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.)

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fridaythe13th2009First of all, in the interest of full disclosure, let me just say that I’m not one of those horror fans who consider the original Friday the 13th (1980) to be in any way a classic. It was an okay ripoff of the original Halloween (1978), albeit with a very memorable ending, itself cribbed from Carrie, but still scary as hell. The second film introduced Jason, serial killer extraordinaire who eventually acquired a hockey mask as the franchise dragged on and who preyed on mostly teenagers and young adults indulging in sex and/or drugs, or even just thinking about it. Like so many horror icons before him, Jason Voorhees eventually ended up in space and stayed there, the franchise finally dying off after twenty-one (!) years. Enter producer Michael Bay and director Marcus Nispel, who made the financially successful and artistically awful remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and who sought to work their dubious magic on Friday the 13th. Whereas the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was legitimately a work of art, the original Friday the 13th wasn’t anywhere near that, and I figured they couldn’t do worse. And they haven’t, really. In fact, they’ve produced a remake that’s better in almost all respects than the original film. (Make that the first three films, since this new film is essentially a reworking of the first three Friday the 13th films.) That said, it’s still no Halloween (the John Carpenter version, not the Rob Zombie one), but it’s a knowing, unapologetic exploitation film, with copious amounts of violence and plenty of gratuitous nudity. It’s not without problems of its own, some of which I’ll essay below, but for the most part, it’s exciting and scary and mostly a lot of fun. If only the whole movie were like its pre-title prologue, which, in a course of maybe fifteen minutes, recaps the original, sets up this remake, and then jumps from 1980 to the present day, where a group of young adults seeking a hidden marijuana field instead encounter Jason. It’s one of the most brutally efficient openers to a modern horror film I’ve seen. Had the rest of the movie been like that, it might’ve been some kind of a minor horror classic. Alas, the rest of the movie settles into your standard stalk and kill.

So here are my issues with the movie:

1. The underground lair: This is fast becoming the hoariest cliche in modern horror. It would be one thing if the antagonist lived in some ratty cave, but no, they have to be cavernous dwellings, fully furnished and wired for electricity. Where do their electric bills go? Does Jason get on the phone every now and then and argue about the charges?

2. Master archer/gymnastic Jason. Gone is the slow moving Jason of old. The new Jason can run, leap up on buildings in a single bound (I’m not exaggerating) and can use a bow and arrow and throw an axe like nobody’s business. I’m guessing he got in shape refinishing his underground lair.

3. Minorities as comic relief: The two non-white characters in Friday the 13th are likable enough, but it becomes painfully clear their only function is provide comic relief. It doesn’t even make sense why they’re friends with the people they’re with. Women don’t fare much better, as, with the exception of two characters, they’re in the movie to get naked or get killed. Then again, I guess that goes for most of the male characters, too. Maybe the real issue is lazy scriptwriting, but it still bugged me.

4. Jason, pot farmer. The pot angle in this movie is never really properly explained. However, if that pot field is Jason’s, then it would explain how Jason is paying his electric bills and how he funded the renovation of his underground lair. And it’s clear he’s not getting high on his own supply, which makes him a good businessman, if nothing else.

5. The ending. Enough said.

The audience at the midnight showing I saw Friday the 13th with seemed to overlook most of these flaws. For the most part, I did, too. My expectations were admittedly low, but this is one horror remake that works, which doesn’t make it a great movie by any means, but it does make it a pretty good time for horror fans. If you’re not a horror fan, you could probably skip this movie and still lead a pretty normal life. You’ll also want to add a monkey to the rating below.

MONKEY RATING: TWO HOCKEY MASKED MONKEYS

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

mybloodyvalentine3dMy Bloody Valentine 3D, in its cheesy ads that recall gimmicky William Castle thrillers of the 50’s and 60’s, promises an entertainment filled with sex, violence and, well, 3D, which, in the logic of the ads, all add up to the perfect date movie, particularly if you happen to reside in the 18-25 year old demographic at which this movie is clearly targeted. A remake of a 1981 slasher flick and cult favorite of the same name, My Bloody Valentine 3D is designed as something of a ride, and it’s relentless and even shameless in its determination to deliver on the promise of its ads. And within those limited parameters, it’s a success, delivering buckets of blood and gore in borderline absurd amounts, and sex, mostly in the form of Betsy Rue, who, a la Linnea Quigley in Return Of The Living Dead, spends the vast majority of her screen time completely nude. And, oh, yeah, there’s a plot, involving a psychotic miner named Harry Warden, who, ten years after perpetrating a massacre of some twenty people, has apparently returned to his hometown to wreak more bloody havoc. What this remake sacrifices in its desire to deliver over the top gory thrills is all the creepiness and atmosphere that made the first one so memorable. The mines, which the original exploited to maximum claustrophobic effect, are barely used here, and mostly treated as another place where the killer miner uses to rack up a body count, a real missed opportunity especially considering the 3D angle, which is otherwise pretty impressively done. My Bloody Valentine 3D also loses considerable momentum about two/thirds of the way through and even seems to lose some interest in the whole 3D thing, but then there’s maybe only so much you can do with a miner’s pick axe. Finally, it wobbles through a needlessly protracted conclusion. All that said, by that time, My Bloody Valentine 3D‘s definitely delivered the goods, as promised, so most audiences will probably forgive the movie those considerable lapses. The cast, which features Jensen Ackles, Jaime King, Kerr Smith, Tom Atkins and Kevin Tighe, is actually quite good, especially King, whom I like the more I see her in movies. My Bloody Valentine 3D is by no means a great movie, but like its predecessor, it’s pretty effective for what it is, and I can’t imagine people who pay to see it knowing what they’re in for feeling at all shortchanged. Non-horror fans may want to adjust my rating down a monkey.

MONKEY RATING: TWO 3D MONKEYS

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

thedaytheearthstoodstillScott Derrickson’s remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still scores some points initially for its first act, which generates some real unease, wonder and awe as the American government (represented by the Secretary of Defense, played by Kathy Bates) mobilizes key scientists and engineers (including Jennifer Connelly and John Hamm) and copious military might in preparation for a unknown object headed straight for Manhattan. The object turns out to be a spaceship carrying an alien emissary named Klaatu (Keanu Reeves, quite good in a role originated by Michael Rennie in the 1951 original), who claims to be “a friend to Earth,” though he means that more literally than his human counterparts seem to understand. The majority of the movie more or less picks up where the the original left off, with the human race threatened with extinction, though in the remake, they aren’t given a chance to mend their destructive ways. Instead, it’s up to Connelly to try to change Klaatu’s mind, which is an acceptable direction to go in, but it’s woefully underdeveloped. Though The Day The Earth Stood Still is an acceptable and mostly entertaining combination of science fiction and action, the subtlety and thoughtfulness of the original is almost completely pushed aside here, replaced by sometimes pointless action sequences, most involving Gort, Klaatu’s robot guardian. It’s indicative of the “bigger is better” approach of the remake that Gort is now 28 feet tall and gets to destroy way more stuff this time out. This version in no way dishonors the original, but it does aim somewhat lower and is the worse for it.

MONKEY RATING: THREE MONKEYS

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

MONKEY REVIEW: Death Race

August 31, 2008

I first saw Death Race 2000, regarded by some as one of the best B-movies ever made, at a drive-in way back when in the mid-70’s, and subsequently saw it whole or in part numerous more times on cable over the years. Death Race 2000 was a Roger Corman production, directed by Paul Bartel and starring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, set in a dystopian future (well, the future in 1975, anyway) where a cross country race takes place annually in which the drivers get points for running over citizens unlucky enough to get in their way. That it was satirizing the American obsession with violent entertainment flew right over my head on initial viewings, and instead I saw a very odd movie with cartoonish violence, bizarre characters and even more bizarre cars. There was also a lot of nudity, but of course I covered my eyes during those parts. There’s a plot point worth mentioning where the US government blames the French for things going wrong, which seems pretty contemporary now, and a lot of the political satire in general still seems spot on. The remake, written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Alien Vs. Predator) and co-produced by Corman, leaves out the satire for the most part and has repackaged it as a sort of killer American Gladiators set in a prison called Terminal Island. No one gets points for running over anyone, and instead the drivers try to kill each other. The changes pretty much remove everything that was interesting about the original and what ends up on the screen is your standard action picture, nothing more, nothing less, and certainly nothing special. Jason Statham and Tyrese Gibson ably fill in for Carradine and Stallone, and Joan Allen shows up as an evil warden. Statham always makes for an entertaining screen presence, which is why I decided to see Death Race, against my better instincts, but I would advise Statham fans to just wait for Transporter 3, due out in November. All others would do better to seek out the original, which is a lot more fun in all respects than this remake.

MONKEY RATING: THREE MONKEYS

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

In name only remake of the George Romero film, Steve Miner’s Day Of The Dead focuses on a zombie outbreak in a small Colorado town, and stars Mena Suvari and Nick Cannon. Originally meant as a theatrical release, this movie arrives on DVD with a pretty toxic reputation, which it more or less deserves, unfortunately. It’s aimed squarely at a teenage audience with its sped up action and rapid, flashy MTV style edits, and it may even appease them, but fans of the Romero film will be puzzled as to why this is even being touted as a remake since it only bears superficial connections to the original. These are not the classic slow moving Romero zombies, either, but rather amped up zombies that bear more resemblance to the “Infected” in 28 Days Later and the zombies in the Dawn Of The Dead remake (of which this is not a continuation, despite the presence of Ving Rhames for about 2.5 seconds). These zombies can run, jump like kangaroos, possess superhuman strength and agility, and can even defy physical laws by climbing walls and ceilings like crazed spiders. (But I know what you’re thinking: They’re zombies, they never studied law!) Though it delivers on the violence and gore, too much of Day Of The Dead is so over the top that it’s more silly and absurd than scary. Strangely enough, though, it actually gets more tolerable as it goes on. I suspect that if this version of Day Of The Dead were actually made in the 80’s and had the name “Fulci” attached to it, it would now be celebrated as some kind of silly, berserk cult classic, so it’s not completely without its merits, goofy and dubious as they may be, and it’s certainly never dull. Considering the fairly low standards of the zombie genre in general, Day Of The Dead would probably fall, quality-wise, in the middle range. Romero fans should probably just stay far away, but undemanding zombie movie fans might find it a bizarre goof.


MONKEY RATING: FOUR (UNDEAD) MONKEYS

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

April Fool’s Day is a direct-to-video remake of the 1988 theatrical movie of the same name, and let me get this out of the way immediately: The joke’s on anyone who watches this movie. This is one of the most dramatically inert movies I’ve seen in some time. It’s supposed to be a horror thriller, where the characters get bumped off one by one, but it plays more like a soft core porn Skinemax kind of a movie. Not only is there zero suspense and tension owing to the inept direction and script, you wouldn’t have really cared who gets killed, anyway, because all the characters are unlikeable (not to mention poorly acted). This is a movie where the characters do a lot of walking around. Then some driving around. Then more walking. Then a little running. But is there gore? Not really, no. April Fool’s Day ‘s an R-rated movie, though I’m not sure why. It’s not owing to violence or nudity, anyway, of which there is little and none. This movie was just lame. I’m going to stop writing now. Okay, bye.

MONKEY RATING: FOUR (VERY INERT) MONKEYS

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

MONKEY REVIEW: The Invasion

February 19, 2008

“My husband isn’t my husband anymore…”

The Invasion, starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Jeffrey Wright, is the fourth version of Jack Finney’s book The Body Snatchers, and despite the negative buzz that has surrounded it, it’s not nearly as bad as most audiences have been led to believe. The basic story is the same: Aliens invade Earth and begin taking over human bodies via a virus that transforms its victims when they go to sleep. One of the new wrinkles in this version is how the aliens transmit the virus, which is gross, but certainly efficient. The first half an hour is the best part of the movie, fast moving, increasingly creepy and often quite scary. As with other versions, it’s loaded with political and social commentary, and effectively preys on anxieties about not only viruses, but the vaccines meant to “cure” them. At the midpoint, however, you suddenly get the feeling that the movie’s just skipped a reel, as suddenly people not only know what’s happening, but they know the characteristics of the aliens. “You’re sweating,” someone tells Kidman at one point. “They don’t do that.” What? How does he know that? Where it really goes wrong is the last ten minutes or so, with a resolution so accelerated it’s almost comical. That part of the film was apparently directed by someone other than the original director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, who, one is to assume, had a somewhat more subtle conclusion in mind, one with less screeching tires, fire and crashes. That the reshoots cost an extra $17 million is astonishing considering how small a return all that money produced. Nevertheless, the ending isn’t quite enough to ruin everything that’s gone before. The Invasion ends up being a solid, creepy, very watchable thriller that could’ve been a lot more.

MONKEY RATING: TWO MONKEYS

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