Film reviews: Prey | Luck | Nightclubbing | Fadia's Tree
Prey (16+) **
Luck (PG) **
Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in NYC (N/A) ***
Fadia’s Tree (U) ***
It’s odd how resilient the Predator franchise is given Arnold Schwarzenegger bailed on the series after only one movie. The entertainingly gonzo Predator 2 aside, the rest of the films – two Alien vs Predator movies, one so-so reboot by Robert Rodriguez (2010’s Predators), one atrocious reboot by the normally sharp Shane Black (2018’s The Predator) – hardly make the case for the character’s ongoing presence on the pop culture landscape.
The first thing to say about the new Predator prequel movie Prey, then, is that at least it offers new take. Or, at least, a new take inspired by the end of the aforementioned Predator 2. Set on the Great Plains of North America, circa 1719, the film revolves around a young female Comanche warrior called Naru (played by Amber Midthunder) whose determination to prove her worth by hunting something that can hunt her coincides with the Predator’s first arrival on Earth. Needless to say, Naru’s the only member of her tribe who senses something isn’t quite right with the way various Comanche hunters seem to be falling foul of the wild animals they normally track. But because she’s a girl (“We won’t be gone long enough to need a cook,” sneers one of Naru’s tribal brothers) no one takes her seriously.
Feminist empowerment theme bluntly established, the film settles into a fairly routine wilderness survival tale, albeit one with a mid-point twist that offers a direct callback to Predator 2 in order to tap into the idea that there might be a bigger threat to the Comanche Nation than the presence of a dreadlocked alien. That’s a neat thematic idea and, if you know the series, there’s minor satisfaction to be had in seeing how it all links up. But regardless of your fan status, 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Tratchenberg’s visuals are very TV-like, the action sequences are generic and Patrick Aison’s script saddles the cast with anachronistic dialogue that does little to root the film in the period in which it’s supposed to be taking place. Midthunder is a compelling lead, but you don’t need Predator vision to see how warmed-over this franchise has become.
“Is this Scotland?” asks the bewildered protagonist of Luck as she steps through a portal into a secret land populated by leprechauns of indistinguishable Celtic origins. She’s following a Scottish-accented black cat (voiced by Simon Pegg, revisiting his Scotty schtick from Star Trek), so her confusion is perhaps understandable. Then again, almost everything about this latest animated blockbuster is so convoluted and misconceived it’s hard to tell. A charming opening act may hint at a smart, Monsters Inc-style high-concept adventure involving a secret world behind our world that determines who’s lucky and who’s not. But after we’re introduced to former foster-care kid Sam (Eva Noblezada) as she embarks on life as an adult with the same rotten luck she had through childhood, the film struggles to develop its ideas coherently.
Sam’s efforts to retrieve a genuinely lucky penny that has temporarily turned her life around are the catalyst for her arrival in the Land of Luck, which isn’t Scotland, but does seem to have been based on a number of tiresome Irish cultural cliches. Alas, the moment she arrives here you can almost feel the story gears grinding as the film attempts to cram in lots of high-stakes action while imparting gibberish life lessons about bad luck attracting bad luck, but also being necessary to ensure good luck can sometimes prevail. Or something. Jane Fonda co-stars as a magic dragon.
Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk in NYC attempts to counter the prevailing myth that CBGBs was solely responsible for the punk scene in New York by shining a grubby light on another venue, Max’s Kansas City. Though still famous in the annals of the city’s art scene as the preferred haunt of Andy Warhol and the Factory crowd in the mid-to-late 1960s, Max’s importance to the music scene hasn’t survived quite as well. As this film seeks to show, it gradually morphed into a key venue in the 1970s. Buttressed by the Velvet Underground’s early association with it, and later Iggy Pop’s (it’s where he met David Bowie), it gradually became a creative crucible for the likes Alice Cooper, the New York Dolls, the Dolls’ manager Malcolm McLaren, Blondie and a host of lesser bands. Though the film could have benefitted from tighter editing and more journalistic rigour, it’s also a treasure-trove of archival footage, including the last ever show of Sid Vicious.
Fadia’s Tree, the debut feature from British artist Sarah Beddington, offers a sympathetic portrait of Fadia Loubani, a Palestinian woman forced to live in a refugee camp in Beirut, tantalisingly close to her hometown of Sa’Sa on the other side of the Lebanese border. Beddington has been friends with Fadia for years and the film is a record of that deepening friendship as she embarks on an epic mission on Fadia’s behalf to track down Fadia’s childhood home. With nothing to go on but Fadia’s memory of a mulberry tree growing outside the gate, Beddington intersperses her quest with interviews with Fadia and her own developing interest in ornithology. The end result offers an impressionistic portrait of the region’s troubled history, along with a quiet meditation on the role home plays in shaping who we are.
Prey is available to stream on Disney+; Luck is on selected release and streaming on AppleTV+; Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in NYC and Fadia’s Tree are on selected release