The Raid/Dredd

***SPOILERS***

Watched these two back to back as I’d heard about their similarity. Yeah OK, they’re both about law enforcement officers being trapped in large buildings with an overwhelmingly large enemy force run by ruthless gangsters, but I actually thought that the differences were both greater and more interesting than the similarities.

First up: The Raid – (or The Raid: Redemption to give it its full, pointless UK title) is a stripped down, turbo charged monster of an action flick. Pencak Silat  genius Iko Uwais  plays Rama, new boy on the Jakarta SWAT team sent in to clean up a drug-overlord’s tenement block – a block populated almost entirely by sociopathic machete-wielding martial arts experts. Mayhem ensues. From there it’s a battle of attrition and ever decreasing ranges as the grunts on both sides die, guns run out of bullets, machetes/blades get broken or lost until it’s all fists, feet and elbows. The action choreography, courtesy of Uwais is absolutely spectacular – fast, flowing and brutal, whilst director Gareth Evans gives the battles the space they need, framing each shot carefully for maximum clarity to the carnage. No shaky-cam here. What there is, though is the sort of inventive camera work that reminds me of early Sam Raimi, where budget constraints forced the film-maker to be really creative in getting the shots they want.

In a lot of ways, The Raid is as much horror movie as action/martial arts epic. The relentlessness of the action, grimy setting and the tension generating sequences are far more horror tropes than action ones, and herein lies one of the failings of the film. Whilst there are brief pauses for exposition, it’s frenetic, breathless stuff and nearly a case of too much of a good thing. Also, the foley on UK and US releases doesn’t perfectly match the action. The consequent disconnect is a real shame. That said, Uwais is the most impressive cinematic martial artist I’ve seen since Tony Jaa, and the sheer level of inventiveness and commitment to purpose make this an extremely good borderline great action movie.

Dredd is almost subtle in comparison.

Karl Urban plays everybody’s favourite fascist lawman with the exactly right level of laconic, lending him a terse, black humoured edge. Dredd isn’t so much a character as a Platonic ideal ‘inflexible lawman’. Urban gives him an implacability and self belief that is as much force of nature as anything else – it doesn’t occur to Dredd that he might lose. Consequently the bulk of character development and audience identification falls on nervous rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). Anderson is a powerful psychic with a borderline failing score in her final Judge assessment. The Chief Judge takes the pragmatic approach that her psionic ability is worth at least the 3% Anderson is failing by, asks Dredd to see what he can do. The Judges head out onto the streets of Mega City One, and long story short end up in the Peach Trees Megablock, run by vicious crime boss MaMa (Lena Heady in full on ‘terrifying psychopath’ mode). Mayhem, predictably enough, ensues. Much of this mayhem is incredibly beautiful, too thanks to the macguffin ‘Slo-Mo’ drug. Slo-Mo, which doubtless acts on Shatner’s Bassoon alters the user’s perception of time, rendering it a lovely, glassy slow-motion effect. Someone having their face shot off has never seemed so beautiful.

The dramatic meat of the story is Anderson’s transition from uncertain, lacking-in-confidence rookie to a woman who will, essentially, tell Dredd to stick it up his ass. She might initially seem too delicate for the environment and job she’s trained for, but this is a woman who mind-fucks a vicious multiple killer so much he pisses his pants in fear and mind-probes then executes a turncoat Judge without batting an eyelid, while remaining sympathetic and likeable. Anderson deserves her own movie.

There are also numerous Easter-egg references to the comic – from the obvious ‘Chopper’ graffiti to the relatively subtle – a poster for ‘Krysler’s Mark’ and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ‘Fergee Memorial Day Riots’ in a newsfeed. I haven’t read 2000AD since… before 2000AD, but Alex Garland has captured the spirit of the comic, added in even more grit and swearing and given us a corker of a sci-fi action movie.

Unfortunately only one of these movies is getting a sequel, both deserve one. Dredd is, I think, the better film, but as a jolt of pure, exhilarating martial arts violence The Raid is well worth your time.

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Prometheus: ‘LOST’ in Space (or ‘the start of the Endarkenment’)

***CONTAINS SPOILERS (AND FOR ‘ALIEN’ TOO)***

***AND IS A BIT RANTY***

***NOT SO YOU’D NOTICE OR ANYTHING***

Prometheus,  Prometheus, Prometheus.

Where to start with this colossal fuck-up of a movie? Well let’s see. How about to be called ‘Science Fiction’ something has to have some actual science in it, otherwise it’s just ‘fiction’. Which is fine, obviously, fiction is often great. Fiction can be illuminating and thought provoking, exciting, moving, exhilarating, amusing, entertaining. All sorts of things. Except none of that is in Prometheus. I saw the film way back in July (nearly two months ago as of this writing) and it still makes me vein-bulgingly, blood-pressure-raisingly angry. I sat through the film and made involuntary ‘uh… Joey’ noises pretty much every couple of minutes. I’m not proud of that. So, having explained that, I’d just like to note that this is by way of catharsis rather than an in-depth examination of what is wrong with the film. I don’t plan to do this too often, as I’d rather talk about cool and interesting stuff in a more positive manner than rant about stuff, but I just need to do this..

Let’s get the easy stuff out the way first. What does it do right? Well, it’s really, really pretty, Michael Fassbender is very good and… er… well… erm, nope I got nothin’. That leaves everything else, and unfortunately getting through that is sort of like spending time on TV Tropes. It becomes a never-ending cycle of footnotes and errata. One piece of stupidity leads into another, one mind-numbing piece of dialogue reminds you of another, or a moronic character doing something idiotic leads to another memory of another unbelievable piece of behaviour.

The scientific errors, oh dear god, the scientific errors. These are many and prodigious. It seems like Scott wanted to tell the story he wanted to tell and science could go fuck itself with a sideways porcupine. Hey, I know, let’s totally ignore how evolutionary biology works. How about the idea of electrocuting an astonishingly well preserved 2000 year old head to fool it into thinking it’s alive? That’ll work in any universe.

The scientists in the film are, well, as backwards as the portrayal of science in the film. When a character tells another ‘don’t be such a sceptic’, he’s essentially telling her to stop doing her job. Science is systematised scepticism. There is a repeated faith/reason dichotomy presented and in every case faith is the ‘good’ option.

This would be… not fine exactly, but bearable if the script was great, the characters likeable, the story riveting, the set pieces tense and exciting… you get the idea, but no, the film is not only fractally stupid, but fractally bad.

Brave: some thoughts, a not-really-review

***SPOILERS***

Pixar’s movies always carry a weight of expectation and barring a few minor mis-steps (A Bug’s Life and the Cars films, all of which are still plenty watchable), the company have delivered classic after classic. Brave is a very definite return to form for them. Thematically rich, exquisitely beautiful and deeply moving, Brave appears, critically at least, to have been a victim of another sort of expectation:  that generated by the advertising (and indeed merchandising, although that’s a discussion for another time). People have been wrong-footed by the emphasis on protagonist Merida as an archer, and the presence of Mor’Du, the giant, demonic bear that she must face. The film was originally titled ‘The Bear and the Bow’, and whilst bears feature prominently, the bow is of less import than the trailers and advertising might suggest, one reason, maybe, that the name changed. This is one of those cases where maybe the wrong emphasis was made. It’s a fine line to tread. There’s been a trend of including too much in trailers – just look at the Prometheus advertising which gave away pretty much every major plot-point. Irrelevant how one feels about that movie, that was a real dick move on the part of the studio, so Pixar’s erring at the other extreme is understandable. The saying don’t judge a book by its cover can easily be updated to ‘don’t judge a movie by its trailer’.

Whilst Brave has a simple narrative, it is exquisitely constructed and internally complex, with a lot of themes and ideas. Ranging from the obvious mother-daughter feuding and being careful about what you wish for, to the power of legends as instruction and the conflict between tradition and individuality, Brave provides a story that can be construed both as a psychodynamic narrative and a pretty classic Hegelian dialectic. It also almost made me blub like a little girl </General Melchitt>. Ahem. Almost.

The film’s opening act establishes Merida, her relationship with her family; doting, conspiratorial father Fergus, whirling dervish triplet brothers, Hamish, Harris and Hubert and regal perfectionist mother, Elinor. Fergus is a hugely built warrior, just as a wee lass might imagine her father, the triplets large headed cyclones of mercenary chaos (payment received in cakes), and the characteristics of the other characters, especially the males of the other clans seem even further accentuated. It is interesting to note that the only two characters in the film with anything approaching a ‘realistic’ design are Merida and her mother. With the world filtered through Merida-vision, it seems that she only deeply relates to her mother, no matter how different their world views, and this leads to Elinor being the character most closely resembling our heroine. With Pixar, there is a design reason for absolutely everything, not least because they’ve had to create/animate it and my initial thought was it was laziness on their part – that in having a female protagonist, they were giving us a short hand caricature of men, but that doesn’t hold up as the other female characters, nursemaid Maudie and the Woodcarver are also highly stylised. Instead, it seems that Merida moves through a world of people barely glimpsed and less understood, she’s happiest out in the wilds with her bow and riding her horse, Angus. A sequence near the start shows her out in the wilds, climbing the Crone’s Tooth and drinking the water from the Fire Falls, which Fergus later tells her only the Kings of the olden days were brave enough to do and her mother distractedly ignores. It is as beautiful a scene as any Pixar have ever done, an incredibly joyous celebration of the things Merida loves. The vistas  presented are absolutely stunning and more photorealistic than any of the characters.