Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man...."

As often happens with independent filmmakers when Robert Rodriguez's debut film, El Mariachi, was released he was given the keys to the city. His reputation ballooned and the story of his producing and directing his debut for $7000 became overnight legend; everyone seemed willing to give him all the money he could ever want. One of the many unrealized projects he proposed to his newfound sounding board was a sequel to 1987's Predator as he was displeased with the direction Predator 2 had taken the franchise. Rodriguez is that rare director who believes in stupid action movies and his script was a much more involved and loving tribute to the first movie than the one Jim & John Thompson eventually handed in. The ideas Rodriguez eventually had approved were the deeply uninteresting Desperado and the outright terrible From Dusk Till Dawn, which were the sort of film he'd always wanted to make. I blame these movies on the kind of Tarantino-esque thumbs up attitude that he was given (Quentin Tarantino doesn't help his case any by appearing in both of these movies) because if I were a producer and saw Antonio Banderas shooting a pistol from behind his back at someone across a bar I'd have shut it down immediately. Well, fifteen years and several million dollars later he had more than made a name for himself as a director of epic action and (oddly enough) children's films who now had enough power to act as the producer who never greenlit his movie. Apparently just as bummed out about Alien Vs. Predator as the rest of the known world Robert Rodriguez finally got rolling on the Predator sequel that fans like Robert Rodriguez had been waiting for. He got Alex Litvak and Michael Finch to rewrite his decade-old script and settled on a director after watching Nimród Antal on the set of the middling heist movie Armored, agreeing that he should simply oversee the project. Something with the tone of the new script would need to be handled differently than the bombastic pulp films he's made since El Mariachi. Finally a cast was assembled that could carry off badass without seeming like pale imitations of the endless parade of biceps that stocked Predator. Bodybuilders are almost passe as blockbuster elements go these days and so a new kind of killer was required. With all these elements in place the world was finally given a Predator movie worthy of the name.

by Nimród Antal
A nameless American black-ops mercenary wakes up from a deep sleep to find himself falling from several thousand feet in the air. He has barely enough time to push the big red button on his chest that opens his parachute before he hits the tree line and lands. A few seconds later a fierce looking Mexican cartel enforcer with two personalized submachine-guns lands next to him and looks ready to start shooting but before either man decides what to do a third shooter opens fire on them with a mini-gun. The mercenary sneaks around and gets the drop on the third guy, a Spetsnaz soldier called Nikolai and then all three men are flanked by a distractingly cute IDF sniper. None of them recognizes the jungle they're stranded in and they can only remember waking up in free-fall. A walk in the jungle yields one dead guy whose chute didn't open and four more survivors, a yakuza, a member of an RUF death squad, a death-row inmate the mercenary places as the guy at the top of the FBI's most wanted list and a doctor. No one knows where they are but everyone's story starts the same: they were on their way somewhere (for everyone but the doctor this means going to fight some conflict or other), they saw a light and woke up in midair. Everyone but the doctor is a soldier, a professional killer, all highly disciplined, all incredibly dangerous. As the doctor points out it can't be a behavioral experiment or drug test because there'd be some kind of point. The Mexican and the Sierra Leonian think maybe they've gone to hell but the mercenary doesn't imagine you need a parachute to get there. When they see what else has been dropped in, the situation starts to become clearer. Something that required caging was also imported and the dead skin it left behind suggests it's nothing that could survive on Earth. Their last clue comes when they reach a high point and can see several planets staring at them through the thin atmosphere of whatever planet they're on now.

The group quickly figures out how to work together (though the American is not convinced this is best) and as most of them are used to giving and following orders they have no trouble spotting each other but this is tested when they're attacked by a pack of doberman-sized animals that look like crudely drawn triceratops. They manage to stay in twos and lay the creatures down with their collectively awesome fire power and just when it seems like they might be in trouble, a low horn sounds somewhere in the distance and the remaining creatures retreat. All of a sudden everything seems all too simple: all eight of them and whatever was in those cages have been brought here to be hunted for sport. This comes as something of a blow even to hardened killers but the only thing greater than their fear is their will to stay alive and somehow get back to earth. In order to do that they're probably going to need to know how the hunters got there and for that bit of info, they're going to have to walk right into their base camp. To no one's surprise it's not a pretty sight. There are already a dozen flayed bodies hanging from their feet and skulls from at least as many different species, only some recognizable as mammals. But the biggest shock is the muscular humanoid tied to a boomerang-shaped pole with four detachable fangs in front of its jaw. If that thing's tied up, just what had the strength to put it there?
2010 was an unfortunate year for Predators to be released because of the state of film criticism. Before January 2010 I would have told you that the chances of a mainstream movie being as good as the films that wind up in arthouses were slim to none. I hadn't seen anything worth a goddamn in a multiplex in 2009 and of my twenty favourite films of the year, I'd seen but two of them in chain theatres and some hadn't even made it to little theatres. So when 2010 rolled around and we were given Daybreakers, Shutter Island, The Crazies, Splice and Predators critics were split. When you get used to worthless box office-cracking genre films like Saw: Whatever The Fuck you don't want to seem like you've grown soft on bad movies. None of the above films are masterpieces but they are just as good as big budget films get these days but critics weren't receptive to them because there's something of a culture war on and it seems like you can be either The Last Airbender or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. That doesn't leave much room for The Crazies or Predators does it? Both films are incredibly well handled and get (got) from you (me) what they try to, a raised heart-rate at well executed set-pieces but reviewers seemed wary of giving the time of day to anything that didn't either set the world on fire or suck out loud. There used to be systems to keep genre films out of the proper film pool but since the 90s and the death of drive-in, the line doesn't exist anymore and reviewers are now entrenched in a much more political struggle, which makes them increasingly suspect. Just how the fuck could Manohla Dargis like a film as stupid as Avatar as much as Tulpan or Where The Wild Things Are? What about Drag Me To Hell? Zombieland? District 9? Was there really no genre film better than Avatar in 2009? It's enough to make you think that critics don't want to be perceived as not liking a certain kind of film so that people won't stop reading their reviews or that they're being paid off by studios. So what does that mean for Predators? Despite it being the best thing Nimród Antal's done since leaving Hungary and being a more-than-satisfactory horrific action thriller, critics were content to be throughly unwowed by it but nerds like me were pleased because we, like Robert Rodriguez, had wanted a Predator sequel that didn't make our eyes twitch with anger.

Perhaps Predators didn't set the world on fire but it gets a lot right. The script does Predator one better in its indictment of masculinity, its tone is grim and sweaty, the look characterized by a muted deep green that improves on McTiernan's work on Predator, the first act is wonderfully played, the acting is perfectly suited to the material and the characters, while not exactly 3D, are all lovable despite their heinous backgrounds. Thanks to a crippled film industry, Antal wasn't greeted quite as warmly as Rodriguez when he first struck it big creatively. His first english language film, Vacancy, was perfectly fine but looked much better when you compared it to other "throwbacks" like Hostel and Hatchet. Vacancy at least felt like the kind of thing that might have ended up on the Video Nasties list and was surprisingly devoid of sexualized violence. Antal managed to squeeze a lot from a little: all he had was a motel and five characters. Like Predators, Vacancy has a better-than-average look and moments of real tension. What I might like most about Predators' script is the way it doesn't assume you know anything. If you'd never seen Predator you could get wrapped up in the guessing just like the characters but unlike the first film there is no pretext for their being hunted, they're just there and the only thing between them and the answer to the mystery is time. Seasoned veterans know what's after them, which might even make it more fun than if we went in blind. We know what's out there but Antal manages an excellent tease of a first act. He won't just cave in and indeed throws in more red herrings than you'll know what to do with but if like me you were aching to get down to business, you'll appreciate the lead-up to the first confrontation because it's both tense and knowing; it's all about guessing when they're going to strike first and seeing how much better or worse off this crew is than Dutch and his men.
On that front Rodriguez had said in interviews that he didn't want to just put Vin Diesel in charge of the drop-ins because then Predators would have seemed like just an imitation. There are already enough quotes from McTiernan's film, visual and spoken, without putting a surrogate Schwarzenegger in the lead role. We have a burly guy with a mini-gun, a disrobing before a knife fight, a different orchestration of Alan Sylvestri's score, the pulling off of the mask, a scene where our mud-covered bare chested hero says "Come on, kill me!" and at one point Alice Braga directly references the events of Predator. I was half-expecting the "one ugly motherfucker" line but then I learned that it does show up it's just hidden rather cleverly. So with all the reminders in place I guess it was wise to fill the movie with a more modern breed of tough guy. Adrien Brody, for instance, is no one's idea of an action hero but he does a fine job (though his nose is the most noticeably strange it's ever been). What the advantage of having a cast who's hero is led by an Oscar winner is that it sort of goes to show, even more definitively than Predator, that muscles aren't enough to sell a movie or survive one. Indeed one of the best bits in the film comes about when the strength of the burliest character has just failed him but because of planning, he gets the last laugh. It's a movie where strategy is the reason anyone survives as long as they do and guns are little more than props to keep the actors' hands busy. The script lets its heroes down in the third act by forgetting for a minute how clever it had been up until that point, but I think coming up with an ending to a long overdue sequel is a rather difficult business. How do you satisfy everyone and not betray the rest of the film?

In general Predators works because it's just as exciting and gruesome as the first film, if not a little more so because Antal goes out of his way to make us care about everyone in a way McTiernan didn't. You liked the guys in Predator because they were the heroes, not because they had particularly earned your respect. Antal had a greater challenge, getting you to like murderers (I found it especially troubling trying to sympathize with a member of a Sierra Leone death squad, knowing just what fucking monsters they are in reality) and then caring when they're in danger. To that end the set pieces are the ultimate test of the character development. I found myself genuinely concerned about the five or six characters who make it to the halfway mark and nervous whenever it became clear that they were about to be attacked (that Antal manages to make the predator at least semi-frightening again is something I could kiss him for; letting Greg Nicotero's make-up crew blow shit up kinda negates that especially when you remember that predators would never waste a skull). This is partly the script, which gives many of them families and histories communicated in a line or two, and partly the cast. Finally taking the correct cues from the Alien films, Predators is staffed with character actors who're a lot of fun to watch. Oleg Taktarov's Spetsnaz and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali's RUF member both come off as sympathetic despite having arguably the least to recommend them personally. Louis Ozawa Changchien's Yakuza is a blast because he says exactly eight words the whole film but manages to seem the most intelligent of the bunch. Danny Trejo is great because he made me appreciate the breadth of performances Trejo gives. Here he's a squinting, superstitious killer, all menace, no cunning. I'd taken for granted that Trejo really can act and when you compare his performance here to the one he gives in Heat or Halloween or any of the nearly 200 films he's been in since 1985, you realize how much he gives every one of his roles. Topher Grace will always be Eric Forman but as one half of the movie's comic relief he does just fine, in fact he gets the second best line in the whole movie. The best line goes to Walton Goggins, the other half, who plays the twitchy death row inmate with the shiv and no, I'm not going to spoil that one either. Suffice it to say he's the most fun of all of the guys on the planet, blissfully unaware of the ethics of the situation. In fact I think I probably liked him just as much as the reason that Predators is a subtly progressive, if not a feminist movie. That reason is Alice Braga. Braga may be incredibly attractive but she's also got the most aware of the all the characters and comes across as one of the most competent. She's the only one who sees this movie as a morality play. Brody's character puts together that they were all chosen to be hunted because they themselves have spent so much time hunting people but only Braga wonders whether returning to their home world is such a good thing, which incidentally is an excellent point. And though this could be read as her sensitivity being over-written (especially next to the rape-happy convict) but remember that she wouldn't be on the planet if she weren't one of the most deadly people on Earth. That Antal and Rodriguez both easily put her in the same category as Ali and Brody without once calling attention to her femininity (well, I guess Walton Goggins' line about how awesome her ass is isn't nothing but she and the film roll their eyes at it and once the action starts it's quickly forgotten) is a symbol of how far gender politics have progressed since 1987. They even resist the temptation of trying to make Brody and Braga fall for each other, though they stray perilously close to it at times.
I'd like to end by saying that among the several pleasant surprises in Predators are the references to other movies like the perfect tribute to Japanese Jidai-Geki just before the climax that gets everything right and specifically to Apocalypse Now. If you haven't seen the movie yet and don't want its most intriguing surprise ruined, then stop reading here and go out and see it. That surprise, for those of you still reading and the Japanese sex blogs that spam my comments section, is Laurence Fishburne. I had completely forgotten he was in the movie at all when I went to see it and when he makes his grand entrance I was stunned. He mentions being stuck on the planet for 10 seasons and though we never learn how long that is, he mentions being in Air Cavalry and then sings a snatch of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries", which is immediately supposed to make us think of Coppola's film, though presumably if he were in Vietnam, he would never have seen Apocalypse Now. But keeping in mind that Antal had the movie in mind makes the ending seem a lot more like a crib of Willard stalking Kurtz than of Dutch and the predator, even though it falls short of both of them. Fishburne's scenes are also interesting because they retroactively explain little things from the first movie like why the creature wound up on earth in the first place (turns out he was just looking for a place to hunt where he had no competition and no one actively hunting him). It also helps to see Predators as one long tribute to the Coppola film; jungle imagery, thinning cast of disparate characters (Brody - Willard, Grace - Chef, Trejo - Clean, Braga/Ali - Chief, Changchien - Lance or the quiet soldier with the grenade launcher at the Do Lung Bridge, Goggins could be any number of the war-crazed bit players including Chef or the photojournalist). Like Apocalypse, Predators is about the effects of war on humanity and the (in the latter film's case) literal impossibility of going back to the life you knew once you've hunted and been hunted (Antal quotes Hemingway, Coppola quotes Conrad). Predators is an action movie first and an art movie fourth or fifth but that there is something more here than you'd find in its competition. Go into most blockbusters (Predators hasn't turned out one of those) and you can't find half the things hidden away inside this movie. It's not perfect, I know that, but I was thoroughly satisfied regardless and I'd defend it against all those who won't, for whatever reason, give slightly ambitious genre films a chance.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Money Vs. Decency

Comic books were never really my thing. I have friends who tell me how crucial an artform they are but something about them fundamentally turns me off. I like pulpy writing, I like graphic art so I don't know why they don't entertain me. I don't like super hero comics because I don't give a flying fuck about super heroes, they bore me. I bought a few of the things when I was probably six or seven but I only ever got ones with recognizable characters. There were only two that I repeatedly returned to: the Mortal Kombat and Aliens Versus Predator comics. I liked Mortal Kombat because I enjoyed seeing the characters of a video game that I enjoyed doing and saying things that I enjoyed that they couldn't in a Super Nintendo game. I liked Aliens Vs. Predator, created in 1988, because I liked Aliens and I liked Predator, so why wouldn't I want to see their villainous critters duking it out on the pages of a graphic novel where nothing mattered? I liked the idea of following the people who have to deal with they're constant squabbling on a daily basis. I think even as a devout fan I liked them because I knew neither played for keeps. They were just throwaway bits of fun until Paul W.S. Anderson fucked everything up. As often happens, Anderson made one half-way interesting film, then threw away any and all credibility for the chance of a bigger paycheck, which came from the producers of Mortal Kombat, the film that probably kicked off the notion of a marketable video game adaptation in America. Mortal Kombat was and remains an unwatchable piece of self-important shit but it took enough cash for producers to trust Anderson with Soldier and Resident Evil, and it didn't matter because Mortal Kombat was only ever a mediocre video game. We also have him to thank in spirit for Wing Commander and House of the Dead. With Resident Evil, Anderson basically figured out the style he would employ for everything he'd ever touch. This means that when it came time for him to lend his talent for fucking up to another relic of my childhood, it would come off looking and acting just as stupidly as Resident Evil, only this time....it's personal.

Alien Vs. Predator
by Paul W.S. Anderson
In a cruel tease of the great film this might have been we start in an Antarctic whaling station where one bearded man witnesses the end of a battle between a predator and what was probably a bunch of aliens. Then just like that, it's all over and the movie we're stuck with starts. We're introduced to a bunch of experts in various fields (archeology, drilling, mountain climbing) who're being contracted by one Charles Bishop Weyland. If you're thinking that the probability is microscopic that this guy is both the founder of what would become the Weyland-Yutani corporation and the model for a second-series android thousands of years in the future, that idea becomes even more laughable when you consider that he gets murdered halfway through this movie. Anyway this rich asshole has found something underneath Antarctica thanks to some nonsensical thermal scanner and he needs climbing expert Alexa Woods to get them to the sight so Mark Verheiden can help them drill to it and then Sebastian de Rosa can help them identify it. The strange thing about this thing they found (it's a structure) is that it doesn't resemble any known architecture, per se. Stranger perhaps than this fucking thing being hundreds of feet under ice no one has ever been under is that it has characteristics from Egyptian, Cambodian and Aztec culture scattered throughout its design. Surely some strange mojo is afoot.

Woods brings everyone (also along for the ride are a scientist played by Ewen Bremner and some of Bishop's armed men, one played by the once again woefully misused Colin Salmon, who thankfully stopped slumming in Paul W.S. Anderson movies after this) to the sight only to realize that they don't need Verheiden's drill after all, something bore a hole right through the ice to the pyramid for them about a day ago. They set up a rig and start their descent to the structure. Improbably the structure is surrounded by a large cavern and not just frozen solid into the ice like, you know, common sense would dictate. So they climb the giant staircase and start poking around inside, accidentally setting off a switch that brings a queen alien out of deep freeze. As she starts laying eggs, reinforcements in the form of three predators land, kill everyone back on top of the sight and then run into the pyramid to contain the impending alien onslaught. Soon the eggs have hatched, the faces have been hugged, the chests have been burst and the supremely lame battle has come sashaying to a start.

Remember when Freddy Krueger fought Jason Voorhees and you were never the same? Neither do I. The same thing happened when aliens fought predators. The film grossed a stupid amount of money but I don't even hear people complaining about it. The response was so abysmal that everyone just agreed to forget about it. Alien Vs. Predator very quickly became a 60 million dollar non-entity. Everyone, including myself, hated it so much they erased it from their minds and agreed it had nothing to do with either the Alien or Predator series. By comparison Anderson's other projects got off easy. Resident Evil spawned two sequels of roughly the same quality. Alien Vs. Predator spawned one that was better by default because it was such a colossal fuck-up that nothing good go quite as wrong and still be released. The problem was that in the same way that Ronny Yu took two separate franchises and kept only the faintest glimmer of their respective personalities and made a Ronny Yu film replete with Wire Fu, stonerific imagery and scads of stupid violence, Paul W.S. Anderson did the same thing but he has not the strength of his convictions that Yu does. Freddy Vs. Jason didn't do either series justice but it wasn't trying to because Ronny Yu could have given a fuck what fans wanted. Paul W.S. Anderson is just a fucking idiot who makes shitty movies over and over again who thinks he has the pulse of the movie going public. In fact he makes the same shitty movie over and over again. With it's subterranean setting, byzantine backstory, armed bit players, female heroine and big CG villains doing big CG stunts the biggest coming out for the climax, Alien Vs. Predator is just Resident Evil and that's not good enough. The only difference between the two films is that instead of ruining a video game, it ruined two franchises with two of the most ruin-proof creatures ever put on film.
Where to start? I guess the science is as good a place as any. Anderson's screenplay goes way out of its way to try and explain why Kane and then Carter Burke knew enough about the alien to want to bring one back to earth. It can't even do that convincingly and needs so much fucking backstory just to arrive at a point where it might be possible to consider. Instead of simply introducing both species, Anderson thought it best to imply that they've been knocking around together for hundreds if not thousands of years and are responsible for all human civilization. That's hard enough to swallow without Anderson's patented misunderstanding of how shit works. Sebastian concludes based on the drawings on the walls of the temple that the Predator came here, stuck a queen alien in an assembly line (and that's just how it works, stupidly enough) so that they could fill human beings with alien eggs and then hunt the aliens that burst out. It was a kind of ritual for the predators. This is dumb enough on its own. Consider a race of alien with shoulder-mounted lasers building Rube Goldberg like temples out of stone. Doesn't really make any fucking sense does it? Then there's the ludicrous conclusion they come to that because the temple has evidence of Egyptian, Cambodian and Aztec cultures that the few people who helped build the temple then went on to found each culture (assuming this is before Pangaea split, which is before homo sapiens had evolved so it's all bullshit anyway). This doesn't even work if you forget the logical problem. If the disciples of the predator had gone on to form their own separate cultures, they would have taken the design with them and their temples would look like copies of the one in Antarctica, not just one element of it. Furthermore if we were once enslaved by the predator, why didn't anyone write that down? Why didn't we develop or at least sketch laser cannons or retractible spears or at least try to? See why it doesn't work?

Beyond the problems with the script is that this is a Paul W.S. Anderson film. Like Resident Evil, we're treated to chunks of endless exposition that has nothing to do with the immediate threat, a stupid-ass 3D map of the area, loads of characters with two much baggage all there to be killed, and lots of flashing of weapons and slow-mo action. A tip to action directors: the opposite of action is immobility, so why slow everything down in the middle of an action sequence? Seriously. Answer me that. Please. Anyone? Why would you put so much slow-motion in an action movie? Forgive me if I've misinterpreted something but in an action movie there's supposed to be some MOTHERFUCKING ACTION, not a recap of how cool the shot was! Anderson's fanboy direction renders the sequences of the aliens and predators fighting into a cutscene from one of the video games he loves so much. And when the alien has the top of its tale cut off and it uses it like a hose to spray the predator in blood, it's game over. Because the single greatest problem with Alien Vs. Predator is that Anderson had no respect for fans of either series. The behavior of both creatures is neglected entirely and a whole new, much stupider set of rules. The predators have shiny new gear with pointless functions and there's too much CGI and nice people are killed horribly by them. It also makes no sense given what we know about the predator that they've been doing this training thing here on earth. If that were the case, they'd be much better equipped to deal with them than they are on their trips to Earth in Predator and Predator 2. Anderson also negates the heat vision established in the first two films right out of the gate. The aliens are also not smart enough creatures to understand the harm their blood causes, let alone to use it as a weapon. If Predators have the intelligence of people, aliens are no smarter than wild dogs or crocodiles. They know what they have to but they don't contemplate their own mortality. I don't think Anderson saw the movies he was following so much as he studied their promotional material and delivered a mishmash of supposedly popular elements that just sit there. I knew it was a bad idea for aliens and predators to meet but who knew it would be so fucking boring.
The ever-so-slight silver-lining of this movie (besides its universal dismissal) is that at least you could really only go up. And as terrible as the movie that followed Alien Vs. Predator is, it really does represent a gigantic leap forward in creativity. If nothing else the sequel (what do you call a sequel to an unwanted series melding?) delivered on the promise of both species landing on earth and actually interacting with people in a normal environment. If you're going to send aliens to earth, don't shitchange your audience by having them meet in some bullshit sound stage. Bring the fight home. And Shane Salerno may not be a better writer of dialogue or character, but he's not such a fuck-up that he can't think outside of a made-up universe. He and our two directors operate inside the system and even if the one thing they contribute is a truly ugly hatred for humanity, that's better than a fuck-headed love of The Matrix school of sci-fi. After all, how seriously could a movie take itself when its title is....

Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem
by The Brothers Strausse
We begin where the last movie ended, with an alien bursting out of the chest of a predator. Thanks to Alien³ (which is really starting to look like a masterpiece), we know that the alien resembles anatomically whatever it's impregnated, which here is a kind of reptilian predator. It's a stupid idea terribly realized and the suit is once again too baggy for it to come across as the unstoppable killing machine it is in the script. Furthermore it shoots eggs outs it mouth. Where the fuck did that come from? Bunch a goddamn nerds. The Predalien makes short work of all the predators on board the ship of his host mother. With no pilot the ship crashes in Crested Butte, Colorado and some stowaway eggs (I know, I know) hatch, immediately finding hosts in Buddy Benson and his young son Sam who're out hunting. When they don't return a search party is organized but all they manage to do is lose one of their deputies. Sheriff John Ortiz now has three missing persons and he's not liking their odds of returning. Meanwhile in a more vacuous and cliched plot, pizza delivery boy Ricky has just been beaten up by his high school crush's boyfriend. Jesse looks like she just walked off a porn shoot so naturally she's the girl of Ricky's dreams, even if she does perpetually date asswipes like Dale. Ricky wouldn't mind so much because Jesse did manage to flirt with him a whole bunch, but when Dale handed him his ass he dropped his keys in a sewer and now has to go get them without Jesse seeing him emerge. As luck would have it, Ricky's recently paroled brother Dallas is in town and after they have their argument about where he's been (required by law in the Exposition Clause, fourth paragraph) big brother agrees to help little brother. Finding them wouldn't be so hard but the aliens have recently arrived in the sewer and started feeding on the homeless. By the time the Predator arrives, sent from his home world to clean up the mess left by the crash, the town is over-run by aliens and if anyone wants to get out alive, they'll have to work together and stay one step ahead of both monsters and the powers that be, who always have the same mushroom-shaped answer to small town crises.

There's also some stuff in there about Kelly, a veteran coming home to her daughter for the first time, but it doesn't really matter. In point of fact we meet a lot of Crested Butte's citizens but aside from Dallas, Ricky, Ortiz, Kelly and her daughter, this movie could be about the clowns at a traveling circus or a bus full of cheerleading nuns; they're just there to get murdered by spacebeasts. That's nothing new; plot-wise this movie is Eight Legged Freaks, almost to a note and if I were Ellory Elkayem I'd consider suing (but then I'd have considered not making Eight Legged Freaks). The difference between this and that more pleasant giant spider movie was that Eight Legged Freaks had a sense of humour. AVPR has no such thing, even if it knows it's just a trashy action film. It has a kind of heinous disdain for all people which means that whether you're a slutty high school girl, a cute waitress, an expectant mother or a pleasant cop, your chances of not being horribly mutilated are slim. My dad was so repulsed by the way they kill everyone from kids to mothers that he couldn't stop thinking about it, then bought it used at a convenience store. He hadn't seen a major studio release so dark before and couldn't get it out of his head. The Saw movies might be exclusively about cleverly cutting people up but this was an Alien movie, wasn't it? Somewhere in this film's DNA was Ellen Ripley going back to rescue Newt from the queen alien. But here no one's life is sacred. This is a film in which the first victims of the face-hugger are a little boy who has to watch his dad go first and the last are the women in a packed maternity ward. I guess if fucking up two franchises dear to the hearts of thousands didn't bother them, why should killing innocent people who aren't around long enough to deserve it?
And the ways that the Brothers Strausse (as I've said before it's always a bad sign when your directors call themselves the brothers anything) find to kill people are truly staggering. Bodies are melted, heads blown off, stomachs explode, and in the end thousands of people are dispatched in the blink of an eye. Oh, uh, spoiler alert. I couldn't ruin this movie if I wanted to because watching it is ruin enough. Aside from pleasant cinematography the only thing I liked about watching this movie was that while it gave me hope that a good movie could come out of the idea of watching a fusion of aliens and predators, this film didn't do nearly well enough to make me worry that some dumbass is gonna try again anytime soon. There are good images and ideas (the search party, for instance was wildly anticlimactic; a great idea ruined by its dispersal. I wanted the aliens to attack then, in the woods, in the dark, but I guess the Strausses don't like a fair fight) but ultimately our directors only real mark is their cruelty. What neither Strausse nor Paul W.S. Anderson realized is how fucking terrifying it would be if either of these aliens walked up your driveway, let alone both of them. I used to have nightmares to that effect as a child and yet there isn't a single genuine scare in either film. They missed golden opportunities that millions of amateur screenwriters would kill for and little in-jokes and re-using original sound effects is no consolation; this is a bored teenager's graphic novel of a movie first and an Alien/Predator movie second. The script is a fairly faithful recreation of the kind of thing that wound up in the comic books, but those were never meant to be taken all that seriously. Like video games, they're just meant to pass the time, not to be given weight and power, then you defeat their purpose. There are people who disagree with me but whatever I'm an insufferable elitist and to return visitors this is not news. Film is art and those who would replicate the contents of an ancillary marketing tactic on the big screen don't deserve the privilege of being allowed to make it. When you take the things that were mindless entertainment to my six year old self and treat them like a real commodity, something's gone terribly awry.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

If It Earns, We Can Sell It

Predator may not have been single-handedly responsible for killing off the 80s action film, but it rode the wave that finished it off. If you're looking for proof that mindless bodycount actioners fell out of favor after the film's release just look how much different the tone of Predator's sequel was from the original. Scriptwriters Jim & John Thompson had no plans for a sequel until they saw how successful their ancillary marketing ploys turned out. Once the graphic novels (and one assumes action figures, commemorative coins, promotional "Sexual Tyrannosaurus" chewing tobacco, and pith helmets with the phrase "Get To The Choppa!" embossed on them) took off they were convinced another movie could prove a worthwhile endeavor, in a strictly financial sense. A number of ideas were tossed around until a draft was approved that would have seen Dutch hunting a predator in Los Angeles and working with a liaison in the L.A.P.D. When Schwarzenegger got wind of the idea he turned it down thinking, not unreasonably, that the idea of the predator in a city was a bad idea. And if you think about the creature's MO it sure doesn't make much sense but the loss of Schwarzenegger wasn't all bad news: after all they didn't have to pay his salary again. But it also meant knocking his character to secondary status and getting someone willing to accept second billing to Danny Glover, who would finally land the part of the cop at the heart of the story. When you drop from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Gary Busey and make the script rise to the occasion, it isn't that you'll wind up with a worse film necessarily, but you'll wind up with one that can't function on action alone. You would just need to head in a dirtier direction, which is just what director Stephen Hopkins and the Thompsons did.

Predator 2
by Stephen Hopkins
A shootout blazes in downtown Los Angeles in the year 1997 (which contrary to what Hopkins thinks doesn't excuse detectives using customized Desert Eagles and .45s with laser sights, flashlights and scopes attached; but at least there are no robots or any of that shit). Lieutenant Mike Harrigan shows up just in time to turn the fight around in favor of the L.A.P.D. when he and his team, Leona Cantrell and Danny Archuleta, fit his car with bullet proof vests and then drive it into the men shooting it out with the cops. The men are Colombian and have been waging two separate wars, one with Jamaican drug dealers led by a shady figure called King Willie and one with the police. Harrigan, Cantrell and Archuleta drive the Colombians into a studio apartment building and start busting down doors. By the time they find the room they've hidden in everyone inside has been killed save for one terrified gunman who takes to the roof. Before Harrigan shoots him, the man points his gun at something just past the vertigo-prone cop, who shoots instinctively and kills the man. The thing the Colombian was aiming at not only watched the whole thing take place from the roofs of nearby buildings, but it also killed everyone of the gunmen in the apartment and even steals one of the bodies before it leaves. If you don't recognize it based on its thermal-vision, maybe its penchant for stringing up bodies will tip you off.

Harrigan eats shit from his superior for doing the whole maverick cop thing but what matters most to him is figuring out what could kill a room full of coked-up Colombians armed to the teeth. Harrigan, Archuleta, Cantrell and newest recruit Jerry Lambert are thus incredibly interested in the next big homicide call to the station. Seems some Jamaicans paid a visit to a Colombian snitch's penthouse but before they could do any real damage something showed up to level the playing field. When the four cops arrive only the Colombian's blonde girlfriend hasn't been strung up and skinned. Before they can do much investigating a special unit led by one Peter Keyes has stormed in and seized control, forcing Harrigan and his team to vacate. Not easily fucked off, Harrigan has Jerry follow Keyes around all night and asks Danny to hang around and wait for the special unit to leave the premises so the two of them can scrutinize the scene of the crime. Danny gets in first and just as he spots a spearhead stuck in a vent, he's pulled into the rafters and killed rather gruesomely. For Harrigan this is the last straw. He accosts Keyes, who he blames for Danny's death, nearly getting himself fired and puts Jerry and Leona strictly on figuring out what he's doing in town. Harrigan even goes so far as to talk to King Willie to see if he's got any idea what cut up a half-dozen of his enforcers. King Willie cryptically tells him that whatever's doing it has been doing it a long time and can't be stopped, but maybe he should have been a little chummier with Harrigan because everyone's favorite interstellar game hunter shows up after he leaves and leaves with the kingpin's head.
The next day yields a spooky visit to Danny's grave and some evidence linking both Keyes and Danny's murderer to a slaughterhouse across town. Harrigan opts to drive there but Jerry and Leona take the subway but the train never makes it there. Halfway across LA some punks try to mug a twitchy looking guy who happens to be one of a half dozen people on that particular subway car with a handgun. Leona and Jerry try intervene before a full-fledged shoot-out starts, but a higher-authority intervenes first when it cuts the lights to their car and then breaks in. In a matter of seconds everyone with a gun has been put down and only Jerry remains to draw the predator's attention while Leona herds the other passengers to safety. There are no bodies in the subway when Harrigan gets to the car but there's a trail that leads him across town to a slaughterhouse and Peter Keyes (and his special unit) who has a shocking revelation for the angry cop. Now that everyone's on the same page, what to do about the invisible murderer that doesn't seem to have any weaknesses except his need to collect human heads.

If nothing else Predator rose above the heads of its peers in that it had very few signs of its age. Sure its cast dates it (and I guess you could say Jesse Ventura's MTV shirt does too but ironic T-shirts have wound up in stranger places than the chest of a body-builder), as do some effect shots but mostly Predator has terrific pacing and production values that keep it from reveling in its machismo 80s energy. The problem with Predator 2 was that it wanted to beat its irrelevance while pandering to people who hadn't moved on. By setting the film seven years in the future Hopkins thought that gave him carte blanche to make wild assumptions in his design for the film, many of which date it horrendously. Predator 2 may have come out in 1990 but it couldn't reek more heavily of the 80s. From it's reductive view of foreign culture (coked-up Colombians, ganja-and-voodoo crazed Jamaicans) to its blinding fashion sense (the first tracking shot in the police station shows you drag queens, portly gang members and prostitutes all dressed to kill in fourteen shades of neon either far too big or far too small for them; the idea that people would just look more like back-up dancers in R&B music videos seven years in the future wasn't one of Hopkins best. He must have thought that people were never going to aspire to anything greater than voguing behind P.M. Dawn) to its unconditional adherence to cop movie cliches, not to mention its idolization of police officers. I don't think anything quite dates it like Hopkins and the Thompsons refusal to accept that the stature of the Los Angeles Police Department would ever fall beneath heroic. Predator 2 now has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the last films to paint the LAPD as a gang of ragtag troublemakers who get the job done by bending a few rules. And though it's fun to watch Danny Glover punch hack reporter Morton Downey Jr. in the face, after 1991 that shit stopped but quick, which makes Predator 2 an older film than Predator at heart.

Hopkins also outdid John McTiernan in his exploitation, but again, that's not really a good thing. If Predator exploited anyone it was action film fans, but it also delivered in a way that wasn't sleazy or backhanded; it was a proper action film. Sequels are always exploitative because they rely on goodwill generated by the first film in the series and at least for a little while a sequel didn't necessarily equal a cash-in. I like to think that Predator 2 was just about the time that people started to wake up if only because so much of Predator 2 was boosted from other popular series. Take for example Bill Paxton as Jerry Lambert. Even as a scumbag (which I suppose Paxton did really well) he's more interesting to watch than Danny Glover and I can't help but think that putting him in a supporting role was just producer Joel Silver's stacking the decks against box office failure. Paxton after all had put in appearances in both The Terminator and Aliens and Predator was the last of the great 80s sci-fi actioners. Why not throw him in for good measure if only to harken back to those more articulate and artistic series? And then there's the almost-climax with Peter Keyes. It doesn't take a scholar to see that the scene in the slaughter house is just the first skirmish in Aliens. Danny Glover and an underused Adam Baldwin sit in a trailer watching the video feeds of Gary Busey and a bunch of nameless guys getting hunted by the predator in a dark room. Even Danny Glover's dialogue is all but identical to Ripley's screaming at Gorman. That shit bothered me even if the setpiece is exciting enough to work twice. Predator already tread close enough to Aliens territory without Hopkins actively ripping it off. And if anyone can tell me why Harrigan's shift captain is named after the hero of Slaughterhouse 5, I'd be grateful.
One thing I'll give Hopkins, he certainly paints a darker picture than John McTiernan. With their irascible smiles and undying love for each other, the guys in Predator were all likable even if they did murder a bunch of people who probably didn't quite deserve it. Predator 2 has maybe five likable characters in it and only two of them live to see the end of the film. Hopkins goes way the hell out of his way to introduce character who dress and act so garishly that it'd be next to impossible to wish them well in a fight against the universe's most skilled hunter. Apparently he was also going to do things twice as violently but the studio ordered a bunch of dismemberments and decapitations cut. I'd certainly much rather see the much bloodier version because it might have given audiences something more to think about. The reason that for all its nastiness that it never goes any place new is that in all but that one area Predator 2 plays like an 80s cop film. We have a maverick out to avenge the death of his partner taking shit from an odious superior who proves said superior wrong and proves himself better than whatever new thing has everyone at the station captivated and who saves a city from a menace that has it by the balls. Except here the threat feels more real than terrorists with bio-weapons or whatever the fuck usually dogged Danny Glover characters in 80s cop films. Police procedurals, especially the ones that promise to be like nothing we've ever seen before, bore the shit out of me; I hate the Lethal Weapon films that ensured Danny Glover the lead in Predator 2 (I guess Shane Black was more than earning his keep on the set of Predator; not only was he that film's comic relief, his Lethal Weapon script ensured the sequel a marketable protagonist) and I hate just about everything Nick Nolte made in the 80s. They're all pretty much the same and have little to recommend them, which is I guess why Predator 2 is only slightly more interesting. I like Danny Glover but he's not much of an action hero and his shouting gets old fast. I'd rather have watched Rubén Blades, Bill Paxton and Maria Conchita Alonso fight the thing because at least they seem like real people rather than characters. I find it hard to believe that someone as hot-headed as Mike Harrigan could ever evade the predator for as long as he does, let alone do that much damage to the creature. But he gets as far as he does because that's what happens in cop movies. You can take bullet after bullet and beating after beating but you'll always wind up on top. I chalk it up to the excessive cocaine use of the 80s. I guess once you saw Don Simpson on a movie set the idea of a man being beaten up by the predator, then getting up and following it across town to get beat up again doesn't seem all that far-fetched. In fact Joel Silver may have seen it once or twice while on cocaine.

In all fairness Predator 2 does manage a decent amount of suspense and even with a lame script it's pretty hard to fuck up a movie who's villain is as cool as the predator (for lessons on how to do that just ask Paul W.S. Anderson). Hopkins treats the creature with respect and doesn't diminish its inherently terrifying nature until the third act. In fact he and Stan Winston even dreamt up some new stuff for the beast to wield including a retractible spear and a sort of frisbee that saws you in half. They also do enough to alter his appearance to give him a personality separate from that of the first movie's alien. The real problem is that Predator 2 is too much of a cop movie to let it be a horror movie once Harrigan and the creature have nothing separating them. Because cop movie rules state that the protagonist can't be killed, watching Danny Glover chase and wound the predator for the last twenty minutes becomes less interesting. What good is all the creature's expertise if he can be dethroned by a cop? Dutch had trained all his life to be useful in the climax of Predator and even he needed to rethink just about everything he knew about jungle combat. Harrigan's solution consists of pulling a modified version of Dutch's M16 with a grenade launcher out of his truck and going in guns blazing. Nevermind that a cop's salary couldn't cover half the shit in Harrigan's trunk, the conclusion simply lacks weight. And there are enough continuity errors to make diehards angry. Gone is the abundant and creepy clicking sound, gone is the creature's red vision without its mask, gone its limited understanding of the thing it's hunting. What kind of genius hunter decides to hunt people in the one place it knows it can't blend in? The scene where Harrigan takes off the predator's mask is good because it didn't try to recreate its famous precedent, but it also seems to think that the creature will have heard the phrase "You are one ugly motherfucker" somewhere else in the galaxy. Either Hopkins forgot that the last movie ended with a giant nuclear explosion or everyone involved simply didn't care and thought it'd be funny to hear the predator swear, which he does more than once.
As nothing more than a bit of tension and a lot of violence it works fine but even still Predator 2 just isn't as fun as Predator. But for all the clearly calculated decisions, for all their 'improving' the title character, for all the mixing of elements, for all the additional violence, Predator 2 is still no more than forgettable. But (there's always a 'but') I still can't help but kinda like it. I watched the movie a dozen and a half times as a kid so even while spotting problems is easier than spotting out-of-date fashion choices I can't really succumb to the resentment I should be feeling. Nostalgia just changes things, plain and simple. If it weren't for Robert Rodriguez I feel like I'd have no choice but to stand by the only thing like a second dignified entry in the Predator series but now at least I can be a little harder on Predator 2.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Reagan Vs. Predator

Action movies may not be totally formulaic but rest assured if something slightly novel comes along and pulls in cash moneymen are going to put everything they've got figuring out what element made them money. Conan The Barbarian rakes in cash? Well, maybe what the public wants is barbarian films. Enter The Beastmaster, Conquest, The Sword & The Sorcerer, Krull, Deathstalker, Iron Master, Sword Of The Valiant, The Warrior and the Sorceress and dozens more movies that take the elements and remix them until they're close enough to fleece the public but far enough to avoid a lawsuit. Maybe it's the film's director, John Millius? Let's get him to make more right-leaning action fare. Enter: Red Dawn and further down the line Farewell To The King. Maybe it's the film's star, Austrian body-builder Arnold Schwarzenegger? Enter Red Sonja, Commando, Raw Deal and the Conan Sequel. Maybe between Conan and First Blood, what the public wants is giant, well-built, inarticulate men destroying things. If they can't get Stallone or Schwarzenegger (who made semi-smart decisions by accepting the odd smart project like game changer The Terminator or directing their own shitty projects so at the very least they turn a greater profit than they otherwise would have) then Dolph Lundgren or Jean-Claude Van Damn will do. This goes on until some greater trendier film dethrones the ideas and sends money scattering. So what happens when a film comes along that has everything in common with most muscular 80s action films but the new thing it brings to the table is contempt for the whole genre? That's not how audiences saw Predator but a little reading between the lines shows that John McTiernan may well have been taking the piss out of the same fans he was guaranteed to bring in. After all he had Schwarzenegger, a cast full of muscular side players, a force more cunning and dastardly than communism, and ten thousand bullets. Why didn't everyone rush to rip it off?

by John Mctiernan
We begin like any 80s actioner would, with an Arnold Schwarzenegger character called Dutch meeting an old general in a sweltering South American country to be briefed on why his special team of badass commandos is needed for a particular mission. This time it's because some American soldiers have gone missing in a Columbian jungle. Dutch's old friend Dillon, an operative with only one boss, Old Glory, knows he can pull the job off without raising red flags about involvement. Dutch and his guys are officially a hired rescue team and despise unnecessary killing. The look Dillon gives the General suggests that both men are in on a secret that they'd rather not let Dutch in on if they want his help. But for the time being he and his team are willing to spring into action. Dutch works with a five-man team consisting of the nerdy Hawkins (played by screenwriter Shane Black who, rumour has it, was chosen because the producers of this film wanted him close enough to ask him constant questions about his Lethal Weapon script), buff Native American Billy (Sonny Landham, who needed a bodyguard on staff to make sure he didn't try to fight anyone on set and who would later railroad his chance at running for senate in Kentucky by calling all arabs terrorists and calling for their massive destruction), spooky and quiet Mac (Bill Duke, who went on to more directing than acting), down-home boy Blain (Jesse Ventura, the wrestler who was the first Predator cast member to successfully run for office, when he became governor of Minnesota in 1999) and affable Poncho (Richard Chaves, who never got anywhere near the limelight again).

They land and within the hour have found the downed helicopter of the men they're looking for. Dillon easily convinces the others that this is the work of the Columbian rebels they're after but the state of the bodies seems far too outlandish to be the work of ordinary soldiers. The bodies have been skinned, strung up by their feet and many have their skulls and spines missing. The seven men launch into revenge mode. A short while later they've found and decimated the camp where the Columbians have been operating and killed everyone but Anna, apparently the only woman at the sight. Dillon wants to keep her but Dutch doesn't like the idea of having someone looking to give their position away a few feet away from them at all times. Dutch also doesn't like that apparently the reason they were sent to Columbia in the first place wasn't to rescue anyone but to quell a potential insurgency. It seems the only reason there were hostages to look for (all dead by the time Dutch kicks the door down) was because Dillon sent them to the job first and their chopper was blown out of the sky before they could murder the Columbians themselves. Another few minutes after the shooting has stopped and their on the move looking for the rendezvous.
I guess now's a good a time as any to mention that something's been watching the team pretty much since they landed. This something can cloak itself perfectly, makes an ominous clicking sound, sees only heat signatures, analyzes and understands every sound they make and has humanoid hands with five fingers. Billy seems to sense that they're being followed but obviously doesn't know what it is. Seeing their usually unshakable tracker get wary puts everyone on edge. The thing following them chooses to start its introduction during one of Anna's several escape attempts. Hawkins, carrying the least gear, is sent to find her after she decks Poncho with a stick and runs into the brush. Hawkins finds and stops her but within seconds something has grabbed and cut him and absconded with the body. When they find Anna the only trace of Hawkins is his gun and a good deal of his blood smeared on the petrified rebel's face. When questioned all she can say is that "the jungle came alive and took him." Dutch orders everyone to search the area for his body but as a skillful tracking shot reveals, they won't find him unless they climb a fifty or more foot tree which is where something has hung his disemboweled body. While looking for him Blain runs afoul of the creature too and after blowing the shit out of the jungle Dutch and his team examine the wound and realize that it couldn't have been caused by any weapon they've ever encountered. That night something steals Blain's body and Dutch decides that's the final straw. He and his men set a series of traps, sit and wait to see what move this something makes. But if it keeps outsmarting him and his team, Dutch is going to need more than the gigantic automatic weapons he's got.

The problem with talking objectively about Predator's effectiveness as anything other than an action piece is that I don't remember a time when I wasn't intimately familiar with its plot and the alien at the heart of the story doing all the killing. Predator was one of a handful of films I watched religiously as a child. My parents attempts to get me and my sisters to go to Quaker Meeting simply didn't hold the same kind of attraction as watching a bunch of burly men blasting shit in the jungle. Truth be told we weren't much for Quakerism, as much as we believe in personal non-violence. Other regular household viewings included Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Aliens. To date my dad has played more violent video games than me and I think my mom likes Predator more than I do. So you can see why it would be hard to judge whether it does any actual scaring. I think I was probably very frightened of the movie at some point because I can at least vaguely recalling having to close my eyes whenever the Predator made an onscreen killing. I can say that John McTiernan's decision to keep the monster's appearances restricted to its Heat-Seeking vision camera and only showing glimpses like the excellently spooky appearance of its hand, was a good one. My most recent viewing left me wishing that Jim & John Thompson's script was more than just set-piece after set-piece after the invasion of the camp but the attention span of your average audience in the 80s was just as underestimated then as now. McTiernan uses the jungle to his advantage; the few shots where we're treated to a menacing deep green colour are excellently photographed, as in Dutch's retreat from the alien towards a waterfall. In lieu of a better way to phrase it, the thing that McTiernan deserves credit for is making Predator look like it wasn't made in 1987. Nothing about his visual style suggests it's age and the film has only one or two quips that suggest its freshness date. Alan Silvestri's music, Douglas McAlpine's photography and the nondescript costumes have all helped Predator age extremely well.
To his credit McTiernan also did the very best he could with technology that hadn't quite arrived. The monster suit is good in all but a few scenes. Close-ups reveal that Kevin Peter Hall's fingers didn't quite fill out the gloves and occasionally it's all too unwieldy for him to appear as agile as he seems when he's invisible. One thing I was never able to appreciate as a kid was the added menace of when the creature finally takes its mask off. For the first few seconds when it throws its hands up, I understand why the predator spawned comic books, sequels and action figures. The sheer size coupled with its perfectly alien jaws suggests that for all its hunter's skill, it's still just a giant monster who wants to murder you. The few shots we get of the predator while it cloaks itself are either good or transparently poor special effects that look like exactly like early computer tracing programs. Other times he works minor miracles as when the predator stands on a log, hundreds of feet from the camera, and blasts away at trees with his shoulder-mounted pulse gun. That shot alone puts this above the kind of claptrap you'd ordinarily find two retired bodybuilders in.

In fact the presence of Schwarzenegger and similarly built co-stars Sonny Landham and Jesse Ventura hint at why Predator has survived its decade while The Running Man and Total Recall have become laughably out-of-date on top of being just plain awful. Predator is the first film to play on the expectations conjured by putting Schwarzenegger in a movie. The Terminator played to his strengths (mainly looking and talking like Arnold Schwarzenegger) but he hadn't yet the reputation he'd earn from starring unironically in Commando and giving all he had with no direction. So fans came in expecting the same kind of film and McTiernan certainly delivered one but he also signaled the end of these movies. Another widely circulated rumour is that Predator's inception was someone in Hollywood quipping that by the mid-80s the only thing Rambo hadn't fought was E.T. Indeed once you pit the strongest men in the world (I don't think Landham's resemblance to Stallone was accidental) against something that's not only bigger and more powerful but way fucking smarter, what room was there to go back to the endless ammo supply of the mid-80s action film (though Predator manages to have its cake and eat it too). Only latent-fascists like Paul Verhoeven were blind enough to try and get Arnold back busting skulls in quite the same way he did before Predator. By the mid-90s the mythos of both Stallone and Schwarzenegger had evaporated, the latter found himself in thinking-man's action films like True Lies and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, movies which played with his persona rather than simply relied on his muscles, and action movies in general started to resemble Speed. Outwardly Predator starts like any Rambo film: the muscular men with guns take a job, kill the bad guys, wait for the evac. That movie ends about twenty-five minutes into the movie and a new one starts where the heroes are killed in ascending order of charisma. What kind of action movie kills off the men of action? One with perhaps a little more to say on the subject?
No one could accuse Predator of being an issues film but as Aliens was ostensibly about Vietnam, Predator is ostensibly about Reagan's CIA and the comeuppance they never got. The destruction of the columbian camp is a short-hand version of any number of democratically elected leaders that the CIA overthrew and replaced in the 80s. The Central Intelligence Agency under Ronald Reagan tried and often succeeded in fixing elections and dismantling insurgencies in Libya, Surinam, Grenada, Fiji, South Africa, El Salvador, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Angola, Argentina, Nicaragua, Honduras and Chad among others and for most of it the American people were either in the dark or willfully shut off the light themselves. Dillon's tricking Dutch and his men could be seen as retroactive accounting for the actions of the CIA but then only Dillon would be killed by the predator, but in this case everyone who had a hand in the murder is guilty. With its dreadlocked hair, skirt and method of hunting and taking trophies, The Predator couldn't look anymore like the soul of foreign fighting forces come looking for revenge. The men, for all their muscles and miniguns, are no match for something that knows the terrain and thinks like a hunter. The whole film can be summed up by the scene where the remaining soldiers blast away blindly at the spot the predator has just fled from after killing Blain. They empty entire clips at the trees, clearing yards of jungle with bullets and explosives but hit nothing. The CIA spent bullet after bullet on foreign soil but had no idea what they were hunting, nor that bodycounts may have changed regimes but never broke the will of the people they were shooting at. Dutch is only able to defeat it when it realizes their similarities and stops looking at it as the other and starts thinking like it. Granted I'm sure the CIA-funded insurgencies thought the same thing but if the one thing Dutch learned was never underestimate an enemy and in his last moments the slightest compassion required not to crush its head with a rock, then I'd call him more humane than anyone we got running blackwater operations in the 80s. The bitterest irony is that Schwarzenegger would later run for (and holds to this day) the same office Reagan held before running for President, Governor of California.

Part of Predator's lasting appeal to guy audiences is its understanding of the bond between men. Few movies ever acknowledge that male friendship will often mean more to men than the connection they form with women; it's pretty much the central thesis of Predator. Check out the one-man show Bill Duke puts on about how close two men get in combat situations after Blain is killed. Mac nearly unhinges completely after his friend dies and spends a good deal of his time on screen talking to the dead man and trying to tell him things he'd never have actually said to the man while he was alive. This would seem a little sillier if the man he were pining for weren't Jesse "The Body" Ventura who really can't handle this whole acting thing. He can't even handle physical acting; he's not quick enough to make it plausible that he'd catch himself before grabbing a tripwire, and indeed there's a visible pause where he tries to make us believe he's done so when we all know he simply hasn't. His few lines are mostly manly platitudes ("Son of a bitch is dug in like an Alabama tick," "This stuff'll turn you into a goddamned sexual Tyrannosaurus...just like me,") and he never sounds like anything less than a man reading lines. To see Duke, a competent actor, totally lose his shit over Ventura would be like watching Torin Thatcher or Margaret Whiting crying over the death of whoever played Sinbad opposite them in their respective Harryhausen films. Whether they mean to or not, the Thompsons and McTiernan basically paint these men as lovers. Their little exchanges are playful and exciting when not overlong like afterglow. "Remember Afghanistan?" asks Poncho, to which Dutch replies with a sly little smile: "Trying to forget it. Come on..." When Mac offers Blain his flask he says "Que pasa, amigo. Little taste a home." They share everything, there's sad music when they say goodbye to each other, they laugh about old times, their closer than the men in Boys In The Band. They're so close that they're actually more repelled and separate from the only woman in their company than they are from the alien stalking and killing them. Anna only gets treated like a human being when two men have already been killed and there's no other way to prevent more of them from dying. She has information they need to keep more men from dying, so they let her out of her bonds. No one in the company so much as looks at her sexually, she doesn't speak their language at first, and she doesn't play by their rules. She's more alien to them than the alien. When she tries to fight the creature, Schwarzenegger kicks the machine gun out of her hand with a mighty "NOOOO!!!" It's technically to save her but it looks more like he finds the idea of a woman fighting sacrilegious. Furthermore the finale where the creature reveals his true figure isn't strictly speaking in character. Hunters have no need to justify themselves to their prey, so his disrobing only serves to put him on more equal footing with Dutch, to show that he too is a muscular badass, a man. And at the very least Dutch can understand that. And if he can understand it, he can kill it.
So yeah, maybe I'm over-exaggerating its importance but I think there was more to Predator than cowboys and aliens. The only people who tried ripping it off were lowlifes like Bruno Mattei who'd rip off anything. I guess you could make a case for every sci-fi movie that pits armed men against a big monster or alien of some kind is ripping off Predator but crucially no big-budget action movies have had the balls to try the same trick twice. You would have to be making Robowars or Shocking Dark in order to think you were fooling anyone. Action films couldn't rest on their laurels anymore and soon there were no Albert Pyun movies for Schwarzenegger's followers to hide in. Can anyone name one action film that tried to play the same premise straight and enjoyed the same critical or box office success? Predator basically outlined why simply being big and carrying an equally big gun wasn't good enough. You needed cunning which most screenwriters and big name action stars couldn't pull off. Do you have any idea how hard it is to make it look like Sylvester Stallone is thinking? Schwarzenegger shed his roots and became a respected film star and soon started appearing in family friendly box-office fare. Carl Weathers, Sonny Landham and the others never found their way in another film like this because when their characters died so did any reason to keep putting them in films. They could be defeated; muscle-mass wasn't enough. Predator may have spawned successful sequels but they could never pull off the same trick twice. It may have not been the sole cause but Predator helped usher in a new era. Action films, for better or worse, were never the same.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Kids Are Alright

One thing that a culture of impulse remakes and quickly-eaten genre conventions fosters is the over-exploration of simple premises. In the 70s when not every idea in the world had been taken, producers and directors would put a spin on anything if only to see if they could get money with as little creativity as possible. Plug in a new element/twist into a simple formula and you had a cheap way to make more money off a blood-and-guts-hungry public. So considering that everything in creation has been remade it was only a matter of time before today's filmmakers would try and make cheaply the weirder subgenres that showed up towards the end of the golden age of the exploitation era; in this case I mean the Killer Child movie, and at least to a point, the Zombie Children movie. With Orphan leading the new breed of killer child movies, the competition can't really help but pale in comparison but I do find it both encouraging and more than a little lazy that today's films seem note-for-note replays of earlier films on the same subject. Lazy because even a well thought-out, uncredited remake is still a remake. Encouraging because the films that these most resemble are little-appreciated and could stand to be remade and for the new guys bring enough style and gravitas to their versions that no one rests on their laurels. It never crossed my mind that anyone with influence had even seen The Children and Devil Times Five, let alone copied their formula.

The Plague
by Hal Masonberg
Ten years ago, every kid on earth under the age of nine went inexplicably catatonic, started foaming at the mouth and seizing. After that, they all went into a coma only broken by fits everyday at noon and midnight. All new children are born comatose and so governments have been trying to stop anyone having more kids. The world fell into panic and disarray and people have been preparing to watch everyone around them die. Though this is a worldwide phenomenon we only ever see its effects on the small Midwestern United States town of Keenan. Resident David Russell has his no 16 or 17-year-old son Eric quarantined in his childhood bedroom. David keeps Eric in restraints because of the seizures he experiences every day, one of many things that David's brother Tom needs explained to him. Tom was in jail for many years for killing a guy in a barfight and his post-release job search came to naught so he's hoping David won't mind taking him in, seeing as how it's the end of the world and that. David is pretty numb to everything these days so what's one more body in his house? Less willing to accept Tom's presence is his ex-wife Jean who is still sore about him killing that guy and then not coming home. And then there's Tom's parole officer, the sheriff, who looks like he almost misses proper crime. Currently the closest thing he has to trouble is two kids, Kip and Claire, who keep breaking into graveyards. All in all this is one dismal fucking bunch so maybe it's not such a terrible thing that the night that at midnight at Tom's first day in town the kids wake up.

A bunch of kids who haven't walked, read or spoken in a decade wouldn't be much of a threat but as David has observed the kids have been maintaining themselves so that it looks like at a moment's notice they could just pick up where they left off. Which is precisely what they do. The only difference between their old selves and new is that the only thing the kids have on their mind is killing everyone old enough to buy beer. In little time at all the residents of Keenan look to have been reduced to just Tom, Jean, her brother Sam, the sheriff, his deputy and wife, Claire and Kip. The only thing that keeps them alive is their willingness to kill the kids that everyone in town was either surprised by or too soft to kill. That and Claire and Kip's resemblance to the recently awakened killer teens. Their only hope now lies in a military base some 40 miles out of town that the sheriff heard a dispatch from, but they have to act fast because the kids seem to know all their next moves.

The number of ways in which The Plague goes awry is equal to the number of things it does right. The three best things about The Plague are its morose atmosphere, cavalier attitude towards its subject matter and curious leading man. Dread and hopelessness permeate every scene of the movie to the point that you wonder how anyone makes it through a day. Like Children of Men, a much better (and costlier) film on the same subject, you can feel that everyone is just getting through the day knowing that tomorrow isn't guaranteed and they may never see their loved ones wake up. It's never openly stated but I feel like the reason Tom felt ok throwing his marriage away was that they couldn't have expect to be able to have a child. I also suspect that that's why he feels less guilty about murdering children. At about the half-hour mark the film is about a power balance between adults and kids, with murder the only way to stay on top. Most films with such a limited audience, your average direct-to-DVD thriller, won't match this movie's grimness with its savagery. Hal Masonberg isn't exactly what you'd call an auteur so the film doesn't linger on the acts of violence (or anything for that matter) but there is more challenging material in The Plague than anything that the SyFy channel would ever bankroll. Though the casting of James Van Der Beek in the lead role is certainly not outside SyFy's MO. Van Der Beek spent his early career as the heartthrob lead character in Dawson's Creek. It's not even that he had trouble crossing over into movies after the series ended in 2003, he never really bothered to. He's averaged a film a year roughly since then and none has gone anywhere. Mostly he makes a living in bit parts on TV series. Seeing him here, looking like Bruce Campbell's younger brother, is really very strange. To go from every teen girl's wet dream to appearing sweaty, unshaven and powerless in a movie only ever seen by chance or out of boredom must be surreal, but that's show business. His dropped stature definitely helped me believe his character's desperation.
Of course nobody said Van Der Beek was much of an actor. He's fine but he looks tired the whole movie and I don't buy his devotion to his ex-wife for a second, nor that he's been through jail, a marriage, and the start of the end of the world. The performances are largely uninspired and I'm gonna put that on the director. The Plague looks and acts like a TV movie of the week and has all the visual flare on an infomercial. If he couldn't be bothered to light a room properly, what are the chances he was really taxing his actor's abilities? And the reason I know it's his fault is because I've seen Dee Wallace carry movies just as dire as this and save them. Here she is just as bad as everyone around her. And between Masonberg's script and his lifeless direction I couldn't really get worked up about anyone's fate, the kiss of death in a movie that promises to show you the end of the world. The key I think would have been going all out. Though it is clearly not meant to be seen as one The Plague strikes me as a modernized version of Max Kalmanowicz's The Children. Modern life is blamed for turning kids into killing machines in small town American and there's no way to tell the good ones from the bad ones. Now The Children was a far sillier film with much less ambition but the quality of the direction is the same, as is the exploitative nature of the story. But The Children commits to its heinous premise with a goofy execution that The Plague lacks. Thankfully there are killer child movies being made that really dig into their grotesquery. Films that happen to share titles with the aforementioned killer child film. This is about to get confusing.

The Children
by Tom Shankland
Two families are gathering at their collective vacation home in the English countryside. Robbie and Chloe are free spirited and laidback, Elaine and Jonah are uptight and nebbishy even though they're the sort of people who shop at Whole Foods. Their kids are thankfully too young to have benefited from anything other than their wealth despite their collective missteps as parents. Well, all but one. Casey is Elaine's daughter from her first marriage and let's just say she hasn't taken to life with her new dad. Jonah can barely stand to be in the same room with her parents feeling resentment towards her mother for not having given her any attention as a child; she was also nearly aborted because of the straights her mother was in at the time of her conception, a tidbit of information that Casey has been so effected by that she had a fetus tattooed on her stomach without her parents knowledge. Casey hates her new dad because their new daughter has sucked up all Elaine's attention and affection and Jonah has no time for his badgirl step-daughter who he views as nothing more than his wife's unavoidable baggage. And as if things weren't tense enough, Casey has decided that she's going to stave off boredom by hitting on Robbie in front of his wife and kids. He isn't entirely unreceptive. Though compared to what's in store for everyone tomorrow, their dysfunction is going to seem like a walk in the park.

The night of their arrival one of the kids falls sick and vomits something thick and green, but she seems to be healthy enough soon after. By the early afternoon the next day all the kids except Miranda, Elaine and Robbie's daughter, have puked up the mysterious bile. But just what does it mean? While playing in the snow the kids place their toys in just right the place so that when they come sledding down the hill, they crash into Robbie's knees and he cuts his throat when he hits the ground and then every one of the kids promptly disappears into the woods. Chaos erupts. Chloe is in hysterics not knowing whether to stay with her dying husband or go look for her kids who she has no reason to suspect did anything malicious. Jonah is useless in a crisis and mostly just isolates himself and Miranda suspecting Casey's behind it all. Elaine tries to remain calm but when shit gets weird, she doesn't know what to do. The only one who seems to know the score is Casey but the last thing a parent wants to hear is the truth about their children, especially from a teenage girl in a low-cut tank top.

The first thing that struck me about The Children was just how grizzly it is. Tom Shankland is no stranger to violence but I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly he establishes that no one is safe. Necessarily in a film about killer kids you have to be willing to break a few taboos. Turning kids into bloodthirsty killers is old hat by now but focusing exclusively on kids turning on their parents is bold. Shankland grants you zero distance from the violence, emotional and physical. His super-tight direction and Tim Murrell's furious editing keeps you on edge from start to finish. The ways in which all the murders and maimings are filmed makes sure that you see it coming and really feel the impact. He wants you to see how doomed everyone is and gives very little time to get over what you're seeing once the action really picks up. Not to mention the few close-ups we get of the violent acts (all very realistic) are pretty nasty. Glass in the neck is bad whether you're a kid or an adult. His control of the proceedings is helped greatly by the naturalistic performances. Though they occasionally veer close to stereotype, no one spirals more out of control than anyone else and in the end everyone's believable. Shankland makes great use of his single location and manages to make the crisis feel much bigger than just two families in a sizable house. When at the end it's implied that perhaps these aren't the only kids with problems the scope increases subtly in a way that it never does in The Plague, despite Masonberg's insistence that the problem is bigger than just a few streets and buildings in Keenan. Shankland doesn't need to expand the problem because it's already so psychologically troubling and he has no problem manipulating you into maximum discomfort. There are cheap shots in The Children but in the absence of a budget, name actors or the promise of distribution, sometimes you have to play dirty. Though it doesn't get quite as gleefully sadistic as Orphan, I was just as pleased at how sleazy The Children is.
The one aspect of the film that left me endlessly intrigued was the possibility that Shankland was paying tribute to one of my favorite forgotten exploitation films, Devil Times Five. That film was about the appearance of five kids (one played by a pre-stardom Leif Garrett) dressed for playtime at a wealthy American's house. They charm the guests but never stop communicating to each other and then one by one pick off their hosts. The winter setting not to mention the unchanged demeanor of the killer kids left me thinking that Shankland knew about the earlier film, even given its relative obscurity. But really all it shows is that there's nothing new under the sun, even if there is something more violent. This next film proves that you can do a lot right with an established formula but still fall short of your mark if you don't take us out of familiar territory. The Children and Devil Times Five have a lot in common but tonally they're night and day. The biggest problem our next killer kid movie has is that it's virtually interchangeable with every film it bears a passing resemblance to.

Wicked Little Things
by J.S. Cardone
In an opening that would have been just about the most articulately realized scenes in any zombie movie were it not for the opening titles constantly interrupting it we see a mining accident that could have been prevented with the result that a bunch of kids are trapped inside when an explosion caves it in. They're never seen or heard from again except in the urban legend of the town the mine borders. The accident was in 1913 and we join the story proper in 2006ish. Karen Tunny and her two daughters Sarah and Emma are visiting the area (Addytown, PA for those keeping score) because they've inherited the late Mr. Tunny's ancestral home. Karen's still distraught over her husband's death, Sarah would rather die than spend another second in the decrepit cabin or the one-horse town it sits in, and Emma's a little too in-the-clouds to be bothered by either problem, being no more than 6 or 7 years old. The house has no electricity or running water but the real problem lies in the woods.

Within a day Emma has run off and made friends with a girl called Mary that no one else can see. This worries Karen and not just because she runs off into the woods without telling her. Karen does a little investigating in the house and finds headlines from the time of the accident. Eerily, she can't shake the feeling that she recognizes one of the girls who was lost in the accident. While Karen restores the house Sarah does her best to forget where she is, and that includes making the acquaintance of Time, Lisa and Sean, the only other teenagers in town with access to a car. She ingratiates herself as quickly as Emma does with her imaginary friends in the woods. And as for them, they may just be behind all the disappearances that keep happening around the old Tunny place. After the electrician doesn't make it home, Karen goes looking for answers and finds Aaron Hanks, a superstitious old coot, who's been painting blood on the doors of all the houses in the woods. He has his reasons, not that anyone believes him. He seems to think that the children lost in the mining accident roam the woods killing all who don't protect themselves adequately, or who aren't blood relatives. And after a run-in with some pickax-wielding tykes, Sarah and Karen come around to his way of thinking.

J.S. Cardone has been doing this a long time, long enough to have made a movie, The Slayer, banned by the BBFC during the Video Nasties scare. He's been around long enough to know how to properly light a movie, create a sense of foreboding, and a few excellent images. It also means that because he's paying close attention to those things and hasn't been met with the acclaim or study of better-known filmmakers, he's lost his touch with actors. Wicked Little Things has an edge on all other low-budget zombie films in that it looks great and has a few brilliant set-ups. Cardone creates a lot of memorable spaces with light and shadow, that look like something Val Lewton would have come up with if tasked with making an 80s slasher film. The shots of the kids in the forest are almost always arresting, if not exactly scary. One trope of low-budget horror that Wicked Little Things unfortunately sticks to is never having our protagonists in the frame with the villain; you just never get scared unless you see how close to the monster you are. Anyway, the imagery is memorable but the story's been told a hundred times before and the visuals alone don't save it from being just another haunted woods/supernatural, grudge-holding ghouls movie. The version of the movie I saw was given it's international title Zombies. A move that bold deserves a film just as bold and Wicked Little Things is regrettably not that film.

I can tell that Cardone lost whatever flair he may have had with actors because even the best performances are saddled with awkward placement and vacant space. Take for example the quality of the three leads. Cardone scored a major coup as far as hindsight canon scouring is concerned by getting not only a pre-Halloween Scout Taylor-Compton but a pre-Kick Ass and Let The Right One In remake Chloe Moretz. Moretz is a good actress, even if she doesn't do anything for me and Taylor-Compton reminds once again that there is a right way to play an annoying teenage girl. But you really get a sense of how good each girl is whenever they have to share the screen with the woman playing their mother. Lori Heuring may well be just as good as her onscreen children but Cardone does her a serious disservice here. For the first fifteen minutes she's a likable and believable single mother. For the middle half-hour she's an affordable ringer for Naomi Watts in The Ring. For the last twenty minutes she's just no good and looks worse next to Scout Taylor-Compton, who's made a living making sense of roles that call for nothing less than screaming panic. One scene in particular raises this movie above mediocrity. In times of crisis in horror films, people rarely ask "why?" and instead leap to "how do we stop it?" Sarah frantically asks her mom how something as ridiculous as zombie children could be real? Scout Taylor-Compton sells it and for a second I really thought this would be the moment when Wicked Little Things rose way above it's station and had an honest moment between a mother and daughter completely overpowered by something unexplainable. Unfortnately Heuring and Cardone weren't willing to make it so and all becomes hysteria once more. Heuring's efforts to keep her head above water become all the clearer next to Geoffrey Lewis and Ben Cross, who could do this in their sleep. Cross might remember Chariots of Fire like death-bed addicts remember their first good trip but he's still a pretty good actor and even as a grizzled lunatic he's watchable. If only the rest of the cast were as good. The lack of a strong central character makes the ending irrelevant, which sucks the power out of Cardone's imagery.
To make something like this stick you need a good sense of the visual but you need to balance it with an equally strong command of your actors and of the conventions of your story so you know how to break away from them. Our final scary kid film comes courtesy of Belgium's favourite son Fabrice Du Welz. Welz makes for an interesting counterpoint to Cardone because if anything he tones down the visual excitement of his fright scenes and instead works on the texture of the film as a whole. Cardone brings out his sense of light and shadow for the parts when we're meant to be afraid and to a certain extent Welz does too, but he's more about jacking up your sensory experience and overwhelming you rather than picking a spot to spook you. Welz's film is almost all tension but he makes it count in a way uncommon to most young horror directors. Granted Vinyan isn't exactly straight-up horror, but having seen his two movies I trust his instincts and extraordinary eye.

by Fabrice Du Welz
Jeanne and Paul Bellmer lost their son Joshua during a typhoon in Bangkok a little while ago and have really only gotten to the stage of the healing process where they can start socializing again. At a party thrown by some millionaire friend of theirs to raise awareness for victims of the same disaster Jeanne notices something disconcerting among the photos of displaced children: Joshua. Or anyway it looks enough like him that she goes a little nuts trying to find someone to commit to taking them up river to the Thai Burmese border to where their friend Kim's photographer snapped the boy's picture. Paul is more than a little concerned. As much as the idea of reuniting with his son tempts him, he's also just gotten used to the idea that he's dead and thought Jeanne had too. He sees her Herculean dedication to finding him as not only regressive and unhealthy but as a threat to the balance of their relationship. Searching for Paul means just indulging her unhealthy psyche and letting her grieve longer than he did. He'll take her as far as she wants to go at great personal risk to himself but he'll resent her the entire trip.

After getting up river thanks to a connection that could charitably be called shady, they meet up with Kim, who clearly knows more than she let on at the house party. Her contacts kill Paul and Jeanne's guide who was evidently out to fleece them and she gives them a new one. The night they spend in Kim's village puts Jeanne in contact with some mystics who tell her about spirits that roam around aimlessly when the bodies they once possessed were killed horribly, called Vinyan. If Jeanne wasn't destined to keep going up river before she is now. The new guides are about as helpful as the first one and days after they've left the village, Jeanne and Paul have been abandoned in the jungle and have to keep walking for fear of something getting them if they slow down. Just what it is they don't know but all roads lead to a mammoth temple in the middle of the jungle where they meet more than just the vinyan they're searching for.

Nearly every review of Vinyan I've encountered has started by saying that fans of conventional horror will be dismayed. While I'm more than inclined to agree with that statement I'd like to state for the record: fuck those people. Horror films have always been, for better or worse, the metal music of cinema and I for one am sick of their reputation as the lunkheaded stepchild. Welz is one of a select few horror directors who frankly doesn't give a good goddamn what movies are supposed to do. He's a cinephile to be sure and he freely admits Vinyan's debt to Who Can Kill A Child? but his style is unique; one of brooding intensity. Though visually his movies are more sumptuous, Welz's style isn't unlike Asian directors like Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang. Weerasethakul especially has a penchant for letting situations unfold in the same way and I like to think that if he had a touch more of a painterly sense his movies might come out looking as nice as Vinyan. But if you compare the scene in Weeresethakul's Tropical Malady where his protagonist rides his motorcycle alone at night to the scene where Paul chases Jeanne through the streets of Bangkok the kinship becomes clear. I'm not saying Welz necessarily studied indigenous cinema before making a film set in Thailand but his language and style (which I'd sum up as surreal/hyper-real naturalism, if pressed) are universal as opposed to say that of Eli Roth or Alexandre Aja whose visuals are only ever means to an end. When you grow up with slasher films, you tend to put stock in their method of storytelling, which were largely gore delivery systems. I'd go so far as to call Welz an artist for whom every second is important, so his priorities are different (read: intelligent). And that his film doesn't resemble other modern horror fare visually says to me he's doing something right. After all, who wants their film to look like Hostel? And isn't every third horror film contractually obligated to look like Saw?

Because Welz is a naturalist Vinyan, like his debut Calvaire, does want for action in its midsection. The evening spent with Kim in the beachside village gives Welz a chance to work minor miracles with his lighting but not enough happens to justify the length of their stay. I stopped minding the sluggish pace when the boat docks for the last time and the horror starts. One of the advantages of setting your movie in Burma is that the place is terrifying enough without vengeful ghosts and Welz makes his pirates a thoroughly menacing presence. Putting them on equal footing with Jeanne and Paul for a night is the perfect way to illustrate just how much trouble they're in because until now no one has been impervious to harm but the pirates at the very least we're in total control. I had thought Welz would skirt the issue and have them abandon the parents there, but he seemed content to at least show us what they're up against. What's most interesting about Vinyan's few adherences to conventional structure is that once we see Jeanne's reaction to the picture, it isn't that the movie is about suspense between set-pieces, the whole movie is one tense build-up to the last scenes. Vinyan unfolds like Georges Sluizer's The Vanishing but with one dimension missing, that of the killer. In the end we are given a glimpse into what happened to the character who's been missing throughout, but Welz is too concerned with turning the environment into a breathing, intimidating villain that he can't afford to show us its point of view. Like The Vanishing the mid-section could have used some punching up, it's told in naturalistic style and is dripping with psychological unease. Knowing this I don't mind saying that I wanted something slightly more spectacular from the conclusion. It is a great ending and it retroactively fixed all my problems with the movie because of how well executed and psychologically dreadful it is (someday they'll call that the Welz touch) but I wanted it to be bigger, more colorful, more horrific. On the whole I was satisfied but I know a little more could have been done.
Seeing as how they're in every scene, Welz could have done a lot worse than casting Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Béart as Paul and Jeanne. Sewell almost never gets roles in non-terrible American movies so it was a blast to see him acting as well as he does on British TV and getting to keep his accent. Béart has dreaminess written on her face and it infects her manner and body language and makes her ideal for this role. The steely, lost look she wears on the journey make Sewell's increasingly desperate attempts to reach out to her incredibly worrying and sad. In the end, you're not sure who you feel sorry for, which is just the kind of ambiguity that is needed in modern horror. Anyone can cut up a blonde, which is why horror is momentarily stuck with its reputation as the hard-charging grimy headbanger of cinema. If Horror films are metal music then Vinyan, and Welz by extension, is Sunn 0)), and while yes it does take its time building atmosphere, I greatly prefer the craft of such an experience over the likes of Three Inches of Blood or Dimmu Borgir. Which you could call Cabin Fever and…let’s say Beast Within....Or better yet Underworld. Craft goes so far in horror films and seeing as how quickly genre films are cranked out today and given the full weight of studios, I’ll take it where I can get it. To see a movie so committed to its own rules is not just refreshing it’s vital. The economy the world over is in the toilet and people won’t spend money on a gamble anymore. Moneymen: Fabrice Du Welz has an hour and a half of feedback for you to listen to. Maybe it’ll clear your heads and show you how to make proper films.