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.)

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.)

theinternationalSo it’s the weekend of the Oscars, and for some strange reason you’re not totally pumped to see Fired Up! or Madea Goes To Jail, the only two new wide releases opening on Friday. Allow me then to make a case for The International, a top notch, sometimes astoundingly shot thriller from Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer, starring a particularly intense Clive Owen as a globetrotting Interpol agent battling a murderous multinational bank. It’s pretty plain from the start that The International‘s cinematic forebears are 70’s thrillers like The Parallax View or Three Days Of The Condor, and while it eschews slower 70’s pacing, it also dispenses with the furious edits that render the action in other contemporary films annoying to watch and frequently incomprehensible. Instead, Tykwer emphasizes the spatial relationships of his characters onscreen, making clear their goals and obstacles, which in turns ratchets up the tension and intensity of the action. Nowhere is this more effective than a scene where Owens finds himself trapped by gunmen on a ramp. The ensuing melee is simply one of the most brilliantly staged and flat out exciting shootouts I’ve seen in movies, and for action fans, this scene alone is worth sitting through, especially on a big screen. The International isn’t without its flaws, as it loses some momentum towards the third act. It also essentially wastes Naomi Watts in a role that’s alternately underwritten or flat out badly written: She’s required by the script to deliver some of the film’s most cringeworthy dialogue. Tykwer keeps things going fast enough that most viewers I think will find it easy to overlook these things. The overarching conspiracy elements of the plot some viewers may find hard to swallow, but I felt the final scenes of the movie made it clear that what The International was chiefly about the collision of essentially amoral forces with forces equipped with their own variable notions of moral behavior. Can we expect justice to come out of such a collision or simply more upheaval and chaos? To its credit, The International doesn’t do the thinking for its viewers, instead ending on a refreshingly adult note. The International has its flaws, but in general, it’s a pretty solid thriller, and definitely recommended. And damn, that shootout!

MONKEY RATING: TWO EVIL BANKING MONKEYS

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

MONKEY REVIEW: Taken

January 31, 2009

taken“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”

That’s pretty much the bulk of the text from the trailer for the Liam Neeson thriller Taken, a Pierre Morel film co-written by Luc Besson, which arrived on American shores this weekend after a successful international run. It’s Neeson’s character, an ex-CIA operative, talking to his teenage daughter’s kidnappers, and it made for a pretty riveting trailer, riveting enough to get me into the theatres this weekend to see Taken. Unfortunately, despite a brisk pace and Neeson’s convincing turn as an action hero, Taken doesn’t deliver on the promise of that trailer, not even close, really. There’s plenty of shooting, car chases and people getting beat up, but it’s all in the service of a pretty standard (not to mention pretty xenophobic) action plot where everyone is an idiot but the hero, with virtually no surprises in stores for audiences. Well, there’s one surprise, that this even got a PG-13 rating, as it’s got a body count to rival a slasher film. You’re better off watching 24, a Jason Bourne or a James Bond movie, as this pastiche of all of the above isn’t really worth your time.

MONKEY RATING: THREE 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

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Vantage Point is an effective action/conspiracy thriller, no more, no less. It’s not out to make a great statement about the war on terror, though it’s set during a international summit on the war on terror being held in Spain, nor is it much on character development, though it’s got a solid cast, headed by Dennis Quaid and William Hurt. The plot involves an assassination attempt on the President of the United States, and the movie shows the same twenty-three minutes of the attempt, seen through the eyes of various characters, thus the title Vantage Point. It’s a bit like 24 done like Run Lola Run, except unlike that latter film, the events remain the same every time the movie quite literally rewinds itself, although audiences get a bit more information with every viewing, and finally learn everything by the end. There’s not a lot of depth here, but I don’t think that was ever the point, really: Vantage Point is exciting, suspenseful popcorn entertainment, and I had a good time watching it.

MONKEY RATING: TWO MONKEYS

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

“It’s a lie. The signal; it’s a trick. Change the way you look at things, the things you look at will change. .”

Superior, smartly written and surprisingly ultra-low budgeted horror/comedy/thriller about a signal broadcast over cell phones, radio and television that causes the people who hear or see it to get “the crazy,” that is, to hallucinate and behave in impulsive, violent and sometimes murderous ways. The film is divided into three parts, each written and directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry. The first part is by far the best, which depicts the first night the signal is broadcast, and the resulting chaos. It’s genuinely creepy and frightening, and photographed in gorgeously saturated colors. The second part is more satirical, and while the switch in tone is jarring, it still works up some laughs owing to the cast (including A. J. Bowen, Anessa Ramsey, Justin Welborn, Sahr Nguajah, Scott Poythress and Cheri Christianwhich), which is uniformly good. The last part is more serious, and wraps up the storyline effectively. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but when it works, it works very well. Amazingly, The Signal was done on a $50,000 budget, putting a lot of higher budget Hollywood junk to shame.

MONKEY RATING: TWO MONKEYS

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

“Hello.”

Almost a great horror thriller: The Strangers, written and directed by Bryan Bertino, is scary, suspenseful and nervewracking for its first three quarters or so. The movie’s about three strangers who inexplicably terrorize a young couple (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) in a remote family summer home late one night. Using mostly sound, Bertino creates a palpable sense of fear, dread and anticipation, and builds it up until it’s nearly unbearable. But when the movie reaches a certain point, and you expect something monumental to happen, well…then nothing really does. It becomes a movie about people crawling around on the ground a lot, and a certain tedium sets in. Then the movie just sort of ends. When the last shot faded from view and the credits rolled, the nearly sold out audience I saw The Strangers with, mostly teenagers and members of the coverted 18-to-24 year old demographic, was clearly underwhelmed. It’s a shame because the movie works so well for most of its running time, and because Speedman and Tyler are so good in their roles. As far as home invasion thrillers go, The Strangers unfortunately doesn’t hold a candle to Them, a French film, released on DVD in March, with a similar storyline that doesn’t wear out its welcome. (Though it’s not without problems of its own.) All in all, The Strangers is all build up, little pay off.

MONKEY RATING: THREE MONKEYS

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

Idiotic, cliched, wholly implausible and annoying hypocritical pastiche of Saw and The Silence Of The Lambs: A killer rigs Web sites so that his/her victims die faster and more horrific deaths the more hits the site gets. It’s supposed to be an indictment of Internet audiences who flock to sites depicting violence and horror, but then Untraceable doesn’t have any problem showing ITS audience copious gory violence and horror. But then it’s making a point, so that’s different, of course. In any case, anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the Internet and Internet security will be hooting and hollering at the screen the more ridiculous Untraceable gets, and boy, does it get pretty ridiculous. Especially choice moments include a scene where FBI agents get the news that they won’t be able to use the NSA’s “supercomputer” (singular, because it’s just one really big ass one) because “they don’t want anyone to know their capabilities.” Like aiding in the capture of criminals committing felonies, including murder and various cybercrimes, on an international stage? Yeah, you wouldn’t want it to get out that the NSA actually serves a function. Oh, and if you’re thinking Interpol then, well, apparently Interpol doesn’t exist in the Untraceable universe. However, the FBI superior officer that puts the kabosh on all the good ideas forwarded by the brilliant FBI detective heroine (Diane Lane) does exist in its dumb universe, saying things about the killer like, “Well, you don’t think he’d really do something like that, do you?” Duh! But then Lane plays the kind of FBI detective that has no problem keeping sensitive, unencrypted files on a wireless, apparently anti-virus program free home network, so there’s that. Anyway, you get the picture. Bad, bad movie. I was ready to shut it off at the 42 and the 60 minute marks, but I forced myself to finish it: You have an easier choice, as you can just choose not to watch it.

P.S. (And very mild spoiler!) If anyone can tell me what the hell the ending was supposed to be about, do let me know. And were 17 million people about to go to jail or what?

MONKEY RATING: FIVE MONKEYS WITH CHIM-CHIM IN A SUPERVISORY ROLE

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