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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.)

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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.)

SOME VERY MILD SPOILERS CONTAINED IN THIS REVIEW

Adapted and considerably reworked by Scott Smith from his own highly regarded horror novel and directed by Carter Smith (no relation I’m guessing, to each other or Alan Smithee), The Ruins concerns an ill fated trip to an archeological dig by four college students on vacation in Mexico. To say too much about what awaits them at the Mayan ruins they arrive at would be unfair to those with an interest in the film, but suffice to say the threat is genuinely creepy (not to mention crawly) and plays on fears of contamination and bodily invasion by parasites and insects and the like. Once they make it to the ruins, the movie’s good at immediately establishing fear, unease and tension, which it more or less sustains for the rest of its lean 90 minute running time. A good amount of the horror in the movie is generated by what the characters end up doing to themselves and each other, to the point where you might think the movie is actually about the horrors of improvised surgery. The Ruins made me cringe and squirm in my seat like no other film I’ve seen in recent memory in any case, and Laura Ramsey deserves special credit for a particularly harrowing performance depicting an agonizing physical and mental dissolution. A couple of things work against the movie, however, one being Amy, played by Jena Malone, who is a capable and appealing actress saddled with a whiny and annoying character. The other is the disappointing ending, which is unsatisfying and not particularly believable. The Ruins is by no means a great horror movie, but it is a pretty good, often highly effective one for the most part.

MONKEY RATING: TWO (CREEPY, CRAWLY) MONKEYS

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

Amiable, if slight, fantasy, adapted from a short story by Etgar Keret by writer/director Goran Dukic, about an afterlife for suicides that’s “just a little worse” than the lives they left behind. The landscape of this afterlife is bleak and almost colorless, it’s littered with junk and wreckage, and it’s hot. The inhabitants, who still bear the signs of their method of “offing” themselves, can’t smile. Into this world goes Zia (Patrick Fugit), who has cut his wrists after his relationship with his girlfriend, Desiree (Leslie Bibb), ends. When he discovers that she, too, has entered this afterlife, he goes on the road with a Russian ex-rock singer, Eugene (Shea Whigman) to find her, eventually picking up a hitchhiker named Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), who insists she’s there by mistake and wants to take her case up with “the people in charge.” Though it’s in a comic mode, Wristcutters: A Love Story is only occasionally laugh out loud funny. Mostly, it settles for being whimsical and amusing, but it’s made watchable by the very appealing cast, which also includes Tom Waits, John Hawkes and Will Arnett. And if it goes all gooey-eyed by the end, well, it is subtitled “a love story,” after all.

MONKEY RATING: THREE MONKEYS

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