MONKEY SHINES (1988)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Directed by: George A. Romero

Written by: George A. Romero

(based on the novel MONKEY SHINES by Michael Stewart)

Starring: Jason Beghe, John Pankow, Kate McNeill, Joyce Van Patten, Christine Forrest, Stephen Root, Stanley Tucci & Janine Turner

George A. Romero had become a master of horror purely through low-budget independent efforts, but he eventually wanted to make his way into the studio system. His first foray into this unfamiliar territory was 1988’s MONKEY SHINES. Based on Michael Stewart’s novel of the same name, MONKEY SHINES is a killer animal movie that doesn’t follow the typical tropes of a killer animal movie. This film features an adorable little monkey, focuses on the human drama of the characters, and milks surprisingly competent suspense out of its ridiculous premise. The film also has a silly camp factor to it, which greatly benefits the overall entertainment value.

College athlete Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) has a bright future ahead of him, until it all comes crashing down with a car accident. Paralyzed from the neck down, Allan is unable to do much of anything and his will to live is fading. Things begin looking up once Allan is introduced to super smart service monkey Ella. With a new furry friend by his side, Allan discovers love with specialist Melanie (Kate McNeil) and also develops some anger issues. Soon enough, strange deaths befall folks who piss Allan off. This mysterious wave of violence couldn’t have anything to do with Ella…or recent unexplainable dreams that Allan has been having, right? This is a horror movie, so you probably already know the answer to that question.

For a movie about an adorable killer monkey, MONKEY SHINES actually manages to evoke real suspense from its ludicrous plot. The clear reason for this comes from Allan being quadriplegic and Ella being a super smart monkey that can severely mess with him. There are moments where Allan is completely helpless and forced to watch as Ella terrorizes his friends. Part of the reason why Allan’s disability works as a strong plot device and doesn’t feel like a cheap exploitative gimmick is because Romero actually takes the time to develop Allan as a full-fledged character. This means the film’s first act is relatively slow, but the plot is compelling enough to engage the viewer’s interest.

Once the killer animal mayhem and scares get going, MONKEY SHINES has two modes: creepy and goofy. Surprisingly, it works on both of these contrasting tones. I found myself hooked to the screen during some of the quieter moments, including a final third that features a murderous Ella running amok and Allan struggling to keep his ever-dwindling amount of friends alive. I also busted out laughing during certain scenes purely because of how silly, but thoroughly enjoyable they were to watch. Name one other movie that has an adorable monkey electrocuting an old lady in a bathtub? What about another horror flick that has nightmare sequence that climaxes in a monkey version of the ALIEN chestburster moment? You likely can’t and that shows just how damned unique, silly, and fun MONKEY SHINES really is.

As for the performances, the monkey (or monkeys?) playing Ella steal the show as this is some of the most impressive animal acting you’re likely to ever see in a horror film. Ella is adorable in some moments, funny in other scenes, and also maintains the sense of menace as she constantly kills (and attempts to kill) characters. Jason Beghe is convincing and sympathetic as protagonist Allan, while Kate McNeill is solid as his love-interest. Joyce Van Patten is positively hateable as Allan’s overly controlling mother and John Pankow is fun as Allan’s mad scientist best friend. The cast also has an underused Stanley Tucci as a scumbag surgeon and Stephen Root (in his first acting role) as a rival scientist.

MONKEY SHINES has equal amounts of laugh-out-loud moments (some of which are downright unintentional), killer animal hijinks, and genuine suspense. George A. Romero may not have had a great experience while making this movie and the studio was ultimately disappointed by its low box office performance, but MONKEY SHINES is a blast. The script takes the time to flesh out its story and develop characters, has a tense final third, and maintains a fun tone throughout. Overall, MONKEY SHINES is a really strange, but very fun overlooked horror gem from the 80s.

Grade: B

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Graphic Violence and some Language

Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

(based on the novel NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by Cormac McCarthy)

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson, Garret Dillahunt, Tess Harper, Barry Corbin, Beth Grant & Stephen Root

Throughout their filmography, the Coen brothers have written and directed plenty of great films. It wouldn’t be a stretch to list them amongst the greatest filmmakers working today and their crowning cinematic achievement will likely go down as their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. This ultra-bleak cat-and-mouse thriller won four Academy Awards and is frequently listed as one of the best films of the 2000’s. As a fan of the Coen brothers, a person who frequently indulges on dark thrillers, and an admirer of cinema as art, I have to say that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is one of my favorite films.

In 1980’s Texas, Vietnam war veteran Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is hunting when he stumbles across a drug deal gone bad. Amongst the blood, corpses and bullet shells, Llewelyn finds two million dollars and one thirsty survivor. After he steals the money and feels guilty about leaving the dehydrated man behind, Llewelyn returns to deliver a gallon of water and finds himself on the run from very dangerous people who want their stolen cash back. Though gun-wielding Mexicans and a good ol’ boy bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson) are searching for Moss, his main hunter is psychopathic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Moss and Chigurh find themselves in an increasingly deadly game of cat-and-mouse, all while aging Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) chases both men.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN has many amazing qualities, one of the biggest easily comes in stellar performances across the board. Josh Brolin makes Llewelyn Moss into a likable protagonist, even if he makes a few bone-headed decisions. The entire plot is thrust forward by Moss making one giant mistake and it becomes a blood-soaked cautionary tale. Tommy Lee Jones delivers the most restrained performance of the film as the close-to-retirement sheriff, who’s sickened by the increasing violence and crime of the world. The film’s title mostly derives from Tommy Lee Jones’s character’s sullen storyline and the plot’s heavier philosophical content is packed into his scenes.

Woody Harrelson is charismatic as the cocksure bounty hunter, while Kelly Macdonald is convincingly naïve as Moss’s wife. The film’s scariest performance arrives in the form of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. This lunatic kills unfortunate souls in unique ways (e.g. cattle-gun, handcuffs employed as a deadly weapon, sound-suppressed shotgun) and is 100% terrifying. Bardem’s deliberate line delivery and dead-eyed stare create a foe that’s simply hard to read, which makes him even scarier. Chigurh also has a twisted set of principles that are never fully revealed to the viewer, but we see life-or-death coin tosses and chance encounters that end on quietly menacing notes (the “do you see me?” scene sends chills down my spine).

Though its set-up is simple, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN packs in plenty of deeper meanings, careful background details, and parallels between characters that are likely to be analyzed by viewers in many different ways. The quiet ending (that seemingly arrives out of nowhere) is sure to throw a few people for a loop, but I really enjoy how it book-ends the film alongside opening narration that sets up the violence to come. As far as background details go, small things like wires that resemble like nooses in a convenience store owner, Chigurh’s cattle-centric main weapon of choice, and a phone ringing as a symbol of death calling come into play. There’s also one distinct scene that’s repeated between Moss and Chigurh that surely means something, though I’m not entirely sure what.

Besides being pure pleasure for arthouse-loving cinephiles, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN functions just as perfectly as a modern western thriller. The violence is shocking and the tension is so thick that you could cut it with a knife. Most of NO COUNTRY functions without a musical score, which makes the stellar sound design and every line of cleverly constructed dialogue stick out that much more. The film also takes ambiguous turns that let the audience fill in the blank. There are moments that may not suit every viewer’s cinematic cravings, but NO COUNTRY’s unconventional storytelling seems to work for a bigger audience than most arthouse dramas would typically appeal towards.

When I was in high school, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was one of the most intense books I ever read. Through sheer filmmaking prowess and careful eyes behind the camera, the Coen brothers masterfully translated Cormac McCarthy’s simple-yet-profound tale into a masterpiece of a movie. The suspense and fast-paced action will please those who want a modern western thriller, while the deeper meanings and carefully placed dialogue will thrill serious film lovers. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is easily one of the best films from the 2000s and definitely belongs somewhere in my top 20 all-time favorite movies!

Grade: A+

GET OUT (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Bloody Images, and Language including Sexual References

Directed by: Jordan Peele

Written by: Jordan Peele

Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Caleb Landry Jones, Lil Rel Howery, Betty Gabriel & Marcus Henderson

Who would have ever expected Jordan Peele to write and direct a horror film? Then, who would expect it to be batshit insane and, also, a classy exercise in slow-burn scares? Color me surprised because GET OUT is pretty great. This strange, sinister horror-comedy is like GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER mixed with a creepy TWILIGHT ZONE episode. The end result is a film that tackles racial issues in an unexpected way, never coming off as too preachy and maintaining the spooky entertainment. This film is a twisted treat for horror fans and those who want to watch something out of the ordinary.

After four months of dating, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is finally going to meet the parents of his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). Chris is concerned because Rose’s folks don’t know that he’s black and he suspects that his race may affect their opinion of him. However, her surgeon father Dean (Bradley Whitford) and psychiatrist mother Missy (Catherine Keener) take an instant liking to Chris…though they seem slightly overbearing in their welcoming nature. Chris soon begins to suspect that not everything is as it seems, because Rose’s family has two strange servants (who happen to be black) and there appears to be something very dark lying underneath the surface of the family’s picture perfect appearance.

GET OUT’s plot purposely shows off a few obvious clues in advance and then wisely subverts expectations through some masterfully executed turns in the narrative. The screenplay doesn’t throw lots of unnecessary red herrings at the audience and instead lets on that something is definitely wrong from the get-go. However, Peele lets the viewer simmer in the stew of awkward tension and creepy build-up before unveiling what that “something” is. This movie functions as a slow-burn for about two-thirds of its running time, but remains compelling the whole way through.

Chris is built up as a sympathetic character and not just because he’s a fish-out-of-water at Rose’s home. We learn more about our on-edge protagonist through small bits of dialogue and revealing moments, making us care even more about him as the film moves along. Daniel Kaluuya (who I mainly knew from BLACK MIRROR’s best episode) is great as a character thrown into a strange situation that becomes stranger with each passing second. Allison Williams is solid as Chris’s girlfriend, who tries to be understanding and also maintains skepticism at some of his claims.

Bradley Whitford injects a bit of quirky humor as Rose’s over-the-top accepting father, while Catherine Keener is downright eerie as Rose’s mother…who also happens to be a hypnotist (to add to the weird factor). Caleb Landry Jones is great as Rose’s menacing brother, who obviously has something violent brewing beneath the surface. Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson are threatening as the black servants of the rich white estate. The film’s major flaw (one that holds it down from being an A in my book) comes from the performance of Lil Rey Howery as Chris’s concerned TSA best friend. His scenes exist to insert light-hearted laughter between the horror, but they don’t always jive well with the material and become downright distracting at points.

GET OUT nails its eerie atmosphere, freaky story and deeper themes. There are a few ways that this film can be read, with some recurring imagery throughout (look out for the deer). Racists have been tackled before in movies. Most of the time they’re Neo-Nazi skinheads (much like the psychos in last year’s GREEN ROOM), but GET OUT tackles racism on the opposite end of the political spectrum. I think this film will ironically be celebrated by SJWs who don’t realize that the scarily-satirical material is a scathing indictment on them. Racism can come from both the right and the left. GET OUT targets the left’s version of racism, without ever becoming too preachy or detracting from the horrific plot at hand.

Besides having loads of tense build-up, clever writing and strong performances, GET OUT also has genuinely frightening scenes and a visceral final third. The last act of this film showcases lots of pay-off to the suspenseful build-up and it’s beyond satisfying. GET OUT’s script really shows off its clever writing by forcing the viewer reevaluate earlier scenes with new context added to them. There are lots of clues that will likely stick out upon repeat viewings and the film’s general vibe echoes deliberately paced 70’s horror cinema…but for modern audiences. If you dig scary movies or want to see something that’s off-the-wall insane, then you should get out to see GET OUT! Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Grade: A-

OFFICE SPACE (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and brief Sexuality

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Directed by: Mike Judge

Written by: Mike Judge

Starring: Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston, Stephen Root, Gary Cole, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, John C. McGinley & Paul Willson

Have you ever been stuck in slow-moving traffic on your way to work? Have you ever endured the insufferable ramblings of a dickhead boss or had to put up with inane antics from annoying coworkers? Are you sick of wasting away your precious time on filling out menial paperwork? If you answered “yes” to any of those questions and are feeling fed up with life in general, then you might just be overdue for a viewing of Mike Judge’s OFFICE SPACE. In his first live-action feature film, Judge weaves everyday annoyances into a hilarious, relatable workplace comedy.

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Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) is a bored programmer stuck in his cubicle job at Initech. On a daily basis, Peter finds himself beset by constant criticism from eight different bosses, loaded with frustrating paperwork, and depressed by sheer boredom. In an effort to combat his depression, Peter visits a hypnotherapist and is put into a deep state of relaxation…only to have the therapist drop dead before he can bring Peter back to the real world. Now invigorated with a new lease on life, Peter decides that he’ll do whatever he wants with little regard to the consequences at work and soon finds himself flourishing with upper management. When the company decides to fire Peter’s hard-working friends Michael Bolton (David Herman) and Samir Nagheenanajar (Ajay Naidu), Peter decides that the best course of action is to rebel against Initech…much to the dismay of his waitress girlfriend Joanna (Jennifer Aniston).

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OFFICE SPACE was hardly a financial success at the box office, earning back two million over its 10 million dollar budget. However, the film soon found a cult following after its disappointing stint in theaters. Though details of the cubicle environment are exaggerated for comedic effect, OFFICE SPACE holds a lot of truth in its perfectly paced 89-minute running time. Judge based the script off a series of animated shorts which in turn came from experiences at his first job. Ties to real-world office politics and stupidity raise this film above simply being a comedy, making the story far more relatable and the laughs even bigger as a result. The grounded sense of humor lends itself to running gags about TPS reports, Michael Bolton’s music, a malfunctioning printer and a red stapler. Though those topics might not sound especially funny, Judge transforms them into something truly special.

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Another great narrative technique that Judge employs is a careful use of subplots. There are a handful of smaller storylines in OFFICE SPACE that wouldn’t make features by themselves, but blend naturally into the movie’s main plot. Joanna’s flair feud with her smug restaurant manager will likely cherished by anyone who’s worked in food service. Peter and Joanna’s blooming relationship comes off as a believable love story and doesn’t distract from the workplace comedy angle. The film’s best subplot easily belongs to company vice president Bill Lumbergh’s (Gary Cole) constant harassment of bespectacled weirdo Milton Waddams (Stephen Root). This was ripped straight out of Judge’s early animated shorts. Cole’s passive-aggressive boss and Root’s ginger-haired oddball serve as the film’s two biggest highlights.

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Ron Livingston has never struck me as an acting talent to be reckoned with, but he perfectly embodies everyman Peter. This protagonist’s earlier moments keep the viewer in an appropriately frustrated mindset and then we feel elated with him as he begins to enjoy his day-to-day life more. For my money, Peter Gibbons will likely be the best performance we ever see from Livingston. Jennifer Aniston, who was in her fifth season of FRIENDS at this point, is great as Peter’s not-so-ambitious love interest. Joanna is a kung-fu loving girl who just wants to live her life to the best of her ability. She also gives some very simple, but true life advice during her final scene.

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Other colorful supporting characters include the Bobs, a pair of corporate “housecleaners” played by Paul Willson and an especially hilarious John C. McGinley. These two lay-off managers don’t take up a ton of screen time and make the most of their scenes. Ajay Naidu hasn’t starred in too many noteworthy movie roles, but he steals a number of moments as good-natured Samir. He also pulls off a brief breakdance move that cracks me up every time I see it. Finally, David Herman has befallen a similar fate to Naidu in that he’s mainly a supporting role and hasn’t received a ton of big screen time (aside from the first three seasons of MAD TV). That’s truly a shame, because he has plenty of great moments as profanity-filled, self-loathing Michael Bolton. It’s also worth noting that this movie’s rap soundtrack makes scenes of these white-collar rebels even funnier with its obvious contrast.

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There are many reasons why OFFICE SPACE has spawned such a notable reputation and cult following since it’s so-so theatrical reception. This film resonates with plenty of pissed off employees and comedy lovers simply for its honest, unblinking nature at stupid office politics, crappy workplaces and everyday annoyances. Judge’s script feels genuine and hilarious, never going too far over-the-top to be completely unbelievable or non-relatable. The many subplots ensure that there’s never a laugh-free scene on the screen, while the main storyline is likely to leave the viewer with an upbeat attitude afterwards. OFFICE SPACE is not only one of the best comedies to come out of the 90’s, it’s one of my all-time favorite comedies! If nothing else, this film is sure to cure a case of the Mondays.

Grade: A+

FINDING DORY (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for mild Thematic Elements

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Directed by: Andrew Stanton

Written by: Andrew Stanton & Victoria Strouse

Voices of: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Hayden Rolence, Alexander Gould, Ed O’Neil, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Michael Sheen, Andrew Stanton, Bill Hader, Sigourney Weaver, Willem Dafoe, Brad Garrett & Stephen Root

Ever since Pixar was bought by Disney, the studio has produced more sequels and less original films. We’ve had a third TOY STORY installment (which was amazing), CARS 2 (their worst film thus far), MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (an okay-at-best prequel) and still face a growing horde of follow-ups on the horizon with TOY STORY 4, CARS 3, and THE INCREDIBLES 2. 2003’s FINDING NEMO seemed highly unlikely to receive a sequel and stood perfectly fine by itself as one of the Pixar’s finest films. Still, here we are. Thirteen years after NEMO’s original theatrical run, we have FINDING DORY, which is a surprisingly solid second installment.

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A year has passed since the events of FINDING NEMO. Clownfish father Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence) are peacefully living in their sea anemone home, now with forgetful blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) as their neighbor. Things have settled down for Marlin and Nemo, but that suddenly changes when Dory is struck by a resurgence of long-lost memories. It turns out that Dory has a family and lives somewhere in the California area. Desperate to be reunited with her formerly forgotten parents, Dory makes her way across the ocean with Marlin and Nemo in tow. However, her adventure becomes complicated when an aquarium “saves” Dory and the two clownfish are forced to go on an improvised rescue mission.

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Like most sequels in any genre, FINDING DORY doesn’t quite measure up to the quality of its predecessor. The plot follows a story that’s noticeably similar to the first film. When Dory is “rescued,” Marlin even exclaims “Not again!” as if to call attention to this. However, this sequel avoids simply repeating old plot points by introducing new characters, changing the setting and bringing a different set of stakes. One fantastic tweak in the story are emotional flashbacks to Dory’s childhood. Besides baby Dory being Pixar’s cutest creation ever, the blasts from this blue fish’s past lay out certain details in advance and give the audience a deep desire to see Dory happily reunited with her parents. These flashbacks don’t feel forced or heavily loaded with exposition either. They contain the right mixture of clever dialogue, heartwarming humor, and utter cuteness.

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FINDING DORY surprisingly doesn’t stumble into the typical sequel pitfall of trying to reincorporate too many characters from the original film. That film was chock full of unforgettable fishy friends and each served a distinct purpose in the movie’s storyline. DORY has a few returning faces (the singing Stingray, surfer turtle Crush, and a great after-credits cameo), but it mainly relies on a new handful of underwater characters that are just as entertaining to watch and contribute to the plot in their own special ways. Surprisingly, these come in voices from MODERN FAMILY and IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA.

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Ed O’Neill is perfectly cast as Hank, a grumpy red octopus with a heart of gold. Ty Burrell lends his unique vocals to beluga whale Bailey and provides one of the funniest story arcs, while Kaitlin Olson voices gentile whale shark Destiny. Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy serve as Dory’s forgotten-but-now-remembered parents in the many flashbacks throughout. Meanwhile, Dominic Cooper and Idris Elba are hysterical as two territorial sea lions. Even though FINDING DORY only brings back the “Mine!” seagulls for a very brief moment, these sea lions officially made up for that and had me laughing every single time they were on the screen.

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My only complaint with FINDING DORY comes from its changed environment. While the first film was an adventure that spanned across half the ocean and packed in lots of excitement, a majority of this sequel takes place within a California aquarium. This smaller location offers new characters, new jokes, and a more contained set of emotional stakes, but definitely lessens the exciting adventure aspect of the story. FINDING DORY is a very different film than FINDING NEMO in this regard, yet still can’t help but feel like a slight downgrade due to the crazy amounts of danger that the fishy protagonists faced in the first film. The only hazards Dory, Marlin and Nemo come into contact with are aquarium procedures, disgruntled staff members, and one angry sea creature (which felt a tad lazy).

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This complaint is very small in the overall scheme of FINDING DORY. The animation is exactly what you’d expect from Pixar at this point, which is to say it looks amazing, colorful and vibrant. The writing is smart and engaging, even if the adventure aspect is lessened from the first film (which seemed like an insurmountable predecessor to begin with). The emotions are spot-on as Dory’s past is built upon through adorable, heart-warming/wrenching flashbacks. DORY’s non-linear storyline never once feels forced or dull either. FINDING DORY shows that Pixar can still crank out great films, even if those movies happen to be sequels (a feat that had only previously been seen in TOY STORY 2 and 3).

Grade: A-

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