Sony Pictures Classics

The Raid (2011, Gareth Evans), the international version

For the first forty-five minutes or so, The Raid is able to keep going on the idea lead Iko Uwais is going to be the most kick ass fighter in the movie. There a handful of short expository scenes throughout the film, plus a prologue, where Uwais prays, does some martial arts workouts (it’s all Indonesian martial arts in the film), kisses pregnant wife Fikha Effendi goodbye, has plot twist foreshadowing moment with dad Henky Solaiman, and is off to work—but otherwise it’s all action. For a while it’s shooting action, as Uwais and his fellow SWAT team members infiltrate a high-rise tenement run by drug lord Ray Sahetapy. Once it goes to martial arts action, however, it’s all martial arts action, finally letting Uwais deliver on what the prologue promised.

Except by then we’ve already seen Yayan Ruhian and the movie doesn’t even pretend Uwais is going to surpass Ruhian. When Uwais does finally get around to fighting him, it’s Donny Alamsyah teaming up with Uwais to fight Ruhian. Director Evans knows no one’s going to think Uwais can handle this one on his own, which sort of leaves Uwais an awkward action hero. He starts the movie a renegade—because he’s the only caring SWAT cop, which we know because they were ready to kill civilian Iang Darmawan for being around and Uwais steps in to save the guy—ends up doing the action scenes out of a couple different buddy cop movies, then ends it all solo, even though he’s with a literal cop buddy for it. But it never feels like Uwais is getting short-changed, at least not in the second half; the hero of the first half is Joe Taslim. He’s the sergeant and the only one who knows there’s something shady about the raid because he knows Pierre Gruno is a shady guy. Meanwhile Gruno doesn’t want cannon fodder like Uwais getting in his way, even though Gruno’s not a martial arts bad ass like everyone else in the movie.

The Taslim as lead thing is just weird because director Evans just assumes the audience is going to go for it. The Raid has some beautifully executed action sequences and some great fight choreography, but Evans’s best instinct is for what works with the cast. The movie starts with Uwais, sticks with Uwais—introducing Taslim as the leader and quickly establishing his relationship with Gruno—but when it’s time for Taslim to take on Ruhian, it’s not a supporting character’s fight scene. It’s the big hero’s fight scene.

Uwais’s arc sort of stalling out probably doesn’t help him maintain the spotlight. After the first big action sequence, Uwais has a whole “help wounded comrade” survive arc. Tegar Satrya’s the wounded comrade. The movie’s only ever established he’s a dick, which makes Uwais saving him somewhat more dramatic maybe, but no more entertaining to watch. Plus Satrya’s unlikable. Only he and Gruno are unlikable. Everyone else, good or bad, is enjoyable to watch. Like Alfridus Godfred, who’s basically just “Machete Guy,” because everyone gets their hands on a machete. Godfred’s terrifying, just a walking embodiment of probable dismemberment. But you want to see him, you want to see him more, as the film builds to whatever fight sequence he’s going to participate in. Again, Evans has great instincts for rising action scene tension.

The drama stuff, involving Uwais, Alamsyah, Gruno, Darmawan, and Sahetapy? Eh. Sahetapy’s is the best because Sahetapy’s a very evil hoot of a villain. Evans also knows how violent to get and not to get, when to show, when to tell, when to imply. But the drama? It’s take it or leave it. It’s not bad, just pedestrian and superfluous. Or should be.

See, while everyone who’s got a big fight scene—Taslim, Uwais, Alamsyah, and, obviously, Ruhian—is great at the fighting… Evans isn’t great at the directing. He’s good enough at it for a while, but when it’s the marathon Ruhian vs. Uwais and Alamsyah fight? It gets boring. Evans can showcase his actors’ skills but he can’t keep them compelling. Evans also edited the film and most of the editing is excellent, but the longer fight scenes—usually when there’s not scenery around to damage—the cuts are just between not great shots. It’s a bummer.

Nice photography from Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono, great music by Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese (which is the difference between this international version and the original, plus an added subtitle, Redemption, because of rights issues). The Raid is about as good as you can get for an all-action martial arts movie with the barest hints of a real story and flat direction on the martial arts themselves. It’s very impressive work from Evans and company.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written, directed, and edited by Gareth Evans; directors of photography, Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono; music by Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese; produced by Ario Sagantoro; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Iko Uwais (Rama), Joe Taslim (Jaka), Donny Alamsyah (Andi), Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog), Pierre Gruno (Wahyu), Ray Sahetapy (Tama), Tegar Satrya (Bowo), Iang Darmawan (Gofar), Eka ‘Piranha’ Rahmadia (Dagu), Verdi Solaiman (Budi), and Alfridus Godfred (Machete Gang #1).


Denise Calls Up (1995, Hal Salwen)

About ten years ago, the best independent movies–as Fox Searchlight wasn’t around yet–were coming out of Sony Pictures Classics. Denise Calls Up has disappeared. It’s not out on DVD and the VHS is out of print. Hal Salwen is similarly gone–his last film is available, pan and scanned, on DVD, but the one he made after Denise has never been released. The New York independent filmmakers of the 1990s–the only good independent industry of the 1990s–have mostly disappeared….

Denise is an odd film. It’s structured around phone calls. The film is, watched today, a monument to the call waiting-era, which is now mostly replaced by e-mail. Except a film about a bunch of people e-mailing each other doesn’t allow dialogue, which means there wouldn’t be much for the actors to do. Denise gives its actors a lot to do. I think this film is the first one I ever saw Liev Schreiber in. Schreiber–to some degree–caught on and managed to resist Hollywood crap for a while, always doing smaller work. But this film is also the first place I saw Alanna Ubach, who was around for a minute (particularly Clockwatchers), then disappeared. These two are the only ones I’m going to mention, but everyone in the film is great. I can’t figure out how Salwen got such good performances out of them, given the telephone-only talking nature of the film.

While the telephone-specific elements of the film may or may not be outdated, Denise‘s theme of isolation in American culture is more than valid, probably moreso today. Salwen’s an exceptional filmmaker too–Denise is particularly well-edited and the location manager is my hero–it’s unthinkable that he hasn’t gone on to anything more. I hope Sony gets around to releasing it on DVD, just so more people can see it.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Hal Salwen; director of photography, Michael Mayers; edited by Gary Sharfin; music by Lynn Geller; production designer, Susan Bolles; produced by J. Todd Harris; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Alanna Ubach (Denise), Tim Daly (Frank), Caroleen Feeney (Barbara), Dan Gunther (Martin), Dana Wheeler-Nicholson (Gale), Liev Schreiber (Jerry), Aida Turturro (Linda) and Sylvia Miles (Gale’s Aunt Sharon).


Henry Fool (1997, Hal Hartley)

I remember seeing Henry Fool years ago, but I remembered it being laugh-out-loud funny. This era, my 1999 film-watching era, is highly suspect to me now. It’s pre-Traffic, I suppose.

I’ve tried watching Hartley since. No Such Thing was a particularly terrible experience… or however much of it I saw.

And for most of Henry Fool, I was moving between some low rating, one to one and a half, in line with movielens. What’s important–what’s funny–when you’re twenty isn’t necessarily funny when you’re not. I used to think Mallrats was good, for example.

Henry Fool, which I’m hardly writing about because it’s 2:03 in the morning and I’m tired, does something amazing. It takes one hour and forty-five minutes of one to one and a half star material and then spends twenty-five minutes turning it all into three and a half star material. I’m not aware of a film that becomes so notable so quickly. I really don’t think it’s been done since or before….

Too bad the other Hartley I tried was such a momentous failure. But see Henry Fool. If only for the Parker Posey’s great performance.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written, directed and produced by Hal Hartley; director of photography, Michael Spiller; edited by Steve Hamilton; music by Hartley; production designer, Steve Rosenzweig; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Thomas Jay Ryan (Henry Fool), James Urbaniak (Simon Grim), Parker Posey (Fay), Maria Porter (Mary), James Saito (Mr. Deng) and Kevin Corrigan (Warren).


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