"Alien Vs. Predator": A Heavily Feathered Turkey?
Like yourself, I'm sure, I have looked upon the summer-movie season to date as a lead-in, a prelude, a mere anteroom to the great chamber of wonders that is — that must be — "Alien Vs. Predator." And now, at last, it's opening. This weekend. I'd like to talk about it — maybe even talk it up — but I can't. Because the studio that's putting it out, 20th Century Fox, won't show it to anybody. Anybody who might write about it, anyway.
Which is understandable, I guess — maybe they just don't want any spoilsport reviewers divulging the winner of their big monster smackdown. On the other hand, the movie could simply be a bomb, a heavily feathered turkey, and the Fox folks might be hoping that if they just dump it out there, the combination of those two famous horror-franchise names and the oooh billboard slogan — "No Matter Who Wins, We Lose" — will be sufficient to suck in enough paying geeks to offset the cost of making the thing. Which probably wasn't a whole lot, relatively speaking.
Whatever the case, I don't think anyone really attuned to this sort of movie cares all that much about which creature prevails. We go to a movie like "Alien Vs. Predator" to witness something more poignant: the long-delayed confrontation of two exhausted brand-names, each one battling for the right to — just possibly — feature in one more pointless sequel. This is true pathos. Euripides himself might've wept.
It's also part of an honorable — or at least a long — tradition. Universal Pictures struck horror-movie gold in 1931, first with the classic "Dracula," and then with the equally classic "Frankenstein." The sequel to the latter film, the 1935 "Bride of Frankenstein," was unexpectedly brilliant. But the thrills tailed off quickly, and by 1943, Universal — having opened up a profitable new vein of horror revenue two years earlier with "The Wolf Man" — decided to insert its lumbering monster into the sequel, and call it "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man." The studio dragged Dracula into the mix for the 1944 "House of Frankenstein," and again for "House of Dracula," in 1945. This seemed to be the end of the line — but no: In 1948, Universal signed up a popular, wise-cracking comedy duo of the period to headline something called "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," which also featured Dracula and the Wolf Man. And that seemed to be the end of the line till this past spring, when the latter-day Universal, flexing its copyrights, rounded up the doddering trio for yet another humiliation in the execrable "Van Helsing."
So who could hold it against Fox — having witnessed the success of New Line Cinema in teaming two of its horror trademarks in last year's "Freddy Vs. Jason" — for eyeing with renewed interest a pair of its own most famous frighteners, the slime-dripping, double-jawed Alien and the rather less-interesting (because less-visible) Predator? The easy-money schlock possibilities were understandably irresistible. Like Frankenstein's monster, the Alien had had two good innings, first in the original 1979 "Alien," directed with unforgettable style by Ridley Scott, and then in James Cameron's very worthy 1986 sequel, "Aliens." The two films that followed, however — "Alien 3" (1992) and "Alien Resurrection" (1997) — were, for lack of a kinder word, deplorable. The franchise seemed spent. The original "Predator," meanwhile, in 1987, was essentially an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle; and the limp follow-up — "Predator 2," what else? — could be heard wheezing on arrival.
How to resuscitate these two gasping brand-names for one final romp? Well, hire a budget-conscious sci-fi stylist to direct, maybe — Paul W.S. Anderson, the video-game specialist responsible for both "Mortal Kombat" (1995) and "Resident Evil" (2002), fit that bill, apparently. And then, since Sigourney Weaver had bailed out of the "Alien" series after the fourth film, find somebody associated with those movies to star in this one. The admirable character actor Lance Henriksen — who had played the sweet-natured android called Bishop in "Aliens" — was amenable to the offer. So in "Alien Vs. Predator," I gather, he returns as a billionaire adventurer cleverly named Charles Bishop Weyland, who's intent on excavating some pyramids in, oh, Antarctica — why not? — but who discovers on arriving with his team of pyramid excavators that the place is strewn with human skeletons with blown-out chest cavities. And not only that ...
Well, you can already see this movie unreeling in your mind, right? You'll have to pay 10 bucks to see it unreel in a theater, but you probably will, if you're a certain kind of person. It's embarrassing, but you will. More embarrassing yet, from a personal point of view, so will I.
(By the way, if you've been following the Tournament of Terror here at MTV.com, you'll have noticed there's a possibility that the Alien and the Predator could in fact be going head-to-head eventually. According to the fevered buffs who run this project, all that has to happen is for the Predator to vanquish the Creeper, and then dispatch whoever wins the Hannibal Lecter vs. Michael Myers matchup; and for the Alien to take down the winner of the Candyman vs. Dracula contest, then pulverize whoever's left standing after Freddy Krueger mixes it up with the Trio of Zombies. Your vote, your move.)
"Undertow": Barbed With Murder and Mayhem
The 29-year-old writer and director David Gordon Green is a Southerner with a distinctively unhurried sense of pace and a warm regard for his characters. His second movie, the splendid "All the Real Girls," released last year, opened with an uncut, six-minute shot of a young man and woman quietly talking. It was an audacious move and, as slowly became clear, an entirely appropriate beginning for a quirkily detailed small-town love story that unfolded with the unpredictable rhythms of new love itself. His third movie, "Undertow," is a sharp departure: a backwoods chase film barbed with murder and mayhem. It couldn't be more different from "All the Real Girls," and yet it's hard to imagine anyone else but Green having made it.
The story centers on Chris Munn (the English actor Jamie Bell, who played the working-class ballet student in the 2000 film "Billy Elliot," and who here speaks with an unshowy but flawless American accent). Chris is 17 years old, and his life consists almost entirely of hard, dirty work on the remote Georgia hog farm where he lives with his dispirited father, John (Dermot Mulroney), and his sickly little brother, Tim (Devon Alan). John took the boys out of school after their mother died and moved with them into the backwoods to nurse an unspecified sorrow. So far, obviously, this is not an action movie.
The picture comes alive with a jolt, though, when John's sly, strutting brother, Deel (Josh Lucas), walks in the door one day, fresh out of prison. John and Deel have been estranged for years, ever since John took up with Deel's girlfriend and later married her and had the two boys with her. Deel intimates that Chris is in fact his son, not John's; but what he's really come back for is a small sack of rare gold coins that were handed down by their father. John thinks the coins are a curse to whoever has them, but Deel doesn't care, and in a spasm of bloody violence he wrests them away. Then he goes after the boys — but Chris eludes him, barely, and with both Tim and the sack of coins in tow, he bolts into the countryside.
The rest of the movie bears a strong, unmistakable resemblance to the celebrated 1955 film "The Night of the Hunter," which also depicted the helpless terror of two children in flight from a crazed older man. "Undertow" doesn't attempt the self-consciously magical imagery of that earlier picture, but Green has his own poetic approach to the back-country landscape through which Chris and Tim flee — the rickety farm houses, the cluttered junkyards, the drifting clumps of parentless kids making their way through a world that doesn't seem even to see them. Chris refuses to give up hope; he has to protect his brother. But Deel is determined to track them down; and when he does, and he has the coins back, it's clear that he'll kill them.
As a Southerner himself, Green is able to present the South without caricature; there are no simpleminded rednecks in evidence, and the native kindness he finds in his rural characters is presented without emphasis, as a quiet fact of life in a way of life that's rarely captured in movies. The director has elicited fine, carefully calibrated performances from his actors — particularly Josh Lucas, whose slick viciousness as Deel is most unsettling. But the dominant presence in the film is a sensibility — one that values primary human virtues, and flinches with dismay whenever they're violated.
"Danny Deckchair": Date-Movie Alert
"Date movie" is a term that stirs distrust, and often aversion, in many moviegoers, much like the words "Sandra Bullock" above a title. But date movies needn't all be sappy; some can have a loose, whimsical, sweet-but-not-sugary charm that even the dateless might learn to love. "Danny Deckchair" is an Australian film about Danny Morgan, a lank, shaggy construction worker who specializes in cement. He dreams only of escaping his job by going on vacation. But Danny wants to go camping (he wants to not see cement for a while) and his girlfriend, a fast-tracking real-estate agent named Trudy, hates the idea of spending two weeks sitting in a tent. (Especially with Danny, it turns out: "He's one of the little people, you know what I mean?") She also has her wandering eye on a hotshot local sportscaster named Sandy; so in order to avoid being taken too far from home, in a suburb of Sydney, she tells Danny that the demands of her job require that their long-planned vacation be called off.
Danny — now aware of Trudy's blatant yen for the sportscaster — has an unusual response to this news. He has a friend who owns a car dealership; the friend is having a big sale, and is snazzing up his lot with huge, helium-filled balloons. Danny acquires a bunch of these, fastens them to a chaise lounge, climbs onto it and floats away into the sky. He floats high above the city and all the way through a thunderstorm and finally, very far from home, comes hurtling down into a backyard tree — much to the surprise of its owner, Glenda, a policewoman who specializes in parking tickets. As soon as he clambers to his feet, Danny realizes that Glenda is everything he's ever wanted in life, and he sets out to win her.
If you made it past the part about the balloons and the deckchair, this could be your kind of movie. The gangly Welsh actor Rhys Ifans, who's also been a hilarious mess of a man in such films as "Notting Hill" and "Human Nature," plays Danny with such indomitable sweetness that you all but rejoice at every interpersonal pitfall he manages to avoid. And Miranda Otto — as radiant here as she was playing the shield-maiden Eowyn in the "Lord of the Rings" movies — is completely convincing as the kind of girl who could be everything a man would ever want.
The movie has a warm, generous spirit; even the devious Trudy doesn't really get slapped down. And the simple pleasure of watching good things happen to good people — to open-hearted eccentrics like Danny and Glenda — is such a rare thing anymore, you might be alarmed to find yourself starting to like it. Especially in the absence of any alarming names above the title.