Predators

Predators is a surprising amount of fun, partly because of the surprises we get from the characters and plot. Not that the end is all that much of a surprise– we know who’s going to survive pretty much from the get-go.

Nonetheless, with good production value and committed performances, Predators is an enjoyable installment in a franchise that was definitely stalling.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released July 9, 2010

Written by Alex Litvak, Michael Finch, Jim Thomas, and John Thomas

Directed by Nimrod Antal

Starring Alice Braga, Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, Laurence Fishburne, Danny Trejo, Walton Goggins, Oleg Taktarov, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, and Louis Ozawa Changchien.

Rated R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Royce (Brody) is a beefy mercenary who suddenly finds himself falling into a strange jungle. He meets up with several others who are confused about where they have unexpectedly appeared. These are Isabelle (Braga), Edwin (Grace), Stans (Goggins), Nikolai (Taktarov), Cuchillo (Trejo), Mombasa (Ali), and Hanzo (Changchien).

They soon come to the realization that they are being hunted by a very advanced species, and as they die one by one, we are left with people who have to decide whether they even have a reason to survive. If they make it through the ordeal, can they even get home? If not, what’s the point?

And thus does the story unfold. Humans die messily and try to find a way out of an impossible situation.

Critique

The number one thing that Predators gets right is that it knows exactly what it is trying to accomplish: make the predators bad-asses again while at the same time return to the roots of their story by having a team of fighting people do their best but fail. The main hero has to shuck off all trappings of humanity and be as brutal as he possibly can be in order to accomplish his goal of survival.

To this end, the group dynamics as they are informed by each individual’s personality are very well done, without any unneeded silliness or sentimentality. Dialogue is brief and to the point, which makes for a nice, fast-paced actioner.

The setting is very well realized as well, with the visuals perfectly familiar- it’s a jungle- but also quite clearly alien in that they are on a different planet with terrifying creatures.

Despite a bit of a scene-chewing appearance by Laurence Fishburne and a fairly unnecessary honor plotline with Hanzo, Predators delivers an enjoyable action flick experience. It’s not as fresh or terrifying as the first one- how could it be?- but it puts the franchise back on an even keel and uses Adrien Brody pretty convincingly as a hard-edged action lead.

Content warnings: Plenty of salty language and vicious violence.

Writing: 4          Acting: 4          Overall: 4

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Inception

Inception is very smart, very slick, and very interesting. But ultimately, it fails to tell a truly satisfying story. In truth, Inception would have been better as an indie film rather than a blockbuster– we want a satisfying story from our blockbusters, not ‘challenging art.’

Seriously, Chris, just tell us if the top falls or not.

That said, this is a fascinating look at what you can do on film.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released July 16, 2010

Written by Christopher Nolan

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, Leonardo Di Caprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, and Lukas Haas

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

Dom Cobb (Di Caprio) is an accomplished thief. But he doesn’t burgle homes; he burgles minds. His specialty is extracting ideas from people in a dream state, usually for the benefit of corporations that hire him. He has a solid team that includes Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Hardy), and the newcomer Ariadne (Page).

Cobb has a dark, mysterious past that is slowly revealed throughout the story as he infiltrates people’s minds. But now Cobb has a new client that doesn’t want him to extract an idea, instead Cobb is to plant an idea. This is called ‘inception’ and is supposed to be impossible. It is also extremely dangerous.

Cue the mind-bending twists of rolling cities, spiraling hallways, and a cryptic top. The story unfolds at a brisk pace, throwing our protagonists against some unknown and not understood adversaries.

And we have the ending that isn’t an ending because it poses a question that we have been wondering the entire film but refuses to answer it.

Critique

Everything about this movie is truly wonderful and pleasing, despite it being at times hard to follow. The premise alone is fascinating and is explored wonderfully, with Nolan finding inventive ways to use modern film technologies to lend realism and eye-popping effects to what sometimes feels like a retro mobster film. The writing, up until the end, is engaging, with Cobb being both ruthless and sympathetic– indeed his ruthlessness is well founded on his past.

The rest of the characters are also interesting. Nolan clearly put a great deal of thought into each character, making sure that the film would allow each one to explore his or her arc fully. Arthur is particularly well done, as is Eames.

The problem is that the ending isn’t an ending. It’s a redundant question that the audience is robbed of the answer to. I worry that Nolan didn’t want to commit to an answer, which was why he didn’t give an answer. If that is the case, Christopher Nolan needed to buckle up and just answer the question the way the story needed it to be answered.

Otherwise, Inception is a fantastic film. Highly recommended.

Content warnings: Some language and violence.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 5          Overall: 4.5

Dom Cobb might just infiltrate your mind and plant the desire to share this review with your network. Or save me some money and yourself some odd dreams and share it on your own.

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Lawless

Lawless is a grim, gritty movie that succeeds in telling a story but generally fails in making the audience care. That’s probably because none of the characters are particularly interesting or fresh.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released August 29, 2012

Written by Nick Cave, based on the novel by Matt Bondurant

Directed by John Hillcoat

Starring Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Dane DeHaan, and Gary Oldman

Rated: R

*     *     *     *     *

Story

The Bondurants live in the Appalachian mountains, running a moonshine business during Prohibition. The leader of the clan is Forrest (Hardy), who survived the war and probably believes the popular legend that he’s invincible. He leads his two brothers in making  and selling 100% proof moonshine and running a family tavern. Howard (Clarke) is the big brother who drinks a little too much but is relentlessly loyal. Then there’s Jack (LaBeouf), the youngest of the three and known to be pretty much a pantywaist.

Jack is tired of being seen as a coward, especially when compared to his mighty brothers, so he hatches a plan to make a lot more money from the moonshine business by dealing with a big city criminal called Floyd Banner (Oldman). Unfortunately, there is also a new, sadistic lawman in town by the name of Charlie Rakes (Pearce). Rakes is OCD-tidy and clean, and he has no interest in upholding the law. Instead, he wants others to bow to his will. He’s unrepentantly and opaquely evil.

So while Jack leads the Bondurant business into extreme success, also building a massive and secret distillery, Rakes is out shutting down all the moonshiners in the area. Rakes’ goal is to take down the Bondurants, so he uses his sadistic torture to try to find the Bondurant distillery.

Added to these plots is the appearance of Maggie (Chastain), a beautiful red-head from Chicago who has a history but who wants to live in a simpler place and conveniently chooses to get a job at the Bondurant tavern. She and Forrest have an instant connection.

Meanwhile, Jack is courting a rigidly religious girl called Bertha (Wasikowska) and turning into an ostentatiously successful criminal. You know he’s going to make a stupid mistake that endangers his family business and the lives of those he loves.

Critique

The acting, for starters, in Lawless is all kinds of excellent. Pearce pulls of cruel and pure evil well, despite the depth of his evilness being totally incomprehensible. Hardy conveys tree-trunk solidity and a capacity for total brutality quite well, but his manner of speech and physical presence make him hard to really get inside of. Clarke is excellent, as always, giving the audience a little more access into an otherwise simple character who just wants to drink, work hard for his family, and chill out. He will follow Forrest to the depths of violence if Forrest wants him to.

Then there’s LaBeouf. I want him to stop being a fast-talker for once in one of his movies. He needs to get away from these roles; he’s got some serious problems if he can’t get a role that doesn’t ask him to be a wise-cracking, cocky dip nozzle. That said, this role does ask him to tone it down and Jack has something more of an arc that his characters typically have.

Chastain is steady, incredibly beautiful, and very damaged as Maggie. The character, like every character in this movie, is convenient and opaque, but Chastain still gives Maggie grace and tenderness, as well as toughness. Wasikowska does a lovely job as a cowed but curious young lady who finds joy in simple things and who responds beautifully to Jack’s courting.

Pearce’s Rakes is a massive, totally absurd caricature. This is not Pearce’s fault. Pearce hits the ball so far out of the park that it is probably in the Thunderdome. This guy has commitment. But the character– gosh it’s bad.

Which brings us to the writing. This is not a new story. Noble criminals are just minding their business until a selfishly corrupt lawman shows up and now we have a revenge story where the noble criminals are totally justified in being unbelievably brutal. The characters are all devices that allow the violence, grim outlook on the world, nihilism, and fashionably awful things to happen.

I didn’t like this movie and I doubt I would like the book. I don’t need to see a man’s neck sawed at. I don’t think anyone does. Needlessly brutal, pointlessly bleak, and irritatingly glorifying of violence and criminality without real consequence, Lawless is more than forgettable. It’s a waste of phenomenal talent. It’s only because of absurdly good acting that this movie is watchable.

Content warnings: Graphic and bloody violence, loads of profanity, a scene of nudity and sexuality

Writing: 1.5          Acting: 5          Overall: 3

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Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 doesn’t have quite the freshness that the first Iron Man film had, but it offers an interesting villain combination in Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke and the set pieces are mighty fine. The character of Tony Stark continues to be far more than meets the eye and the acting and deceptive light-heartedness of these films really sets them apart.

Plus, Don Cheadle.

Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Released May 7, 2010

Written by Justin Theroux. Based on the comics by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby

Directed by Jon Favreau

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Jon Favreau, Samuel Jackson, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, and Clark Gregg

Rated: PG-13

*     *     *     *     *

Story

After revealing that he is Iron Man, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is immediately targeted by the US government, who wants to confiscate his technology, aided by Justin Hammer (Rockwell), a rival weapons manufacturer who has no ethics and a chip on his shoulder. At the same time, a vengeful genius Russian inventor, Vanko (Rourke) targets Tony and hatches a plan to kill him.

When the plan fails, Hammer and Vanko team up, while at the same time, Tony’s friend Rhodey (Cheadle) grows increasingly concerned about Tony’s mental stability and becomes torn between his loyalty to his friend and his nation. While all of this is happening, we learn that Tony is being steadily poisoned by his arc reactor and that Tony needs to find a way to make the reactor safer– but this requires the use of an element that doesn’t exist.

Add to all of this the presence of Agent Coulson (Gregg) and Nick Fury (Jackson), who seem to want Stark to get involved in some kind of heroic initiative. Supporting Tony through all of this and running Tony’s company is Pepper Potts (Paltrow in one of her only palatable roles), who is also Tony’s love interest.

These tensions result in lots of explosions, snappy dialogue, and a heroic arc that takes Stark to a showdown with some seriously nasty weapons created by Vanko and Hammer.

Critique

Downey Jr. seems to have been made for this role– or maybe it’s the other way around. The edgy snark that is laid over the top of kindness, fear of hurting those he cares about, and honor, is once again deftly handled by probably the only actor who could pull this off. His performance is very well complemented by Cheadle playing a conflicted Rhodey and Rockwell doing his characteristically great job playing a layered slimeball.

The story is well-crafted also, with conflicts and tension arising from high stakes personal issues as well as global issues. Favreau keeps the pace moving along at an engaging clip, leaving time for characters to have moments that help them grow, but leaving no lag whatsoever.

As a sequel, Iron Man 2 is one of the few, such as Empire Strikes Back, that takes the original story and satisfyingly adds to it, despite not having quite the level of fresh wonder of the first. This film bursts with charm, humanity, humor, and action. It’s hard to enjoy Mickey Rourke, but he is quite convincing as a vengeful thug– although his ability as an inventor strains credulity.

If you liked the first Iron Man, you’ll like this one.

Content warnings: some salty language, plenty of explosive violence, a little blood, some suggestiveness.

Writing: 4.5          Acting: 4.5           Overall: 4.5

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