Archive for the ‘Monkeys’ Category

Lady In The Water (2006)

M. Night Shyamalan, the kinda-sorta auteurist filmmaker who rocketed to above-the-title fame with a couple movies only to struggle critically over the tail end of the past decade, has a new movie coming out this summer.  It’s called AFTER EARTH and it stars Will Smith, one of the last dependable movie stars, and his son Jaden.  The movie is a sci-fi epic about a father and son who return to Earth in the deep future, long after the planet has been abandoned by humanity.  I included AFTER EARTH on my list of 2013’s potentially strangest movies, which is totally a dick move on my part.  I mean, how much have I done with MY life to be sitting here taking cheap shots?  At least this guy is out there making movies, and making them with some of the world’s hugest stars.  In my heart, I’m really not a so-called hater.

Quite the contrary in this case, in fact.  I think there’s a particular angst for movie lovers when we start following a talented filmmaker who then makes a severe right turn down the off-roads of unfulfilled or squandered promise.  It happened to me with Kevin Smith, for example, a witty, bold, and perceptive writer who I always hoped would take an interest in learning what to do with a camera, but it turned out he’d rather pursue other interests besides visual storytelling.  By contrast, Shyamalan never had a problem being cinematic, but he certainly grew overly enamored of certain tics that precluded concise and coherent films.  I would have liked to remain a fan, but at a certain point I had to decide that I didn’t want to follow these guys up their own asses.

So here’s a chronicle of me falling in love with another man’s talent, and then rapidly falling out of it.  I wrote most of this piece back in 2008 but unfortunately my mind hasn’t much changed since then.

NOTE: This will not include anything Shyamalan did before THE SIXTH SENSE, because I haven’t seen any of that stuff. I’m most interested in the Shyamalan of self-created myth & legend, the Shyamalan we have come to know in the past decade, the one who – like a young Bruce Wayne in his study who looked up at a bat and gained an instant career direction – looked up at the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK poster in his office and asked himself why he wasn’t making those kind of movies. That is the filmography I will be talking about here.

I also won’t be talking about anything after THE HAPPENING, for reasons that may soon enough become apparent.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) – This one came out of nowhere in the summer of 1999 and blew most people’s minds.  It was a ghost story with the emphasis on story.  The dramatic twist near the end actually deepens the experience, and it doesn’t hurt that it makes you want to re-watch the movie with the twist now in mind.  This is an extremely solid movie about faith and the after-life and how those intersect and overlap. Is it maybe even good enough to one day sit on a shelf alongside another one of the director’s inspirations, THE EXORCIST? That may be going a little far. But it does serve as an answer to the most vehement haters, the ones who, burned by his later films, have rechristened him F. Night Shyamalan:

Anybody wondering why they still allow this guy to make movies should re-watch THE SIXTH SENSE. It was a massive financial success achieved with an actually good movie. The people who make the decisions are no doubt optimistic that one day, this guy will do that again. (So am I, for the record.)

But the movie itself does indeed hold up to revisiting. To prospective screenwriters like myself, I also recommend reading it in script form, if you can track that down, because it’s still just as affecting on the page. This movie is so solid that it has a good performance by Donnie Wahlberg.  That’s directing, son.

The truth is that Shyamalan’s filmmaking talent is very real. Every movie he has made since THE SIXTH SENSE has contained varying degrees of that copious cinematic talent. Key word: “varying.” It’s why his filmography is so frustrating. He wouldn’t be so widely discussed if he wasn’t so capable.


UNBREAKABLE (2000) – I loved this one when it was first released. Saw it twice theatrically and a couple more times on DVD. So I hope that earns me enough leeway to suggest that it does not really hold up viscerally eight years later. It’s slow as a turtle attempting to moonwalk. Okay, hang on–

Here’s a rule: You can’t make a movie that’s more boring than real life. You just can’t. It’s why — to take a random and unrelated example — BROKEN FLOWERS was so disappointing to me. No matter how much Bill Murray you pour into a movie, you can’t slow a story down so much that you leave out the space for narrative.

Anyway, that’s why Shyamalan’s “deliberate” pacing falls so often flat. It also plays into the cardinal mistake Shyamalan likes to make of turning lighthearted subject matter — in this case superheroes — into a somber and ponderous suite of melancholy. It’s true that comic books themselves have been doing this for years, and now comic book movies are doing it too, so Shyamalan can’t be entirely faulted there.  In a way, he was ahead of the curve.

On an intellectual level, UNBREAKABLE still works. It’s an interesting approach to the standard superhero/supervillain origin story. I just don’t want to rewatch it ever again. Unless…

You know what would solve all its problems? If the once-rumored sequel were to actually happen. Because as it stands now, UNBREAKABLE feels like the longest first act ever.  I would definitely be curious as to what happens in the second UNBREAKABLE movie if it ever happened, especially since the second act is traditionally where the majority of the actual story takes place.  UNBREAKABLE doesn’t add up to much without its MR. GLASS STRIKES BACK.

Signs (2002)

SIGNS (2002) – Forget the fact that it’s kind of impossible to look at Mel Gibson anymore without off-the-screen baggage.  He’s fine in the movie, really.  It’s the movie itself that’s the problem.  This is where the storytelling problems infecting Shyamalan’s arsenal start to rear up violently. Shyamalan’s technical skill is still crazy-impressive – every scene where those aliens appear (or don’t) is freaky and great.

It’s the other stuff that just plain doesn’t add up in a coherent way — first and foremost that ending — and there’s been enough cyber-ink spilled on the subject for me to not bother to add to it. But the movie still made tons of money, and enough people still inexplicably say they like it, which is no doubt precisely how the first out-and-out blunder came to pass.

The Village (2004)

THE VILLAGE (2004) – Or as I call it affectionately: Cinematic blue-balls.

There’s nothing wrong with the original premise – colonial village is surrounded on all sides by a thick forest and maintaining an uneasy truce with the horrible monsters who live there – in fact that’s a great goddamn premise! And the way those red-cloaked spiny creatures are set up is chilling. Even knowing how things turned out, I still get chills thinking of their first couple appearances in the movie, and trust me, I don’t scare easy at movies. The first half of THE VILLAGE does the tough part and brings the fear.

So why completely subvert it for a corny twist ending? I’ll tell you how I figured out the twist after the first five minutes of the movie: “Okay, colonial village, bunch of musty old white people, how are they going to work in a role for the director, a modern-sounding East Indian guy, AHA! – it’s actually set in the present day!” And sure enough, there he was, and so it was. Sorry to ruin the movie, but you’d be a lot happier if you turned it off at the hour-mark anyway.

Lady in the Water (2006)

LADY IN THE WATER (2006) – Even worse, somehow.  Massive folly. Near-unbelievable, but I didn’t see it alone, so I know for a fact it really happened.

Reading Shyamalan print interviews is one of my guilty pleasures. I’m just fascinated by how someone so smart and talented can so often be so misguided. I may risk sounding like an asshole to say so, but I truly find it illuminating. For a while there, Shyamalan was fond of defending his work by questioning why so many people criticize him and not his movies. Seems to me that one way to avoid that is to take a break from casting yourself in your movies. Right? Kind of hard to separate the two when, in this case, you’re playing the pivotal role of the man who will write the book that will change the world, even though it will mean he will die a martyr. And you can’t be so naive as to think that notebook-toting, detail-oriented professional film critics won’t pick up on the fact that the only character to meet a gruesome death, in an entire movie about the act of storytelling itself, is the cranky film critic.

The same way that you can’t complain about the way that people are always trying to figure out the twist endings of your movies when you keep putting twist endings in your movies. Right?

I particularly liked how the title character spent very close to the entire running time curled up in the shower. That was exciting.

And Paul Giamatti had the speech impediment coming and going, and that Latino dude with the fucked-up arm… (Now I’m getting confused again.) The wolf made of grass was pretty cool though. (Was I high?)  Wikipedia tells me there was in fact a grass-wolf. It was called a “scrunt,” which really isn’t a great word to have in what was intended as a children’s movie.

The Happening (2008)

THE HAPPENING (2008) – Okay. Okay.

It’s starting to become apparent that the director may no longer be interested in suspenseful stories about the supernatural, and has in fact now evolved into the maker of really, really weird comedies.

If you go into THE HAPPENING in this spirit, you will not be disappointed. If you are looking for a creepy edge-of-the-seater, you surely will. Without giving anything important away (I want to leave the half-hearted yet still insane ultimate revelation to the bravest among you), here are some reasons why I enjoyed THE HAPPENING:

  • “Filbert.”  Let me explain: The main characters are fleeing Philadelphia on a railroad train, which inexplicably stops. Someone ducks their head away from the window, and the name of the town in which they are now stranded is revealed: Filbert. FILBERT! Duh-duh-duhhhhh! No, God, please, no, not…      Filbert! Filbert! Dooooom! I don’t even care whether or not I’m the only one who laughed at that, because it’s still funny to me. Fucking Filbert, man.
  • I was NOT, however, the only one who laughed when the construction workers started walking off the building. Everyone in my theater laughed at that.  It’s mostly because the plummeting crazies are played by dummies. And if we learned anything from The Three Stooges and Saturday Night Live, it’s that dummies are the greatest of all comedy props.
  • I don’t know who in all of Hollywood I would cast as a science teacher and a math teacher, respectively, but Mark Wahlberg and John Leguizamo are not they. Likable and down-to-earth actors both, but far better casting for, say, the cranky gym coach and the wisecracking AV teacher. They do their best, but the dialogue they are given does them no favors.
  • I swear a couple times Shyamalan cuts away from the action to a reaction shot of Zooey Deschanel and it looks like she’s trying to suppress a crack-up. Shyamalan may not have noticed, but I’m sure I did.
  • Intentional laughs are in the movie for sure, to the point where it’s almost confusing when it happens – stay tuned for the scene where Wahlberg tries to relate on a personal level to a plastic plant. Expertly written and played, and I’m not being sarcastic at all.
  • Far and away Shyamalan’s best and most hilarious cameo in all of his movies to date happens in THE HAPPENING. If you end up going, please stay for the credits to see what role he played. It’s just got to be a joke. But one of those jokes that only the one making it gets; you know that kind.
  • The Lion Scene! Oh man, the lion scene. The lion scene is a horror-comedy classic of which an EVIL DEAD 2-era Sam Raimi would be chainsaw-wieldingly envious. Soon to be a YouTube staple, guaranteed.

So if you’re looking for scary, this is not your territory. Watch the news instead. But if you’re a certain kind of moviegoer in a certain kind of mood, grab a couple like-minded buddies and Mystery-Science-Theater away.

Now, I skipped Shyamalan’s 2010 movie, THE LAST AIRBENDER, because I didn’t think my brain could handle all the fart jokes I was destined to make about that title.  By every last account (except probably Shyamalan’s), I made the correct decision.  But I’m curious about AFTER EARTH.  Did the nasty thrashing he got over his last couple flicks make Shyamalan reconsider some of his more over-used quirks?  Does the presence of Will Smith, one of the most infallible choosers of successful projects of the last decade-and-a-half, suggest that Shammy has reclaimed his earlier mojo?  The AFTER EARTH trailer does not look overtly comical.  It’s somewhat well paced, and more importantly, it has hordes of monkeys in it.  That’s not any guarantee I’ll be able to stay away.



Originally posted on 6-15-2009, this is a column I hope to resurrect one day soon.


By the time The Wrestler was released last year, my Netflix queue became scattered with random Mickey Rourke films of yesteryear.  I’ve always liked Mickey Rourke, and his filmography is a pretty damn interesting place to wander around.  The early, critically acclaimed pretty-boy stage is not short on underrated films with great Rourke performances (The Pope Of Greenwich Village, etc.), and between you and me, the trainwreck years were frequently insanely entertaining as well (Double Team, Bullet*, etc.)  Then you get into Sin City, where Rourke made a huge impression, and Domino, where he was the best thing about a tough movie, which leads us to The Wrestler and the full-on critical redemption.


Before The Wrestler though, Rourke starred in a movie that surely at one point had critical raves in mind – a film adaptation of a 1989 novel by the legendary crime master Elmore Leonard, directed by John Madden, the man who bested (or robbed, depending on who you ask) Saving Private Ryan at the 1998 Oscars for Best Picture with Shakespeare In Love.


Killshot is the story of a career criminal (Rourke) looking to make one last score, aided by an unruly young apprentice (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but through an unfortunate wrong-place/wrong-time scenario, he becomes fixated on killing a couple who are in the process of separation (Diane Lane & Thomas Jane.)  Killshot was shot and intended for release in 2006, but didn’t make it to daylight until this year, when it stealthily snuck onto the DVD shelves. Silent but deadly. What happened?


Killshot opens with a terrific song by the band Low and crystal cinematography by veteran DP Caleb Deschanel (yes, Zooey’s dad), both of which indicate more energy than the rest of the movie ultimately brings.  That’s really the problem – Killshot is just dour.  It’s the kind of movie that makes you appreciate what other movies do right, in this case the fellow Elmore Leonard adaptations Out Of Sight and Jackie Brown.  What Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, respectively, brought to the table was an attention to character and a firmer grasp of tone than Killshot director John Madden ultimately achieves.  Killshot is hardly unwatchable, but it doesn’t have the spark that we look for when Elmore Leonard’s name is involved.


Killshot might get the stone-faced killer angle down, but maybe that’s also what sinks it.  The movie carries very little of Elmore Leonard’s sly sense of humor, and that filters down to the usually-great cast.  Mickey Rourke can do badass in his sleep; he’s good enough here that you wish he’d have a similar role in a more light-hearted movie.  He does, however, have to labor under the burden of playing both Native-American and Canadian, an acting demand which no one can probably do in their sleep.  Gordon-Levitt is a good actor, but he plays his part at such heightened energy that it doesn’t fit the rest of the movie – he comes off as more annoying than not, which makes his character’s fate not a question of IF but of WHEN, if you catch my drift.  Lane and Jane are solid actors who have been given very little to work with here:  Scared and angry, respectively.  Pretty thankless.  (Although “Lane & Jane: Scared & Angry” is a good tagline for the poster.)  Rosario Dawson, as a prison guard with a Graceland obsession, is the only actor in the cast who seems to be fully aware that she’s in an Elmore Leonard adaptation.  I like Rosario a lot – no matter what quality the movie she’s appearing in, she’s always canny enough to strike the right tone.  Unfortunately, she only gets about two scenes in Killshot.


I don’t really understand why Killshot was doomed to such an invisible release – I see worse movies released nationwide every other week.  It may be a somewhat disappointing viewing experience, because you can see how all of the elements could have added up to a much snappier movie, but still, it’s very far from awful.  It’s surely worth watching if you’re enough of a Mickey Rourke fan, and for one other reason at least:  This movie gives you the vision of Diane Lane reaching for a shotgun, wearing a white tank top and panties on a cold night, and that’s really all you need to know to decide whether it’s worth risking your time on.





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Kung Fu Panda 2 contains at least one landmark:  It’s the first time I’ve ever seen acupuncture performed in a kids movie.  It doesn’t last long, but it’s specific and eccentric enough to be noteworthy.

More importantly, this is a good sequel.  It expands on a few of the story threads established in the first movie, rather than contentedly repeating what we’ve already seen (a trap which –blasphemy—even the Toy Story movies occasionally fall into).  I’m not sure I love the scene late in the movie that plays as subtle as a Mike Tyson dance routine, the plot for the inevitable second sequel tattooed boldly on the side of its face, but everything else about Kung Fu Panda 2 was generally understated and solid, an effective companion piece to its predecessor.

Whereas the first Kung Fu Panda charted the unlikely rise of Po the panda (voiced by Jack Black) from dumpling cook and village punchline to kung fu champion and village hero, this one concerns itself with the reasons why the humongous Po has a father who is much, much smaller, and a bird. That means a slightly expanded role for the eternally under-used James Hong, so it’s good news around my house.

However, it’s true that Po’s quest for his anthropological origins means reduced screen time for Po’s teammates, Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu and every member of The Furious Five who isn’t voiced by Angelina Jolie.  All of these characters were a major part of the first Kung Fu Panda, but Hoffman in particular is hardly even in the movie this time around. Only Tigress (Angelina’s character) shares Po’s existential angst, so she’s the one who gets the front-and-center co-starring role. But as I theorized earlier, Kung Fu Panda 3 is already a foregone conclusion, so weep not for any of these characters.

Another fair criticism is that Gary Oldman, as the evil albino Lord Shen, is second only to Christopher Walken as the actor most frequently cast in a villainous role, but to me it worked because his character is a peacock. There’s an excellent disconnect in the effect of a pretty pretty peacock speaking in the angry, threatening tones of Gary Oldman’s best bad-guy voice, and the animation is particularly virtuosic and colorful in all of these scenes.

And that animation simply must be mentioned and underlined: The Kung Fu Panda movies conjure up a loving focus on period detail and a phenomenal coupling of color and motion. I also deeply appreciated how director Jennifer Yuh decided to “shoot” all the flashback sequences in a more stylized, less “realistic,” old-fashioned 2-D animation style that is reminiscent of medieval Chinese art styles.  As a major enthusiast of hand-drawn animation, this was rewarding.  As a turn-my-brain-off moviegoer, I still found it inspired.

The brilliant animation carries Kung Fu Panda 2 through. This series, despite its obvious strengths at well-choreographed fat jokes and fizzy kung fu action, has a slight tendency to sag under the weight of sentiment, but its pace and style and energy manage to keep things moving before any one moment gets too soggy.

And really, it’s impossible not to warm to a movie that loves its welcome habit of casting live-action martial arts stars as cuddly cartoon animals. While Jackie Chan (Monkey) and Jean-Claude Van Damme (Crocodile) will never be classified as the most verbally dextrous voice actors, Michelle Yeoh gives a truly warm and captivating voice performance, which is even more fun once you see what animal character she plays.

Please be advised: Some of the later action scenes in Kung Fu Panda 2 are surprisingly intense and even a little scary.  My niece, who is nearly four, turned to me during one such scene and whispered “Why did you TAKE me to this movie?”  I couldn’t resist the truth: “Because you’ve been asking me to for almost a year”, but then of course I had no problem with her clambering into my arms.  Older kids should have no such hesitations though. This one isn’t as funny as the first, and both fall short of feeling quite like classics, but still, this is a very easy movie to love.

Okay, I liked The Hangover Part II, first of all.  I liked it almost as much as I liked the first one.  The cool thing about the first one is that storytelling structure, where the characters have to put together what they did/what happened to them the night before, and that’s back again.  By definition it can’t be as surprising the second time, so by definition the movie can’t be as surprising, but still, the ante’s been upped.  Much darker, creepier things happen this time around.  Todd Phillips seems to be one of the few comedy directors working today that understands that a sense of danger is what powers some of the best comedy.  You can argue whether he hits the laughter mark or not, but it would be hard to argue that his movies are innocuous or safe.

The Hangover Part II starts in a way that I have no choice but to love, over a personal favorite song by Jenny Lewis, then bringing us to the lovely Jamie Chung, amidst some beautiful location scenery, who’s trying to find where her fiancee has gone.

Jamie Chung.

As in the first Hangover, Tracy (Sasha Barrese, also from Let Me In) gets a call from Phil (Bradley Cooper), that the bachelor party has gone wrong and someone’s missing.  This time, it’s not her fiancee-now-husband Doug (the bland, rather unnecessary Justin Bartha of Gigli fame), but Jamie Chung’s character’s little brother, a 16-year-old cello prodigy who got roped into the guys’ shenanigans.  Yeah, this time it’s Ed Helms’s character Stu who’s getting married, and he scored Jamie Chung, which is boxing in a whole ‘nother weight class.  If they can’t find little Teddy, Stu fears, the wedding is lost.  Not helping matters is Alan (Zach Galifianakis), who Stu never wanted to invite in the first place, and Chow (Ken Jeong), the effeminate gangster from the first movie who Alan re-involves in this mess.

Yes, we saw it already.  It’s up to you if you want to see it again.  For me, I’m enough of a Galifianakis fan that it’s worth it to me to see anything he crops up in.  A Galifianakis appearance is always good for some real good laughs, for me, and I don’t even understand people who don’t feel the same way.  I’m not quite so enamored of Cooper and Helms, though I like them both, but the way that Galifianakis tortures them in these movies is fun to watch.  Just the fact that these guys ARE so tortured in these movies is pretty funny to me.  That’s not something we see much in comedy, this level of horror.  Helms in particular seems thoroughly traumatized.  It definitely makes the happy ending harder to take, and in this movie more than the first there’s a real cringe factor (the cameo appearance that becomes a musical number is almost amateurish and it really doesn’t sit right).  But there’s some fun along the way, including a surprisingly constantly-funny supporting performance from a drug-dealing monkey,  the interesting look into Thai night-life and the way that this unfamiliar setting is filmed so vividly (as I mentioned in my Due Date review Phillips is one of the few comedy filmmakers who actually makes comedies that look good), and a villainous role from one of my very favorite modern actors, who I really didn’t know was in this movie until I saw it.  And please don’t IMDB it or read any of the reviews, because it’s a nice little surprise.

Speaking of reviews, you know, most reviews really suck.  Let me go on this tangent now.  I got home from the screening and opened the latest Rolling Stone and here’s how Peter Travers concluded his negative review of Hangover II:

Who’s to blame for the fuck-up? This time Phillips co-wrote the script with different scribes whose credits don’t inspire confidence: Scot Armstrong worked on the Farrelly brothers flop The Heartbreak Kid, and Craig Mazin lists Scary Movie 3 and 4 on his credit (debit?) sheet. Then again, Phillips collaborated bracingly on the first Hangover with Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who perpetrated the crimes of Four Christmases and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. The problem is that The Hangover Part II isn’t a movie at all, it’s just a blueprint for one. To those who say expediency and a rush to a big payday had nothing to do with getting this sizzle-free sequel into the summer marketplace, I’m calling bullshit.

Whether you like this movie or not, you have to understand that this is a garbage complaint,  You can’t assign blame to what you think didn’t work about a movie on the co-writers.  You, as Peter Travers, or any other film reviewer (I’m singling out Travers here but almost all of them do this crap), have NO idea what contribution each writer had to which movie.  Yes, Scot Armstrong worked on The Heartbreak Kid, but he also worked on Road Trip, Old School, and Starsky & Hutch, all of which were hits.  Craig Mazin wrote Scary Movies 3 & 4, but those movies actually had a few good laughs (unlike the two before it). Not for nothing, but I have to wonder if Peter Travers even actually SAW Scary Movie 3 and 4.  As for Four Christmases, well I think that was a good idea and a watchable movie that didn’t totally work, and Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past I didn’t see but it’s a solid premise for a romantic comedy.  Those are hardly crimes. This is the kind of hyperbole that a reviewer hacks out to fill space, or to save it.

Peter Travers knows way more about moviemaking than this passage shows (I have a cool book of his interviews that I still page through from time to time), but he’s increasingly not a viable gauge of whether a movie is worth seeing or not.  The above passage tells you nothing about Hangover II, and everything about a reviewer who’s trying to sound smarter than the people who made it.  Talk about THE MOVIE, not the co-writers.  THE MOVIE is all we have in front of us to assess.  For all you guys out there still reading reviews, beware of this kind of movie review.  Be skeptical of reviews, even mine.  If you want to see a movie, see it.  Don’t let someone else’s conflicting opinions decide for you.  If you have enough time, I always recommend seeing a movie over not seeing it, just so you can decide for yourself!