Dredd by Pete Travis

Dredd by Pete Travis

In a violent, futuristic city where the police have the authority to act as judge, jury and executioner, Judge Dredd (played by Karl Urban) teams with new trainee Judge Anderson (played by Olivia Thirlby) to take down a gang that deals the reality-altering drug, SLO-MO.

It is an unfortunate coincidence that Dredd is correlated to The Raid: Redemption because they have similar setups (my short review of The Raid: Redemption here). Fortunately, I saw The Raid: Redemption earlier in the summer of 2012 and missed Dredd in theaters, as a result I have enough time in between the two films to mentally separate them. Being unfamiliar with the source material, what I actually ended up comparing Dredd was the 1996 Slyvester Stallone’s Judge Dredd. It’s a sci-fi movie that I grew up on and entertained me (however Demolition Man is the superior sci-fi Slvyester Stallone movie). It’s famously criticized because Sylvester Stallone, at the behest of the producers, plays the latter two-thirds of the film with his helmet off. Judge Dredd in the comics, never takes off his helmet. I never knew what the big deal was with the insistance that the Judge Dredd character must keep his helmet on… till I saw Dredd.

Judge Dredd is not a character as more a representation of pure black-and-white law taken to the extreme. That’s why he’s meant to be faceless. Taking off his mask and trying to find the human backstory behind that character completely shatters what he thematically represents. Yes, I know I sound stupid right now. However, a movie with Judge Dredd alone just shooting criminals would have been boring. The filmmakers understand this, so they have placed in a buddy cop dynamic into the film with the Judge Anderson character. She is more human and more dimensional as a character, and set as a juxtaposition to the stoic Dredd. It can even be argued that the movie is Judge Anderson’s story. Both characters had a good working chemistry and the film deeply benefits from their buddy dynamic as it provides something human enough for me to hang onto between the action scenes.

As Judge Dredd, Karl Urban manages to communicate a lot under a helmet and has a firm grasp of the material. Playing a character who is that extreme can easily fall into parody very quickly (there are many Youtube videos parodying Stallone’s delivery “I’m the lawwwwww!!!!!”) and Urban doesn’t fall into that. Lena Headey manages to be cold and scary without being cartoonish as the film’s villain Ma-Ma. The film is over-the-top but there’s no ‘wink wink’, everybody just “is” the character they’re playing.

Slow motion in films have been overdone and viewers have grown used to it now. The way to keep slow motion fresh is to incorporate it into the story. Having a drug that slows down your perception of time is arguably the most blatant way to do this. But you know what? It works! It seems fresh and they take the Slo-Mo drug as a story device and take it to creative places. The films has fun action set pieces. The next set piece tops the last and it moves fast enough for you to ever really ponder about the satirical tones.

Dredd  is fun and made by a team that understands and loves the material. Their goals with this movie were simple but they accomplish them. It makes me think, as proven by the 1995 film, that perhaps the Judge Dredd property is not meant to be adapted into a vehicle for a big name star. The dark humor combined with ultra-violent tone of it just registers as something kitschier that will fare better for a smaller audience. No one’s going to take their whole family to see this movie but more likely a group of guys will cackle over it with a case of beers in their apartment.

For the people that want to see Dredd, will get it and enjoy it. For the people who don’t care that much may just dismiss it as being a lesser version of The Raid: Redemption. I’m not going to get on that bandwagon, Dredd deserves better than simply writing it off like that.

The Lady by Luc Besson

The Lady by Luc Besson movie poster

My first memories of Michelle Yeoh date back to Police Story 3: Supercop. To me, she will always be the Mainland Chinese undercover agent who drove a motorcycle up a ramp and landed onto a speeding train. And now that has completely been changed in my head, or perhaps another new image of Michelle Yeoh has now been spawned in my head.

Mark my words: this is the definitive Michelle Yeoh performance. Don’t get me wrong, she still plays a badass, but a totally different kind of badass. Yeoh physicalizes Aung San Suu Kyi, she has lost the weight and embodies her gentle grace and is believable as a mother. Yes, I bought this onscreen family. That’s something noteworthy.

There is an art to crying on film. It must be done with precision (so the audience stays rooting for the actor), a certain beauty (you are doing it on camera after all) and grace to it (so that it’s watchable). The Lady contains some of the best crying on film I have seen for a while. I was reminded of how David Mamet’s thoughts against Stanislavski’s school of method acting because the emotion drawn from the actor should come from the scene itself, not a side experience from the actor. I written that off as I doubted if that is even possible for an actor to do (and also because David Mamet wears a beret). The film have proven me wrong. I watched Aung San Suu Kyi cry from being away from her family, not Michelle Yeoh cry from a personal experience.

In screenwriting, they teach that it’s important to make your main character likable, so that the viewer can invest and root for their success. That alone can enhance (i.e. Rocky) and diminish (i.e. The Green Hornet) one’s experience of a story. The portrayal of Aung San Suu Kyi (played by Michelle Yeoh, if it’s not obvious to you already) in The Lady is universally likeable and that alone had me on the edge of my seat.  I don’t recall ever rooting for two people to be together (On that level, this makes for a great date movie) more than Aung San Suu Kyi and her husband Michael Aris (played by David Thewlis). Fuck, the stakes are high: a woman has to choose between helping her country or being with her family. There’s a heroine, she’s in love but can’t be with her lover,  she has supporters, there’s a villian, he has henchmen and set out to destroy her cause. The story structure is practically that of a superhero movie, but I digress. Like in Senna, the situation seems so dramatic I couldn’t believe that this all really happened. The film titters between working as a documentary and a dramatic fiction movie and it becomes an immersive experience.

I quite liked that touch with Michael Aris’ smoking habit. It’s how the character deals with his stress. Often smoking is used as a character trait in movies, and they really take that to it’s end in this one.

Lastly, the U2 song tonally doesn’t fit with the aftertaste of the film in the end credits sequence. I know U2 is a major supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom, but that particular song tonally doesn’t belong there, period. I would have preferred the score.

Welcome back, Luc Besson! Please continue to direct movies.

The Artist by Michel Hazanavicius

A piece of art is always defined by it’s time, or more specifically, by it’s own context. For a piece of art to relate to its audience, it must be relevant. Shot in black and white in 4:3 with no recorded sound, The Artist exists as the perfect counter argument to the emergence of 3D. This is where The Artist draws a lot of it’s charm. If there wasn’t a current debate about whether 3D enhances one’s experience of a story, I don’t think people would have embraced The Artist as much as they have now.

Onto the film, the cast does a great job at rehashing silent movie acting. Bérénice Bejo looks like a silent film actress. Jean Dujardin reminds me of Gene Kelly with his killer smile. I particularly liked what he did with his eyebrows in a scene where he films a spy movie. The story is basically Singing in the Rain and story wise the third act does seep too long in sadness. It seeps to the point where we are just lingering on somebody’s pain and suffering (almost like in the film The Pursuit of Happyness). It gets a tad uncomfortable than you’d want in musical comedy where things should hop along, even in sad scenes they have sad musical/dance numbers, don’t they?

The Artist makes me think of what Quentin Tarantino’s goal with Kill Bill: it’s a postmodern throwback film that’s directly addresses its influences. Part of the joy is watching the film references its influences along with the story. This sets up a trap: a film that relies on the strength of previous films has a hard time rising above them. For example, most of Kill Bill: Volume 2 is a homage to spaghetti westerns. The Ennio Morricone music, the telephoto shots of Uma Thurman walking in the steamy desert all make me think of how The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly was a great film. Automatically this sets Kill Bill in an inferior position because my focus isn’t on Kill Bill. That was partly my experience with The Artist.

Unlike Kill Bill, there’s a precision in craft in The Artist that I admire and respect. Michel Hazanavicius loves cinema but is able to reign in his fanboy-isms to tell a proper story. For example, they perfected when and when not to show cards for dialogue. The nightmare sequence in which George Valetin dreams about the advent of sound films was one of the highlights. I can’t believe one dog (Uggie the dog as Jack the dog) did all those tricks!

The Artist succeeds in its goal, it’s a well-crafted, well-acted delight of a film. The film is made for film lovers and I smiled throughout it’s entirety. Smiling through a film is a different experience from laughing through a film. You leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy. But ultimately, I don’t think the postmodern throwback film is something to be rewarded or applauded to this level. Its longevity is suspect, but I guess time will tell on that.