Wonder if Katniss knows Pencak Silat?
The Raid: Redemption
After grossing $20 million in midnight screenings alone, The Hunger Games has already handily won the box office war this weekend. But the teen vs. teen dystopian sci-fi tale isn't the best action movie opening in theaters today. That would be The Raid, a balls-to-the-wall Indonesian martial arts picture directed by Welsh born filmmaker Gareth Evans that's being released stateside with the needless -- and nonsensical -- subtitle, Redemption. If they had to include another title, a better choice would have been Did You See That?! because that's what viewers will be asking each other after every wicked punch to the jaw or improbable kick to the midsection. The specific martial arts discipline on display here is Pencak Silat, a combination of various Indonesian fighting styles that consist of lightning-fast blows that leave both opponents reeling. It's a brutal, yet invigorating, discipline for a brutal, yet invigorating, movie.
As scripted by Evans, The Raid has exactly ten minutes worth of actual plot. A squad of police officers is en route to storm a crime-ridden tenement building that's essentially become a lawless state run entirely by ruthless gangsters. Our central hero is Rama (Iko Uwais), an upstanding cop whose brother Andi (Donny Alamsyah) is supposedly working with the crooks (or is he...?). Entering the building, the police have one goal -- find and capture the big boss, Tama (Ray Sahetapy). Doing that, however, involves battling Tama's heavily armed forces room by room and floor by floor, at which point the few survivors run headlong into his chief enforcer, Mad Dog, whose fists are absolutely lethal weapons.
And that's pretty much it as far as story goes. The rest of the movie plays out in a series of mano-a-mano bouts involving lots of broken bones, bleeding wounds and, inevitably, death for one of the combatants. Truth be told, the relentless carnage does grow wearying after a while, particularly since there are no real characters with real fates for us to invest in -- just a series of well-toned gladiators fighting to be the last man standing. Those bouts are pretty terrific though, fluid and bruising enough to make the rousing fights in last year's MMA-themed Warrior look like playtime. Since he's working with real fighters, Evans is able to let their bouts play out without having to cut around the action, as Warrior helmer Gavin O'Connor did with his leading men, Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton. (On the other hand, working with professional actors lends Warrior considerably more dramatic heft.) The Raid: Redemption is a film of modest ambitions, but it does accomplish what it sets out to do: leave the audience as exhausted and exhilarated as the combatants onscreen.
The Trouble with Bliss
Michael C. Hall takes a break from playing a serial killer to portray a character with far less drive: thirtysomething slacker Morris Bliss, who has no job, no girlfriend, no prospects, no forward momentum and no place of his own. Instead, he still lives in the same apartment as his elderly father (Peter Fonda), an arrangement Dad isn't particularly thrilled about. But things are starting to look up for ol' Morris. For starters, he's hooked up with the 18-year-old daughter (Brie Larson) of a former school pal... although he hasn't worked up the courage to tell her dad yet. As if that's not enough, he's also caught the eye of an attractive neighbor (Lucy Liu) who doesn't let a little thing like having a live-in boyfriend get in the way of pursuing guys she likes. It's a truism that getting involved with two women rarely ends well (particularly when one of them is much, much younger than you) and, sure enough, Morris' previously simple life starts to get a whole lot more complicated. Why we should care about his particular predicament is a question the movie never gets around to answering. Based on a book by Douglas Light (who co-wrote the screenplay with director Michael Knowles), The Trouble With Bliss aims for an offbeat, shaggy-dog charm, but mainly comes across as irritating. While the quick-witted Larson and Liu do lend some small spark to the proceedings, it's almost immediately snuffed out by Hall's wet blanket of a performance. The trouble with Bliss isn't that he's lazy... it's that he's boring.
This ballroom dance-themed romantic drama from director Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan and... um, She Devil) offers two familiar scenarios for the price of one. For the first twenty minutes or so, Musical Chairs seems to be a Step Up-style picture where the guy from the wrong side of the tracks -- here Bronx-born stepper Armando (E.J. Bonilla) -- pairs up with a tonier girl Mia (Leah Pipes) and a great dance duo (and love affair) is born. But then the girl goes and gets hit by a car and the film morphs into a Waterdance-like road-to-recovery journey, with Armando convincing the now wheelchair-bound Mia to compete with him in a wheelchair ballroom dancing contest. And it's not just her he inspires -- Armando's passion for dance infects all of the other paraplegics in Mia's hospital ward, most notably sassy transvestite Chantelle (Laverne Cox). Meanwhile, on the home front, Armando is constantly fending off his overbearing mother's attempts to fix him up with the daughter of a family friend, attempts that grow even more fervent after Mom learns of the romance between her son and Mia. Apart from the wheelchair ballroom dancing, there's probably little in Musical Chairs that you haven't seen before. The various complications that arise on the way to the inevitable happy ending are entirely predictable, right down to the last minute change of heart that finally pushes Armando and Mia together. But the two leads are likable and Seidelman thankfully refrains from milking too much excess sentiment from this scenario. It's a square genre picture that's just unassuming enough to be moderately diverting.
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