“The Raid” tautly paced, endlessly thrilling Indonesian actioner

A group of elite Indonesian cops make their move on a 30-story building stacked from bottom-to-top with vicious, gun-toting drug-lords, who also happen to be masters of obscure hand-combat systems. Sold on “The Raid” yet? Good. Let’s proceed.

“The Raid” is a fast, furious film of absolutely endless action. Of the film’s 100 minutes, I estimate about 85 to be of pure, simple combat. It’s literally everything action fans have ever dreamed of, tied in a tight, well-constructed package by Welsh helmer Gareth Evans. Curiously enough, I can’t seem to tell if the film’s economic storytelling comes from Evans’ conscious decision or lackluster direction. Given how much skill most of the flick is pulled off with, Evans gets the benefit of the doubt.

“The Raid” being what it is, a pure exercise in action, there’s an understandable need to maintain variety in its sequences. Alas, no two fights are the same; variously utilizing the different fighting techniques, automatic weapons, swords, inventive uses of everyday objects (refrigerators and hammers get memorable cameos), and the fact that the characters aren’t much more than a punch or shove away from a 300-foot plunge. What links them all is their resemblance to an adrenaline high, often times provoking a genuinely physical reaction — I caught myself out of breath at moments in the film, flinching at others, laughing at many. Much of this is anchored by lead Iko Uwais, whose considerable charm and martial-arts prowess makes for a truly dynamic, if oft silent, lead.

Evans trims away much of the fat that such a film often wields: gone are the repeated, arbitrary flashbacks to make us “care for” the main character and his backstory, gone is the ridiculous love interest, gone is the incomprehensible camera-work and mismatched editing. Perhaps it’s the fact that this was made for barely a million dollars in Indonesia, but “The Raid” is more savage, more hungry, and more taut than all of its peers. It has no time, no money and no patience for the conventions we’ve adapted to. Just the way I like it. This movie rules. A-

“American Reunion” business as usual, with an added layer of bittersweet

The “American Pie” franchise holds a bit of an awkward spot in the realm of contemporary comedy. Having never seen them until roughly a week ago (funnily enough, at the continued urging of my father), it struck me by how, well, tame it all seemed. It certainly wasn’t a strike against the films’ qualities, which were respectable enough, but it was more of a comment on how these films have forced Hollywood to continually one-up itself in crudeness. It set the bar, and was subsequently deemed outdated about 45 minutes later. “American Reunion” here arrives in a landscape that’s seemingly passed it by, with a once-promising cast of actors whose careers, Seann William Scott aside, seem to have passed them by. It’s a bittersweet affair, and I’m not sure if it knows it.

The franchise kicked off with four nerdy West Michigan boys who vowed to lose their virginity by the end of their senior year. Now they’ve grown into full-fledged men with responsibilities, frustrations and babies: the earnest Jim, sweet Kevin, knuckle-headed Oz, and mysterious Finch. For the first time in quite a while, they’re back together for their high-school reunions, as are all their old (and new) flames.

What results is basically a series of romantic criss-crosses, permeated by a couple of outrageously crude set-pieces. Most exciting is the return of Stifler, the outrageously funny man-child whose charm lands much better in his head than it does in real-life. Stifler really embodies what I dig the most about “American Reunion”: it reunites all the elements and characters that gave the originals their personality, but adds a layer of bittersweetness, even sadness to it. Yeah, Stifler’s every ounce as immature and sexually frustrated as he was in high-school. Nothing’s changed. That’s the point.

Helmed by the directors of the two great American masterpieces “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle” and its sequel “Escape From Guantanamo Bay”, “American Reunion” admittedly doesn’t have much flash or pizzazz going for it. But two key sequences: a reunion party and subsequent reunion itself, are actually respectably edited and constructed; aptly juggling 10 or so different storylines, anticipating the moment where they all blow up in one another’s face. Many long-running jokes are resurrected: the characters’ penchants for getting with one another’s mothers, Eugene Levy’s glorious eyebrows, et cetera, et cetera.

The fact does stand that these characters are poorly handled, the plot is forgettable and the direction merely competent at peak. But then again, “American Reunion” is no artful treatise on sorrowful longing for the past. It’s got funny penis and sex jokes, and never presumed to offer otherwise. The fact remains that it’s surprisingly poignant, even reflective at points. It made me feel nostalgia for a franchise I hold no particular emotional attachment to, a feat more impressive than I’d like to admit. B-

“Titanic” still pretty awesome.

There’s really nothing I’m gonna say here that hasn’t been said before in another (probably better) critique or dissection, but the fact that you’re continuing to read this sentence certainly says something about the film’s lasting appeal. Or my writing. Either way.

James Cameron’s “Titanic” was up against almost insurmountable odds –  a $100 million budget that doubled over the shoot, an unsafe set sending crew-members away with illnesses and broken bones, a skeptical press who were all too happy to declare the film a studio-sinking disaster. But, much like the film itself, we all know how it ended. I don’t need to tell you that “Titanic” was a cultural juggernaut, nor that much of the film’s appeal comes from our uneasy anticipation of the name-sake’s disastrous sinking.

“Titanic” is about a boy and a girl who fall in love on a ship and the ship sinks and the boy dies. But you knew that. The cringe-inducing “it’s the journey, not the destination” aphorism holds true here. The appeal and quality of this film is, very simply, watching it all play out. This film fulfilled the fantasies millions of romantics out there for a reason, and that is because it’s a damn good love story.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet still have an undeniable spark as the poor, artistic, dreamy guy and the upper-class teenage girl who’s being shipped off to marry a steel-tycoon. They meet aboard the 1912 luxury liner touted as “unsinkable”. Once the Titanic strikes a massive iceberg, however, everything descends into utter chaos as its a mere matter of hours before everything sinks into the icy Atlantic.

Books have been written about the extensive production values at work here — the impeccable costumes, lavish sets, full-scale recreation of the true-life ship, et-cetera. They’re every bit as excellent as they were when they swept the Oscars 15 years ago. Still ringing less true is writer-director-producer-editor James Cameron’s shoehorned, half-assed “rich people are stiff, poor Irish people rule” class commentary. Never bought it, never will. Billy Zane’s overdone embodiment of the “rich white jerk” archetype still raises eyebrows. I still hate Celine Dion’s song with every fiber in my body.

Although Cameron stumbles in assigning social meaning to the characters, there’s still some interesting stuff he gets across. “Titanic” is an interesting snapshot of the moment that American class-distinction began to fall into chaos, where humble immigrants and noble tycoons alike gained equal stature in society.

Cameron, too, is a fantastic emulator of the sort of old-school, epic Technicolor splendor that Hollywood once embodied. It’s a world of only good and bad, life and death, joy and sadness, beauty and chaos, with very little middle-ground between the two. Absence of subtlety isn’t always a bad thing. Seeing “Titanic” on the big-screen for the second-time, this time older than 13 months, was a revelatory experience: not just because the added third dimension brings an entire layer of depth and splendor to the proceedings, but because it goes to show how, sometimes, works of art with wholly earnest intentions win out. Irony isn’t always prevalent in this world, but I have a feeling that “Titanic” just may be. A