assassination“Forget it, Funke. It’s high school.

Brett Simon’s Assassination Of A High School President, which is receiving an undeserved direct to DVD release after its distributor’s bankruptcy, starts out a little too satisfied with its own cleverness, but once it finds its own groove, it turns into a funny, fast paced entertainment, ranking up there with the best high school satires and comedies. Like the much more serious minded Brick, it offers up the high school experience through a film noirish lens, though Assassination‘s primary influences come from 70’s investigative and conspiracy thrillers like All The President’s Men and The Parallax View, with a heavy dose of Heathers and nods to both Lindsay Anderson’s If… and Chinatown. The deliberately anachronistic story focuses on an aspiring school newspaper writer, sophomore Bobby Funke (Reece Thompson), who finds himself elevated to the top of the popularity ladder when he is asked to investigate the disappearance of the school’s SAT tests by senior Francesca Facchini (Mischa Barton). When the trail leads to Francesca’s boyfriend, Paul Moore (Patrick Taylor), things start to get complicated for Funke. The plot is secondary here, however, as mystery lovers will figure out key elements of the resolution, though in true The Big Sleep fashion, the complete solution is so involved that virtually no viewers will be able to work it out ahead of time. Aside from some terrific dialogue, it’s the performances that really make the movie, particularly from Thompson and Barton, but also from Bruce Willis, who does a funny turn as a principal driven and obsessed with his military past. It’s also got a terrific soundtrack, one of the best I’ve heard in a long time. With the utter garbage that routinely makes it to the big screen on a weekly basis, it’s hard to comprehend why Assassination Of A High School President wasn’t picked up by another distributor and given a chance at least a limited theatrical release. It’s one of my favorite movies of the year, just the same, and it’s very much recommended.

MONKEY RATING: ONE ASSASSIN MONKEY

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

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MONKEY REVIEW: Zombieland

October 3, 2009

zombielandRuben Fleischer’s Zombieland, from a script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, ranks up there with Shaun Of The Dead, Return Of The Living Dead and Army Of Darkness as one of the most entertaining horror comedies ever made. Zombieland is set in a future United States that, like much of the rest of the world, has been almost completely overrun by a zombie plague. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), who narrates the movie, has become an accomplished zombie plague survivor, attributing his longevity to sticking to a set of rules he’s established. (“Rule #1: Cardio.”) He meets up with fellow survivors, all of whom reluctantly band together, despite their instincts to go it alone. Fleischer has openly admitted that he was inspired by Shaun Of The Dead, and like that movie, Zombieland succeeds by introducing well drawn characters and placing them in outrageous situations that are by turns funny, frightening and surprising. And because you end up caring about the characters (in addition to Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin also star), the movie works up a good deal of suspense. This is absolutely one of my favorite movies of the year, and the first time in a long time that I wanted to see a movie I’d just seen over again immediately. Zombieland is a gory, frightening and outrageously funny good time.

MONKEY RATING: ONE ZOMBIE MONKEY

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

MONKEY REVIEW: Pandorum

September 26, 2009

pandorumPandorum is a science fiction/horror hybrid that starts out promisingly enough, but then loses its grip and meanders into an unsatisfying conclusion. It’s too bad because the movie is initially fascinating to watch, as two men (Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid) wake up after a long sleep aboard a huge spaceship with little or no memory of where the ship is or why they are on it in the first place, or for how long. Foster eventually ventures out into the rest of the ship, and finds it’s infested with mutant cannibals. Pandorum‘s got atmosphere to burn, and some good ideas, but too much of the movie is given over to scenes of guys (and one woman, played by Antje Traue, who is quite good here) just walking and occasionally running around a dark and often noisy environment. The movie resembles a video game in this last respect, as the characters go from level to level seeking a specific goal. The movie also waits way too long to explain what the monsters are and how they got into the ship: Up until then, they are mostly just weird and unpleasant, with ill defined abilities, both of which render them not very scary. (They are rather like the Druids, as explained in This Is Spinal Tap: “Nobody knows who they were…or what they were doing.”) The movie is also lacking in real scares in general and only sometimes works up some suspense, though never enough. It’s certainly not a bad film, nor is it poorly made, but neither is it a must see.

MONKEY RATING: THREE MONKEYS

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

gijoeWhen this movie was first released in August, it was pretty much roasted by most critics, and the early buzz I read was even worse, which was on a “worst movie of the year” level. I was initially ready to see it opening weekend, as I’d resolved to see all the big summer blockbusters this year, but I lost my enthusiasm for it early on and waited until this week to see it. My judgment? It’s not bad. It’s certainly better than the Transformers sequel in that G.I. Joe has a semblance of an actual plot going for it. Humans are also essential to the story, whereas in Transformers, it was basically all giant robots fighting, which I admittedly didn’t have a huge problem with, though I was pretty sure I didn’t need two and a half hours of it. G.I. Joe is probably a bit overlong at nearly two hours, too, but it’s got a lot of last minute character drama in the third act that makes up for it, which they fortunately play pretty straight. Like Transformers, I found G.I. Joe to be a pretty honest, unpretentious movie in that it knows exactly what it wants to be and doesn’t bury itself in camp to make up for its obvious flaws. I wasn’t much of a fan of the 80’s incarnation of G.I. Joe, when the action figures got miniaturized, and certainly wasn’t a fan of the cartoon upon which this movie is based, but the movie is more than passable summer popcorn movie fare, with some good action scenes and just the right amount of humor. It exists in roughly the same universe as Speed Racer in that the physical world it depicts is almost complete fantasy, with its own laws (or lack thereof) of physics, but then most action films play fast and loose with the laws of physics, anyway. The acting is mostly good, especially by Sienna Miller as the Baroness and Marlon Wayans as Ripcord. (With regard to the latter character, I was initially worried he was going to be used strictly as comic relief, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case at all.) It’s hard to evaluate Channing Tatum’s work in the movie because he’s not really given much of a character to play, and any hopes that Joseph Gordon-Levitt would take his villain role and do something akin to what Heath Ledger did with the Joker are sadly dashed by Gordon-Levitt’s pretty standard performance. Christopher Eccleston is just hammy, and Dennis Quaid is, too, for that matter, but Quaid nevertheless gets away with it. G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra is certainly no classic, nor is it in any way essential viewing, but neither is it even close to being as bad as some would have it. It’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…and it’s a pretty entertaining one for the most part. And what’s wrong with that?

MONKEY RATING: THREE G.I. MONKEYS

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

MONKEY REVIEW: Gamer

September 6, 2009

gamerI didn’t realize that Gamer was from the same writing/directing team behind the Crank movies until after I’d seen it. I’m not sure it would have altered my opinion of the movie much, but it would have explained some of the loud, crude and cheerfully morally corrupt aspects of it, anyway. Gamer is a pastiche of The Running Man, The Matrix and both Death Race movies, the original and its inferior remake: Gerard Butler stars as a Death Row inmate who has dominated a globally televised game called Slayer in which he and fellow immates wage armed combat with each other. Butler is on the verge of winning 30 session victories, which will supposedly earn his freedom, but the evil creator of the game (Michael C. Hall, who provides some fun here) has other plans. There are flashes of real wit and biting satire in the movie, along with some big ideas about identity and control in a Sims and role playing game addicted society, but the focus is on big, loud, gory and largely incoherent action. It’s too bad because moments like an unexpected musical number suggest that Gamer could’ve turned out to be a cult film on the order of Death Race 2000. Instead, it plays like something you’d see on late night cable, an acceptable time passer with lots of violence and a smattering of sex that you will probably not remember much about the next morning.

MONKEY RATING: THREE GAMER MONKEYS

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

stateofplayKevin MacDonald’s State Of Play, an adaptation of a 2003 BBC miniseries, unfortunately went largely unseen when it was released earlier this year, but deserves a second chance on DVD. It’s a intelligently conceived hybrid of political and journalistic thrillers, focusing on a US Congressman (Ben Affleck) who turns to an old college roommate turned seasoned D.C. reporter (Russell Crowe) after a young female aide dies in an apparent suicide. When it’s revealed that he was having an affair with the aide, and that he suspects it wasn’t a suicide after all but a murder, perhaps connected to his opposition to a defense contractor, the story takes off at a fairly furious pace and doesn’t stop until the final revelations. Crowe, uncharacteristically looking scruffy and unkempt, is terrific here, as is the rest of the supporting cast, including Helen Mirren is his editor and Rachel McAdams as an up and coming reporter who is assigned to help him investigate his friend’s case. Affleck once again proves he’s a fine actor, capable of subtle, modulated performances when he’s given the right material. Jason Bateman also makes a strong impression in a small, but crucial role as a source. State Of Play is not quite a great thriller, as it lacks a strong finish, but it’s very entertaining, very well written and it’s that current rarity in Hollywood theatrical releases: A suspense and action thriller made for adult audiences.

MONKEY RATING: ONE MONKEY

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

thefinaldestinationThe Final Destination (The Final Destination? The Final Destination?), reportedly the last entry in the nearly decade old horror franchise, is easily the least of the series and a pretty poor wrap up, if it is indeed the final film. The plot is the same as the other three films: The main character saves his friends and others via a premonition of impending disaster (this time at a car race), which they are able to avoid, but then he finds everyone is dying, anyway, in the order they should have died in the first place. If there’s anything vaguely original about this film, it’s that the filmmakers have taken what might be seen as a bold approach: They’ve made a direct to video style movie, which they’ve chosen to shoot in theatrical 3D. This insures that the only worthwhile aspect of the movie is the 3D, and that’s really barely enough to justify a matinee ticket. Yes, there are lots of people dying increasingly outlandish deaths, and there’s a lot of computer generated gore thrown about, but after a hospital scene in the final stretch of the movie, The Final Destination crosses the line from total absurdity to complete tedium. It’s a shame because the movie’s opening sequence is promising enough, but it’s downhill from there, way downhill.

MONKEY RATING: FOUR REAPER MONKEYS

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

inglouriousbasterdsWriter/director Quentin Tarantino has been talking a long time about making his own World War II opus, well over a decade, amping up expectations among his fans, perhaps to the point where no movie he produced could have possibly met them. The audience I saw Inglourious Basterds was certainly receptive to it, if not overly enthusiastic about it, though it did earn some applause when the credits rolled. I asked a fellow moviegoer what she thought of it and she replied, “Well, it was Tarantinoesque.” At first, I thought this was a strange thing to say, as all movies that Tarantino directs are going to be inevitably Tarantinoesque by virtue of the fact that he is directing them, but maybe that’s not exactly what she meant to say. It might have been that Inglourious Basterds is simply the kind of WWII movie you’d expect from him, with not a lot of surprises if you’re well acquainted with his body of work. It’s not really even a WWII movie so much as it is about movies about WWII, and on top of that, it intentionally evokes spaghetti westerns, from the opening frame and first note of music on. The story is a riff on both Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 WWII movie Inglorious Bastards (itself a riff on The Dirty Dozen) and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West, and opens with the movie’s best scene: A Nazi hunting down Jews in France, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), arrives at a French dairy farm to question the head of the household about a Jewish family that has been unaccounted for. Without giving away too much, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a member of the family Landa is looking for, comes away from the experience with a motive for revenge. As Waltz plays him, Landa is charming, polite and utterly evil, one of the most startling cinematic villains since, well, Henry Fonda as Frank in the aforementioned Leone movie. Whenever Landa is onscreen, the movie suddenly has the kind of gravity and tension it otherwise sorely lacks. The next section of the movie introduces the Basterds, a select group of Jewish-American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) whose mission is very specific: “We’re gonna be doing one thing and one thing only – killing Nazis,” which they proceed to do in ways designed to terrify and intimidate Nazi soldiers. Eventually, these two story lines intersect at a movie premiere at which many members of the Nazi high command will be in attendance. I liked the movie and I was one of those applauding at the end, but it worked for me less as a whole, and more as a series of three quite excellent set pieces, the opening scene, a scene at a German basement bar, and the climactic scene. The rest of the movie isn’t quite filler, but neither is it on par with these scenes, so it’s definitely a movie with its peaks and valleys, though fortunately those valleys aren’t very deep. Inglourious Basterds is perhaps not the ultimate WWII movie Tarantino fans might have been expecting to see, nor is it anywhere close to being his masterpiece, but it does contain some unforgettable moments and it is mostly a lot of fun to watch. It will probably still be a lot of fun to watch again, too, which I will inevitably do.

MONKEY RATING: TWO INGLOURIOUS MONKEYS

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

aperfectgetawayThe new movie from David Twohy, A Perfect Getaway, is a tidy little mystery that has a simple goal: To generate suspense and thrills and maybe even a couple of scares. The story focuses on a trio of couples (Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich, Timothy Olyphant and Kiele Sanchez, and Marley Shelton and Chris Hemsworth), who are all making their way along a 11 mile trail to an isolated Hawaiian island beach when they get news that there is a pair of serial killers targeting couples. The movie isn’t exactly Hitchcock, but it will keep audiences on their toes, guessing and guessing again, all the way up to the reveal, which is then carefully accounted for in a sequence that perhaps goes on too long. The final sequence that follows is effectively staged, with at least one good scare. There’s a fair bit of violence, but then it’s a movie about killers, so you have to expect at least some killin’. However, the violence is hardly horror film level. What makes the movie really work, part from Twohy’s clever scripting, are the performances, which are top notch for the most part. Jovovich and Olyphant in particular are good, with Olyphant once again showing he’s one of the most watchable, entertaining actors currently on the rise. A Perfect Getaway may not be a great movie, but it’s great fun for the most part, and isn’t that what summer movies are all about?

MONKEY RATING: TWO EVIL MONKEYS

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

thehurtlocker“War is a drug.”

Not just one of the best films of 2009 so far, but one of the best war movies ever, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker focuses on the last 39 days of a bomb squad’s rotation in 2004 Iraq. The support squad (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, both excellent in their roles) has been saddled with a new team leader (Jeremy Renner), who is seemingly reckless and borderline nihilistic, and soon they begin to fear he is going to get them killed. Much of The Hurt Locker, and almost all the action scenes, are shot in a cinéma vérité-like style, with hand held cameras putting you uncomfortably close to the action. There are set pieces in the movie that are among the most harrowing and suspenseful I have ever seen, so on that level, it certainly works as an action film. On a deeper level, its depiction of addiction to war, personified by Renner, who gives what I’m positive will be an Academy Award nominated performance, may be revelatory to some audiences, and will certainly keep them pondering the movie long after its haunting final image. (Another interpretation of Renner’s condition is that he’s been deeply traumatized, and like a good number of trauma victims, has begun to feel like a ghost in his own life.) I can’t say The Hurt Locker is a movie without its flaws, but neither would I say that those flaws in any way blunt its impact. It’s brilliantly directed, with a minimum of flash and a rejection of rapid fire cutting, from an excellent, insightful script by Mark Boal, and brought to life by a terrific cast. The Hurt Locker is a future classic.

MONKEY RATING: ZERO MONKEYS

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