The Raid 2
Dir. Gareth Evans
The Raid, a spellbindingly violent martial-arts action movie from Indonesia, blew the back of my head off when I first saw it. The film, although extremely simple in the plot department (a SWAT team clears out a building floor by floor), made up for its basic story with some of the best hand-to-hand action scenes I've ever seen. So Gareth Evans had a lot to live up to with his sequel, The Raid 2: Berandal - and in some ways it completely tops the first, and in others it made me wish for the more streamlined approach of its predecessor. The Raid 2 is decidedly a much bigger film with a larger scope than the first, throwing away the simple "take out these guys floor by floor" formula. The film picks up where the last left off, and the hero, Rama, is sent undercover into a crime syndicate to reveal police corruption.
I thought the story was somewhat interesting, but it was pretty unbelievable at points (just to earn the criminal's trust, Rama has to spend TWO YEARS in prison, with no contact with his family) and it ended up being too complicated for its own good, going off on pointless side-plots. Even though the ensuing action scenes were amazing, there was one random machete-wielding homeless character introduced halfway through the film for no apparent reason, and I was pretty lost throughout the film, losing track of the character relationships. I hadn't seen the first Raid film since it came out three years ago, so without a refresher I was pretty dumbfounded as to what exactly was going on at first. The movie is also way too long, clocking in at almost 2.5 hours.
I think more time in the editing room would've helped this film along, but in the long run, the action scenes are worth the wait. If you in any way like crazy, violent, Tarantino-esque action, you simply must see this film. Every single fight is breathtaking, and if you get the chance to see it in a theater or with a crowd, do so because you can't help but wince at the sheer brutality of the fights (what these actors go through for the sake of entertainment is astonishing). I don't want to spoil the fight scenes, but they are all different from one another so they don't grow stale and Evans isn't afraid to show the consequences. While I wouldn't recommend this to anyone not really into the genre, fans of action movies need to stick through this film: it pays off!
Dir. David Gordon Green
Nicolas Cage infamously has taken some questionable roles in the past...and by 'some' I mean 'mostly.' Sure he managed to squeeze out an Academy Award win or nomination here and there, but I think Cage has mostly gone the route of M. Night Shyamalan and nobody takes him seriously anymore (if they ever did). But, for whatever reason, David Gordon Green saw something fresh in the guy, and casted him in yet another Southern drama of his. Joe feels very much like last year's Mud, which is no coincidence - they're both southern dramas that attempted to give a waning celebrity a career revival (Cage and McConaughey), they both have a lead character escaping from a criminal past, they both star Tye Sheridan playing a coming-of-age boy yearning for a father figure, Green was a co-producer on Mud, and they both have really terrible three-letter word titles. Considering the timing of it, I couldn't help but compare the two films, and unfortunately, I think that negatively affected my view of the movie.
Joe is about a real rough-and-tumble guy, Joe (Nic Cage) who spends his blue-collar days chopping down trees, unflinchingly grabbing venomous snakes, and banging trailer trash women. He hires a kid named Gary (Tye Sheridan) one day and the two form a bond - something he never got in his home life from his alcoholic, abusive father. I don't want to give anything away, but basically Tye gets mixed up with some bad people, and the rest of the film may or may not spell tragedy for everyone involved. The world of this film was ultra-rundown and raw (I couldn't help but think of Chainsaw Massacre), and if it wasn't already clear from his past work, David Gordon Green knows how to bring this subculture to life. But I think critics are so excited that Cage is in a halfway decent role that they looked past all the problems with this movie. I thought the script was pretty lackluster and nothing we haven't seen before; and Cage himself I didn't even think was that great - in my opinion his much younger co-star stole the show. I just didn't get anything out of this movie other than 'life sucks.' With Mud and even Beasts of the Southern Wild, I think there are much better films of this type lying around that you should watch instead.
Under the Skin
Dir. Jonathan Glazer
Jonathan Glazer, director of Sexy Beast and a bunch of commercials and music videos, brings the sci-fi genre out of the exposition-heavy plots we're used to, and into the dark abyss of ambiguity in Under the Skin, based off a book by Michael Faber, which follows an alien in the form of Scarlett Johanssen who picks up guys, takes them back to her apartment (which is actually a trippy black metaphorical death room) and through context clues we figure she's harvesting their organs. Although it sounds like a plot ripe for a blood-and-guts creature feature, the film is much more akin to a European art film, taking its sweet-ass time, letting each and every shot linger and speak for itself. There's barely any dialogue throughout the movie, but for me it felt like pure "cinema" as the wonderful cinematography from Daniel Landin (another music video regular) and a very unsettling, bizarre score from Mica Levi wash over you as you try to piece together what these images actually mean. It's a wholly original film, and by far the most unique I've seen this year, but if you're not in the right mindset you're going to find this a slog.
Johanssen is on a roll with her roles lately, and she's really showing off her range: she can go from this one character who barely speaks at all, to voicing the computer in Her, where she can only rely on the dialogue. I think she was perfect casting as well because in the popular culture, she is more or less seen as an "object" for men to ogle at (most guys don't look forward to seeing her as Black Widow "for the plot"), and the film plays with the idea of this alien going from a blank-staring killing machine to an actual woman (or as film blogger Britt Hayes brilliantly put it: "from an 'it' to a 'she'"). Its very deliberately paced, but if you can get through it and don't mind when a film doesn't spell everything out for you (I literally didn't know what I was even looking at for the first 5 minutes), I think Under the Skin is a beautiful, weird, haunting movie that grew on me the more I thought about it.