Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Census Flashback: High Altitude Terror

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of Skyscraper, which is about The Rock jumping around a tall building with robot legs (?), I'll be reviewing Mountaintop Motel Massacre, another film about the terrible things that can happen to you when you're high up in the air.

Year: 1983
Director: Jim McCullough Sr.
Cast: Bill Thurman, Anna Chappell, Will Mitchell
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It probably says something about how deep into this project I am that one of the big titles I had yet to tackle was Mountaintop Motel Massacre. And yet this is a title I've been looking forward to for a long time, and yes I do mean title. Because not a single thing about this movie is good other than what it's called, and when will I freaking learn, you guys?

This is what slasher marketing does to me every time.

I'm about to hit you with a plot synopsis that could actually be spooky and effective if it was in the hands of someone who had heard of the word "atmosphere." So, a group of unrelated strangers show up at the Mountaintop Motel in Arkansas one stormy night, not realizing that the proprietor Evelyn (Anna Chappell) is a former mental patient who just snapped and murdered her own daughter Lorie (Jill King).

Of course she goes around killing them, and that's pretty much the whole plot, so let's Meet the Meat real quick. There's the drunkard Reverend Bill McWilley (Bill Thurman of Innocent Prey), who is by far the most well-rounded character in the movie, which should tell you something; newly married couple Vernon (Gregg Brazzel, who actually went on to have a substantial career as a stunt coordinator on projects as varied as Road Trip, Texas Chainsaw 3D, and Movie 43) and Mary (Marian Jones); token black handyman Crenshaw (Major Brock); and hitchhiking cousins Tanya (Virginia Loridians) and Prissy (Amy Hill, who is also credited with the costumes, so you know this movie had a budget), who are picked up under false pretenses by the lecherous businessman Al (Will Mitchell).

This would be a great setup if they could afford a light!

As a person who loves both good and bad movies, the greatest sin a film can commit is being boring. And Mountaintop Motel Massacre is boring as hell, so boring that it leached all the energy out of me to the point that I couldn't get out of my miserable pile on the couch to set it at 1.5x speed and get through it that much quicker (a blessed trick I have employed on certain of the worst of these flicks). 

The bulk of the plot involves these ill-defined characters constantly wandering from one cabin to another identical cabin, having a brief conversation, then going back to the original cabin. All of this scintillating nonsense (that, come to think of it, probably just used the same cabin set over and over and over again) is constantly intercut with Evelyn doing something nefarious in the tunnels beneath the motel, but it's usually too dark to see and very rarely involves actually murdering someone. Mostly it just involves putting cockroaches or rats in someone's room, because Yelp didn't exist yet so you could just do something like that.

And when she does finally get down to the murder business, it involves a lot of cutaways and smears of ketchup blood on body parts that don't quite match the action of the scene. If being boring is the greatest sin of any movie, having boring kills is Original Sin for the slasher, a mistake so bad it goes on to negatively affect every single other element in the film.

She puts the "Eve" in "Evelyn."

And, as always, it's not like I'm promoting exploitation necessarily, but this is a slasher movie with multiple sex scenes that doesn't even have the decency to show nudity. That's the last gasp of potential interest in a movie like this, and they don't even have the balls to use the cheapest special effects in Hollywood: boobs and butts. Mountaintop Motel Massacre provides not a single reason to justify its existence, not even the relatively unusual fact that it has a female killer.

I was hoping from the poster that Evelyn would turn out to be a grande dame of crazed bloodletting like Betsy Palmer from Friday the 13th or Susan Tyrrell from Night Warning, but Chappell underplays every single line of dialogue she's given, and the blocking that has her wander around uselessly in the dark isn't doing her any favors. 

Add in the truly uncomfortable Me Too-ing of Al and the cousins, and you've got a recipe for a truly unpleasant, unbearable film. Mountaintop Motel Massacre escapes being the worst of these Census Bloodbath entries on the merits of actually having the structure of a movie (I'm looking at you, The Outing), but it's a dreadful effort that I'd only recommend to people who self-flagellate and have misplaced their cat o' nine tails.

Killer: Evelyn (Anna Chappell)
Final Girl: Tanya (Virginia Loridans), through no fault of her own
Sign of the Times: In order to find a place to stay for the night, Al uses his car phone (!) to call his secretary and ask her to check the hotel guide (!!).
Best Kill: Evelyn's death was too complicated to actually even tell what was happening, but at least there was a special effect, so... great job?
Scariest Moment: Evelyn stares at the onlookers at her daughter's funeral and imagines their voices all saying she's crazy.
Weirdest Moment: When Crenshaw sees Evelyn peeking through a trapdoor, he calmly grabs a nail and hammers the door shut without a second thought, then moves on with his life.
Champion Dialogue: "Where in the name of God's angels did rats come from?"
Body Count: 8
  1. Lorie's Rabbit is decapitated with a scythe.
  2. Lorie is slashed with a scythe.
  3. Prissy is scythed in the face.
  4. Reverend Bill is scythed in the chest.
  5. Mary is scythed and stabbed.
  6. Vernon is scythed in the neck.
  7. Crenshaw is scythed offscreen. 
  8. Evelyn gets impaled in the throat with some falling wood.
TL;DR: Mountaintop Motel Massacre is much too boring for the title it has.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1070

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Popcorn Kernels: Q2 Review Purge

In which we run through some mini-reviews of current 2018 films that I either didn't have time or interest to review fully.

Tag


Year: 2018
Director: Jeff Tomsic
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Ed Helms, Jake Johnson
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A group of five grown men play the same game of tag every month of May, and they're pulling out all the stops for their final season, interrupting the wedding of the only friend who has never been tagged.

Tag is a hangout comedy through and through, and luckily you mostly do want to hang out with these people, even if they're textbook examples of the white heterosexual man-children that occupy so much space in the comedy arena. It doesn't hurt that one of these people is Jon Hamm, who takes to comedy like a fish to water, and excels in any of the few places that ask him to be funny. Ed Helms is also never a bad personality to spend time with, Jeremy Renner's asshole character is in too little of the movie to make a negative impact, and Jake Johnson's cartoon stoner character isn't as foregrounded as another movie would have made him,

OK, well now that it's laid out like that, maybe I don't want to spend time with these people. Who I do want to spend time with is Isla Fisher as Ed Helms' wife. She occupies the Rose Byrne in Neighbors role here, as the supportive wife who is eighteen times more invested in the antics than her partner, to the point that it's almost psychotic. She steals the movie like she's auditioning for Ocean's 9, with a relaxed confidence that is effortlessly cool and compelling.

Where Tag fails is anytime it tries to apply any sort of dramatic subtext to the goings-on. We don't care about Jeremy Renner's relationship with these people for the same reason that it's troubled: he's never with them. There is no rapport established at any point in the movie, even in the many lame slow motion flashbacks to kids running around like gremlins.

Although his character is no good for drama, Renner does give the movie its best sequences, where it turns into a slapstick action movie. He channels the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes with a perfectly calculated inner monologue that show what an absolute machine he is when it comes to the game of Tag. These sequences are probably a bit too violent for how seriously the movie takes the rest of its characters and their situations (there is a really bad bit where the fakeouts and reality blend in a way that is much too brutal for what the stakes of this game really are), but they're also energetic and fun bright spots in a movie that mostly presents its world in a drab color palette of slate greys and shadow.

It seems like it's trying to be one of those indie comedies that isn't really funny, but an occasional Paul Feig burst of energy emerges to save the day. This doesn't add up to anything particularly special, but I had a decent time watching it, if only to see some fun personalities chill with one another and chatter pleasantly about the good old days.

Rating: 6/10

Upgrade


Year: 2018
Director: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Rosco Campbell
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A man whose wife has been murdered, leaving him a paraplegic, gets a computer chip installed in his spine that allows him to exact bloody revenge.

Have you heard of the odious movie trope known as "fridging?" The more you're aware of it, the less you'll like the first act of this movie, which uses a dead woman as a kick-off to a man's arc like many an action flick. This is not forgivable by the fact that Upgrade transparently wants to be a sci-fi version of Death Wish, though maybe it's a little more comprehensible why anybody thought that plot line was a good idea in mid-2018. Maybe.

That aside, I liked Upgrade quite a bit. Other than its obvious Death Wish ties, it also seems to be a pre-remake of the upcoming flick Venom, with a murderous symbiote grafted to a Tom Hardy lookalike. It's like an Asylum studios project, only actually fun!

Set in a Blade Runner-esque near future (the fact that this movie only serves to remind you of other movies could have been a liability, but the way it mixes and matches the tropes its pulling does give it a certain madcap playset energy that does it well), Upgrade exists in a beautifully conceived setting. It's not a particularly wide world they have created, but the honeycomb design of most of the futuristic spaces combined with the still-recognizable remnants of our current society that haven't quite been phased out is a triumph of mid-budget production design.

Although the characters are stock archetypes and the plot is predictable as hell, it's still fun to watch this roller coaster ride play out through this world, and the action sequences contained therein are pretty phenomenal. Logan Marshall-Green gets a chance to show off his best Bruce Campbell impression as his body performs incredible stunts, much to the shock of his face. The duality of the two characters inhabiting one body is never forgotten, and his physical performance is terrific, adding a boost to well-choreographed fights that end in ecstatically gruesome gore gags.

Sure, Upgrade isn't the most original or provocative movie that tumbled into theaters this year, but it was a hell of a turn-your-brain-off good time. Leigh Whannell knows how to entertain an audience, and in the summer season that's exactly what the world needs.

Rating: 7/10

The Death of Stalin
Year: 2018
Director: Armando Iannucci
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor
Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

After the death of Josef Stalin, his political comrades struggle to fill the power vacuum he has left behind, with hilarious [sic] results.

The Death of Stalin is a comedy for fancy people. I like to consider myself a fancy person every now and again (at least in my movie tastes, though that fact that I give equal marks to Breathless and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre probably disqualifies me from the club), but boy was this movie a chore. If you took the most forgotten sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus and expanded it into a feature film, it would be exactly like this movie. Except funnier.

This is Monty Python through a game of telephone, with characters jostling for attention through a series of comic vignettes that quietly refuse to land. It's a very meat and potatoes comedy, relying on setups and gags that are creaking and musty with age. But that's probably not fair to the movie either, because Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times uses every comic trick in the book and it's still fresh nearly a century later. It just kind of doesn't work, at least for my personal sense of humor, which is obviously extremely subjective.

The thing I think people are having a hard time separating here is the difference between "something smart" and "smart humor." Sure, this movie knows a heck of a lot about Russian politics, but faithfully presenting that throughout multiple extended scenes of murder and torture isn't funny. It just... is. Death of Stalin works better as a low budget History Channel documentary than a comedy, faithfully presenting so many events that it leaches the humor right on out of them in favor of historical footnotes and endless cameos from political figures of the time.

Maybe I'm just an uncultured boor who likes things to be loud and in my face, but this one just wasn't doing for me. And the less said about Jeffrey Tambor's presence, the better.

Rating: 4/10

Deep Blue Sea 2 (For the Scream 101 episode about this title, click here.)

Year: 2018
Director: Darin Scott
Cast: Danielle Savre, Rob Mayes, Michael Beach
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A businessman brings a team of experts to an ocean facility where he's experimenting on sharks to create a pill that increases intelligence, and obviously the sharks eat most of those people.

And here is the movie that I'm going to give the same rating as Death of Stalin, even though my enjoyment with it took me about ten million light years further than the former. I contain multitudes, everyone.

I have seen my fair share of direct-to-video, many years later sequels, and I must say, Deep Blue Sea 2 delivered exactly what I was expecting (a pale wisp of the original that acts more as a remake than a bona fide sequel). And yet, there's some spark about it that kept me invested more than usual. I wouldn't go so far to say that it qualifies as a true bad-good epic, but it certainly flirts with being entertaining more often than not, which is more than I can say for a lot of its ilk.

There are certainly a great deal of budgetary limitations that lead to a drab set, subpar acting, and an alarming lack of shark mayhem for long periods. But those limitations also lead to some very special moments, most notably a completely indelible scene where a shark puppet spies on a conversation through a porthole. Also, the one element where the film truly feels like a sequel is by far its best: instead of the giant sharks being the villains this time around, it's a herd of baby mutant sharks that have been let loose in the facility.

These baby sharks are the stuff that B-movie dreams are made of. They're adorable partially because of their low-fi nature, they allow for some creative kill sequences that wouldn't be physically possible with a larger specimen, and they allow this film to have some sort of feeling of generational legacy and passing the baton that gives it the air of a sequel, even if it's really nothing of the sort.

Sure, I could do with a lot fewer scenes of the characters wandering down the same metal hallway and bleating about their divergent philosophies. But for my money (which, mark you, was $1.75 at Redbox, I ain't no big spender), I had a decent time with this one. Recommended to anyone who likes sharks and isn't discerning.

Rating: 4/10

Sicario: Day of the Solado
Year: 2018
Director: Stefano Sollima
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner
Run Time: 2 hours 2 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

American operatives attempt to ignite a cartel war by kidnapping the daughter of a kingpin.

I have no large amount of love for the original Sicario, which is a beautiful but deeply unpleasant experience. But the deeper I got into the cumbersomely titled Day of the Soldado, the more I realized the value of that film. Because this is exactly the movie Sicario could have been if the script wasn't guided by the firm hands of director Denis Villenueve, cinematographer Roger Deakins, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, and star Emily Blunt.

Replace those people with an Italian TV director, the dude who shot the "Eternal Flame" music video, the cellist from The Revenant, and, well, nobody could replace Emily Blunt, and you have stripped away everything that made Sicario great. Instead of being a slick, tense, visually stunning descent into bleak nihilism, this film is just a shotgun blast of misery that begins to falter in the third act and falls face first in the mud before credits roll.

This film has a lot of problems, but it starts by introducing a wholly unnecessary terrorism element in favor of being "topical" before completely ignoring that plotline to continue their heavy-handed drudgery about the Mexican border (a topic that in the age of Trump is even more unpleasant to engage with, by the way). This allows the movie to reintroduce Josh Brolin's amoral character in a torture scene that reminds you how unsympathetic he is, before forcing you to spend the entire movie with him.

Also returning is Benicio del Toro, whose entire motivation has been corrupted by the need to bring back somebody else from the original film. He at least gets to act across from one of the only two interesting people in the movie, the young and talented Isabela Moner (the other is also a newbie - Elijah Rodriguez as a Mexican-American living in a Texas bordertown).

But the movie is still an endless repetition of shots and elements of the original, but worse. Even the overhead shots of helicopters soaring over the Mexican desert are more boring and ill-framed, and those were literally just shots of objects moving in a straight line. This is a sequel that never should have existed in the first place, and every single thing it does serves to remind you of that fact, especially the two worst elements in the movie: a pair of pulled punches in the third act that convert the film into a half-hearted fist-pumping hero flick, and Catherine Keener as Brolin's boss, totally lost in her nothing of a character. One to miss.

Rating: 3/10
Word Count:
Reviews In This Series
Sicario (Villenueve, 2015)
Sicario: Day of the Soldado (Sollima, 2018)

Monday, July 9, 2018

Don't Sweat The Small Stuff

Year: 2018
Director: Peyton Reed
Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña 
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

So this is how the Marvel movie year ends, not with a bang but with Michelle Pfeiffer. A scant two months and change after Avengers: Infinity War ravaged theaters worldwide, we're getting Ant-Man and the Wasp, a wispy summer treat before the MCU goes dormant until 2019, giving us some much needed rest. In which time we'll be getting Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, Teen Titans GO to the Movies, Venom, Aquaman, Hellboy, and X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Never say Hollywood doesn't try to capitalize on a trend.

So, we pick up nearly two years after the events of Captain America: Civil War (remember those? me neither). Ant-Man is on house arrest for violating the Sokovia Accords (yeah, I don't know), and he is three days away from being allowed to return to the world. Unfortunately, right about this time is when he discovers a quantum entanglement with Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), the long-thought-dead wife of original Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). This reunites him with Hank and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly, who for continuity's sake has to wear her original bowl cut wig in several scenes, causing me to giggle for about twenty minutes straight because I did not remember how stupid it looked and it really caught me by surprise), and they struggle to rebuild their relationship while figuring out how to rescue Janet from the quantum realm. I promise I reduced as much pseudo-science gobbledygook as I could from that paragraph. It was a Herculean effort.

While our heroes run through a video game-esque gauntlet of "Need Object A? Acquire Object B to gain access to Object C to get it," they must avoid the FBI officer Jimmy Woo (my boy Randall Park), the rogue tech black marketeer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), and Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), a girl whose particles keep expanding and contracting, allowing her to phase through objects, but keeping her in intense pain. She thinks she can cure her condition by sucking the science juice out of Michelle Pfeiffer, or something.

Though honestly, the pain seems like a fair trade for such a rad evil suit.

So far both Ant-Man movies have felt like a bit of a break from the MCU at large. The first one had a stronger separate core for its own story (namely, the heist element), whereas this one does have to deal largely with the implications left behind from a previous spinoff, but for the most part it's equally contained. The plot itself is a bit more sprawling, but it doesn't spill over into any other characters or plot lines, which is a welcome respite after the world-shattering character collisions of Infinity War  that required an MCU encyclopedia to get through.

And also much like the first one, there isn't a lot of meat on these bones. Anytime the story turns its focus to its feeble character drama, it becomes almost laughable. Lilly and Rudd's total lack of romantic chemistry exposes the mechanical artifice of the script. Whenever they exchange a glance or a kiss, you can hear the plot gears chunk into place. These things don't happen because they want them to, they happen because the narrative needs them to. The same goes for this film's wrinkle, the fact that Ant-Man's suit is a prototype and sometimes malfunctions, randomly changing his size at inopportune moments. But this happens only when its most convenient to the plot for a joke, and doesn't cause any major strife other than yet another one of the film's endless video game side missions.

"Alright, who ordered the plot contrivance?"

Honestly, I'd be more content if this was just a comedy about being on house arrest, because as usual the humor is by far the strongest element of the movie. The bulk of this is delivered by Michael Peña, who returns to once more prove that the entire movie lies in the palm of his hand, but we also, blissfully get an appearance by Randall Park. I've long been a proponent of Park, but this is the first side role he's gotten in a comedy where he really gets to shine, allowing his character's businesslike exterior and seriousness convert into awkward ineptitude and confusion at the drop of a hat. It's his best work in a long time, and he's always doing his best work.

Paul Rudd is of course on fire as well, but whenever he has to deal with Lilly and her bleating nothing of a character, he flounders a little bit. He flounders a lot bit during a scene where [SEMI-SPOILERS] he channels a woman's spirit into his body, which he plays like a high school freshman trying drag for the first time in drama class [SPOILERS OVER]. But come on. He's Paul Rudd. He acts his way back out of that paper bag over and over again. And then there's Michael Douglas, who at this point is just expensive window dressing. 

At least they fixed Hope's hair. This is an even bigger triumph than Jurassic World correcting Bryce Dallas Howard's footwear.

But even if the drama is firing on zero cylinders, the action is solid enough to provide a satisfying popcorn superhero romp. They really lean into our heroes' abilities to change size here, turning various small rooms and San Francisco cityscapes into wonderful Alice in Wonderland playsets, finding new, creative uses for everyday objects that is tremendously satisfying, even if it's not particularly groundbreaking.

Really, Ant-Man and the Wasp does what it needed to do. It provides us a (blissfully short, for one of these movies) two hours of distraction from the world outside (and, if you live near me, the blistering heat wave we got last Friday). It doesn't try your patience or test your brain in any way, it just lets you sink into a morass of fun, funny people doing spectacular things and not asking you to feel too much about it other than excitement. It won't go down in the pantheon of great summer movies, but it hits the spot, for sure.

TL;DR: Ant-Man and the Wasp is a forgettable popcorn movie, which is exactly what it needed to be.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1048
Reviews In This Series
Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015)
Ant-Man (Reed, 2015)
Captain America: Civil War (Russo & Russo, 2016)
Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016)
Black Panther (Coogler, 2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (Russo & Russo, 2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)

Friday, July 6, 2018

America First

Year: 2018
Director: Gerard McMurray
Cast: Y'lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade
Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The Purge franchise and I have a very special, very troubled relationship. The original Purge was the first film I ever reviewed on this blog, so its rise is inextricably linked with mine. And you know I love me some political subtext in my horror movies. But as the franchise go on the subtext becomes text and that text becomes ridiculous. So I equally look forward to and dread each upcoming entry for the new heights of shameless browbeating, exciting inclusivity, and further demolition of the very concept of subtlety. It's a delicious combination of love and disappointment that keeps me coming back.

... Get it?

The First Purge tells the story of, well, the first Purge: the experiment that began the yearly 12 hour holiday of punishment-free crime and catharsis that has come to define America in the near-future. Spearheaded by apolitical psychologist Dr. Updale (Marisa Tomei, who is in the movie so little that I think she legally qualifies as an extra) and the deliciously villain-named Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh), the Chief of Staff for the New Founding Fathers who have recently taken office in the White House.

The first Purge will take place on Staten Island, with the residents enticed to stay with a financial incentive. Certain, more unstable individuals like the crackhead known as Skeletor (Rotimi Paul) are also granted additional money for each person they kill during the experiment. Let's just say the experiment is getting goosed a bit so it goes well for the White House, who want to eliminate the lower classes as efficiently as possible.

The lower classes we're concerned with in particular are brother and sister Nya (Lex Scott Davis) and Isaiah (Joivan Wade), their neighbors in a prominent housing project, and the drug kingpin Dimitri (Y'lan Noel, who you may know from being super hot, but also from Insecure on HBO) who used to date Nya before she turned to a straight and narrow life of poverty and activism.

Although any decision that leads you away from the most ripped man in Staten Island is probably a bad one.

This movie could have walked right into that "The Worst Purge" joke, and luckily it avoids that pitfall, but it doesn't rise far above "adequate" at any given moment. There are certain traditions that the Purge movies have become very good at that it continues, for certain, but it also doubles down on some of the worst habits of the franchise. But let's start with the good, I say.

For one thing, these movies always bring fresh new non-white-people talent to the board. Although this film doesn't have a particular standout like Election Year's Betty Gabriel, instead the entire cast provides a solid example of badass women and non-stereotyped men. By positioning ethnic minorities and lower class individuals as the protagonists, as they have in the last two or three entries (of course the original film had to follow a wealthy white family, this is the horror genre), they always bring a solid crop of young actors-to-watch, giving them a chance to finally grab the spotlight by being leads instead of being eleventh billed in Tyler Perry movies.

I commend this decision making, as always, though The First Purge seems unaware of the exact implications of positioning a drug kingpin as the hero of the story. He is just as culpable of killing minorities and terrorizing poor neighborhoods, but we're supposed to trust that the people he kills are the right ones, at least by the end. They toss a couple lines in the direction of that particular wrinkle, but mostly they don't seem to be aware of some of the deeper meanings they're creating.

Look, I know his guns are distracting, but you need to focus on the GUN sometimes.

The other good thing that keeps this film consistent with the franchise's milieu is the pretty unimpeachable visual and audio design. There is one particular sci-fi design choice I don't like (certain participants of the experiment are using video-recording contact lenses that give them goofy glowing eyes), but the masks they showcase here are - as ever - creatively creepy to the millionth degree, and the sound design that ignites the beginning of the Purge is still a chillingly grating bit of sonic shrapnel that sinks deep into your bones.

You may have noticed that I keep undercutting my compliments, but that's the rub of The First Purge. It is aggressively devoted to averaging out, sanding off the edges of anything worth watching. To be fair (or not, let's point some fingers), lots of material seems to have landed on the cutting room floor. There are a half dozen subplots and characters that practically never appear again or completely fail to have a showcase moment (especially in the case of a trio of old men who are clearly set up to be the Mykelti Williamson of this movie, but completely vanish before they get a chance to). It's a messy plot at best, a disastrously compromised one at worst.

And at the very worst, you have Marisa Tomei, who isn't technically slumming it because I don't think she's actually in this movie. We get to see her walk a little, stand a lot, and mumble a couple words before she's unceremoniously shoved from the movie. This is not how you treat your only established cast member, folks! I'm sure they could only get her for a couple days, but give her something to do for one of them!

Other than rock awesome wardrobe pieces from The Craft.

The thing about genre movies is that its strengths and flaws all rely on the bedrock of action or terror to support them, and The First Purge doesn't have much of either. The third act conflict is set within an obnoxious strobe light gag that I disliked for more reasons than my photosensitivity, and most of the Purge Night shenanigans don't really match the mania and almost beautiful phantasmagoria of previous entries. It's just enough to keep you invested in the basics of the plot and characters, but that's all you ever get. 

It's not the worst Purge by a long shot, but it's the blandest Purge, and that's almost worse because these movies are nothing if not zesty.

TL;DR: The First Purge is a bland, overserious action-horror flick, but it also continues some of the best traditions of the Purge franchise.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1092
Reviews In This Series
The Purge (DeMonaco, 2013)
The Purge: Anarchy (DeMonaco, 2014)
The Purge: Election Year (DeMonaco, 2016)
The First Purge (McMurray, 2018)

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Census Flashback: Kicking Ass... Together!

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of Ant-Man and the Wasp, which is about two romantic partners being superheroes together, I'll be reviewing Psychos in Love, which is about a married couple who just so happen to both be mad slashers.

Year: 1987
Director: Gorman Bechard
Cast: Carmine Capobianco, Debi Thibeault, Cecelia Wilde
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: UR

That awesome poster may cry "too gory for the silver screen," but we should know by now not to trust slasher marketing. This is a direct-to-video project through and through, and DTV slashers are a real risk to one's sanity. Shot by amateurs on budgets that would barely cover a studio craft services table, DTV (especially SOV - ones that are shot on video, which I'm fairly certain this one is) 80's slashers are direct mainlines to the purest (usually worst) instincts of unprofessional filmmakers. Psychos in Love is quite proudly the very same, but the filmmaker in question has such an unusual and twisted imagination that it's actually a pretty fascinating experiment. Let's dive in!

It's time to really get into the meat of the movie.

Psychos in Love is a lightly mockumentary-style film, frequently cutting to confessional interviews with its two leads from an indistinct point in the future, those leads being Joe (Carmine Capobianco) - the owner of a strip club (or, at least, a bar with one stripper) - and Kate (Debi Thibeault) - a manicurist. They meet and fall in love over their common hobby - being homicidal maniacs. Their relationship plays out over the course of many, many, many killings, until they eventually face off against a third killer who we see in occasional snippets - a plumber named Herman (Frank Stewart) who murders his customers.

It's very bad for word of mouth.

Psychos in Love explicitly positions itself as a comedy first and foremost, which is a terrific decision because it is a very bad horror film. Just like last week's slasher La muerte del chacal, whose main character was a cop, the leads here are not actually in the potential body count (in this case because they're the killers themselves), preventing you from ever spending time with or identifying with their victims. This obliterates the tension, as does the endlessly repetitive series of drearily similar, mostly offscreen and bloodless slashing scenes that come shooting down the pike like chocolates on I Love Lucy's conveyor belt.

But as a comedy, it... Well, I wouldn't say "excels," but I honestly don't know what I'd say. The repetitive plot that wanders in circles across the screen like it's lost in the woods does a lot to deflate all the energy, be it horror or comedy. But the humor has a unique spark that you can't look away from. In between the killing bits are bizarre vignettes that are totally unpredictable. Sometimes they're Abbot & Costello routines with a deaf pastor or a French waiter, sometimes it's gross-out cannibal humor (in the random interludes starring Herman), sometimes it's minutes-long monologues about grapes, sometimes it's a live action cartoon that literally includes a pie-in-the-face scene, and every time it's something completely out of left field. I can't tell if it's idiotic or genius, but it's certainly captivating.

And some of it is actually laugh-out-loud funny. I giggled during a gag about spiking a drink with poison that turns into an over-the-top extended sequence straight out of Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, and during quite a few of the more well-written lines that sneak in. But the thing that makes it most fascinating as a scrap of weirdo outsider humor is just how meta everything gets. There's already the mockumentay angle, but there are occasional moments where the film crew becomes active participants in the goings-on, and one moment where Joe hums along with the film's score that sorta blew my mind. I haven't seen a movie since Swiss Army Man where the musical score is so effortlessly, bizarre integrated with the actual events of the film. That takes a lot of forethought for such a throwaway joke, and it's not the only time this sort of thing happens. Sometimes, characters will seem to step out of their skins and interact directly with the script or the frame in a brain-melting, astonishing way. It shows that writer-director Gorman Bechard is a true junk-auteur and not just a money-grubbing weirdo.

Well, maybe both.

Unfortunately, there's still a lot that prevents me from wholeheartedly singing this film's praises. For one thing, good comedy needs good actors, and Carmine Capobianco's unhinged performance has a kind of anti-charisma that leaves you tasting flop sweat for hours. Debi Thibeault picks up some of the slack with a reasonably lived-in, chemistry-forcing performance, but Capobianco's terrible timing doesn't help matters one bit. Though I guess it does prove that the script is strong, because most of these scenes do tend to still be funny in spite of him. I can't say I expected good performances from my DTV slasher, but anything could happen in a film as weird and unpredictable as Psychos in Love.

Its other flaws stem from that exact same place. I've already commented on just how dull of a slog the actual kills are (especially since they're all hung on the weak-ass comic hook of how lightly ironic it is that this happy couple are also violent killers), but most scenes have aimless blocking that see the participants sort of hovering onscreen waiting for something to happen. And there's a near-rape scene that suddenly converts Kate into a victim for two grueling minutes that have no business in a film that's attempting to be a frothy, pitch-black romp.

I really don't think I can recommend Psychos in Love to anybody but the most committed patrons of weird horror, but I count myself among that number and will probably revisit it from time to time just to take a break from the rigors of reality and enter a universe that's this thoroughly, delightfully off-kilter.

Killer: Joe (Carmine Capobianco) and Kate (Debi Thibeault) and sometimes Herman (Frank Stewart)
Final Girl: N/A
Best Kill: The only decent gore effect is probably the dude getting stabbed in the eye with cuticle scissors.
Sign of the Times: Joe compliments Kate on her "small ass." Maybe this is just a gay thing, but I feel like the ideal body type - while still totally whack - has moved a bit past that particular trait.
Scariest Moment: Anytime Herman comes onscreen, you know stuff is about to get gross.
Weirdest Moment: After announcing "time for a strange interlude" in the middle of a scene, Joe launches into a non sequitur monologue about grapes and Julie Andrews.
Champion Dialogue: "Baby, you look hotter than the weather!"
Body Count: 19; 11 by Joe, 5 by Kate, and 2 by Herman
  1. Pee Girl is hung in a bathroom stall.
  2. Woods Girl is garroted, the wire twisted with a stick like Friday the 13th Part V.
  3. Topless Girl has her throat slit.
  4. Diane is stabbed in the shower.
  5. Leisure Suit Dude is shot in the head with a shotgun.
  6. Picnic Guy is stabbed in the gut.
  7. Manicure Man has his throat slit with a cuticle knife.
  8. Sauna Lady drinks poison.
  9. Manicure Man #2 is chainsawed.
  10. Groupie Girl is stabbed.
  11. Cathy is hit in the head with a wrench.
  12. Mechanic is bludgeoned in the head with a rock.
  13. Redneck is shot.
  14. Susan is stabbed.
  15. Rasputin Stripper is shot, stabbed, has her throat slit, and is chopped into tiny pieces.
  16. Hooker is stabbed in the back.
  17. Weatherman is stabbed in the eye with cuticle scissors.
  18. Temptress has a knife embedded in her neck.
  19. Herman is killed in a blackout.
TL;DR: Psychos in Love is surprisingly funny, but its lack of focus is damning.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1324

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Life, Uh...

Year: 2018
Director: J. A. Bayona
Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall
Run Time: 2 hours 8 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Jurassic Park is one of my favorite movies in the history of cinema, so I don't know whether that makes it shocking or completely understandable that I felt no interest in checking out Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. The fifth entry in the long-running blockbuster franchise is about as far from that original film as you can get while still being about CGI dinosaurs. Jurassic Park has more in common with When Harry Met Sally than Fallen Kingdom.

Approach with caution.

So, Fallen Kingdom picks up several years after Jurassic World. Dinosaurs are living in peace on Isla Nublar following the destruction of the theme park, but a volcanic eruption threatens their survival. Dinosaur rights activist Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) and velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) are sent to the island on a rescue mission by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), a proxy for John Hammond's former business partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell). Because you can never trust the rich, in real life and especially the movies, this trip may not be as kosher as it seems.

Along for the ride are sharp-tongued paleobiologist Zia (Daniella Pineda) and wimpy tech dweeb Franklin (Justice Smith), as well as what the movie paints as years of emotional baggage and sexual tension between Owen and Claire, even though it's just thin air. Also there's a little girl (Isabella Sermon) running around, because what's a Jurassic Park movie without an unnecessary child character?

Better.

Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom is a phenomenally dumb movie that takes the franchise in a phenomenally dumb direction that paints future Jurassic directors into a corner, forcing them to make a phenomenally dumb movie as well, whenever that should come down the pike. It's so dumb that its dumbness is literally infecting the future. Its dumbness has slipped out of the timestream, and not even Doctor Who can stop it.

Sometimes this dumbness is used to its advantage, like how every shot of Claire begins at her sensible shoes and pans up, throwing a hilariously overbearing number of winks at the "high heels in the jungle" controversy. Mostly it is used to its detriment, like the rapidly fluctuating number of guards around at any given time when our heroes need to sneak around the bad guy's lair that totally diminish any tension or stakes because they're never around when plot stuff needs to happen. 

Sometimes Fallen Kingdom hits the bad-good strides I was hoping for, including a sterling moment where Bryce Dallas Howard shrieks the word "Chair!" with a hurricane-blast of emotion like she was gunning for that clip to end up on her Oscar reel. In fact, she's frequently too good for the material, but in the completely wrong direction, turning random lines into scenery-obliterating grenades of diva drama that would make Gone with the Wind blush. 

"These raptors will never be hungry again!"

While Howard is busy either giving the best or the worst performance in the movie, the rest of the cast just flounders around, drowning in a sea of unmotivated decision-making, inscrutable dialogue, and CGI mayhem. Chris Pratt seems devoted to being as bland a male cypher as possible, and a heap of character actors dawdle around the edges with nothing in particular to do. And don't get me started on Jeff Goldblum, who I don't particularly like on a good day, and who is positively catatonic in his one-scene cameo.

The only person who seems to have actually showed up to work is J. A. Bayona, who directs the crap out of the movie. Not out of the actors, mind you. But as far as the imagery goes, Bayona is the second best director to ever touch one of these movies. His composition of light and shadow is frequently exquisite, especially in the bizarre turn the film takes toward gothic mansion horror in the third act. He directs the movie like a German expressionist masterpiece, only instead of using the implication to drive the horror, you also get to see a whole lot of CGI dino-monster.

If this were any other movie, I'd call that the best of both worlds. But Fallen Kingdom isn't the best of anything. Bayona really is working it (to the extent that I'd even recommend seeing this movie, just to bask in the way he captures the feeling of majesty and awe that Spielberg so capably honed in the original film), but it's still a dumb, milquetoast popcorn epic that doesn't have a lot to offer in terms of narrative, character, acting, fun, or much of anything a person would come to this movie for.

I mean, I came for the visual references to Nosferatu, but I ain't your average bear.

Oh, and the score isn't even good. John Williams' iconic themes are mostly shelved in favor of a bizarre choral piece that shrieks in your face how big and important every scene in the movie is. It's the movie in a nutshell: Fallen Kingdom tries very hard to be a lot of different things, and it fails in a lot of spectacular ways. The things that work really work, but if you made a list of those things, it would fit on a Post-It note.

TL;DR: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a bland nothing of a popcorn flick, although its director clearly has his head in the game.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 916
Reviews In This Series
Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1997)
Jurassic Park III (Johnston, 2001)
Jurassic World (Trevorrow, 2015)
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Bayona, 2018)

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Census Flashback: South Of The Border

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the most necessary sequel ever conceived, I'll be reviewing La muerte del chacal, a film that hails from that franchise's domain: the nation of Mexico.

Year: 1984
Director: Pedro Galindo III
Cast: Mario Almada, Fernando Almada, Cristina Molina 
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

I don't know if you're aware of this, but Census Bloodbath is a pretty comprehensive project. In the process of watching every slasher movie the 80's ever churned out, we are gonna cross a lot of borders and oceans. The thing is... If you're watching a bootleg of an obscure foreign film from three and a half decades ago, it turns out that you can't just switch on the subtitles. So yes, I did watch La muerte del chacal (AKA Death of the Jackal) in its original language, and let me tell you - my great grades in AP Spanish don't really carry over into watching a poor VHS rip, so some nuance may have been lost in the process.

Luckily, much like with the previous film I had to watch this way (the 1980 Italian flick Trhauma), the strict adherence to slasher formula makes it pretty damn easy to get the gist of every single scene whether or not you specifically understand the lines being spoken. But I do want you to take this review with a grain of salt, because I certainly didn't watch this under the ideal conditions.

But you know what doesn't need subtitles? Screaming.

So, as far as I can tell, La muerte del chacal tells the story of The Jackal, a serial killer terrorizing the sexy young women of a Mexican town (which, through a bizarre and amusing set of circumstances and tax laws, was shot in Texas). Sheriff Bob (Mario Almada, who also appeared in the film's quasi-sequel Masacre en Rio Grande) is hot on the trail, but before he gets his man a great deal of strippers, horny teens, and various bystanders are felled by the Jackal's awesome sword cane and his two Doberman sidekicks.

Also, like most people you shouldn't trust, he lives in a boat.

Would it shock you if I told you that this film was low budget? It shouldn't, if you've been paying attention. Films made for foreign markets don't land huge sums, and slasher films never do, in any market. But brilliance can thrive in the cheapie environment, and while I wouldn't call La muerte brilliant per se, it definitely has a unique filmmaking quality that can't be denied.

It actually operates in a similar manner to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, utilizing a choppy and erratic editing structure that on the surface seems amateurish but (intentionally or not) drives an eerie chill deep into your bones with its off-kilter glory. Especially in the opening sequences, which depicts the murders of two weirdly middle-aged horny couples in a shipyard, after each kill we get a glimpse of a window closing that doesn't directly correspond to any action in the scene itself, but feels like a grim final note that gets more and more creepy. Also, exactly like Chain Saw, there are random unmotivated shots of the moon that slice through the film at inappropriate times, jamming a shot of adrenaline into otherwise routine proceedings.

Also, there's a boat chase in the middle of the movie, where the watercraft zoom along in wickedly fast motion like they're cars in Mad Max, which is just rad as hell.

I know I'm not making this sound great, but I promise it works. And there are some shots that are just plain great too, so let me make my case with those instead. There's a scene after the killer has escaped from the asylum (about halfway through the killer is caught, and the film suddenly, inexplicably becomes its own sequel), where he's standing in his hospital gown staring up at an apartment building in a beautiful shot that mimics the best of both The Exorcist and Halloween

Actually, the killer's appearance in general is some tremendously exciting slasher material. He cuts a striking giallo-esque figure with his black gloves and identity-obscuring Zorro hat, and his weapon of choice is utterly classy and itching to be iconic. Check it out for yourself:

 So spooky!

I can even follow the movie for the ride when it transitions from a giallo into a telenovela in the third act (although I do not know what the killer's true identity turned out to be, because I couldn't keep people's names straight for the life of me, and he was one of many identical old men in the film).

So honestly, I enjoyed a lot of my time with La muerte del chacal. But if I end the review here, you're going to be very confused about the score I gave this film at the bottom of the page. You see, as much good as there is here in terms of outsider filmmaking, there's not a ton of good as a slasher qua slashers. 

For one thing, the kills aren't tremendously impressive. Most are offscreen, and none are bloody. The weapon is neat, but we don't see it in action quite enough for it to be truly memorable. And the fact that the killer uses dogs to hunt his victims is an interesting twist on the format (albeit one used to better effect in 1981's Madhouse), but it's extremely difficult to pull off a convincing mauling in a film at this budget level.

The worst slasher sin La muerte del chacal commits is the fact that it's a police procedural, my least favorite of the sub-subgenres I've come across over the course of this project. Having the protagonist being a policeman chasing the killer prevents you from ever getting to know the victims or caring about their fates. After each murder you just return to the cop, and you only ever get a minute or two with the new victims before they're dead, so it's hard to be scared. Also, there's no denying how regressive the gender politics in the movie are, especially when there is no Final Girl to even out the score.

One last thing is that we don't find out the killer's identity through the Sheriff's ingenuity and hard work. The film just decides to show us the killer's face during a murder sequence at about the place in the plot that you'd need to find out who it was. It's a lazy storytelling technique, and one that's compounded by the fact that I could not remember what character I was looking at. 

So all in all, while I found a lot to like here (and even I can't believe I compared it to that many classics of low budget cinema), it's just not the type of film that really nails me to my seat. I'm glad I've seen it, but it probably won't stick with me for longer than it takes to post this review and have done with it.

Killer: The Jackal
Final Girl: I guess Sheriff Bob's wife? This is a police procedural slasher, which kind of throws a wrench in this section.
Best Kill: A woman in her bathrobe (I have no idea how she relates to the plot, but keeping in mind that this is a slasher movie, she probably doesn't) is stabbed through the neck so forcefully that it pins her to the wall, hanging several inches above the ground.
Sign of the Times: The secretary in the police station has a major side pony that becomes its own separate character in the scene.
Scariest Moment: A woman wanders into a room on the boat that is full of bodies hanging on hooks.
Weirdest Moment: No fewer than three women decide to explore an old rusty boat in their high heels like they're regular Bryce Dallas Howards.
Champion Dialogue: N/A
Body Count: 15; and yes, I'm including the dogs because their deaths are probably the most slasherific of the bunch.
  1. Man is mauled by a dog.
  2. Woman is killed offscreen.
  3. Man is stabbed in the neck with a sword.
  4. Woman is impaled with a sword.
  5. Woman is pulled into a closet and killed.
  6. Stripper is impaled with a sword.
  7. Man dies in a boat explosion.
  8. Captain dies offscreen.
  9. Mistress is stabbed in the neck.
  10. Orderly has his neck broken.
  11. Security Guard has his head slammed into iron bars.
  12. Mama has her throat slashed offscreen.
  13. Woman is stabbed through the neck.
  14. Doberman #1 is smashed against a wall and thrown overboard.
  15. Doberman #2 is shot.
TL;DR: La muerte del chacal is a shabby but visually intriguing shocker with a few tricks up its sleeve.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1482

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Popcorn Kernels: Get To Da Choppa!

In which we review the Predator trilogy, because the forces of my life have conspired to make it a requirement to watch it. Keep an eye out for my Dread Central column and Geek K.O. podcast appearance, both about this franchise, both coming soon!

Predator


Year: 1987
Director: John McTiernan
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Kevin Peter Hall 
Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

An elite military squad on a mission in the Central American jungle runs afoul of a bloodthirsty alien creature bent on hunting them down.

Predator sure is a boy movie, innit? This whole franchise has definitely been one of the biggest gaps in my genre film knowledge, and it probably stems all the way back to the fact that I didn't play with toy trucks as a tot. This movie is the cinema equivalent of a blue onesie patterned with footballs, assigning a great deal of meaning to the sheer act of existing as a biological male. We get doting closeups of biceps flexing during arm wrestling (mid-air arm wrestling I might add, the lamest way to go about that particular display), lots of sweaty yelling in sleeveless/fabricless/shameless military vests, and a whopping one female character who has maybe two lines.

You don't hire Arnold Schwarzenegger by accident. Predator knew what it was doing and it sure as hell went and did it. But I do have to say... The man certainly cuts a striking figure onscreen, but he's a liability the second he opens his mouth. And I'm not talking about his accent. Look, I super duper knew the man couldn't act, but watching Predator, it's not so much something you know as something you feel deep in your bones; a primordial, ancestral revulsion that leaves you quivering in your seat.

Simply put, Schwarzenegger is an enormous liability in this movie (in every sense of the word "enormous"). He has way too much dialogue that isn't quippy one liners, which he shoves out through gritted teeth like a constipated school principal. The rest of the cast is fine, although the only reason anybody but Shane Black is here is to wear a vest that shows off their biceps.

Honestly, I found Predator pretty boring. The non-action scenes are numerous and entirely indistinguishable. People mutter nonsense in an endless expanse of green jungle while walking around with machetes. It's not compelling visually or narratively, it just exists, in much wider swaths than one might hope. The action itself is totally fine though, especially when the gore quotient amps up about halfway through.

However, there is no denying that the Predator itself is an unholy triumph of monster-making ingenuity. Stan Winston sure as hell knew what he was doing when he put together the wholly inhuman look of the creature, both masked and unmasked. With the mask on, he cuts the figure of a space-age knight, and with it off he's an unnaturally fleshy collection of organic odds and ends that you just believe. That is the true triumph of Predator, and the reason the movie earned itself (god) five additional movies at this point. You don't get that without a cool monster, no way no how.

Rating: 5/10

Predator 2
Year: 1990
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Cast: Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Kevin Peter Hall 
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

This time, Los Angeles!

Because L.A. is the urban jungle, geddit?

That's about as deep as Predator 2 ever gets, not really utilizing its arbitrary near-future setting to make much commentary other than "things is violent in the cities." Instead, we get a Predator film grafted onto a Lethal Weapon as Danny Glover stalks through the LA streets taking the law into his own hands when the titular extraterrestrial gets in the middle of a gang war that tears through the city streets. This is emphatically not a bad thing.

Sure, Predator 2 is stupid, but so is Predator 1, and at least this movie has a kick-ass lady cop with actual dialogue. This is probably the only time director Stephen Hopkins has actually improved a franchise, but I'll take it. Predator 2 is weirdly demure in its violence (the 90's were a rough time for gorehounds), but the action is varied and fun (an early street shootout has some delightful stunt car work), kicking up the energy with its loony antics. And the dialogue scenes benefit from actors with actual charisma, including the reliably weird Gary Busey and the sniveling worm that is every character Bill Paxton played in late 80's.

The Predator's weaponry has also received an upgrade, and although his invisibility booster is still annoyingly on-the-fritz (I understand he needs to be invisible for a long time because that's expensive as hell otherwise, but the brief glimpses we get of the Predator early on are annoyingly obvious audience pandering), his new space arsenal is a creative expansion of the universe of the first film. Here, the design team turns traditional hunting weapons like nets and spears into alien weapons of mass murderization, combining the primitive with the high tech in a satisfyingly brutal way.

As always, the Predator is the most important element of this film, and they do get it right. Sure, it's an empty 90's action flick, but that's a sweet spot for bad-good cinema, so you won't catch me complaining.

Rating: 6/10

Predators


Year: 2010
Director: Nimród Antal
Cast: Adrien Brody, Laurence Fishburne, Topher Grace
Run Time: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A group of strangers find themselves fighting for their lives on a Predator hunting reserve.

Is Predator the only trilogy that improves as it goes along? OK, probably nobody would agree with me, but I've finally found an entry in this franchise that I like! Predators is a delightful popcorn thriller, dumping a fistful of character actors (also including Walton Goggins, Mahershala Ali, and Danny Trejo),  into a scenario that's part Cube, part Lost, and full of Predator mayhem. Yes, these folks are also randomly wandering through a jungle, but this time there's actually a mystery to solve outside of "what is shooting us with lasers?"

Predators throws a lot of bizarre, dime-store Annihilation imagery at its characters before it reveals what's actually going on (given the title of the movie, it shouldn't be too hard to figure out), and the dynamics of the characters as they're funneled through a gauntlet of sheer revulsion and terror is a fun way to spend the plotty bits. And the cast really is game for bringing these crude, one-dimensional characters to life. Goggins channels his skills at chaotic evil, Trejo does his Trejo thing, I actually really like Topher Grace and he turns in some solid comic relief, and Adrien Brody gains 25 pounds of muscle and dang if that isn't a good distraction from how boring his character is.

Predators does fall apart somewhere in the middle of the third act, where the plot starts taking twists and turns that come out of nowhere to jostle the movie off its track, then vanish without a trace. But before that it's a tremendously satisfying one-time watch. Its subtext about how all the human beings themselves are "predators" falls flat too, but I can't say I expected much to start with, and at least it's trying something.

Then there's the Predators themselves! The design of the new Super-Predator isn't a particularly inspiring piece of work, but for the most part the film uses improved CGI to smooth out the very few rough edges of the classic design, and this is the first movie where the Predator's heat vision isn't incredibly crude and annoying. You can actually see what the Predator is seeing instead of chunky blobs of red and yellow that you can assume are Arnold Schwarzenegger because the blob has biceps. 

All in all, Predators did it for me, and I'm not ashamed to admit that. At this rate, Predator 6: The Predating is gonna be an out-and-out masterpiece!

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1337
Reviews In This Series
Predator (McTiernan, 1987)
Predator 2 (Hopkins, 1990)
AvP: Alien vs. Predator (Anderson, 2004)
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (Strause & Strause, 2007)
Predators (Antal, 2010)