Predators (2010)

July 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

When you expect crumbs, a few appetizers can feel like a feast.

As any sci-fi geek (closeted or otherwise) knows, Predators is something like the fifth (yes, fifth) appearance of the massive, dreadlocked aliens that love to hunt deadly prey, like certain humans. You get the feeling they spend their off-hours crushing beer cans on their foreheads, and watching replays of past hunts, which might include the original film starring Schwarzenegger, or Predator 2. ¬†After that, the Predators made appearances in Alien vs Predator (a mediocre film) and Alien vs Predator: Requiem (an appalling bad film, and I’d literally pay to have the image of an exploding pregnant woman surgically removed from my brain). The first Predator film remains an entertaining, if overly testosterone-fueled update of The Most Dangerous Game, but it all goes downhill from there.

I caught this recent film because apparently I’m a sucker for certain kinds of summer films, and because I’d heard much better things about this instalment, which has a Hemingway-quoting Adrian Brody as a special-ops man suddenly fighting for his life, along with a pile of other types of human killers.

And yes, there are a few original moments here, and for once, some effort (not a lot, but some) is made for the viewer to know these characters a little and maybe care if they’re killed or not. Brody is an interesting choice for a lead actor (despite the irony that he has been in some very poetic anti-war films like The Thin Red Line and The Pianist) and without giving away too much, his character is given a little room to grow (not a lot, but a little). Laurence Fishburne nearly steals the film in a smaller appearance, and most of the other actors do their best with the requirement that they look stunned and puzzled for the first hour of the film, while they try to figure out where they are and what’s happening.

But this is the fifth appearance by these alien rednecks who love to hunt and collect trophy skulls, and what we’re given here is ultimately a remix of the first film, from the same score (and I mean it literally feels like the score from the first film) to some of the smaller moments, though with a few new elements thrown in. After five films, I thought we might finally learn something about what drives these aliens. How does a warrior culture develop such advanced technology, or do they steal it? I can’t imagine Predator scientists. Maybe there’s a whole other species that provides them with equipment for reasons of their own, creating another layer to the story.

No such luck. Predators is fast-paced and unpredictable enough to be entertaining, and my inner-geek certainly enjoyed it, but the franchise still doesn’t aspire to do anything more than rehash the original idea, and I can’t give the film a great review just for having some good moments along the way. I guess I can be grateful there were no exploding pregnant women, at least.

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Red Cliff (2008)

July 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Directed by John Woo, Red Cliff is an epic film and an epic accomplishment. At over four hours running time (beware the edited version), it isn’t a film that feels long or tiresome, even as it takes time out to explore characters and the fractured political landscape of China in 208 A.D.

In short, Chancellor Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) uses unification of the country as an excuse for power and harsh conquest, and Red Cliff is the story of his struggle against smaller, but much more motivated forces. It’s human nature to favour the underdog, just as this film does.

The film is closer to dramatic mythology than historical accuracy, with a mixture of battle tactics that seem realistic enough and the kind of floating high-wire fighting we’ve seen in kung-fu films. It’s slightly jarring at times, but somehow it all works. The battle scenes are terrifically impressive even if the CGI seems a little overdone — at least, it’s hard to believe quite so many arrows in the air — but it’s easy to forgive when the film takes time out to explore the characters and add occasional doses of reality. There are even memorable scenes of nameless soldiers: a man hacks at a barricade, is hit with an arrow in the upper chest but hacks at the barricade a few more times before two more arrows take him down. In a few brief seconds, it’s a portrait of a common soldier fiercely dedicated to the fight against an invasion of his homelands.

At the same time, all the military generals and more central characters are the ones capable of leaping from a balcony and floating gently to the ground, and while it suits the epic nature of the film, I also wonder if it’s meant to be symbolic that the more privileged characters have enhanced abilities to match. It’s certainly a striking contrast to the many soldiers we see struck down, and though unintentionally done it may be one of the few things that detracts from the film, because our heroes are less likeable if they’re just a weaker set of aristocrats controlling the common man.

Of the many great moments in the film, there’s a scene of two characters talking until one of them releases a bird and the camera follows it for several minutes as it sweeps over the armies and ships on one side, across the bay and down over the opposing armies and ships before landing right in the enemy camp. And sure, it’s a mix of special effects and a long helicopter shot of some kind, but the result is still spectacular, and that kind of care has been taken from start to finish. There’s even a good score to be found here. John Woo has directed stylish and impressive films before, but I think this one will be seen as the crowning achievement of his career.

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