“Hello.”

Almost a great horror thriller: The Strangers, written and directed by Bryan Bertino, is scary, suspenseful and nervewracking for its first three quarters or so. The movie’s about three strangers who inexplicably terrorize a young couple (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) in a remote family summer home late one night. Using mostly sound, Bertino creates a palpable sense of fear, dread and anticipation, and builds it up until it’s nearly unbearable. But when the movie reaches a certain point, and you expect something monumental to happen, well…then nothing really does. It becomes a movie about people crawling around on the ground a lot, and a certain tedium sets in. Then the movie just sort of ends. When the last shot faded from view and the credits rolled, the nearly sold out audience I saw The Strangers with, mostly teenagers and members of the coverted 18-to-24 year old demographic, was clearly underwhelmed. It’s a shame because the movie works so well for most of its running time, and because Speedman and Tyler are so good in their roles. As far as home invasion thrillers go, The Strangers unfortunately doesn’t hold a candle to Them, a French film, released on DVD in March, with a similar storyline that doesn’t wear out its welcome. (Though it’s not without problems of its own.) All in all, The Strangers is all build up, little pay off.

MONKEY RATING: THREE MONKEYS

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

explorersclubIf you are particularly enamored with the Beach Boys or Brian Wilson, then I’m definitely going to recommend to you Freedom Wind, the new album from Charleston based band the Explorers Club. On their Myspace page, they list among their influences the Beach Boys, of course, but also the Zombies, the Association, Glen Campbell, Phil Spector, Motown and the Beatles. I’d throw the Everly Brothers in there, too, as some of the songs sound like a collaboration between the Brothers and the Boys. (Beach Brothers!) Unlike a lot of other indie bands that wear their Beach Boys influences on their sleeves, the Explorers Club don’t try to reinvent the wheel and try to merge those influences with prog rock or art rock or some other such synthesis, but rather try to make fresh sounding modern glosses on their influences. That said, it’s not quite a purist approach, either, as they mix things up enough to avoid sounding like a tribute band. The main goal here seems to provide listeners with a set of well crafted, summery pop music meant to inspire pleasure, and towards that end, the Explorers Club have succeeded. Standout cuts: “Don’t Forget The Sun,” “Lost My Head,” “Hold Me Tight” and “Last Kiss.”

http://www.myspace.com/explorersclub

“You were born on a black day, shot through with starlight…”

After a couple of spotty albums that nevertheless contained some very inspired material, Spiritualized releases their best album since Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, its landmark 1997 release: Songs In A&E (which stands for Accident and Emergency, for you non-UK readers) features a set of music largely inspired by frontman J. Spaceman’s (aka Jason Pierce) near-fatal bout with double pneumonia in 2005. Some of them are stark ruminations on mortality, as with “Death Take Your Fiddle,” a slow burning number complete with respirator sounds, while others are romantic tunes, often done on epic scales, such as the current single, “Soul On Fire” and the most excellent “Baby I’m A Fool,” which builds into a psychedelic folk rock jam. Towards the end, there’s also a spooky and powerful tune called “Borrowed Your Gun,” which may be about inherited familial anger or else family violence, physical or emotional, real or imagined. “Good Night Goodnight” ends the album on a lovely mixture of melancholy and hope. The music features Spiritualized’s usual mix of rock, soul, shoegaze and space rock, along with rousing choral arrangements. J. Spaceman’s often poetic lyrics touches on the album’s weighty themes without feeling cliched or sappily sentimental. Songs In A&E is an important work from one of this generation’s most unique and innovative bands.

http://www.myspace.com/spiritualized

If you haven’t already heard, Shirley Manson, lead singer of one of my favorite bands, Garbage, will be joining the cast of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles this coming fall, according to a Reuters report published May 28, 2008. She’ll be playing Catherine Weaver, CEO of Cyberdyne, the tech company that eventually develops Skynet, the artificial intelligence supercomputing system that becomes “self-aware” and attempts to destroy humanity. No word on what this means with regard to future Garbage releases, though it does seem to scuttle plans for recording a new album sometime this year, as reported last July in Billboard magazine. As of this writing, there’s no announcement at Garbage.com, their official site. Cheers, however, to Shirley Manson. Now I’ll have to start watching that show on a regular basis.

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SOME VERY MILD SPOILERS

“Wait, aren’t you, Lee, the janitor?”

Automaton Transfusion is a pretty passable low budget zombie flick until the last ten minutes or so, when a character suddenly makes a bizarre, seemingly unmotivated choice and the movie gets bogged down in explanations for the zombie epidemic that’s afflicted the area. Then it wraps things up at the 71 minute mark (!) by not wrapping things up, with the most presumptuous non-ending ever: “To Be Continued.” Despite some decent acting and a few bravura gore effects, the movie tries too hard to imitate the flashy, headache inducing filmmaking style of larger budget Hollywood features and TV shows. This is not a good model for indie horror, a genre from which audiences tend to expect more innovation and risk taking, two qualities pretty much absent from Automaton Transfusion, unfortunately.

MONKEY RATING: FOUR MONKEYS

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

Miles Of Styles marks the seventh release from Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra, which is primarily the work of Shawn Lee, American born and London based multi-instrumentalist. According to Ubiquity Records press for the album, Miles Of Styles “is the soundtrack to places Lee has been and would like to visit. ” The titles of the mostly instrumental tracks give you an idea of the globetrotting nature of the 20 tracks included here: “Brazilian Bubble,” “Prague Rock,” “Italy 73,” “Heist In Helsinki,” “San Diego” and “Greekout.” The Ping Pong Orchestra project was originally aimed at establishing a musical library, though by now, with Christmas and a hits cover album among its recent releases, the project now seems more like a vehicle for Lee’s wildly prolific and diverse creative output. If you are new to the Ping Pong Orchestra, I envy you because you have seven albums of music to enjoy from a modern Carl Stalling, who blends rock, soul, funk, pop and world music influences into heady, groovy and often surprising mixtures. (He also has a couple of albums out as Shawn Lee, including Soul Visa and Monkey Boy.) If you don’t know Lee by name, you no doubt know his music, as it’s been featured on the soundtracks of scores of movies and TV shows, as well as the video game Bully. Miles Of Styles is as good a place as any to start discovering the work of this true musical virtuoso.

http://www.myspace.com/shawnleemusic

El Rey, the new album from UK based band the Wedding Present, fronted by David Gedge, is a collection of forceful, often very witty rock and power pop, given extra muscle by producer Steve Albini, who punches up the drums and bass until they’re recalling Nirvana on In Utero. This latter quality is both good and bad, bad because some of the songs start to run into each other, musically sounding very similar. There are enough good tracks here, though, for El Rey to more than merit a listen, especially for Wedding Present and Cinerama (Gedge’s other band) fans. Standout cuts: “Santa Anna Winds,” “I Lost The Monkey,” “The Thing I Like The Best About Him Is His Girlfriend” and “Boo Boo.”

http://www.myspace.com/theweddingpresent

cellardwellerI learned a few things as I researched Cellar Dweller, a 1988 Empire Pictures horror fantasy, and here you go:

1. John Carl Buechler directed it, and though he’s mostly known for special effects and make up work, he also directed Troll, Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, and Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College (I didn’t even realize this movie existed, and there’s even a fourth one!). Buechler (Buechler…? Buechler…?) is also embarking on a remake of Troll, set for release next year. Two of the main characters in the 1986 original Troll are called, coincidentally, Harry Potter Sr. and Harry Potter Jr.

2. Don Mancini wrote the screenplay as Kit Du Bois. After this, Mancini went on to write the Child’s Play movies. And…well, that’s pretty much it. Now he’s remaking Child’s Play, for release next year as well. It’s the circle of life, Hollywood-style.

3. Deborah Farentino, who appears in this movie as Deborah Mullowney, appeared on the Sci-Fi series Eureka recently and Earth 2 in the 90’s, and became Farentino when she married James Farentino. She will be appearing in neither the remake of Troll or Child’s Play as far as I know, though. She’s also magically hotter now, twenty years later, than she was in this movie, and she’s pretty gorgeous here.

So, anyway, the movie. I started watching Cellar Dweller on the Chiller cable network, and it had Jeffrey Combs in the pre-credits sequence as a 50’s era EC style cartoonist named Colin Childress, whose monstrous creation, based on his readings of an ancient book of curses (I think that’s the actual name of the book, even!), comes to life behind him in his basement workspace, mirroring the action in “Cellar Dweller,” one of his horror comic strips, and murdering a scantily clad woman. Childress fights back, and he and the monster die a fiery death. I stopped watching not long after that, deciding to try to track the movie down and watch it uncut, as I’m a pretty big Combs fan, ever since Re-Animator. It’s not on DVD yet, but I tracked down a new VHS copy via an Amazon reseller, which had a decent pan and scan print of it. As it turned out, Combs’ role was limited to the prologue, and the rest of the movie takes place 30 years later after his death, now considered a murder/suicide, with his house having been turned into a remote artist colony called the Throckmorton Institute of the Arts. (Try using “Throckmorton” as your new swear word. “What in the Throckmorton?” “Holy Throckmortons!” It works pretty well.) Comic book artist Whitney Taylor (played by Farentino) arrives at the colony wanting to create her own work based on Childress’s work, whom she idolizes. The other artists at the colony are pretty hilariously bad, but then Taylor signs her graphically violent horror comic strips with a big, giant, very unscary “WHITNEY.” She finds the book of curses and conjures up the same monster, who starts to wreak gory havoc in the house, based on the comic strips she draws. It’s a neat idea, but it’s not done in a very cinematic way, as the action cuts between what’s going on in real time and what’s going on in the strips, with most of the emphasis on the strips, undercutting a lot of the impact of the horror scenes. As this is a low budget B-movie at heart, there’s nudity and some gore, including one pretty spectacular decapitation. The monster is sort of scary sometimes, but it’s also unexpectedly sort of Gremlin-like at times, but the good Gremlins, not the bad ones. Other times, during wide shots, it looks like a Yeti, and I swear its fur changes color from scene to scene. Plus there’s one close up where it’s eating a body part, and it’s got like doe eyes. NOT scary. Cellar Dweller‘s got a sort of kooky charm going for it that makes it watchable, though, and it probably helps that the running time is pretty short at 81 minutes, with some elaborate opening credits eating up a lot of that time. It’s probably not a must see at any level, but it’s a goofy time passer, anyway.

MONKEY RATING: FOUR MONKEYS

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

First of all, this lowbrow comedy about a nature show called “Strange Wilderness” run by stoners and on the verge of cancellation in no way resembles an actual good movie. It does show promise as a future cult movie, however, as in spite of its copious flaws, not least among them a certain sloppiness that pervades the whole enterprise, Strange Wilderness is made tolerable by a talented cast that may or may not be slumming a bit (Steve Zahn, Allen Covert, Jonah Hill, Justin Long and Ashley Scott) as well as some genuinely hilarious set pieces, which come just frequently enough to pull viewers through its 84 minute running time. A running gag featuring absurd and frequently inappropriate voiceovers over generic wildlife footage is responsible for some of the biggest laughs, including a widely seen gag featured in the trailer involving a shark with some questionable teeth. The plot also manages to squeeze Bigfoot into the story, but that thread eventually pays off pretty well. All in all, I can’t possibly recommend this movie, but…I will say that a comedy that’s actually funny can’t be all bad, which is why I’m giving it three monkeys. But you’re on your own with this one otherwise.

MONKEY RATING: THREE MONKEYS

(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)

Velocifero, the fourth album from Liverpool based electropop band Ladytron, has a harder edged, more energized sound than previous releases. It opens with three forceful tracks in a row, beginning with “Black Cat,” one of two tracks sung by Mia Aroyo in her native Bulgarian (the other being “Kletva”), and followed by “Ghosts,” the current single, and my current favorite song on the album, next to “Versus,” the album closer. They haven’t radically changed their sound for this album, but rather diversified and expanded it, giving the individual tracks broader canvases to play out on, even adding acoustic guitars to their electronic based sound on “Versus.” Not all tracks worked for me (“Runaway” in particular, which I found repetitious), but in general, Velocifero is clearly one of Ladytron’s very best albums in their nine year history. Standout cuts: “Black Cat,” “Ghosts,” “I’m Not Scared” and “Versus.”

http://www.myspace.com/ladytron