The Darjeeling Limited (Blu) (Anderson, 2007)

I didn’t fall in love with Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited upon its 2007 release, but I certainly admired it after the zany, indulgent ramblings of Life Aquatic. However, revisiting the film this week in preparation for a review of the Criterion Collection’s brilliant Blu-ray disc for Slant Magazine has convinced me of its brilliance. The sublime story of the Whitman brothers is Anderson’s most fully realized examination of siblings in distress, and it gets better with repeat viewings. And the visual transfer is expectedly superb.

Predators (Antal, 2010)

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Up to this point, the 2010 Summer Movie season has been pretty terrible as a whole. With the exception of Toy Story 3 and hopefully Inception (released next Friday), Hollywood has more than lived up to its seasonal stereotype in unloading dumb, big budget drones onto the masses. So the release of producer Robert Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal’s Predators proves to be an interesting road-bump for mainstream audiences. While fully living up to its expectations as a gritty, bloody action film, Antal and Rodriguez at the very least successfully transcend the wooden script and conceive a collective cinematic chaos that feels palpable, if only during certain clever set-pieces.

Not quite a remake or a sequel to John McTiernan’s 1987 Arnold Schwazenegger action film, Predators refurbishes the mythology surrounding the franchise, returning to the bare-bones badass aesthetic that’s been missing from the latestAlien Vs. Predator installments. The film starts mid free fall, with American mercenary Royce (Adrien Brody) having been pushed out of a plane and tumbling through the air toward a jungle landscape below. It’s an exciting opening move, and Antal sets the stage nicely for a strategically paced introduction to each “killer” plucked from planet Earth and jettisoned to the game preserve of Predator’s home planet. We have the Mexican cartel member (Danny Trejo) a Russian Spetsnaz officer (Oleg Taktarov), a South American revolutionary (Alice Braga) and a host of other unsavory characters. It doesn’t take them long to figure out they’re being hunted by huge beasts of burden.

Story-wise, if you’ve seen one Predator movie, you’ve seen them all. Antal can’t help but conform to the expected plot points and structure, One by one; each character gets knocked off, alliances are tested, and physical and moral hurdles must be vanquished. The real joy of Predators comes in individual moments of combat, where these warriors of all shapes and sizes utilize their individual talents and histories to engage the enemy. This motif is highlighted by a scene between a Yakuza fending off a Predator with a samurai sword in a field of tall grass. Antal focuses on the details of combat, the swift and mortal movements of each gladiator. Brilliantly paced and effective, this sequence adds depth to the scenario instead of merely adhering to genre conventions. For the first time, Antal thinks outside the box and slows his camera down, taking in the gravity of the duel, allowing iconic imagery to take on new dimension.

In the end, Antal can’t help but succumb to the pressures of convention, culminating in a terribly inane denouement between man and beast. Predators attempts to please its base with familiar physical confrontations and decisions, never truly realizing that it’s greatest moments shine when playing against type. Ultimately, the film boils down to a series of captivating action set-pieces, inventive twists on iconography that don’t quite add up to a complete movie. In terms of Hollywood summer blockbusters, Predators probably doesn’t rank high on the list. But during this season of discontent, Predators feels like a well constructed, often engaging genre piece attempting to do greater things with iconography and archetypes. A brawny gut-punch with some surprisingly smart moments, Antal’s film is most definitely worth a look.

The Brothers Bloom (Johnson, 2009)

In one way or another, every film manipulates the viewer. It’s the essence of the beast. Yet Rian Johnson’s sophomore effort The Brothers Bloom folds the art of trickery onto itself, morphing what begins as a charming con man story into a prolonged and sometimes irritating series of plot twists, character reversals, and thematic revelations.

Bloom begins with a whimsical prologue introducing the brothers as children, and we get a glimpse of the rules/roles of the con game they will soon perfect. Johnson then cuts forward, Steven (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) now legends in the confidence game and ready to pull off one final job on a wealthy eccentric named Penelope (Rachel Weisz). From here on out, the characters become secondary to the shifty narrative, submerging the themes of sibling rivalry and conflicted identity underneath an ocean of manipulation.

As with Johnson’s shifty debut Neo-noir Brick, The Brothers Bloom seeks to cleverly revitalize a lost genre, this time the Screwball Comedy. But the results are much the same; a sometimes convoluted, sometimes invigorating exercise in nostalgic recognition.

During its most concise moments, The Brothers Bloom works beautifully as a character study of two brothers coming to grips with their past traumas. At its worst, the film looks and feels like a Wes Anderson rip-off, from the snap zooms to the drawn inter-titles and quirky supporting players. Once again, Johnson appears to be trying too hard to sell material that’s already solid in a pure form. For every exciting step forward, he seems to take two back toward cliche.