watchmenblurayAs I’ve already done a complete review of Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the Alan Moore penned, Dave Gibbons illustrated graphic novel Watchmen, to be found here, and as this director’s cut of the movie, released to DVD and Blu-ray this week doesn’t alter my fundamental opinion of the movie, I won’t repeat myself for this review. Suffice to say, I still regard it as one of the very best superhero themed films I’ve seen to date, and as of this writing, one of the best films of 2009. This director’s cut, which I saw as part of a Zack Snyder moderated live screening at Comic Con in San Diego on July 25, broadcast via the BD-Live feature on the Blu-ray, features 24 minutes of extra footage, though that doesn’t include the Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood footage. The latter footage will presumably be worked into an even longer cut, suggestions of which were evident in this current cut. (Snyder pointed out a transition point between Freighter and the greater narrative.) The most significant new footage, initially cut for time, is a striking sequence detailing the fate of the characters. Other footage added to the film extends some scenes, adding more dialogue here and there, and generally adding more character and story detail. Though the director’s cut has a running time in excess of three hours, it doesn’t feel significantly longer than the theatrical cut, which is a credit to the skill with which the additional footage has been woven in. All in all, it’s an excellent movie made better.

With regard to the BD-Live aspect of the screening, it was essentially the movie featuring a gray chat box superimposed over the top of the frame, with Snyder making comments and taking questions about the movie as it unfolded. When he wasn’t gushing over his cast and crew, he was enthusiastic and funny, and provided a frequently insightful and often funny commentary. It would have been nice to have had more of a sense of the atmosphere at the Comic Con screening, perhaps an audience shot or two, or even sound piped in from it, but otherwise it was an interesting, mostly successful experiment.

MONKEY RATING: ONE WATCHMEN MONKEY

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

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halfbloodprinceFrom a visual standpoint, this adaptation of the sixth of the seven Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince, is one of the most beautiful to behold: At different times, it’s evocative of silent films, storybook illustrations and dream-states. The art direction is sometimes jaw droppingly good, as some of the sets have an astonishing attention to detail, and the special effects are dazzling, perhaps the best in the series so far. What flaws the movie has are in the story it tells, despite it delivering on its movie poster potboiler-like promise, “DARK SECRETS REVEALED.” The problem is that while there are a lot of events, some of them excitingly or amusingly staged, the story as a whole is advanced not a lot in comparison to other films, and I assume to other books, in the series. Half Blood Prince‘s central flaw is its lack of a self-contained story that is played out and resolved, something the other entries all had. By the end, this movie seems like a leisurely paced two and a half hour set up to the final adaptation, which, somewhat frustratingly, though fiscally utterly understandably, is being divided into two segments, to be released months apart. (I did love the final image, however.) Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince‘s strengths are not in its story, but in its characters, who are lovingly drawn and wonderfully and sometimes powerfully acted. Director David Yates is returning the series to more faithful adaptations of the books, after director Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell’s radically if judiciously edited movie versions. Yates, however, is a much more imaginative and artful director than Chris Columbus, whose two slavish adaptations opened the series. (I was so underwhelmed by the first movie that I’ve never seen the second one in its entirety.) His sure-handed direction of Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince makes it my second favorite in the series, after Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, which is not just the best film in the series, it’s also one of the best fantasy films in world cinema. Despite Half Blood Prince‘s flaws, it’s still a wonderful fantasy film, and one of the best films of the summer.

(If you’re a fan of the series, you can adjust my rating down one monkey.)

MONKEY RATING: TWO MAGICAL MONKEYS

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

angelsanddemonsAngels and Demons, the second adaptation of a Dan Brown novel by director Ron Howard, following The Da Vinci Code, is a step up from its predecessor, that is to say, an even better action/thriller with conspiracy elements and some vaguely sci-fi elements. (As you might have gathered, I’m not one of those who thought The Da Vinci Code totally sucked.) It’s heavier on the action and somewhat lighter on the puzzle solving this time out as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is recruited by the Vatican to investigate what appears to be a large scale threat against it by the ancient society of the Illuminati. A lot of dramatic pronouncements, chasing around, both on foot and in cars, and some gun play ensue. The standard plot involves a ticking time bomb, and a few big holes and implausibilities, but the movie is paced so fast they barely have time to register. There are also some pretty horrific deaths, making Angels and Demons pretty much unsuitable for younger audiences, who won’t be much interested, anyway. Angels and Demons is thoroughly and unabashedly a big budget popcorn movie (with a pretty impressive cast, by the way), and if approached that way, it’s an undemanding, entertaining ride.

MONKEY RATING: TWO ILLUMINATI MONKEYS

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

MONKEY REVIEW: Watchmen

March 8, 2009

watchmen1Not being a fan of Zack Snyder’s last movie, 300, I went into his adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s highly esteemed graphic novel, Watchmen, with some trepidation. Two hours and forty-three minutes later, I was pretty bowled over. The epic story of a group of superheroes called the Watchmen, who have been forced into retirement by federal law in an alternate 1985, where Richard Nixon is still president and the U.S. won the Vietnam War, is carefully and cleverly set up in an opening credits sequence. The rest of the story, which unfolds as a hybrid of film noir, special effects driven fantasy and sociopolitical satire, is framed around the mysterious death of the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). As the United States drifts towards a nuclear conflict with Russia, another member of the Watchmen, the violent, paranoid Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, whose performance is mesmerizing), comes to believe there is a conspiracy to kill the rest of them. Though it’s not without its flaws, Snyder’s adaptation, from a screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse, is as good as any that could have been made from its supposedly “unfilmable” source material, faithful but not slavishly so, wisely deviating from it when it serves the movie best. Snyder amps up the violence and gore considerably in some scenes, but also tones it down in other places, particularly in the movie’s climactic scenes. He also toned down a lot of the visual excesses I found annoying and distracting in 300, and he further resisted giving Watchmen a breakneck, jump cut happy pace. Instead, the movie unfolds at a reasonable, adult pace that allows its audience to absorb its densely layered story and appreciate the complex characters Moore created. Though Watchmen suffers from some bad dialogue and the occasional questionable musical choice, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Is it Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen? Decidedly not. But it is a terrific cinematic version of it, visually dazzling, with moments of greatness and wonder. If it’s not the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen, it’s certainly one of the most provocative and challenging ones I’ve come across, and hopefully it will provide a fresh audience for the graphic novel it’s based on.

MONKEY RATING: ONE WATCHMEN MONKEY

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

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.)

gonzoAlex Gibney’s feature documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is about two/thirds an excellent look at the legendary and deeply influential American writer’s life. It briefly notes his early years as a young man growing up in Kentucky, then goes into more detail about his early success with his first published book, Hell’s Angels, his nationally publicized run for sheriff of Aspen, his breakthrough success with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the political writing that culminated in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. For all practical purposes, though, its look at Thompson’s work ends with an account of a failed article for Rolling Stone in 1974 about the famed “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. After that, according to Jann Wenner (co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine) and Sondi Wright (Hunter’s first wife), two of the impressive range of figures in Thompson’s life interviewed on camera for the documentary, Thompson’s career went into a decline. Wright claims Thompson couldn’t write after that, and the last third of the documentary runs with this, characterizing Thompson as a person overwhelmed and finally defeated by his own fame. The problem with this is that Thompson did in fact continue to write and publish all the way up until his death in 2005 by self-inflicted gunshot wound, and while it might not have been equal to the standard that he set for himself with his earlier works, and while it might not have been the writing some people thought he should be doing, he did continue to build a body of work. Gonzo acknowledges this to some degree, but just barely, cleaving mostly to its “rise and fall” version of Thompson’s life. It also completely leaves out his involvement with the Lisl Auman case in the last five years of his life. Auman was a young woman sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a Denver policeman committed by a companion she barely knew and during a time in which she was already in police custody. He campaigned on her behalf, wrote an article about her case for Vanity Fair magazine, and recruited others to her cause, which ultimately resulted in her sentence being reversed, two weeks after Thompson committed suicide. That Gonzo doesn’t even mention this case is a gross omission, as it illustrates that while Thompson’s writing career might declined, the interest and commitment to social justice that marked his best political writing never did. (For a look at Hunter and the Auman case, see Wayne Ewing’s documentary Free Lisl: Fear And Loathing In Denver.) I can recommend Gonzo on the basis of its first two/thirds, but I would advise potential viewers that as a look at Thompson’s life and work, it’s necessarily incomplete and even perhaps a bit misleading and unfair with regard to his accomplishments in his final years.

MONKEY RATING: TWO MONKEYS

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

MONKEY REVIEW: Appaloosa

October 5, 2008

The second film from actor turned director Ed Harris is an amiable, deliberately paced Western, based on a novel by Robert B. Parker and featuring an impressive array of actors, including Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger and Jeremy Irons. Appaloosa isn’t done in an epic mode, nor would you necessarily call it an action film, though there’s enough violence to earn it an R rating. (There’s some cussin’, too.) It’s primarily a study of the friendship between two professional lawmen, Virgil (Harris) and Everett (Mortensen), who’ve been roaming the west cleaning up towns, then moving on, for well over a decade. Their latest job is in a town called Appaloosa, tormented by a murderous rancher named Bragg (Irons). The appeal of the movie isn’t the plot, which is familiar even if it does take some interesting turns, but rather the interaction between the characters. The dialogue between them is terse, sometimes quirky and frequently very funny, i.e., one exchange after a gunfight: “It happened quick.” “Everyone knew how to shoot.” The movie nevertheless resists the full on move into comic mode, which is probably to the good, really. (That said, there’s a tongue in cheek song co-written and performed by the director as the end credits roll.) If you like Westerns and don’t mind an easygoing pace, then I think you’ll find Appaloosa to be a rewarding entertainment. It’s well written and ably directed, and it’s got that great cast, so it’s hard for Western fans to go wrong here.

MONKEY RATING: TWO MONKEYS

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

Director Mathieu Kassovitz’s Babylon A.D., based on a highly regarded science fiction novel by French writer Maurice Dantec, arrives on American shores with a fairly toxic reputation, forwarded by no less than the director himself. To say that Babylon A.D. is a simplification of its source material is an understatement, so let me just say that what’s ended up on the screen is a handsomely produced science fiction chase movie, well directed and well acted for the most part. The problem, and what a big problem it is, is that it pretty much makes no sense. It’s the sort of movie where you wait for someone, anyone, to pull everything together and explain what exactly has been going on for the past hour and a half or so, but no, no such explanation is forthcoming. There’s a lot of running around, a lot of shooting and people getting beat up, several big explosions, and a few car chases, but when the credits roll, you’re left to wonder what it was all about, because the movie isn’t about to tell you. It’s got a solid cast, headed by Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh and Mélanie Thierry, and they keep it watchable, but all their efforts can’t overcome a screenplay that just goes nowhere.

MONKEY RATING: FOUR MONKEYS

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

In lieu of buying the shooting script for The Dark Knight, which wasn’t yet available, I bought this serviceable Dennis O’Neil novelization instead. A particularly annoying “rule of thumb” when it comes to books and movies is that the book is always better, but there are so many examples to the contrary (The Godfather, Jaws, and The Exorcist, for starters) as to make that rule seem more silly than useful, and here is one more example to the contrary. Of course, novelizations are based on the movie, rather than the other way around, so maybe it shouldn’t count, but sometimes they’re interesting to read, as they’ll often include variations on the final shooting script, or else they’ll provide some back story the film left out. Both these things are true of O’Neil’s novelization, and if you’re curious about what the Scarecrow character was up in between the two films, or about Harvey Dent’s childhood, which bears some similarities to Bruce Wayne’s own childhood, then you’re in luck. The latter material is actually the most interesting, since it illuminates why Wayne comes to view Dent “as the best of” Gotham City. The scene where Batman brutally interrogates Sal Maroni (played by Eric Roberts in the movie) appears here in a slightly altered form, making it more explicit that Batman was, in fact, torturing Maroni, a term Bruce Wayne later uses to describe it to Rachel Dent. My friend and fellow blogger John Nelson wondered if the cell phone surveillance that Lucius Fox reluctantly aids Batman in was a commentary on the Patriot Act, and that taken together with the novelization’s depiction of the Maroni scene seem to make it clear that The Dark Knight was directly commenting on the U.S. government’s handling of “the war on terror.” The Joker is, after all, referred to as “a terrorist.” The novelization falls seriously short in finding a means to replicate the visual power of the film, and it frequently seems the case that O’Neil only had a script to work from, and had not in fact seen footage from the film. Consequently, the action scenes, particularly towards the end, fall mostly flat. The Joker in the pages of the novelization is disappointingly a mere sketch of the full bodied characterization Heath Ledger gives him in the film. The book also suffers from the same lazy copyediting that has started to afflict many books being released these days. All in all, this novelization is only for the very curious and for the Batman completists out there. All others should either see the movie again, or just wait for the DVD.

P.S. And yes, I know I’m a total nerd for now having three separate The Dark Knight-related reviews in my blog.

“It’s the madness of art.”

Excellent adaptation of Brian Norton’s novel about am aging, sickly New York City writer, Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella), who is approached by a young and attractive graduate student, Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), for help with her master thesis about his four previous out of print novels, with which she hopes to rekindle interest in his work. At the same time, Schiller’s daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor), who is approaching forty and desperate to have a child, is wrestling with her feelings for a past boyfriend, Casey (Adrian Lester), who has made it clear he does not want children. Directed by Andrew Wagner, working from a script by Wagner and Fred Parnes, Starting Out In The Evening is a finely observed and very well acted study of four characters that are collectively interesting enough to make a movie that’s mostly about people having conversations seem briskly paced, as you’ll actually be interested and invested in what happens to them. The movie is witty and involving, and succeeds both as an entertainment and as an earnest look at the relationship of art to its creator and its audience, as well as why artists continue to create when the interest in their art is small or almost non-existent. Starting Out In The Evening is one of the few films about the writing life I’ve seen that eschewed glamorizing and romanticizing its topic, and that I felt was instead truthful and realistic. Very much recommended.

MONKEY RATING: ONE MONKEY

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