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A Refreshing, Unsentimental Portrayal of Southern Americana
There's a quote about midway through David Gordon Green's Joe that I believe is crucial to understanding the film's thematic core. Forgive me if I'm paraphrasing but it goes something like 'These men have no more frontiers'. The line is in reference to the men Joe works with and in many ways applies to the titular character himself. Joe is a man that knows he is stuck; he has no where to go because his surroundings can't let him. Even though he thinks five steps ahead of the average man it is only delaying the inevitable. The conflict of the story however is not whether or not Joe lives but if he can save the future of a promising child, named Gary.
Joe is the kind of film that proves that a small story can be much more meaningful than a larger one. This kind of unsentimental character piece needs a small tight focus so all of the nuances of said characters shines through. Thankfully David Gordon Green understands this; his approach to directing the film is subtle and organic, allowing the actors to shine first and foremost. There are some understated flourishes and several instances of visual poetry but for the most part Green keeps things taut and unsentimental. He wants the audience to be immersed in the volatile world Gary and Joe inhabit.
And what a convincing world it is. Green's depiction of Southern lower class Americana is unsentimental, austere and straightforward. The film doesn't feel the need to overemphasize aspects of these characters live. Nothing is glamorized, nothing romanticized; the film aims for a hard hitting depiction of the character's world which only serves to further highlight the core conflict. Green understands that the audience needs to understand how close Gary and his sister are to harm and in doing so has crafted a thoroughly realized community teeming with details and nuances.
But the real centerpiece of the film is it's acting; three performances in particular stick out. Cage's Joe, Sheridan's Gary and Gary Poulter's Wade. Cage's depiction of Joe is not quite the subdued performance many critics made it out to be. Instead it is a silent colossus of a performance. One of Cage's biggest strengths as an actor is the ability to convey a character's thought process without saying a word. He makes a perfect fit for Joe; a man who is always moving, thinking, never given to slowing down. He is a frank straightforward man and Cage does the character justice. Equally excellent is Sheridan's Gary. Coming off his sterling performance in Mud, Sheridan proves himself one of the most promising actors of the younger generation. He brings balances both the character's more mature and intelligent feelings and ambitions with a raw, primal rage that surfaces in a truly explosive manner. Finally we have Gary Poulter, the dark horse of this movie. A non-actor Poulter was hired due to his similarity to the character he was portraying. And boy does he nail it. Seething with a kind of disheveled rage, imbued with a selfish nostalgic anger for a time he had a future; Wade is a truly terrifying character only made more terrifying by Poulter's raw, thoroughly convincing performance. If Joe is symbolizes a man in societal stagnation, Wade is that stagnation taken to it's logical, horrific end.
Joe is a gritty, hard movie about gritty hard people but it's also intelligent, heartfelt and riveting from the first frame to the last. It solidifies the comeback for David Gordon Green as a unique presence in American cinema and hopefully is a sign that Cage will do more of these kinds of austere, gripping character pieces more often in the future.
The Raid 2: Berandal (2014)
A Satisfying Mixture of Gritty Crime Drama and Martial Arts Action
The Raid 2 is a movie that does many things right but most importantly it understands how important escalation can be for a sequel. The premise of the first film is pretty much a one and one done deal considering that it was as simple as the plot of a Martial Arts film could get without the inclusion of a fighting tournament. Conversely The Raid 2 aims to be a full blown crime saga with factions, character arks, double crosses all while maintaining the lightning fast, ultra-visceral style of martial arts filmmaking that was present in the last installment.
After the events of the first film our hero Rama (played in this installment with a surprising amount of emotion by Iko Uwais) is drafted into an undercover branch of Jakarta's police force. He infiltrates the Indonesian dominated crime syndicate by way of the crime boss's son Uco. Once that is accomplished he soon becomes embroiled in a series of double crosses, secret allegiances, and the threat of a war breaking out between the Indonesian and Japanese crime syndicates in Jakarta. All of this is coupled with the ever looming threat of discovery and death at the hands of the very criminals he's betraying
While The Raid 2 unsurprisingly keeps up the high quality of action the previous film set up what is surprising is how well The Raid 2 works as a straightforward crime thriller. Both director Gareth Evans and lead actor Iko Uwais acquit themselves greatly in dramatic roles. Evans prior films illustrated that he was without a doubt one of the best action directors working today but they only hinted at his abilities as a suspense director and never hinted at his abilities as a director of drama. Yet The Raid 2 is filled with interesting, engaging characters on top a taut, tense and ultimately explosive story line that spans years whereas the first installment only spanned days.
Thematically the story feels like a natural progression from the first. The first Raid illustrated what it was like to be on the front lines of Jakarta's inner city violence and hinted at the wider web of corruption keeping the status quo as it was. On the flip side The Raid 2 openly reveals that web of corruption. What results is something that feels weightier and more captivating on a narrative level than the prior film.
The actor's also help the film a lot; Arifin Putra and Tio Pakusadewo in particular. Their dynamic as father and son is the most fascinating of the entire film. Putra is ruthless; but also brash and more than a little bit of a sociopath. Pakusadewo is reserved and calculating but also deeply worried about the fate of his son.
As for the action; it is truly next level stuff. If there was any doubt that Gareth Evans is one of today's supreme action talents those feelings are squashed by the set pieces in this film. Every camera movement makes you feel the impact, every fight is perfectly choreographed. But when the film really hits its stride is when the fights start getting creative. Guns, knives, feet, fists, glass, tables, bats, pipes, hammers, doors, cars even baseballs are thrown into the mix. It's a level of dynamism that makes every fight feel unpredictable but satisfying.
The Raid 2 is stellar on just about every level and makes for a perfect sequel. Bigger, weightier, and gripping The Raid 2 can stand toe to toe with any of it's contemporary Asian crime cinema counterparts.
Bong Successfully Makes The Transition to English Without Diluting His Style
Snowpiercer is a film that can be praised for many things; it's masterful world building, whirlwind pacing, it's lineup of immensely entertaining performances, its pertinent themes; but most of all it should be for its tonal audacity. Once again Korean genre master Bong Jong Ho has fused elements of pulp, pathos, and humor into a refreshing and satisfying combination.
Adapted from the graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer tells the tale of a world where Global Warming has forced the few remaining survivors of civilization into a classist autocracy located on a train. When rebel leader Curtis (played with steadiness by Chris Evans) spots a way to finally overtake the guards in the back of the train, a riots starts and all hell breaks loose. Our hero's must journey up the train through layers of classes until finally reaching the leader at the engine.
If this sounds like pretty typical dystopia to you let me make it clear that it isn't. While the film deals with a very weight main theme in the form of the quality of life vs it's existence in and of itself, the film is actually very playful. The film never delves into the needlessly self serious tone many blockbuster's and thrillers do nowadays but it also never shoehorns in it's comedic elements either. Bong is a master fusing together different tones and textures; he finds the farcical in the heartbreaking, the moving in the hilarious, catharsis in the smallest of things. Those familiar with Bong's work before, The Host, in particular already know of this genre fusion and it is executed excellently here. All these disparate elements are noticeable but never forced.
This playfulness also extends to the action sequences. Brutal and gruesome, but also excellently staged with a clear and precise eye for physical comedy. One moment your wincing, the other chuckling under your breath. This also extends to the film's environment and world which are equal parts beautiful, awful, kind of unnerving, and ultimately rotten to the core. Everything has a nice claustrophobic and ramshackle quality to it and Bong uses the unique environments and premise to his advantage. Some of the set-pieces are truly unique, which are a real rarity these days.
The performances also deserve mention, Swinton in particular. Gloriously over the top in every sense of the term Swinton delivers a laugh out loud hilarious villain performance. Equal parts sadistic and frantic every scene with her is pure delight. Another stand out is the short appearance by Allison Pill who is gloriously angelic and insane in the same breath. Evans carries his role with strength and confidence exuding just enough charm and charisma to stay out of generic hero territory. He's not the most intriguing character of the story but he is the most grounded one, which is a scenario as alien as this one is a must for audiences.
Another element of the film that should be singled out for praise is the film's deeply humanistic thematic center. It makes the case that humanity shouldn't survive if people have to live like dogs for the sake of living. Life is meaningless without the capability for happiness. The ending (without too many spoilers) is one of the most fist pumpingly heartfelt yet immensely pessimistic images that will be seen this year.
The film bolts at a dizzying pace; another one of its remarkable qualities is how efficient it is at establishing the mechanics by which the world operates. Every segment of the train has its own feel and we always get just enough of a taste of a segment to be left wanting more but never tire. This brisk pacing is a welcome change of pace from a lot of modern blockbusters which always feel like they are straining against their bloated run times. The complexity of Snowpiercer's world could justify a three hour run time but instead Bong opts wisely to keep the momentum going so that we never get bogged down in the details.
There are a few critiques I can level at the film. Some of the character in the rebel supporting cast don't get much shading. They are all amusing just nothing memorable. Also much like Bong's The Host the production values are wildly uneven. Some of the shots are downright gorgeous whereas a lot of the CGI is very immersion breaking. Bad effects don't usually bother but when they are attached to a a film of such high quality it makes them all the more noticeable. It may have been better if they went fully practical as opposed to meshing in some of the other effects.
At any rate while Snowpiercer never reaches the dizzying highs of Memories of Murder and Madeo it is one of the first must see films of 2014 and sits comfortably alongside Minority Report and The Host in terms of providing a thrilling adventure and social commentary.