Movies

Lessons I Learned From Star Trek

Ok, this isn’t going to be one of those “Star Trek taught me to be a better person by believing in the principles of the Federation” type of posts.

Your Monkey does not know enough about Star Trek the series or the original movies to say whether or not he agrees with any Trekkie philosophy.

This post is about what your Monkey learned from watching “Star Trek” the movie, the 2009 summer blockbuster directed by JJ Abrams (of Lost and Felicity fame).

Being a non-Trek fan who knows nothing of the Trek canon, Your Monkey may be in a better position to judge the film as a pure story, rather than worrying about how it reimagines Star Trek as a series.

OK, enough jibber jabber. On to the lessons.

1. Don’t be afraid to kill someone off: Without revealing anything, there is an important and dramatically surprising death in this movie that sets an emotional tone for the film and raises the dramatic stakes. Because of this death, it becomes more important for us as a viewer that the crew of the Enterprise succeed in their mission. We have set the bar high for noble and heroic sacrifice.

2. Small stakes can equal high drama: Perhaps the most thrilling and adrenaline-charged sequence in the film involves an attempt by Enterprise crew members to sabotage a drill that is boring deep into the core of a planet. This scene only involves six actors, relies primarily on hand to hand combat, and yet is as thrilling as any large scene involving spaceships and photons and phasers and the like. You don’t have to go big to get big results.

3. Respect your characters: Introducing and establishing the personalities of all the Star Trek crew members is no easy task in a movie that runs only about two hours. It is difficult to make each character stand out given that we have to move the plot forward at a pretty rapid clip.

The characters that the film does take time to give a back story to (Spock and Lt. Uhura, for example) to become much more interesting and engaging than those who seem to just get tossed into the mix with only a few throwaway lines (Bones and Sulu). Even the character of  seems to get a short shrift in the back story department.

4. Don’t feel the need to over-explain. After listening to a podcast interview with the screenwriters of the new Star Trek, it became clear to this Monkey that there was a lot going on in the plot of the film that escaped his notice because he was unfamiliar with the long history of Star Trek. But the fact that the film didn’t slow down at every moment to explain how this tied into 40 years of storytelling was a big plus. Those who knew the back story likely enjoyed the film on a different level than the casual fan. But that’ s OK.

5. There is no expiration (star)date for product placement.

Permission to insert jarring product placements into your futuristic sci fi movie Captain?

Permisson granted.

OK Budweiser, OK Nokia. We get it. There is room in the future for the popular cell phone networks and Amercian beer companies of today. We watch the film and we see the oh-so-subtle way that your products are incorporated into the movie. Like sheep, we immediately associate Nokia and Budweiser with the movie that we liked, and immediately start to buy more Bud and Nokia products.

Mission accomplished.

Here is the trailer for the film.

Despite your Monkey’s objections to commercialization, Star Trek is a good, fun movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

Movies

La Jetee: The Grumpiest Monkey Watches the Inspiration for 12 Monkeys

La Jetee
Directed by Chris Marker
1962
Starring Davos Hanich and Hélène Chatelain

“La Jeteé” is a 1962 black and white short film that is best known for being the inspiration for the 1995 Terry Gilliam film “12 Monkeys.”

“12 Monkeys,” for those of you not familiar with the film, is the story of a man from a bleak post-apocalyptic future (Bruce Willis) who is sent back in time to stop the release of a devastating virus that wiped out most of mankind in the 1990s and sent the rest scurrying underground.

While traveling through the past, Willis’ character meets a sympathetic psychiatric (Madeline Stowe) and an eccentric animal rights activist (Brad Pitt), both of whom may play a pivotal role in creating the future world that Willis inhabits.

“La Jeteé” is also the story of a man from a post-apocalyptic future who travels through time, meets a woman in the past, and tries to find answers. This 28 minute black and white film tells the story almost entirely through still images, with a voice-over narration providing the plot points.

Your Monkey has always been a big fan of “12 Monkeys.” It manages to be both a rousing sci-fi thriller and an interesting thought piece on time travel, fate, and inevitability.

So the big questions your Monkey Movie Fan had in sitting down with “La Jeteé” were:

  1. How and why did this 1962 film inspire Terry Gilliam to make 12 Monkeys more than 30 years later?
  2. What elements from the original made it into the remake? What was changed?
  3. Which is the better film?

So how does “La Jeteé” compare to “12 Monkeys”?

Well, the framework for Gilliam’s film is all there in Marker’s earlier work. In fact, “La Jeteé” almost seems like a storyboard draft for “12 Monkeys.”

We have all the same major plot points. And instead of seeing them play out in live action, we see them as a series of photographs.

Marker’s work is more spare from a storytelling standpoint as well He doesn’t tell us much about the man, or the woman, or the worlds in which they live. He doesn’t delve into the emotions of his characters, but lets us fill in the blanks.

The use of black and white still photography for the vast majority of the film creates an interesting effect. Much like a time traveler, we feel like we are just getting brief glimpses of another world, rather than actually living in it.

But in this Monkey’s humble opinion, Gilliam’s movie is much more well rounded. We have more characters, a more detailed plot, and overall a more satisfying viewing experience. He took the shell that Marker created with “La Jeteé” and filled it in with a much more emotionally resonant film.

So is “La Jeteé” worth seeing?

It is if you are a fan of “12 Monkeys.” It’s interesting to see what another artist does with the same basic story framework. At a paltry 28 minutes, it’s not too big of a time investment.

And it is available on DVD from Netflix in a Criterion Collection edition that includes a second film. So you get two shows for the price of one!*

Here is the trailer from “La Jeteé”:

* Unfortunately, that second film is an interminably long travelogue about a photographer’s journeys in Africa and Japan. You may want to avoid it like the apocalyptic plague in “12 Monkeys.”

Movies, Shameless self indulgence

The Grumpiest Monkey Trips Out on Altered States

This being the second in a series of movie reviews your humble Monkey is posting now that he has a little spare time to catch up on his netflix queue. There is no rhyme or reason to the series, just some stuff that he has always wanted to check out.

“Altered States” (1980)
Directed by Ken Russell
Starring William Hurt, Blair Brown, and a couple of bearded scientists

Altered States first piqued your Monkey’s interest for two reasons.

One, this 1980 film is based on a novel by the esteemed Paddy Chayefsky, the screenwriter behind such master works as the 1950’s film “Marty” (about a lovable sad sap who finally finds love) and the 1970’s classic “Network”.

Two, it involves hallucinatory drugs, isolation tanks, genetic regression, and other psychedelic issues that regular readers of this blog (of which there are none) will surely recognize as key interests.

Altered States tells the story of Edward Jessup, a brilliant, driven scientist (played by Hurt) who starts to experience strange sensations and hallucinations while experimenting with an isolation tank in his lab.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, an isolation tank is basically a large (sinister looking) black box that is filled with a small amount of heavily salted water. The subject shuts himself in the darkened tank and floats on the naturally buoyant salt water.

Floating in the dark, silent tank deprives the mind of physical sensations and thus the mind turns inward on itself. Many of those who have tried isolation tanks have reported hallucinations and strong psychedelic experiences. See your Monkey’s previous post on the isolation tank tripping done by Joe Rogan here.

Plus the film raises some interesting theoretical questions:

  • What if it is possible to see heaven and hell just by turning inward on ourselves?
  • What if there is some primitive brain that exists deep within our own brain that holds all the mysteries of millions of years of evolution?
  • What if it were possible to climb inside our nightmares simply by removing all other outside stimulus?

Heady questions, for sure. So given that Altered States seems to have been genetically engineered in a movie lab purely for your curious Monkey, does it work?

Umm. Not so much. It’s not really a bad viewing experience, but as a complete film that is supposed to tell a story it is pretty much a mess.

We’re not talking about nonsense in the context of far out ideas and trippy pre-cgi visuals, we’re talking about nonsense in the form bad editing, missing scenes and sloppy storytelling.

Does the movie take place in New York, Boston, or San Francisco? If it is Boston, how come it doesn’t look like Boston?

Also, how much time elapses between scenes?  A couple goes from agreeing to get married to having several kids to getting divorced to somehow being back together again, and none of us are sure why.

And how about these secondary characters? Who is the scientist that accompanies Jessup to South America? Who is the doctor who insists on yelling incomprehensibly in his thick Southern accent during the tests in the tank? Who is the woman that Jessup is sleeping with in the second half of the film?

Also, what exactly is Jessup the scientist up to in his lab? Other than knowing that he likes to track down and ingest weird native drugs and spend an unhealthy amount of time in an isolation tank, we’re not quite sure what Jessup wants to get out of all this mind surfing. Is it inner peace? Scientific glory? Something else?

If you’re looking for something that is mildly entertaining, happen to be nostalgic for the early 1980s science fiction, or just plain curious about the idea of isolation tanks, this movie might be worth exploring.

But for the curious film fan hoping that a science fiction tale that will challenge us and make us question our vision of reality or the ethics of scientific research, this one falls far short.

Oh well. Looks like your Monkey will pop back into his isolation tank and watch the movies in his mind’s eye until it’s time for another Netflix screening.

Here’s the trailer for Altered States. You’ll see what I mean. You just want it to be good. But alas:


Movies

The Grumpiest Monkey Gets Skinny With “The Machinist”

It’s movie day at Grumpy Monkey Manor. Nothing quite wraps up a peaceful, sunny and mild Labor Day Weekend like a grim and gritty suspense drama starring a super-emaciated Christian Bale.

The Machinist (2004)
Directed by Brad Anderson
Starring Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michael Ironside

Bale plays Trevor Resnick, an insomniac machine operator who is rapidly losing weight and living in an uncertain sleepless haze. When bad things start to happen, Resnick starts to question his version of reality.

It may be that Resnick is being menaced by Ivan, an aggressively bald southerner who works at the same machine plant.

It may be that Resnick is being set up by his coworkers after an unfortunate industrial accident leaves someone without an arm.

It may be that the psychotic ex-boyfriend of the prostitute he visits on a regular basis is setting him up.

Or it may be that Resnick is losing his mind along with massive amounts of weight.

This movie is perhaps most famous for the transformation that Bale underwent to play the emaciated Resnick. His wieght loss is shaking, haunting and unavoidable.

Bale’s transformation turns what is otherwise a pretty standard thriller ( a splash of “Memento” here, a touch of “Seven” there) into something that is a little more uneasy and unsettling. We know what Christian Bale looks like, and to see him to wan and thin really gets under our skin.

But overall the movie doesn’t quite get there. Director Brad Anderson has made better movies. The plot has some noir-ish twists and turns, but your Monkey would argue that the payoff at the end doesn’t meet the expectations that the film sets.

It’s not bad viewing overall, but nothing that really sticks your ribs. (Sorry but it had to be done).

As always, feel free to decide for yourself.

Your Monkey was going to post the trailer here for you to see, but too much of the film is given away there.

Why do film companies feel compelled to ruin their own product by giving away too many plot points up front?

A discussion for another day, perhaps.

Here is a link to the Rotten Tomatoes page for the Machinist, where you can read reviews from actual critcs.

Me thinks the 75% favorable is a little too generous. Perhaps Bale’s transformation helps to cover up what is an otherwise flimsy film.

Movies

What is the Big Deal about the Big Lebowski?

For years now, your Monkey has been puzzled by how popular the movie the Big Lebowski has been among film geeks and hipsters.

Having seen the movie only once (shortly after it was released in 1998), your Monkey found all this Lebowski worship to be pretty confusing.

He did not remember it as being particularly good or entertaining. In fact, the film felt like a letdown after the Cohen Brothers’ excellent film Fargo.

Your Monkey was ready to dismiss the Big Lebowski as nothing more than a sub-par Cohen Brothers effort, but it just kept creeping back into his life.

It was mentioned time and time again on the Filmspotting podcast.

It kept showing up on top 10 favorite movie lists on the internet.

And then the House of Blues in Boston announced that it would be hosting a Lebowski Fest in September. Here’s a link to that event for all you fans.

Curiosity finally got the best of your Grumpy Monkey, and he had to take another look at the film. What kind of movie could spawn an event that would draw enough people (presumably) to fill one of Boston’s larger music venues?

So your Monkey added the Big Lebowksi to his Netflix queue, and rewatched the film with an eye toward figuring out what the fuss was all about. Perhaps now that he was older and wiser and geekier, he might see what he missed the first time around.

Here’s the trailer for any of you who might not have seen it yet.

The verdict?

Still mixed. Okay, the movie does have its strong points. Jeff Bridges’ character of the Dude does have a certain charm that might have been lost on your Monkey the first time around. His cool stoner demeanor and willing to roll with whatever punches life dishes out (and there are a lot) make him fun to watch.

John Goodman is also appealing (if not maddeningly frustrating) as the amped-up Vietnam Vet Walter Sobchak. Goodman is the unstable and emotional counterpoint to the Dude’s cool and detached demeanor, and you can’t deny the way that his energy crackles on the screen, even if you don’t particularly like his character.

Goodman here is playing a character similar to the one he plays in Barton Fink. This Monkey would argue that his performance in that earlier Cohen Brothers’ film is better because it starts off small and builds to a boil. Here we pretty much have only one speed — full raging lunatic.

The story itself also offers a nice twist on the traditional “kidnapping goes bad” story. There is a point early on in the film where it threatens to become a formulaic cautionary tale about greed. How many movies have we seen where the characters try to grab the money and run, only to have everything go horribly wrong?

But the Cohen Brothers are smart enough to play with this formula and take it into a different direction before it becomes tired and predictable.

On the negative side, there are some parts of the plot that are confusing and overcomplicated. The movie gets a little too silly at some points.

And while it is entertaining to watch, it’s not exactly a must-see. Your monkey watched it in bits and pieces over the course of a week. It never once grabbed his attention and refused to let go.

Overall, though, the movie had enough going for it.

It’s fun. It has good lines. It has a good vibe.

Is it something that is worthy of such a rabid cult following ?

Maybe not.

But people could do worse.

So enjoy, Lebowski fans. Your Monkey won’t be joining in at Lebowski Fest this year.

But he doesn’t mind if you go and have a good time.

Movies

Does Pixar Sometimes Get a Free Ride?

Let’s think for a moment about two movies that have a lot in common.

Ratatouille, released in 2007 by Disney Pixar, is a whimsical tale about an unusual rat who happens to be a great chef.

The Tale of Desperaux, released in 2008 by Universal Pictures, is a whimsical tale about an unusual mouse who happens to be born without the timidness that comes naturally to all other mice.

Ratatouille was a smashing success. The Tale of Desperaux fared much more modestly at the box office.

Ratatouille is a critical darling with a 96% percent favorable rating at Rotten Tomatoes.com, the premier site for collecting and averaging the critical grades for movies.

The Tale of Desperaux received only lukewarm reviews and averages a 55% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Having seen both movies, your Monkey is perplexed by the overwhelmingly positive response to one and the underwhelming response to the other.

If anything, Desperaux is the superior film of the two.

Sure, Ratatouille has some good things going for it. Pixar can’t help but make a visually impressive film. They do 3D animation better than anyone, and they are usually great at telling a story.

Brad Bird is a very talented director whose work on the Incredibles and the Iron Giant made this Monkey all too eager to see what he could do with the story of a rat who dreams of being a chef.

The problem is that Ratatouille just falls flat.

It is so predictable and uninspired that we find ourselves sitting there waiting for the next predictable plot point to hit.

  • The good guy who turns out to be the bad guy.
  • A hostile relationship between a male and female cook that turns into a budding romance.
  • A protagonist who fails, then succeeds, then suffers a setback due to a misunderstanding (or deception), then finally succeeds with the help of some friends.

Perhaps Ratatouille’s  biggest crime is that it left the viewer with nothing to discover. Only the next step in the formula to anticipate. It made this Monkey feel like he was just seeing the same rote story played out again.

And he was feeling like it was no longer worth taking the ride.

In fact, your Monkey almost didn’t feel like it was worth seeing Wall-E, which would have been a tremendous shame because Wall-E is exactly the opposite of what Ratatouille is.

Desperaux, like Wall-E, is a movie that shows a lively imagination.

It manages to create unique situations and challenge expectations through clever storytelling and wry humor.

It might not be a perfect movie, but it’s a refreshing and inspiring one that manages to deal with dark issues like death and grief and disappointment without ever wallowing in pity (self or otherwise).

It is about the inspiring power of storytelling, and of hope, and of doing the right thing and being heroic and all that good stuff.

While this is not a “Pixar” film and is not immediately granted all the unassailable prestige that a Pixar film is given, a great deal of care was taken with the animation.

It is grand when it needs to be grand, simple when it needs to be simple, and the action sequences pack plenty of thrills without being too hectic.

What is the point of all this? Aha. A good question to ask, my friend.

Your Monkey is worried about these weighty issues because

  • He genuinely liked Desperaux and thinks that it got something of a short shrift from critics and audiences
  • He genuinely found Ratatouille to be boring and dull and predictable, and can’t understand why people seem intent on falling all over themselves to praise it
  • He can’t help but wonder if the mere fact that Ratatouille was a Pixar film automatically made it a critical darling.

Your thoughts?

Movies, Work, Writing

Forget it Monkey, it’s Chinatown

There is a scene near the end of the movie Chinatown where the morally bankrupt millionaire Noah Cross (John Huston) tells private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) that deep down inside, most people are capable of some pretty rotten things.

Your Monkey is not quite as corrupt as old Noah Cross.

But he had a similar revelation recently after he took a long hard look at himself and discovered that he’s not just bad at writing cover letters, but downright terrible at it.

Of all the cruel ironies in a world filled with cruelty and irony!

To be a writer who can’t write a cover letter must be the worst of all.

Sure, your Monkey is OK at writing other things, but when it comes to cover letters, it is a jumbled mess of run on sentences, warmed-over cliches, and half-baked ideas that don’t speak at all to the specifics of the job or his personal accomplishments. No wonder human resources types are nauseated by his every entreaty.

How is anyone supposed to give this Monkey a chance when his first foot forward is a horribly awkward one?

A writer who can’t write a cover letter is like a dentist with a mouth full of fillings, a personal trainer who smokes, or a doctor who can’t stand the sight of blood.

It just doesn’t work.

And thus,  sadly, neither will this Monkey. At least not at any job he has to write a cover letter for.