the era during which AMC was seen as the new powerhouse network, an era that seems to have ended just as quickly as it came.  But even though many TV fanatics could agree that these were the two best shows on television, they were split on which one was actually the best show on television.  One's preference served to define them in some way: were you the kind of person who had a stronger response to Mad Men's sleek literary style or Breaking Bad's pulpy morality tale?

Now that Breaking Bad is over and Mad Men is entering its final season in a week, there's a void that's been left at the core of the television landscape.  Justified is near the end of a weak season, True Detective's quality doesn't quite match its pedigree and praise, and Enlightened was cancelled just as it was making a case for its place atop the TV Parthenon.  The two shows that appear to be the common response to the "what's the best show currently on television?" question are Hannibal and The Americans.  It's a pairing that doesn't seem to be as battle-ready as Mad Men and Breaking Bad were.  Those two had the benefit of being on the same network, centered around anti-heroes, and indebted to different aspects of The Sopranos.

At first glance, The Americans couldn't be more different from Hannibal.  One is a network drama while the other one is on cable.  One is about a serial killer, the other is about a pair of Russian spies in the 1980s.  But the coupling of the two brings out some interesting parallels.  Both were a part of the wave of great new television shows in 2013 -- a wave that included other potential contenders for the Best on TV title like The Returned, Rectify, and Orange is the New Black -- and while I admired them during their first seasons (The Americans ended up at #20 on my best of 2013 list, Hannibal at #12), I could never cross into the territory of fully loving them like many others did.  The Americans and Hannibal each had a cool vibe -- the latter in its clinical process, the former with its tight control and restraint -- that held me at a distance.  Yet in both shows, I saw something that implied those first seasons were only setup for when we got to the true fireworks factory in their second seasons.

Breaking Bad and Mad Men both had assured debut years, only to blow those respective seasons out of the water with their sophomore efforts.  If the parallels were to hold, it would only be fitting for Hannibal and The Americans to do the same.  And for the past 6 weeks, they've done just that, completely surpassing any kind of expectations that I had at the start of the year.  I predicted that The Americans would have a gigantic leap in quality in 2014 in my write-up for the show at the end of 2013, but if I'm being honest with myself, that was more of a wish than a guarantee.  It has had a leap though, mostly because the stakes feel so much higher this year.  Even in the first season, the show was always as much about a marriage as it was about spies (if not more so), and so far season 2 has stressed that point even more, after Philip and Elizabeth find the dead bodies of their two comrades and the couple's daughter when a mission goes wrong in the premiere.  The reminder of how much their duty is putting their family in danger is one that has hung heavily over these first six episodes, informing every decision they make, without it ever feeling heavy-handed.

Like Hannibal, The Americans is about the push and pull between its two main characters, and the marriage between Philip and Elizabeth is more layered and complex than ever.  Season 2 has delved deeper into the idea of roles and the way they factor into these people's lives.  It's about how their roles as spies and their roles as partners bleed into one another in ways both intentional and not.  This year, every character is crumbling under the weight of their own deception.  To match the complicated emotions running through the characters, the plot is even knottier this year.  You'll often have to watch each episode twice to get it, but you when you do get a grasp of it, you realize it's some crackerjack spy storytelling.  It's dizzying to see how many threads showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields are tugging at, crossing and looping them around each other masterfully.  The lid is kept so tight on the show that when it finally comes off and the plot intersects with the relationship drama, it's thrilling, devastating stuff.

Meanwhile, Hannibal may not be as concerned with the concrete logic of its A to B plotting, but season 2 has had a similar ramp up in story.  This season opened on a scene showing Jack Crawford and Hannibal Lecter coming to blows at some point in the future, but instead of it feeling like a spoiler, it was just an indication of how the events would be proceeding this year.  The plot has moved way faster than you'd expect, with Hannibal's body count increasing and his sphere of influence increasing faster.  Season 1 ended with a reverse of what we've come to expect from this story: with Hannibal free and Will Graham behind bars.  You'd think that imprisoning the lead would handcuff the show, since so much of its hook last year was the complicated relationship between these two broken men.  But the battle between the two of them has only become more intense this year.  Being locked behind bars has caused Will to think of more cunning measures to prove his innocence, making desperate attempts to show that the guilt lies on Hannibal's head instead.

For Will, being trapped in his own head is far worse than being stuck in a cell, and the visual manifestations of his psychoses have only increased to reflect the darkness invading him.  If season 1 coasted along on its oblique dreamlike logic, then season 2 of Hannibal is pure nightmare theater.  The show's visuals are by far the most stunning on television, generating just as many chills from a simple framing choice as they do from an elaborate crime scene tableau.  This year, the sounds have stepped up to match the sights, with the score becoming more eerie and intrusive with each new episode.  Together, all of the show's technical elements serve to key the audience into the parts of the characters' inner psyche that they may not even be aware of.  Like the show's titular cannibalistic serial killer, Hannibal is equally concerned with the artistry surrounding its story.

So if these two programs are the new titans that will be battling it out for televisual supremacy, then which one is the Mad Men and which one is the Breaking Bad?  There's not a one-to-one translation, really.  There's something to the sophistication and emotional temperature of The Americans that is strongly reminiscent of Mad Men, but its tightly constructed plot is very Breaking Bad.  Hannibal's got a more immediately hooky premise in the way that Breaking Bad did, but its favoring of atmosphere over plot recalls Mad Men.  In the end, The Americans is more like Mad Men and Breaking Bad is more like Hannibal, which makes the battle even more interesting, since I like Mad Men more than Breaking Bad but Hannibal more than The Americans right now.

Mad Men and Breaking Bad both had second seasons that are some of the best television seasons of last 10 years, and while neither The Americans nor Hannibal have quite reached that level halfway through, they're not far off from the trajectory.  Together, all four shows are an example of the anti-sophomore slump -- the "sophomore skyrocket," if you will.  The internet has a need to pit shows against each other for no real reason, so the latter two are just next up in the queue now that the former two are on their way out.  So is Hannibal vs. The Americans the new Breaking Bad vs. Mad Men?  Sure, why not?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier improves on its predecessor in every way

Because they're essentially telling one large story consisting of smaller interconnected adventures, every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to have a certain house style.  The goal is to have the viewer be able to classify any of them as recognizably Marvel, so they tend to employ a general visual palette, which favors splashy colors that are topped off with a glossy sheen.  They even follow similar tonal guidelines: save the world from some seemingly insurmountable force, while making quips along the way.  It's impressive then that each of the individual films manage to add a specific flavor while staying within that Marvel house style.  With so many films coming out in a short amount of time, it could get monotonous, but they manage to avoid that by having the Thor films draw from Shakespeare, Captain America: The First Avenger embrace its World War II pulp, and essentially making Iron Man 3 a Shane Black film that happens to be starring Tony Stark.

The milieu in which Captain America: The Winter Soldier is steeped is the 70s spy movie/conspiracy thriller.  You can see this from the opening scene, which picks up two years after the events of The Avengers and plants us in the middle of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) helming an infiltration mission at the behest of S.H.I.E.L.D.  The scene focuses on the stealth nature of the objective, and the slickness with which it's executed is the exact opposite of what we've come to expect from Marvel movies.  Directors Joe and Anthony Russo (who made their name directing single-camera television comedies like Arrested Development and Community) infuse The Winter Soldier with so many trappings of the conspiracy thriller genre that it's the closest any movie has come to falling outside of the franchise brand.  It's a refreshing change of pace.  The film explores matters of truth, deception, and paranoia regarding authority as Rogers finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy plot that leaves him public enemy number one, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) forced to go on the run with him, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in critical condition.  On top of that, they've got a mysterious man who goes by The Winter Soldier hunting them down.

Along the way, the film quickly introduces senior S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and ex-soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to the proceedings, adding to the dizzying mix of moving parts in the first two acts.  The story moves along with laser-sight precision, not a single thread poking out as Rogers tries to figure out what's causing S.H.I.E.L.D. to implode.  Most importantly, there's a real danger to the incidents in The Winter Soldier.  Where Captain America and Black Widow might have seemed unimpressive when paired with their flashier compatriots in The Avengers, there are actual stakes in their confrontation with The Winter Soldier in the streets of Washington D.C. near the middle of the film.  There's nothing to match the dazzling tracking shot in The Avengers, but the action scenes here rise above the level of mere competency because of their immediacy.

When the scope begins to widen is when the film gets a bit less interesting.  Things start heading toward the requisite Marvel third act, which ultimately amounts to a big boss battle, and feels a little perfunctory because of it.  It manages to sneak some of the whiz-bang spycraft and intrigue that made the first two acts so engrossing in there, but for the most part, you can chart the course of the film's conclusion with a small margin of error.  Still, it's one of the most successful entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, using its thriller influences to deliver an experience that separates it from the pack enough to make a deep impression.  The Winter Soldier is at its best when it's embracing the new instead of retreating back to past successes, and it opens up an exciting new avenue for the series to explore in the future.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Nymphomaniac goes full Lars von Trier

I have a complicated relationship with Lars von Trier.  Melancholia was the first film of his that I watched back in 2011, and it's my favorite film of all time.  Since then I've seen Antichrist and Dogville, both of which failed to meet the towering expectations set by my introductory experience with him.  There's certainly much to appreciate in the former's gonzo audacity and the latter's ascetic sensibilities, but neither provided the visceral emotional experience that Melancholia did for me.  I can't make any final verdict on how I feel about him as a filmmaker since I still haven't seen his highest regarded films like Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, or The Five Obstructions, but I can say our interactions have been checkered so far.  Regardless, he's definitely one of the most exciting directors working right now, and even when I don't fully enjoy what he's doing, his films never fail to stir something within me.

With that in mind, I was always going to see Nymphomaniac -- less because all of the buzz surrounding its explicit nature, and more because it's a new film by Lars von Trier.  The four hour film is broken up into two parts, and Volume I introduces us to Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who's found by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) lying bloody on the ground in an alley.  He offers to give her shelter and in exchange, she tells him how she came to be in the position he found her in, a tale that chronicles her lifelong experience with nymphomania.  She breaks this story into tiny little chapters, ranging from discovering her condition as a little girl to embracing it as a young woman (played by Stacy Martin).  Together, Gainsbourg (who's quickly becoming my favorite actor), Martin, and von Trier develop Joe into a rich character whose insatiable lust just seems to eat its own tail and suck every aspect of herself into the void.  Nymphomania is just one symptom of her life, it's very clear that she's also severely depressed, unconsciously using sex as a temporary balm for her woes.

This may make the film seem like a bleak slog, but Volume I is often fun and playful.  The key to understanding and enjoying Lars von Trier is realizing that more often than not, he genuinely just wants you to laugh and have a good time.  He's got an odd sense of humor, so that's not always readily apparent, but it is in many parts of this first volume.  From all of the little insert shots of archival footage, kooky graphics that pop up on screen, and instructional diagrams that accompany Joe's stories, it's clear to see that von Trier is having a ball.  Volume I peaks in its third chapter, "Mrs. H," which is just a masterpiece of cringe comedy.

Nymphomaniac gained much of its pre-release fervor from the rampant sex that was promised in it, and while there's certainly copious amounts of it, it's fascinating to see how dispassionate most of it is in this volume.  Much of Joe's young life is filled with joyless sex, following up a first time that's quick and brutal with expressionless trysts with random strangers on the train.  The first sign of pleasure we see from her is in a montage with four different men, but it's revealed that her ecstasy is only a form of emotional manipulation, as she tells each of them that this specific encounter was the first orgasm she's ever had.  When there are finally true signs of sexual satisfaction from her, it has grave consequences.  Like many of Lars von Trier's films, Volume I is all about loneliness.  For Joe, sex is an act born out of lust and alienation, but only fuels more lust and alienation.  That this thing usually considered to be the ultimate form of intimacy only serves to isolate her more is one of the film's saddest ironies.

With these two films, von Trier is building up his own twisted version of a myth, a journey filled with symbols and coincidences and elements that recur in Joe's life.  In a way, Nymphomaniac is like his Kill Bill.  With both series, the first volume is playful and over-the-top while the second one is focused and stark.  They're essentially one cohesive story, broken up into two parts that are able to stand on their own stylistically and thematically.  Nymphomaniac's two volumes even have an Eastern and Western dichotomy, although it's more theological rather than structural.

And if Volume I is all about loneliness, then Volume II focuses on the punishment that comes as an ultimate response to that loneliness.  It's another one of von Trier's pet themes, his stories are full of characters punishing themselves and those around them, and Joe is no different.  The guilt she feels about how she's thrown away the rest of her life for the sake of her sexual appetite is essentially the root of why she's telling her story to Seligman -- it's an effort to have somebody else feel she's as terrible as she finds herself to be.  And when her self-harm isn't enough, she looks to be punished by others.  Her nymphomania manifests itself in her need to constantly up the stakes of her sexual experiences, searching for something more extreme when the last method will no longer suffice, and finding it in a man (Jamie Bell) who viciously beats her without any sex involved.  The cycle of punishment continues, as Joe eventually takes up a job that requires her to use her experience with sexual torture on others, and finding a protege to pass her techniques on to.

I mentioned earlier that Lars von Trier just wants you to laugh and have a good time, but his films wouldn't be as interesting if they were just about that.  Volume II proves that he also wants to make you think about the ideas he's presenting you with.  Some say that the ending is a cheap gag that retroactively soils the four hours that came before it, but the more it rattles around in my brain the more powerful it becomes.  Von Trier has said that all of his female protagonists are an extension of himself, and that idea really comes into focus at the end of this portion.  When you think about these two films as the conclusion of what he calls "The Depression Trilogy," then nymphomania is just an extension of depression in the same way that loss was in Antichrist and the end of the world was in Melancholia.  If Antichrist showed something that could begin a bout of depression, and much of Melancholia was about living with it, then Joe's decision to overcome her sexual desires is an effort to emerge from depression.  Resisting her urges in any way that she can is not too dissimilar to von Trier dealing with his depression in the only way that he can -- by making films about it.  Nymphomaniac posits that everybody suffering from some affliction is like the soul tree that Joe finds near the end of the film: barely upright, but standing nonetheless.

The movie aims to tell the story of one woman's unique life, and to do so it gets very operatic.  Luckily, that's the mode that von Trier best operates in.  Even if you aren't into the extreme places the story goes, there's always the terrific acting and arresting images.  (It's hard to believe that the man who started Dogme 95, a movement that pushed the limits of minimalist cinema, has now gone on to make three of the most gorgeous films of the last few years.)  Whatever you consider Lars von Trier to be -- provocateur, prankster, poet -- there's no doubt that Nymphomaniac is an ambitious opus from an auteur who always keeps audiences on their toes.