Sunday, August 28, 2022

It won't be for everyone, but Funny Pages is a solidly-crafted dark comedy


Funny Pages, the feature-length directorial debut of Owen Kline, lets you know right away if this movie is going to be up your alley. We're introduced to our protagonist, High Schooler senior Robert Bleichner (Daniel Zolghadri), talking with art teacher Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis), to discuss some drawings Bleichner has sketched. Katano is highly encouraging of his pupil, but the encounter takes on a new disturbing level once this middle-aged man volunteers to be sketched by Bleichner. The ulterior motives behind his support of this teenager become clear as he disrobes entirely in front of Bleichner. This is quickly followed up by Bleichner making a mad dash out of the classroom, Katano trying to force his student to get in his car for a ride home, and then a sudden car crash, all before the title of Funny Pages comes on-screen. Strap in folks, we're in for an especially grim dark comedy.

From there, Funny Pages settles into a groove in exploring Bleichner suddenly deciding he wants to never return to school again. He's going to set out on his own, eschew the prospect of college, and pursue his dream of being a cartoonist. Abandoning his parents and clingy pal Miles (Miles Emanuel), Robert gets a job working for a pro bono attorney, which leads to him encountering former Image Comics employee Wallace (Matthew Maher). In Wallace, Robert sees a potential teacher, a gateway to an industry he desperately wants to be a part of. But, much like anything in Robert's life, nothing turns out to be that simple.

Something that's immediately admirable about Funny Pages is how much it commits to a grimy aesthetic. This is happily reinforced by how the movies been shot on 16mm film by cinematographers Sean Price Williams and Hunter Zimny. This lends an immediate tangibility to the textures in the frame, but there's also a welcome inherent imperfection to the images we're seeing. The cracks in the visuals make them feel like the perfect vessel to capture the tormented people and crumbling buildings on-screen. An imperfect world like this one would feel so inappropriate for the glossy sheen of digital cameras. Huzzah, then, that a more retro style of camerawork has been embraced for this story.

With a pervasive aura of scumminess coming from the 16mm cinematography, Funny Pages continues this aesthetic by featuring a screenplay (also penned by Kline) that never wavers from making the people we're seeing on-screen so thoroughly unlikeable. Too many movies of this ilk try so hard in the third act to offer a tidy "redemption" arc for our wayward hero, but the people who start out as unlikeable in Funny Pages tend to end that way. This leads to lots of quality cringe comedy, particularly a rendezvous between Bleichner and Wallace on Christmas involving the latter character getting unspeakably overwhelmed or Bleichner's misguided idea of how to provoke a pharmacist. There's also a shocking amount of resilience in the running gag of Miles being an encouraging light in Bleichner's life but always getting treated like garbage, probably because Bleichner's rejections of Miles are always nicely underplayed.

With wall-to-wall unpleasantness around, Funny Pages won't be to everyone's liking, but I found that, much like your average Far Side comic, it tickled my funny bone and kept my interest. Part of that was just the consistently interesting 16mm cinematography, but it was also Kline's commitment to always finding a new bottom for Bleichner to sink to. Like so many teenagers, Bleichner is a bit on the obnoxious side, particularly when he's talking about what comics you "should" like. Funny Pages makes this guy tolerable just by constantly throwing him through the wringer. This is not somebody that moviegoers should walk away admiring (though God knows some toxic dudebros online will probably think otherwise), but rather a much darker figure whose selfishness only gets him into even more turmoil. There's also a quiet sense of tragedy in how the only way he knows how to process the world (through rendering it through disturbingly-realized comics) is also a way that, thanks to the mocking caricatures he draws, constantly alienates people around him.

Kline's direction of all this disturbing mayhem is quite assured, particularly in guiding the performances of the actors. Under the direction of this filmmaker, for instance, Daniel Zolghadri lends distinctive layers to cinema's umpteenth portrayal of an angsty teenager. Meanwhile, Matthew Maher delivers a very compelling performance as Wallace that feels like a fascinating evolution of his usual persona in his character actor roles. Maher conveys a genuine sense of chilling unpredictability here, there's a volatile nature of his portrayal of Wallace that suggests he suffers from deep mental health issues he likely cannot afford to get treated properly. Maher can have you at once feeling sympathetic towards what's informing Wallace's actions while also fearing what he's capable of when agitated.

Funny Pages may not add be a groundbreaking slice of American indie cinema, but if it hits your wavelength, you'll almost certainly walk away satisfied. In his first feature-length directorial exercise Owen Kline shows a remarkable ability to not bristle away from either following dark and disturbed characters to their inevitable endpoints or bold visual choices. Combining these unique traits with some humorous burts of dry and dark humor (Michael Townsend Wright slayed me with each of his quiet line deliveries as oddball roommate Barry) and a short and sweet runtime of 86 minutes means that Funny Pages is worth checking out if it seems like it'd be up your alley. To judge whether or not Funny Pages would be your cup of tea, just gauge your excitement over the prospect of watching comedy reminiscent of a Nathan Fielder show told through the cinematography of a Josh and Benny Safdie movie.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Three Thousand Years of Longing is a flawed, but grand exploration of storytelling


Three Thousand Years of Longing may hinge its plot on wishes, but this is primarily a cinematic ode to the power of stories. The way we tell them or the types of characters who inhabit them may change over the centuries, but human beings are always entranced by a good story. Like so much of life, stories offer up a paradox. They're a retreat from the world we inhabit, yet the best ones tend to remind us of our experiences in everyday reality. There's often a very thin line separating the fantastical and the mundane, no matter what era you live in. Those seemingly disparate forces are comfortable bedfellows in director George Miller's new movie Three Thousand Years of Longing, which features wraparound segments reminiscent of My Dinner with Andre along with expansive flashbacks evocative of Cloud Atlas.

In this adaptation of A.S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (penned by Miller and Augusta Gore), Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is an expert in narratives and literature heading off to a conference in Istanbul. While there, she stumbles on a trinket that contains a Djinn (Idris Elba). This being is prepared to grant Binnie a trio of wishes, but she's read a story or two in her life about wishes and is convinced only trouble will follow any wishes she makes. Since Djinn needs to grant three wishes to a mortal person to finally end his existence on Earth, he proceeds to recount to Binnie the stories of his various existences. This is all done in the hopes of making her see the problems with wishes they can now avoid. "We can control this story," he tells her, though this Djinn, more than anyone, should know that stories, much like people, can never be fully controlled.

With so much uncertainty plaguing the world of big-screen feature-length filmmaking every day, there's an undeniable thrill in seeing George Miller toss out an oddball entity like Three Thousand Years of Longing into the world. The very existence of this film seems to be a refutation to the idea that only pre-established properties and all-ages fare can now play at your local Cinemark. Of course, Longing is far from a perfect movie, but even its rough edges speak highly to what a personal and unique creation this is. Like when he decided to make Mad Max: Fury Road or the quietly devastating kid's movie Babe: Pig in the City, Miller is swinging for the fences here rather than sticking with the tidy and the familiar. This filmmaker would rather make something that's occasionally messy but memorable rather than a feature that's thoroughly cohesive but generic.

If there is one pressing issue here, it's that Miller's dialogue-reliant storytelling sensibilities are not quite as strong as his narrative impulses leaning heavily on visuals (as seen in Fury Road). Narration from Idris Elba makes up a good chunk of the screentime in Three Thousand Years of Longing while our lead human character also has recurring bouts of narration. At their best, these voice-overs serve as a perfect complement to the on-screen imagery. These words can capture a reflective melancholy over past transgressions or romantic bonding that could never be properly understood as these events were happening. In other instances, though, all those words are in service of ideas that could've been even more potently expressed in exclusively visual terms. Some dialogue exchanges, like a conversation in an abruptly introduced adversarial relationship between Binnie and her neighbors, also suffer from some strange phrasing.

An overdose of narration and occasionally clumsy dialogue cannot come anywhere close to suffocating what does work in Three Thousand Years of Longing, though. Chiefly, this is a film packed to the gills with imagination on a visual level. Splendor is the name of the game here, with the various time periods allowing the set and costume designers free reign to indulge in eye candy adhering to a range of visual influences. Bright colors drape the screen while, best of all, Miller and Gore's screenplay freely indulges in inexplicable imagery and details that make you immediately want to rewatch the movie to make sure you saw everything properly. I could've sworn I saw a monkey with tentacles just chilling in a scene where King Solomon tries to woo the Queen of Sheba while another scene has a humanoid seahorse just poke its head out of the shadows and then retreat into the darkness. You never know what unusual elements will pop out around the corner in Longing, even when the camera is just focused on Swinton and Elba chatting in a hotel room.

The willingness of Three Thousand Years of Longing to engage in the inexplicable without cynicism or wry winks to the audience to dilute the strangeness speaks to how much Miller and company want this movie to fit into the grand tradition of myths and fables. Binnie even says in her opening narration that the only way she can make her story coherent to viewers is by telling it "like a fairy tale." This carries through the whole movie and its approach to not just the fantastical, but also its grand displays of emotion or equally sizable depictions of sorrow. There's no desire to ground everything in realism and that suits the confident filmmaking tendencies of Miller beautifully. The sweeping visual scope and unabashedly sentimental qualities of the romantic elements may not work for every viewer, but they sure won me over more often than not.

George Miller has dabbled in the world of mythology and fables for his entire career, particularly when it comes to his Mad Max movies (which do play like post-apocalyptic parables). Now he's gone to the very source of this style of storytelling with Three Thousand Years of Longing, which looks at the way human foibles, the power of narratives, and feelings of passionate connection are eternal. Realizing that scope does result in some noticeable shortcomings, but even those are at least indicative of Longing trying something new and grand. It's not a new classic or anything like that, but Three Thousand Years of Longing is still a remarkable exploration of the power of stories.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

The Territory pulsates with rebellious and subversive vigor


"It's important to record, because then you have a weapon," - Bitaté

Within the Amazon rainforest, the indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people have carved out a home for themselves. They want nothing more than to just be left alone, to not have to fight for the very act of existing. Unfortunately, "invaders" are constantly cutting into their rainforest to build new houses and cities. With government officials in Brazil, namely the President of the country, Jair Bolsonaro, refusing to help indigenous populations, deforestation and its effect on marginalized groups are only bound to increase. As captured on-camera in The Territory, activists like Neidinha Bandeira and members of the Uru-eu-wau-wau will do whatever it takes to protect these lives and this culture, even though the odds against them keep growing more and more momentous.

The Territory does not immediately conjure up memories of other documentaries dealing with deforestation or hardships facing the Amazon rainforest. Instead, what it most immediately echoes is Harlan County U.S.A., a deservedly iconic documentary that chronicled rebellion from everyday people in real-time. The determination of those striking coal miners crusading for their humanity seemed to emanate off the screen, as did the obvious dangers they faced in their battles. Director Alex Pritz evokes such captivating filmmaking by putting viewers right in the middle of the land the Uru-eu-wau-wau call home as well as the nuances of their everyday lives. What is now being dismissed by intruders as just a stumbling block to monetary gain is the focal point of the camera in The Territory and those stakes lend a sense of urgency to the proceeding.

This immersive quality to The Territory is only enhanced in its final half-hour, where the on-screen indigenous subjects get to really control what gets filmed. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bitaté, a lifelong member of the Uru-eu-wau-wau, decides it's time that he and his people have more say over how their lives are framed in the media. Bitaté and his allies proceed to chronicle the everyday lives of the Uru-eu-wau-wau extensively, with this footage making it into the final feature. The very existence of such footage serves as a refutation of the concept of an Ethnographic film, or a documentary of non-Western people by Western filmmakers. The sense of othering that can come from this style of filmmaking is fascinatingly absent from the images captured by cameras operated by indigenous hands. It's a subversive approach to documentary cinema that also results in some of the most intimate and memorable images of The Territory.

Combining different types of camerawork captured from varied perspectives lends a subtle sense of scope to The Territory without making the film either too bloated in scale for its 86-minute runtime or feel like it would be better served in a longer-form narrative. Fritz even finds time to interview the workers who've taken it upon themselves to start chopping down the wood that belongs to the Uru-eu-wau-wau. In their words, there's a quiet tragedy to their motivations that these interview participants don't even realize. In feeling desperate enough financially to harm this sanctioned territory, they're demonstrating how capitalism (a political and economic system constantly championed by Bolsonaro) turns members of the working class against one another. Their problems with monetary issues lie with powerful government forces, not indigenous populations just trying to survive. This discrepancy doesn't make the "invaders" sympathetic. However, it does make them fascinatingly oblivious examples of how capitalism leads people to demonize marginalized groups rather than focusing on fixing larger systemic problems.

The fact that the interview segments with the Invaders in The Territory carry so much underlying power speaks to how quietly detailed this entire documentary is. Pritz has created a consistently layered film rich with details, including in its depiction of the varying perspectives and personalities lying within the Uru-eu-wau-wau community. This subtly thorough nature even extends to how this film is captured in a 2:39:1 aspect ratio. An unusual (though, as the likes of Boys State show, not unprecedented) framing choice for a documentary, going this route allows The Territory to occupy the same visual style as classic narrative films that have offered up harmful depictions of indigenous populations. Just as Bitaté is reclaiming the media image of his people by filming his friends and neighbors, so too is The Territory reclaiming visual facets of cinema by using them to tell a story that's about humanizing native lives.

Thankfully, The Territory maintains its thoughtful nature through its very last frame. Any concerns that the feature would resolve itself in a tidy fashion that makes it seem like the hardships of the Uru-eu-wau-wau are in the distant past are proven wrong by the feature's final melancholy scenes. This includes an unforgettable moment where activist Neidinha Bandeira sits in a pond as raindrops fall around her. It's an evocative image on its own, but it gets even more powerful through her short bursts of narration. Here, she comments, in voice-over, that "I don't have a lot of time left, but I will use what I can to bother those who hurt the Amazon." In her words, we hear a quietly poignant reflection on the finite nature of existence. These lines also convey a recognition that the crusade for this land and its people is bigger than one person, not to mention a fighting spirit that defines the very heart of the powerful documentary The Territory

Monday, August 8, 2022

Bullet Train is a bumpy, albeit occasionally fun, ride

Imagine you're eating a meal that, while it's sliding down your throat, tastes really good. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it hits the right notes as your taste buds first get a hold of it. But in the back of your brain, something's off. There's a teeny tiny voice in your head saying "the flavor's off, the texture's weak." As the minutes pass, and the dish becomes more and more of a memory, those imperfections become increasingly sizeable in your mind. You don't hate what you just ate, but it's not quite as good as when you were chowing down on it. That's what Bullet Train is. There's enough razzle-dazzle and movement on-screen while it's playing to keep you reasonably satisfied. However, once I left the theater, I found myself fixating on how it could've been better rather than focusing on my favorite funny lines.

There are a lot of diverging plotlines in Bullet Train, but our lead character is Ladybug (Brad Pitt), an assassin that's been looking to put more peace out into the world. That's why he didn't bring a gun for his newest assignment, a snatch-and-grab mission revolving around a briefcase aboard a bullet train in Japan. The case belongs to a pair of British assassins, Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), who has a deal to finish up with the extremely dangerous gangster The White Death. Simultaneously, Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji) hops on to this train to take out The Prince (Joey King), who claims responsibility for pushing this man's adolescent son off a building. Turns out, though, that The Prince has her own scheme that she'll need Kimura for. 

All these storylines begin to gradually collide, sometimes amusingly, sometimes dangerously. As Ladybug deals with one new assassin after another, one thing becomes clear: this train is bad news. Oh, and that things are gonna only get worse as the train gets closer and closer to the end of the line.

In only his second screenplay credit, screenwriter Zak Olkewicz executes Bullet Train, an adaptation of a novel by Kōtarō Isaka, with an eye toward mimicking a lot of different styles. The gangsters with heavy British accents who can't stop chatting and engaging in non-linear digressions immediately evokes the works of Guy Ritchie. Meanwhile, lots of the wry dialogue evokes the style of comedy from Deadpool 2 (among other contemporary superhero movies), which shares director David Leitch with Bullet Train. Obviously, it's never inherently bad to make something that owes a debt to older pieces of cinema. Every movie is working in the shadow of older features, you can never divorce the medium's present from its past.

But Bullet Train would be better if its swirling storm of influences resulted in a mega-entertaining standalone film rather than something that constantly reminds you of other motion pictures. Part of the problem is that it's never quite as dangerous or innovative as it needs to be. Bullet Train thinks of itself as wildly unpredictable, yet the plot ends up resorting to dead wives to motivate characters so often that I half-expected this to culminate in a big final gag involving Christopher Nolan. The two big celebrity cameos have been done better with the same actors elsewhere, the barrage of needle drops (particularly a climactic use of "Holding Out for a Hero") aren't especially imaginative, while several gags (like a moment where Ladybug comments on how "weeeeeiiiirrrd" Japanese toilets are) feel about as stale as milk left out in the sun. The self-aware comedy and atmosphere of Bullet Train suggest something that's too hip to be predictable. Unfortunately, Olkewicz's script indulges in too many trite elements to be truly subversive.

The screenplay also runs way too long at 127 minutes, a tighter 80-minute edit would've made the familiarity of the proceedings significantly more forgivable. It also has to be said that, yes, Bullet Train does not do right by its Japanese characters, reducing three of its four most notable depictions of people from Japan to a mean conductor, a car attendant who has maybe two lines, and poor Andrew Koji being held for ransom. This is already a disappointing choice on its face, but it's especially weird since Kimura and his father, The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), feel like they should be the leads of the movie. They're the characters with the most emotional stakes in the plot, most rooted in the central backdrop, and both Koji and Sanada are enormously charismatic. Bullet Train isn't a mixed bag because it isn't that alternate movie, but it's rarely a good sign when a summer blockbuster has you thinking about alternate cuts that could've been superior.

Despite all these complaints, Bullet Train, believe it or not, still registered as a perfectly fine distraction for me, at least in the theater. The movie does what it says on the tin in terms of putting a lot of big-name actors playing people with violent tendencies into one cramped train and it often works decently in that regard. The film especially works well when it dials back the dialogue and relies on physicality and visual humor to carry the day. A skirmish between Ladybug and Lemon in a quiet car has some fun sight gags, for instance, while a character's comically accidental death by way of a briefcase is dark but highly amusing. The R-rating also allows for some enjoyably over-the-top demise, with our hero's lack of a gun meaning they have to come from much more creative places than just a bullet to the head. My personal favorite? One goon that just gets pulverized while trying to attack one of the heroes on the roof of the train.

The actors deserve much of the credit for making this material largely diverting, especially since director David Leitch doesn't bring his eye for incredible fight choreography like he did on John Wick and Atomic Blonde. Brad Pitt sometimes struck me as a bit miscast, but his extensive experience playing chilled dudes serves him well in someone trying to find inner peace among a steadily growing pile of corpses. Brian Tyree Henry stands out as the best of the ensemble cast, though, as Lemon, which shouldn't be a surprise given that Henry has managed to deliver the best performances in everything from If Beale Street Could Talk to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. He's a lot of fun on his own, but Henry also excels in his scenes with Aaron Taylor-Johnson (hey, he's a lot of fun here too, good for him). The duo has an entertaining rapport that manages to work even when the script's dialogue beats Lemon's initially humorous fixation on Thomas the Tank Engine to death. 

Bullet Train has its charms and serves as a good acting showcase for the likes of Brian Tyree Henry and Hiroyuki Sanada. As something to watch in August that'll get you out of the heat for two hours, you could do worse. Unfortunately, it's also a heavily derivative exercise, one whose gags and action beats feel too familiar to be as shocking as they should be. With so much talent assembled, you'd think there would be more creative sparks flying. I can't say I didn't have a decent time while I was in the theater with Bullet Train, but it's also not a ride I'll remember long into the future.

Bodies Bodies Bodies isn't a perfect horror/comedy, but it is a fun one


Some of my favorite Far Side comics involve drawings of two places or organizations that should never be next to each other (like individual gatherings of falcons and poodles) with the caption "trouble brewing". The horror comedy Bodies Bodies Bodies evokes these wonderful comics by immediately tossing viewers into a social situation that's clearly just a powder keg ready to go off. Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) has brought her girlfriend Bee (Maria Bakalova) to meet her longtime friends, including Jordan (Myha'la Herrold) and Alice (Rachel Sennott), at a massive house owned by the dad of the obnoxious David (Peter Davidson). Though everyone greets Sophie with open arms, there's hostility brewing under the surface. Lots and lots of hostility.

As everyone reunites, a hurricane hits the area that forces everyone to get inside. Once there, lines of cocaine get snorted, subtle microaggressions get thrown toward newcomer Bee, and everyone starts playing Bodies Bodies Bodies. This variation on a traditional party game where somebody's secretly a killer and everyone has to figure out who eventually culminates in somebody winding up murdered. There's a killer on the loose. All those hostilities won't stay capped for long under all this pressure. Like Gary Larson once said..."trouble brewing."

Whoever did the sound design of Bodies Bodies Bodies deserves some kind of medal. Once the power goes out in this house, there's no A/C or other electronics to make noises on the soundtrack. All we hear is the jangling of bracelets and beads on people's bodies or feet crunching against the mud. Sarah DeLappe's screenplay begins with a bunch of rich twenty-somethings partying up in a lavish environment seemingly detached from anything resembling reality. This grimy sound work emphasizing everyday noises effectively brings the Bodies Bodies Bodies characters back to reality. There's no escape from all this natural hubbub clanging against the deafening emptiness around him.

That's one of the more interesting ways elements related to class manifest in director Halina Reijn's filmmaking. It's a good way to remind viewers of this detail, especially since the sociopolitical commentary of Bodies Bodies Bodies sometimes gets lost in its script. If there's a primary complaint to be had with this movie, it's that its second and third acts lose track of seemingly important characters and thematic details. While an ensemble movie like this one will always be shifting around in the perspectives it chronicles, I did find myself yearning for more time exploring Sophie's point-of-view, for instance, smack dab in the middle of the story. Meanwhile, the commentary on class and exorbitant wealth has only a sporadic presence in the story, committing to these details more could've given the proceedings extra bite.

Still, overall, Bodies Bodies Bodies does entertain one for 90 minutes and that means a lot when it comes to this kind of movie. Part of the consistent entertainment comes from nearly everybody on-screen being irredeemably bad. Almost no tragic backstories are here to justify why people act like as do, they're just messy and often cruel people. Turns out, there's a lot of fun dark comedy to be wrung about these kinds of individuals navigating an Agatha Christie mystery for the TikTok age. Plus, both DeLappe and Reijn do a good job of making these characters feel and sound like modern-day Generation Z kids without it coming off as grating or straining to be relevant. In other words, they never fall into the "How do you do, fellow kids?" trap.

It doesn't hurt that Bodies Bodies Bodies serves as a solid showcase for the acting talents of its various leads. The standout of the bunch is handily Rachel Sennott, whose the Roman Roy of the group in how she's a chatterbox that always just goes along with the group consensus rather than take the trouble of boldly establishing her ideas. It's an immensely amusing persona that Sennott delivers with comedic franticness that's worlds away from her lead role in Shiva Baby. What a transformative performer! Maria Bakalova also does strong work as something resembling an audience point-of-view character in all this neon-colored mayhem while Pete Davidson is getting better and better as an actor with each new film he appears in. 

Cinematographer Jasper Wolf's imagination got fired up in thinking up ways to frame all these assorted performers as they navigate a massive house for a killer once the lights go out. Flashlights from cell phones provide the majority of our lighting in Bodies Bodies Bodies, but, impressively, the frame is never incoherently darkened, we always see what we need to see. It's a fine line to walk, balancing rampant darkness with visual coherency, but Bodies Bodies Bodies manages to deliver. It's one of several aspects of the movie that's unique and fun enough to make Bodies Bodies Bodies worth a watch. The script is overstuffed and slasher movie devotees will be able to see some of the twists and turns coming, but there's enough entertaining chaotic mayhem here to deliver a good time. In other words, let the Bodies Bodies Bodies hit the floor.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Prey delivers the first true hit among the Predator sequel


Samuel Johnson once said that "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Similarly, when a movie franchise hits rock bottom in terms of quality, that tends to be when the creative juices get flowing. If you wanna save this series of films, you can't just produce another sequel. It's time to "contrate [your] mind wonderfully" on doing something different. Die Another Day gave way to a rebirth of James Bond with Casino Royale, while the tedious Fast & Furious was followed up by the exhilarating Fast Five

Following in this tradition is Prey, a new installment of the Predator series directed by Dan Trachtenberg. After 2018's dreadful The Predator, extreme measures would need to be taken if this saga was going to live on. Thankfully, Prey is just the shot in the arm this franchise needed. Some bold wings have been taken here and they've managed to pay off swimmingly. 

Set against the backdrop of 1719, Prey follows Naru (Amber Midthunder), who lives in a Comanche Nation and is desperate to prove herself a glorious hunter. Her brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), is her tribe's boldest warrior and casts a large shadow that Naru just can't escape from. She and her people are regularly fighting a bevy of dangerous critters, such as bobcats and bears. But Naru soon has to contend with a whole new kind of adversary in the form of the Predator. This alien has all kinds of unbelievable abilities and seems unstoppable. Naru is about to become this cosmic beast's newest trophy...or she might have a chance to prove her worthiness in combat once and for all.

Prey's screenplay by Patrick Aison is a clever creation that, whether intentionally or not, ends up taking some very broad but also smart cues from its directors last film, 10 Cloverfield Lane. Both of these projects are compact stories told with only a handful of cast members. They also share the willingness to eschew easy ham-fisted references to their respective predecessors in favor of making exciting standalone narratives. Prey doesn't waste time in trying to connect this story to the ones seen in Predator 2 or The Predator. It hits the ground running and proceeds to focus on delivering excitement, not fan service. Fans of earlier Predator movies need not fret, the titular alien still rips out spines and slices off heads, you'll get the carnage you want from one of these movies. It's just that Prey doesn't believe the only way to deliver that mayhem is through a rigid remake of what came before it.

The fun of Prey doesn't just come from its willingness to deliver new kinds of characters or themes for this franchise. It also comes from Trachtenberg and company embracing more practical means of realizing this story. CGI is used throughout this grisly tale, but it's not the only way heightened action is executed. The Predator alien is a guy in an elaborate suit rather than a CG being added in post-production, while the vast majority of environments appear to be natural locations. Going this route with the backdrops lends an immediate tactility to the world Naru inhabits while it's also neat how the Predator works as a constrast to these landscapes. This otherworldly creature sticks out like a sore thumb against roaring rivers and large fields of grain, which feels just right in reinforcing what an intimidating aberration this organism is.

Cinematographer Jeff Cutter thrives with such lovely outdoor exteriors to work with while he and editor Claudia Castello are critical to making the action sequences as fun as they are. Hand-to-hand skirmishes are, thankfully, as crisply-realized as the wide shots of expansive mountainsides. You can see and appreciate all the violence both the Predator and Naru are capable of inflicting, which is especially great since Aison has come up with some wonderfully gnarly deaths for these characters to dish out. Any R-rated action movie wins a lot of points from me if the demises are creative and Prey delivers some messy and fun ways for supporting characters to go.

Thankfully, in the middle of all the carnage, the character beats don't get lost in the shuffle. Possibly the highest compliment I can afford Prey is the dialogue-heavy scenes fleshing out Naru's personal conflicts don't feel like killing time until the next massacre from the Predator, Naru's an interesting character made all the more compelling by a fantastic lead performance from Amber Midthunder. Some of the dialogue and character dynamics at the forefront of the first act are some of the more predictable elements of Aison's script, to be sure. But by and large, Prey's attempts at making you care about the humans work just fine for this sort of genre exercise. We have enough characterization to ensure the fight scenes aren't hollow, while the movie also recognizes that too much chit-chat would disrupt the pace of the feature. Prey mostly gets that balance right.

Aside from a couple of quibbles (like some nighttime scenes being too dimly lit), the biggest complaint I have with Prey is that it's not going to movie theaters. How did The Predator get a substantial theatrical release but this vastly superior installment in the Predator saga has to settle for a Hulu bow? Who even goes to Hulu for movies anyway? Disney's botching of 20th Century Fox releases never ceases to be astonishingly misguided. But even if we all have to settle for exclusively watching it on our TVs, Prey is still a terrific action movie and much more engaging than it has any right to be. Following in the footsteps of other sequels that saved a franchise like Thor: Ragnarok and X-Men: First Class, Prey has come around to restore luster to the Predator saga just when this series needed it.