Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

OSCARS 2016: Brooklyn (2015)

I like to say the Academy Awards are incredibly predictable. I’m not the only one. While you can usually figure out what films will be nominated for Best Picture, AMPAS sometimes slip something in there that you don’t expect. In 2016, “Brooklyn” managed to secure a Best Picture nomination. While Saoirse Ronan had received praise for her lead performance, with a nomination being considered likely, the film’s Best Picture nod was a total surprise. “Brooklyn” doesn’t tackle an important social issue and isn’t an astonishing technical achievement. It is, however, a handsome and touching picture, beautifully shot and fantastically acted.

The year is 1952. Good work is hard to come by in the Irish town of Enniscorthy. Eilis lives with her mother and older sister, Rose. On the other side of the ocean, in America, board and work have been set up for Eilis. She leaves home somewhat reluctantly, traveling across the globe, to Brooklyn, New York. Eilis goes to night school and makes friends with the other girls in her boardinghouse but misses home. Until she meets Tony, a kind Italian boy who quickly wins her heart. Soon, the two are married and planning a future together. However, a tragedy back home forces Eilis to choose between her old life in Ireland and her new one in Brooklyn.

Saoirse Ronan, since her breakout role in “Atonement,” has forged a path for herself as one of the most interesting young actresses in the industry. The occasional bid for franchise super stardom aside, Ronan has already been in a lot of pretty good movies at only 26 years old. “Brooklyn” is primarily built upon Saoirse’s strengths as an actress. Those piercing eyes and that enchanting accent establish Ronan’s Eilis as something like an innocent. “Brooklyn” resembles a coming-of-age story, Eilis coming into adulthood on her own terms. “Brooklyn” is an immigrant story but not the one of struggle and difficulty we’re perhaps used to seeing. Things actually work out really well for Eilis. She has a place to live, a decent job, education, friends, and eventually a loved one. The only real struggle she experiences is some food poisoning on the boat ride over. Instead, the film is about Eilis making a life for herself. Ronan is always one-hundred percent captivating, with an irrepressible screen presence and an incredible energy.

“Brooklyn” is also a love story. When Emory Cohen’s Tony first enters the picture, we don’t know what to make of him. He approaches Eilis in a dance hall, admits to having a preference for Irish girls, and cuts the figure of an incredibly common man. Cohen doesn’t give an incredible performance and the chemistry he shares with Ronan is more sweet than mind-blowing. The romance is “Brooklyn” is… Really nice. The scene of Eilis meeting Tony’s family are funny. A moment where her boss tells Eilis that an Italian boy that isn’t obsessed with his mother or baseball is a keeper is similarly charming. It’s not a whirlwind romance or an incredibly intense love story. Tony seeing Eilis in her bathing suit for the first time or the consummation of the relationship on their wedding night are realistically charming, passionate without being overdone. We see two normal, nice people meeting each other, both having an appreciation for the other, their romance developing through a mutual attraction. It’s the kind of naturalistic romance that is rarely given room to breath in movies.

“Brooklyn” isn’t just the story of a girl traveling to a new land and finding love. In the second half, Eilis is called back to Ireland, choosing to keep her marriage to Tony a secret from her family. She stays for a friend’s wedding, later in the month. During that time, everyone acts as if the girl has come back to stay. Her mother sets her up with a new job in a salary office. Soon, she’s set up with Jim, a handsome young lad that clearly cares about her. The film’s gorgeous cinematography makes Ireland seem like a beautiful, almost otherworldly land. Eilis has to make the choice between the life she’s made for herself and the life she was given. How decides what to choose is as heavy as “Brooklyn” gets.

“Brooklyn” probably isn’t the most conceptually complex or narratively weighty film you’re likely to see this Oscar season. However, it is an incredibly charming, gorgeously shot, finely acted, and incredibly pleasing film. If nothing else, it’s appointment viewing for Saoirse Ronan fans. Wedged between the other heavy dramas nominated for Best Picture, “Brooklyn” comes off even better, a movie with simple goals that it more than exceeds. [8/10]

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

OSCARS 2016: 45 Years (2015)

The Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences loves old people. Usually every award season brings a film about an elderly couple or person, struggling with the ravages of age. In the lead-up to the nominations announcement, it’s rare that this style of film receives much press. More often than not, such a movie scores a surprise nod in the acting categories. “Away from Her” and “Amour” are kind of recent examples. The token old folks film of 2016 is “45 Years.” Despite good reviews, there was little press behind the picture. That is until Charlotte Rampling earned a nomination for Best Actress.

Kate and Geoff have been happily married for forty-five years. Without children, they live a quiet existence on a spacious country home. The weeks leading up to their anniversary party is interrupted when Geoff receives startling news. Fifty years ago, before he even met Kate, a girlfriend of his died in a mountain climbing accident. Now, decades later, the police have recovered her body. Thinking about the life Geoff had before their relationship causes jealousy and insecurity to squirm inside Kate’s mind.

The opening scenes of “45 Years” are comfortable and lived in. Kate walks their dog, preparing meals, and listen to music while Geoff usually slips into a peaceful nap. One night has the couple dancing and reminiscing, leading to a brief attempt to make love. There’s a very natural, almost voyeuristic quality to these scenes. The tone is quiet, with sparse use of music. However, “45 Years” is not just about the settled, happy years of a long marriage. Instead, the film is equally about the sacrifices and compromises made during such a long relationship. As envy begins to affect the wife’s feelings towards her own husband, we see that co-inhabiting with someone for that long doesn’t come without its costs.

Mostly, “45 Years” is a showcase for Charlotte Rampling. Tom Courtenay is very good as Geoff yet the story is about Kate. Rampling does not do the kind of big showy acting favored by the Academy. Instead, she’s frequently silent. Acting primarily with her face and hushed whispers, Rampling speaks volumes with simple gestures or expressions. A moment, when studying Geoff’s photos of the dead girl, is almost unbearably sad. As she clicks through the slides, a deeper sense of sadness overtakes both Rampling and the audience.When quietly commenting on the long pass ex-girlfriend, from the comfort of a bed, Rampling’s abilities touch the audience even more. Charlotte Rampling’s challenging, powerful performance is a strong foundation to build this quietly effecting drama upon.

As the story progresses, an understated tension builds. The film emphasizes this by marking the passing of each day, announcing the day of the week with white-on-black titles. As the date of the party approaches, “45 Years” seems to be approaching a seriously dramatic event. Kate becomes less and less willing to shoulder the tension of her relationship. This is especially evident during a scene where Geoff rants about his old job, Kate silently – but just barely – swallowing her feelings. However, “45 Years” doesn’t end with a melodramatic explosion of emotion. Because real life rarely works that way. Instead, secret feelings slowly boil over, resentment and jealous swallowed in the name of politeness and love.

Despite obviously appealing to the AMPAS’ old person fetish, “45 Years” is not the kind of big, showy, Important with a Capital I filmmaking that usually excites the Academy. Instead, the film worms under the audience’s skin with a clear understanding of human emotion, effecting direction, and a wonderful central performance. It’s under two hours long too, so it doesn’t linger. Instead, it hits like a silent bomb. [8/10]

Monday, February 8, 2016

OSCARS 2016: Room (2015)

Room” is the little movie that could at the Oscars this year. A small independent production lacking any major stars, a bevy of rave reviews and incredible hype for Brie Larson has lead it to a number of nominations in major categories. On one hand, it’s always fun when a smaller picture receives major attention. On the other hand, the cynic in me wants to declare movies like this as the Token Indie Film at the Oscars, manipulative and maudlin. “Room” is even based on horrifying real life crimes and a best-selling book, setting up certain expectations. I can’t do that this time. “Room” made me cry like a baby and is a powerful, beautifully executed picture. 

Ma and Jack live in Room. The two live in a small shed, with a rickety fridge, a static-y television, and a cabinet as its only amenities. Seven years ago, Ma – whose real name is Joy – was abducted by an older man, who has been keeping the girl as a sex slave. Jack, her five year old son, is the result of these assaults. In order to save Jack’s sanity, Joy has taught the boy that the shed they inhabit is the only place that exists in the world. Not long after the boy’s birthday, Joy devises a plan that allows them to finally escape the ugly situation. As challenging as that is, re-entering the real world proves even more difficult.

“Room” is obviously inspired by real life abductions like the Ariel Castro case, the kidnapping of Jaycee Lee Dugard, or the Fritzl incident. (Emma Donoghue, the author of the original book and the screenwriter of the adaption, cites the latter as a direct inspiration.) Most films about such a story probably would have focused on the horrors of the situation. “Room” sidelines the exploitation and terror. Joy’s repeated rapes by Nick occur off-screen. We only see the aftermath of the hideous abuse, such as her teeth falling out or bruises around her face. Ultimately, “Room” is not about how awful Joy and Jack’s situation is. Instead, it’s a story about reintegrating into the world, surviving the trauma of such an ordeal. Not that “Room” ignores the abuse. The first half of the film seems all too plausible, as stomach-churning as the best horror movie. As Jack attempts to escape, the audience is fully immersed in the film, on the edge of their seat with suspense.

Though Brie Larson has (rightfully) received praise for his performance as Ma, Jack is actually the lead character in “Room.” His narration often greets the audience, describing the world of Room in unique, initially confusing terms. As he escapes the tiny shed, he begins to describe the outside world in equally broad, undefined ways. More than once, Jack asks his mother if they can return to Room, to the only life and home he’s known up to this point. These are bracing moments, the boy forcing his mother to think about the hellish situation she’s just escaped. Watching Jack discovering the joys of a normal life, playing with a neighbor’s kid or the dog he’s wanted for so long, is incredibly touching and powerful. Jacob Tremblay is a revelation in the part, riveting and totally compelling.

Joy, or Ma, has a hard road to travel. Brie Larson is in the difficult situation of playing a woman who has to present one face to her son while feeling something entirely different inside. She struggles to keep the boy happy, healthy, and occupied, doing everything she can to hide the ugly truth from her son. Once outside, Joy finds it difficult to re-adapt. The constant media attention is hard to weather. An interview with a reporter, who seemingly asks the most painful questions, induces some squirms in the audience. Her own mother’s attempt to normalize the girl upsets her. Moreover, Joy wonders if she’s done the right things as a mother. Larson is impressive, giving a multifaceted performance, struggling in ways both visible and unseen.

Director Lenny Abrahamson most prominent previous credit is “Frank,” a surreal comedy very different than “Room.” Sometimes, Abrahamson’s commitment to keeping the story grounded and gritty leads to some overdone direction. There’s a handful of moments where the camera shakes and shutters. However, Abrahamson cleverly utilizes different lens and angles, making small spaces look bigger and bigger spaces look smaller. Room becomes an inhabitable world for Jack while the outside world becomes more prison-like for Ma. These same techniques often make a real truck look like a toy, projecting its young protagonist’s child-like world view. Abrahamson also frequently shoots from a low angle, reflecting a little boy’s perspective of the world. The use of color, where bright clothing or objects stand against desaturated backgrounds, also reproduces a child’s viewpoint. While I’m not a fan of every decision he made, Abrahamson definitely creates an impressive visual world with “Room.”

A sharp supporting cast includes Joan Allen and William H. Macy, as Joy’s put-upon parents. “Room” is powerful, showing the struggles and pain of people surviving a torturous scenario. It made me cry a bunch of times. It also creates a sense of catharsis in the end, Yet the film isn’t manipulative or cheesy. Instead, it mines honest emotion and strong performances to tell a potent story you’re unlikely to forget. [9/10]

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

OSCARS 2016: Spotlight (2015)

When the Oscar race was just getting started, many picked “Spotlight” has the early front-runner for Best Picture. An intimately shot drama about an important issue seemed right up the Academy’s alley. “Spotlight” has continued to pick up some big awards but faces stiff competition. But let’s step away from Oscar hype for a second and ask the least important question: Is the movie actually good? Does it address the heavy issues at the center of film with dignity but realism? Is it a stiff bit of Award-hungry flotsam or an actually riveting drama?

In early 2001, the Boston Globe received a new editor. He encourages the Spotlight team, the investigative journalists within the paper, to explore local issues important to the city. The team is encouraged to investigate reports that the local Catholic Church knew pedophile priests were molesting kids and covered it up, doing little to stop the abuse. The deeper the team digs, the more they discover. Soon, the paper is sitting atop a massive conspiracy, involving over seventy priests and hundreds of potential victims.

Many Issues Movies, in my opinion, are too distant from the subject they’re covering. “Spotlight” certainly looks like it’s going in this direction. Journalists investigating events that happened years ago wouldn’t seem to present many visceral opportunities. However, several key moments in “Spotlight” get to the heart of the issue. Several bracing interviews occur. A gay man explains how being molested disturbed his sexual development. That scene begins in a restaurant before the two exits, not feeling comfortable giving such personal details in a public place. The victims discuss the details of the abuse frankly, to disturbing effect. Later, the same reporter goes to a former priest’s door, asking him bluntly if he ever molested anyone. He flatly admits he did. At one point, one of the investigators realizes a “recovery center” for pedophilic priests is just down the street from his home. This prompts him to pin a photo of the home on his refrigerator door, telling his kids to never approach the house. “Spotlight” makes it all too clear what was at stake. That real people were damaged by a conspiracy of silence that went on for decades.

“Spotlight” is truly an ensemble film. The film draws upon an excellent collection of actors. Mark Ruffalo, nominated for Best Supporting Actor despite being a lead, starts off as a really chill guy. He runs to work and approaches most everything with a laid-back perspective. As the characters explore the case more, he grows increasingly more disturbed by what’s happening. A stand-out moment of acting involves Ruffalo loosing his cool, yelling at his editor in rage. Rachel McAdams mostly acts with her face, reacting silently if shocked to the confessions around her. Brian d’Arcy James is probably my favorite of the main cast, the one who reacts most violently to what’s happening. Michael Keaton, as the head editor, has the hard decision of delaying the publication of the story several times, always after a bigger reveal. Stanly Tucci is also great as the put-upon lawyer, handling the abuse cases as they arrive.

“Spotlight” has been described as a mystery, wrapping its socially conscious story in a recognizable genre package. The film does, indeed, feature its characters hunting down clues and leads. An especially effective moment involves the reporters uncovering church records, digging through each book for priests on “sick leave” or some other code word. Many scenes are devoted to characters discussing important documents, either available for the public or suppressed by the church. However, to frame “Spotlight’ as a mystery undermines what the story is doing. There’s no clean answers, no single suspect to pin the crime on. Instead, “Spotlight” ends with a list of hundreds of real locations where abuse was reported. The damage has been done and all we can do now is tell the truth.

A sparse, piano-driven score by Howard Shore and overly clean but often lyrical direction from Tom McCarthy further seals “Spotlight.” The film isn’t without some hiccups. Liev Schreiber is underutilized as the milquetoast new editor. The film incorporates the September 11th attacks somewhat awkwardly. Still, “Spotlight” features some powerful writing and some very strong performances, an expertly executed drama about an all too raw issue. [8/10]

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

OSCARS 2016: The Revenant (2015)

Last year, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu won Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscar’s with “Birdman,” a pretentious piece of self-satisfied claptrap about how much superhero movies suck and how evil critics are or something. For his follow-up, Inarritu decided to go even bigger. “The Revenant,” based on a novel which was itself loosely based on a real person, had a protracted, difficult production. Actors suffered in below zero temperatures, Tom Hardy had to turn down other jobs because the shoot went over-schedule, and Leonardo DiCaprio ate a raw bison liver. Meanwhile, Inarritu was always free to make pretentious statements to the press. Typically, the final film impressed the Academy, earning a crap ton of nominations. Having seen the film now, I can say that, at least, it’s less up its own ass than “Birdman” was.

The year is 1823. A group of fur trappers are beset by hostile Indians. Hugh Glass, an experienced tracker with a half-Indian son, butts heads with John Fitzgerald, a survivor of scalping. Glass is brutally attacked by a bear, left near death. The trapper party head back towards fort, dragging Glass unconscious body behind them. Slowing the party down, three men are assigned to stay behind and guard Glass. Fitzgerald uses this oppretunity to murder Glass’ son and bury Glass alive. Soon, Hugh drags himself from his grave and begins a long journey towards revenge.

Most of the press around “The Revenant” has focused on the bear attack, thanks to a really stupid rumor from a typically uninformed asshole. Truthfully, that bear attack sequence is impressive. Inarritu continues to favor long shots. Such a technique is utilized during the ursine mauling. The sequence is effectively drawn out. Just when you think the mama bear is down clawing the shit out of Leo, it comes back for more. Truthfully, “The Revenant” could’ve been subtitled “Everything Wants to Kill Leo.” He’s tossed around by a river in snowy weather. Indians fire arrows at him. He gets shot at. He rides his horse off a cliff. “The Revenant” is focused on being the most brutal survival story possible. We see Leo pull his horse’s entrails at before he climbs inside. He’s near death for most of the film.

Despite all these bells and whistles, “The Revenant” is ultimately a revenge story. The film is more than willing to trade in stereotypes. Glass’ wife was an Indian, his son is half-Indian, and a kindly native helps him survive. On the other hand, Native Americans are portrayed as bow wielding savages, who scalp and murder most anyone they encounter. The wife and boy, meanwhile, exist only to die, to invoke rage in the main character. The most clichéd element of the film is Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald. Hardy, sporting another ridiculous accent, plays the part as an undefined bad guy. He is racist against American Indians, so he naturally hates Glass and his boy. He is obsessed with being paid, being characterized as greedy. He’s careless too, telling his traveling companion inconsistent lies. The character is introduced urinating in an open field, just so you get that he’s crude and common. He’s not a real person but a plot device.

“The Revenant” is a well executed film. The cinematography is beautiful. Inarritu’s frenzied camera movements keeps the tension up. The finale confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald is well done, the two men hacking at each other, using every weapon at their disposal. The score is lovely as well. Yet for all the care put into “The Revenant,” I can’t say I cared any about the characters. DiCaprio squirms on the ground, growls through a torn larynx, and stares ahead with intensity. Yet Hugh Glass lacks an inner life. Hardy’s part is so thinly written, and his performance is so broad, that Fitzgerald never emerges as believable. The supporting cast exist just to move the story along. “The Revenant” is less grandiose than “Birdman” but it has a similar problem: The characters are shallow, embodied not with personality but simplistic themes.

Because this is an Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu movie, “The Revenant” has some inevitable pretensions. Glass is attacked by the bear because he got too close to its cubs. Glass pursues Fitzgerald because he murdered his son. If the audience didn’t get the parallel, Glass spends the entire film wrapped in the bear’s skin. Yet Leo kills the bear and accidentally provoke the mother, meaning the parallels between the two are meaningless. Whenever Glass sleeps, he has symbolism-laden dreams about his wife and son. These scenes are here to puff up the movie’s importance but contribute nothing to the story. After the suitable intense confrontation between the hero and villain, fate steps in to provide a groan-worthy ironic end to Fitzgerald. It’s all so much smoke up your ass.

It’s a shame too. When focused on visceral violence and bravo filmmaking, “The Revenant” totally works. There are bracing, intense sequence contained within this film. If nothing else, the movie is beautifully assembled. As a whole, it doesn’t hold together. The characters are too thin, the script too self-important. While you’re likely to be wrapped in it during the initial viewing, thinking about it afterwards reveals some issues. In other words, Inarritu has made another movie that is more surface than substance. [6/10]

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Recent Watches: A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

John McClane, as the title indicates, just won’t die. A fifth “Die Hard” movie had been bandied about after the fourth one proved surprisingly decent. Another six years would pass before the latest entry in the long-running franchise would premiere. “A Good Day to Die Hard” – because of course it was called that – was dropped in the unassuming month of February. Even the lesser “Die Hard” sequels managed to be entertaining. The fifth film, however, received an acidic reaction from both critics and fans. After twenty years, it seemed John McClane had finally run out of fuel.

John McClane has gotten some bad news. His son is in trouble over in Russia. He flies over to rescue his boy. Jack McClane is testifying against Yuri Komarov, a political prisoner. On the way to the trial, a hit squad appears to take Jack and Yuri out. Luckily, John arrives to help his son out. He soon learns that Jack is actually a CIA agent, a government spy. The McClanes and Yuri go in search of a file that will incriminate Komarov’s assassins, who work for a government official who profited off the Chernobyl incident. None of the Russians are who they appear to be. Betrayals and double-crosses ensue. Jack and John are along for the ride.

“A Good Day to Die Hard” was directed by John Moore, the same man who gifted the world with such lauded classics of cinema like “Behind Enemy Lines,” “Max Payne,” and the remakes of “The Omen” and “Flight of the Phoenix.” Moore is no John McTiernan. He’s not even Renny Harlin. “A Good Day to Die Hard” is shot through a sickly green filter, providing an overcast, dreary tone. During the action scenes, the film becomes shaky and incoherent. When the camera isn't jittering wildly, it falls into dull shots of muzzle flash and people falling down. “Live Free or Die Hard” pushed the action to difficult-to-believe heights. The fifth film goes even further. An extended car chase has multiple vehicles flipping through the air, cars driving over other cars, and much shattering stone. In the last act, John dangles from a truck dangling from a helicopter. CGI is abused in many of these sequences. The action in “A Good Day to Die Hard” is somehow both ridiculously overblown and utterly generic. All the R-rated bullet wounds in the world couldn’t make up for that.

Another problem I had with the fourth “Die Hard” flick was how it made John McClane into an inhuman superhero. The bloodied feet and broken bones of previous films were nowhere to be seen. But at least part four acknowledged that John had once been human. The fifth film treats John like a generic action hero. He leaps through a glass window, unaffected. He then falls through several awnings, wooden platforms, and plastic tubing. Near the end, he’s tossed through another window, drops through concrete floors, and lands in a pool. Wait, isn’t shattered glass the shit that crippled John in the first movie? Usually, Bruce Willis’ charm and sarcasm makes up for this problem. Unfortunately, “A Good Day to Die Hard” was made knee-deep in Willis’ “not giving a shit” period. The film drills its lame excuse for a one-liner, “I’m on vacation!,” into the ground. Bruce winces and smirks but there’s no life behind his eyes. He’s as bored as the audience is.

Also boring: Jai Courtney! The Australian hunk of meat keeps getting cast in high profile action movie, despite having all the charisma of a dead panda bear. Before he put viewers to sleep in “Terminator Genesys,” he lulled us into a peaceful slumber as John McClane’s son. Courtney’s face seems unable to emote. He reads all his dialogue in the same flat, slightly irritated tenor. As an action star, Jai utterly lacks screen presence. Script wise, the film tries to sell the angst between McClanes Senior and Junior. John regrets not being there for Jack, the boy listening from around a corner. Later, they chat while driving towards Chernobyl. By the end, Jack happily accepts John as his father. Moreover, he accepts his family heritage of ass-kicking. It’s cliché, dour stuff. In a better film, even with a better actor, this should’ve been the story’s emotional heart. In “A Good Day to Die Hard,” it’s another lame attempt to heat up lukewarm material. (The far more likable McClane off-spring, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Lucy, is reduced to a cameo in the theatrical release and cut out entirely in the extended version.)

The fifth film really puts things in prospective. As underwhelming as Timothy Olyphant’s bad guy was in “Live Free or Die Hard,” the villains in “A Good Day to Die Hard” are totally forgettable. Most of them are generic dudes in suits. One of the henchman dances a little, and complains about Americans, but that’s the extend of his personality. The audience cares so little that, when Yuri’s betrayal comes, it barely registers. Who is the corrupt government official behind all this? Who cares! About the only bad guy that registers at all is Yuliya Snigir, as the unhinged daughter. And that’s probably just because I have thing for Eastern European women. The enemy’s plot is convoluted and uninteresting. Something about stolen plutonium... There’s a last minute attempt to spin the motivation towards greed – the same thing that motivated all previous “Die Hard” baddies – but it’s half-assed. Like everything else in the movie.

The movie looks like crap. None of the actors are engaged. The script is tedious. The action is badly framed and lifeless. The adversaries are completely forgettable. “A Good Day to Die Hard” is such a stunning achievement in mediocrity that it made me actively angry. Though flopping domestically, the sequel cleaned up internationally. Despite initial reports that the sixth and potentially final movie would be (awesomely) entitled “Die Hardest,” it’ll actually be a prequel called “Die Hard: Year One.” There’s no way it could possibly be lamer than this, right? Right? [4/10]

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Recent Watches: Predators (2010)

When “Predators” came out in 2010, I was surprisingly hyped for it. If you ignore the cross-over flicks, it had been two whole decades since we had a real “Predator” sequel. Producer Robert Rodriguez promised to make a worthy sequel that took the series in a new direction and expanded on the mythology in interesting ways. An up-and-coming director, Nimrod Antal, was hooked into directing and a worthy cast was assembled. When the movie came out, I even got a bunch of my nerdy high school friends together to see it. I walked out disappointed, maybe because I was putting too many expectations on what was meant to be a modest creature thriller.

A group of killers awaken in free-fall, tumbling towards a jungle. As the mixture of soldiers, mercenaries, criminals, enforcers, and one seemingly normal man get to know each other, they realize what’s going on. They are on an alien world. They are being tracked by unseen forces, seemingly hunting them for sport. They are on a game preserve planet, pursued by the Predators. As they struggle to survive and work together, the disparate group realizes there is in-fighting among their captors, which could be their ticket home.

“Predator” was a clever combination of an eighties action flick and an extraterrestrial horror movie, with a great cast and even better direction. These perhaps humble beginnings spawned an extensive series of comics, novels, toys, and video games. This was the universe “Predators” was entertaining in to. The film attempts to expand on the established “Predator” mythology in new ways. The sequel takes the original’s sci-fi spin on “The Most Dangerous Game” concept to its natural conclusion. This time, the humans are being hunted… On an alien world. These Predators have hounds, spiky dog-like creatures that pursue their prey, which leads to one of the best scenes in the movie. One of the aliens even has a robotic falcon on its suit, which it surveys the area with. The bulky armors that hunters wore in the “Alien vs. Predator” films are thankfully ejected, returning to the stripped-down look of the original. All of these are clever additions.

In some other ways, “Predators” bites off more then it can chew. An aspect of the film that was heavily hyped is that the film deals with two warring clans of Predators. Disappointing, this is a brief aspect of the film. The promised Pred-on-Pred fight happens once, late in the film, and doesn’t last long. The villainous alien, called either the Super Predator or the Berserker, is an ugly design too, with wider jaws and a more detailed head. The inter-species war is such small part of the movie that it feels like a tacked-on idea. “Predators” also doesn’t give us much of a peek into the aliens’ home world either. A subplot about Lawrence Fishburne as a survivor hiding on the planet doesn’t amount to much. Fishburne’s bizarre, over-the-top performance doesn’t help any either. It mostly feels like a variation on the original movie in a new setting. From the fan service perspective, “Predators” is still a bit of a let-down. Even the callbacks to the original, like the reappearance of Ol’ Painless or another character coating themselves in mud, feels a bit desperate.

Something that is occasionally mocked is the movie casting Adrian Brody as its bad ass hero. Brody sure has had an odd career, hasn’t he? An Oscar-winner who has done time in lots of schlock, he gives it his all even in material as dire as “InAPPropreite Comedy.” As Royce, the morally ambiguous anti-hero of the film, Brody is surprisingly good. He’s believable as a stone-cold killer. His whispered dialogue actually helps up the tension. The dude put on a lot of muscle for the part too. I also really like Alice Bragga as Isabelle, the female lead. The more compassionate of the team, Bragga brings a humanity to the role while still being an effectively tough soldier.

Sadly, we don’t get to know the rest of the cast very well. It sometimes feel like the writers dropped a bunch of stereotypes onto the alien world. What do you think of when imagining the most dangerous people from around the world? We have a Mexican drug cartel enforcer, a shiv-wielding prison psychopath, the stoic Yakuza, a Russian super-soldier, and a death squad member from an African war zone. Sometimes, the movie wastes likable character actors in these thin parts. Danny Trejo – go ahead and guess which one he is – is underutilized and exits the film far too soon. Walter Goggins as the convict goes way over the top, which may be more of a scripting problem. Oleg Taktarov has some humanizing moments but still isn’t given much to do. I like the Japanese guy but he’s mostly a cipher. Only Topher Grace, as the wolf in sheep’s clothing, makes much of an impression. Unfortunately, the internet spoiled the reveal about his character, probably the film’s most clever element.

“Predators” is never truly effective as a horror flick. It occasionally builds a little intensity but never any scares. It fares slightly better as an action flick. There’s no distracting shaky-cam at the very least. The fight with the hounds works well. The duel between a Predator and the yakuza is slightly cheesy but memorable. The fight between the Predator should have lasted longer but works while it does. The movie certainly splatters plenty of green blood. The final duel between our hero and the Berserker underwhelms though. It essentially replays scenes from the original, without putting a unique twist on it. “Predators” was modestly budgeted. This is clear not just in the limited screen-time of the monsters but in the half-assed CGI, which is not convincing.

Weirdly, “Predators” might work the best before the titular aliens are introduced. The scenes of the cast exploring the planet, figuring out what’s happening and what their situation is, are the most effective in the entire movie. You know where it’s going but it is fun to see the wheels roll into place. “Predators” still doesn’t live up to its potential. Maybe that upcoming, Shane Black-written reboot will. The third film isn’t an embarrassment to the legacy either. It’s an occasionally entertaining but mostly unextraordinary entry into the franchise, with some clever ideas it doesn’t capitalize on and others that seem undercooked. [6/10]