Fahrenheit 11/9 – Film Review

There’s every possibility that Michael Moore’s new political documentary will not be quite as you expect. The diatribe against the 45th president of the United States that the right anticipated and the left might have hoped-for is largely absent. That’s neither the theme nor the filmmaker’s intention. Though, considering the litany of social media attacks the documentary has already received from those who have yet to see it, being told that Moore uses an intentionally somber and largely sedate approach to the current state of the union – he allows quotes, facts, and figures to speak for themselves – will presumably mean little. And while there are moments that from time to time will make you laugh, unlike most of Moore’s previous films, Fahrenheit 11/9 is not particularly funny. And with good reason.

The film begins with the 2016 presidential election leading up to Trump’s surprise victory, and ends with a sobering finale. But the lengthy middle goes in other directions, away from the president. And as fascinating as the journey becomes, after a while, there’s a good chance you may question what it all has to do with 45. Yet, upon reflection, it should soon become evident that everything Moore covers in that middle act has to do with the man who won the election. In order to comprehend Donald Trump and to fully grasp the concerns of his future intentions, groundwork is required.

Was it all a dream?” Moore’s customary droll, voice-over narration asks. Before the opening credits, the film covers those moments leading up to the president’s victory. Much of what is shown we’ve seen before, but in a presidency where countless new and astounding revelations can dominate the political discourse in just a few days, often in a single day, it’s good to be reminded what occurred over two years ago. After all, it now seems such a long time ago.

As seen in a montage of clips, no one believed that Donald Trump could win. Shots of pro-Hillary crowds, prematurely celebrating in the streets and in halls, dominated the news, while talking heads and political pundits on cable stations and political countdown shows concurred that Trump would never be the next president. “I got to vote for a woman for president!” a woman declares, openly weeping. Even Fox News appeared relieved that once all the votes were tallied they wouldn’t have to spend their energy defending and supporting the millionaire for the next four years. No one believed it… except one.

Ironically, it was Moore himself. In a sequence recorded at Fox, the announcers laugh as they report that it was documentary filmmaker Michael Moore who was the lone voice among a sea of celebrities and political experts stating that we shouldn’t be too sure of a Hillary win.

Then it happened. The Electoral College, that body of people representing the states, changed the flow of the political tide. Total of actual votes be damned; it was the system that even Trump said would work against him that won him the presidency. The most amusing segment out of this whole introduction is the video that captured the look on the faces of the Trump team themselves as they somberly marched on stage to celebrate a victory. They looked stunned, everyone of them, as if silently questioning what had just happened while wondering, what do we do now? Even the victor had no speech prepared. Though, look closely and you’ll notice there’s a definite grin on Steve Bannon’s face.

During the following credits, glimpses of a Donald Trump wax figure, molded piece by piece, ready to take its position in a recreation of the Oval Office at Madame Tussauds solidifies what the right was celebrating and the left could not believe: Donald J Trump was the 45th president of the United States. “How the f*** did this happen?” Moore’s voice-over asks.

The film will later veer off, away from Trump, and explore in detail the reasoning behind the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Moore’s hometown. What the rest of the country thought it knew about the situation and the state’s republican governor, Rick Snyder, the businessman who championed the switching of the water supply from the clean water of Lake Huren to the stale, heavily polluted water of Flint River, is just the surface of this pond scum affair. The full story is devastating. But why is it explored in Fahrenheit 11/9, you might ask, when such a horrifying event and its deadly outcome could warrant its own documentary. Once you recognize the parallels, it starts to make sense.

Having a CEO declaring he can run Michigan like a business, then making decisions based on corporate policies solely for the intent of generating profits begin to sound familiar. Political measures meant to protect are forcibly lifted. The film shows how Snyder orchestrated a non-existent emergency resulting with a coup relieving elected city leaders of their duties, replaced by Snyder’s personal, like-minded businessman appointees. As Moore narrates, no terrorist organization had found a way of poisoning a city. That was achieved by the Republican party and its CEO governor.

At this point, in case you’re thinking that maybe such a conclusion is pushing a bias too far, consider what is revealed. When it was proven that the damaging water supply was not only directly responsible for residents’ ill health, many of whom died of legionnaire’s disease, but also created damage to the manufacture of automobile parts in Detroit’s factories, damage that affected factory costs as well as political donations to his party, Governor Snyder was forced to finally act. Which he did. He sensibly switched the water supply back to its original clean source. But only for the car factories. The residents would have to contend with the brown water from the rancid Flint River. No profit to be made from helping anyone else. So much for the notion that it’s people that always come first.

But it’s not just the party to the right that comes under Moore’s revealing facts and figures. The New York Times, the established members of the Democrats, even both President Clinton and Obama are all victims of embarrassing facts supported by numbers and videos. Moore appears to have no bias to either side. His agenda in Fahrenheit 11/9 is the inconvenient truth. It’s only when Moore grabs a pair of handcuffs and declares he’s about to attempt a citizen’s arrest when approaching Governor Snyder’s mansion that the film feels it’s taken a wrong turn. It’s a stunt, admittedly a humorous one that makes its point, but what worked in the more satirical Roger & Me feels out of step with the tone of this film. But ultimately, whether he’s on screen or not, it’s all about President Trump.

Looking back on his career before the presidency, how he talked; the lawsuits; the lechery – “I’ll be dating her in ten years,” he states after passing an eight year-old girl going in the other direction on an escalator; the lies – “I’m gonna take care of everybody,” he insists regarding healthcare; avoiding taxes – “That makes me smart,” when questioned in a debate; the fake promises – “You people are gonna be rich so fast!” he declares to a crowd at a rally; and the incite to violence – “Knock the crap out of him,” he shouts to his followers regarding a protester at a rally, adding, “I’ll pay the legal fees,” – all add to the portrait of a man shown to be unconcerned with hiding his immoral corruptions.

As filmmaker Moore successfully explains without having to spell the obvious, his followers, the ones wearing the t-shirts that read slogans such as “I’d Rather Be Russian Than A Democrat” neither seem to care, nor realize how much they’re being used. Like Michigan Governor Snyder’s model, those measures meant to protect are being systematically lifted, and it’s only achieved by a power received by the continual support of his base, the ones who, in the long run, will be the most affected.

To vote is a citizen’s only line of defense. If you come away from Fahrenheit 11/9 with anything, Moore is telling us, it’s the need to cast that vote before the ability to do so is removed by executive order. And don’t think that having a Constitution is going to help. Moore’s sobering explanation at the film’s conclusion with examples shown will soon have you reconsidering that particular myth.

MPAA Rating: R        Length: 126 Minutes

Posted in Film

The First Annual Book Burners Convention – Theatre Review: Space 55 Theatre

Having worked at both Zia Records and Half Price Books, if there’s anyone who must know a thing or two about used book stores, the people who shop there, and what it’s like to come across the occasional interesting item, it would be Ashley Naftule.

Currently the Associate Artistic Director for Space 55, the valley’s small, independent theatre group located on N. 18th Avenue, Naftule has written a new play inspired by those years behind the counter, The First Annual Book Burners Convention. With a title like that and an awareness of Naftule’s origins, you might think you’re about to see an off-beat, comedic, behind-the-scenes exposé of the day to day affairs of a used book store, its behind the counter secrets, the attitudes of employees towards the customers, and why when during hard economic times you take in boxes of your favorite books, albums, and CDs, and you’re offered a disappointing amount of practically next-to-nothing for them. But you’d be wrong.

It starts off that way. It’s November 1st, the morning after Halloween. Francis Neville (Sky Donovan) and his sister Aaron (Dayna Renee Donovan; and yes, that is Aaron Neville, and, no, there’s no singing) both work at the Opera Street Bookstore, a place not unlike Half Price Books where customers raid their home shelves and bring in what will later become the store’s inventory. When Nice Guy Johnny (normally Brett Higginbotham, but ably played at the last minute on Sunday’s matinee by director Dennis Frederick) arrives with a bag full of books to sell, Francis offers him only five dollars for the lot, and that includes an old, musty, ancient looking hard-covered book written in what might be either hieroglyphics or a language of a long, lost past. Actually, Francis pays nothing for the book, insisting its pages are so full of silverfish, the best he can do is get rid of it for Johnny as a free service before it contaminates everything else in the store. But, of course, Francis is lying. There are no damaging silverfish.

Instead, drawn towards it, Francis takes the book home and attempts to translate it, which, to his surprise, he discovers he can. And that’s where things become weird. The tip-off that the play is about to go in a new, considerably more bizarre direction is when Francis receives a call from someone, or maybe even something, called Mr. Cold (Megan Holcomb). Sounding like one of those aliens from Galaxy Quest and looking like an androgynous Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks but with slicked back red hair, Mr. Cold wants that book and is willing to pay anything Francis desires to get it back. Literally anything. As the humorless, monotone character in the suit and tie informs Francis, “I am a victim of theft.”

But the off-beat that was at first just weird, then bizarre, develops into something freakish. There are two others who want that book, and their approach is considerably less diplomatic than Mr. Cold’s. Two sisters, demons from hell (Julie Peterson and Tessa Geelhood) are determined to find the ancient writings, and they’re perfectly happy to torture or tear anyone from limb to limb in order to find it.

There are times throughout when the play appears to be in danger of going completely off the rails, especially with the demon sisters, two characters who would benefit from some rethinking and a thorough re-write. But with overall good work from its eight-member cast, particularly Sky Donovan – his unsuspecting book store worker feels authentic to the point of believing that his day-job outside of Space 55 is actually working at a used book store – and Amy Jean Page as Claire, Francis’ sympathetic girlfriend, the dark humored play is kept buoyant.

However, it’s fair to say that mainstream audiences attending the low-budget, rough-around-the-edges production will find The First Annual Book Burners Convention an undeniable challenge. In fact, with its several short and to the point scenes that often jump quickly from location to location, particularly as the story heads towards its intriguing conclusion, the play doesn’t always feel like a play at all. It’s like watching a live-action version of a late-night movie; a black comic horror flick, the kind that develops a cult after surviving the film festival circuit in the Sci-Fi/Horror category.

Naftule, who has a good ear for dialog, gives the impression he’s adapted something originally conceived as a screenplay, a notion underlined further by the continuing string of scene-setting music from sound designer Ilana Lydia; it sounds like a movie’s original soundtrack. When the manager of the book store, Millicent (Marcella Grassa) tells the story of the night she was driving her Nissan and thought she saw the angel Gabriel raising his sword before her, atmospheric music slyly creeps in, adding a flavor of eeriness to the telling. It’s purely cinematic. And, frankly, if at some future date it’s ever adapted to a screenplay, the concept of Book Burners, I’m suspecting, would be considerably more effective if told up on that big screen forum.

The First Annual Book Burners Convention continues at Space 55 Theatre until September 30

Posted in Theatre

White Guy on the Bus – Theatre Review: iTheatre Collaborative, Herberger Theater Center’s Kax Theater, Phoenix

The opening of playwright Bruce Graham’s most recent work, White Guy on the Bus, floods the wide, expansive set with images of the stock market. They move about in patterns; projected images appearing as they would when enlarged from a widescreen TV monitor, accompanied by a cacophony of overlapping voices from various cable news stations, all reporting on the day’s trading. Then it fades.

For a brief moment we then see a black woman wearing hospital scrubs, seated off-center. She’s silently riding a bus. We know she’s on a bus because the passing roar of the public transport vehicle was just heard over the fade of the cable news broadcasters. But her image quickly dims. Instead, our attention is focused on the white, middle-aged businessman in the shirt and tie standing center stage, facing us. After a pause, he suddenly announces, “I’m a numbers man.” This is Ray (Matthew Cary), and Ray’s initial appearance suggests he’s about to narrate his story. But like several moments throughout the play that suggests one thing then reveals another, Ray isn’t talking to us at all. It’s the beginning of a conversation he’s about to have with his wife, Roz (Kim LaVelle).

For the next two scenes, there’s another assumption audiences might make. When Ray and his wife leave their comfortable suburban home to visit a much younger couple for the evening, Christopher (Christina Boden) and Molly (Hayla Stewart), the conversation between the four quickly turns confrontational. At first, it appears as though playwright Graham is about to trounce us with a lecture on racism as seen from the point of view of privileged whites. In the case of Ray and Roz, rich, privileged whites.

Roz, who treats conversations as though they were contact sports, is a teacher. Seventy-two percent of her class is black. The younger and less experienced Molly is also a teacher, but Molly doesn’t quite share Roz’s point of view, particularly when the older woman declares, “Molly, you are a racist.” What follows is Roz’s denouncement on the difference between real racism and perceived racism, attitudes evolved from the experience of her challenging day to day life in the classroom. In her own defense, the younger Molly insists that while she may teach in a less threatening urban environment, she still has problems, among them, having to deal with a ‘cutter.’ “Your kids cut themselves,” Roz responds. “My kids cut each other.”

But these two scenes are a setup, successfully lulling audiences into a false sense of direction as to where the play is really going. Ray, from whose point-of-view we see everything – he’s never off-stage – wanders from Chris and Molly’s apartment and seats himself on a bus. Across the aisle from the businessman sits Shatique (Victoria Stokes). Dressed in a her scrubs, passing the time of the lengthy journey by cutting supermarket coupons, Shatique and Ray strike up a conversation. Shatique talks of her long days, the hospital, her studies to better herself and hopefully her financial situation, while Ray talks of his life and what he does for a living. “I help rich people get richer,” he explains.

Immediate questions arise. Where is the bus going? And what is Ray even doing there, especially when we know of his lifestyle, his comfortable home, and what kind of car he drives? “Do you really own a Mercedes?” Shatique asks. When Ray answers, yes, she blurts, “So, why are you on this damn bus?” Then things become severely suspicious when Shatique asks him if he’s married. Ray, who up until this moment has done nothing to suggest he’s anything other than a straight dye, suddenly answers, “No.”

Even though the black box theatre setting for iTheatre Collaborative’s new racially incendiary production, running now at Herberger Theater Center’s Kax Theater until September 22, is wide – it stretches from one exit sign in the house to the other – there’s not a lot of room for director Christopher Haines in which to direct his players. Stage-right is the raised patio to Roz and Ray’s home, stage-left will double as both Chris and Molly’s apartment and later Shatique’s place, while center stage becomes the bus and later, a car. Characters can only move within the limited confines of their area, focusing audience’s attention not so much on what the characters do, but on what is being said. If it wasn’t for the scene transitions, where dialog from one time period overlaps into another as Ray wanders from setting to setting, continuing his conversation from one scene while establishing his position in the next, with just a minimum of rework, White Guy on the Bus could be equally effective as a radio drama.

While all five actors are well cast to ability and extremely well played, it’s ultimately the three adults, Cary’s Ray, LaVelle’s Roz and Stokes’ Shatique that holds attention, particularly Stokes who truly shines in her valley acting debut. Once secrets and motives are fully revealed, the scenes between Ray and Shatique develop into something practically combustible; their force, a combination of great acting interpreting powerful writing under a director’s careful guidance for nuance in both sound and movement. “The death penalty in this country is a joke,” Ray states during one of his meetings on the bus with the nurse. “Not if you’re black,” Shatique dryly responds. And there, in that one brief exchange, is the point of everything that will soon follow.

White Guy on the Bus has the kind of frankness that should and probably will induce discomfort, and that’s clearly the play’s intention. If you came alone, your drive home may be dominated with thoughts of what you’ve just heard while you try to be equally frank with yourself and where you stand. If you came as a group, the discussion in the car may ultimately prove more challenging than simply talking about a play, particularly if things you thought you knew about friends and their attitudes aren’t quite as you initially perceived. “Bet the cops come out to your neighborhood when you call,” states Shatique to Ray, a man who has probably never considered that things could ever be otherwise on the other side of the bus route.

Graham’s play, which is heading towards its final weekend and should be seen, is asking audiences to consider looking at things from a different perspective while acknowledging that to do so is never going to be easy. For some, it’s practically impossible. And for those who think of themselves as being open-minded and realistically fair when stating that all lives matter, fail to understand the movement or to see that what they’re really doing is dismantling the conversation. But the play is asking us to at least try. Because ultimately, if all we do is remain in our bubble, blind to the overwhelming disadvantage of others, then in the end, we’ll forever be like that white guy on the bus, and that’s never a good thing.

White Guy on the Bus continues at Herberger Theater Center’s Kax Theater until September 22

Pictures Courtesy of Christopher Haines

Posted in Theatre

Pick of the Litter – Film Review

It’s already won the hearts and minds of many festival-goers throughout the country. Now it’s our turn. In the new highly entertaining and successfully informative documentary from directors Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman, Pick of the Litter, as soon as you witness the birth of five Labrador puppies, three black, two yellow, hearts will melt. It’s going to happen. Unless you really don’t like dogs, or you’re a hardcore, dedicated cat lover, and only a furry feline in the house will do, it’s going to happen.

Chronicling the lives of those five newborns as they begin their exacting journey to becoming guide dogs for the blind, Pick of the Litter begins with the fun of picking names. After a title card informs that 800 dogs are born at Guide Dogs for the Blind every year, with only 300 making it all the way to becoming guides, the caring people of the San Rafael, California based GDB campus brainstorm names for the new litter. “Phil it is!” they happily declare at the conclusion of picking a series of monikers then eliminating them down to 5, all beginning with the letter ‘P.’ In addition to the solid sounding Phil, there’s also Patriot, Primrose, Potomac, and Poppet; three boys, two girls.

We’ve all seen guide dogs in public, but most of us, it’s fair to say, have no clue what is entailed, or how long a qualified customer has to wait in order to finally receive their trained dog. After approval, the wait may be up to a year.

After about eight weeks on campus where the pups are monitored on their early behavior – “They not showing any uneasiness with things in their environment,” observes one of the handlers – the young dogs are ready for their foster families, or Puppy Raisers. The pups will be with their raisers for approximately the next sixteen months where they’ll learn social skills.

Being a raiser requires a special quality. Raiser families have to have the mindset from the beginning that the puppy is not really theirs. The parting at a later date can and probably will be difficult, no matter how prepared the families think they are. In one unfortunate example, a raiser called Patti is told that the GDB has decided to transfer Phil to a more experienced raiser, citing that this was always the plan from the beginning. A heartbroken Patti insists she was never told this in advance. “That was so devastating,” Patti tells us, “It was a blind side. I’m so angry.”

A military vet is thrilled when he’s accepted to be a raiser. “A dog gives me purpose,” he states, but even though the military has taught him discipline and the need to be a stickler for the rules, he can’t suppress a tear when the time comes to hand his puppy over. “It doesn’t make an empty house any easier,” he states.

There’s also the issue of a dog not making the grade from almost the beginning. In GDB parlance, the term ‘Career Change’ is a polite way of saying that a dog has been cut from the program. In the case of these five puppies, one is noticeably rambunctious from the outset when out on walks. He pulls on the leash, plus he’s continually distracted by everything around him with a desire to lunge at things that take his attention. If statistics have already informed that only 300 out of the original 800 will make it, we’re already aware that some of our intrepid 5 are going to be ‘career changed’ at some point along the journey. “All right, mister,” a GDB member tells one of the dogs when it’s clear that being a guide dog is not in his future. “Civilian life for you.”

Directors Hardy Jr. and Nachman’s documentary both educates as well as entertains, and there are plenty of cute shots of Labrador puppies, but how can there not be? Plus, it adds layers of several emotional ups and downs that creep up on you when you least expect them. You can’t help but feel for a raiser family when they have to give their dog up, ready for the next level of training. You might even a shed a tear along with family members; how can you not? But more importantly, the Pick of the Litter is fun.

Like a reality TV show with its rounds of elimination until the big climax, the documentary keeps you guessing which of the five pups will make it. And you’ll have your favorites. You may even cheer. After a lengthy wait and a lifetime of having to use a cane, when customer Ron Strother is finally awarded his guide dog, brought to him by the letter ‘P,’ he’s only too aware that his life and his ability to get about is about to change. “To say that I’m grateful is an understatement,” he declares with the broadest of smiles.

At the film’s conclusion, one, maybe two – I’m saying nothing – will make it. The remaining few will be career changed. For one of the dogs, the change for her will be that of a breeder. Just as we saw at the beginning, one of the original five will ultimately give birth to five new puppies, all of whom will go on to be trained as potential guide dogs. New names will be chosen, and the process will begin again. And let me repeat, hearts will melt. Guaranteed.

MPAA:   NR                 Length:   80 Minutes

Please Note: Pick of the Litter will have an exclusive showing in the valley at Shea 14 theatres beginning September 14


Posted in Film

A Simple Favor – Film Review

In director Paul Feig’s dark comic thriller, A Simple Favor, Blake Lively plays Emily Nelson, a married businesswoman and mother who cheerfully admits she’s the world’s worst mom. “The nicest thing I can do for my kid is blow my brains out,” she casually states with little regard as to how shockingly frank the comment sounds to her new best friend, Stephanie (Anna Kendrick).

Stephanie, on the other hand, is the world’s best mom. Recently widowed, Stephanie throws herself into after-school projects as if it was her duty, volunteering for any and all tasks her son’s teacher requests. She’s the type that’s happy to sign her name on project after project, often leaving little room on the bulletin board for anyone else to volunteer. Not that the other parents want to. They’re exhausted just watching Stephanie operate. The young woman also vlogs. She records online video blogs with cooking and shopping tips to moms everywhere. Clearly, Stephanie likes to keep busy.

After-school, when picking up their boys, Stephanie and Emily meet and strike up a conversation. In order to allow their boys some play time, the strikingly attractive, f-bomb dropping Emily invites the more reserved Stephanie over for some afternoon martinis. “Emily is going to to eat Stephanie alive,” observes one parent from across the road as the two women leave the school grounds together.

Even though the mothers could hardly be more different, they appear to bond. Then one day Emily calls, explaining that things are crazy at the office and that her English husband, Sean (Henry Golding) has had to fly on an emergency trip to London where his mother is sick. Could Stephanie do her a simple favor and pick her son up after school and give him something to eat? “Of course,” replies Stephanie, who then asks, “Does he have any diet restrictions?” “Yeah,” Emily dryly responds in typical Emily fashion. “Don’t feed him shit he doesn’t like.” Then something odd occurs. The business and martini loving woman vanishes.

Like the debut novel by author Darcey Bell upon which Feig’s movie is based, A Simple Favor is superbly plotted with a snazzy, Hitchcockian flair of murder, mystery, and double-crossing that twists, turns, circles back, then twists and turns some more. While events initially appear to conclude around the 42 minute mark – you’re left wondering, so, what happens now? – what follows is scene after scene of continual surprise that proceeds in that vein right up until the conclusion, 75 minutes later. Where some in the literary world considered Bell’s novel convoluted – Gone Girl on steroids – the film overcomes the more outrageous elements of the story and its larger-then-life characters by adding a fresh layer of dark humor throughout.

Among the film’s many surprises, the real surprise is just how funny it is. When Kendrick’s vlogger mom becomes a tenacious Nancy Drew, determined to get to the bottom of what happened to her friend, she begins her investigations by sneaking into Emily’s high-fashion office and demanding to talk to her boss, aloof upscale fashion designer, Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend). When Nylon attempts to brush her aside, Stephanie quickly tells him that if he doesn’t speak to her she’ll expose his company as a place of business that uses Indonesian children as cheap slave labor to make his clothes. “They’re not Indonesian children,” he insists, adding with some hesitancy, “They’re… Vietnamese teenagers.”

As the film progresses and secrets about Lively’s Emily are slowly exposed, we discover that Kendrick’s vlogger mom has some secrets of her own. Often when telling stories about herself, what we’re hearing is not quite the same as the flashbacks we’re seeing. Earlier, when Emily asks the mom vlogger whether she’s married, we catch a glimpse of a car that veers off the highway and intentionally slams into a concrete slab. “Widowered,” is all Stephanie replies, without explanation. And when police detective Molloy (Andrew Moodie) questions her and asks if she’s ever had to deal with the police before, we flashback to an earlier moment when two officers are standing in her doorway, ready to ask her questions or inform her of something, yet Stephanie answers with a straight face, “No.”

Opening with a French language version of the 1967 Andy Williams hit, Music to Watch Girls By, played over an upbeat sixties credit sequence, full of saturated colors in sliding split screen, there’s a tone set with an immediate promise that something entertainingly stylish is about to unfold. With its overall upbeat rhythm, its razor sharp edits from Brent White, its performances from Golding, Kendricks, and particularly Blake Lively, who here has her most accomplished screen role to date, plus its wicked sense of humor, courtesy of writer Jessica Sharzer’s adaptation, A Simple Favor proves one thing. Just like John Cho’s recent surprise thriller Searching, after a summer of huge, overlong, teenage blockbusters full of wall to wall dazzling visual effects, its still the smaller adult films that keep the quality of story telling alive at the cinema.

MPAA Rating:  NR           Length:  117 Minutes

Posted in Film

The Predator – Film Review

If you don’t count the two Alien vs. Predator films – and, good Lord, why would you? – the new sci-fi actioner titled simply The Predator is now the fourth in the series. For the record, it was thirty-one years-ago at the height of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action man popularity when the first of the four Predator movies was released. Eighteen since the last. Whether anyone was ever really waiting for more, only this weekend’s box-office will tell, but here it is, and frankly, it’s all over the place.

Director and co-writer Shane Black was initially asked to do a reboot, but at Black’s insistence, either the fourth was to be a sequel, a continuance of the characters and these mandible wearing killer aliens, or he was out. Plus, it had to be ‘R’ rated; none of this watered-down, namby-pamby ‘PG-13’ stuff. He got what he wanted; an ‘R’ rated sequel. But when an earlier, rough-cut of the film was shown at test screenings, responses were disappointing. In fact, Black himself stated that the earlier version was maybe a little too dark. He nicknamed it The Night Cut. As a result, the whole third and final act was re-shot this past summer. And that might help explain a few things.

To discuss the plot in any detail is to confuse. The setup and its development are so convoluted, attempting a synopsis to whet a fan’s appetite could end up doing the opposite. So, here’s the Readers Digest version.  Try to stick with it.

Briefly, a rogue predator alien crashes on Earth and is captured by government scientists for observation. A second and much larger alien predator follows with the intent of hunting down and killing the first. Then there’s the secret government agents, lead by the merciless Will Traegar (Sterling K. Brown) who orders his men to kill whoever witnesses these aliens and their crafts in order to maintain secrecy. He’s just as villainous as the predators.

Stuck in the middle of this is a former army ranger, Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), a freelance sniper who, while on assignment, spots the first alien and his spacecraft through his viewfinder. Now he’s on the run from Traegar and his men and doing his best to keep alive just because he saw an alien. But he’s not alone. There’s backup in the shape of some previously arrested military types, all crazy in one way or another, whose transporter bus crashes and spills them back out into the real world. McKenna calls them his ‘Loonies.’

There’s even more. McKenna’s estranged wife, Emily (Yvonne Strahovski, best remembered from TV’s Chuck) is alone, acting as a single mom, raising their son, Rory (Jacolb Tremblay), a bullied savant with issues who, as luck would have it, just happens to know how to translate alien languages. They’re dragged into the mayhem. As is university science teacher and stargazer Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) who is forced to join up with McKenna’s loons and keep running. “What’s the upside of me staying with you guys?” she asks. The obvious answer being, they’ll help her stay alive. Either the predators will kill her, the secret government soldiers will kill her, or she’ll die in the confusing crossfire, not just between aliens fighting aliens, but soldiers fighting soldiers, who are both fighting aliens.

At least there’s humor, and a lot of it. Among all the running around, the fighting, the blood, the guts, the head rippings, and all the other body dismemberments, characters fire barbs faster than they do bullets. And they argue, including who’s right when it comes to the difference of meaning between the word ‘predator’ and ‘hunter.’ At one point, there are so many insults and quips lobbying around, the film has practically turned into an all-out comedy. “When this is over,” threatens McKenna to the ruthless Traegar, “You and me. We’re gonna dance.” “Got my shoes all picked out,” Traegar responds.

But even though there’s promise in the first and second act, as long as you overlook how complicated everything is getting and just sigh, resign, and go with the flow, that lengthy final act is a genuine problem. It might have been re-shot in order to clarify things that confused test screening audiences, but the end result really doesn’t help. You’re left with all kinds of questions, like what happened to bad guy Traegar? What was his fate? Same with McKenna’s wife, Emily. Last we saw in her segment was an alien crashing through her house into the basement, with Emily scrambling to escape up the basement stairs. And then what? And does that final scene really indicate there’s more to come? With soldiers firing at soldiers, aliens fighting aliens, then turning again on the soldiers, it fast becomes incomprehensible. And ultimately unnecessary.

It’s not uncommon to hear the complaint from ticket-buyers that Hollywood has finally run out of ideas. It’s said all the time. Certainly, after a summer of sequels, prequels and remakes, with more remakes to come, it’s easy to argue that the only perceived risks being taken are with the smaller, independent movies. There are no end of examples.

In playwright Annie Baker’s play The Antipodes (coincidentally, now playing at Tempe Center for the Arts by Stray Cat Theatre until September 22) a team of ideas people, looking for the perfect story, can’t think of anything that hasn’t been told before, adding to the well-worn adage that there are no new stories to tell. Watching this fourth Predator movie pretty much hammers both Baker’s point and the theory of disgruntled movie ticket-buyers home. And it still makes a mess of things.

MPAA Rating: R          Length: 108 Minutes

Posted in Film