One for Friday: Pipettes, “Pull Shapes” (Live on NPR)

pipettes

Sometimes you just fall in love with a band. I don’t mean a band comes along and are so great that they are immediately elevated to the level of favorite. I mean genuine, unexplainable head over heels affection that is roughly akin to that first swelling of puppy love when that cute guy or girl made eye contact across the crowded middle school classroom. It’s not love that’s meaningful or long-lasting, nor is grounded in a instinctual need for lifelong commitment. But it also helps define every similar swelling of the heart that follows. From the moment I first heard “Pull Shapes,” I was in love with the Pipettes.

I’m well aware that my stern indie cred meter is supposed to rebel against the Pipettes because they’re not a band that grew up organically but are instead a fairly fabricated product dreamed up by a musician and deejay who thought the time was right for a new girl group. I don’t care if it’s all affectation, the pop songs on their debut, We Are the Pipettes, are blissfully perfect, none more than “Pull Shapes.” If you can resist a song with the lyrics “I like to disco/ I like to rock n’ roll/ Well I like to hip-hop/ We can do it all, just don’t let the music stop,” then you’re a strong soul than me. But more to the point, why would you want to resist it?

For a while, I collected every stray Pipettes song I could get my right-click on. An acoustic version performed on NPR as part of their short-lived Bryant Park Project radio show? Yes, please. Even if the Pipettes are long gone (there’s a second album under that name, but it’s so different it shouldn’t really count), I can still turn to a song like this to give my heart a stir.

One for Friday –> “Pull Shapes” (Live on NPR)

(Disclaimer: I’m not sure if We Are the Pipettes is still available as a physical object that can procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store, but it’s certainly out there digitally. That’s how I first bought it, unwilling to wait for a CD copy to be released on this side of the pond. And I don’t think this particular recording was ever released for purchase, so sharing it here seems like fair game to me. I will still gladly and promptly remove it if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request. Especially if it’s Rose. I have a whole other set of complicated, akin to puppy love feelings about Rose.)

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Top 40 Smash Taps: “Me (Without You)”

These posts are about the songs that can accurately claim to crossed the key line of chart success, becoming Top 40 hits on Billboard, but just barely. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 40.

For a brief, noteworthy cultural moment in the nineteen-seventies, Andy Gibb was about as big a music artist could get. The youngest sibling of the furry Gibb clan, Andy was so committed to following in his brothers’ footsteps that one of his first bands was named after a Bee Gees song. He was eventually signed as a solo artist to RSO Records, the label headed up by Robert Stigwood, manager of Bee Gees. In May of 1977 — it’s worth noting that this is around six months before the release of Saturday Night Fever and its blockbuster soundtrack — Gibb released his second single and first from his debut album, Flowing Rivers. “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” went to #1 for three weeks that summer. That was followed by “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” which spent a week at #1 (knocking “Stayin’ Alive” from that spot, interestingly enough) and then “Shadow Dancing,” the title cut to Gibb’s sophomore album, which spent a staggering seven weeks at the pinnacle. That made Gibb the first male solo artist to deliver three straight Billboard chart-topping singles. Almost inevitably, it was all downhill from there, but the decline was perhaps steeper than most would have wagered. Gibb had a few more hits (and a decidedly of-the-times TV hosting gig), but his last trip to the Billboard Top 40 came in early 1981, a mere four years after he first stormed the charts. That track, “Me (Without You),” was a hunk of soft rock treacle tacked on to his 1980 Greatest Hits album. Indeed, he released only one more single after that, a maudlin cover of the Every Brothers’ standard “All I Have to Do is Dream” recorded as a duet with Dallas star Victoria Principal, his girlfriend at the time. Gibb had some heavy duty problems with drug addiction that hampered his many attempts at diversifying his career and jump-starting a comeback as a recording artist. Through the nineteen-eighties, about the only work he could get were guest shots on dopey sitcoms like Punky Brewster. Gibb died, in 1988, of heart failure that stemmed in part from years and years of drug abuse. He was mere days past his thirtieth birthday.

Previously…

“Just Like Heaven” by The Cure.
“I’m in Love” by Evelyn King
“Buy Me a Rose” by Kenny Rogers
“Who’s Your Baby” by The Archies
“Me and Bobby McGee” by Jerry Lee Lewis
“Angel in Blue” by J. Geils Band
“Crazy Downtown” by Allan Sherman
“I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Rhythm of Love” by Yes
“Naturally Stoned” by the Avant-Garde
“Come See” by Major Lance
“Your Old Standby” by Mary Wells
“See the Lights” by Simple Minds
“Watch Out For Lucy” by Eric Clapton
“The Alvin Twist” by Alvin and the Chipmunks
“Love Me Tender” by Percy Sledge
“Jennifer Eccles” by the Hollies
“Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Olympics
“The Bounce” by the Olympics
“Your One and Only Love” by Jackie Wilson
“Tell Her She’s Lovely” by El Chicano
“The Last Time I Made Love” by Joyce Kennedy and Jeffrey Osborne
“Limbo Rock” by The Champs
“Crazy Eyes For You” by Bobby Hamilton
“Who Do You Think You’re Foolin'” by Donna Summer
“Violet Hill” and “Lost+” by Coldplay
“Freight Train” by the Chas. McDevitt Skiffle Group
“Sweet William” by Little Millie Small
“Live My Life” by Boy George
“Lessons Learned” by Tracy Lawrence
“So Close” by Diana Ross
“Six Feet Deep” by the Geto Boys
“You Thrill Me” by Exile
“What Now” by Gene Chandler
“Put It in a Magazine” by Sonny Charles
“Got a Love for You” by Jomanda
“Stone Cold” by Rainbow
“People in Love” by 10cc
“Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life)” by the Four Tops
“Thinkin’ Problem” by David Ball
“You Got Yours and I’ll Get Mine” and “Trying to Make a Fool of Me” by the Delfonics
“The Riddle (You and I)” by Five for Fighting
“I Can’t Wait” by Sleepy Brown
“Nature Boy” by Bobby Darin
“Give It to Me Baby” and “Cold Blooded” by Rick James
“Who’s Sorry Now?” by Marie Osmond
“A Love So Fine” by the Chiffons
“Funky Y-2-C” by the Puppies
“Brand New Girlfriend” by Steve Holy
“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” by Bonnie Pointer
“Mr. Loverman” by Shabba Ranks
“I’ve Never Found a Girl” by Eddie Floyd
“Plastic Man” and “Happy People” by the Temptations
“Okay” by Nivea
“Go On” by George Strait
“Back When My Hair Was Short” by Gunhill Road
“Birthday Party” by the Pixies Three
“Livin’ in the Life” by the Isley Brothers
“Kissing You” by Keith Washington
“The End of Our Road” by Marvin Gaye
“Ticks” and “Letter to Me” by Brad Paisley
“Nobody But You Babe” by Clarence Reid
“Like a Sunday in Salem” by Gene Cotton
“I’m Going to Let My Heart Do the Walking” by the Supremes
“Call Me Lightning” by the Who
“Ain’t It True” by Andy Williams
“Lazy Elsie Molly” and “Let’s Do the Freddie” by Chubby Checker
“Second Fiddle” by Kay Starr
“1999” by Prince
“I’ll Try Anything” by Dusty Springfield
“Oh Happy Day” by Glen Campbell
“I’d Love to Change the World” by Ten Years After
“Friends” and “Married Men” by Bette Midler
“Spice of Life” by the Manhattan Transfer
“You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd” by Roger Miller
“Don’t Pity Me” by Dion and the Belmonts
“Ask Me No Questions” by B.B. King
“Can’t Leave ‘Em Alone” by Ciara
“All I Really Want to Do” by the Byrds
“Let It Be Me” by Willie Nelson
“Clones (We’re All)” by Alice Cooper
“The Last Word in Lonesome is Me” by Eddy Arnold
“Two Hearts” by Stephanie Mills and Teddy Pendergrass
“Good Timin” by Beach Boys
“I’m Movin’ On” and “Sticks and Stones” by Ray Charles

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Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Thirty-Six

36 hail

#36 — Hail the Conquering Hero (Preston Surges, 1944)

It was Sandy Sturges, the wife of Preston Sturges, who offered the ideal summation of the writer-director’s approach to tugging his own brand of creativity through the many graters of oversight required during his time in Hollywood. She offered, “What Preston said he did was: ‘Obey strictly the letter of the law…and totally ignore the spirit.'” Sturges had plenty of overseers whose strictures he chose to evade. Not only was he confined by the so-called Hays Code and the constantly voiced dismay of his studio bosses (after leaving Paramount Pictures, Sturges maintained, “no one there ever understood a word I said”), but during the years of World War II his pronounced social cynicism had to somehow pass muster before the U.S. Government’s Office of War Information. How that last ruling body was ever persuaded to acquiesce on the content of Hail the Conquering Hero is one of those cinematic mysteries that’s too enjoyable to ever solve.

Hail the Conquering Hero stars Eddie Bracken, Sturges’s newfound comedic ringer who’d starred in the filmmaker’s major hit The Miracle of Miracle Creek. Bracken plays Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, a small town fellow who tries to live up to him family lineage (his father died in heroic fashion in World War I) by enlisting in the Marines. Woodrow doesn’t last long, receiving a discharge after only a month due to his chronic hay fever, about as pathetic a reason as Sturges could possible conjure up. Unwilling to admit the humiliation to his dear old mother, Woodrow sends her letters supposedly from the battlefield while actually working stateside. His ruse escalates when he encounters some actual Marines in a bar. Sympathetic to his tale, they lend him a uniform adorned with medals and pump up the falsehoods with additional details of extreme valor. By the time Woodrow is back in his hometown, the legend has reached such levels that he’s greeted with parades and immediately drafted to run for political office.

Right in the heart of the noble wartime effort, Sturges takes aim at every block of rah-rah coal used to keep the engine of useful patriotism roaring. Woodrow is no con man — he’s a beleaguered innocent swept along by his cowardly lie — but that doesn’t make those who gaze at him with stirred hearts and inspired minds any less worthy of being described as suckers. Sturges exposes how cavalierly greatness is bestowed upon individuals, reserves of inner strength and personal fortitude ascribed as inherent truths on the basis of the skimpiest evidence. Simple human endurance or even blind luck could be transformed into acts of astonishing valor by a society eager to project value on a long, brutal war effort. Sturges takes his own bayonet to that particular house of cards, sending it tumbling downward with brilliant, bleak comedy.

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Golden living dreams of visions

Screen shot 2015-05-11 at 9.38.33 AM

Three years ago, tossed the keys to the most important vehicle for the successful but still relatively new Marvel Studios, the film that would offer the culmination of a lot of careful positioning through a practically unprecedented convergence of cinematic properties, writer-director Joss Whedon went ahead and bravely made a Joss Whedon movie, drawing on his ample skill set honed through a bevy of geek-friendly properties, many of them interconnected. He was fulfilling the Marvel corporate vision, but doing so with a film that popped with his own sensibilities. The rhythms, dynamics, and dialogue were thrillingly familiar to anyone who once spent every Tuesday night in Sunnydale. Nothing made that more clear than the rapid evolution of Natasha Romanoff  (Scarlett Johansson) from a drab doodle in her Iron Man 2 debut to a vividly drawn character, the latest iteration of Whedon’s ongoing pop culture thesis that chastises anyone foolish enough to underestimate a woman just because she’s small and pretty.

A sequel to The Avengers was inevitable, and Marvel similarly had little choice but to turn it over to Whedon, who’d taken on a mighty task and tallied a billion and a half dollars in global ticket sales. All that certainty didn’t guarantee another blissfully simpatico relationship, and Whedon has been characteristically forthcoming about his squabbles with the studio. Even without the filmmaker’s broadly shared candor, the compromises that dogged the creation of Avengers: Age of Ultron show up all over the film as a general weariness. The first film outing of the Earth’s mightiest heroes is unmistakably a Whedon movie. The sequel is just another Marvel Studios movie, with all the strengths and weaknesses that implies.

Where the prior installment in the Avengers saga was about the  S.H.I.E.L.D.-recruited superheroes coming together to combat a global threat swarming through a crack in the sky over New York City, Age of Ultron begins with the group as a going concern, clear spending a decent amount of time together hunting down the sort of missing mystically-powerful items that are the driving force of most Marvel movie plots. They word hard in missions against HYDRA outposts and play hard with parties at one of Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey, Jr.) posh pads, complete with the cool-down party game if figuring out if anyone is worthy to life the hammer of Thor (Chris Hemsworth). It’s during the ending phase of that party that the title-named menace introduces himself. Ultron (voiced by James Spader) is a robot that’s the end result of some tinkering with artificial intelligence on the part of Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Ultron decides to live out his Stark-programmed mission of achieving world peace through the only logical means: destroying the human race. Sure, Ultron’s plan is one I’d vote against, but I have to admit his math checks out.

What follows is a lot of a lot. Ultron is designed to widely transfer his consciousness, meaning there’s a steady flow of malevolent robots coming at the Avengers at all time. And joining all the returning characters — besides those already named, there are Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and plenty of non super-powered supporting pals, led by Samuel L. Jackson, scowling as Nick Fury for the umpteenth time — the movie needs to make room for the proper introduction of the Maximoff twins (known as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver in the comics, played by Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively) while still squeezing in cameos from fellow superheroes that have already appeared in the other movies. It’s exhausting just to think about, and it’s certainly seemed to take its toll on Whedon. The whole film has the flagging energy one might associate with a creator who all but gave up midway through the process, setting aside ambition to tighten up the film and clarify its storytelling in the editing room because a goal of “good enough” suddenly seems really appealing. There are still plenty of Whedon’s favorite tricks in the screenplay, and some of them hold their charm. The finished product, though, has a damnable blandness.

Even if the writing has its moments, there are signs of fatigue in the script, too. With an overstuffed cast, it’s perhaps not surprising that Whedon struggles to give everyone worthwhile attention, but the narrative misfires throughout are atypical. There’s a running joke about Captain America tsk-tsking a curse word during a battle that would have been weak even before being completely sabotaged by Whedon having the star-spangled stalwart announced that it’s going to be a running joke. And while I don’t necessarily buy the argument that the tentative romance between Natasha and Bruce is sexist, it’s definitely dramatically weak, grounded in nothing recognizable as emotional truth consistent with previous depictions of the character, including those crafted by Whedon. Like too much of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the relationship is just sort of there, presented rather than honestly, artfully explored. Whedon’s first Avengers movie seemed to come straight from his geek-friendly heart. This time out, it’s less felt. It’s merely assembled.

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Beers I Have Know: 21st Amendment Brewery Down to Earth

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

down to earth

That monkey has the right idea. 21st Amendment is one of my favorite breweries (non-local division), and this beer — by the packaging, anyway — is a spiritual sequel to Bitter American, one of the first brews I wrote about in this series, so I should theoretically have plenty to write. Given my day, though, all I feel compelled to offer is a reiteration of that opening sentence: That monkey has the right idea.

Previously…
Point Special
21st Amendment Bitter American
Abita Restoration Pale Ale
Rolling Rock
Skull Splitter
Foster’s
Highland Thunderstruck Coffee Porter
Red Stripe
Rhinelander Bock
Samuel Adams Boston Lager
New Glarus Brewing Company Wisconsin Belgian Red
ABA Hoppy Saison
Hamm’s
Abita Strawberry Harvest Lager
Three Floyds Apocalypse Cow
French Broad Brewing Gateway Kolsch
Big Boss Brewing “High Monkey”
Stevens Point Brewery Whole Hog Pumpkin Ale
The Native Brewing Company The Eleven Brown Ale
Labatt Blue
Smuttynose Winter Ale
Point Beyond the Pale IPA
Guinness
Capital Brewery Supper Club
Highland Brewing 20th Anniversary Scotch Ale
Mickey’s
Central Waters Brewing Company Sixteen
Blatz
Pisgah Pale Ale
New Glarus Brewing Company Pumpkin Pie Lust
Asheville Brewing Company Rocket Girl
Sierra Nevada Blindfold Black IPA

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College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 48 and 47

48 push48. Push, Shamefaced

Like a lot of college radio stations, 90FM proclaimed a strong dedication to local music. In the case of our station, we expanded “local” to mean anything that originated, even initially, in the state of Wisconsin. By the time I arrived there in the late nineteen-eighties, no one was really thinking of Violent Femmes as a Milwaukee band, for example, but that’s where they started, so that was good enough for us. There was one band that showed up in the mid-nineties that was not only from our town of Stevens Point, they were populated by, on who you asked, classmates, roommates, castmates, and future teammates. Their second album, Shamefaced, was local enough that I couldn’t even find an image on the album cover online, hence the promotional image over there, nicked from the Facebook page of the fellow on the far left there (who I have a feeling is dead serious about that hair). The same individual has made sure a track or two from the album has shown up online for your listening pleasure. Other than that, I can tell you that the official release party for Shamefaced was held at Tremors dance club. So that’s something.

47 strings

47. Superchunk, Here’s Where the Strings Come In

Here’s Where the Strings Come In is the fifth Superchunk album, but it somehow feels like it’s early and seminal. It followed Foolish, which was something of a breakthrough for the band, both artistically and in terms of the band’s prominence with college radio programmers (it’s a major stretch to call any Superchunk album a true commercial success). Even now, Foolish is largely considered to be the one must-have release in the band’s catalog. Presumably, that would give Here’s Where the Strings Come In the general vibe of a band with something to prove, or else maybe a group of performers straining to duplicate recent success. Maybe it’s the accumulation of all sorts of other Superchunk music to compare it to since, but neither likely characterization fits to me. Instead, all I hear are the indie heroes of Chapel Hill, North Carolina bashing out their trademark sound, content in their own slacker clatter.

The album bounds to life with “Hyper Enough,” Mac McCaughan repeatedly singing, “I think I’m hyper enough as it is.”  The band that spoke for the lackadaisical restlessness and knee-jerk dissatisfaction of Gen Xers everywhere with their brilliant early single “Slack Motherfucker” was still very much in that mode six years later. Even when the songs come across as deliberately cryptic or strain for a more universal openness, there is a strong sense that it’s all about being a twentysomething adrift in a stalled modern era, doing absolutely everything wrong. “Iron On” sketches out that with the perfectly chosen throwaway details of an especially insightful mumblecore film: “We’re passing the bottle over to you/ Across the floor of our sinking, dug-out canoe/ We got so drunk that night, we got so drunk that night/ I hardly remember driving you home.” All that mopey scuffling can distract from how tight and propulsive the band is, as on the headlong roar of “Detroit Has a Skyline” and the Replacements-style barroom assurance of the title cut.

This wasn’t only the fifth Superchunk album, it was their fifth album in six years, a terrifically prolific stretch for a band that was simultaneously growing their own label, Merge Records. The same day Here’s Where the Strings Come In was released also saw Merge issuing the Magnetic Fields’ full-length Get Lost. Forget the preciousness of refined artistry. Superchunk was approaching their modest but respected place in the music business as if it were a job that they were plainly obligated to do, punching the clock each and every day. That may not have been the approach, but the output sure suggests that. If that doesn’t sound like a compliment, I’ll state directly that a compliment is precisely what I mean it to be. They kept plugging away following this album, with such dependability that even a later layoff of nearly a decade found them picking up and issuing new albums that were better termed continuations than reunions. I’m not sure how many of us would have pegged Superchunk as truly built to last back in the day, but we should have. It’s there in every last damn note.

Previously….

An Introduction
— 90-88: The Falling Wallendas, Parasite, and A.M.
— 87-85: North Avenue Wake Up Call, Live!, and Life Begins at 40 Million
— 84 and 83: Wholesale Meats and Fishes and Orange
— 82-80: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Fossil, and Electric Rock Music
— 79-77: Coast to Coast Motel, My Wild Life, and Life Model
— 76-74: Gag Me with a Spoon, Where I Wanna Be, and Ruby Vroom
— 73 and 72: Horsebreaker Star and Wild-Eyed and Ignorant
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon
— 62-60: Lucky Dumpling, Fight for Your Mind, and Short Bus
— 59-57: Good News from the Next World, Joe Dirt Car, and Tomorrow the Green Grass
— 56 and 55: …And Out Come the Wolves and Clueless
— 54-52: We Get There When We Do, Trace, and Twisted
— 51-49: Thrak, Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), and You Will Be You

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From the Archive: Predator 2

predator 2

To help prove that I dutifully transcribe these old reviews regardless of the temptation to give the decades-old language a sprucing up, just look at the garbled syntax below. Some of these sentences gave me pangs of pain as I retyped them. Then again, those buzzes of internal agony could be attributed to memories of the many movies cited in the first paragraph slithering out from behind whatever suppression devices my brain has kindly deployed to this point. This is from the November 26, 1990 episode of The Reel Thing. We’d only be doing the show for about three months, and I was clearly already experiencing some misgivings about all the absolute dreck I was willingly viewing to help us fill out an hour a week. The opening to this review is a litany of painful regret. Also, note that the film’s placement in 1997 placed it squarely in the FUTURE! Suddenly, I feel very old.

The best part of PREDATOR 2 was being able to create a new game to play for people who have seen many of the worst films of 1990. It involves noticing how many similarities PREDATOR 2 has to all of them. For example, like ROBOCOP 2, this one is a sequel that is simply very loud. It has more excessive volume than a heavy metal fan’s stereo with a new Metallica cassette in it. Or a parallel can be drawn between the pointless violence of this film and of HARDWARE. Like GRAVEYARD SHIFT, PREDATOR 2’s final confrontation scene takes place deep underground. The alien Predator has as many escapes from death as Chucky in CHILD’S PLAY 2, the film has as much shattered glass as ANOTHER 48 HOURS, and there are as many racist depictions of Jamaicans as in MARKED FOR DEATH. There’s even a stuffed baboon in a taxidermy shop to remind us of our good friend SHAKMA. I could go on, but why bother when PREDATOR 2 is just plain awful completely on its own merits.

The setting has moved from modern day Central America in the first one to 1997 Los Angeles, where the Drug War has become a very literal term. The film begins with an all-out battle on an L.A. street as a crack police unit led by Danny Glover takes on a giant, well-armed group of drug dealers. This extreme conflict has captured the attention of one of the alien Predators who begins killing people and stringing them upside down so he can devout their heart or tear out their skull and spine if he’s in a real hurry. Glover’s group is completely mystified by these killings, but some feds arrive who know all about the creature. This group of agents in led by Gary Busey, who may have sunk to his lowest depths yet. All he can do here in stiffly deliver lines and wear a silver suit that looks like a bunch of old Ho Ho wrappers sewn together. Busey would have looked even worse if it weren’t for the performances of Bill Paxton and Maria Conchita Alonso as members of Glover’s team. Paxton’s goofiness and Alonso’s toughness become grating very quickly.

The film includes a token attempt at making a point when Glover stares into a taxidermy shop for no other reason than to show the audience that we humans do the same kinds of things as the Predator does. And if that scene didn’t make the point clear enough, Busey takes on the creature in a meat locker filled with prime beef strung up in much the same way that the Predator does it. Get it yet? PREDATOR 2 needs a lot more than a token attempt at making a serious point to make all its needless violence and general mindlessness worthwhile.

Since I started this review by telling you what I thought the best thing about PREDATOR 2 was, I’ll finish it by telling you the worst thing. Danny Glover’s final line indicates that it’s very likely that there will someday be a PREDATOR 3. That’s easily the most frightening thing in this film.

1 star, out of 4.

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May 2015
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