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.)

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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.)

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.)

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.)

theinternationalSo it’s the weekend of the Oscars, and for some strange reason you’re not totally pumped to see Fired Up! or Madea Goes To Jail, the only two new wide releases opening on Friday. Allow me then to make a case for The International, a top notch, sometimes astoundingly shot thriller from Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer, starring a particularly intense Clive Owen as a globetrotting Interpol agent battling a murderous multinational bank. It’s pretty plain from the start that The International‘s cinematic forebears are 70’s thrillers like The Parallax View or Three Days Of The Condor, and while it eschews slower 70’s pacing, it also dispenses with the furious edits that render the action in other contemporary films annoying to watch and frequently incomprehensible. Instead, Tykwer emphasizes the spatial relationships of his characters onscreen, making clear their goals and obstacles, which in turns ratchets up the tension and intensity of the action. Nowhere is this more effective than a scene where Owens finds himself trapped by gunmen on a ramp. The ensuing melee is simply one of the most brilliantly staged and flat out exciting shootouts I’ve seen in movies, and for action fans, this scene alone is worth sitting through, especially on a big screen. The International isn’t without its flaws, as it loses some momentum towards the third act. It also essentially wastes Naomi Watts in a role that’s alternately underwritten or flat out badly written: She’s required by the script to deliver some of the film’s most cringeworthy dialogue. Tykwer keeps things going fast enough that most viewers I think will find it easy to overlook these things. The overarching conspiracy elements of the plot some viewers may find hard to swallow, but I felt the final scenes of the movie made it clear that what The International was chiefly about the collision of essentially amoral forces with forces equipped with their own variable notions of moral behavior. Can we expect justice to come out of such a collision or simply more upheaval and chaos? To its credit, The International doesn’t do the thinking for its viewers, instead ending on a refreshingly adult note. The International has its flaws, but in general, it’s a pretty solid thriller, and definitely recommended. And damn, that shootout!

MONKEY RATING: TWO EVIL BANKING MONKEYS

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

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.)

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.)

MONKEY REVIEW: Rogue

September 7, 2008

Second film from Australian writer/director Greg McLean is an effective horror/thriller about a group of tourists, led by guide Kate (Radha Mitchell), who find themselves trapped on a tidal island in an isolated lagoon by a highly territorial and very hungry rogue crocodile. To say much more about it would be to ruin some of the fun of the movie, as it takes some twists and turns I wasn’t expecting, but suffice to say the last half an hour in particular is one of the most nervewracking experiences I’ve had watching a movie in a quite awhile. I didn’t really care for McLean’s previous work, the serial killer movie Wolf Creek, mostly because it took so long for anything to happen. That said, Rogue is deliberately paced, too, but when things get going, they really get going. It’s also very well acted, especially by Mitchell and by Michael Vartan, who plays an American travel writer, and it’s populated with characters that behave realistically, sensibly and sometimes unexpectedly under the circumstances. McLean wisely doesn’t show the crocodile too much, so when it does appear, it’s to maximum effect, similar to what Steven Spielberg did with the shark in Jaws. Though there are some violent and gory sequences, he also leaves a lot to the imagination. I’m not sure why this wasn’t given a wide release in American theatres, since it outshines the vast majority of the horror films Hollywood has released this year. This is a skilfully made thriller, beautifully shot for the most part in Australia’s Northern Territory, and I very much recommend it for horror and thriller fans.

MONKEY RATING: ONE MONKEY

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

“You were looking in the wrong place.”

Director Alex Proyas followed up his moody, heavily atmospheric and richly imaginative film debut The Crow with another moody, heavily atmospheric, richly imaginative film called Dark City, about a man who wakes in a city where it is perpetually night with no memory of who he is, though he quickly finds he is being pursued by police for a series of gruesome murders. He is also being pursued by the Strangers, led by Mr. Hand in a memorable performance by Richard O’Brien. Though it tread on much the same ground as The Matrix, released a year later, Dark City was nowhere near as successful as that film, nor was it even as successful as Proyas’ own The Crow. It did have some champions, Roger Ebert among them, who hailed Dark City as the best film of 1998. Ten years later, Proyas has released his own cut of Dark City, and unlike a lot of other so-called director’s cuts, which too often tend to be self-indulgent or flat out pointless, the changes made here have enriched it, and indeed made this the definitive version of this movie. If you are one of the few who saw Dark City during its original theatrical run, or else have seen since on DVD, I highly recommend seeing this directors cut. If you haven’t seen it, you will be watching one of the all time best science fiction films, and certainly one of the most stunning to behold. Obviously, some of the grandeur and beauty of the imagery, inspired chiefly by German Expressionism and film noir, will be diminished somewhat on a smaller screen, but it still retains much of its visual power. The changes Proyas made to the film are immediately apparent at the outset: The opening voiceover narration of Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland, in one of his most unusual and effective performances) is gone, along with some footage that has been moved to later in the movie, thus preserving the initial mystery of the plot, allowing viewers to discover what’s really going on in Dark City along with its central character, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell). I’ve read that some viewers actually turn down the narration in the original cut, as the narration immediately gives so much of the movie away. The narration was not a directorial decision, however, but one enforced upon Proyas by New Line Cinema. Other changes include more scenes including William Hurt’s detective character, Frank Bumstead, elevating what seemed more of a glorified cameo in the original cut to a major role. Some of the special effects have been subtlely modified as well. Some critics have accused of Dark City as emphasizing style over substance, but this is just wrong. It is a movie about individuality and control, anxiety about the nature and purpose of human lives, and finally, about the nature of that thing we called the human soul. Proyas’ directorial style, which presents the story with the intensity of a fever dream, serves but does not overwhelm these weighty themes. Clearly, I admire this film quite a lot, and I was happy to discover Proyas had improved with this new cut what was already a great movie in my mind. If you are a fan of this movie, you should see this version as well, and if you have never seen it, this is the only version you need watch, Dark City as it was originally meant to be seen.

MONKEY RATING: ZERO MONKEYS

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

Vantage Point is an effective action/conspiracy thriller, no more, no less. It’s not out to make a great statement about the war on terror, though it’s set during a international summit on the war on terror being held in Spain, nor is it much on character development, though it’s got a solid cast, headed by Dennis Quaid and William Hurt. The plot involves an assassination attempt on the President of the United States, and the movie shows the same twenty-three minutes of the attempt, seen through the eyes of various characters, thus the title Vantage Point. It’s a bit like 24 done like Run Lola Run, except unlike that latter film, the events remain the same every time the movie quite literally rewinds itself, although audiences get a bit more information with every viewing, and finally learn everything by the end. There’s not a lot of depth here, but I don’t think that was ever the point, really: Vantage Point is exciting, suspenseful popcorn entertainment, and I had a good time watching it.

MONKEY RATING: TWO MONKEYS

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