benjaminbutton1
David Fincher’s The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, loosely adapted from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a man who is born with an aged body and proceeds to get younger as the years pass, easily jumped in the ranks of my favorite movies this year, almost from the beginning moments, filled as they are with charm, wonder and sadness. Those moments set the tone for the rest of the film, which, at 165 minutes, is a long haul, but never feels overlong. It may well be that Benjamin Button, played by Brad Pitt in a beautifully modulated performance, is a simple tale elaborately told, as Fincher is one of the most unique cinematic stylists working today, though when the beautiful closing image fades, this hardly seems like a criticism. Part of the reason I enjoyed the movie so much was not because it has anything profound to say about aging, loss and death, but because it doesn’t strain to do so. It nevertheless makes simple, but affecting points about the inevitability of both loss and recovery, and the joys of finding the things that make you happy, and finding ways to incorporate those things into your everyday life. Pitt is supported by an impressive supporting cast, including Cate Blanchett, who is simply luminous as his lifelong love. The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button isn’t perfect by any means, as it loses some narrative momentum in its third act and is guilty of occasionally meandering, but in general, this is a gorgeously made, richly entertaining film.

MONKEY RATING: ONE MONKEY

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

burnafterreading“You’re part of a league of morons.”

The latest film from the Coen Brothers is a dark comedy about the chaos that occurs when the memoirs of an ex-C.I.A operative (John Malkovich) fall into the hands of two inept gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt). Extortion, violence and general mayhem and confusion ensue. Burn After Reading is not up there with the Coen’s best movies, and it’s not even close to their best comedy as it’s more amusing than hilarious, but it’s still very entertaining, and gets more so as it goes along. The three principals are supported by a pretty amazing cast that includes George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins, all in top form. Pitt is especially inspired here, and provides the movie with some of its funniest and goofiest moments, though Clooney features in a great sight gag involving the revelation of his character’s home made invention. All in all, Burn After Reading isn’t classic Coen Brothers, but it’s damn fun Coen Brothers, and what’s wrong with that?

MONKEY RATING: TWO MONKEYS

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

MONKEY REVIEW: Hamlet 2

December 26, 2008

hamlet2“Yes, it was stupid, but it was also theater.”

Flawed, but still frequently hilarious movie about a failed actor turned Tucson high school drama teacher named Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) who, in a desperate attempt to save the drama program from budget cuts, decides to put on a long time dream project of his: An elaborate musical drama called Hamlet 2, a sequel that allows the doomed Danish prince to travel back in time and, aided by “a sexy Jesus,” to right all the wrongs perpetrated in the first play. Director and co-writer Andrew Fleming picks some obvious satirical targets, chief among them Coogan’s character, who is pretentious and painfully inept, but also genuinely eager to inspire his mostly reluctant students a la Dead Poet’s Society and Mr. Holland’s Opus. Coogan really is the whole show here, despite being aided by a mostly outstanding supporting cast, and your tolerance for his character in the opening first couple of “acts” will be a litmus test as to whether you’ll stick the movie out. Marschz is similar to Corky St. Clair of Waiting For Guffman, if St. Clair were painfully and acutely aware of his own flaws and failures. Coogan gives Marschz enough depth that he becomes sympathetic, even in the grip of his most idiotic and clueless schemes. Frustratingly, Hamlet 2 never quite turns into a truly great comedy, but it is filled with great moments, and the climactic staging of Marschz’s play is hilarious and even, unexpectedly, a bit moving. Despite its own flaws and failure, Hamlet 2 ends up having something to say about how art, even bad art, can have a profoundly positive effect on the people who participate in it, and the people who receive it.

MONKEY RATING: TWO MONKEYS

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

mirandaleerichardsIn advance of a long overdue follow-up to her 2001 debut album, The Herethereafter, Los Angeles based singer/songwriter Miranda Lee Richards has released a very promising four track EP called Early November. Richards has described the music on her forthcoming album, Light Of X, as “Psychedelic Chamber Folk Rock,” which is actually a pretty tidy summation of the various influences you’ll find in her music. Her singing is lovely and evocative, and her music is buoyed by warm, compassionate and intelligent lyrics. All the songs are top drawer, with the title track and “Life Boat” being particular highlights, with the spoken word final track, “Oddity,” displaying a more experimental bent. This is good stuff, and should tide over Richards fans and Richards fans-to-be until the February 2009 release of the LP.

http://www.myspace.com/mirandaleerichards

illstaytilafterchristmasEasily the best and possibly the most worthy set of holiday music to be released this year (all proceeds go to benefit Amnesty International), the evocatively named I’ll Stay ‘Til After Christmas collects 15 tracks by an international array of independent artists, including Au Revoir Simone, Sally Shapiro, My Brightest Diamond, No Kids, Blitzen Trapper and Au. It’s rare that a benefit album not only gives you a chance to support a worthy cause and gives you your money’s worth music-wise to boot, but I’ll Stay ‘Til After Christmas really does have all the makings of a Christmas classic. The songs here are by turns appropriately moody and haunting, sometimes experimental and other times surprisingly traditional, intelligent and frequently sharp witted and unsparing, i.e. Man Of Arms’ “It’s Christmas Time An Every Things’s Wrong.” Obviously, I’ll Stay ‘Til After Christmas is a hipster’s delight, but hopefully this will get a wider audience than just that demographic, as it’s not just the best holiday release of 2008, but one of the best releases of the year, period. Standout cuts: “Christmas Time Is Here (Au Revoir Simone),” “Anorak Christmas (Piano Mix) (Sally Shapiro),” “Christmas Is Coming Soon (Blitzen Trapper),” “It’s Christmas Time An Every Things’s Wrong (Man Of Arms)” and “Silent Night (Bosque Brown).”

http://www.myspace.com/illstaytilafterchristmas

christmaswithweezerWeezer’s contribution to this year’s round of holiday music, Christmas With Weezer, is a relaxed, charming affair, with six Yuletide classics delivered amid buzzing guitars and blissful rock harmonies. There are no great revelatory reinventions of any of the songs, just a focus on fun and a healthy dose of punk-pop Christmas cheer. They even do a version of my very favorite Christmas tune, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” but the prime tracks are their thoughtful version of “O Holy Night” and a pleasingly rocked out version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

http://www.weezer.com/

raveonettexmasWishing You A Rave Christmas, the last EP from the Raveonettes for 2008, is a holiday gift to their fans, who will be the ones to most appreciate this collection of four holiday themed songs. They successfully apply a Christmasy feel (i.e. sleigh bells and the like) to their fuzzy, distorted 50’s and 60’s inspired guitar rock, and come up with a set of music given to equal parts Christmas cheer, haunting holiday melancholy and a bit of eeriness all their own. Standout cuts: “Come On Santa” and “Christmas Ghosts.”

http://www.myspace.com/theraveonettes

“Come On Santa” MP3

coldplayepProspekt’s March, a collection of eight songs recorded during the Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends sessions but not completed in time for the album’s release, makes for a worthy companion piece to that LP. Six of the tracks are new (though that includes a 47 second instrumental called “Postcards From Far Away”), and the remaining two songs are new versions of tracks off of Vida La Vida. The first of the latter is a reworking of “Lost!” with a guest vocal from Jay-Z, which works pretty well, and a very good remix of “Lovers In Japan.” The highlights of the new material, “Life In Technicolor ii” (a vocal version of the opening instrumental on the LP), “Glass Of Water” and “Prospekt’s March/Poppyfields,” all would have been welcome additions to the LP. Also worth noting is “Rainy Day,” which has a quirky indie pop feel to it, rather out of left field for Coldplay. If you enjoyed the album, you’ll definitely want to check out this EP.

http://www.myspace.com/coldplay

thedaytheearthstoodstillScott Derrickson’s remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still scores some points initially for its first act, which generates some real unease, wonder and awe as the American government (represented by the Secretary of Defense, played by Kathy Bates) mobilizes key scientists and engineers (including Jennifer Connelly and John Hamm) and copious military might in preparation for a unknown object headed straight for Manhattan. The object turns out to be a spaceship carrying an alien emissary named Klaatu (Keanu Reeves, quite good in a role originated by Michael Rennie in the 1951 original), who claims to be “a friend to Earth,” though he means that more literally than his human counterparts seem to understand. The majority of the movie more or less picks up where the the original left off, with the human race threatened with extinction, though in the remake, they aren’t given a chance to mend their destructive ways. Instead, it’s up to Connelly to try to change Klaatu’s mind, which is an acceptable direction to go in, but it’s woefully underdeveloped. Though The Day The Earth Stood Still is an acceptable and mostly entertaining combination of science fiction and action, the subtlety and thoughtfulness of the original is almost completely pushed aside here, replaced by sometimes pointless action sequences, most involving Gort, Klaatu’s robot guardian. It’s indicative of the “bigger is better” approach of the remake that Gort is now 28 feet tall and gets to destroy way more stuff this time out. This version in no way dishonors the original, but it does aim somewhat lower and is the worse for it.

MONKEY RATING: THREE MONKEYS

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

darkknight2discSo you’re a Dark Knight nerd like me and you’re wondering if the Two-Disc Special Edition is worth it. Well, I would say that depends on your level of nerdiness. First of all, there are no commentary tracks for the film, as Nolan reportedly dislikes them. The behind-the-scenes featurettes on the second disc are fairly brief, totaling about half an hour, and cover in detail the evolution of Han Zimmer’s eerie and unsettling Joker theme, and some in-depth looks at the evolution of the Bat suit created for the movie, as well as how they created a working Batpod, the super cool motorbike Batman rides during a crucial scene. There’s also some brief commentary on the challenges of the action scenes, and how they employed IMAX cameras during the shoot. (Nolan contemplated doing a whole film with the IMAX cameras, but they are apparently so noisy while they’re operating that they’re not practical to shoot dialogue heavy scenes with.) There are no cast interviews, unfortunately: I was hoping that there would be some material on Heath Ledger’s development of his take on the Joker, but apart from some film clips and production stills, Ledger is largely absent from the featurettes, but then so is the rest of the cast. The highlight, at least for a Dark Knight nerd like me, is the presentation of all the major action scenes in the fullscreen IMAX format. Obviously, it’s not even close to the same experience, but I was still glad to have the opportunity to see them in that fashion. There’s also six episodes of the news program, Gotham Tonight, featured in the movie, which was a bit too nerdy an inclusion for me, and a digital copy of the movie, for those of you who hate IMAX and want to go in the furthest possible opposite direction short of watching a flea circus rendition of The Dark Knight. So there you have it, the contents of the Two-Disc Special Edition. If you’re a nerd like me, you’ll want it, otherwise you may do just as well to pass and buy the single disc version.