Tag Archives: drama movies

Movie Review: The Raid 2: Berandal

by Dan Fields

Iko Uwais brings more brutal justice in The Raid 2
© 2014 Merantau Films / XYZ Films

We Built This City On Pencak Silat

In 2011, Welsh director Gareth Huw Evans left scorched bootprints on international cinema with his third feature film, Serbuan Maut, also known as The Raid, released widely as The Raid: Redemption. Many of us had never before seen the elegant brutality of pencak silat, the martial arts of Indonesia. An action thriller chronicling a police raid on a crime-infested slum, The Raid transcended expectations with its deft juxtaposition of sustained, extreme violence and the satisfying rhythm and artistry of a well-staged ballet. True, it was a ballet of broken backs, split skulls, exit wounds and shattered glass, but the results were astounding. Now, with the running time nearly doubled and a full cast of bizarre characters lined up to scrap, The Raid 2 (subtitled Berandal, meaning “rogue” or “thug”) blows the storm of justice from an isolated fracas to the merciless cleansing of a city gone to hell.

The Raid 2 begins on the same day as the events of the previous film. Elite cop Rama (Iko Uwais), still battered from the catastrophic siege, has brought his corrupt superior officer and a cache of incriminating evidence to Chief Bunawar (Cok Simbara). Bunawar, the head of a task force to root out corruption in Jakarta’s police force, enlists Rama to infiltrate the highest ranks of the city’s criminal class.
Continue reading

Movie Review: Blue Jasmine

by Dan Fields

Cate Blanchett faces tragedy in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine
© 2013 Sony Pictures Classics

I Lost My Mind In San Francisco

Over the years, Woody Allen has shown a certain delight in needling the privileged and the self-important. The comical emptiness of such characters often frustrates and demoralizes his more sympathetic protagonists. Here, Allen pricks the bubble of the effete not with a needle but with a chainsaw. In fact, the director may have given up on humanity for good this time.

Jasmine, née Jeanette (Cate Blanchett) is a career socialite reeling from the imprisonment of her husband (Alec Baldwin) for massive investment fraud and the subsequent dissolution of her existence. Her indignant son (Alden Ehrenreich, Beautiful Creatures, Stoker) has hit the road and asked not to be contacted further. Having lost her fortune, her jewels, her furs and her various homes to “the government” – a term she hurls like acid from a vial – Jasmine has no choice but to drift from New York to San Francisco, where her adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) has agreed to take her in temporarily, until she “finds her feet.”

Unfortunately, the wherewithal to find her feet in any practical sense is not among Jasmine’s skills. Her sole area of expertise is hosting lavish dinner parties, and her educational credentials are limited to a charming anecdote about leaving college to marry into opulence. As she sets out to obtain dubious online certification for interior design, a series of reality checks begins lining up on the horizon. Continue reading

Movie Review: Only God Forgives

by Dan Fields

Ryan Gosling reunites with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn for Only God Forgives
© 2013 Radius-TWC

Excuse Me, I Ordered The Muay Thai?

Nicolas Winding Refn continues to flay back the skin of the Hollywood action movie in much the same way that Sam Peckinpah turned the tables on the triumphant westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks. However, even Peckinpah took time to acknowledge the tragic humanity of his characters, even when exposing the ugliness of the world they have made for themselves. Most of Winding Refn’s humans inhabit a world that has bled them of all but the bare traces of humanity. This austerity typically polarizes his audience into those who simply find the characters too soulless and unsympathetic to care, and those who enjoy the cold prickly feeling of a world stripped of romance and hope to make room for extra style.

Only God Forgives does not strike the balance as well as Bronson or Drive. In fact, it is a crawling ordeal of a film, and yet patient viewers may glean a certain perverse satisfaction from its searing execution. This assumes you are willing to sacrifice any sense of emotional gratification in favor of a keen exercise in the unrelentingly bleak. Even with its gripping moodiness and striking design, this film is easy enough to appreciate on the level of any depraved and sordid artwork, but it is a grueling challenge to enjoy. Continue reading

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby

by Dan Fields

Sippin’ on Gin and Jazz

Spectacular. Stunning. Tantalizing. Everything in the wide world but compelling

(old sport.)

Had Baz Luhrmann been alive and working in the Roaring 20s, he certainly could and should have been employed as Jay Gatsby’s party planner. The Australian director’s penchant for lavish, baroque, balls-out spectacle is a matter of record thanks to his most popular film, Moulin Rouge. However, he cannot be trusted when it comes to reining in the subtleties and fine details of plain dramatic storytelling. Continue reading

Movie Review: Mud

by Dan Fields
First published April 25, 2013 by the California Literary Review

Today’s Tom Sawyer (Mean, Mean Pride)

With just three feature films to his name, writer and director Jeff Nichols has already set himself a high standard. Both of his previous works, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, are strong dramas with compelling characters, dark intrigue and impressive economy of style. With Mud, Nichols has progressed from making a good film to making a great film.

Mud concerns a community of Arkansas river folks, and among them a pair of teenage boys who find a dangerous secret hidden downstream. More broadly, it chronicles a young man’s tentative first steps toward understanding how the rest of his life will work. The story hearkens frequently to classics of American literature, most notably the river adventure stories of Mark Twain. Though Nichols, at least in the case of Mud, shows more hope for mankind’s fate than Twain typically did, his storytelling style bears traces of the romantic recklessness and moral uncertainty which the author often underscored as those things which make even the best of us all too human. Continue reading

Movie Review: Spring Breakers

by Dan Fields
First published March 23, 2013 by the California Literary Review

Bad Girls Go Everywhere

Harmony Korine’s work has never been, and may never be, easy to digest. The writer and director of such dreary, stomach-turning misfit dramas as Gummo, Julien Donkey-Boy and Trash Humpers has now completed his most mainstream, accessible film to date, but that still gives Spring Breakers elbow room to assault the senses and values of an audience without mercy.

We begin on the grounds of a nearly empty college campus. Faith (Selena Gomez), embodying the struggle between strong traditional values and a restless teenage spirit, has elected to set out on a classic Florida spring break trip with her wild-side friends Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine, wife of the director). Faith ostensibly has a benign and constructive wish to broaden her horizons, even as her church friends warn her about the dangers of falling in with the wrong people far from home. Whatever heights of liberty and abandon she expects from spring break, she appears to operate under the optimistic illusion that good clean fun will win out, or at least that four friends sticking together could not possibly let any harm come to one another.

Faith is soon to learn that her chosen companions have a more reckless agenda in mind. Surely she must have wondered at their inclination to practice making out with one another, for when boys will inevitably ask them to do so. If not, then alarm bells ought to have sounded within once the group decided to stage an armed heist in order to supplement their vacation fund. Surely. No? Okay, we are criminals now. But it’s Spring Break! Kids are expected to overcome inhibitions and push boundaries. How much further, Faith must suppose, could things really go? Continue reading

Blu-Ray Review: The Dark Knight Rises

by Dan Fields
First published December 10, 2012 by the California Literary Review
Batman faces Bane in the Dark Knight Rises

© 2012 Warner Brothers/DC Comics
Photo by Ron Phillips

This year, the latest chapter of an enduring legend bids us farewell. Christopher Nolan, whose unexpected helming of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight helped boost him as a filmmaking force, brought his vivid interpretation of the Caped Crusader to a stunning conclusion. Though occasionally problematic in many of the same ways at its predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises achieves new levels of excitement and emotional satisfaction as it brings its legend full circle. Continue reading

Movie Review: Killing Them Softly

by Dan Fields
First published September 22, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Everything is Rotten in the Parish of Orleans

Australian writer and director Andrew Dominik built himself a respectable filmmaking foundation with Chopper and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. His dour outlook and unflinching presentation are pleasantly comparable to the rise of contemporary Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, of Bronson and Pusher fame. However, Dominik’s latest foray into the semi-mainstream, Killing Them Softly, is no counterpart to Drive. In fact, the only award-worthy member of the Killing Them Softly crew is the one who cut the trailer.

There is an intriguing story hidden in away somewhere inside Killing Them Softly, and perhaps the source novel – Cogan’s Trade by George Higgins – made its point better. It is a meditation on the impact of a tanked economy on the criminal class. At best, it could be a thinking man’s bloodbath on the level of the original 1972 version of The Mechanic. However, despite a high-profile cast and several well-staged scenes of violence, this movie is largely toxic and indigestible. Continue reading

Movie Review: Anna Karenina

by Dan Fields
First published November 23, 2012 by the California Literary Review

Double Icing On Half A Cake

Joe Wright established himself practically overnight as a strong force in period drama based on popular books. He wowed with the relentlessly dour Atonement and then soared with a superb riff on Pride and Prejudice. Couple these efforts with the spunky, bizarro thriller Hanna and you should have no trouble seeing that Wright is a filmmaker both exuberant and offbeat.

His Anna Karenina, based on Leo Tolstoy’s monumentally acclaimed novel, is a parade of elegant design and intricate staging. It is not difficult to guess which Academy Award nominations its makers have in mind. By enclosing the cultural volatility of 19th-century cosmopolitan Russia in an ever-shifting magic lantern, those responsible get to show off and share some cutting insights on the artifice and deception required to sustain imperial high society.

Wright sets the epic tragedy of Anna, a fallen woman if ever there was one, almost entirely within a spacious theatre hall, with the main action unfolding on an impossibly marvelous series of collapsing and interlocking sets. The wings and backstage area become private places of intrigue and the catwalks above serve as sordid back alleys. There are trains and horse races and all the bustle of Moscow and St. Petersburg contained behind a single curtain. The complexity and perpetual motion of this living stage is nothing short of stunning.

The hard truth, impossible to dodge, is that this is not Tolstoy’s world. It is more like Hugo Cabret’s world, and from time to time it even flirts perilously with becoming Baz Luhrmann’s world. Tom Stoppard’s script, though consistently bright and entertaining, abridges the story painfully to fit the stylish construct. Anna Karenina may be the title character, but she need not be the sole focus of the plot. The supporting figures in her life lend important dramatic context to her abasement. Continue reading

Movie Review: End Of Watch

by Dan Fields
First published September 22, 2012 by the California Literary Review

The Street King Rises

End Of Watch is a perfectly serviceable drama. It is also a bait and switch job. Writer/director David Ayer, whose chief preoccupations are Los Angeles street life and the pitfalls of upholding the law, set out to create a different kind of cop movie and succeeded. This means that the ads linking this film to Ayer’s breakout script Training Day are inappropriate. The twisted secrets and perilous standoffs promised in the trailer take up a surprisingly small percentage of the story. Advertising End Of Watch as a movie that takes its sweet time might not sell as many tickets, but it would lead to less grumbling among the fans who showed up strictly for police corruption and crack cocaine.

Officers Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña) are LA’s finest – a pair of patrol cops who face a sordid and dangerous world with guts and good humor. Zavala has a family, Taylor is looking to build one, and they have forged a solid kinship as partners and brothers in arms. The trouble with a cop drama is that the good guys always have so much to lose, and the most dangerous thing for a peace officer to do, especially in a David Ayer project, is crusade for justice with an untainted soul. Continue reading