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.)

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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.)

“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.)

The first feature length Star Wars inspired animated film is really just an extended pilot for the TV series to be aired on the Cartoon Network and TNT this fall. It gets off to a pretty rocky start, with a second rate, very uninspiring rendition of the Star Wars theme, and in lieu of a opening crawl explaining what’s going on in the Star Wars universe as the movie begins, there’s a 30’s newsreel style voiceover, the effect of which is somewhat jarring. Once the movie gets rolling, it’s actually not bad for its first two acts, as it’s filled with a lot of Star Wars style laser and light saber battles, and quite a bit of humor tossed in for good measure. The highlight of the movie, for me, at least, was a battle that mostly takes place on the face of a sheer cliff. The animation is pretty impressive, sometimes quite beautiful, even if the human characters resemble marionettes for the most part, though this is apparently intentional, inspired to some degree by the 60’s series Thunderbirds Are Go!. The story, which takes place between Episodes 2 and 3, involves Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi sent on a mission to rescue the kidnapped son of Jabba the Hut. There’s not a lot really at stake, since obviously nothing can happen to alter the events of Episode 3, but it’s mostly entertaining and engaging, until, that is, a third act that drags badly, and introduces a Jabba the Hut-like character that, for some utterly wrongheaded reason, speaks in an effeminate Southern drawl, not unlike a bad imitation of Truman Capote. Whatever the thinking was behind that, it seems offensive and inappropriate for kid’s fare. At any rate, the third act takes what was a reasonably fast paced movie and makes it seem like the longest 98 minute movie ever made. It doesn’t quite ruin the entire film, but it is a most disappointing turn for what was otherwise an entertaining Star Wars adventure.

P.S. I saw this at a midnight showing with my soon to be fifth grader nephew Louie. He thought it was “cool,” and the audience I saw it with applauded at the end. The showing was barely half full, which may be an indication that the box office reception to this movie won’t be on par with the rest of the theatrical releases.

MONKEY RATING: THREE (JEDI) MONKEYS

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

MONKEY REVIEW: Jumper

June 13, 2008

Director Doug Liman’s Jumper, about a young man named David Rice (Hayden Christensen) who can teleport himself and most everything he comes into contact with to any part of the world he wants, is diverting and fun science fiction-style wish fulfillment fantasy for the first twenty or minutes or so. The jumping effects are very well done, and since David is something of a globetrotter, the location work in the movie is often impressive. Then Roland (Samuel L. Jackson) is introduced, the leader of a centuries old group called the Paladins that are dedicated to destroying jumpers, whom they consider to be “abominations to God,” and the movie is immediately dragged down. Jumper abruptly turns into a chase movie before the jumper concept is even satisfactorily explored. It sort of begins to recover from that shift in tone when a ridiculous plot development involving a machine developed by the Paladins all but ruins the rest of the movie. Basically, this is a potentially fun premise ruined by formulaic execution. I’m not even sure a jumping monkey sidekick would have saved this one. (But I’m sure it couldn’t have hurt.)

P.S. There’s a funny thread at IMDB about this movie called “Why aren’t Jumpers FAT?” The IMDB user who initiated the thread writes, “These Jumpers jump around all the time, even around their apartments. the only time they walk in the movie is when the british Jumper in Tokyo says “I like walking sometimes, makes me feel normal”. but these jumpers are lazy *beep* that should be overweight from the lack of exercise and walking they get.” The best answer to his question? “because no one would wanna see a movie about a teleporting fat guy.”

MONKEY RATING: FOUR MONKEYS

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