I struggle to think of another ‘80s film icon that has endured as strongly as the Predator despite only having been in a single good film. That’s not so much a dig on how bad Predator 2 and the pair of Alien Vs. Predator films are (though all three are certainly worth the derision) as it is a testament to how good the character is. His origins are an enigma but his motivations require no grand backstory: He’s an alien hunter who likes to keep the skulls of his prey as trophies. It’s simple really. And that’s why Predators the two-decades late sequel that should-have-been instead of the previous trio of disappointments works as well as it does.
Director Nimrod Antal and screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch have cut out all distractions all the fruitless complications most sequels experience as they try to overly explain any unanswered questions from the first film. Their story ignites with a bang and shows no immediate signs of pausing for needless introspection. Predators opens with Adrien Brody’s character falling from the sky into an unknown jungle where he meets up with a handful of fellow air-dropped jarheads each as equally confused as to what’s going on as the next. The audience knows exactly what’s going on though. They a collective sampling of Earth’s most lethal badasses have been parachuted onto an alien game preserve for the hunting pleasures of the Predators.
The first 30 or so minutes of the film are a much-needed refresher course on not only how to do ensemble-based action movies but how to make a film that cashes in on a previous phenomenon without betraying the people who made it a phenomenon in the first place. We know just enough about the characters to let our own real-world instincts fill in any of the gaps. And since we know the Predators are out in the jungle patiently stalking Brody and his defacto gang of killers there is also no need to de-cloak the alien killers prematurely. The result is an exciting feels-like-the-good-ole-days start to a movie that is constantly on its toes as it pits the group against a host of interesting challenges the Predators’ planet has to offer both old (elaborate hand-made traps) and new (they aren’t the only dangerous things the Preds dropped in by parachute).
However that is only the first 30 or so minutes of the film. Sadly around a third of the way through Antal and company have reached their cruising speed and from there on out Predators enters a predictable trajectory that doesn’t really aspire to introduce and explore more of the Predator world. For sake of keeping this review spoiler-free I’ll leave out the specifics but a plot device is introduced that promises to be yet another wild-card for the movie but it just shows up pauses to provide unnecessary exposition and then disappears. Unfortunately the momentum of the movie never fully recovers from this small but crucial misstep.
When it’s on fire though Predators is a total blast of all the extreme machismo and action-movie staples that made John McTiernan’s original such a seminal entry in both the sci-fi and action canons of cinema. Antal really knows how to balance an ensemble cast giving each character enough screen time to be memorable for one reason or another be it the weapon they carry or the lines they deliver lines seemingly engineered to be as quotable as possible (Walton Goggins’ dialog alone is reason enough to like the movie). And he also has great instincts for how to maximize the scale and scope of set pieces transforming jungle that is claustrophobic in one scene into a landscape so sprawling it seems like it could never be escaped in another.
That said even with a film that is significantly more exciting in the beginning than it is in the end a movie that is one-third great and roughly two-thirds above average isn’t exactly something to be angry about. Especially not in this summer’s current film climate where most releases have been unilaterally bad. It’s just unfortunate that Predators’ pacing problems later on the film give one’s mind plenty of time to wander to start to notice the gaps in the characters and internal logic within the script. Those are things you never really want to spend time examining in any action movie let alone a Predator movie. Had it come out when it was originally conceived by Robert Rodriguez over fifteen years ago it would have been perfect for the time period. All these years later though one must wonder how all those uneven spots weren’t ironed out in the intervening time. But all things considered this is unmistakably a Predator movie and to that end Predators is a faithful respectful hat tip to a franchise loved the world over.
Based on E.B. White’s enduring children’s story we meet Wilbur the Pig (Dominic Scott Kay) a runt who is saved from the axe by a little farm girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning). She raises Wilbur from infancy but eventually she has to send Wilbur over to her uncle’s neighboring farm since there’s no room for a pig in her house. There in the barn Wilbur meets the assortment of colorful animal characters: Betsy (Reba McEntire) and Bitsy (Kathy Bates) two pessimistic cows; motherly goose Gussy (Oprah Winfrey) and her henpecked hubby Golly (Cedric the Entertainer); Samuel (John Cleese) an uptight sheep; the skittish horse Ike (Robert Redford); the self-serving rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi); and of course sweet Charlotte (Julia Roberts) a spider with a heart of gold. When the naïve Wilbur finds out he might be Christmas dinner Charlotte makes a promise to her new friend that she’ll do everything in her power to make sure Wilbur sees the Christmas snow—and everyone ends up helping her out. What could be more fun than to voice a barnyard animal? Winfrey and Cedric’s geese banter is like an old married couple. Cleese gives Samuel the sheep a certain upper-crustiness. Redford is actually pretty funny as a horse who’s deathly afraid of spiders (“I’ll listen to you but I just can’t look at you”). Buscemi is a particularly nice choice as the sneaky rat Templeton who only thinks about filling his belly with food (no typecasting there we swear). For pure comic relief there are also two crows voiced by Andre Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church who just can’t quite get around the whole scarecrow thing. And as Charlotte Roberts has a truly soothing and loving tone sort of how you’d imagine it from the book. As for the human aspect Fanning continues to do what she does best playing Fern with the right amount of youthful innocence spunkiness and determination. Just wondering how we are going to handle it when this amazing little actress grows up and starts doing like adult things. Actually it is sort of a shame they couldn’t get a live-action version of Charlotte's Web made before Babe. Sure there was the 1973 animated cutesy film but a live-action adaptation of this timeless tale really should have been the standard by which all computer-generated talking farm animal movies would follow don’t you think? Instead Charlotte's Web pales ever so slightly in comparison. Oh well water under the bridge. Director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30) still manages to invoke the wonderful and uplifting spirit of the novel keeping faithful to the text in all ways. Visually the film is crisp and flawless in its execution particularly in the beauty and splendor of how Charlotte spins her webs and emotionally hearts will indeed swell and tears will flow. Charlotte's Web is the perfect family movie to inspire the next generation of young readers and viewers as well as for the rest of us who fondly remember the childhood classic.
For a few years in the '60s and '70s producer Gerry Anderson made "supermarionation" all the rage in the world of British children's television. His stop-motion puppets starred in a number of sci-fi adventure series most memorably Thunderbirds which followed the exploits of International Rescue -- a team comprised of ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy and his sons. Based out of their secret fortress on Treasure Island the Tracys (aided by lovely secret agent Lady Penelope) used their amazing rocket-powered vehicles to prevent disasters and save lives around the world. Now 40 years after Thunderbirds' TV debut Star Trek vet Jonathan Frakes has brought Anderson's characters to life on the big screen. Front and center is youngest son Alan Tracy (Brady Corbet) who dreams of the day he too can pilot one of his family's fab ships and lead missions. But first he has to prove himself to his father Jeff (Bill Paxton). That opportunity comes sooner than either expects when mysterious villain The Hood (Ben Kingsley) strands Jeff and the older Tracy boys in space and attacks Treasure Island. With only his friends Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) and Fermat (Soren Fulton) to help him Alan has to grow up quickly if he wants to save his family ... and the world!
It would be easy to mock several of the performances in Thunderbirds-- to chide Paxton for his earnest seriousness as Tracy patriarch Jeff to dismiss Corbet's angst-tinged eagerness as Alan to roll your eyes at Kingsley's over-the-top mystical fierceness as The Hood and to wince at Fulton and Anthony Edwards' nerdy stuttering as science whizzes Fermat and his dad Brains. But actors are only as good as their script and the one Frakes has given his cast (courtesy of screenwriters William Osborne and Michael McCullers) is weak and clichéd at best filled with after-school-special-worthy lessons for Alan to learn. "You can't save everyone " Jeff tells his son somberly and even Tintin has a moral for her crush when he's feeling selfish and indulging in self-pity: "This is hard on all of us Alan." Talk about insight! What makes it even more frustrating is knowing that the actors are capable of much more even the kids: Both Corbet and Hudgens did well with supporting roles in Thirteen. Thunderbirds' only real bright spot is Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope. A cross between Reese Witherspoon's Elle in Legally Blonde and Jennifer Garner's Sydney on Alias Myles' Lady P doesn't let her pink couture wardrobe prevent her from coolly kicking ass when the situation demands it. Attended by her droll driver/man-of-all-trades Parker (Ron Cook) Lady Penelope is a fresh feisty heroine with all of the film's best lines -- and the coolest car to boot.
Frakes cut his directorial teeth on episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and his first feature film was Star Trek: First Contact so he would seem like a natural choice to bring a cult sci-fi TV show to the big screen. Unfortunately while he does an admirable job re-creating (and improving on) the original Thunderbirds' mod sets cool ships and special effects (which are fine if a bit more TV-sized than summer blockbustery) Frakes can't seem to decide who his audience is. If he was aiming at grown-ups who remember the show fondly from their own childhood he should have embraced the source material's campiness (à la Starsky and Hutch) rather than restricting it to the Tracys' plastic Barbie-like furniture and Lady P's bouffant hairdo. If on the other hand Frakes was hoping to entertain today's kids he should have really reinvented the show for a 21st-century world (à la Stephen Hopkins'1998 Lost in Space) rather than clinging to the '60s references As it is he's stuck somewhere in the middle leaving adults bored during the kids-on-an-adventure bits and children mystified by the handful of jokes aimed at their parents.
February 22, 2002 11:20am EST
Vietnam vet Leon Barlow is going through a terrible patch. His bitter separation from wife Marilyn resulted in a restraining order and he sees his kids Alan and Alisha only occasionally. His writing career is definitely in question because day after day returned manuscripts and rejection letters arrive in his mailbox. Still Leon manages to tap out prose in the shabby house he shares with a mangy mutt in a rural Mississippi outpost. Leon's best pal Monroe throws him a painting job now and then but is little more than a drinking buddy. Their mutual friend Velma is fun to party with at local dives but is more Monroe's lady. Leon's carousing lands him in jail and a stint in community service after a near-fatal car accident. A terrible family tragedy sobers him up but the big turning point for Leon arrives in the form of an unexpected letter from a long-supportive editor.
Arliss Howard who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay turns in a muscular if familiar performance as the tormented writer. A logical comparison is Ed Harris' recent interpretation of Jackson Pollock an artist similarly bedeviled. But Leon's devils are a mystery--so much so that one wonders: What is this guy's problem? Still Howard has the pervasive angst and southern drawl down pat and convinces as a loser aching to be a winner. Paul Le Mat as pal Monroe is fine as the inconsequential but sweet yokel but Rosanna Arquette as Velma has little to do except look pretty. For reasons unknown Howard's real-life wife Debra Winger who plays onscreen wife Marilyn left her southern drawl somewhere under the kudzu. Whereas all the other characters ring true of Mississippi roots Winger somehow feels flown in from parts unknown. Also in a brief role Angie Dickinson as Leon's mother makes a very welcome return to the big screen. Sigourney Weaver lends some relief and her voice as an unseen editor.
Director Howard co-adapting with his brother from short stories by Larry Brown has slapped on enough style for three films to the extent that
Big Bad Love too often makes no sense. Worse whatever the story is here (surely it's more than that writers get lucky if they wait long enough) is lost. Howard making his directorial debut resorts to loads (overloads) of flashy devices: cryptic montages fantasy sequences solemn fade-outs noisy soundtrack flourishes etc. Such directorial "virtuosity" not only saps the narrative drive but also robs the characters of the much-needed dimensions that make them real recognizable and compelling. Also with so much style crushing so little substance it's just not clear at all at several important junctures what the heck is going on.