The Raid 2 (Review)

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So I’m not terribly familiar with martial arts films. This is mostly because unlike in the ’70s, the genre is largely underground today, and the ’90s glut of Hong Kong action/martial arts films has ended for the most part. Of course, that doesn’t mean these films have stopped being made: Netflix and Amazon Prime both have an excellent selection, and you can find all sorts of stuff on DVDs for pretty cheap. But new stuff largely doesn’t get released in theaters in America, much less multiplexes.

The Raid 2 is, of course, the exception to the rule, as was its predecessor, 2012′s The Raid: Redemption, a heavily violent film set almost entirely in one Jakarta apartment complex involving mostly one lone police officer fighting against hundreds upon hundreds of dudes, all while using the same ancient Indonesian martial art, pencak silat.

Set literally hours after the events of the first film, The Raid 2 opens with that police officer, Rama (Iko Uwais), in a safe house, where Bunawar (Cok Simbara), a fellow cop, invites him to infiltrate the Jakarta mob headed by Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo) in order to weed out corrupt cops. Committed to justice despite how it will involve him being separated from his wife and kid, Rama agrees. Bunawar then promptly arrests him and ships him to prison under the false identity of small-time criminal Yuda in order to build trust with Bangun’s only son, Uco (Arifin Putra), who’s currently locked up himself.

While in prison, Rama/Yuda saves Uco’s life during a huge prison fight in the rain ( the first of the film’s elongated, masterful fight sequences). Grateful, upon his release, Uco arranges for Yuda to become a foot soldier and part of his collecting team in his father’s organization. But as Rama goes deeper and deeper, he finds a whole lot more than the crooked cops he initially thought he was dealing with.

By virtue of being a tale of undercover cops and mob intrigue, The Raid 2 has a rather complicated story; I had to look up the film the next day after I saw it on Friday to make sure I remembered everything correctly. Course, the fact that I had had two beers before going to see a 2 1/2-hour movie at 11:30 at night probably didn’t help me make sense of it.

But regardless, this is definitely the best martial arts film I’ve ever seen, and also hands down, one of the most violent films I’ve seen period. Probably the most violent. Pencak silat is all hand-to-hand combat and that’s what writer/director Gareth Evans gives us here and it is absolutely brutal. I mean, we’re talking legs getting crushed, jaws getting broken and limbs being popped left and right.

And that’s without even mentioning the colorful assassins that pop up in this movie. There’s Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle), a deaf woman so called because she wails on people with two claw hammers that she wields like sais. There’s also her brother, Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yullsman), who uses what you’d expect he would as a weapon–an aluminum baseball bat–and also actual baseballs. There’s a lengthy scene cutting between Hammer Girl taking a train car full of guys out and Baseball Bat Man railing on a couple of dudes that’s so involved and nuts, you won’t believe it.

Of course, credit for all these well-shot, staged and choreographed fight scenes goes to writer/director/co-editor Evans, who is a master. True, there’s probably some discomfort to be found in the fact that Evans, a Welshman, is making these Indonesian movies, but I’m not the one to state it. The point is that Evans is remarkable on all fronts, and this is the first time I can recall seeing action that looked so unique and just…different. Also, everything is clear, visible and perfectly captured and stated. Evans is one for the ages.

His cast is pretty great too. Uwais, a martial arts instructor before Evans cast him in his first film Merantau, gives a natural, soulful performance and he brings heart to the undercover cop in a way no one has since Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs. Putra plays Uco as the power-hungry brat, and he’s excellent; there’s a scene where he nearly beats up a call girl he’s hired and berates her that is just horrifying and mesmerizing at the same time. Pakusadewo is also impressive as the rock-steady Bangun, who acts as a nice, hefty anchor to all the chaos that comes to swirl around him.

If this is playing near you, seek it out. It’s a great time. As for me, I’m going to try and hunt down the first Raid, if I can, then hit up the Martial Arts section on Netflix and see what I can find.

 

Tiger & Bunny Volume 1–Review

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I haven’t talked about it a lot on here, but one of my favorite animes is the 2011 superhero series Tiger & Bunny. Running 25 episodes and 2 movies (the first a recap of the first 2 episodes with a brand-new third act, the second a brand-new story set a few months after the events of the series), it became a HUGE hit in Japan and did pretty well over here, being the first show on Viz Media’s Neon Alley channel and attracting a lot of buzz for its incredibly well-done dub that only helped reinforce the fact that this show is essentially a tribute to, and compression of, the entire history of superhero comics.

Like any big anime series, the show also got a manga adaptation–a couple actually. But Viz, the series’ North American distributor, has only translated and released the 2 Comic Anthologies–a series of one-shot comedy stories written and drawn by a variety of mangaka (manga artists) that are very much worthwhile for fans–and the official ongoing manga adaptation, written by series writer Masafumi Nishida and adapted by Mizuki Sakakibara, one of the series’ key animators.  In a wave of fannish enthusiasm after seeing the recent tie-in movie, The Rising (which I enjoyed, but I’ll say more about when it hits DVD), I ordered the first two volumes and finished the first one, so let’s get to it!

The story, for those of you unaware of the series (which can be found on Hulu for free), is that this is a world where people with superpowers due to gentic mutations, codenamed NEXTs, began appearing 45 years ago. In the coastal metropolis of Stern Bild, some NEXTs use their powers as superheroes to fight crime.  But they take things a little differently, with the heroes themselves being sponsored by a bunch of corporations,  giant megaconglomerate Apollon Media filming their exploits live and broadcasting it as “HERO TV,” awarding points for each capture and arrest and, at the end of the “season,” awarding the victor the title of “King of Heroes.”

This volume–and the first 2 episodes of the anime itself–start with Kotetsu Kaburagi, alias Wild Tiger (the guy up there), a veteran hero who’s seen by and large as past his prime. With his power of increasing all his physical abilities by a hundred for 5 minutes every hour (known as “Hundred Power”), Wild Tiger’s earned a reputation for not only being dedicated to protecting and saving people no matter what but also flagrantly tearing up property to chase down bad guys (his nickname is the “Crusher for Justice”). When a chase of some bank robbers ends with a destroyed monorail and blimp, his sponsor, facing yet another costly damages bill, collapses and gets absorbed into Apollon Media.

Tiger is then reassigned by his new bosses to be a part of the first hero team ever, forcibly teamed up with Barnaby Brooks Jr., a new hero handpicked by Apollon’s owner, Albert Maverick, who has the same power set as Kotetsu’s and, to the company and show’s delight, more focused on catching suspects and looking good for the cameras than directly saving people. Tiger, a pretty stubborn guy, doesn’t get along well with Barnaby’s vaguely vain cockiness, derisively referring to him as Bunny both as a play on his name and as a riff on that’s what his costume kinda looks like.

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The manga is mostly true to the spirit of the original episodes, introducing all the supporting characters and fleshing out the world in economic details befitting a good first issue of an ongoing American comic, but it changes tactics a bit. In the anime, Kotetsu was the main character and the ostensible audience point-of-view; here, it’s Barnaby that gets the spotlight, with scenes from the show shown from his perspective and new scenes added showing what he was up to. It’s an interesting tactic that not only makes the material fresher, but also gives a better glimpse into a character who ultimately came off as underwritten and bland in the original source material.

This feels very much of a piece with the show, and that’s entirely due to the creative team. Sakakibara’s art is on model and very clear the entire time, the translation is nicely done, and the pacing takes into account the considerations of a comics format while not forgoing the way the original series carried itself.

This is a nice little world to get into, and I’d gladly recommend this volume, but you might feel a little short-shrifted if you haven’t watched the show first. Not to say that the manga doesn’t stand on its own–it does–but it does appeal to fans first and foremost and if you’re not familiar with them, the supporting characters, like the other heroes, might seem a little superfluous. That aside, this is a great franchise and this manga is an excellent way to get into it! Check it out.

Gene Luen Yang

Hey everybody, in a matter of hours, as part of the kickoff for my school’s Festival of Faith and Writing, I’m going to co-facilitate an open discussion with legendary graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang! I’m beyond excited and cannot wait.

If you don’t know anything about Mr. Yang and his quite impressive body of work, here is a piece I wrote about him for a class ezine profiling Festival writers. This is easily the most work I ever put into a profile yet and I hope you like it.

Gene Luen Yang.

BIG ANNOUNCEMENT

So I discovered something wonderful last week, and now I believe I can talk about it.

It gives me great pride and joy to announce that I will be presenting at the 22nd Annual Comics Arts Conference in San Diego, CA!!!

Comics Arts Conference

What is the Comics Arts Conference? Well, it’s a con within a con. Held in the same time and same place as Comic-Con International itself, it’s strictly a forum for academics to present and talk about issues and analyses related to the comics medium.

I’ve wanted to submit to this thing for years, ever since when I was 14 and came across a copy of Dr. Peter Coogan’s dissertation-turned-book Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, which lays out the case, in clear, compelling language, that superhero stories deserve to be considered as their own literary genre. A few months ago, I finally went ahead and did it. Dr. Coogan is the conference’s co-founder and co-chair and I cannot wait to be part of this glorious forum he started.

More details will be forthcoming obviously, but for now, I’d just like to bask in the moment of knowing that all my years obsessively reading comics and about comics has actually paid off into something that others want to know about. The advice is true: write what you know and write what you love.

Star Trek Saturdays #38

It’s time for Star Trek Saturdays #38!

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This week’s episode is “Wolf in the Fold” and it’s an intriguing murder mystery that sweeps these characters up in its grand sense of intrigue.

We open with Kirk, McCoy and Scotty in a cafe on the planet Argelius II, watching a belly dancer perform. We learn through dialogue that they’re there because Scotty is on medically mandated shore leave after a female crew member’s error caused a bulkhead explosion that dealt Scotty a severe blow to the head. McCoy believes that Argelius II, with its hedonistic and extremely sexually permissive culture, will help cure Scotty of his “total resentment towards women.”

The belly dancer, Kara (Tania Lemani), finishes her performance and comes over to their table, per Kirk’s invitation and to Scotty’s enthusiastic delight. Waxing poetic about the rolling fog over the moors of Scotland, Scotty invites Kara for a walk and she accepts.

Kirk and McCoy, feeling like the world’s best wingmen, head over to another club with similarly attractive women, but out in the street, they hear Kara scream. They rush towards the noise, finding her murdered and, a little farther away, Scotty, standing back against a wall in a haze, holding a bloody knife.

Scotty is interrogated by the city’s chief administrator, Mr. Hengist (John Fiedler). Scotty confesses that he can’t remember anything beyond  him and Kara in the fog, with him up ahead trying to lead the way, when suddenly he heard her screaming. Kirk angrily badgers Scott to remember, and McCoy tells him to back off, considering the emotional trauma Scotty’s going through.

However, Kirk testily informs McCoy that he’s facing a diplomatic crisis. The crime, he points out, happened under Argelian jurisdiction. If the Argelians want to place him under arrest, try, and convict him of murder, Kirk, by diplomatic laws, has to go along with it.

Notably, Hengist is not an Argelian. Rather, he’s from Rigel IV. He works here because, as he says to the others, the Argelians are so peaceful and pleasure-focused that they’re not up to the task of bureaucratic administration, hence their hiring of outsiders for these purposes.

John Fiedler.png (Hengist)

Hengist points out that Scotty’s fingerprints are all over the murder weapon. Kirk counters that there were many other people in the cafe; Hengist replies that they’re looking for these people to try and question them. Kirk asks what the law in this case is, and the Argelian prefect Jaris (Charles Macauley) and his wife Sybo (Pilar Seurat) enter and tell Kirk that the law is love.

What that means, Jaris tells them, is that they can ascertain the truth through conducting an Argelian empathic contact that Sybo can intiate, a sort of seance. Despite Hengist’s objections, as Jaris is the ultimate authority, they defer to him. While Sybo gets things ready for the contact, Kirk orders Spock (who is in command on the ship) to send down a medical technician to conduct a psychotricorder examination on Scotty, which will enable them to see the last 24 hours of Scotty’s memory.

Lieutenant Karen Tracy (Virginia Alridge) beams down, and takes Scotty to a room downstairs to begin the examination. Sybo, having prepared for the ceremony, comes back to ask for the murder weapon, as she can get psychic impressions from inanimate objects. They look around and notice the knife is missing, just as a scream emerges from downstairs. They rush down and find Lt. Tracy dead, having been repeatedly stabbed to death, and Scotty unconscious, holding the bloody knife in his hands.

Once Scotty comes around, he says that all he remembers is Lt. Tracy taking the readings and then nothing else after that. Hengist returns with two men who were in the cafe: Tark (), Kara’s father and the musician who she’d performed with since she was a child, and Morla (), her fiance. Tark accuses Morla of jealous, angry behavior and Morla admits to it, saying he went home out of anger. Kirk points out that jealousy has often been a motive for murder, but Hengist points out that it was Scotty found holding the murder weapon.

Sybo ushers the others in and prepares to begin the empathic contact ceremony, with Kirk ordering the room sealed so no one can get out or in. Scotty is upset about risking his neck over some “spooky mumbo jumbo,” while Spock contacts Kirk and insists that Scott be brought back to the Enterprise so their computers can cross-examine him. Kirk shoots them both down, saying that they have to abide by Argelian law because while they’re on the planet, they are subject to the law.

The ceremony begins and Sybo closes her eyes. Immediately, she begins sensing a sinister presence, stating it is a monstrous terrible evil, hater of all things, hater of women, and repeatedly chants the word Redjac. Suddenly, the room plunges into darkness and Sybo screams in agony. Light is restored and the group sees Scotty and Sybo standing up, with a knife in Sybo’s back and blood on Scotty’s hand.

Is Scotty really guilty of murder? If so, then why? If not, who is framing him? And who, or what, is Redjac?

This is a fantastic little mystery of an episode, and it all comes down to Robert Bloch’s script. It’s  a lean thing, which deftly blends penny-dreadful horror with alien intrigue. On top of that, you have some interesting characters who get shaded out as the story progresses, with some serving as red herrings as to the identity of the true murderer.

Joseph Pevney once again returns to direct, and like every other time, he’s stellar. Using the confined sets to his advantage, he manages to make things seem shadowy and sinister. He also uses suspenseful camera angles to get the most paranoia out of his cast and setting. Stellar stuff.

The cast is great as usual and James Doohan gets some wonderful notes to play Scotty; the fear and desperation is present in him throughout. Of the guest stars, it’s Fiedler that surprises the most. Best known for being the original voice of Piglet in Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons as well as the meek 2nd juror in the 1957 Sidney Lumet version of 12 Angry Men, he’s usually a milquetoast, but here, he’s remarkably assertive and straightforward as Hergist, and gets some cool notes to play as the story progresses.

This is a really fun, tense episode that stands right up there with any other crime drama of its era or since. Check it out.

Thanks to Memory Alpha, the official Star Trek wiki for the pics and episode information, as well as Amazon Instant for hosting the show. We’ll see you next time and until then, live long and prosper.

 

Farewell David Letterman

So out of nowhere yesterday, David Letterman announced yesterday that, after over 3 decades as a late night host, he’ll be retiring next year.

Honestly, I wasn’t really too shaken by this announcement. Letterman is nearly 67 after all, and this has probably been on his mind for a while now. Furthermore, he has a young son, and he probably wants to spend more time with him.

And of course, I should mention that I’ve never been a Letterman fan. I just haven’t. I mean, the Top 10 lists tend to be mildly funny, but I think the reason he’s held in such high esteem is that, when he was doing his original crazy stuff on NBC in the ’80s–stuff that no one had ever done, like jump into a giant glass of water containing a suit covered in Alka-Seltzer–people were watching and that’s kept him afloat ever since.

So while I recognize Letterman’s legacy and contributions to TV history, I’m not that sorry to see him go. Naturally, attention has already turned to his replacement and, while the general talk seems to be that Stephen Colbert, no doubt eager to escape his fictional persona after the stupid “#cancelColbert” fiasco from last week, is the top contender. That’d be nice, but personally, I want to see Craig Ferguson keep doing the weird stuff he does on The Late Late Show and bring it to a wider audience, robot skeleton sidekick and all.

So, if you want to know more about Letterman’s legacy, this New York Times write-up by expert late-night reporter Bill Carter is a great piece to do that. Me? Well, I wish Mr. Letterman godspeed and I look forward to 2015!

Webcomics You Should Be Reading: Part 5

Boy, it’s been a LONG while since we’ve done one of these, huh?

Well, for the uninitiated, this is a series of posts where I basically talk about awesome webcomics and tell you to read them. Today, in honor of the completely independent documentary film STRIPPED–a film about the famous print cartoonists of today and yesterday and the webcartoonists of the future, and where the two must meet as newspapers die–hitting No. 1 on iTunes the first day of its release (which is unheard of, as far as I know), I’d like to talk to you about the two webcomics done by the film’s co-director and co-writer Dave Kellett, Sheldon and Drive.

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I’ll talk about Sheldon first, since that’s Kellett’s primary source of income (of the rarefied group of webcartoonists able to live solely off of their work, he’s at the top) and also the first true webcomic I ever got into. I’ve been following it for so long, sometimes I’m unsure of how I got into it.

Sheldon is a 5-day-a-week humor strip about the title character, a 10-year old genius who makes billions off of his own software company, Sheldonsoft. He lives with his grandpa–just called Gramp–who’s retired but still lives a full life…of watching TV and being addicted to coffee. There’s also the strip’s breakout character, Arthur, a duck who learned to talk when Sheldon downloaded both an encyclopedia and speech-recognition software into his head, his lizard son Flaco–who hatched out of an egg Arthur found and was compelled to sit on–who doesn’t really speak but has some pretty awesome adventures, and the family pug, Oso, who barks a lot but is just as dumb as any other dog. There’s a few more characters, but these 5 are the main ones.

(sheldoncomics.com)

The strip is one of the longer-running webcomics out there, having been around since November 2001. It’s a constant delight due to its delightful sense of humor, Kellett’s wonderful, simple artwork, and a tone that recalls the best newspaper strips of past and present (which makes sense, as Kellett originally developed the strip to sell to syndicators).

While Sheldon has continuity and tends to make topical references, you can really start from anywhere you want, but the beginning is still pretty helpful.

Several years into Sheldon‘s run, Kellett, a lifelong nerd–as many strips demonstrate–began running a serialized sci-fi strip on aturdays, which, after it took off, eventually moved to its own site.

DRIVE 1: A Hero Rises

Drive, which, because it’s a personal project, updates sporadically, takes place in a world where a second Spanish empire rose in the 23rd Century after a man singlehandedly reverse-engineered the technology of an alien race known as the “Continuum of Makers,” which enabled him to discover a starship drive that enabled faster-than-light travel, empowering humans to fly throughout the galaxy.

In the present day, on a prison moon, an alien of unknown origin wakes up with amnesia, not knowing who he is, with his only friend being Nosh (the big guy up there), a member of the peaceful, giant race known as the Veetan who learned to speak English when stuck in Moscow for six years. The crew of Nosh’s ship, the tiny scout ship Machito, led by Captain Taneel (hehe) arrives and bails them out through blowing a hole in the prison and destroying the records facility. This upsets the small creature, as the prison records were the only chance he had of learning his name and species.

The crew takes him on, and he’s christened Skitter, after the noise he makes when running. It’s also discovered that, through his antennae, Skinner can sense gravity waves and pilot a ship through the “pinched space” created when the mysterious starship drive is used better than anyone has ever seen. Press-ganged by the decrepit Emperor into finding the rest of Skitter’s race, the crew journeys throughout time and space to save the Empire for a guy they don’t really like.

Being done entirely in bluescale, like Darwyn Cooke’s great Parker graphic novels, helps Drive stand out, in addition to the obvious worldbuilding Kellett clearly relishes in; several pages are taken up by encyclopedia pages describing the various alien races encountered. Not only that, the characters are compelling, the story is interesting, and the pacing is well-done, giving this strip the feel of a particularly out-there bent of Star Trek. The beginning is available here, and you can easily catch up.

Due to Kellett’s heavy involvement in STRIPPED, both strips have been on hiatus for a LONG time, with only Sheldon updating periodically. Thankfully, this is due to resolve soon, hopefully. In the meantime, check out both strips; you’ll be glad you did!