The Woman In Black

Let me tell you that the only thing that could have made me purchase a ticket, walk into the theatre and sit through almost 90 minutes of a ridiculous fright fest willingly is the idea that I would not be able to live with myself if I didn’t watch Daniel Radcliffe in his first post-Harry Potter adult role on a big screen. Other than that, I will never ever enter a cinema willingly and watch a horror movie, let alone admire and like it.

As it stands, though, The Woman In Black is one of the finest horror films made in recent films. Despite thoroughly hating the genre (although not as much as I loathe slasher films), I have seen a few horror movies (mostly due to familial obligations), I think The Woman In Black does what many Western (read: non-Asian) horror films usually fail to do: scare the knickers off you and make you scream properly.

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THE RAID: Review

Before you read my review of Gareth Evans’ The Raid, let me reiterate once more – as I have done in my press conference and screening report – that I’m not an action movie fanatic. I don’t like violent and bloody movies and I was severely overwhelmed when I first heard about this movie that Evans made. His first film, Merantau, was more up my alley because it was drama with plenty of action… not pure action with nothing else but action. Needless to say, I had not wanted to watch The Raid: Redemption, the movie as renamed by Sony Pictures (its American distributor), when it came out.

After watching it, though, I understood exactly why the movie was popular and why it was good. It is, as many people have mentioned, thanks to the fighting choreography that it can be as fantastic as it is. Using pencak silat, one of Indonesia’s ‘national’ sports, the Welsh-born director Evans bring a new energy to the action genre. But it’s not just the silat moves alone that creates a dynamic picture – it’s the entire design of the fighting scenes, starting from how the actors and stunts moved, to the way Evans and his DoP worked the camera, that made for highly exciting sequences. Silat itself is already a very showy martial arts discipline but combine that with great action performers and clever cinematography, nothing can go wrong.

Much props to Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, then, who are the two in-house fighting choreographers for PT Merantau Films, the production house who made the film – shot on set for the most part in Jakarta, Indonesia. Uwais and Ruhiyan are like the Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman of fighting choreography and in real life they interact very much the way Kirk and Spock in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009) do: with plenty of bromance. They got the nickname Devil Kid and Mad Dog (the latter also being Ruhian’s character’s name in the film) for their supreme BAMF!-ness on set. Their chemistry is glaringly obvious in the fighting scenes, even the ones where they’re not together. When I watched the stuntment fight the police, I could see their signature all over the place. Their palpable chemistry breathes life into the film’s exhilarating action, which will leave you cringing, screaming, gasping and hissing in proxy psychosomatic pain.

Evans’ script is a very lean one. I’d imagine the physical script itself would contain more descriptions of how a room should look instead of how characters communicate; the screenplay is probably designed to feature as much action as possible. But for once I don’t mind. I’m actually relieved that it didn’t try to be witty or clever. It didn’t try to be philosophical or inspire thinky thoughts. This puts things into perspective for me: that actions sometimes speak louder than words and that’s exactly what The Raid is all about.

That’s also a good thing because, in the acting department, Uwais as the main star is still pretty much a novice and it shows. He has a strong screen presence and charisma but he’s still inexperienced when compared to his seniors. Ruhian often steal scenes with his unintentional comedic timing, which goes a long way in relieving the tension and thank god for that, but Uwais’ more dramatic scenes unfortunately highlighted his lack of chops. This is all fine, however, because the young actor can only get better with experience. The good thing is, Uwais never brings his co-stars down. Interacting with the more experienced Doni Alamsyah (or Donny Alamsyah; I can never be too sure which one is the correct spelling), star of the epic Indonesian films Merah Putih and the currently playing Negeri 5 Menara, Uwais seems more like an accessory than the main event because his screen partner was more skillful. But Alamsyah seemed to have fed off Uwais’ energy as well and delivered a solid performance that ended on a high, if slightly edgy, note. If I could make one request to the filmmakers for The Raid‘s imminent sequel, Berandal, it is to please include more Alamsyah in it.

Fellow athlete-turned-actor Joe Taslim was also another gem to see on screen. Young, fit and fierce, Taslim has now played in 3 movies. He got his part as the SWAT sergeant in charge of the team’s raid of a building full of criminals and convicts through Facebook, where he searched Evans and told the director about his skill set, until finally getting a chance to audition and the role. He, too, is novice but he has a slight advantage from Uwais in the acting department as he seems a lot comfortable in front of the camera. While the ladies may find him droolworthy (he is, I am pleased to report, as handsome in real life as he is on screen) it is his duel with Mad Dog in the film that had me feeling like I should get down on my knees and start worshipping the ground he walks on. A former SEA GAMES medalist for judo, Taslim gave Ruhian a run for his money. This sequence and the later Uwais-Alamsyah-Ruhian showdown are the highlights of The Raid.

Senior Indonesian actor Ray Sahetapy, of course, was one who knocked it out of the ball park. I’ve lost count of how many films Sahetapy made but I’m pretty sure his career has been alive slightly longer than I’ve been around in the world. His sleazebag character was both repulsing and amusing to watch and the contrasting impression could only be produced from one with a talent and skill like his. He appeared for the first time in this movie in a scene where he was killing minor scumbags. But before he got to the killing, he was eating noodles from a bowl… and it was annoying! His character Tama’s attitude was annoying. His speech was annoying. He made me want to put a hole in his head for being annoying. But, well, you know what they say? A movie is only as good as its villain and Sahetapy is the embodiment of that saying for The Raid. 

A lot of people apparently accused The Raid for not being an Indonesian movie because its director is a foreigner. While I disagree with the notion because the funding of the film, as well as the production, 95% of the crew and 100% of the cast, came from Indonesia, I still say that The Raid is as un-Indonesian as it can possibly get, cinematically speaking. Evans’ filmmaking style is very different from Indonesian directors’ visions of a movie. His cinema is the kind I see in early Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn films. Not exactly the skills per se but just the texture and nuance of the visuals. There’s a shot of the winding staircase taken from the center and the first thing that came to mind was somehow Paul McGuigan’s shots from BBC’s Sherlock TV series’ first ever episode, “A Study In Pink”. Looking at the episode, I had no idea why I thought of that when I saw Evans’ shot in The Raid, but then I concluded that it must be Evans’ British filmmaking sensibilities that showed in that shot. Such a thing might be a myth but I do think a filmmaker’s cultural background plays a part in the way he shoots a film. The point I’m trying to make is that Evans’ filmmaking sensibility is rather not Indonesian and if anyone wants to accuse the film being un-Indonesian, this should be the reason. Otherwise, this is an Indonesian film and anyone who thinks different should “f*ck ‘em[selves]”.

I also give props to whoever was in charge of the sound department. The sound effect was highly effective – this alone could pump anyone’s adrenaline and set hearts racing. Combine this with Fajar Yuskemal and Aria Prayogi’s innovative score, The Raid has one hell of a sound design. Recently I watched Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and absolutely hated the sound of it. With all due respect to the legendary director, I thought the film’s sound design was too over-the-top. I wanted to close my ears for more than half of the movie. Surprisingly, the only thing I wanted to close by watching The Raid was my eyes during scenes where people’s throats get sliced and people’s heads get shot. My ears, on the other hand, were pleasantly entertained by the film.

And yes, I did just compare The Raid to Hugo. Apparently, it can be done and The Raid deserves the praise.

(A note: viewers in the US will get the Mika Shinoda/Joe Trapanese version of the score. Some Indonesians expressed their disappointment at not getting the Shinoda/Trapanese score, but let me reassure you that the Yuskemal/Prayogi score is more than good enough. It is awesome and I would rather have this than the other version.)

I’m still not keen on repeating the experience of watching the film on cinema. It met and even surpassed my expectations of the brutality, meaning that it is definitely not to my tastes at all. But I’m going to recommend the hell out of this film to every single person I meet and not only because I have met and like the filmmakers. I’m going to tell everyone to see it because it’s damn good entertainment and it is hands down the best action movie, from any country, I’ve ever seen in my life. Enough said.

THE RAID: Press Conference & Screening – 19 March 2012

Remember when this New Zealand filmmaker decided to adapt one of fantasy literature’s most epic novel trilogy into a movie and assembled a great group of people to make it? Well, we all know how that story went. The guy ended up not  making one mediocre movie at all that only geeks watched in the cinema. Instead he made three spectacular blockbusters that went on to rule them all and won a bunch of Oscars for them.

Well. It just so happens now that there was a Welsh filmmaker who decided to come to work in Indonesia, discovered the country’s martial arts form called pencak silat, and made a movie about it. He, too, assembled a great group of people to make it. But, more importantly, he found this country’s answer to Jackie Chan/Jet Li/Tony Jaa/[insert another action movie star’s name here]. So now we have this action movie that half of the world’s movie buffs are currently crazy about and put the country on the world cinema map.

The first filmmaker I’m talking about is obviously Peter Jackson. He is my number one favorite filmmaker in the entire planet. The second filmmaker I’m talking about is Gareth Evans. He’s also rapidly becoming my ultimate favorite filmmaker in the world. And it’s the second guy’s movie, The Raid (or rather, The Raid: Redemption – they had to add that extra word in order to get it released in the US), that is doing what Lord Of The Rings trilogy did for New Zealand.

For those of you who have miraculously not heard of The Raid, this is the lowdown: it’s a 100% pure action movie using pencak silat as the basic fighting choreography. It’s about a 20-man SWAT team that got sent to raid a building full of baddies. Despite successfully gaining entry to the highly dangerous building, they were found out by the mafia boss who ruled the building and who subsequently called his minions to come out, play and “have fun” with the cops. Mayhem and madness ensue. The film was well-received in the festival circuit (Toronto, Sundance, South By Southwest – you name it, they loved it.)

Confession: I did not want to watch the movie. I absolutely refused to watch it. I knew it was bloody, gory and violent. Human lives are wasted and, oh yeah, did I mention it was bloody, gory and violent? It’s not like we’re seeing Orcs getting beheaded here. We’re supposedly seeing human throats slashed, human necks broken, human spines cracked and so forth. Not my kind of movie. I like mindless action movies as much as the next Saturday night casual cinemagoer, but honestly? It wasn’t on my agenda.

Except I have a job as a movie journalist. My chief editor usually trusts me with features and he wanted me to write about The Raid. Besides, we were getting an exclusive interview session with the film’s stars and fight choreographers and which journalist doesn’t love the word “exclusive”? So last month, I went twice to Mr. Evans’ production company PT Merantau Film’s office in Tanah Abang, Jakarta, and interviewed two of the nicest guys you’ll ever know who are currently working in the movie industry. They are Iko “Devil Kid” Uwais and Yayan “Mad Dog” Ruhian.

The interview went swimmingly. Both Iko and Kang Yayan are both charismatic and professional. They gave us plenty to work with for the article – I loved their answers so much I practically begged my editor to give me one full page for each actor/fighter to be featured – and I went to town with it. It was easily one of the most exciting interview experiences I had and this definitely beats interviewing Harry Potter actors. A few weeks after the Iko/Kang Yayan interview, I managed to get in touch with Maya Barack-Evans, the director’s wife who’s also The Raid‘s executive producer.  Unfortunately her husband was at that time absent (abroad on festival duty, the lucky bastard) so I missed out on interviewing him.

Until today, that is. Because today the members of the Indonesian press were invited to The Cone, fX mall, Jakarta at 9.30 AM to attend a press screening of The Raid. Present were the cast and crew of The Raid: Mr. Evans, Iko, Kang Yayan, athlete-turned-actor Joe Taslim, popular star Doni Alamsyah and the legendary Ray Sahetapy, among others. All the actors with minor roles, like Tegar Satrya, and even actors with no character name to speak of (“Machete Gang #1″ guy was there – his real name is Alfridus Godfred) were also present and accounted for. Just about every recognizable faces from the cast and crew – and those who are not so easily recognized – came to celebrate this mixed gathering of news, media and film people.

  

The press conference was neatly executed, from the invitations to the door prize event, and I was impressed with their tidy organization of the event. Whoever was in charge of it – kudos to you. It felt like a Comic-Con panel (not that I ever went to San Diego) but I am willing to bet money that the atmosphere at the press conference would give a run for Comic-Con’s money.

In the formal Q&A event, producer Ario Sagantoro and Gareth Evans answered all the important questions from the journalists. Then Roy Sahetapy displayed the reason why he is a legend of Indonesian cinema (seriously, is this guy human?) by reciting a poem that concluded in the cast shouting, “Merdeka!” (Freedom!) Needless to say, he got a well-deserved round of applause there. And Iko and Kang Yayan killed it with their bromance. (“We have chemistry,” Kang Yayan confirmed after he was asked about his relationship with Iko. “We started as friends,” Iko continued, “and now we’re something else.”) It really doesn’t get more exhilarating than that.

My favorite quote from that session? Definitely the one from Mr. Evans, who responded to the query of what he thought of the opinion that said The Raid couldn’t be categorized as an Indonesian movie because it was made by him, a foreigner. His answer was a very eloquent”f*ck ‘em. I’m the only bule (foreigner) here. Everything else is Indonesian. This is an Indonesian movie.”

What happened next was like a junket, albeit a very casual one. None of those actors being in a room and we get to be escorted inside to talk to them for an allotted time. The cast and crew went around the room to meet with the journalists and we spoke to them, asked them questions and took their photos in a relaxed manner. For my magazine, Total Film Indonesia, I managed to get soundbytes from Mr. Evans and Joe Taslim. They’re mostly follow-ups to my questions from the Iko/Kang Yayan and Maya interviews and there were a few things clarified/confirmed from their statements. Again, the impression I got were the same as the ones I got from Devil Kid and Mad Dog: that they were the nicest, most down-to-earth and grounded people you’ll ever meet. I can’t really imagine Michael Bay and Shia LaBeouf being THAT nice – can you?

As if this was not spectacular enough, after lunch we were treated to the movie at Platinum XXI cinema next door to The Cone. Funnily enough, the producer said at the beginning, “Forget any kind of moral messages. Be as loud as you want – it’s not a movie where you should stay quiet.” I find that suggestion refreshingly brilliant.

Another confession: I watched half the movie while covering my vision with a scarf. Sorry. It’s a damn great movie (my personal review coming up next) but it’s also still not my kind of movie. It’s the kind of mindless violence that drove me mad wanting to hide behind a blanket or walk out totally out of the cinema. But I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I walked out so I ‘manned up’, so to speak, and stuck through it until the bleeding bloody end. Through a purple scarf, though.

I was reminded of the first thing Kang Yayan had told me in our interview. I’d asked him, “I don’t think I’ll go see the movie. What can you say to convince me to watch it?” He had laughed then and said, “I’m not trying to sell this movie but trust me, if you miss it, you will regret it.”

And after that screening ended, I couldn’t help but feel that his words were the absolute truth. The Raid isn’t just a film. It’s an experience. The act of going into the cinema, watching it on a big screen, with your friends and a large group of people, and screaming and gasping because of the heavy duty action sequences and set-pieces are all part of the film’s story. This is, I believe, what makes it so well-received: it evokes something in you that makes you want to express yourself outwardly and share it with other people.

Just like the way the cast and crew answered our questions – they never once sounded tired or annoyed by our never-ending questions (which by now they must have heard a million times). They only sound more enthusiastic the more we quiz them about their experiences. There’s a strong sense of camaraderie among the people who worked in the production (down to the guy who makes coffee, who was actually introduced before the screening, although his name escapes me right now). And Oom Roy Sahetapy did confirm all of this by saying, “There was nothing difficult about this film because we all had fun on set, with a director who kept us spirited even so early in the morning.”

And that very thing is what makes me compare The Raid to Lord Of The Rings: Peter Jackson and his cast and crew had that kind of camaraderie and they made one of the best film trilogies of all time. The Raid is still so far from LOTR’s orbit – we’re not even going to mention anything about the Oscars because, as the handsome Joe Taslim said, “The more people praise us, the more nervous I get” – but you can bet that it is on its way to proving its hyped up reputation to be one of the most memorable films ever made. One of the best action movies ever made? For sure. But it is also, generally speaking, the most memorable one as well.

You’d think that people would stop waxing poetic about The Raid by now. Overrated hype can truly be a buzzkill; the movie is not even out for the public in Indonesia (and the US, Canada, Australia and some other countries) until Friday, 23 March 2012, so the filmmakers are currently anxiously waiting for the reaction of those screenings because they all claimed that this was where the “real test” would be. Perhaps it’s better not to heap the compliments too early because this might jinx their box office performance.

But what else can you do about a movie whose actor thanked us for an interview? (I tweeted earlier: “Unfortunately, Joe Taslim is busy so we haven’t chatted with him yet.” He tweeted back: “If we meet later, let’s talk again.” I wrote back: “Thanks, Joe. You were wonderful in that movie.” He responded: “Thanks for your support.“)

With that kind of feedback, I can do nothing else but to wax extremely poetic about it. Although the point of the exercise is this: Believe in The Raid. Watch it.

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Read an article on The Raid: Redemption and exclusive interviews with Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian on the next issue of Total Film Indonesia, Issue #29, out this week in Indonesia. 

John Carter

This morning I woke up super early to catch a free screening of John Carter. Some people in the office were very skeptical about it after reading negative reviews… strangely enough, though, the early reviews for the film were actually glowing and wonderful. So I stopped myself from reading reviews because, heh. Who needs ‘em anyway? If you want to judge a movie, you go watch it yourself and make up your own mind.

I’ve also been hearing a lot of Star Wars comparisons, which went straight past my head because even though I’ve watched the original trilogy and liked them enough, I’m not really a major fan of the whole franchise. Then I read that it wasStar Wars that borrowed the ideas from Edgar Rice Burroughs to build up its universe instead so it was actually the other way around?

Well, whatever. None of these things matter. I went in there with zero expectations and hoped for the best. 

It’s actually a good movie. I really like the whole exotic feeling of the movie; it’s what I would call a real sci-fi movie. On a geeky scale of 1 to 10, this is probably an 11. It’s the kind of movie that would get the general audience furrow their eyebrows because they’d probably think, “These characters have really weird names” or “I don’t understand a word these aliens are saying!” And I’m glad the team of writers – Andrew Stanton (also director), Mark Andrews and novelist Michael Chabon – didn’t tone it down. Present-day cinemagoers, I think, are a lot more accepting of the fantasy/sci-fi genre but I do have to wonder just how geeky can you get before people get intimidated by it. I think John Carter will probably be too geeky for the general public – like I said, it’s over-the-top geeky – but this is the kind of stuff I really love to see in the cinema so I was really happy to see that the filmmakers went all the way in bringing this ‘fantasy land’ to life.

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