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: Moon

July 18, 2009

moonOne of the best movies of the summer is likely to go little seen, at least in comparison to movies about toys and wizards: Moon, directed by Duncan Jones and starring Sam Rockwell, is an intelligent, absorbing mystery/science fiction thriller about a man, two weeks to the end of his contract as the solitary overseer of a lunar base owned by a energy company, who begins to suspect he is not alone. To say much more about the movie would be to ruin it a bit, since the part of the enjoyment of Moon is its careful and deliberately paced storytelling. Its futuristic premise is handled in a manner that recalls Kubrick and Tarkovsky rather than Lucas, and the movie’s focus is on its characters rather than its special effects, the latter of which refreshingly and effectively eschew computer generated ones in favor of practical ones. Moon is a movie of ideas, particularly about our relationships to technology, but also to place, to each other and, perhaps most profoundly, to ourselves. The brunt of the movie is carried on Rockwell’s very capable back, for reasons that will become apparent as the movie progresses, but there’s good, unexpectedly moviing work from Kevin Spacey as the voice of the base’s artificial intelligence, and from Dominique McElligott as his wife on Earth. It stumbles a bit towards the end, but not much. All in all, this is a great story with great performances, adding up to a great movie.

MONKEY RATING: ONE MOON BOUND MONKEY

(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.)

Director Mathieu Kassovitz’s Babylon A.D., based on a highly regarded science fiction novel by French writer Maurice Dantec, arrives on American shores with a fairly toxic reputation, forwarded by no less than the director himself. To say that Babylon A.D. is a simplification of its source material is an understatement, so let me just say that what’s ended up on the screen is a handsomely produced science fiction chase movie, well directed and well acted for the most part. The problem, and what a big problem it is, is that it pretty much makes no sense. It’s the sort of movie where you wait for someone, anyone, to pull everything together and explain what exactly has been going on for the past hour and a half or so, but no, no such explanation is forthcoming. There’s a lot of running around, a lot of shooting and people getting beat up, several big explosions, and a few car chases, but when the credits roll, you’re left to wonder what it was all about, because the movie isn’t about to tell you. It’s got a solid cast, headed by Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh and Mélanie Thierry, and they keep it watchable, but all their efforts can’t overcome a screenplay that just goes nowhere.

MONKEY RATING: FOUR 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: Lifeforce

June 23, 2008

lifeforce“That girl was no girl.”

Lifeforce, the 1985 Tobe Hooper movie about a space vampire that wreaks havoc in London, is one of the most unhinged major Hollywood releases I’ve ever had the pleasure/bad luck to see. The story makes absolutely no sense, the dialogue is more often than not laughably bad (“Don’t worry. A naked girl is not going to get out of this complex.” “I’m here. Now can this madness end?”), and Steve Railsback, who was so good in The Stunt Man several years before this was released, gives one of the worst performances I’ve seen by a leading man. But then Railsback is having to play the lone survivor of an ill fated space shuttle mission who has a psychic bond with a space vampire girl named, according to the credits, Space Girl (Mathilda May, in a memorable film debut), who herself initially spends so much screen time naked that when she reappears in the movie walking the English countryside in what appears to be a garbage bag, a character observes, with some disappointment, perhaps, “Now she has clothes.” For a weird Alien/Dracula hybrid, it’s got an impressive roll call of talent: Hooper, who directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, Dan O’Bannon, who wrote Alien, also wrote this screenplay, the special effects are by John Dykstra (Star Wars), and Henry Mancini did the musical score. So while Lifeforce is absurd and nonsensical and just plain bad in a lot of ways, it’s professionally made absurd, nonsensical badness. It’s also, and this accounts for why I’ve seen this movie multiple times, fast paced and wickedly entertaining, and because it doesn’t make any sense at all, it’s almost completely unpredictable. When I first saw this during its initial theatrical run, I literally had no idea what was going to happen from one scene to the next, as it’s a space vampire movie that starts out like Alien, and ends up, inexplicably, a zombie plague movie. But wow, is it wild fun to watch, and it’s played totally straight by a mostly English cast, which makes it all the better. Peter Firth is actually quite good as a British colonel (and “natural voyeur”) hot on the trail of Space Girl, Patrick Stewart shows up in time to get his first onscreen kiss from…Railsback, and Aubrey Morris plays a government official much in the same way one would play a pirate. I don’t usually recommend bad movies to people, because there’s plenty of good ones to see, but Lifeforce is such a nutty good time, it’s a must-see for science fiction and horror fans. For non-fans of those genres, you can adjust my rating down a monkey.

P.S. This is a review of the US theatrical cut, as I wanted to review the version of the movie I first saw in 1985. The international cut, which runs about 15 or so minutes longer, apparently makes somewhat more sense. There’s yet another cut of the movie that runs 12 minutes longer than that, Tobe Hooper’s own cut of the movie.

P.P.S. This review is also part of the Final Girl Film Club.

MONKEY RATING: THREE (SPACE VAMPIRE) 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.)