That Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning exists indicates something is wrong with the world. That it is, against its better judgment, a near masterpiece, at least in terms of filmmaking principles and matching those principles to its narrative concerns, implies something is far worse with the world than anyone could have imagined. But yes, the fourth or eighth or ninety-sixth film in the bro-fest science fiction routine slaughterhouse that is the Universal Soldier series, tangled up in its Roland Emmerich-directed roots and choking on them for decades now, is good. In fact, in its own way, it’s fairly great. And how shocking that this way approximates ’70s art-house horror/crime/thriller/ sci-fi that only passingly gestures toward any idea of “action” and even then does wonders to detach “action” from anything resembling Roland Emmerich. What a strange, strange film. Plus, if it means anything to you, it is probably, by several orders of magnitude, superior to anything Dolph Lundgren or Jean-Claude Van Damme have starred in (although the post-structuralist JCVD, a sly little nightstalker of a film, comes pretty close for the latter star). Pleasures abound in this weird, weird world of ours, folks. Continue reading
Edited June 2016
In the annals of action cinema, only a few directors regularly serve up meaningful main courses. Few really claim even one all-time classic, and if you increase the limit to two, you’re really counting on one hand. Thankfully, Hong Kong malevolence maestro John Woo has enough panache in his step and off-kilter edge in his frame to cover a full crash course on the genre. Perhaps the only action director whose demented fugue bathes his entire (pre-2000) canon in a gusto that marks his films as individual slices of a larger action opera, this only speaks with more fluency to Woo’s oddly existential, personalized take on a genre typically reserved for more corporate penthouses. He’s a full-on longitudinal case study in hyperbolizing and electro-shocking violence and elevating it to an oblong poetry of human flesh and human desire trapped in perpetual motion, always searching for the next potential soul to take, or, for his ennui-addled protagonists, the next soul to find.
Kevin Macdonald more often dons the cap of documentarian than fiction filmmaker, and his Black Sea shows it. He brings a grimy, festering, “you are there” realism to this lean, efficient work. This story of a deep, dark sea revealing mankind’s darker heart puts Jude Law in the position of a beleaguered, disgruntled, Scottish workaday ship captain unceremoniously fired from his day job. He takes it upon himself to seek a personal form of revenge and get rich quick in a damp, deep excursion into the crumpled, blistered quarters of a worn out submarine, surrounding himself with a crew of unsavory, functional types and the hopes and dreams of a treasure of gold deep within the hard-lost depths of the Black Sea. Troubles abound, from tension within the men, to physical difficulties in actually procuring the gold, to corporate lies and deceit, but all of them filter through and debate with the darkest secret of all: man’s worst enemy in his own unquiet self. If it sounds like a story out of the rough-and-tumble mid-’60s, a Sam (Fuller or Peckinpah, take your pick) or John Sturges dude-picaresque “picture” (as opposed to a film or a movie), you’d be right. It’s an ode to a style of film lost today, a sort of rivetingly adult, high-concept entertainment as scruffy and chiseled as a machine after a hard day’s work, and, for what its worth, it earns the comparison. Continue reading
So what happened is this: As some may have noticed, I have removed my yearly lists of top ten films for the past five years from the site. They’d been taunting me with how quickly my tastes had changed, and I found them inadequate at this point. Instead, I will be conveniently replacing them soon with a long list of my 50 favorite films of the first half of the 2010s, now snugly coming to a close after five long years. Expect plenty of overlap, but the text will all be brand spankin’ new, and of course 2014’s crop of beasties will be on board too. I promise I won’t do this again, but a good portion of those lists were leftovers from my previous pre-blog writing days, and I wanted to start fresh with the new year.
For the next few days I will be uploading a collection of short reviews, in pairs for post-size sake (although the pairs will not be linked conceptually at all, unless you consider films released in the 2010s a sufficient link). All will be of films that are in consideration for the list (great films I first saw or re-watched recently, with some new and not-necessarily-so-great 2014 leftovers I just caught for the first time thrown in for fun). Just some stocking stuffers for y’all to tide you over this Holiday season.
The Raid: Redemption
2014 brought The Raid 2: Berandal, which upped things to operatic heights of artistic blood-letting and furious visual motion, but sometimes it’s the simple things that pay off in spades. For The Raid 2 frequently hits, and hits hard at that, but if director Gareth Evans took action down to the wheelhouse on a never-ending train ride of grandiose brutality, his storytelling stowed away to no avail. The end result was a film of two halves, one a rampagingly color-coded action extravaganza with an eye for physical motion and space, and the other a pretentious, over-cooked crime thriller with eyes for Infernal Affairs that don’t suit the film’s strengths. Continue reading
For all John Wick’s bad-to-the-bone street cred, the most surprising, and rewarding, fact of the film is that it is essentially a character study. It just happens to study a man who knows only action and killing, a la Le Samourai and Point Blank. All other concerns are ephemeral. Wick is spare, stripped, and rivetingly efficient, and the entire last half of the film is wall-to-wall action, leaving little room for “traditional” character development. But in John Wick it is precisely that beaten-and-battered resistance to emotion that drives John Wick (Keanu Reeves). He’s a tragic figure, but not one who’s tragedy is expressed through emoting. Rather, it is expressed through his not emoting, and his essential inability to understand life outside of his single-minded pursuit of vengeance, a vengeance pushing him toward death even as it is the only thing keeping him alive and vigorous. He’s a cold man, and his film brings an icy chill. The effect is crippling, brittle, and unexpectedly heartbreaking. The script, and the terse filmmaking, strips the whole story of emotion, never letting us into its world, for Wick can’t truly be a part of ours. Continue reading
It’s a thing of wonder that filmmaker JC Chandor made the mostly silent All is Lost, his second film, directly after the dialogue-stricken Margin Call, a corporate thriller (perhaps the most dialogue-heavy genre in existence), his feature debut. Of course, the difference between the two is more one of taste, but this second film, which knows not the realism of dialogue and must rely on the more affectingly filmic lens of pure imagery, is more satisfying as an elemental wonder and a parable of human loneliness. The narrative is archly straightforward, uninterested in fussy complication or false villains. We have an old man (Robert Redford) and we have a sea (well, the Indian Ocean), and these old friends find themselves for once on the opposite sides of an argument. We follow them as they resolve it. Continue reading
Fundamentally, I like The Raid more than the The Raid 2. The former film was more assured and confident in achieving its stated goals. It was lean, mean, efficient, and it boiled action filmmaking down to its brutal basics while elevating the genre to a ballet of human motion and brutality. It was about construction, form, filmmaking, and camera movement above any conception of character or narrative, and it was entirely aware of this.
The Raid 2 replaces this tight narrative with characters, characters, and more characters. It centers a much larger narrative about two crime families, one Indonesian and one Japanese, at a relative standstill until one of the don’s sons decides he wants to prove himself to his father, or something such as that, by wiping out the other gang. In the middle of all this, for reasons I don’t care to go into and which don’t always make sense, the first film’s protagonist, Rama (Iko Uwais) gets himself involved. There are lots of characters, too many, and the narrative moves every which way over the course of 2 ½ hours somewhat aimlessly. It plays like a hopped-up Infernal Affairs (later remade in America as The Departed) that, while occasionally artistically assembled with flair, still largely amounts to a whole bunch of narrative sound and fury signifying nothing. It’s not a bad narrative, but it is undeniably too long and too full of itself to really succeed as efficient entertainment or as a grandiose crime opera to rival the better films it steals from. Twists mount and mount without any particular reason to care about their nature. Continue reading