Live from the Sundance Film Festival: Wednesday, Jan 22

January 23, 2014

one i love

My last day at the Sundance Film Festival ended with a big bang: “The Raid 2,” Gareth Evans’ sequel to his eye-popping 2011 action film “The Raid.”

And it was a good day prior to that, with a pair of mysterious films – one a sci-fi thriller, one a marital comedy – and most of an eye-opening documentary.

The documentary was “Watchers of the Sky,” Edet Belzberg’s film about a small group of people devoted to furthering the thinking of Raphael Lemkin by keeping the world’s attention on episodes of genocide, when the impulse is to say, “That’s an internal problem in that country.”

Focusing on a disparate group of people – an attorney for the World Criminal Court who is trying to prosecute President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan; a victim of the Darfur genocide who now works for the United Nations to help refugees; an aging lawyer who was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials – to examine the notion of opening people’s eyes to genocide and preventing it.

It was a thoughtful, thought-provoking film, which I had to leave after 90 minutes (of an almost two-hour running time) to see “The Signal.” (OK, I didn’t have to; I wanted to.) It paid off: This was as taut and imaginative a sci-fi tale as I’ve seen since “District 9.”

It focuses on a pair of MIT students, Nick and Jonah, driving cross-country to relocate the girlfriend of one of them to a graduate program in California. But they’ve also got another mission: Internet and computer geeks, they’ve traced the signal of a hacker who took down the MIT servers. They decide to try to bust him themselves. But, after a “Blair Witch” moment in a deserted desert shack, it all goes dark.

When Nick (Brenton Thwaites) wakes up, he is being held in a hospital, whose employees who tend to him while wearing haz-mat suits. A calm scientist named Damon (Laurence Fishburne) tells Nick he’s had an alien encounter and may have been infected. Apparently in the early stages of multiple sclerosis before this phenomenon, Nick finds that he now has no feeling in his legs.

He’s also unhappy at not having his questions answered. He begins plotting his escape, without knowing just exactly what he’s been exposed to.

Director William Eubank keeps things tense but believable – just unusual enough to compel you, but with the details kept in the background of what becomes a quest for answers and freedom. Fishburne seems to toggle between reassurance and menace, with his quiet but firm performance.

Thwaites and Olivia Cooke (as Nick’s girlfriend) help you buy into the story; like the viewer, these characters can’t quite believe what’s happening to them. With a minimum of special effects – but a couple of wowsers – it pulls you in and doesn’t let you go until its unexpected ending.

raid2

When it started, I assumed “The One I Love” would be your basic romantic comedy: A married couple (Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss) visit a couples counselor (Ted Danson) because they’re having problems remembering why they cared about each other. The therapist sends them off to a property he has at his disposal near Santa Barbara which, he tells them, has worked wonders with other clients.

And, in fact, they discover better, more receptive and loving versions of themselves once they visit the property’s guest house. I won’t say more, other than to note that this film was a bright spot of the festival that had an array of surprises to offer.

Duplass and Moss make a likable couple – believably affectionate, but also testy with each other. Both actors uncover a variety of layers of these characters in a movie that’s as original and mind-bending as any film I’ve seen since “Being John Malkovich.”

But “The Raid 2” – well, put it this way: If you haven’t seen “The Raid,” know going in that this film is wall-to-wall action sequences, each of which raises the ante on the previous one in terms of both tension and brutality. It’s incredibly exciting – and quite graphically violent.

If you saw “The Raid,” a film of nonstop action about a police raid on a gangster’s headquarters, then you may think you know what to expect from its sequel. And yet this film will still exceed your expectations. Evans’ film is more than two and a half hours long – and has both the plot complexity and imaginative action choreography to sustain it.

Much of that rests with Iko Uwais as Rama, the cop at the center of the last installment, which ended with a gangleader dead but police corruption intact. So Rama’s commanding officer grabs him literally as he comes back from the action of the first film and gives him a new assignment. He wants Rama to go undercover by going to prison and cozying up to a gangster’s son, in order to help capture the police bosses who are on the take.

Foot chases and car chases, fights with baseball bats and claw-hammers, hand-to-hand combat that seems impossibly fast and bone-crunching: Every set-piece offers something new, making this the most exciting action film since, well, the original “Raid.”

As I post this, I’m back in New York, having caught a red-eye from Salt Lake City late Wednesday. I’ll wrap up my coverage tomorrow.

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