John McTeirnan´s original Predator was a legitimate action classic, and one of star Arnold Schwarzenegger´s best-remembered films. It was followed by a mostly forgotten (perhaps unjustly so – it was decent enough) Schwarzenegger-less sequel and two Alien vs. Predator films, which are better off forgotten (even though the second one really, really tried).
There are no Aliens in Nimród Antal´s Predators, but it taps into that franchise anyway, and earns the ‘s´ in the title: this sequel is to McTiernan´s original what James Cameron´s Aliens was to Ridley Scott´s Alien. It´s a ridiculously entertaining ride, a self-knowing but straight-faced throwback to the days of over-the-top 80s machismo and 70s grindhouse exploitation, shot fast and cheap but with care and vision.
The opening frames literally drop us into the action: protagonist Royce (Adrien Brody) wakes up in a freefall, spiraling towards an unnamed planet and clutching for the release on a parachute he finds conveniently strapped to his back. He lands in a jungle amongst Isabelle (Alice Braga), Edwin (Topher Grace) and others, mostly military types and killers armed to the teeth. They all have one thing in common, they have no idea where there are, or how they got there. “We´re in hell,” one remarks. Seems plausible.
This opening recalls Cube, or an episode of The Twilight Zone; there are endless ways to take the story. Of course, having walked in to a movie called Predators, we´re a few steps ahead of the characters: this is more The Most Dangerous Game. Cages, traps, dead bodies lying around – they´re being hunted by the titular creatures, hefty alien beings who use cloaking devices and plasma guns and see based on heat signature. This time around, they have tusked Predator hunting dogs, too.
We know exactly where Predators is headed, but it´s all about the ride – which is wild stuff. There´s no shortage of flaws here – problems with pacing, characterization, logic (why do they keep running away – they have a clear shot!) – but all somehow forgiven as this breathlessly violent, frequently hilarious (in that is-it-intentional? kind of way) sci-fi fantasy action film won me over with a knowing wink. They just don´t make ‘em like this anymore.
Brody, seven years removed from his Oscar win for Polanski´s The Pianist, might seem like an odd choice for super action hero. But by the end, he has morphed into Schwarzenegger (wait – is that a compliment?) Walton Goggins, typecast as a redneck sonuvabitch, steals his scenes as a lightly-armed death row inmate. As does Laurence Fishburne, who shows up as a half-loony survivor.
“You´re one ugly mother ” The original Predator notoriously never looked all that great, serving up multiple unsatisfactory home video versions including two blu-rays that have been outright rejected. In homage to this, perhaps, Predators looks even worse: incredibly dark, grimy, gritty, and hazy at almost every turn. In one scene, smoke causes an uproar, but I could barely detect it on the screen. Maybe the bulb in the projector at my theater was just set too low.
Director Antal garnered acclaim for his festival favorite thriller Kontroll before coming to Hollywood and churning out a couple of B pictures in Vacancy and Armored, both of which were better than they should have been. Predators, too, is a thoroughly solid B picture, produced by Robert Rodriguez through his Troublemaker Studios; it´d make a great half of a Rodriguez/Tarantino Grindhouse-style double bill. Advance promotion seems to have been especially light for a franchise film like this, but it will find it´s (cult) audience soon enough.
Letters to Juliet has an irresistible premise: in Verona, Italy, at the house Shakespeare´s Juliet is said to have lived, women from around the world leave letters asking for love advice at a wall under the balcony. The city employs a small group of women (the “secretaries of Juliet”) to answer each one, and when a young American tourist finds a 50-year-old note stuck behind a rock, they urge her to answer it herself. So she does, and she inspires a widowed grandmother to come to Italy and search for the love of her life that she left 50 years ago.
This can´t miss. And it doesn´t. Vanessa Redgrave plays the grandmother, and all the scenes with her and her quest are quite wonderful in that soapy, schmaltzy, teary-eyed Hollywood way.
So where does Letters to Juliet go wrong? Well, the story outlined above, that´s only about 1/2 of the movie. The other half? Yup, formula rom-com: engaged girl meets another boy, they initially hate each other, then realize they love each other, then there´s a misunderstanding and one of them hates the other again, and then it´s all cleared up for the happy ending.
I was in stitches at the end of Juliet, when after completing the Redgrave storyline, the film shifts to the rom-com and tries to cram all those plot points into the final 20 minutes. The filmmakers had a wonderful little story here, and had they stuck with it this could have been a wonderful little film. No, they forcibly inject this bland and impossibly overdone formula into it until Juliet becomes homogenized and disposable.
Amanda Seyfried plays Sophie, the young American girl who finds the letter. She´s a bright, bubbly little ball of energy with something going on beneath those deep, soulful eyes (I especially liked her as the enigma at the heart of Atom Egoyan´s Chloe). There´s not so much going on here, though she brings more conviction to the role than it calls for; the climatic exchange with her fiancé is especially well-handled.
That fiancé is Victor, played by Gael García Bernal; Christopher Egan stars as Charlie, grandson of Claire (Redgrave), who travels along with Sophie and his grandmother as they search for Lorenzo, the true love. My apologies to Egan (Eragon, Resident Evil: Extinction), but we have a problem here. Bernal is quite possibly the most likable/sympathetic actor I can think of offhand, and here they´ve cast him as the asshole boyfriend? Victor isn´t even that bad, he just seems a little preoccupied. I was rooting for him here, and by the end his restaurant preoccupation had become far more interesting than the Sophie/Charlie relationship.
Give me more Redgrave and Bernal, I would´ve been happy here. As it is, rom-com fans should eat Letters to Juliet up, and for good reason – you can do far, far worse in this genre. Look no further than director Gary Winick´s previous film, the abominable Bride Wars.
Also: did you miss this year’s Karlovy Vary film fest (like me)? Cinemas Aero and Světozor are bringing some of the highlights of the fest to Prague as part of the Official Echoes of IFF Karlovy Vary. Most of the foreign-language films screening will be subtitled in English.