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.)

transformers2First of all, let me say there’s absolutely no reason for Megan Fox to be in this movie. She’s not really important to what story there is, and if her character had been subtracted from the movie altogether, most viewers probably would not have noticed much. That said, there’s barely any reason for Shia LaBeouf to be in this movie, either, and he’s the main human character and drives what little plot there is to be found in this sequel to the 2007 original. I say these things because what Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is about, even more so than its predecessor, is giant robots fighting. For two and a half hours. If this sounds good to you, then obviously this movie is for you, especially if you loved the first one. Frankly, though some of the sequences and visuals were admittedly jaw dropping, by the final quarter, I was exhausted by it. I felt a little beat up myself. On the plus side, however, it’s unexpectedly much funnier than the first one, though some of the humor is more adult than one would expect in a movie based on a cartoon for kids, and there’s probably much more bawdy, profane (and often annoying inane) robot humor contained herein than some parents will be comfortable with. By no means a great movie, but a pretty honest and unpretentious one, one where you certainly get what you paid for, and then some. If things like plot, story and character development are important to you, then you’ll be disappointed, but if you’re in it for the giant robot fights, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen definitely delivers.

MONKEY RATING: THREE TRANSFORMER MONKEYS

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

terminatorsalvation

REVIEW ASSUMES YOU’VE SEEN AT LEAST ONE OF THE TERMINATOR MOVIES

The first half of Terminator Salvation, the fourth and latest cinematic attempt to revive the Terminator franchise, is fast paced, gritty fun, with plenty of man vs. robot mayhem, depicted with some pretty dazzling special effects. It’s set in 2018, before John Connor (Christian Bale, occasionally slipping into his Batman growl) has ascended to leadership of the resistance against Skynet, which has devastated the earth with nuclear attacks. Instead, Connor seems to be a respected but still marginalized figure in the resistance, though he has the support of “the people,” as it were. The resistance is on the verge of a major strike against Skynet headquarters in San Francisco, which Connor has misgivings about, but is overrided. Meanwhile, in a parallel story, a death row prisoner named Marcus (Sam Worthington) executed 15 years before, wakes to find himself in the midst of a post-apocalyptic United States, and soon finds his way to a ruined Los Angeles, meeting up with two youths, one of whom is named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), future father of Connor. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the filmmakers came up with a decent set up, but didn’t bother to come up with a satisfactory conclusion. Instead, the second half, in particular the climax, settles for rehashing the climax of Terminator 2, minus any suspense whatsoever though with maximum (albeit PG-13) violence and destruction. This is pretty disappointing considering the time and expense, reportedly $200 million, that went into the making of Terminator Salvation. And you’re expecting any sort of story resolution, well, forget it, since this is a reboot, remember, and meant to be an entry way into one or more sequels. It raises more questions than it ultimately answers, though my central question after seeing the movie was this: Why do the trailers and even the toys for this movie give away a major plot twist involving one of the main characters? I imagine audiences would have guessed the twist, anyway, but the twist is revealed much later in the film than one would have been led to believe from the trailers. Plus, it’s treated as a big surprise in the movie, coming complete with a “Nooooooo!” The ending of the movie also had me rolling my eyes, as it felt more suitable to Terminator fan fiction than a official sequel. Oh, well, cool robots, anyway.

MONKEY RATING: THREE TERMINATOR MONKEYS

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

wolverineAs a superhero film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is more Iron Man than The Dark Knight stylistically and in tone, and nowhere near as good as those films, but it’s still pretty entertaining on its own terms. Directed by Gavin Hood, and part of a projected X-Men Origins franchise, it tells the story of how Logan (Hugh Jackman) became Wolverine, the indestructible man with retractable metal claws in his hands. Though the movie tends to lurch forward instead of flowing from scene to scene, it’s got a number of terrific action sequences going for it and kicks off with an excellent opener, and it’s got some memorable special effects (with some serious exceptions towards the end) and some truly dazzling visuals, the latter of which makes it worth seeing on a big screen. It is in no way groundbreaking for its genre, but then it doesn’t seem like it was designed to be, either. Its sole ambition seems to be a summer popcorn movie, and it succeeds in being entertaining, thrilling and frequently quite funny. The jerky pace does kill off some of its momentum, and it’s quite violent (especially disturbing scene: graphic depiction of a head shot, minus the splatter but including the impact), making it highly unsuitable for very young audiences, despite the ubiquitous presence of Wolverine toys at stores currently. It does have a pretty decent moral lesson, however: Revenge sucks. All in all, a pretty satisfying first salvo in the summer movie wars, 2009.

MONKEY RATING: TWO MUTANT MONKEYS

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

Having now seen the second feature film based on the popular television series featuring David Duchovny as Fox Mulder and Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully, two FBI agents who investigate paranormal cases, I can see why Chris Carter’s The X Files: I Want To Believe failed to drum up much of an audience for itself: It was advertised as a summer blockbuster, and whatever else it may be, that’s precisely what it is not. Instead, it’s a much more modestly scaled film than its cinematic predecessor The X Files: Fight The Future, which was, in fact, conceived as a blockbuster, and featured the kind of costly and impressive special effects that are all but absent from this current entry. The X Files: I Want To Believe takes place about six years after the conclusion of the series, and focuses on a missing persons case involving an FBI agent and a defrocked priest (Billy Connolly) that may or may not be psychic. Scully is now a doctor in a hospital, and lives with Mulder, who is leading a hermit existence hiding out from the FBI and past charges against him related to his work with the now defunct X Files. The movie plays like a really good episode of the series, and serves up an atmosphere of increasing mystery, fear and suspense, qualities all too often missing from most of Hollywood’s recent so called “thrillers.” It’s also funny when it needs to be, and the story has the kind of ethical and moral dimensions to it one does not expect out of a summer movie. Mulder and Scully aren’t married, but may as well be, though instead of sentimentalizing their relationship, the movie complicates it, underscoring the difficulties they experience making things work as a couple. Both characters are here conflicted, complex and highly emotional people who are very committed to their ideas, values and interests, even as those things strain their relationship. Duchovny and Anderson are both very good, though Anderson is really given a chance to shine in the second half of the movie. I would recommend without question The X Files: I Want To Believe to longtime X Files fan, but also to anyone looking for a good thriller aimed for once at adults. There are no big explosions or gunfights, but The X Files: I Want To Believe thrills, anyway. It’s not a strong enough work to call it a capstone to the X Files legacy, but if this turns out to be the last we see of Mulder and Scully, there’s a end credits sequence that makes for a lovely send-off.

MONKEY RATING: ONE MONKEY

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

MONKEY REVIEW: Hancock

July 3, 2008

As directed by Peter Berg, Hancock, Will Smith’s latest summer blockbuster, tends to be as strange, confused and obnoxious as its title character. Hancock is a modern day superhero living alone in Los Angeles, ageless, superstrong and impervious to injury. Being a heavy drinker and thus more than a little careless and temperamental, his attempts at crimefighting tend to do more harm than good in the eyes of most citizens, including the mayor and police chief, as they also cause excessive property damage and personal injury. After Hancock saves the life of a good-hearted PR man, Ray (Jason Bateman), Ray brings him home to have dinner with his wife Mary (Charlize Theron) and his son Aaron (Jae Head) and offers to rehabilitate his image so that people will love him instead of hate him. Hancock starts off in broad, low comedy mode, then switches to light satire before taking a left turn into dramatic territory. In the hands of a more subtle, witty director, this material might’ve made for something more satisfying and intriguing than what’s ended up on the screen, though Smith, Bateman and Theron do more than their share of selling the material as it is. Since none of Hancock‘s disparate parts ever really gel into a whole, it’s a movie that’s entertaining in fits and starts, with some standard summer blockbuster CGI sequences mostly involving more property destruction to no great effect. Some of the most interesting and tantalizing plot elements involving race and mythological connections appear as exposition, but then are just tossed aside and are frustratingly explored no further. All in all, I’m not sorry I saw Hancock, but then I’m not sure I can exactly recommend it to anyone, either.

MONKEY RATING: THREE MONKEYS

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

Let me be honest upfront: I am, to quote my friend Robert, an Indiana Jones “fanboy.” I walked into Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls very much wanting to like it, and I did, for the most part, and I suspect if you’re a fanboy or a fangirl, you’ll find reason to like it, too. There are, however, plenty of reasons not to like it, which I’ll go more into detail below, but let me sum it up by saying that while the characters and their interactions are the main reason to like this latest Indy adventure, the main reason not to like it is a central quest that becomes less involving as the movie goes on. It’s also hampered by villains that, unlike previous Indy entries, just aren’t very interesting and thus not very threatening, despite them being 50’s style evil Commies and despite the presence of a startlingly gorgeous Cate Blanchett, who simply isn’t given enough to do. And what did I like about it? Well, the characters, as mentioned before (Shia LeBeouf, who first appears in a nod towards Marlon Brando in The Wild One, is especially engaging), most of the action set pieces, including a fun chase through a jungle, and a general genial, lighthearted and ingratiating air about the whole proceedings. And Harrison Ford as Indy, all these years later? Of course he’s good. It’d be too harsh to say Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls is the worst of the Indiana Jones movies, but it’s probably the least, in my estimation, anyway. That said, I still managed to have a pretty good time. But then I’m a fanboy, you understand.

MONKEY RATING: THREE MONKEYS

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

SOME SPOILERS AHEAD:

Okay, here’s my slightly more detailed explanation of why I think the central quest is the major weak point of the movie.

1. It’s never really clear what the Russians, led by Cate Blanchett, hope to achieve when they arrive at the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls. There’s some talk about psychic warfare and such, but how they intend to use the power of the skulls to wage this warfare is pretty vague and never properly explained. It’s also not clear why Blanchett suffers the fate she suffers, as she’s supposedly being given a “gift.” Nice gift!

2. What is the power of the Crystal Skull, anyway? It’s got magnetic power that rises and falls as it serves the plot, and it seems to be able to do Vulcan mind melds, but aside from that, its exact significance and capabilities are too fuzzy. It was at the point where the search for the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls became primary to the plot that I disengaged from the movie, at any rate, because the quest for it wasn’t making much sense to me, and still doesn’t. The Crystal Skull did seem to be an excellent ant repellent, however.

3. At the end of every Indy movie previous to this one, you got a sense that the characters learned something from the adventure they’d just gone through. In this one, no one really seems to know what exactly happened, except for one character, who spends most of his screen time seemingly mad as a march hare. Indy himself seems to just shrug it off. Not very satisfying.

So, yeah, there you go. In spite of these major problems, I still had a good time. I just would have had a better time had the script been more carefully thought out, more consistent, and flat out made more sense.