MONKEY REVIEW: Wanted

June 30, 2008

wantedWanted scored big this weekend, somewhat surprisingly I might add, making an estimated $51 million, second only to the new Pixar movie, Wall-E. I saw it because it was directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who directed the Russian box office hits, Day Watch and Night Watch, and like those movies, Wanted is primarily an exercise in style rather than substance, but the style is so impressive that you’ll forget, at least temporarily, that the story you’re seeing unfold onscreen is pretty much the same old bill of goods action movie-wise, with some elements of The Matrix and Star Wars thrown in for good measure. The plot concerns a lowly office accountant named Wesley (James McAvoy) who finds himself being recruited by a centuries old band of assassins that call themselves the Fraternity, led by Sloan (Morgan Freeman): “Our purpose is to maintain stability in an unstable world – kill one, save a thousand,” Sloan tells Wesley. Angelina Jolie plays Fox, one of the Fraternity assassins who is assigned to train Wesley. As mindless action pictures go, Wanted is mostly pretty entertaining, albeit graphically violent, i.e., lots and lots of people getting shot in the head. It also takes place in roughly the same universe as this summer’s Speed Racer did, that is, the universe where physically impossible things become possible. If you’re the kind of person who says things to the movie screen like, “Ah, that could never happen in real life,” then save your money and don’t see this movie, otherwise you’ll be tearing your hair out. However, if you don’t mind your action very highly stylized, then you’ll probably get a kick out of most of the action set pieces, which also include a healthy dose of humor. Wanted is definitely not a highminded movie, and as far as its moral and message, well, it’s confused and dubious at best. Wanted is certainly not the first movie to offer up the idea of violence as a rite of manhood, or that picking up a gun can transform a loser into a real man, but when a major scene in the movie can be described as “employee walks into a factory, kills co-workers,” as my friend Robert pointed out, then it becomes problematic. Yes, I know it’s just a movie, but it is so wrong to want an entertainment that doesn’t make you feel uneasy about its morals, or lack thereof? Anyway, Wanted is silly, mindless fun directed by someone you wish had more interesting material to work you over with.

MONKEY RATING: THREE MONKEYS

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

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inbruges“You got to stick to your principles.”

The debut film from Irish playwright Martin McDonagh was mis-marketed in this country as a wacky farce about two hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brenden Gleeson) hiding out in Bruges, a picturesque town in Belgium. While the movie is often hilariously funny throughout, it’s also a serious minded meditation on guilt and the possibilities, or lack thereof, for redemption for the choices we make that unexpectedly yield seemingly unforgivable results. The movie is highlighted by excellent acting by the leads, with Farrell once again proving what a versatile actor he is playing Ray, an impulsive, child-like man wracked by guilt, and Gleeson being simply masterful as Farrell’s mentor Ken; Gleeson is able to communicate so much with simple gestures and subtle changes in his voice. Ralph Fiennes is also good as their boss, Harry, and Thekla Reuten, Clémence Poésy and Jordan Prentice are also memorable in supporting roles. “It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it?,” Harry says to Ken, talking about Bruges, and the Belgium town, which McDonagh has lovingly shot, is used to great effect, by turns stunningly beautiful, then eerie and threatening, like the Hieronymus Bosch painting Ray and Ken come across early in the movie. In Bruges will not be to all viewer’s tastes, as it’s profane and given to explosions of shocking violence, but for those viewers who can look past those surface things, they will find an intelligent, provocative and often profoundly moving work of art, and one of the best movies so far this year.

MONKEY RATING: ZERO MONKEYS

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

robertpollardofftobusinessRobert Pollard’s second release of the year is a more of a straight ahead indie rock record than his previous release back in Janurary, Superman Was A Rocker, which was by and large an experimental pop album, albeit a pretty fun one. Robert Pollard Is Off To Business is also a lot of fun, and though the press for the record references “The Who, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Wire, and The Clean” as influences, I imagine a lot of listeners will hear songs that will instantly remind them of classic Guided By Voices work, Pollard’s band of old, minus the lo-fi production style. Pollard’s also working in a longer form, with some songs topping out over 5 minutes, practically epic length considering his propensity in the past for writing songs that seldom broke the 2 or 3 minute mark. It’s a pleasure to hear a master of guitar based rock ply his trade, mixing up electric and acoustic material to good effect. This album easily ranks as my favorite of his solo works so far. Standout cuts: “The Original Heart,” “Gratification To Concrete,” “Weatherman And Skin Goddess” and “Wealth And Hell-Being.”

http://www.myspace.com/robertepollardjr

sigurrosThe new album from Icelandic band Sigur Rós starts out on an unexpectedly sunny note, with “Gobbledigook” and “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur,” which, the first track (and first single) in particular, have a much poppier sound than I’ve ever heard from them. The rest of the album has a similarly lighter feel overall, and contains moments of quiet, sometimes melancholy beauty that can sometimes culminate in epic symphonic codas, as on tracks like “Festival” and “Ára Bátur,” the latter track done with a full orchestra and choir. Like M83’s recent release, Saturdays = Youth, Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust (translated by the band as “with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly”) seems a paean to youth and possibility, here symbolized by the promise of the summer season. It’s a beautiful album, poppy without being sweet or sentimental, epic without being melodramatic, a soundtrack to the summer you always hoped you would have. Highly recommended.

http://www.myspace.com/sigurros

MONKEY REVIEW: Lifeforce

June 23, 2008

lifeforce“That girl was no girl.”

Lifeforce, the 1985 Tobe Hooper movie about a space vampire that wreaks havoc in London, is one of the most unhinged major Hollywood releases I’ve ever had the pleasure/bad luck to see. The story makes absolutely no sense, the dialogue is more often than not laughably bad (“Don’t worry. A naked girl is not going to get out of this complex.” “I’m here. Now can this madness end?”), and Steve Railsback, who was so good in The Stunt Man several years before this was released, gives one of the worst performances I’ve seen by a leading man. But then Railsback is having to play the lone survivor of an ill fated space shuttle mission who has a psychic bond with a space vampire girl named, according to the credits, Space Girl (Mathilda May, in a memorable film debut), who herself initially spends so much screen time naked that when she reappears in the movie walking the English countryside in what appears to be a garbage bag, a character observes, with some disappointment, perhaps, “Now she has clothes.” For a weird Alien/Dracula hybrid, it’s got an impressive roll call of talent: Hooper, who directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, Dan O’Bannon, who wrote Alien, also wrote this screenplay, the special effects are by John Dykstra (Star Wars), and Henry Mancini did the musical score. So while Lifeforce is absurd and nonsensical and just plain bad in a lot of ways, it’s professionally made absurd, nonsensical badness. It’s also, and this accounts for why I’ve seen this movie multiple times, fast paced and wickedly entertaining, and because it doesn’t make any sense at all, it’s almost completely unpredictable. When I first saw this during its initial theatrical run, I literally had no idea what was going to happen from one scene to the next, as it’s a space vampire movie that starts out like Alien, and ends up, inexplicably, a zombie plague movie. But wow, is it wild fun to watch, and it’s played totally straight by a mostly English cast, which makes it all the better. Peter Firth is actually quite good as a British colonel (and “natural voyeur”) hot on the trail of Space Girl, Patrick Stewart shows up in time to get his first onscreen kiss from…Railsback, and Aubrey Morris plays a government official much in the same way one would play a pirate. I don’t usually recommend bad movies to people, because there’s plenty of good ones to see, but Lifeforce is such a nutty good time, it’s a must-see for science fiction and horror fans. For non-fans of those genres, you can adjust my rating down a monkey.

P.S. This is a review of the US theatrical cut, as I wanted to review the version of the movie I first saw in 1985. The international cut, which runs about 15 or so minutes longer, apparently makes somewhat more sense. There’s yet another cut of the movie that runs 12 minutes longer than that, Tobe Hooper’s own cut of the movie.

P.P.S. This review is also part of the Final Girl Film Club.

MONKEY RATING: THREE (SPACE VAMPIRE) MONKEYS

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

bekindrewind“Our past belongs to us, we can change it if we want.”

Written and directed by Michel Gondry, Be Kind Rewind is an entertaining fable about movies and storytelling, in the guise of a screwball comedy. Be Kind Rewind revolves around a Passaic, New Jersey video store that still does VHS rentals, run out of a building on the verge of being condemned. When its owner (Danny Glover) goes out of town to attend a Fats Waller memorial, he leaves Mike (Mos Def), a young man he’s raised since he was a boy, in charge of his store. Things almost immediately go wrong when his best friend Jerry (Jack Black) has his head magnetized in a freak accident and manages to erase every tape in the video store. Mike’s solution? They’ll replace movies like Ghostbusters and Rush Hour 2 with their own homemade versions of them, complete with their own on the fly and often wildly creative special effects. After stumbling around a bit for half an hour or so, Be Kind Rewind‘s central story takes hold and the rest of the movie is mostly a pleasure, and frequently hilarious. A good deal of the credit goes to the cast, in particular Mos Def, Jack Black and Melonie Diaz who give charming, subtle performances. There’s no reason why Mos Def shouldn’t become a huge movie star, based on his work in this movie, and other movies like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Woodsman. Mia Farrow also gives a lovely performance as a video store regular customer. The movie as a whole has some interesting and often profound things to say about the relationship between audiences and the movies they watch, and how history morphs into myth. Despite those serious undercurrents, Be Kind Rewind maintains a goofy, good natured surface right until its bittersweet final scenes. It’s certainly not a perfect film, but it’s just good and fun enough to merit a view.

MONKEY RATING: TWO MONKEYS

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

mountzoomerI have mixed feelings about Montreal based band Wolf Parade’s new album, At Mount Zoomer. On the one hand, there’s no one single track that grabs me the way “Shine A Light” did off their debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, but that said, there is some really good material to be found on this nine track followup, which culminates with a nearly 11 minute track that also happens to be one of the highlights, “Kissing The Beehive.” The Modest Mouse influence on their guitar based indie rock can still be heard, albeit somewhat less faintly, as some mild prog and psychedelic rock influences have crept into their sound, too. Other highlights here include “Language City,” “The Grey Estates” and “An Animal In Your Care,” so, time-wise, the highlights constitute the greater part of the album. The tracks that didn’t do much for me seemed a bit shapeless and weren’t nearly as engaging, though they were as passionately played and sung as the tracks I did like. I hesitate to call this a sophomore slump, as it’s clear the band is trying out new directions, but listeners looking for some of the infectious hooks the first album contained may be initially disappointed with this new release.

http://www.myspace.com/wolfparade

teddythompsonpieceofwhatyouneed“Is this what we really want, background music from a restaurant?”

When Teddy Thompson debuted in 2000, his sound could be described as folk rock combined with emotionally intense lyrics, tempered by a dark and knowing wit. He expanded his sound on his second album, Separate Ways, rocking things up a bit, and then offered up some stylish country covers on his last album, Up Front and Down Low. Now arrives the 2008 version of Teddy Thompson, this time as entertainer extraordinaire, on his fourth album, A Piece Of What You Need, an often thrillingly great, grandly scaled pop album that combines musical elements of his past releases into something vital and, true to the album’s title, necessary and definitely welcome. “I’d like to think that I’m contributing some tiny little building block of something worthwhile, rather than just adding to the massive pile of disposable rubbish,” Thompson has said about making A Piece Of What You Need, and towards that end, he’s made an album of pop music for adults that’s neither disposable nor rubbish, that’s instead impressive in its range and versatility. Hats off to Teddy Thompson, making pop music that doesn’t suck, so you don’t have to listen to sucky pop music. Standout cuts: “The Things I Do,” “In My Arms,” “Can’t Sing Straight” and “Turning The Gun On Myself.”

http://www.myspace.com/teddythompsonmusic

coldplayThough Coldplay worked with producer Brian Eno for their new album, there’s not a lot on Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends that sounds markedly different. Some of the advance word I’d read on the album indicated this would be “edgier,” and while I don’t find much change in that direction, save for a generally gloomy fixation on death this time around, it’s still a solid album, with a lot of the strongest material appearing in the second half of the ten track album. The touches Eno added to their sound are often subtle, but effective: Several of the tracks feature evocative instrumental pieces, reminiscent of his work with U2 on The Unforgettable Fire, including the opening “Life In Technicolor,” and the songs that make up the center of the album, “Lovers In Japan” and “Yes.” The latter two songs feature instrumental breaks that open up into what constitute second movements, launching them into near-epic status. They tread on more familiar ground with tracks like “Lost!” and “Viva La Vida,” but that’s not really a complaint, as the latter track is one of the album highlights. All in all, this is a good, if not necessarily great, Coldplay album, but with some great moments. Standout cuts: “42,” “Lovers In Japan,” “Viva La Vida” and “Violet Hill.”

http://www.myspace.com/coldplay

mybrightestdiamondsharksteethI can safely say that listeners will not have heard anything quite like My Brightest Diamond’s A Thousand Shark’s Teeth so far this year. It’s a masterful, often enchanting mix of rock and pop with operatic and classical elements, electric guitars mixing in with strings and all manner of instrumentation, much of it played by Shara Worden, the singer/songwriter and primary force behind My Brightest Diamond. The music found on A Thousand Shark’s Teeth can be complex and even difficult, but it also rewards listeners with moments of authentic beauty and wonder. I’m not quite sure how to categorize it all, but I think with this album, My Brightest Diamond joins the ranks of great pop experimentalists such as Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson and Jane Siberry, three of my all time favorite artists. So yeah, I’m definitely recommending this album, in a big way. Standout cuts: “Inside A Boy,” “Ice And The Queen,” “To Pluto’s Moon” and “The Diamond.”

http://www.myspace.com/mybrightestdiamond