‘Predators’ Rescues This Franchise From its PG-13 Depths

Predators movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2010.

After those two god-awful “Alien vs. Predator” movies which brought each franchise down to an unforgivably cartoonish level, at least one franchise gets back on track with the Robert Rodriguez produced “Predators.” It puts, as Arnold Schwarzenegger described them, the ugly motherfuckers back into the action-packed R-rated territory where they belong, and we are provided with a cast of characters who are mostly complex and a bit cliched, but they are never bland like the standard bunch of fools which inhabit every other summer blockbuster movie in existence. It also completely disregards the groan-inducing existence of the aforementioned “AVP” movies and acts as a direct sequel to “Predator” and “Predator 2.” Still, it is clear from the get go how this one owes much of its inspiration to the 1987 original.

Schwarzenegger continues to evade each sequel made to “Predator,” so we instead have Adrien Brody starring as Royce, an ex-military soldier who has long since become a mercenary. In light of movies like “The A-Team” and “Green Zone” which were clearly anti-mercenary, now we have one we can root for without too much cynicism. “Predators” commences with Royce waking up as he is free falling in a way Tom Petty never sang about through the atmosphere to a planet’s surface where his parachute opens just in the nick of time. Once there, he comes into contact with others who have arrived in the same manner. They are all from different ethnic backgrounds but have one thing in common; they are the worst of the worst and are the best at what they do which is eliminating their respective enemies. Not all of them make it safely though as one slams to the ground when his parachute fails to open. This reminded me of Michael Rooker’s line from “Cliffhanger” when he said, “Gravity’s a bitch, isn’t it?”

They believe they are still on earth as the jungle looks all too familiar in their eyes, but it is soon revealed they are actually on some distant unnamed planet and have been dropped into a game preserve. Upon realizing they are in foreign territory, Royce correctly surmises they are the game. The predators are out there in their camouflage disguises, ready to dismember their prey in the most lethal way possible. I’m sure many you have seen the first two “Predator” movies and have gloried in their gloriously gory kills, and you can expect many good ones in this sequel.

The one thing I really liked about “Predators” is how it surrounds us with characters that are not the least bit watered over. Their lives have descended into the dark spaces we live to avoid, and their actions over time have branded them as criminals who are among the most wanted by their governments. Regardless, we still root for them to defeat the Predators on their turf which resembles an Amazonian rain forest. None of them are easily likable, but they are also not the same boring stereotypical schmucks which overpopulated the “AVP” movies. Like the characters from the original “Predator,” many whom have since become politicians, each one has their own set of quirks and crimes to run away from.

In addition to Adrien Brody, Alice Braga co-stars as Isabelle, a sniper from the Israel Defense Force and a CIA black operations assassin. Braga’s role continues the genre’s popular usage of strong female characters who can never ever be defeated easily, if at all. You also have Danny Trejo as the ruthless enforcer for a Mexican drug cartel named Cuchillo, Oleg Taktarov as a Russian commando Nikolai (a lot of Russian characters get named Nikolai in movies), Louis Ozawa Changchien as Yakuza enforcer Hanzo, Mahershala Ali as Sierra Leone RUF death squad soldier Mombasa, Topher Grace as a doctor named Edwin who seems misplaced among the group but has his own dark secrets, and Walton Goggins as San Quentin death row inmate Stans. They have their own specific weapons which act as an extension of what they are capable of doing, and despite their differences and varying levels of corruption, they need each other to survive. The writers did a good job of individualizing each character to where they stand out memorably, and each of them show how predators are equal opportunity decapitators. But therein lies the meaning behind the title of the movie; the humans are predators as well, and it’s kill or be killed.

By destroying the predators before they get murdered in a most vicious manner, the humans see this as their shot at redemption for all their bad deeds. Stans, on the other hand, who was on the verge of being executed, sees this as an opportunity to do the same things he got sent him to death row for. Its proof once again that crime makes you stupid.

While Rodriguez’s name has been plastered all over the promotional materials for “Predators,” the movie was directed by Nimród Antal who previously made “Vacancy” and “Armored.” Nimród gets a good dose of suspense and tension going, and he shows no interest in giving us a PG-13 movie we did not ask for. He does, however, let the pace drag towards the middle and gives us a little more exposition than we need. Things do pick up towards the end though, so he certainly did not forget the kind of movie fans expected to see.

The Predators themselves still look very threatening after all these years, and the filmmakers also bring us different versions of them throughout the carnage, just like at the end of “Predator 2.” We even get some Predator-like dogs which speed off after the protagonists like they are cougars coming out of nowhere. They look like the most vicious German shepherds you could ever come across. I know people think Doberman pinchers are the most dangerous dogs, but German shepherds freak me out more.

At first, it feels odd to see Brody cast as an action hero, but he pulls it off and makes Royce one of the more authentic antiheroes I have seen recently. Yes, he does have that moment where he takes his shirt off to show us how often he goes to the gym, but that is indeed an authentic six pack you see on him. Once again, Brody proves to be an actor who deserves a little more credit than he often gets.

I also really liked Braga as Isabelle as the actress sells you completely on her character of a female soldier who is tough as nails and not to be trifled or flirted with. She’s also the one who convinces the group how they are better off sticking together in the midst of odds which threaten to be as harsh as those of winning the California Lottery.

There’s also an inspired supporting performance by Laurence Fishburne as Roland Noland, a soldier who has managed to survive for “ten seasons” without having been slaughtered. The price for his survival though is the loss of his sanity as he has been on this planet for much longer than anyone should. Morpheus he ain’t, and Roland threatens to be every bit as lethal as the Predators. Granted, it’s kind of hard to make friends when many of them get sliced in half before you get to know their middle name, and it’s easy to develop invisible friends and talk to yourself as these aliens prove to be lacking in conversational skills. Fishburne is a kick, and it would have been cool to have seen more of him here.

But let’s not forget one of the most pivotal characters in this franchise which is the music of Alan Silvestri. The score for “Predators” was actually composed by John Debney, but Silvestri’s unforgettable themes are on full display here. All the heavy horn blasts, staccato string rhythms, and undulating timpani rolls are on display, and they continue to highlight all the action and tense proceedings throughout. While Debney does make the score his own, even he can’t ignore the themes Silvestri made famous.

Still, there is really no way to fully capture the menace these cinematic creatures had to the same level of the original. One of the great things about “Predator” was that, as with “Alien” or even “Jaws,” you didn’t get to see the full creature until the movie’s last act. As a result, they were scarier to where the thought of them alone left you deeply unnerved. These creatures have been around for so long now, and we have become all too familiar with how they look and attack which does take from this finished product.

But for what it’s worth, “Predators” does provide some slam bang entertainment which helps to make up for those horrifically bad “Alien vs. Predator” movies, and it brings this particular franchise back to its roots, something that was long overdue. My only other complaint is there is not enough of Danny Trejo to see here, but we’ll be catching up with that badass soon when “Machete” gets released, and I can’t wait for that one.

* * * out of * * * *

 

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‘Black Swan’ is a Tour de Force for Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman

Black Swan movie poster

JESUS CHRIST!!! This was my immediate reaction after witnessing Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.” A combination of “The Wrestler” and “Requiem for A Dream” with a dose of “Rosemary’s Baby” thrown in for good measure, it is a brilliantly over the top psychosexual thriller which continually ratchets up suspense and tension all the way to its horrifying climax. And unlike Mia Farrow’s character in “Rosemary’s Baby,” Natalie Portman has a really nice haircut.

Just as it was with “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan” serves as an expose sorts on the athletic arena it focuses on. The backstage world of ballet dancing is highly competitive, and the career of a dancer can easily be short-lived if an unexpected injury, either a big or small one, occurs. Many view ballet as being very boring and would rather tune into Monday Night Football. Try dragging kids to a production of “The Nutcracker” and watch how they run for the hills. This is the reaction I get from most people I know, although I’m sure there are exceptions.

But don’t let any preconceptions about ballet turn you off from seeing this film. It is anything but boring, and both Aronofsky and Portman brilliantly capture the physically and psychologically draining aspects of ballet to where you feel as wiped out and crazed as they do throughout. Like any other art form, ballet demands years of training in order to reach a level of perfection few can achieve. It is also shown to be an isolating career because, with so many people going after the same lead role, making friends is a struggle as you wonder what they are saying behind your back. With the bitterness level sky high, ballet threatens to be more damaging psychologically than physically.

Portman plays Nina Sayers, a member of a prominent New York City ballet company. After years of hard work, Nina gets her lucky break when she snags the lead role in “Swan Lake,” a show is as overdone as many of Neil Simon’s plays. This show has one of the most coveted roles in any show as it is incredibly challenging. Nina has to play the White Swan who is a creature of innocence, and also the Black Swan who is one of a sensual and dark nature. Basically, it is the dancer’s “Hamlet.” While her director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) thinks she is perfect as the White Swan, he has doubts about her ability to play the Black Swan as she is so technically precise in her movements, and the latter role requires her to lose herself in the passionately dark nature of the character.

Once we see Nina walk down the streets of New York past a woman who looks exactly like her, we are caught up in her downward spiral which she is helpless to stop. We watch as she encounters people and situations which feel real, but later turn out to be nothing more than hallucinations. There are times where she even looks like she is turning into a swan. While this may sound ridiculous on paper, it is brilliantly conceived visually from the rash on Nina’s back to those blood red eyes she develops. There are even points where she is dancing in front of a mirror, and her reflection turns around to glare at her malevolently.

The line between what is real and what is not becomes completely blurred, and neither the audience or Nina are able to tell the difference between the two. Many may be maddened at not being able to understand all of what is happening, but that’s precisely the point. Aronofsky puts you directly into Nina’s mindset, which has already proven to be an emotionally fragile place, and we are instantly caught up in her psychological disintegration. This makes “Black Swan” all the more visceral to experience. We are not just watching Nina go mad, we feel like we are going mad with her.

Portman does truly give the performance of her career here. She trained in ballet for a year or so, and her preparation really paid off. Throughout, she captures the sweet nature of Nina as well as the paranoia and resentment which overwhelms her the closer she gets to the opening performance. Watching Portman practice her dancing to no end is emotionally exhausting as it is for her physically, and she makes us feel like we are right on the edge of disaster with her. Portman has always been an amazing actress, but her work in “Black Swan” represents the culmination of a great career which is more than ready to head into adulthood.

Mila Kunis, looking even sexier here than she did in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” co-stars as another dancer, Lily. Unlike Nina, she is free with her body and mind, and what she lacks in precision she makes up for in unbridled passion. She’s at times friendly, wanting to break the ice between her and Nina, and her power of seduction is one Nina desperately wants to capture for herself. Kunis has become an increasingly fascinating actress, and seeing her go from sweet to a cold back stabber of a human being is made very believable by her work.

Oh yeah, there is a sex scene between Portman and Kunis which will have people checking out “Black Swan” for all the wrong reasons. Then again, any reason to get people to see this film might not be so bad. Furthermore, to dismiss this as a simple lesbian sex scene will only show how short sighted you are.

Aronofsky again employs his frequent collaborators to excellent effect. His director of photography, Matthew Libatique, almost makes this film look like a remake of “Suspiria” as the colors become overpowering once they become blacker and infinitely vicious. “Black Swan” is as much a sensory experience as it is a psychological one, just like “Requiem for A Dream” was. Libatique makes the special effects appear seamless in scenes where CGI is clearly utilized. As the background dancers pass by her, Nina sees her face in all of them. It’s such an eerie moment to where it doesn’t even feel like a special effect.

Then there is the fantastic Clint Mansell whose work on Aronofsky’s movies has become a main character in each of them. Mansell takes Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and breathes fresh life into it which is exhilarating to take in. His score becomes as intense as the images we see on screen, and I loved how visceral and thrillingly alive it all feels.

The movie also offers great performances from actresses we don’t see as much of on the silver screen: Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey. Ryder clearly understands the frustration her character of veteran dancer Beth MacIntyre is going through, and she captures this deeply hurt and excessively bitter character perfectly. At once an empathetic and at other times a pathetic person, we see just how much Beth has lived for ballet, and now that it has been cruelly taken away from her, she has little else to devote her life to. To be placed on a pedestal so high only to be yanked from it leaves her with nothing but desperation and deep self-loathing which is hard to dig oneself out of.

As for Hershey, she remains a phenomenal actress as she has been for many years. In movies like “A World Apart” and “Portrait of a Lady,” she has created indelible female characters who are never easily forgotten. Her role in “Black Swan” is no exception as she takes the clichéd role of a stage mother and makes her a loving person as well as an overbearing one. When we come to see how her character failed at a dancing career, it becomes frighteningly clear how much of her happiness is based on how successful her daughter is at hers.

“Black Swan” once again shows how brilliant a director Aronofsky is as he mixes up different genres to create one hell of a movie going experience. Portman’s magnificent performance really is one for the ages, and few other characters have been as physically demanding for an actor as Nina is. Even as things get more and more horrifying, Aronofsky keeps your eyes focused on the screen to where looking away from it would feel like a crime. Is it more intense than “Requiem for a Dream?” No, but it sure does come close!

One thing’s for sure, this will not be a good recruiting film for dancers. They’ll want to go into accounting or dentistry after watching this one!

* * * * out of * * * *