August 5: #44, The Raid: Redemption
“There’ll be no empty seats in here on the way home.”
Sorry, proud Amurricans, but the United States has not had a firm grip on the martial arts epic since Jean-Claude Van Damme was put out to pasture and relegated to direct-to-video status. Even then, in the 80s and 90s, our action heroes were largely big, slow, and preferred guns to kicks. Nowadays, we don’t really have action stars at all, besides perhaps The Rock. They just take a decent actor or actress and give them six months of kickboxing classes, instead. A shame, really.
Fortunately, Indonesia has not given up on the art of ass-kicking, and not only are we getting great martial arts films from the East, still (Ong Bak wasn’t that long ago), but now they’re out action-ing our own action films, to boot. Yes, I just made that word up.
I’m not going to lie to you: The Raid: Redemption is almost entirely a balls-to-the-wall action film. I mean, probably the most dynamic action film you’ve ever seen, and that includes my beloved Ong Bak. However, even though some of you will be relieved that you’ll only be reading subtitles occasionally, others of you should not forego this film simply because it’s the best action film in years. That’s because The Raid: Redemption, despite its dumbass, generic subtitle, is not simply a great action film, but has a fairly interesting plot and some quality drama to offer, as well.
Nobody is expected to be Laurence Olivier here, but everyone is great in their roles. From the beginning, we are invited into the headspace of a young rookie policeman who (of course) is going to be a father for the first time soon. You know, because we wouldn’t give a shit about his safety if he wasn’t procreating. The rookie, Rama (Iko Uwais), is going along on an incredibly dangerous raid on a 14-story apartment complex in a bad neighborhood that is home to druggies, thugs, criminals of all sorts, and the local kingpin, who resides at the top and is nearly impossible to get to in the most literal sense of the phrase.
There’s a great scene right at the beginning where all of the troops are loaded up in an armored vehicle and the tension is high as they prepare for what will be the most dangerous mission they’ve ever been on. Then, just 9 ½ minutes in, they’re rushing into the ground floor of the building, and we’re off to the races. Still, in the occasional moments of dialogue, a couple of intriguing plot points are pushed, with one being about the shady reason they’re even raiding the building (and the reason they can’t get backup when they need it) and another being a surprisingly effective story of estranged brothers.
That’s fine, but again, The Raid is all about action, and it’s here, from some of the best-choreographed martial arts sequences I’ve ever seen to gunfights that are simply crazy and everything in between. This film is an absolute orgy of violence, and it’s even free of the abomination that is “shaky cam”, thanks to director Gareth Evans. Evans skillfully directs the film’s thrilling set-pieces, such as when, trapped in a corner, some officers cut a hole through the floor to go to the apartment below and drop down, with the camera dropping down after them and immediately following the fight that takes place directly when the officers land on their feet.
The film is actually pretty exhausting once it’s all said and done, both because of the number of “Holy shit!” moments and the absolutely bleak cinematography. Everything is dark, with plenty of grays, dark blues, and blacks really underscoring the hopelessness of the task that the officers have undertaken. Yeah, you’ll be spent when you get done watching The Raid, but then you’ll probably also be forcing your friends who haven’t seen it to watch it with you, too. Grade: A
August 6: #45, Pitch Perfect
Finally, a capella groups get their Bring it On
Pitch Perfect takes the Glee/a capella singing group/musical mash-up phenomenon and turns it on its ear pretty skillfully, simultaneously parodying Glee and the like while showing genuine affection to its musical roots, which is not an easy line to walk. So it gets points right off the bat, there.
And hey, it’s pretty damn funny at times! The story follows Anna Kendrick as Beca, a new college student who has no friends and is being forced by her inexplicably dickish father to join an extracurricular activity, even though she’d rather make awful club music on her laptop and keep to herself. Along the way, she joins an a capella group called The Barden Bellas, who are a team that has only two remaining members and must recruit heavily to survive, even as they stubbornly refuse to change their boring arrangements in order to get to the next level.
Barden University has several a capella groups, in fact, including an all-male group, The Treble Makers. The two groups have a rivalry, which gives the movie a third of its conflict, with The Bellas’ leader Aubrey (Anna Camp)’s stubborn refusal to change the group’s direction and Beca’s own intimacy issues (yes, really) comprising the other two-thirds.
So it mostly works, although put me down as having zero investment in Beca and Jesse (Skylar Astin)’s will-they-or-won’t-they love affair. The other two-thirds of the plot is entertaining, with the rivalry between The Bellas and The Treble Makers being the best part of the movie. A lot of that is owed to Adam DeVine (Workaholics), who is the leader of the boys’ group and absolutely steals every single scene he’s in. The majority of the other laughs come from Rebel Wilson, who plays Fat Amy and is actually given fairly bland material to work with but still makes the best of it and gets some laughs along the way.
The problem is that sometimes the movie is a parody, and then it goes about 10 minutes while taking itself extremely seriously all of a sudden. Beca inexplicably goes psycho on Jesse to create a romantic comedy-style forced conflict, and the momentum of the film gets derailed completely, and so on. The movie seems to take itself seriously at times, but Wilson and DeVine completely undermine their groups’ performances at time for laughs (which I enjoyed), too. Then there are the supporting characters of The Bellas, who are all completely stereotyped, one-dimensional characters, such as the Asian Girl Who Doesn’t Speak Loudly Enough To Be Heard.
Still, Pitch Perfect is legitimately funny at times, and I actually liked a lot of the musical arrangements better than what I overheard while my wife was binge-watching every season of Glee in the living room a couple of years ago (they simply have more energy). Plus, I was all set to give this a C+ until I realized that against all odds, I was actually invested in the outcome of the film and got that “feel good” vibe that you always get in these corny underdog stories. It was kind of a missed opportunity, but I’ll still be interested in seeing the sequel. Grade: B-