MONKEY REVIEW: Taken

January 31, 2009

taken“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”

That’s pretty much the bulk of the text from the trailer for the Liam Neeson thriller Taken, a Pierre Morel film co-written by Luc Besson, which arrived on American shores this weekend after a successful international run. It’s Neeson’s character, an ex-CIA operative, talking to his teenage daughter’s kidnappers, and it made for a pretty riveting trailer, riveting enough to get me into the theatres this weekend to see Taken. Unfortunately, despite a brisk pace and Neeson’s convincing turn as an action hero, Taken doesn’t deliver on the promise of that trailer, not even close, really. There’s plenty of shooting, car chases and people getting beat up, but it’s all in the service of a pretty standard (not to mention pretty xenophobic) action plot where everyone is an idiot but the hero, with virtually no surprises in stores for audiences. Well, there’s one surprise, that this even got a PG-13 rating, as it’s got a body count to rival a slasher film. You’re better off watching 24, a Jason Bourne or a James Bond movie, as this pastiche of all of the above isn’t really worth your time.

MONKEY RATING: THREE MONKEYS

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

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underworld3I really had no intention of seeing the latest movie in the Underworld franchise because frankly I liked neither the first movie, Underworld nor its even worse sequel, Underworld: Evolution. The films took an intriguing idea, a centuries old war between vampires and werewolves, and proceeded to develop it in the most commonplace way, despite the presence of actors like Kate Beckinsale, Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen. The end result was a blue tinted Matrix inspired shoot ’em up and a big disappoinment all around, all style and pretty much no worthwhile substance. Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans is a prequel to the aforementioned films, and aims to show the beginning of the war between the vampires and the werewolves, which is framed as a conflict between Viktor (Nighy), leader of the vampires, and Lucian (Sheen), who eventually aims to lead his fellow werewolves, or Lycans, out of the enslavement set upon them by Viktor. To complicate matters even further, Lucian is carrying on a forbidden affair with Sonja (Rhona Mitra), Viktor’s daughter. Basically what you get in Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans are vampires and werewolves in a medieval setting, with swords, arrows and some really big spear launchers, all of which serves the general concept infinitely better than the modern setting of the first two films did. Add some Romeo and Juliet and Exodus elements, some well done CGI effects, a very fast pace and several truly rousing and exciting action sequences and you end up with the kind of movie that I had hoped the first one was going to be in the first place. Is it silly and overwrought sometimes? Sure, but so what? It’s very entertaining and at 92 minutes, it even knows when to quit. Yes, it’s true that fans of the franchise know how the story is going to turn out, so maybe newcomers to the franchise will be the ones to appreciate Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans the most, but I think audiences in general will find this to be a solid horror fantasy. This one is a keeper.

MONKEY RATING: ONE MONKEY

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

Loney, Dear – Dear John

January 30, 2009

loneydeardearjohnSwedish artist Loney, Dear (Emil Svanängen) marks his third international release with Dear John, an often sublime collection of music that merges folk, pop and lush vocal harmonies, often overlaid with electronica. The end result sounds something like Elliott Smith might’ve sounded like had he traded guitars in for synthesizers, which is not to say that Loney, Dear is any way a knockoff of Smith, but rather that they share in common a propensity for gorgeous, multilayered musical arrangements coupled with an often stark lyrical viewpoint. And I will also add that the best of Loney, Dear’s songs are so instantly engaging that their melodies will remain lodged in your brain for days to come, but I assure you this is a good thing. Chalk up another winner from the Swedish musical scene, which has lately become the source of some of the most creative and engaging pop and rock being released today. Standout cuts: “Airport Surroundings,” “Harsh Words,” “Under A Silent Sea” and “Violent.”

MP3: “Airport Surroundings”

http://www.myspace.com/loneydear

Little Boots – Arecibo

January 29, 2009

littlebootsLittle Boots (Victoria Hesketh) makes her American debut with her EP, Arecibo, which includes her first two UK singles, “Stuck On Repeat” and “Meddle,” along with some dynamic remixes of both tracks. “Stuck On Repeat” is firmly in Ladytron and Clinic territory, while “Meddle” is a bouncy electropop number, wherein Hesketh shows off a voice with some soul to it, not unlike Alison Moyet or Annie Lennox. They’re both solid singles, but “Meddle” leaped into favorite song territory as soon as I heard it. A full length release is due in the very near future, and if Arecibo is any indication, it should be very good stuff.

http://www.myspace.com/littlebootsmusic

thebirdandthebeeThe second LP from The Bird And The Bee (Inara George and Greg Kurstin, respectively) opens with a sunny fanfare evocative of the 60’s and promptly launches into the one of the best songs on the album, “My Love,” just under four minutes of blissed out dance pop that more or less exemplifies the shimmering, high gloss music listeners are in for the rest of the record. Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future is a such a breezy, playful and just plain fun set of music that one might not appreciate the sophistication of the arrangements or the general skill it took to so seamlessly blend the various elements that comprise the 14 tracks included here: Listeners will find 60’s era American and French pop mixed with psychedelic rock, bossa nova, ragtime, hip hop and electronica, to name a few. If you are an indie pop fan, obviously this is the record for you, but for anyone looking for music you can dance to that’s adult, witty and abundantly inventive, I couldn’t recommend Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future more. Standout cuts: “My Love,” “Love Letter To Japan,” “Polite Dance Song” and “Birthday.”

http://www.myspace.com/thebirdandthebee

Bon Iver – Blood Bank

January 27, 2009

boniverbloodbankWhereas Bon Iver’s 2008 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, was mostly a one man show, this time out Justin Vernon is backed by a full band for this four track followup EP. It’d be misleading to say that the result is a fuller sound, since the music on For Emma, Forever Ago was already densely layered and notably fully formed, effortlessly blending soulful vocals with folk, rock and pop. The best comparison is maybe to Bon Iver’s live shows, where Vernon was at ease collaborating with other musicians and doing varied and often more expansive takes on songs from the first album, the different layers of the songs blending into each other in a way that was perhaps less distinctive, but even more powerful and affecting. The EP’s title track, “Blood Bank,” is the best example of those latter qualities, and it has an almost improvisatory feel, albeit disciplined and controlled. It’s also notably lighter in tone, lyrically and musically. The second track, “Beach Baby,” is musically more along the lines of the first album, albeit all too short, while “Babys,” the third track is a largely instrumental track. The final song, “Woods,” features a virtual chorus of Auto Tune enhanced vocals and is the most soulful tune Bon Iver has yet released. It’s a lovely end to an essential release.

http://www.myspace.com/boniver

franzferdinandtonightI will say this much about Scottish band Franz Ferdinand’s moody and restless third album: It’s definitely different. It’s also the same in that their basic core sound, inspired by 70’s and 80’s era punk and New Wave is still present, though they’ve layered some electronica on top of it, along with some dub, ska, even a bit of folk, a bit of disco and funk and a generous amount of psychedelic elements. What might’ve sounded like a confused mess instead comes off as an intriguing, energetic and frequently inspired shift in several different directions at once (i.e. the nearly 8 minute long “Lucid Dreams,” which is a little psychedelic, a little New Wave, and then winds up with an extended electronica jam). I loved their last album, and I find myself, on the first couple of listens, anyway, not exactly loving Tonight: Franz Ferdinand. That said, the changes here aren’t so radical that fans of their last two albums are going to feel alienated or anything, and those changes may earn them some new ones. Don’t get me wrong, though, I do like this album a lot, and I appreciate their effort to branch out musically. It may just take awhile to grow on me. Standout cuts: “Ulysses,” “Turn It On,” “No You Girls” and “Bite Hard.”

http://www.myspace.com/franzferdinand

residentevildegenerationFirst full length CG rendered Resident Evil inspired movie is designed for fans of the series of games rather than the trio of films starring Milla Jovovich, with which it has no connection. Instead, it’s billed by the filmmakers as “Resident Evil 4.5,” a new story that takes place after the events of the fourth entry in the video game franchise, and stars Leon and Clare, characters from Resident Evil 2. Judged on its own merits, it’s an entertaining action horror movie, head and shoulders above the last two Resident Evil movies and most zombie movies in general, truth be told. The animation is pretty impressive for the most part, though the human characters still look notably strange and disorienting, especially compared to the borderline photorealistic representations of buildings, vehicles and backgrounds, not to mention the vivid renderings of the various monsters that pop up from time to time. If you’re new to the Resident Evil universe, some of the plot points will be lost on you, but basically all you need to know the zombies and monsters are the result of corporate developed viruses that have been unleashed on the public. Violence and general mayhem ensue. Some of the action gets a bit silly towards the very end, but in general, Resident Evil: Degeneration is a fun if non-essential ride, recommended mostly for fans of either the games or the films, or people jonesing for a zombie movie that doesn’t totally suck.

MONKEY RATING: TWO CG MONKEYS

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

mybloodyvalentine3dMy Bloody Valentine 3D, in its cheesy ads that recall gimmicky William Castle thrillers of the 50’s and 60’s, promises an entertainment filled with sex, violence and, well, 3D, which, in the logic of the ads, all add up to the perfect date movie, particularly if you happen to reside in the 18-25 year old demographic at which this movie is clearly targeted. A remake of a 1981 slasher flick and cult favorite of the same name, My Bloody Valentine 3D is designed as something of a ride, and it’s relentless and even shameless in its determination to deliver on the promise of its ads. And within those limited parameters, it’s a success, delivering buckets of blood and gore in borderline absurd amounts, and sex, mostly in the form of Betsy Rue, who, a la Linnea Quigley in Return Of The Living Dead, spends the vast majority of her screen time completely nude. And, oh, yeah, there’s a plot, involving a psychotic miner named Harry Warden, who, ten years after perpetrating a massacre of some twenty people, has apparently returned to his hometown to wreak more bloody havoc. What this remake sacrifices in its desire to deliver over the top gory thrills is all the creepiness and atmosphere that made the first one so memorable. The mines, which the original exploited to maximum claustrophobic effect, are barely used here, and mostly treated as another place where the killer miner uses to rack up a body count, a real missed opportunity especially considering the 3D angle, which is otherwise pretty impressively done. My Bloody Valentine 3D also loses considerable momentum about two/thirds of the way through and even seems to lose some interest in the whole 3D thing, but then there’s maybe only so much you can do with a miner’s pick axe. Finally, it wobbles through a needlessly protracted conclusion. All that said, by that time, My Bloody Valentine 3D‘s definitely delivered the goods, as promised, so most audiences will probably forgive the movie those considerable lapses. The cast, which features Jensen Ackles, Jaime King, Kerr Smith, Tom Atkins and Kevin Tighe, is actually quite good, especially King, whom I like the more I see her in movies. My Bloody Valentine 3D is by no means a great movie, but like its predecessor, it’s pretty effective for what it is, and I can’t imagine people who pay to see it knowing what they’re in for feeling at all shortchanged. Non-horror fans may want to adjust my rating down a monkey.

MONKEY RATING: TWO 3D MONKEYS

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

A.C. Newman – Get Guilty

January 15, 2009

getguiltyThe second solo album from A.C. Newman, who is perhaps still better known for his work with the New Pornographers, is a hugely enjoyable pop album that wears its various 60’s and 70’s influences very much on its sleeve, but still manages to sound fresh, inventive and thoroughly modern. It’s also the sort of album that gets better the more one listens to it, so much so that different favorite songs will no doubt emerge over repeat listens. Newman, who works with guest musicians Jon Wurster (Superchunk/ Mountain Goats), Mates of State and Nicole Atkins here, melds together psychedelic and garage rock, folk, and orchestral pop with lyrics that are both literate and unabashedly romantic. It’s a bit of a virtuoso performance, though the album never seems show offy or pleased with itself, and while I haven’t heard anyone putting together all these elements quite in the way Newman has, the end result is nevertheless pleasingly familiar, but maybe that’s just a function of the songs on Get Guilty hitting on so many musical pleasure centers. This is good stuff, and a must listen for all indie pop fans. Standout cuts: “There Are Maybe Ten Or Twelve,” “The Heartbreak Rides,” “Prophets” and “The Palace At 4 a.m.”

http://www.myspace.com/acnewman