Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Idiot Boxing, MCU Netflix edition: Cloak and Dagger, season 1 (2018); Iron Fist, season 2 (2018)

Cloak and Dagger, season 1 (2018)

Following its trend of using TV media to tell stories of its lesser-known characters, Marvel released the first season of the mild cult 1980s classic comic Cloak and Dagger on the Freeform Network this summer. I really wasn't expecting much, so was pleasantly surprised at this rather well-done, thoughtful, and unique entry into the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

The story follows a pair of teens in modern New Orleans - Tandy Bowen and Tyrone Johnson. The two both lost loves ones on the same night, eight years prior to the current day - Tandy's father dies in a car wreck, while Tyrone's older brother is shot by a corrupt police officer. Both deaths are somewhat caused by a massive explosion at an off-shore oil rig, which somehow imbues Tandy and Tyrone with strange powers that are mysteriously linked to each other. These powers do not manifest themselves until eight years later, when the two are roughly 17 years old. By this time, Tandy has become a con woman living on the streets with her boyfriend, while Tyrone is a successful scholar and athlete at a prestigious private school. Both of their worlds are thrown off course once again as their powers start to manifest themselves, and details about the deaths of their family members start to surface from the past.

In a rather tidy ten episodes, Cloak and Dagger carves itself a new place in the ever-expanding universe of Marvel's TV show lineup. After Hulu's Runaways, this is only the second show that focuses specifically on teenagers. However, while Runaways is a lighter show with an ensemble cast that creates a sort of team of super-powered teens, Cloak and Dagger is moodier, of a much more measured pace, and focuses much more on the personal tragedies of two young people and how this affects their daily lives. Not every dramatic moment hits, but more than enough of them do to make Tandy and Tyrone's stories meaningful and compelling. It also helps that the revelations about their powers is much more of a slow burn than any other MCU TV show to date, which is something I can appreciate. The nature of their powers is enigmatic enough to be highly intriguing, making for plenty of potential in the future stories.

The show also stands out through its setting of New Orleans. While nearly every other MCU movie or TV show has taken place or ended up in the metropoli of New York City or Los Angeles, Cloak and Dagger selects a city unique in myriad ways. And the writers effectively use many of the fascinating and disturbing details about the city's history, weaving them into Tyrone and Tandy's own story and lending them a mythical quality.

This first season probably could have used a tad more punch in the way of a clear arch-nemesis, and the pacing was sometimes a bit too slow. Still, it was a strong opening season, and I look forward to seeing how the story and characters mature through the second season, which has already been announced for release early in 2019.

Iron Fist, season 2 (2018)

While not a "good" season, it is definitely an improvement over the ultra-bland first season.

Season 1 of Iron Fist had almost no end of problems. While having a decent premise to work with, the 13-episode season meandered, fumbled, and offered little more than untapped potential, uninteresting and unresolved plot threads, and thoroughly uninspired writing and action choreography. There were few elements to that opening season that were outright bad, but there was nothing that ever rose higher than mediocre. I was frankly somewhat surprised that the show was renewed for a second season.

Well, it seems that the show-runners got the memo, at least on some of critics' and the viewing public's issues with that first season. Season two serves as a fairly decent course correction, even if it still falls short of the overall quality of its Netflix MCU peer shows.

In the aftermath of the The Defenders crossover mini-series (which also served as Daredevil season 2.5 and Iron Fist season 1.5), Danny has started living with Colleen in her now-converted dojo in Chinatown. While working a menial day job as a furniture mover, Danny takes to the streets at night, using the Iron Fist to quell gang violence in the area. Returning to the scene is Davos, Danny's old friend and rival from Kun Lun. Davos's disgust at Danny has grown stronger, as he sees Danny as having stolen his birthright - the power and the title of the Fist - and does not seem to be doing any meaningful work with it. Davos schemes with Danny's childhood friend Joy Meachum to rob Danny of the Fist, so that Davos can clean up New York City in the way that he sees befits the revered position of The Immortal Iron Fist.

The plot is notably better in this season, thanks to its relative simplicity. It is not nearly as lean and focused as some of the better Netflix MCU shows, but it at least set up the conflicts within the first two episodes and never strayed too far from them. This was one of the many issues of the first season. It was also a wise move to pare the season down from 13 episodes to 10. The show-runners still somehow managed to make the show feel slow and dull more than a few times, but it still felt livelier than the first season. The greatest confrontation - between Danny and Davos - also builds nicely into the final few episodes, to the point that I was actually interested in seeing its conclusion. This was something I could never say about the first season, which by the end I was slogging through just for the sake of some kind of closure.

The fighting scenes were certainly better this season, if not nearly on par with the best scenes from Daredevil or The Punisher. Finn Jones still has none of the carriage or athleticism of someone who is supposed to be "the greatest martial artist on earth." Fortunately, many of the fighting scenes involve Jessica Henwick's Colleen and Sacha Dhawan's Davos. Dhawan in particular has all the stuff that Jones should have for a screen martial artist - power and grace, to go along with his intensity. It is fitting that the Davos character's entire argument is that Danny is too soft for the job of Iron Fist, as I think Jones unintentionally exhibited through his lack of fighting presence.

One of the most serious - and relevant - issues with this show was the issue of white-washing. While the original Iron Fist character created in the 1970s was always a white man, it simply was never a good look in today's climate to blatantly miss the chance to cast an Asian person as a character who is trained and obtains their title in a Himalayan monastery. Fortunately, the second season of Iron Fist resolves this in a way that I found both surprising and mostly satisfying. It's unclear just how long the show will continue with what it has set up, but I truly hope that it stays the course that it has now re-worked for itself.

If this show can just find some writers who know how to offer entertaining dialogue, it will actually be a true peer with its Netflix brethren. Probably the most obvious weakness that carried over from the first season was the lack of any engaging, creative dialogue. The actors do their best to sell their lines, with Alice Eve in particular standing out with her chilling portrayal of "Typhoid" Mary Walker.

I have to say that I'm a bit curious about where this series is now going, and I may even go back and rewatch this second season at some point in the future. These are things that I couldn't say after slogging through the initial offering. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

Retro Reviews: Predator series Part II: AVP: Aliens vs. Predator (2004); Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007); Predators (2010)

After the relative commercial failure of Predator 2, a decent movie but a letdown from the classic original, the film franchise went dormant for some time. To get Predator (and Alien) movie stories, one had to get the comic books released through independent publishers Dark Horse. Though both the Predator and Alien movie franchises cooled off/died off through the 1990s, Dark Horse continued to publish very popular stories, including the mini-series Aliens vs. Predator in 1990. This was the premise that filmmakers decided to use well over a decade later, when they decided to resurrect not just one but both film series:

AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004)

Director: Paul W.S. Anderson

I watched this movie for the first time not long ago, and did a longer review of it here. For this reason, I'll keep this summary short.

AVP was a decent romp, and more entertaining that I had actually expected. I didn't bother with it when it came out because the concept just seemed too contrived for a movie, and the reviews were generally quite poor. Over the succeeding year, though, I had more than one friend tell me that it wasn't all that bad. So last year, I gave it a shot, and found my friends to be correct: AVP is hardly a great movie, but it isn't bad, either. The acting is shaky here and there, and the writing and dialogue are average, at best. But the underlying premise is intriguing enough, and the setting of an underground, labyrinthine gauntlet is fun enough to hold one's attention. For one viewing, anyway. I'll never feel the need to go back and watch this movie again, but I didn't feel like I had wasted my time seeing it the once.

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)

Director: The Brothers Strause (Colin and Greg)

Despite being told by everyone I know whose seen this movie that it's terrible, the compulsive part of me took over and demanded that I watch this entry into the Predator series, for the sake of this post and obsessive completionism.

It was pretty much just as awful as my friends and the critics had told me.

The starting premise of the film actually isn't terrible. As teased at the end of AVP, on a "predator" spacecraft outside of earth's orbit, a xenomorph face-hugger gets lose, then attacks and implants an egg inside of a "Predator" alien, creating a "predator xenomorph." This frightening hybrid kills the few other predators on the ship, gathers a number of other face-hugger aliens, takes an escape pod and heads for earth. It soon crashes in a sleepy little Colorado town. Meanwhile, the news of the death of the several predators on the original ship reaches their home planet, where another intimidating predator gathers his weapons and head towards earth to find and kill the creature that laid waste to its comrades.

It's not a terrible setup. The problem is that the positives for the movie end there. Once the action gets to earth, almost nothing about the movie holds together or is enjoyable to watch. Very quickly, we see just how far the writers are willing to go to disturb us, as a father and his 10-year-old son are attacked by face-huggers and we see new aliens punch their way out of these victims' chest. Later in the movie, we see the same things happen to a bunch of pregnant women in a maternity ward. I understand that there has always been a horror element to the Alien movies, but these scenes were grotesque to the point of being completely revolting, not unlike things I've seen in the disposable Species films.

This is about as bright and clear as any of the action scenes
get in this movie. Trying to determine just what the hell was
going on in these sequences was a true exercise in frustration.
Then there was the pacing and the human stories, which seemed as if they had no idea whatsoever where to go. The movie hints and two or three stories about some of the human characters, but never develops any of them remotely well enough for us to care about them. The one that gets furthest along is a high school teenage drama between a couple of 17-year-olds, but the girl gets brutally murdered by an Alien about two-thirds into the movie. One of the characters is a soldier returning home (we never learn from where), and the actress actually seemed believably tough, but we never get to see her actually do much of anything. And then there's the ending of the movie, which I'll get to shortly, that makes the utter lack of character and story development all the more baffling.

But by far the most frustrating thing about this movie is the visuals. Bluntly, the action scenes were among the very worst I've ever seen in a decently budgeted movie. The budget is reported as $40 million. For comparison, James Cameron's high-octane action/sci-fi classic Aliens worked with a budget which, adjusted for inflation, is still less than the budget of AVP: Requiem. The fight choreography may have been really good, but no viewer would ever know because the framing, editing and lighting are so awful. During the movie's many fight scenes between xenomorph, predator, predator xenomorph, and humans, I quite honestly could not tell what the hell was going on most of the time (and I was watching it in my completely dark living room, on a 48" HD TV). It was impossible to get any sense of perspective or movement, making the fight scenes increasingly infuriating as the movie went along. It's generally not good when a movie titled "Aliens vs. Predator" doesn't allow the viewers to clearly see the aliens versus the predator.

And then there was the final insult that is the movie's end. By the middle of the movie, the local sheriff has had the good sense to call in the National Guard. The people who show up, though, are obviously some shady branch of the U.S. military. Instead of leading the surviving townspeople to a safe zone to be rescued, they direct them into the center of town and literally drop a nuke on the entire place. I suppose we're meant to assume that this was to contain the alien threat? OK, but then why does that same branch allow the four survivors who make it out to live, covering them with blankets and caring for them? The nuke renders the entire predator versus alien fight a completely moot point, and allowing survivors renders the nuke pointless. Pure idiocy, in terms of writing. At least the nuking serves as a fitting, though accidental, analogy for what this film did to the entire "Aliens vs. Predator" film series.

The funny thing is that, as bad as this movie was, it made over $120 million worldwide. I am surprised but very glad they didn't bother with another "AVP" film, if this was the best followup they could muster. Instead, they mercifully ditched the crossover idea, went back to focusing solely on the predator aliens, and dug out a script and idea that had been in their bins for 15 years:

Predators (2010)

Director: Nimrod Antal

A fellow Predator devotee and close friend and I saw this one in the theater back in 2010. We were not pleased. Still, it had been a good eight years since seeing it, I wanted a fresh viewing for this post, and I was guessing that following AVP: Requiem would only reflect well on this one.

Ever-more self-indulgent film writer and director Robert Rodriguez had apparently written a script for a sequel to the original two Predator movies back in 1994, while he was still a rising underdog star in the independent film world. After the critical lambasting that AVP: Requiem received (though it was rather profitable), the studio decided to get somewhat back to basics, dig up Rodriguez's script, and allow him to produce a reworking of his vision.

Now that I've rewatched it very shortly after watching AVP: Requiem, it's pretty clear that the movie's greatest asset was following that absolutely horrendous entry into the series. Predators is not a particularly good film, but it is certainly far better than Requiem.

This movies starts with a mercenary, played by Adrian Brody, falling out of the sky. His automated parachute opens, he lands, and soon finds other strangers who've had the same thing happen to them. These seven people - each one a person steeped in violence in some way - have been shanghaied from Earth and brought to a planet used as a hunting game preserve for the predator aliens. The humans, who start getting picked off one at a time, must figure out how to survive and possibly get off the planet.

Like every other Predator movie, even the wretched Requiem, the premise is decent. Changing the setting to another planet is novel, and it offered a chance to include some fun, science-fiction elements regarding life on other planets. The problem is that the writers never took the opportunity to really explore these aspects. It was just one of several missed opportunities in this movie. Another was the chance to show or at least dig a bit deeper into a few of the characters' backstories. The movie never does, so it's difficult to care much about any of them. This doesn't even take into account how certain questions can't be answered, such as how the predator aliens know these characters' stories and that they're all such accomplished killers. This is an especially difficult question to answer in the cases of the two psychopath murderers played by Walton Goggins and Topher Grace.

The basic idea behind the diverse cast was a decent one, but
there were a few illogical inclusions, such as the characters
played by Topher Grace and Walton Goggins.
Speaking of the characters, I will say that the casting of this movie was mostly strong, with the glaring exception of the lead - Adrian Brody. Brody is obviously an excellent actor, but he simply doesn't come anywhere close to looking the part of an action movie hero. Given just how much Predators tries to echo the original movie it was ill-advised to fill in the role played by Arnold Schwarzenegger with a thinly-built, slightly goofy-looking Englishman who put on a bit of muscle and a gruff, tough voice. That aside, the rest of the crew is great. Unfortunately, the script never rose above "OK," and was fairly humorless.

The most frustrating thing about Predators, though, is how it simply couldn't help itself in deferring (i.e. "out of ideas") to the original Predator movie. I'm always fine with a sequel giving one or two fun little tips of the cap to a classic original movie. Predators, though, goes way over the line between "homage" and "unoriginal." I counted no fewer than thirteen separate things that this movie copied straight from John McTiernan's classic film. These included props like Blaine's gatling gun to character designs like the Sierra Leonean being a facsimile of Billy to direct dialogue like, "Over here. Turn around," "What the fuck are you?" and "I'm here! Kill me!!" And there are plenty of others. When you add all of this to the familiar setting of the jungle and the general premise of a group of soldiers, then you basically get a movie that clearly felt that it couldn't be better than the original, so it just changed a few elements but told the same story with way too many of the same details.

I must say, though, that the movie was the best-looking one since Predator 2. While I do feel that it great too dark too soon (the second half of the movie all takes place at night), the cinematographers did well all of the things that Requiem did poorly. I was actually amaze to discover that the two movies had exactly the same budget. When you factor in that they were made only three years apart, it's a testament to what a difference a skilled visual crew can make for a movie.

The Predator film franchise Final Rankings

Now that I've seen all six films in the franchise, here are my final rankings, along with a very brief summary thought on each:
  1. Predator (1987): A masterpiece of sci-fi action that will never get old. 
  2. Predator 2 (1990): A major dropoff from the 1st, but a decent flick.
  3. The Predator (2018): A messy, mediocre movie somewhat redeemed by fun dialogue, a solid ensemble cast, and some decent action.
  4. Predators (2010): Another OK effort that suffers from a weak third act and riding the original movie's coattails way too hard. 
  5. AVP: Aliens vs. Predator (2004): Not without its fun elements, but still an inferior movie. 
  6. Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007): Two workable ideas turned into cinematic garbage that only the most obsessive fans of the franchise could remotely enjoy. 

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Retro Reviews: Predator series Part I: Predator (1987) and Predator 2 (1990)

Having recently seen Shane Black's newest entry into the Predator film series, I had the urge to go back and watch (or rewatch) a few of the earlier movies which I hadn't seen in a number of years. This year's The Predator marks the sixth movie in the series, and I'd seen all but one of the previous five with varying degrees of recency. Without further ado:

This is the actual poster that I had on
my bedroom wall as a kid.
Predator (1987)

Director: John McTiernan

I didn't need to bother going out of my way to rewatch the original movie, as I watch it every couple of years or so. This keeps it rather fresh in my mind, even aside from the fact that my Predator-loving friends and I have been quoting the movie for a couple of decades now.

For those who have somehow never seen it, the brief summary is that a rescue team of special forces soldiers, led by Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger), go into the Central American jungle on what is supposed to be a rescue mission. After the mission goes south, Dutch and his team start to be brutally killed, one-by-one, by some mysterious, unseen being. The being turns out to be an extra-terrestrial hunter that pursues the most challenging "game" on this planet. Dutch and his crew try to survive, with all but Dutch and a local freedom fighter, Anna, being slain by "the Predator."

This movie is, quite simply, a masterpiece of action film-making. It was the first major film by action movie directing legend John McTiernan (Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October), and this was the movie that got him larger budgets for his later films. With a relatively paltry budget of $15 million, he transported viewers into a Central American jungle to follow Schwarzenegger's small platoon of completely badasses, as they are ruthlessly hunted by a mysterious killer using impossibly advanced technology. The story is relatively simple, but the characters are great, the pacing and dialogue are perfect, and the action and tension are top-notch. I have to assume that it was the quality of this film that urged movie studios to throw far greater sums at McTiernan for his next movie - the following year's iconic Die Hard, another absolute masterpiece of action cinema.

Back to Predator. It's not often that a movie gets made that is so much of its own time yet is timelessly enjoyable. The great noir cinema of the '40s and '50s comes to mind, as do several other films. Predator is one of those. A friend of mine once brilliantly described the movie as "Beowulf told through the lens of Reagan-era America," which I found astoundingly fitting. Like so many things in the 1980s, this movie was about undiluted machismo. You have several famously muscle-bound dudes: Arnie. Carl "Apollo Creed" Weathers. Jesse "The Body" Ventura. And several other obvious tough guys, most of whom were military veterans. This resulted in a very organic, humorous Alpha-male chemistry between everyone in the platoon. Without authentic soldiers playing these roles, it's easy to imagine how this movie could have fallen very flat. A strong argument can also be made that Schwarzenegger - never known as being a particularly great actor - was at his acting best in this movie. No, the role didn't demand much, but it fit Arnie like a glove, and he nailed it to a tee.

Two more of the obvious strengths of the film are the narrative pace and dialogPredator have tried to work in a fraction of this movie's great lines and flawless deliveries, and nearly all have failed.
Dutch and his men. They look like serious badasses probably
because nearly all of them were in real life. Even beyond the
muscles and hard stares, though, each character quickly
displays some charisma, making many of the deaths
meaningful to us viewers.
ue. The movie does spend a little time setting up the "rescue mission" story, but it's barely five minutes before we're with the guys on a chopper, listening to "Long Tall Sally" blasting over the radio and Hawkins fire off one of his crass jokes, and getting to love the entire squad through their busting of each others' balls. The movie is then off and truly running, with the slower, tenser moments bridged to the explosive action sequences through a highly memorable and quotable script, compliments of the punch-up writing of Shane Black, who plays Hawkins in the film. Countless action movies before and since

One last observation about this movie - the ending. I think it's often a somewhat overlooked piece of genius. Whereas so many lesser action/horror movies follow the trope of ending the movie with the surviving hero firing off a one-liner, or the movie leaving us viewers with an obvious teaser for a potential sequel, Predator doesn't do that. The final shots of this movie are of Dutch being carried off in a rescue helicopter, staring into the distance as the reality of his men's deaths sets in. No more pithy one-liners. No hints of further "Predators" arising to seek revenge. Just the haunted stare of an elite soldier who has survived a horrific ordeal - one which has taken the lives of every one of his closest brothers-in-arms. It's rare that such an overtly "action" movie chooses to end on such an effectively somber note, but Predator pulls it off.

There is a very good reason that this single film spawned so many other stories, mainly in movies and comic books. In terms of the films, none of the five succeeding ones has come anywhere close to matching the muscled-up magic of the original.

Predator 2 (1990)

Director: Stephen Hopkins

A sequel that was rather disappointing when it was released, given how very different it was from its predecessor. It is one, however, that holds up fairly well.

Predator 2 completely shifted the setting from a tropical rainforest to a blisteringly hot Los Angeles in which a wildly violent gang war is taking place. This was the first jarring shift away from the memorably primitive setting of the original movie. Another is that, while a sequel, not a single character and only one brief reference is made to the horrors which Dutch and his men suffered in Predator. And the final large difference is simply the complexity of the plot, which includes more than the simple survival tale of the original film. Here you have a Dirty Harry-like cop, Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover), who catches the eye of a new "Predator" alien. The Predator, for whatever reason, decides to toy with Harrigan by following him around and gradually killing of members of his squad. Hovering around all of this is a shadowy government group who is interested in trapping the Predator, in order to study it and its amazingly advanced weapons technology.

While it never really comes close to the overall quality of the original, Predator 2 is a decent follow-up and a solid enough action movie. I admire the film-makers' willingness to completely change settings, and it was fun to dig a bit deeper into the culture of the Predator species. While the drug war plotline never gets terribly interesting, it serves well enough as a hotbed of action in which the Predator and Harrigan can play their cat-and-mouse game. The cast it also strong. Although Maria Conchita Alonso can overact and over-inflect quite a bit, Ruben Blades, Gary Busey, and Bill Paxton are all great. There are a few moments when the tone is just a tad off - basically when anyone not named Bill Paxton tries to be funny - but this was a decent entry into the series.

Though never noted as an "action star," per se, Danny Glover
actually plays the part of hard-charging super-cop Mike
Harrigan fairly well. His epic chase-down of the hunter
alien packs a solid amount of intensity to it.
I feel that one thing that weakens this movie is that a fair bit of the violence is purely gratuitous. Namely, some of the gang violence, especially the scene in which Jamaican gang members string up a rival and mercilessly thrust a massive knife into his chest. This scene also includes one of several clumsy attempts to emulate the memorable one-liners from the original film. The knife-wielding Jamaican in this scene, for no clear reason, utters the line, "Shit happens," with his thick accent. This becomes a line that the Predator alien utters later, much the same way that the alien utters "What the hell are you?" in the original movie. These were just two of several moments which seemed to be going for a little more shock value or "cool" factor than the original movie, which achieved its strength and coolness in a nearly effortless and organic manner. When Predator 2 tries, it comes off as cheap B-movie fare.

I wasn't able to find a final budget for this movie, but it made notably less that the original. This is why, I assume, the series was put to sleep for well over a decade.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

New Release! The Predator (2018) [No spoilers]

Director: Shane Black

Disappointing, but not as bad as the generally negative reviews might suggest.

Before getting to my thoughts on The Predator, a little background on me and the previous films (I'm currently writing up a longer post on the five previous Predator movies. Coming Soon.). I have a certain, almost irrational love for the original Predator from 1987. No, it's not high art. It's not even the best action movie one will ever see. But it is one of the leanest, most well-executed and uncluttered blends of sci-fi and action that has ever been put to film. It was also one of, if not the, best example of certain glorious excesses of muscled-up, macho films that were the hallmark of the 1980s. I still watch it every few years and greatly enjoy it every single time. The 1990 sequel starring Danny Glover was a dropoff but still an entertaining action flick. 2004's Aliens vs. Predator was a further step back, but has some worthy elements, while it's follow-up AVP: Requiem was one of the worst movies I've recently seen. Robert Rodriguez's stab at the franchise in 2010s Predators I found to be a highly derivative, strangely dull letdown, so I was not surprised that the franchise was deep-sixed for several years. It was also why I grew tremendously excited when, about three years ago, Shane Black's name was attached to direct a new Predator movie. Black is not only a great screen-writer and director, all of whose films I enjoy, but he co-wrote and was actually in the original Predator film. What could go wrong?

A few things, apparently.

Following the continuity of the previous Predator "solo" movies (and perhaps the first Aliens vs. Predator movie), The Predator follows U.S. Marine sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), who comes across an alien hunter, a "Predator," while on a mission in Central America. He manages to gather a few pieces of the alien's gear, evades a mysterious group who converges on the sight, and sends the gear home to his son and wife for safekeeping. Quinn is eventually picked up by his mysterious pursuers and sent to a compound back in the U.S. There, he is packed onto a bus with other mentally unstable, former servicemen. Before long, the Predator, who has also been imprisoned on the compound for study, escapes and starts wreaking havoc. Quinn and his new companions quickly band together, along with biologist Casey Brackett (Olivia Munn) in a race back to Quinn's son, to whom the Predator is now heading. Things escalate as we learn that the lone Predator is far from the only extraterrestrial with its eyes on earth.

The Predator is actually a moderately entertaining movie. Shane Black's trademark dialogue is present in many places, most notably the humorous banter between the main characters. And there's plenty of decent action, with a Predator running around causing all the carnage that one would ask of an intergalactic sport hunter. The action is never as captivating as the original film or the best parts of Predator 2, but it definitely showed more imagination and skill than any of the following movies in the series. I also have to give the movie credit for avoiding the primary mistake of Predators, which simply copied too many elements from the original. Most notably, the slow reveal of the Predator lost its effectiveness after the original film, so there is really no reason to tease the audience with it any more. The Predator doesn't waste our time with such a tease, but rather gets to the "Predator versus humans" action rather quickly. More quickly, in fact, than any other movie in the franchise. Sure, it does remind one of the brilliance of the original's slow burn, but that can never be recreated. I think Black was right to just get things going quickly.

But here is where the greatest problem lies. The plot is simply way too busy. This is a spoiler-free review, so I won't get into the details. Suffice it to say that I found there to be way too many plot threads to keep up with, creating a muddle. At first, it's all just a bit dizzying. Then, with time to think back on it, one recognizes more than a few loose elements and even outright holes in the plot. Thanks to a few other strengths, these issues don't completely kill the movie. They do, however, betray some lack of confidence in any sort of deeper tensions which could have been built through a simpler story and more measured pacing.

The crew of "troubled" veterans that throw in with Quinn and
Dr. Bracket to take on the latest visiting predator. The banter
between these misfits is what keeps the movie afloat at times.
I think one issue is that Shane Black's noir narrative sensibilities got in his way this time. Several of Black's films, most notably Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and The Nice Guys, make highly effective use of the laughably labyrinthine plots so wonderfully used by noir master novelists like James M. Cain and Dashielle Hammett, which were then effectively adapted into classic films like Double Indemnity and its ilk. And such narratives have fit Black's crime-focused movies to a tee. The problem here is that The Predator is not a crime story revolving around relatively realistic and grounded characters. The strength of this franchise's best films has been a fairly straightforward struggle between small groups of badass human fighters and a badass alien hunter that wants to kill them for sport. When it's been done correctly (again, most obviously in the original film), it's a blast. When the plot starts to get overly clever and complex, it just muddies the waters and robs the movie of potential thrills and suspense. The original Predator did have a bit of a story beyond the pursuit of Dutch's men by the Predator, but it was all introduced and effectively reconciled by the beginning of the second act. In The Predator, new plot twists and complications are still being introduced right up into and through the final ten minutes of the movie. Instead of just letting us sit back and take in some solid action and fun banter, the movie keeps raising and dealing with endless questions that it never really needed to raise in the first place.

Would I watch this movie again? Yes. And this is something I can't really say for Predators, which I hadn't watched since I saw it upon its release in 2010, and only rewatched for the purposes of doing a post on the entire film franchise. While I would love to one day see another Predator movie that can recapture a bit more of the magic of the original, I know that this is a very tall order. In fact, the tease of a sequel at the end of this movie left me thoroughly uninterested in the implied premise. In the meantime, an entry like The Predator is a decent placeholder. I was hoping for a bit more from Shane Black, whom I hold in rather high esteem, but perhaps I simply need to accept that the original movie has left shoes that are too large for even a skilled writer/director to fill. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

New Release! Juliet, Naked (2018) [No spoilers]

No Spoilers! Read Away!!

Director: Jesse Peretz

Another well-done and more unique rom-com based on a novel by British writer Nick Hornby.

Juliet, Naked focuses on Annie Platt (Rose Byrne), a semi-reluctant museum curator in a small town on the coast of England. Annie's longtime boyfriend Duncan (Chris O'Dowd) is an local college professor who has a strong obsession with obscure 1990s rock musician Tucker Crowe. Crowe had one particularly critical hit album 25 years prior but vanished into obscurity for unknown reasons. Duncan is part of a small group of obsessive fans who pore over the minutiae of Tucker's life and rather small body of musical work with almost every spare moment. After a previously-unheard demo copy of Tucker's hit album mysteriously appears, Rose accidentally finds herself in contact with Crowe himself (Ethan Hawke). This forces her to begin rethinking her own life, from her relationship with Duncan to her job and continuing to live in her sleepy hometown.

I'm not a particular fan of romantic comedies, but I can enjoy ones that don't fall into the sappier tropes of the genre. Fortunately, Juliet, Naked avoids nearly all of them. There are certainly a few familiar elements to fans of rom-coms: a woman dissatisfied with her love life. A connection with a new man that forces her to reexamine her own life. Cute and humorously awkward moments. This movie contains all of those. Where it exceeds most of its brethren is in the execution, which is pleasantly organic and genuinely funny most of the time. I truly knew nothing about the plot going into this movie, so I can't speak to how someone might feel if they've read Nick Hornby's novel first, but the movie went in a few directions which I honestly didn't see coming. Though it didn't take any massive risks with the ending, it also avoided many of the tropes and familiar beats popularized by earlier romantic comedies.

A big reason the movie rises above other rom-coms is that it does focus on slightly older people. Crazy Rich Asians, as different as it was in many ways, still focused on a woman in her late-twenties/early thirties and just on the cusp of taking the first big step of getting engaged. Juliet, Naked looks at a woman and peers who are further along in life. Annie is much closer to forty and has been in a relationship so settled that she's barely noticed how stale it's become. The "new man" in her life, Tucker, is not some dashing knight in shining armor but rather a faded musician who clearly has serious problems with relationships, and not just with women. He also has multiple children from multiple mothers, each of whom he has complicated histories with. And for most of the movie, it's not even clear if Annie looks at Tucker as a potential love interest, but perhaps simply as an unexpected sympathetic ear - the stranger to whom she feels comfortable airing her discontent with her life. It all makes for a story that is a bit tougher to predict.

In quite a turn from his role in the hard-hitting First Reformed,
Ethan Hawke expertly plays the overly laid back, messy former
star musician Tucker Crowe. His emergence into Annie's (left)
life sends them both into reexamining their lives.
The movie also uses as one of its themes a topic that Hornby has always incorporated well in many of his stories - the topic of obsessions. Whether obsessions with music in High Fidelity, with a sports team in Fever Pitch, and now with a particular musician in Juliet, Naked, it is a subject that has stronger and stronger resonance in a time when the pool of information at our disposal deepens and creates the potential to drown in our own recreational hobbies. This movie runs with the amusing question, "What if the object of one's unhealthy obsession quite literally shows up on their doorstep?"

The cast helps things immensely. The three main actors, Byrne, O'Dowd, and Hawke, couldn't have been cast more perfectly. All three - especially Byrne and O'Dowd - have serious comedic chops to go along with their solid acting skills, which the script demands. They feel very much as authentic as such characters can, and the little seaside town is a perfectly quaint setting for such a tale.

My wife and I saw this movie only a few days after this summer's monster rom-com hit Crazy Rich Asians. I certainly enjoyed that movie, but I honestly thought Juliet, Naked to be an overall more touching and consistently strong film. This is likely because its characters are much closer to my own age in my early forties, versus the relative freshness and youth of Crazy Rich Asians. For anyone who likes the genre but wasn't aware of this under-the-radar gem, I highly recommend it. 

Saturday, September 29, 2018

New Release! Crazy Rich Asians [No spoilers]

No Spoilers (for what that's worth on a rom-com review)

Director: Jon M. Chu

A solid rom-com, though one that does the "rom" far better than the "com."

Based on the novel of the same name by Singaporean-American Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians offers the familiar romantic comedy formula presented with the welcome change of focusing completely on Asian characters and in the setting of Singapore. It follows Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American professor of game theory who decides to join her boyfriend of several years, Nick Young (Henry Golding), for a family wedding in Nick's native Singapore. While Rachel has been seeing Nick for a while, and the two clearly love each other, what Rachel doesn't know is that Nick is from a long-established Singaporean family of fabulous financial resources. After arriving in Singapore, Rachel begins to realize that Nick is viewed there in much the same way that an unmarried prince would be in an incredibly wealthy monarchy: as the heir apparent by his family members and as the hands-down most eligible bachelor in the entire country and beyond. This fact thrusts Rachel into a world of opulence but also rather treacherous machinations on the parts of family members wary of outsiders, as well as of highly jealous bachelorettes with their own eyes on Nick.

In several ways, Crazy Rich Asians is refreshing. One is simply the fact that the characters and settings are Asian. While the broad strokes of many romantic comedies are there - the search for a fairy tale marriage; the tension between the young woman and the man's friends, family, etc.; the fish-out-of-water theme - the details make everything feel much more unique. And the Asian aspects go beyond the surface. The story does dig a bit into the cultural and historical aspects of East and Southeast Asian peoples and how those rich social networks affect Rachel and Nick. The dazzling settings in Singapore are also a nice break from the oh-so-familiar big city settings of western rom-coms, usually New York, L.A., London, or Paris.

In terms of characters, the movie does well with the primary players. Rachel and Nick are more than just a couple of pretty faces wrapped around thinly-developed characters. It's not hard to see the struggles they're dealing with, the tensions feel fairly organic, and they are conveyed well by actors Wu and Golding. Perhaps even more notable, though, is the performance of Michelle Yeoh as Nick's mother, Eleanor. Eleanor is the current and stern matriarch of the vast Young business empire, and Yeoh plays her with intimidating strength. Hers is the deepest and most complex character in the film, and it is through her that the most engaging issues and tensions emanate, and the most memorable scenes nearly all involve the gravitas of Yeoh's performance.

Michelle Yeoh as the imposing Eleanor Young. Hers is
probably the most unique and compelling character in the
film, with a welcome depth for rom-com movies.
While the movie is certainly a wonderful new entry into the canon of great rom-coms, there were several weaknesses that I couldn't help but notice. Perhaps the most disappointing was that I didn't find it overly funny. Yes, there are some good laughs provided by the "quirky friends" (a standard archetype in rom-coms) played by Awkwafina and Nico Santos. But there were far more moments where you could tell that the movie was trying to be funny but simply fell flat. Most notable to me was the use of Jimmy O. Yang - typically a very funny person - as the stereotypically self-absorbed, hedonistic playboy cousin, Bernard. I've enjoyed Yang in shows in the past, but the writing for his character in this movie was just the most obvious one of several stabs at humor which just didn't land for me.

I must also admit that, like some other rom-coms, there is a general, broader focus on the ultra-wealthy that I can only be so interested in. It's also why I have never enjoyed the vast majority of classic "screwball comedies" from the 1930s and 1940s. I understand that setting these stories in lavish homes, gardens, and parties is part of the entire "Fantasyland" appeal of such movies, but I can't help but be constantly reminded that disgusting wealth is just that - disgusting in certain ways. When I think just a little bit about the wealth discrepancies in the world, I can only get so empathetic over the plight of someone like Nick Young, whose primary dilemma is between marrying the brilliant young woman he loves and taking over the multi-billion dollar family business - a business which has clearly funded more than a few family members' basest and least-admirable qualities. I know, I know - "It's a rom-com, man. Lighten up!" I try, but it can only go so far. For me to completely detach from reality like that, I need the fantasy elements to be a bit more, well, fantastic. This is probably why I enjoy well-done superhero and high fantasy movies so much. They offer a purer form of escapism for me than romantic comedies do.

Crazy Rich Asians has, I feel, been a bit overhyped, but for good reasons. The freshness of the all-Asian production make it well worth the attention its received, and it is certainly a rom-com worth watching. Just don't expect it to nail all aspects of the genre quite as well as some of its predecessors.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

New Release! Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) [No spoilers]

Spoiler-Free Review - Read On!

Director: J.A. Bayona

A surprisingly grim, dark entry into the typically fun "Jurassic" film series, this movie didn't completely seem to know what to do with itself.

I'll admit right off that I'm not a particular fan of dinosaur flicks. Sure, I was dazzled by the original Jurassic Park back when I saw it as a 17-year old in 1993. The effects were amazing, and it was vintage "fun" Steven Spielberg fare, with a great cast and perfect balance between tension and humor. But I never felt any great allegiance to the series itself. If I ever saw the sequel, I can't recall it. And I'm quite sure that I never saw the third film. Still, when my family wanted to check out the revival movie Jurassic World a few years ago, I joined in. I found that movie fairly fun, but ultimately I thought it devolved into a CGI scramble resembling a lame shooter video game during most of the third act. When I saw trailers for its follow up, Fallen Kingdom, I had little interest, which waned even further when I saw the tepid reviews flow in. My instincts were correct.

Picking up in "real time," three years after the disastrous events depicted in the previous movie, the island home to the now-free dinosaurs is about to literally explode into a volcanic inferno. The lone surviving person who had a hand in creating the original Jurassic Park is attempting to spearhead an illegal rescue operation which will bring as many of the dinosaurs as possible to a new, safe island preserve. To do so, his estate enlists Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) to aide by bringing in former raptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to the island during the extraction. The two go along, but things soon turn both highly dangerous and very sinister. The island's volcano begins erupting not long after Claire and Owen's arrivals, and it also becomes clear that the military units ostensibly sent to rescue the dinos are really there to bring them back to the mainland to be sold as commodities to the highest bidders.

One of a few lazy story elements, the introduction of a "newer,
even scarier" dinosaur - the "Indoraptor." And there are Pratt
and Howard, taking part in the horror movie that the film
becomes for its entire third act.
This movie was simply very little fun to watch, and this is the one thing I hope to get when seeing a dinosaur movie. It's what the original film gave us all, and any subsequent movies in the series are foolish to think that they can do otherwise. There is a little bit of banter that Chris Pratt's expert comic chops help to sell, but these are very few and far between. No, instead, this movie features a lot of genuinely upsetting moments. Dinosaurs drowning to death. More dinosaurs getting roasted alive by lava. The surviving dinosaurs getting tortured and carted off to be sold. Those dinosaurs being further tortured, and then nearly gassed to death. There is a lot of animal pain and suffering on display in this movie, and it's simply unpleasant to watch. I can only imagine how upset I would have been had I been a young child, thinking I was going to see a followup to Jurassic World, the previous movie which had much of the fun of the original film. It's as if the filmmakers had actually wanted to do a documentary warning us against animal cruelty, but decided to fold the message into a Steven Spielberg franchise.

As if the tone of the movie weren't dark enough, much of the film is visually very dark. Aside from roughly 30 minutes on the island, the movie takes place at night, in the rain, and in a dark, imposing mansion. It truly is more of a suspense/horror movie for much of its length, rather than the action/adventure films that all of the previous entries have been. On top of that, Fallen Kingdom takes a stab at some profound commentary about man meddling with nature. To do so, the filmmakers decided to bring back Jeff Goldblum's highly memorable Dr. Ian Malcolm, but merely as a bookend to highlight the unoriginal idea that "if man meddles, he should be ready to face the consequences." And the consequences in this movie have rather dire implications.

The follow-up movie is already in the works, and Fallen Kingdom sets it up in rather grim fashion. I was happy to take one for the team and join some of my family for this last one, but I'll be skipping out on this franchise's next adventure.