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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MONKEY REVIEW: Gamer

September 6, 2009

gamerI didn’t realize that Gamer was from the same writing/directing team behind the Crank movies until after I’d seen it. I’m not sure it would have altered my opinion of the movie much, but it would have explained some of the loud, crude and cheerfully morally corrupt aspects of it, anyway. Gamer is a pastiche of The Running Man, The Matrix and both Death Race movies, the original and its inferior remake: Gerard Butler stars as a Death Row inmate who has dominated a globally televised game called Slayer in which he and fellow immates wage armed combat with each other. Butler is on the verge of winning 30 session victories, which will supposedly earn his freedom, but the evil creator of the game (Michael C. Hall, who provides some fun here) has other plans. There are flashes of real wit and biting satire in the movie, along with some big ideas about identity and control in a Sims and role playing game addicted society, but the focus is on big, loud, gory and largely incoherent action. It’s too bad because moments like an unexpected musical number suggest that Gamer could’ve turned out to be a cult film on the order of Death Race 2000. Instead, it plays like something you’d see on late night cable, an acceptable time passer with lots of violence and a smattering of sex that you will probably not remember much about the next morning.

MONKEY RATING: THREE GAMER MONKEYS

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

thefinaldestinationThe Final Destination (The Final Destination? The Final Destination?), reportedly the last entry in the nearly decade old horror franchise, is easily the least of the series and a pretty poor wrap up, if it is indeed the final film. The plot is the same as the other three films: The main character saves his friends and others via a premonition of impending disaster (this time at a car race), which they are able to avoid, but then he finds everyone is dying, anyway, in the order they should have died in the first place. If there’s anything vaguely original about this film, it’s that the filmmakers have taken what might be seen as a bold approach: They’ve made a direct to video style movie, which they’ve chosen to shoot in theatrical 3D. This insures that the only worthwhile aspect of the movie is the 3D, and that’s really barely enough to justify a matinee ticket. Yes, there are lots of people dying increasingly outlandish deaths, and there’s a lot of computer generated gore thrown about, but after a hospital scene in the final stretch of the movie, The Final Destination crosses the line from total absurdity to complete tedium. It’s a shame because the movie’s opening sequence is promising enough, but it’s downhill from there, way downhill.

MONKEY RATING: FOUR REAPER MONKEYS

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

inglouriousbasterdsWriter/director Quentin Tarantino has been talking a long time about making his own World War II opus, well over a decade, amping up expectations among his fans, perhaps to the point where no movie he produced could have possibly met them. The audience I saw Inglourious Basterds was certainly receptive to it, if not overly enthusiastic about it, though it did earn some applause when the credits rolled. I asked a fellow moviegoer what she thought of it and she replied, “Well, it was Tarantinoesque.” At first, I thought this was a strange thing to say, as all movies that Tarantino directs are going to be inevitably Tarantinoesque by virtue of the fact that he is directing them, but maybe that’s not exactly what she meant to say. It might have been that Inglourious Basterds is simply the kind of WWII movie you’d expect from him, with not a lot of surprises if you’re well acquainted with his body of work. It’s not really even a WWII movie so much as it is about movies about WWII, and on top of that, it intentionally evokes spaghetti westerns, from the opening frame and first note of music on. The story is a riff on both Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 WWII movie Inglorious Bastards (itself a riff on The Dirty Dozen) and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West, and opens with the movie’s best scene: A Nazi hunting down Jews in France, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), arrives at a French dairy farm to question the head of the household about a Jewish family that has been unaccounted for. Without giving away too much, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a member of the family Landa is looking for, comes away from the experience with a motive for revenge. As Waltz plays him, Landa is charming, polite and utterly evil, one of the most startling cinematic villains since, well, Henry Fonda as Frank in the aforementioned Leone movie. Whenever Landa is onscreen, the movie suddenly has the kind of gravity and tension it otherwise sorely lacks. The next section of the movie introduces the Basterds, a select group of Jewish-American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) whose mission is very specific: “We’re gonna be doing one thing and one thing only – killing Nazis,” which they proceed to do in ways designed to terrify and intimidate Nazi soldiers. Eventually, these two story lines intersect at a movie premiere at which many members of the Nazi high command will be in attendance. I liked the movie and I was one of those applauding at the end, but it worked for me less as a whole, and more as a series of three quite excellent set pieces, the opening scene, a scene at a German basement bar, and the climactic scene. The rest of the movie isn’t quite filler, but neither is it on par with these scenes, so it’s definitely a movie with its peaks and valleys, though fortunately those valleys aren’t very deep. Inglourious Basterds is perhaps not the ultimate WWII movie Tarantino fans might have been expecting to see, nor is it anywhere close to being his masterpiece, but it does contain some unforgettable moments and it is mostly a lot of fun to watch. It will probably still be a lot of fun to watch again, too, which I will inevitably do.

MONKEY RATING: TWO INGLOURIOUS MONKEYS

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

aperfectgetawayThe new movie from David Twohy, A Perfect Getaway, is a tidy little mystery that has a simple goal: To generate suspense and thrills and maybe even a couple of scares. The story focuses on a trio of couples (Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich, Timothy Olyphant and Kiele Sanchez, and Marley Shelton and Chris Hemsworth), who are all making their way along a 11 mile trail to an isolated Hawaiian island beach when they get news that there is a pair of serial killers targeting couples. The movie isn’t exactly Hitchcock, but it will keep audiences on their toes, guessing and guessing again, all the way up to the reveal, which is then carefully accounted for in a sequence that perhaps goes on too long. The final sequence that follows is effectively staged, with at least one good scare. There’s a fair bit of violence, but then it’s a movie about killers, so you have to expect at least some killin’. However, the violence is hardly horror film level. What makes the movie really work, part from Twohy’s clever scripting, are the performances, which are top notch for the most part. Jovovich and Olyphant in particular are good, with Olyphant once again showing he’s one of the most watchable, entertaining actors currently on the rise. A Perfect Getaway may not be a great movie, but it’s great fun for the most part, and isn’t that what summer movies are all about?

MONKEY RATING: TWO EVIL 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.)

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.)

MONKEY REVIEW: Bruno

July 11, 2009

brunoMy very short review: Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen’s followup to Borat, isn’t as successful a satire as its predecessor, but it’s still frequently hilarious. As with Borat, Bruno is a combination of scripted comedy and improvisatory sequences where Cohen inserts his character into real life situations, with some inspired results. Its 88 minute running time flies by, even though by the last third, the movie has run out of steam. The startling last sequence, set at a cage fight, does end things on a memorable note. Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has come out strongly against Bruno, however, stating that the movie “reinforces negative stereotypes and ‘decreases the public’s comfort with gay people.'” In defense of the movie, I felt that what was being satirized, with results that are often funny and disturbing in equal parts, is the American public’s ready acceptance of virtually any gay stereotype as truth, and in the context of the movie, their startlingly virulent and sometimes utterly violent response to Cohen’s provocations, which are taken seriously no matter how completely absurd and outrageous they become (and since Cohen is a man totally unashamed of his body, it can get pretty outrageous). Cohen’s character, Bruno, is an Austrian fashion show host, flamboyantly gay to a surrealistic extreme, and he uses him not to just send up American homophobia, but reality and talk shows and celebrity culture. Cohen is a pretty fearless comic actor, putting himself on numerous occasions where he’s in danger of actual physical harm. Alas, the quality of the movie is only sporadically on par with that level of fearlessness. Additionally, Cohen may have run into a quandary that fellow satirist Dave Chappelle apparently ran into with his show: When you’re using stereotypes to send up stereotypes, at what point are you giving your audience permission to laugh at the very stereotypes you are satirizing? A perhaps unintended consequence of Bruno is to raise this question anew. I did find Bruno funny, hopefully for the right reasons, if you liked Borat, odds are you will enjoy Bruno, too.

MONKEY RATING: TWO MONKEYS

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

iceageIf you’re a fan of this popular franchise, or have kids in your life that are, odds are you’ve already seen this third and latest entry. It’s already a huge hit, with a worldwide gross closing in on $250 million as of this writing. So this review isn’t really aimed at you, but rather the viewers who are interested in the 3D aspect of it, like I was. (My dad and six-year-old nephew hadn’t seen a 3D movie before, and though I would have preferred to see Up, which is the superior movie, Ice Age was the only game in town.) I haven’t seen the other Ice Age films, but I didn’t feel I was seeing the crucial third film in the trilogy, where all the unanswered questions from the other two films finally get answered. No, it’s just the continuing adventures of an unconventional herd (read: “family”) of prehistoric mammals and the other creatures they encounter (voiced by Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Queen Latifah, and Simon Pegg, among others). It’s pretty mild, even tiresome stuff at first, though when they enter a subterranean lost world filled with dinosaurs, the movie really kicks into gear. The climatic scenes are often spectacular visually, made more so by some pretty thrilling use of 3D, so if you’re in it for the 3D, these sequences make it worth seeing. Also, Pegg as a possibly insane weasel who guides the herd through the lost world on a mission to save their friend is often hilarious. A great movie? No, not even close, but pretty entertaining once it gets past a pretty slow start.

MONKEY RATING: TWO DINO-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.)