Elizabeth Peña a diverse actress who had 100 credits to her name has died at 55, her friends and colleagues in Hollywood have been saddened by the news and many have gone on to social media to express their respect and to bid farewell to a woman who many described as beautiful and talented.
The long awaited Sin City sequel A Dame to Kill For is a pretty satisfying follow up to the original and Robert Rodriguez rocks it without a doubt. Frank Miller’s dark graphic novel never looked so good. In terms of appearance that much is very true. The 3D aspect makes it feel as though the film is being viewed from within.
Okay, so I decided to ring in the changes of the New Year by having a mini-movie-marathon. It all started with catching the still amazing Jurassic Park on television. That put me in the mood for movies I had not seen in a while. So I popped in Predators and the Blu-ray special edition of Battle Royale (Game ober). On a side note, I was on Battle Royale when the clock struck twelve so I paused it (a pretty painful thing to do, because I love that film) and watched my neighbour’s fireworks for about an hour.
Waking up today I wanted to talk about Predators and why, as a sequel, it disappointed me a little. I also wanted to say how I felt about the film and the fact that nobody says, “Get to the spaceship!”
*just kidding about the spaceship part, although that would have been cool*
According to Wikipedia, Robert Rodriguez wrote the screenplay for Predators way back when he was doing Desperado. The article goes on to say that the studio was not impressed with the possible big budget that the film would require and passed. Fast forward to a time when Rodriguez is now damn near a “brand name” in Tinsel Town and he gets the green light.
Unfortunately, Rob decides not to direct the film (which in my opinion kills the movie right off the bat) and instead opts to produce it and hires Nimród Antal to direct the film.
Now it’s probably just me, but, I cannot for one minute take anyone seriously who has the name, “Nimrod.” Just cannot do it. When I was a teen, a nimrod was slang for an idiot. Phrases like: “Way to go, ya nimrod!” or “Jeeze, what a nimrod!” springs to mind every time I hear this guy’s name. Not an overly auspicious start there Robert.
I mean don’t get me wrong, Antal has proven himself to be a more than capable director. He helmed the very respectable (and damned good) Vacancybut one great little film does not a great director make. Now take into consideration that he’s only directed one other film since Predators and you’ll see that I am not alone in my feelings about Nimrod (and oh boy the urge to pun right there is killing me).
Still, let us take a look at the film over all. Starting with the cast, courtesy of IMDb:
The first three names in the cast list are good solid actors who usually bring a lot to a role. Then further down the list you have the one, the only, Laurence Fishburne (in arguably the best role in the film) and good old Danny Trejo (a Rodriguez favourite). Everyone else on the cast list might not be in the same calibre as the first three actors and Mr Fishburne but they are pretty well-known and more than capable at their chosen craft.
On a side note, hasn’t Mahershala Ali bulked up a lot since his The 4400 days. The man has been putting in some serious overtime at his gym.
The shooting locations were in Hawaii, brilliant choice if I might be allowed to give my humble opinion, with the interiors shot in Rodriguez’s Texas studios (for tax reasons) so the film looked great in terms of location. *I do have to mention that some exterior scenes were shot in Texas as well, so apart from generating the rather alien Bush family, the state can produce some great “alien” looking scenery.*
The story is…functional. In a nutshell the plot is, people are air dropped into a jungle. The people, except for one unfortunate whose chute doesn’t open, are all killers who band together to find out where they are, why they are there, and how to get out. One of them (like the old Sesame Street Shtick, “One of these things is not like the other…”) does not apparently fit into to the little group of murderous professionals, Topher Grace is a doctor and, amazingly, no one questions why he is there. Just goes to show, you do not have to be deep to be a professional killer.
Brody’s character seems to be quite a few jumps ahead of his new colleagues and he figures out very quickly that they are on a “game preserve” and they are the “game.” And therein lies the problem with Predators, the applicable part of the prior statement is “very quickly.”
It’s all too “very quickly” in terms of everything. It is just too fast. Admittedly this makes a better sequel to the Schwarzenegger original than Predator 2, but only just. And only because the action takes place in the jungle with a lot of muscular men (and one woman) with loads of ammo and weapons. But the speed at which the film moves is almost dizzying and it definitely doesn’t allow any time at all for character development.
“Character development?” I hear you cry, it’s an action adventure science fiction film! What character development? I will almost accept that as a trade-off, of course the action and adventure and the science fiction should be first in a film like this, but not at the detriment to the characters portrayed. The original Predator had Schwarzenegger and a load of body building pals in it and they just managed to not be cardboard cut-outs in their roles, so why can’t Predators do the same.
It all revolves around the plot and the “feel” of the film. The original was a movie that started out as a straight forward action feature that suddenly and sharply took a left turn into science fiction land. It worked brilliantly and the pacing was spot on.
Predators never starts out as anything but a science fiction film. From the second that the parachute release mechanism on Brody’s chest starts to flash lights and make beeping noises, we know…it is the future; instant “sci fi” and no mistake about it. But hey, that’s not a problem. It’s still salvageable; they can still make that left turn up ahead, the one that will make this movie great instead of merely good.
But they missed the turn off and instead of veering off into a fascinating new direction, we are given a crazy survivor scene with a plot twist of the predators actually being two species instead of one and they don’t get along. So now we have Larry Fishburne knocking it out of the park as the nutty-as-a-fruitcake survivor who talks to folks who aren’t there and is as deadly as the predators and a great plot device to help our “heroes” get out of Dodge alive.
This all leads into a “twist” to the story that was not a twist at all. It also leads into a “touching moment” and an almost Schwarzenegger ending.
There are a few nods and winks to the original, there is a Hispanic female character, a mini-gun and a “boar like” creature (or more) and it’s set in a jungle. Pretty cool, but it just doesn’t have the panache to make it fun.
Now don’t get me wrong, I do like this film. So much so that I own a DVD of it and still drag it out occasionally to watch. But I don’t love it. If I did, I would own a Blu-ray copy of the film and watch it a lot. Each time I put the film on and watch it, I think the same two things; what if Rodriguez had directed it and I really want someone to say, “Get to the spaceship!”
At the film’s opening we see the Gecko brothers Seth (George Clooney) and Richie (Tarantino) and their two hostages who are in a gas station/liquor/convenience store. After they destroy the place, the film segues into the opening credits. It is apparent that the film is about two criminals who are fleeing the police.
Later in the film the Gecko’s take the Fuller family hostage so they can use their Recreational Vehicle (RV) and them to get into Mexico. Jake Fuller (Harvey Keitel) is a man of the cloth who has turned his back on his faith, Kate (Juliette Lewis) is his troubled daughter and Scott (Ernest Liu) is his adopted son.
After the entire group make good the Gecko’s escape to Mexico, they wait in a bar recommended by Carlos, The Titty Twister. Carlos (Cheech Moran) is Seth’s contact who will take him and Richie to El Rey and he has told Seth that he will meet them at dawn. Once the group are inside the club (which is in fact a strip club run by Salma Hayek where all the employees, along with Salma, are some sort of mutated vampires who feed off the clientele) everything changes.
The film is no longer about the Gecko’s escape from the law, it’s now about the two families escaping the club alive. The film, to me anyway, is beyond brilliant. It is almost the perfect ensemble of talent. Script by Tarantino, direction by Rodriguez, FX by Greg Nicotero, and George Clooney in his first starring film role. Not to mention the rest of the cast, Keitel, Lewis, Tom Savini, Michael Parks, Cheech Marin as three different characters…Well you get the idea.
But what I want to discuss today is not the overall film or the genre shift it so cleverly performs. No, I want to talk about Seth and Richard (Richie) Gecko and their dynamic.
In the opening sequence of the film we get an instant idea of who is in charge in the relationship. Seth is the mouthpiece, the leader and the thinker. Richie is the follower, he is also odd.
When Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) comes in to get some Jack Daniels and to use the toilet, he stands and talks to the store clerk Pete Bottoms (John Hawkes) before he saunters off to the restroom. Seth comes up and accuses Pete of not listening to his instructions for Pete to “get rid of the cop” and Pete explains that he is doing that.
During this exchange Richie whispers to Seth that Pete is making signs at the cop.
*SPOILER ALERT — FROM HERE ON THERE WILL BE THE OCCASIONAL SPOILER — SPOILER ALERT*
As McGraw exits the toilet and goes to pay for his booze, Richie comes up behind him and shoots him point blank in the back of the head. For the first time since we’ve entered the store, Richie speaks out loud. He tells an angry Seth that Pete had been mouthing the words “Help me” to the Ranger.
Pete becomes apoplectic and denies this. He accuses Richie of lying. In the resulting firefight between Pete and the Gecko’s Richie is shot through the hand. Afterwards Richie has a hole through his hand and he seems detached from the whole incident.
We learn through television news flashes that Seth is a professional thief and that Richie is a psychopathic rapist/murderer. Seth himself does not seem aware of the fact that Richie is psychotic until he leaves him in charge of their hostage, bank teller Gloria Hill.
Before Seth goes to get food and to scope out their surroundings, he tells Gloria that as long as she doesn’t cause any problems and does as he says she will come out of her ordeal alive. We the audience never doubt his sincerity. He then leaves and Richie goes into the bedroom where Gloria is and asks if she wants to watch television.
Seth returns with some Big Kahuna burgers (a trademark of Tarantino’s) and information on what is going on in the area. He gives Richie his burger and takes two more burgers out of the fast food bag. He looks at the third burger in surprise and then remembers the hostage in the bedroom with the door closed.
He says to Richie, “Where’s the woman?” Richie gestures toward the bedroom, “She’s in there.” Seth goes to the bedroom door and opens it. His reaction to what he is seeing is beyond a doubt one of the most masterful moments of the film.
As Seth takes in the carnage in front of him on the bed, he starts a nervous tic of jerking his head ever so slightly, like he is starting to crack a stiff neck muscle. He also starts to slowly blink. Interwoven into Seth’s reaction are almost nanosecond flashes of the scene he is viewing. Blood, flesh, twisted gore filled bedsheets all flit past our eyes as we share the horror with Seth.
It is a turning point in the film for the two brothers. Seth suddenly realises that his beloved brother is a monster. The professional in him reacts angrily. He confronts Richie and loudly berates him for what has happened. Richies says that she tried to escape and she became threatening. Seth reacts angrily and says, “That lady would not have said shit if she had a mouthful.”
He starts banging Richies head against the motel room wall and Richie, disheveled with his glasses falling off his face, starts crying. Seth pulls himself together and then starts to calm Richie telling him that when they reach El Rey everything will be better and that he’ll get help for Richie.
Just a quick note on El Rey. In the “making of” features on the DVD both Tarantino and Rodriguez talk about El Rey. Wikipedia says this about El Rey:
El Rey is a fictional Mexican village that acts as sanctuary for expatriate American fugitives, first used by author Jim Thompson in his 1959 pulp novel, The Getaway, and again referenced in the 1996 Robert Rodriguez film, From Dusk till Dawn. In both stories, El Rey possesses a near-mythic reputation and represents the protagonists’ ultimate objective. But in truth, it’s a hellish community where inflation runs free and all new arrivals are enslaved and ultimately executed when they can no longer work.
The next time we see Richie he has asked Jacob Fuller if he can borrow their ice bucket. When Jacob agrees, Seth comes in and tells Jacob and his son that they are going to be their hostages. Daughter Kate returns from the pool in a bikini and Seth immediately takes full control. He now knows that Richie cannot be trusted around women.
This fact is rammed home when Richie has a conversation with Kate and she asks him if he will, “Lick my pussy.” When Richie starts to reply Seth snaps him out of his mental reverie and we realise that the conversation never really took place, except in Richie’s mind. It is another scene that shows just how scarily “out-there” Richie is.
Later when the Fuller family and the Gecko’s are in the RV, Richie. Kate and Scott are in the back. Richie leans forward and tells Kate that, “What you asked about in the hotel? I’d be glad to help you with that.” Kate clearly has no idea of what Richie is talking about and her face shows her confusion and her realisation that Richie isn’t the full ticket.
If we needed any more indications of just how uncontrollable Richie is, we find out when the group and their RV is stopped at the Mexican border. Just before a border guard comes into the RV to search it Seth takes Richie and Kate and they cram into the RV’s tiny bathroom. Richie takes offence at something Seth says and starts to throw a tantrum. Just as he starts raising his voice, Seth clocks him with his elbow and knocks him out cold. Kate looks at Seth and says thank you.
These scenes and the interaction of the two characters spells out for the viewer exactly who the Gecko’s are and what their relationship is. Seth, despite the fact that he cannot understand Richie and his revulsion at what Richie does, loves his brother and tries to “save” him.
The entire film is just brilliant and perfect marriage of cast and crew and script. A lot of film references are in the movie, mostly of horror films and icons. But in closing the best film reference is the duo of the Gecko’s. That they were inspired by the Gorch brothers (Ben Johnson and Warren Oates) in The Wild Bunch is beyond doubt.
If you don’t think so, just watch the start of the movie again and listen to Seth’s dialogue when he is warning Pete the store clerk.
There were some complaints from a few critics when the film was released about the slow pace. To those nay-sayers, I say, “Sit down in the back and shut up! If you were really paying attention and watching the film instead of trying to show how clever you are, it would have made sense.”
The film is about the Yankee Pedlar Inn (a real establishment in Connecticut where the film was actually filmed) and it’s last ever weekend. The place is closing down and two ‘skeletal’ staff have been left to work in reception for the odd guest who just might show up.
This is where the beauty of this film first appears. West has taken a lot of time and effort to allow us, the audience, to bond with the two erstwhile and likeable staff members who are running this last shift.
Sara Paxton plays Claire, an arrested in development ‘super-geek’ who desperately wants to experience a paranormal event. Big points have to go to Paxton. She is probably the only actress that I can think of who will let herself appear practically make-up free and is not afraid of letting herself ‘look’ like a ten year old boy in the arena of mannerisms and attitude. She sold this film and it’s story by giving a more than 100% performance and making her character so damned likeable that you really cared about what happened to her.
Pat Healy plays Claire’s partner-in-crime Luke. Luke is that sort of chap we’ve all worked with. He’s probably a bit too smart and obviously over qualified for his job. But his disinterest in finding any higher means of employment speaks volumes about his overall get up and go factor. Luke is another immensely likeable character.
By the time the film gets seriously into the ghostly happenings at the hotel, we have bonded with both Luke and Claire and we like them both. Both actors gave a real sense of partner-ship with their characters. You could tell that the two characters had worked together before and often and that they both liked each other’s company.
At the beginning of the film the only guest is a woman who has left her husband and has checked into the hotel with their son. Ex-actress Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis) soon checks in and Claire is more than a little star-struck by the presence of her childhood hero being in the hotel.
Along the way, they lose the woman and her son (not through any sort of ghostly foul play, but mainly because of Claire’s ghost hunting techniques) and an old man checks in. The old man (George Riddle) is sad, full of melancholy and creepy as hell. He wants to stay on the third floor which has been stripped of its furnishings and only a few beds remain. Claire takes pity on the old boy and gets him some sheets so he can stay in the honeymoon suite that holds so many memories for him.
To say that I loved this film would be the understatement of the century. The characters, the plot, the hotel and the underlying comedic edge to the film elevated this to an ‘I must own this film’ category. I was already a fan of Paxton’s after seeing her in The Last House on the Left remake. Now I’m a lifetime fan-boy. She is an amazing actress and it will be fun to see just how far her star rises.
I enjoyed Pat Healy in 2001’s Ghost World, but I loved his performance in this film. He is another actor who has just shot to the forefront of my list of favourite actors.
Directer Ti West has shown that his vastly entertaining The House of the Devil was no fluke. He is another of those Hollywood protégées who will become the next Spielberg or even Rodriguez in the very near future.
Run, do not walk, to your closest film rental outlet and watch this film. It was so good that it defies the usual bag of popcorn rating system.
If you can only watch one ghost film in 2012, make it this one.
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