The Predator

Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Sterling K. Brown

Director: Shane Black

Writers: Fred Dekker, Shane Black


There’s a moment in the third act of The Predator I keep returning to that aptly demonstrates the movie’s fatal flaw. It’s when the hulking Predator ambushes the rag-tag group of misfit heroes in the middle of a forest. One major character, played by one of the movie’s top-billed actors, attempts to use a repurposed alien weapon against the fiend, only to accidentally incinerate himself instead. The problem with this scene is that I had absolutely no idea it had even happened. It wasn’t until a later scene, as soon as I had noticed that the character in question was missing, that I realised he had been killed. Even then, I hadn’t a clue how it had happened. The scene was so shrouded in darkness and edited so awkwardly, it was all but impossible to make heads or tails of anything during that ambush. The only reason I now know the manner of this character’s death at all is because I read the movie’s synopsis on Wikipedia in preparation for writing this review. That’s what it all comes down to; the movie’s problem isn’t just that the story makes no sense or that the characters feel underdeveloped or that the tone is so inconsistent, it’s that filmmaking is so grossly incompetent for a director whom I know knows how to make a coherent, entertaining film.

Shane Black has made several choices in making this film that could be regarded as questionable, not least of which was casting a mate he knew to be a registered sex offender in a minor part and neglecting to tell his cast, and it baffles me that the director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys could make a movie this inept. It feels like there was originally a four-hour cut of the movie that somebody attacked with a machete in the editing room, so haphazard are the action sequences. It certainly doesn’t help that most of the scenes are shot at night with a bland colour scheme that makes the mise-en-scéne look largely muddled to the viewer’s eye. The constant, aimless editing however is what makes it so difficult to keep track of the visual geography and the driving actions behind the individual shots to the point that an important development happened before my very eyes without me even noticing. This isn’t the only time this happens either. There are dozens of story gaps and optical blurs scattered throughout the story, most of which would not be in and of themselves detrimental to the film had they been isolated occurrences. That they are constantly happening throughout the film means that they add up and contribute towards creating a hectically chaotic viewing experience.

The plot is similarly disjointed with entire story beats that whiz by so quickly, you’ll wonder whether you dozed off for a few minutes and just woke up. Things kick off when a Predator spaceship crash-lands on Earth. Army sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) encounters the surviving Predator and his whole unit is wiped out. He escapes with some of the alien’s technology and, convinced he’ll need to keep the evidence out of the government’s hands lest they take him in and try to silence him, he mails the Predator’s mask and wrist cannon to his home in the suburbs. Only it’s not really his home these days. Quinn’s estranged wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski) lives there with their autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay). Rory, a troubled kid who gets bullied at school but also a prodigy, discovers the content of his father’s package and is soon able to work out how the technology works. In the process however he accidentally summons a group of Predators, a scouting party in search of the equipment’s original owner, to his hometown where R-rated havoc is soon to ensue.

Quinn meanwhile is taken into custody by the government, whose plan is to lock him up with all the other undesirables and throw away the keys. Thus he ends up with a crew up of weirdoes and ne’er-do-wells who all have similar problems with rules and authority figures. There’s the insubordinate Nebraska (Tervante Rhodes), the verbal diarrhoeic Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), the foul-mouthed (because he has Tourrete syndrome) Baxley (Thomas Jane), the British Lynch (Alfie Allen) and the awkward conversationalist Nettles (Augusto Aguilera). As he’s being dealt with, famed biologist Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) comes to the facility to study the captured Predator under the direction of government agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown). The Predator breaks free and slaughters its way out of the lab. Quinn and the Loonies take advantage of the chaos to team up and make their own escape, picking up Dr. Bracket on the way, and make for Quinn’s family home so that they can collect the equipment and plan their next move. There they learn that Rory has gone out with the Predator’s armour and that the alien hunter is hot on his trail. R-rated havoc ensues.

The movie takes several leaps in getting us from Point A to Point B to Point C and such leaps are usually permissible in movies when they skimp over minor details without much bearing over the plot and allow room for the audience to catch up. Watching The Predator though is like trying to keep up with a runaway train blindfolded. While the movie does oftentimes leave out details that contribute nothing to the story and would otherwise serve to pad the runtime, there are other leaps that omit fundamental story and character details that are never made clear to us. The movie’s failure is its inability to distinguish between the two. For example, one inconsequential leap in the story takes place when most of the characters have fled to a barn and are planning their next move. A group is sent out to explore a little and the next time we see them is when they arrive in an RV to rescue everybody else from the danger that’s just caught up with them. Where did they get the RV? We never find out and, while slightly distracting, we honestly don’t really need to know; we can use our own imaginations to figure that one out. But then we later realise that two of the characters share a certain bromantic relationship that was never made clear and it feels like the movie skipped a scene or two somewhere along the way that would have established this point. These two characters are so poorly established that I wasn’t even sure if they were genuinely supposed to come across as a gay couple (which would have been awesome considering that gung-ho army renegades are never allowed to be gay) or as simply brothers in arms.

This is an issue that most of these characters suffer from. The movie operates under the impression that these are all fully fleshed-out characters whose fates we are supposed to be invested in yet never puts in the time for establishment and development, opting instead for dirty one-liners and banter. Olivia Munn’s Dr. Bracket more or less wanders into the film without any kind of introduction and simply goes straight down to business as if we’re supposed to already know what her personality and motivation is. I now know this to be the consequence of Shane Black cutting out her introduction as it took place in the scene that had Munn paired up with Steve Wilder Striegel, the friend who was convicted some years ago for making sexual advances at a 14-year-old girl. This part of the movie was quickly and indiscriminately cut out in response to Munn’s justified outrage and the backlash she inspired and the consequence is that her character gets the short shrift. Her story kicks off without the set-up it needs to get started and it is only through Munn’s talents that any semblance of character comes through in the end. That this edit, the consequence of Black’s poor judgement in his casting decision and the studio’s seeming ignorance, was done so hastily and carelessly and affects the overall story so fundamentally is symptomatic I think of just how slapdash the whole movie feels.

This is all a huge shame because on paper Shane Black would appear to be the perfect choice to direct a Predator movie (he even had a minor role in the 1987 movie) and there are instances where you see glimpses of the movie that could have been. When the action is actually intelligible, it’s pretty good, gory fun. As well as delivering some solid action, the movie also gets some pretty entertaining performances out of its actors, most notably Brown who plays the immature, obnoxious Traegar with the demented glee of a bloodthirsty, die-hard 80s action movie fanboy who couldn’t wait until the bullets started firing. His motivation is an unknown entity, as with most of these characters, but at least he’s a lot of fun to watch. Rhodes and Key also have some good moments and feel right at home playing these happy-go-lucky psychopaths delivering Black’s trademark zingers. I’m less convinced by Jane’s Baxley; the movie appears to making a sincere effort to be more inclusive by giving one of its character Tourettes, and yet all of the jokes that emerge from this trait are at his expense so I’m not sure what exactly they were going for. The movie runs into a similar problem with Rory and the apparent insinuation that his autism is some kind of evolutionary superpower. The weakest link though is Holbrook who, between this movie and Narcos, I’ve yet to be convinced by as a leading man. Here he’s playing your typically tough, bland, noble-hearted jerk without any of the charisma that Schwarzenegger and Glover brought back when they helmed this franchise.

The movie has plenty of cool ideas, as in one scene where Black pays tribute to E.T. by having Rory go out trick-or-treating wearing the Predator’s mask or the scene where Traegar explains to Dr. Bracket why they opted to call a murderous alien who hunts for sport a ‘Predator’, but they are few and far in between. The movie has far too many ideas that don’t work; there are sub-plots that don’t go anywhere, jokes that don’t land, motivations that never manifest, and elements that feel like they were added arbitrarily without any clarity or purpose. Black bungles what should have been a match made in heaven, making for a movie that neither excites, amuses nor moves. It’s tempting to suppose that much of what went wrong with this movie could be attributed to studio meddling and forced franchising (and, yes, there are certainly parts of the movie, including a stupid ending, that indicate the studio has every intention of franchising this property), but Black’s questionable judgement in the scandal that emerged around this picture suggests to me that the movie had plenty of problems of its own. The Predator is an ill-executed mess of a movie that never managed to figure out where it wanted to go or what it wanted to be.

★★

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The Happytime Murders

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks

Director: Brian Henson

Writer: Todd Berger


There are some moments in your life when you have to take a moment to stop, take a step back, and think introspectively about the choices that led you to where you are. It could be one of matured recognition where you’ve realised that you’re not as young as you used to be and that you’ve either changed completely or haven’t changed at all. It could be a moment of sober clarity in which you’ve suddenly found yourself in a bad situation like financial insolvency or a toxic relationship and are not quite sure how you got there or how you’re going to get out. It could also be the kind of moment where you wake up on the street on a cold winter morning covered in bruises and your own vomit for the umpteenth time and are starting to finally understand that you have a serious problem. I had such an experience as I was watching The Happytime Murders; I even remember the exact moment it happened. It was a Muppet sex scene where a puppet man ejaculated silly string around the entire room for what felt like eons while a puppet woman screamed in nymphomanic ecstasy. That was the instance where I had to take a deep look at my own life and question the choices that led me to the cinema that day.

How foolish and naïve I must have been when I first heard about the film and thought that a gritty, raunchy noir-comedy about Muppets (directed, no less, by Brian Henson, director of The Muppet Christmas Carol) had promise. A proposed marriage between the creative ingenuity of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the uproarious shock value of Team America: World Police, this movie has absolutely none of the satirical wit that made both of those movies so much greater than their gimmicks. Instead The Happytime Murders feels more like if Sesame Street hired the obnoxious, self-proclaimed ‘class clown’ from your primary school to pen a remake of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown using humour that Family Guy would describe as juvenile. Whatever points or insights the movie might have made with its depiction of an alternate Los Angeles where humans and puppets struggle to co-exist are quickly brushed aside in order to make room for puppet porn, sugar snorting and whatever the Muppet equivalent of blood and gore is (fluff and felt?). It’s one thing for a film to neglect exploring its own allegory in any kind of interesting or worthwhile way because it’s so much more focused on being one-dimensionally crude and naughty. What really makes The Happytime Murders so completely insufferable is how agonisingly unfunny it is.

The story mainly follows private eye Phil Philips, a De-Niro-inspired puppet who goes about his day with the kind of world-weariness and cynicism we except from this type of character. He used to be a cop way back when and was the first puppet to ever join the force. You see, puppets have historically been considered second-class citizens in this world and there were many who saw Phil’s career as a progressive step forward for his people at a time when puppets were finally starting to make inroads to society. Another shining example of progress was the popular TV show The Happytime Gang, the first show on any major network to feature a predominantly puppet cast (including Phil’s brother Larry). But then things went wrong. While out on the job Phil failed to shoot a fluffy criminal while a human police officer was in danger, convincing the world that puppets were incapable of policing their own kind. The disgraced Phil was sacked and now he spends his melancholic days tailing adulterous husbands and two-bit crooks. That is until somebody starts targeting and murdering the former cast of The Happytime Gang. That’s when Phil gets roped into a tale of death, deception, and demonstrably desperate and dreadful drollery that could not have ended soon enough.

Things soon escalate as the LAPD catches wind of the killing spree and they pair Phil up with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). Edwards, we learn, is the cop who was endangered by Phil’s inability to shoot a puppet criminal all those years ago and the foul-mouthed, hard-boiled police officer has not forgiven him. They reluctantly proceed with the investigation together and are led into the slums and back alleys of LA where R-rated puppet hijinks ensue. The movie operates under the notion that the mere subversion of the childhood tradition whereby we have these colourful animated characters engaging in activities we would normally associate with more mature genres will be enough to score the laughs they’re after. We therefore get treated to puppets swearing, puppets being mutilated or blown to bits, and puppets having sex; any deed that Kermit and his friends would never be allowed to perform on network television, it’s all enacted here and not a single gag scored as much as a titter out of me. It’s not that the humour is obscene or outrageous because I’ve laughed at plenty of outrageously obscene films before. It’s that the humour is so stupidly simple and groan-inducingly lame.

One thing that both Roger Rabbit and Team America did very well was building their humour around their stories and themes and using them to serve the larger points being made by their allegories. The Happytime Murders never gets that far because all of its humour amounts to puppets saying dirty things and performing dirty deeds. A puppet femme fatale introduces herself as a “sexual I’ma” as in “I’ma see it, I’ma fuck it”. Later there is an homage to Basic Instinct complete with puppet pubes. There’s even a scene where Phil wanders into the back room of a porno store to find a cow having eight of hear teats pleasured by an octopus. Each of these is a one-dimensional joke that serves no motivational or thematic purpose; they exist solely for the sake of making the movie as vulgar and graphic as possible. While Roger Rabbit had its share of throwaway gags and one-liners, it had just as many that were motivated in organic ways by theme and emotion, including and especially the palpable tension between the human characters and the Toons, and used them in smart and creative ways to add layers to the film, to draw you further into the world they had created and to provide the viewer with insights as well as laughs that served the movie’s overall allegory. The Happytime Murders never even attempts to dig deeper beneath the surface level tension that exists between humans and puppets, opting instead to try and distract us with tasteless joke after tasteless joke (oftentimes either sexist or homophobic) that serve no purpose other than to be tasteless. Even if the jokes were funny (which they aren’t), this movie still wouldn’t offer a fraction of the fulfilment one can get from the movies it’s trying to imitate.

What makes the movie feel more disappointing than merely disgusting and unpleasant is that the craft behind the scenes reveals that some genuine talent and creativity went into its making. In the film’s end-credits we are treated to some clips of the puppeteers at work, a sequence that is far more compelling and even humourous than anything that ended up in the finished product. The work that went into creating a world that these puppets could inhabit, achieving their most outlandish effects, and getting the puppets to interact with their human counterparts; these are all labours that deserve to be applied to a more worthy film. The same goes for the talented human actors whose performances are let down by the sheer absence of comedic material. McCarthy and her Bridesmaids co-star Maya Rudolph, playing Phil’s devoted secretary Bubbles, manage to salvage some semblance of comedy in one of their scenes together by simply interacting with one another, but that’s as close as the movie ever gets to being genuinely amusing. That Elizabeth Banks and Joel McHale were unable to do anything of note in the whole film should tell you how little they had to work with between them.

The film’s ultimate failing is that, despite how ‘edgy’ and ‘mature’ its content may seem, it is a fundamentally unimaginative and bland film. Because this movie aspires to be nothing more than a simplistic, one-note parody that builds the entirety of its humour around coarse language and gross imagery for their own fruitless sake, the movie is inherently self-defeating in its own banality. When compared to other films of greater ambition and depth that are infinitely better, funnier and more rewarding for their thought and complexity, the film is utterly astounding in its derivativeness. This film offers absolutely nothing even slightly new or original to the viewer nor does it have any contribution of worth to make that hasn’t already been made by the classics it so poorly copies except maybe as a barometer against which to measure their ingenuity. I don’t know exactly how many poor decisions and fundamental errors had to happen in order for me to end up in that cinema where I lost 90 minutes of my life to puppet BDSM and silly string ejaculation, but it was definitely one of the lowest points I have ever experienced as a moviegoer.

BlacKkKlansman

Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace

Director: Spike Lee

Writers: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee


Spike Lee pulls a very clever, very revealing trick on his viewers (the white ones at least) with BlacKkKlansman, his most celebrated and publicly discussed film in years. Taking the real life story of how the black police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s with the help of fellow white officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), much of the film is played as a buddy cop action-comedy. We are invited to laugh at the white supremacists in their ignorance and absurdity, the fashions and trends of the 1970s in their datedness and the basic concept in its irony and unlikeliness. The movie leads us along the typical plot beats you would expect it to follow and there’s never any reason to doubt that Ron and Flip will learn to work together, triumph over the racist sons-of-bitches and put them away for good, and then end the movie on a satisfying note as they are congratulated and rewarded for their victory and live happily ever after in the brighter, more tolerant future that is sure to come.

And yet, while Lee is never subtle in his effort to draw parallels between the events of this film and the present (the obviousness of which is part of the point) and does depict some deeply and profoundly serious moments, that still doesn’t prepare you for the tragic punchline as the film jumps years ahead to the footage of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. It’s at that moment, as you behold former Grand Wizard of the Klan David Duke (a major character in this film) delivering the exact same racist rhetoric as his 1970s counterpart, the car crash that killed Heather Heyer, and then President Trump’s refusal to condemn the actions of the white supremacists, that the real point of the movie hits you like a ton of bricks. The aim isn’t to point out that racism still exists or that it’s bad; that’s a given when you’re watching a Spike Lee film. The point is that the hateful ideology of the KKK is still around today and is still as pervasive as it ever was precisely because so little has been done to challenge it. The film disparagingly condemns those, specifically white liberals, who so complacently dismissed the white cloaks and cross burnings as relics of the past that they never saw the rise of the alt-right for what it was even as it was happening before their very eyes. As a white liberal myself, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed for having been so contentedly thrilled and amused just minutes before.

I think that’s the reaction Lee was going for because BlacKkKlansman is indeed a funny and thrilling film. Based on, as the opening title puts it, “some fo’ real shit”, the movie follows Ron Stallworth as he instigates a plan to sneak a Trojan Horse into the ranks of the KKK. He does this by answering one of their newspaper ads on the phone and putting on his best generic white guy voice so that he might pose as a budding supremacist looking to join the Klan. He arranges a face-to-face meeting with president of the local chapter and recruits Flip to be his white avatar. Thus Flip meets with Walter (Ryan Eggold), the surprisingly affable head of the Colorado Springs branch of the KKK, and worms his way into his inner circle with the pathologically hostile Felix (Jasper Pääkönen) and the dim-witted Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) while Ron continues to handle their interactions over the phone. The meetings are often comical to an almost absurdist degree as the movie portrays these racist, misogynistic, xenophobic militants as the bunch of buffoons that they are (Felix at one point demands that Flip drop his trousers to prove that he isn’t Jewish). And yet, anytime we start to get the impression that these guys are harmless in their incompetence and idiocy, the film is quick to remind us that these buffoons have guns and bombs and pose a real danger to innocent people that needs to be thwarted.

The balance BlacKkKlansman walks between comedy and drama, fact and fiction (while the story itself is true, much of it is fictionalised), and past and present is fitting for a film that is so largely focused on dualities. Our main character Ron is one who finds himself split between two worlds; one as a cop who is loyal to the institution and system that he serves and one as a black man whose community views the police as part of the problem in a system that has continuously let them down. His first undercover assignment is to attend a lecture delivered by civil rights activist Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) who preaches vigorously about the need for black people to find pride, beauty and love in who they are. This is one of the most powerful sequences in the whole film as close-up images of black faces in the audience are conjured up in soft fades with warm lighting to give us a visual representation of beauty for black people. It is also here that Ron meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a student activist who is utterly devoted to the cause and who thinks all cops are pigs. Ron falls for her (keeping his occupation a secret of course) and is moved by her passion for pride and justice to become more assertive in his racial identity. Ron’s duality raises the question of whether it’s possible for him to remain loyal to an unjust system while trying to effect positive change to an enduring status quo from within and still stay true to the cause of social justice, cultural solidarity and Black Power. Ron’s crusade against the KKK is his attempt to reconcile that duality.

This duality doesn’t just apply to Ron or even to black people. BlacKkKlansman devotes a not insignificant amount of time towards exploring the duality of Flip, a white man of Jewish heritage but who has never thought of himself as Jewish, suddenly being forced to come to terms with his ethnicity. His vaguely Jewish appearance inspires Felix to try and bait him with anti-Semitic remarks, such as denying that the Holocaust ever happened, and it isn’t long before Flip realises that being subjected to such attacks is taking a toll on him. He starts to confront the idea that, as a Jewish-American who has been passing for ‘white’ all his life, he has as much at stake in this campaign as Ron does. Lee does a remarkable job of using the characters of Ron and Flip as symbols of the African-American and Jewish-American experiences and exploring them in parallel with one another in order to clarify both. The comparison is given even greater weight in Kwame’s speech where he likens black children watching the Tarzan movies and being taught to see the white protagonist living in Africa as the ideal of athleticism, heroism and beauty to Jewish children in Germany being shown propaganda films that taught them to root for the Nazis.

The comparison that Kwame makes is an example of the film’s fascination with cinema and its unique capacity to convey and spread ideas. The very first shot in the whole film belongs not to Lee or his crew; it belongs to Gone with the Wind, one of the greatest and most popular films ever made. The shot shows hundreds of wounded Southern soldiers spread around the grounds of a railway station while the camera is carried back to reveal the heroic image of the Confederate flag wavering on over them. It is an image that exemplifies everything that Gone with the Wind is and is about; it is a grand and iconic scene in cinema, almost peerless in its scale and magnificence, and it expresses this nostalgia for a mythologised Antebellum South, a time that the film portrays as a romantic summer of innocence where master and slave lived in harmony. Lee includes this image as an example of cinema’s power to shape attitudes and to keep alive such ideas as this sentimental tribute to an era of white supremacy. This lesson is given greater poignancy in the film’s greatest sequence where it contrasts a KKK screening of D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking, racist epic The Birth of a Nation with an elderly gentleman played by Harry Belafonte recounting an incident in 1916 where he witnessed the lynching of Jesse Washington (a true story) and detailing the role that the film from the preceding year played in rousing racist hatred and revitalising the Ku Klux Klan.

But Lee is also a strong believer in cinema’s power as an instrument for positive change. He wouldn’t be a filmmaker if he didn’t. He imbues such passion and raw intensity into BlacKkKlansman that it shouldn’t be a surprise that he ended up making one of the landmark films of 2018. Shot on 35mm by cinematographer Chayse Irvin (who shot Beyoncé’s Lemonade), the film constructs a splendid recreation of 1970s USA and evokes much of the cinema from that era, matching the tone and energy of such cop movies as The French Connection. The costumes, complete with vibrant colours and elaborate afros, the note-perfect production design and the musical score with its groovy guitar riffs and funky drum beats recall such Blaxploitation movies as Shaft and Super Fly, which are discussed at length by Ron and Patrice in one scene. The editing makes incredibly skilful use of juxtaposition in both the Birth of a Nation and Charlottesville sequences to convey a heartbreaking tragedy and cutting furiousness that moves the viewer into a state of breathless amazement and tearful fury. The film is so impassioned, so provocative and so masterfully crafted that it demands to be watched and be included in the public conversation. BlacKkKlansman is Lee’s most momentous film in years and he proves himself a superstar still at the top of his game.

★★★★★