The Raid 2
SINCE the martial arts movie tends to be the most formulaic of all genres -- my dojo is better than your dojo -- director Gareth Evans was all the more deserving of kudos for his marvelously inventive 2011 film The Raid, wherein a resourceful, honest cop found himself trapped in a slummy apartment building, fending off an army of goons while methodically making his way to the head honcho in control of the mayhem.
It delivered some truly savage martial arts action, but Evans threw other stuff in the blender. The movie looked like a grungy Die Hard with flashes of bloody gothic horror.
But if the first Raid was inspired by Die Hard, the second more closely resembles Brian de Palma's Scarface as an epic-length, extremely violent depiction of one man's rise in a brutal criminal empire.
Curiously, that man is once again Rama (Iko Uwais), the cop from the first movie. Faced with armies of hoodlums and too many dishonest cops, Rama accepts the assignment of going undercover to infiltrate the empire controlled by criminal mastermind Bangun (Tia Pakusadewo). Too bad for him, that involves cutting himself off from his wife and infant son to find himself in prison. It is there, he has been assigned the task of getting next to Bangun's handsome, arrogant son Ucok (Arifin Putra). He proves his fighting ability taking on all Ucok's gang in a single bathroom brawl, and gets even closer saving his life in a muddy prison brawl.
By the time he gets out of jail two years later, he takes his place alongside Ucok as a personal bodyguard. But at the same time, he is not privy to Ucok's shifting loyalty away from his own father and towards a brutal rival Bejo (Alex Abbad).
If Iko Uwais remains a formidable fighter with a disarming hangdog soulfulness, director Evans is pretty fast on his feet too, staging an invigorating, bullet-riddled car chase around the two-hour mark before a kick-ass finale in which Rama stages a magnificently sustained one-man assault against a menagerie of hoods including a one-of-a-kind assassin credited as Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle). You can guess why.
For a glimpse of the real-life violence and corruption that afflicts modern-day Indonesia, check out The Act of Killing, a documentary in which filmmakers coax gangsters into staging past crimes for their cameras in Hollywood fashion.
By contrast, The Raid 2 plays more like one of the Hollywood films that inspired the gangsters -- dark, violent, unrealistic yet maddeningly irresistible. HHH1/2 out of five
THE big advantage to having this Mumbai-set drama viewable at home is that you can watch it accompanied by your choice of Indian takeout.
Food figures prominently in this film centred on an unhappy housewife. Ila (Nimraut Kaur) senses she is losing the interest of her remote husband. She fixes on a solution of sending him especially delicious meals for his lunch.
An explanation is necessary here: The story involves Mumbai's intricate system of food delivery whereby hot home cooking is delivered to offices and workplaces via some 5,000 Dabbawallahs. If the process seems haphazard, it is fiendishly efficient. It is said that only one in four million deliveries goes wrong.
This movie is about one of those erroneous deliveries. Instead of being sent to her husband, the food is delivered to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a widowed insurance-claims adjuster on the cusp of retirement.
Reputed as a sour man given to kicking cats, Saajan initially assumes the restaurant that usually delivers his food has improved its culinary game. But Ila realizes, by the way the food has been thoroughly consumed, that the delivery has gone amiss. She initiates a letter correspondence that sees both these unhappy people transforming themselves.
Infrequent visitors to Indian cinema are advised the film is nothing like a Bollywood musical melodrama. Writer-director Ritesh Batra works more in the humanist template of Satyajit Ray, offering up a very human story against a backdrop of crowded streets, trains, shabby offices and tiny apartments.
Much of the film's delight is in its subplots. Ila gets relationship advice from an unseen "auntie" who lives upstairs, caring for her semi-comatose husband. Saajan, a loner at work, is moved to drop his guard long enough to befriend his obsequious replacement Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who proves to be more than he seems.
Through some wonderful editing, Batra weaves in lovely detail that enriches and strengthens this simple tale: a song heard in a Bollywood movie in one shot is sung by beggar children on a train in the next shot. Again and again, Batra makes connections suggestive of individual threads weaving a large, rich, funny-tragic tableau that is also delicious. HHH 1/2
Birth of the Living Dead
DIRECTOR Rob Kuhns is hardly the first documentarian to examine the zombie films of George A. Romero. The trend started in 1985 with Document of the Dead and since then, Romero has appeared in dozens of docs affably discussing his horror legacy, which began with his landmark 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead.
This film, with its unsettling title, offers up a different agenda. Produced by indie horror auteur Larry Fessenden, the doc champions NOTLD as a real work of art, created against the odds on a minimal budget with a no-name cast in, of all places, Pittsburgh.
You might not think it necessary. Romero's film spawned a whole horror sub-genre including hundreds of films, comics and a TV series (The Walking Dead).
But the film serves as a reminder that, while a big midnight movie hit at the time of its release, the film was critically savaged upon its release. (Roger Ebert famously expressed outrage that kids who found their way into the film were subject to potentially lifelong trauma, but subsequently revised his review to acknowledge the genius behind it.) Fessenden himself takes the opportunity to point out the film's more brilliant moments, including its unnerving graveyard prelude, its key subversive moments (a little girl eats her dad and kills her mom with a garden trowel) and its radical use of a black protagonist (Duane Jones) at a time when race relations in the U.S. were coming to a boil.
Romero himself remains a delightful interview subject. One senses a man who exorcised all his demons with the movies he made.
Birth of the Living Dead is currently available on Netflix.