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.)

thehurtlocker“War is a drug.”

Not just one of the best films of 2009 so far, but one of the best war movies ever, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker focuses on the last 39 days of a bomb squad’s rotation in 2004 Iraq. The support squad (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, both excellent in their roles) has been saddled with a new team leader (Jeremy Renner), who is seemingly reckless and borderline nihilistic, and soon they begin to fear he is going to get them killed. Much of The Hurt Locker, and almost all the action scenes, are shot in a cinéma vérité-like style, with hand held cameras putting you uncomfortably close to the action. There are set pieces in the movie that are among the most harrowing and suspenseful I have ever seen, so on that level, it certainly works as an action film. On a deeper level, its depiction of addiction to war, personified by Renner, who gives what I’m positive will be an Academy Award nominated performance, may be revelatory to some audiences, and will certainly keep them pondering the movie long after its haunting final image. (Another interpretation of Renner’s condition is that he’s been deeply traumatized, and like a good number of trauma victims, has begun to feel like a ghost in his own life.) I can’t say The Hurt Locker is a movie without its flaws, but neither would I say that those flaws in any way blunt its impact. It’s brilliantly directed, with a minimum of flash and a rejection of rapid fire cutting, from an excellent, insightful script by Mark Boal, and brought to life by a terrific cast. The Hurt Locker is a future classic.

MONKEY RATING: ZERO MONKEYS

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

“They’re inside the house.”

Them (Ils), a brutally efficient little thriller from France, is a model of sustained tension: Set outside Bucharest, a young French language teacher (Olivia Bonamy) and her writer husband (Michael Cohen) find their remote country home invaded late one evening by unknown and very deadly assailants. The truly frightening opening sequence, which introduces the assailants and their threat, immediately sets a tone of fear, unease and dread, which the film maintains for most of the rest of its 77 minute running time. Gorehounds will probably be disappointed, as Them locates its terror in more seemingly mundane things: Searching, approaching flashlights, odd sounds that are at once familiar and increasingly terrifying, a TV left on, a car moved. On the commentary for The Silence Of The Lambs, director Jonathan Demme quoted Roger Corman as saying one of the scariest things in a movie is movement towards a closed door, “because you wonder what’s going to be behind that door.” Them is a movie built on exploiting that fear, what’s behind that door, what’s around that next corner, the fear made worse by the fact that the doors and the corners are in the characters’ own home. It’s the type of movie that may shatter a lot of viewer’s notions about their homes being safe havens, which is precisely what the filmmakers are up to. Unfortunately, the film makes a miscalculation at the very end, as it feels the need to explain itself too much, which undermines some of the impact of the final images. Oh, had the movie only ended a minute or so earlier, but oh, well, it’s still worth a look for horror and thriller fans in particular.

MONKEY RATING: ONE MONKEY

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

P.S. This movie has been reportedly remade as The Strangers, starring Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler, opening May 30. Both Them and The Strangers announce themselves to be “based on true events” and involve invasions of remote country homes that begin at even roughly the same time. However, having seen the trailer for The Strangers, it seems the writer/director of the American version takes things in a different direction.

P.P.S. According to Stacie Ponder over at the Final Girl blog, the reports that The Strangers is a remake of Them are “misinformed,” despite the plot similarities, which I guess are more superficial than I thought. I’m seeing The Strangers no matter what, so there’s that, and it shouldn’t dissuade you from seeing Them, which has gotten rave reviews from everyone I’ve personally recommended it to.

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.)