The Predator

With its primal story of survival and its ultra-macho attitude, John McTiernan’s Predator is still lauded as an action classic to this day and went on to generate 2 direct sequels along with 2 spin-offs in the Alien Vs. Predator series. Now from writer/director Shane Black, who had a comic relief role as Hawkins in the 1987 original, comes The Predator, another sequel that also doubles as a way to reboot an ailing franchise. On paper, this new film seems to have the qualifications to work within the Predator series but the actual result feels both overwritten and underdirected while also seeming to add little to the franchise’s overall mythology.

The story this time once again centers around a Predator ship that comes crashing to Earth when it’s discovered by decorated Army sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), who confiscates armor from the ship and mails it to his home to keep it out of the government’s hands. The Predator’s body is then brought to a laboratory where it’s observed by biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) before the creature awakens and escapes the facility, leaving loads of mangled bodies in its wake. After being picked up for investigation by an Agent Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), McKenna is recruited along with a ragtag band of veterans to bring the Predator down at any cost.

This group, which includes likable actors like Trevante Rhodes and Keegan-Michael Key, is reminiscent of the misfit military men from the first Predator film but the characters here lack the necessary depth and personality. The film comes to a screeching halt to introduce each new character in the most perfunctory way possible, outlining how each person is likely to behave and why we should care about them. It has all the elegance and tact of an overly eager elevator pitch and it’s the result of lazy writing that doesn’t trust the audience’s ability to ascertain all of the necessary character traits without the “help” of clunky dialogue.

That particular scene is emblematic of a larger problem with The Predator, which is that is the script is needlessly busy weaving together plot points that feel like they belong to completely different genres altogether. The first Predator has just about the most basic premise possible (alien lands in the jungle, army men have to kill it) but it makes the most of this simple setup by slowly wringing tension from the treacherous nature of the surroundings. By contrast, the convoluted screenplay of the newest entry ensures that our characters will be unceremoniously shuffled around from one location to another with little idea what good it will do them.

Shane Black, who has previously written and directed quality quippy films like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys, also has experience with big-budget action fare after his work on Marvel’s Iron Man 3 but he seems hopelessly lost here. The only actor who really seems to get the balance of hubris and humor right is Trevante Rhodes, who turns in what is by far the film’s most compelling performance following his star-making turn in the 2016 Best Picture winner Moonlight. If the rest of the cast had been on the same page with him, then The Predator could have at least worked as an ensemble comedy of sorts but it’s just one of the film’s many missed opportunities.

Score – 2/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The House with a Clock in its Walls, starring Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, is a family-friendly fantasy film from Eli Roth, who has previously directed not so family-friendly fare like Hostel and The Green Inferno.
Life Itself, starring Oscar Isaac and Olivia Wilde, is an ensemble romantic comedy-drama based in New York and Spain from the creator of the hit NBC series This Is Us.
Fahrenheit 11/9, the new provocative documentary from Michael Moore, is a sequel of sorts to his 2004 doc Fahrenheit 9/11 that covers the 2016 US presidential election and the subsequent presidency of Donald Trump.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Nun

Since the Conjuring series of films began with the first entry in 2013, the R-rated horror franchise has summoned supernatural scares that have translated to hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. The Conjuring generated the spin-off Annabelle about a creepy possessed doll and The Conjuring 2 has now led to another spin-off called The Nun, spelling out the backstory for the Valak character that was introduced in that film. Like the rest of its companions in the Conjuring Universe, this film relies heavily on jump scares with jarring audio cues but it lacks an engaging story or any involving characters to make this prequel journey worth taking.

After a nun is found dead after apparently taking her own life outside a Romanian monastery, The Vatican tasks Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) with investigating the incident. There, they meet “Frenchie” (Jonas Bloquet), the man who discovered the nun’s body while delivering supplies to the abbey, who aides them in their examination. As the trio spends more time on the premises, they begin to witness supernatural sightings and seem to be haunted continuously by evil spirits that tie back to a demonic entity known as Valak, who is usually held in check by constant prayer from the nuns but has seemingly grown more powerful.

The issues with The Nun start fairly early on, as the first scenes of the spooky Nun character set up the general pace and timbre of the rest of the scares and frankly, it’s nothing that we haven’t seen done better countless times before. It leans into religious iconography like upside-down crosses and ominous headstones in ways that scores of other horror films (The Exorcist series, for one) have all invoked in more creative ways. All of the visual clichés are firmly in place as well, like the close-up/pan to an empty area/pan back to close-up with scary figure behind main character sequence, but they’re brought down even further by a murky visual palette that makes for an especially drab viewing experience.

Some of these rote horror movie beats might be worth forgiving if there were other redeemable aspects to the film but the terribly thin script doesn’t allow for any sort of intrigue in the story or any interest for the characters. Even though this would seem to be an explanation of how the Valak creature came to be, the film gives very little in terms of details on the origins of this nefarious being and the answers that we’re given are perfunctory at best. It’s also extremely inconsistent about the actual powers of this spirit, who is shown early on to be powerful enough to bury someone alive in the blink of an eye but then is almost comically under-powered the rest of the film as it conjures up hands to grab at the protagonists.

The first two Conjuring films have been aided greatly by the effortless chemistry between leads Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson but this trio of actors, including Vera’s younger sister Taissa, doesn’t have the same kind of spark to make their characters engaging from the get-go. While they aren’t able to make much happen together on-screen, I’d hardly say it’s their fault as the three are saddled with shamefully underwritten roles that do them no justice. The Nun may have enough frights in it for fans of the series to find it worth watching but I have to imagine that most moviegoers won’t find nearly enough for the film to justify its existence outside of being another payday for Warner Bros in this lucrative franchise.

Score – 1.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Predator, starring Boyd Holbrook and Trevante Rhodes, is the third sequel to the 1987 sci-fi action classic that pits a group of mercenaries against a town overrun by the titular creatures.
A Simple Favor, starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, is a mystery-thriller that centers around a blogger who attempts to solve a missing persons case that involves her best friend.
White Boy Rick, starring Matthew McConaughey and Richie Merritt, tells the true story of Richard Wershe Jr., who is notorious for being the youngest FBI informant ever at age 14.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Searching

So much of our modern lives are dictated by how we interact with screens, whether it’s a smart phone or tablet or computer, it only seemed to be a matter of time before the movies would address the staggering cultural change. First it was the 2014 horror film Unfriended, which told its cyberbullying revenge tale entirely from the perspective of computer screens during a group Skype call. Now comes the new techno-thriller Searching, which employs the same general setup of capturing everything from the point-of-view of these ever-present screens but does so in service of a much more human story with real stakes at its core.

The film stars John Cho as David Kim, a single father doing his best to raise his 16-year old daughter Margot (Michelle La) while still struggling to cope with the recent loss of his wife to cancer. After waking up to multiple missed calls from Margot, David becomes worried when he’s unable to reach her back in the morning and does some preliminary research to try to track her down. When parts of Margot’s story don’t add up and she isn’t heard from in over 36 hours, the missing persons case begins and Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) begins working with David to track Margot’s digital footprint for information that will lead to her safe return.

It may not initially seem enticing to watch a mystery like this unfold from the vantage point of the protagonist’s electronic devices but first-time director Aneesh Chaganty knows just how to pace the action on-screen. He manages to wring an uncanny amount of tension from tasks that we’re used to completing every day like web searching and checking e-mail by embedding clues behind each click. Thanks to the skillful editing of Nick Johnson and Will Merrick, there’s a propulsive energy and seemingly unstoppable momentum behind every scene that delivers the story’s twists and turns at a break-neck speed while (hopefully) not losing the audience in the process.

Another important key to this film’s success is just how much technical accuracy and precision goes into every tab and window that’s on display and tech-savvy movie goers will have fun picking out every detail that appears on screen. It also helps that David’s sleuthing tends to be remarkably clever, as he finds quick but credible solutions to obstacles like not knowing the password to an account while also not being able to log in to the e-mail address linked to the same account. The less technologically-inclined among us may not be able to catch every single bread crumb on the trail but it doesn’t take a computer whiz to follow the touching family story that serves as the film’s emotional backbone.

Always at the center of the film’s action is John Cho, an actor who’s probably best known for playing Sulu in the new Star Trek films and was excellent in last year’s Columbus, but has the chance to really shine in a performance that’s often unaccompanied. The anxiety and desperation that his character feels is often on full display from his computer’s camera but Cho also conveys a progression of stress that’s completely believable for any parent who would have to endure a situation like this. Searching is a terrific thrill-ride that utilizes its screen-based gimmick to maximum effect while also telling a poignant story about raising children in the age of the internet.

Score – 4/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Nun, starring Demián Bichir and Taissa Farmiga, is the latest in the Conjuring series of horror films that investigates the origins of the ominous Valak character introduced in The Conjuring 2.
Peppermint, starring Jennifer Garner, is a vigilante action thriller from the director of Taken that centers around a woman’s search for justice following the murder of her husband and daughter.
Also opening at Cinema Center is Madeline’s Madeline, which scored rave reviews at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and stars Helena Howard as a theater student on the verge of an artistic breakthrough.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup