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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Predators, Despicable Me and The Law (La Loi)

Predators (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Nimrod Antal, 2010

I‘d be less than honest if I didn’t inform you that Predators — a horror movie about a Dirty Half-Dozen or so of mercenaries parachuted down onto a planetful of monsters — is a piece of god-awful shit. I would however be borrowing, and maybe putting to better use, one of the two words most often employed by screenwriters Alex Litvak and Michael Finch in their flabbergastingly bad dialogue. And I don’t mean “god-awful.” This is a picture oddly hailed in some critical corners as an effective shocker and a return to the cinematic glories of the original 1987 Predator. Effective? Shocker? Glories? Actually, the original Predator was no great shakes as a movie either, even though it provided a showcase for two future United States governors, star commando Arnold Schwarzenegger (California) and backup heavy Jesse Ventura (Minnesota) — and even though it has a dubious rep as a cult show. A heavy-duty, high-concept action movie in which growling, scowling macho mercenaries lost in the South American jungle, battled a monster from outer space, it was basically just as dumb and just as badly written (by Jim and John, the Thomas Brothers) as this one, though it benefited some from John McTiernan super-slick, Die Hard-era direction.

The first Predator was mostly just another witless high concept marketing-hook movie from that witless, high concept marketing-hook movie decade, the god-awful Eighties. I guess you had to be a movie going kid of 12 or so to appreciate them, or to get nostalgic for stuff like Commando, Rambo or Top Gun. I don’t have a clue why producer Robert Rodriguez, a moviemaker I usually like, was so hot on breathing life back into Predator-land, especially after those rotten Alien-Predator match-ups had almost deservedly wiped it out. Or why producer Rodriguez talked the gifted Hungarian-American director Nimrod Antal (Control, Vacancy), into staging this sort-of-sequel, not to mention recruiting a cast that boasts talents like Adrien Brody, Laurence Fishburne, Alice Braga, and Topher Grace, but who here (except for Fishburne, who gets what these writers probably regarded as an aria) are put to work, dreaming up new ways to slog through the forest, dodge stampeding monsters, spray automatic gunfire and inflect the words “shit” and “fuck.”

The basic premise actually isn’t bad. In fact, a lot of it comes straight from one of the movies’ all-time adventure-suspense classics — not the bloated bloody Predator but that ingenious, and endlessly imitated ’30s gem, from King Kong co-director Ernest Schoedsack (and original author Richard Connell) The Most Dangerous Game. In that knockout 1932 movie, Joel McCrea and Fay Wray were turned into beasts of prey, hunted through an island jungle by the elegant Hitchockian psychopath Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks). It’s old, it’s black-and white, and it has old-fashioned effects and stagier dialogue. But, if you walk out of Predators, as you probably should, and rent and take home The Most Dangerous Game instead, I can almost guarantee you‘ll have a better time.

Then again, maybe Predators really does understand its audience. (A sobering thought.) The new movie starts out with a bang: eight glum mercenaries — or actually seven mercenaries and one dork of a doctor (Topher Grace as the movie’s Odd Man In) — parachute into a huge jungle forest on what turns out to be an alien world where the sun never moves, there are several moons in the sky, and herds of terrible multi-horned, spiked, armored, savage beasts, modeled on the original Predator, begin repeatedly charging at them and trying to kill them.

The eight’s de facto leader is Adrien Brody as hardcase gunman Royce, who was in the middle of a battle somewhere when suddenly everything went white and he found him self falling, falling into Predators. Royce is accompanied by a group of gun-packing strangers who all seem to have dropped in from other battles or other movies: Danny Trejo as the perpetually glowering Cuchillo, Goggins Walton as the Joe Pantolian-ian wise-ass whiner Stans, Braga as the fetching Israeli commando Isabelle, Grace as token doofus Edwin, Louis Ozawa Changchien as the samurai-yakuza hybrid Hanzo, and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali (whose name probably won’t become a household word) as the African warlord Mombasa. All of them except Edwin and Stans are heavily armed, strong, silent types — though, for my money, not strong or silent enough.

Soon, Royce has it all figured out. (Nothing fazes this guy, not even the viscuous glop leaking out of the Predators.) It seems they’ve all been swooped up and dropped onto the planet as sport prey for the Predators — whom we later learn (from Laurence Fishburne as scavenger-veteran Noland, chatting in his cave) are divided into two classes: incredibly mean and murderous Predators or just sort-of-mean and not-quite-as-murderous Predators, or “Wolves” and “Dogs.” (No “Puppy” Predators here, but Rodriguez probably didn’t go after Pixar.) So, while Royce hatches plots to get them out of this mess, hell keeps breaking loose. The Predators keep attacking. The mercenaries keep blasting and swearing. Horrible traps keep getting sprung. Viscous glop keeps dropping. Isabelle keeps trying to soften up Royce, a thankless but probably not impossible task. (After all, she is Sonia Braga’s niece.)

This planet and its various monsters, meanwhile, turn out to be truly bizarre and outrageous. As Roger Ebert has pointed out, the Predators have so many horns and spears around their mouths and so many spikes on their bodies, it’s probably impossible for them to either eat or copulate, which means they would have died off long ago. And the planet has so immobile a sun and so many moons, it probably would have long ago burned up, or drowned in the tides.

But I‘m sure the moviemakers have an answer for all this. Maybe there’s improved global warming technology on the planet financed by the Predator Leaders with the proceeds from their hunts. Maybe the Predators have hinges on their horns, or inhale sustenance though their noses or feet. Or maybe they have retractable penises and little trap doors in their stomachs which open up to reveal ravenous, evil little elves who pop out to make sperm bank deposits and also to gather herbs, mushrooms, and Puppy Predators and then pop back in. Or maybe these monsters just die off every week and the producers order a brand new bunch of Predators from Idiotic Cliché-land.

In the midst of all this viscuous glop comes the movie‘s real Achilles’ Heel — or should we say its Achilles shit-heel. The dialogue. Aaarrrgh! I’m not kidding when I say that if Predators had better dialogue, and the richer characters and humor that  good badinage and byplay spring from — or even if it just got rid of all the junk-talk it has now and replaced it with moans, screeches and quizzical grunts — it might have been a more bearable movie, even perhaps a good one. But here the empty cross-talk, except for Fishburne‘s aria (which, maybe remembering happier times, he seems to be trying to play as if it were one of Brando‘s Apocalypse Now monologues), is just minimalist four-letter-word-drenched cliché-macho horse manure. Or should we say predator-poop?

I didn‘t write it down, but, as I remember, some of the speeches went like this. “Fuck you!” “Fuck Me!” “Fuck all of you!” “What the fuck is going on around here?” “What the fuck is this shit?” (Or maybe it was “What the shit is this fuck?“) One of the juicier speeches, hysterically delivered by Walton: “We killed it! We killed it! We fuckin‘ killed it! We killed it! We killed it! We fuckin‘ killed it! Now what do you think of that?” And the movie’s Make-my-Day piece de resistance: “Let’s find a way off this fuckin’ planet!” Amen, brother.

Adrien Brody can be a marvelous actor, sensitive and magnetic. (So can Topher Grace.) But, with this movie and Splice, which I also disliked — but which had better dialogue than Predators — he seems to be trying to pull a Nicolas Cage: to parley his Pianist Oscar and elevate into the higher-paid reaches of action or horror movie stardom. I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Actually, Brody has already made a very good (if underrated) adventure movie, the Peter Jackson King Kong. But, in every way except financially (which I concede makes a lot of difference), I think he might be better off making more Pianists and lower-budget, smarter suspense films or noirs, or even running for Governor of New Jersey, than diving into stuff like Splice or Predators.

Is Brody really happy fornicating with monsters (Splice) or hoisting an Uzi here and saying “What the fuck?” The Predators could use better scripts too. Or a daring chef and maybe a good sex therapist.

Predators isn’t completely stuck on Planet Moron. Even the screenwriters obviously have higher aspirations. At one point, Royce informs Isabelle and us that he’s cribbing some of his lines (not the ones above) from Hemingway. And one bare-chested Hanzo swordfight scene is obviously a homage to Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai master-swordfighter scene. (Unless it’s a homage to Taylor Lautner.)


Wisecracks aside, I bear no ill will toward Antal or Rodriguez, who have entertained me mightily in the past, especially with Control and with Rodriguez and Frank Miller‘s Sin City. But, on one level, one can only hope Predators doesn’t attract enough fan boys, idlers and casual moviegoers to make it a sequel-worthy hit — because then we’ll actually have to find out how they got off that fuckin’ planet. Frankly, I couldn’t give a shit.



Despicable Me (Three Stars)
U.S.; Pierre Coffin/Chris Renaud, 2010

Despicable Me — a 3D cartoon about a plot to steal the moon, a cad who redeems himself and the three little cuties who redeem him — is a movie that at times irresistibly amuses, and at times, pushes too hard. It also gives` Steve Carell, the “Despicable Me“ of the title, one of his very best movie roles.

But mostly, it gives us adults another good time at the movies that are supposedly being made for our children.

I know its getting boring to keep saying it. But it seems crazy to me that the best of the children‘s cartoon features these days, Pixar’s at the top of the list, are so eminently witty, wise and beautifully crafted, so full of humanity and so suitable for adults, while the supposedly more mature movies, minus their gamy subject matter, seem better suited for children. Slow children or horny teens, with short attention spans. You’ll get a deeper and even more profound view of people and life in Toy Story 2 — and more laughs and thrills — than you will in, say, Grown Ups, Knight and Day or Predators.

The very fact that this movie puts a word like “despicable” in its title, a word that most adults probably can’t even pronounce, shows that it’s not scared of stretching boundaries. And even if Despicable Me, done by Illumination and the French house Mac Guff Ligne, falls down a bit at the end, and doesn’t quite hit the mix of satire and sentiment it wants, it’s still a good show.

Carell, the 40-year-old virgin of the Apatow gang and the neurotic boss of The Office, here plays Gru, a fat, sinister little chap who looks like an Edward Gorey drawing on steroids. Gru, who’s bossed around by his busy-body Mom (Julie Andrews), is also the suburban czar of a bunch of bulbous, skittering insanely helpful little yellow beings called Minions (played by, among others, this movie‘s directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud), aiding him in his ambitious villainy.

And Gru is concerned that his reputation for spectacular crime is being outshone by a new, lippy super-miscreant named Vector (voiced by Jason Segel of I Love You, Man), who has just swiped the Egyptian Pyramids and replaced them with huge, inflatable Egyptian Pyramid balloons — a spectacular crime if there ever was one.

Not to be outdone, Gru shoves ahead with his own grand scheme, his creme du crime scenario, to shrink and steal the moon, aided by his own equivalent for James Bond’s gadget-master Q, Dr. Nefarious (Russell Brand). But Vector proves an unscrupulous and obnoxious foe, just as Gru’s banker proves to be another greedy banker-jerk. So, to facilitate his moon-grab scheme, Gru is forced, he thinks, to adopt thee little girls from the local orphanage — the adorable Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) — and to enlist them and their expertise at cookie selling, to he win the duel with cookie fiend Vector. Can he remain despicable in the face of such cuteness in triplicate? Can ice melt in June on a Riviera beach?

All of this leads up, of course, to a race to the moon. But it’s not all that predictable, and it doesn’t end quite as you’d expect. Even if you can guess everything that will happen (spoilsport), the sprightly animation, the witty script by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul and the deft voice-acting by Carell, Segel and Brand — and by Kristen Wiig as the orphanage meanie-mistress Miss Hattie — keep it light and funny.

Like many French, or French-derived cartoons, Despicable Me has a delicious, dark little twist to its images. Pixar, very typically American, presents a world of good and evil, locked in combat. The better French animation, a touch more urbane, often mixes good with evil — as Despicable Me does here, showing the nice side of despicable Gru.

Carell is one of those comic actors, like Peter Sellers, who excels at playing self-deluded, self-centered phonies, like Sellers’ Clouseau or like Carell‘s Michael on The Office. But Carell can tease the human element in too, as he does here. Working without his body, or rather working with Gru’s plump, creepy animated physique, Carell creates an unusually complex, sometimes explosive character — as the great Mel Blanc always did for the Looney Tunes. (Actually, Illumination is said to have employed a revolutionary computer-imaging device here called Insta-Freeze, which actually shrunk Carell and the other actors and turned them into animated cartoons, for the entire duration of the shoot. But that‘s another story.)

Despicable Me disappointed me a little. But it’s full of sly little hooks, floating gags, burst of whimsy. And, of course, it has, despicably, Steve Carell.


The Law (La Loi) (Three Stars)
Italy/France; Jules Dassin, 1959

When it played American art houses in 1960, in a dubbed version that was retitled Where the Hot Wind Blows!, this Jules Dassin adaptation of Roger Vailland’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel was dismissed as fancy smut by some critics. Well, what’s wrong with fancy smut?

Or, to be classier about it, what’s wrong with stylish erotica? Especially if the cast — playing the sometimes corrupt, sometimes idealistic and often horny residents of a hot-blooded Italian city where they play a wicked drinking game called “The Law” — includes the bosomy siren Gina Lollobrigida as devious Marietta, the angel-eyed Marcello Mastroianni as her agronomist lover Enrico, that Greek temptress and mercurial (sorry) Dassin muse Melina Mercouri as the local judge’s wandering wife Donna Lucrezia, the insinuatingly sexy Yves Montand as evil boss Matteo Brigante, and Pierre Brasseur, who played the lady-killing classical actor Fredrick Lemaitre in Children of Paradise, and here plays dying old patriarch Don Cesare, who still has the hots for Lollo’s Marietta, the saucy queen of cleavage. (Who can blame him, or any of the others?)

It’s often wondered why Dassin, who was an inarguable film noir master from 1947’s Brute Force up through the 1955 classic Rififi, (the movie that the young Francois Truffaut called the best noir ever made), never made any good movies after Rififi. Well this is a good movie. I find the ending a little callous. (Maybe it’s the black list victim in Dassin striking back at the oligarch bosses.) But it’s really entertaining, full of luscious landscapes, enticing deep focus moving-camera images, and big star glamour acting. Just as Rififi is a dark ballad of rain, robbery, cloudy skies and death, The Law is a lively tale of sunlight, ocean, sin and sex. If it had had any nudity — and The Law was done in Brigitte Bardot’s heyday — audiences would have never stopped watching it.

Why did the critics lower their thumbs over Where the Hot Wind Blows!? Maybe they didn’t want to be accused of a taste for fancy smut. Or maybe, for them, the hot wind never blew. (In French, with English subtitles.) At the Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago.

Michael Wilmington
July 8, 2010

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon