Monday, November 29, 2010

"127 Hours"

127 Hours - Directed by Danny Boyle, written by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, based on the book by Aron Ralston, starring James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, and Treat Williams - Rated R

I know it's been a Vader heavy year for me, but I can't deny my highest rating to a movie that left such a powerful impression on me.

How far would you go to survive? It’s a theme that has been visited many times but is always interesting. Films like 127 Hours allow the viewer to ask, “What would I do if I was in that situation?” If you can ask such a question, then you can also place yourself in the story. It also helps that Danny Boyle is directing because he is a filmmaker who can place an audience within a film and he’s willing to put his camera anywhere. It is also easy to become interested in a movie when you have an actor like James Franco to completely embody a character and create entertainment as well as inspiration.

The fact that 127 Hours is a compelling film is doubly impressive because it is based on a true story. If you want to go into this film completely fresh you need to stop reading right now. I don’t plan on spelling out everything that happens in this film, but the information I will cover would be considered a spoiler for other films, so fair warning.

Franco stars as Aron Ralston who, in 2003, went biking/hiking/rock climbing in Utah without telling anyone exactly where he was going. He fell into a crevice, knocking a boulder loose in the process. The boulder fell with him, pinning his right arm against the canyon wall. This is where that true story aspect becomes troublesome. If you remember the story from the news, or you’ve seen publicity for the film, or if you notice the “Based on a book by Aron Ralston” credit at the beginning of the film, then you know that he survives. That would seem to ruin the suspense of the film, but amazingly, it doesn’t.

Prior knowledge may put a damper on things, but 127 Hours makes up for that with intensity and an amazing performance. I can’t stress enough how great Franco is in this. One scene encompasses his entire performance. Ralston pretends to host a morning talk show playing the host, guest, and caller. It is equally hilarious and disturbing. The writing takes care of a bit of that, sure, but Franco makes the scene memorable. A role about physical and mental survival already demands a certain amount of ability, and Franco surpasses that to create humor and likability, two essential elements that allow a survival movie to rise above all of the rest. His performance had me rooting for Ralston more than any other character this year. Simply put, it’s one of the best performances of the year.

Franco nearly makes the movie by himself, but Boyle has quite a bit to do with it. It’s one thing to place the camera in an enclosed spot with a character; it’s another thing to place the camera inside a character. There is really no place too small for Boyle to give the audience an angle: a water bottle, inside a video camera, inside an arm. Those shots are visually interesting but they also help create a sense of claustrophobia.

This claustrophobic sense helps place the viewers inside Ralston’s head, as well. No, Boyle doesn’t have a shot inside Ralston’s brain or anything, but getting close to the character makes it easier to seamlessly integrate hallucinations, dreams, and memories. None of these moments felt forced or strange. It all felt natural.

The film isn’t all about being close, though. Boyle’s willingness to show the large scale images sets up an interesting comparison of two extremes. One shot may be inside a character’s arm but there is also a shot from miles above the canyon as well. That shot, which starts with Franco and pulls back, gave me chills.

In fact, many moments in this film gave me goose bumps. It also made me cringe. Stories of survival always contain their less pleasant moments, but 127 Hours shows these moments with such intensity that the film will undoubtedly be very difficult to watch for many viewers if not all. Brutal things have to happen on screen in this film, but unlike recent horror films, the point of the gore is not to dare you to look away, but to do you to imagine yourself in the character’s shoes. Yes, it is obviously impossible to truly know the pain Ralston went through without experiencing it yourself, but the filmmakers used more than just visuals to place you in the scene. The sound effects of the film are just as disturbing as the visuals. While they are not realistic sound effects, they do a much better job at simulating the sensation than reality could ever do.

127 Hours is one of the best films of the year simply for being able to put the audience through the emotional gamut. Add Boyle’s direction and camerawork (I haven’t mentioned it but I also liked his use of split screens) and you have something even more special. Round it out with an award-worthy performance from James Franco and I believe you have a movie that will stand the test of time. Does that make it the best movie of the year? Not necessarily (it has been a very good year for film, after all), but it has certainly made my shortlist.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

I've seen this movie three times and I still grit my teeth and cringe when he gets stuck on that nerve. All of the foreboding details about the dullness of the knife made it that much worse.

Boyle puts the camera in a water tube and sends urine into the camera. There's close and there's too close. Just kidding, it's not a fault of the film or anything, I just wanted to make sure that I put that on the internet: Danny Boyle shoots a close up of urine traveling through a tube into James Franco's mouth.

I don't think I'll ever look at Scooby Doo again without thinking of a severed arm. That random Scooby Doo stuff was one of the film's many small, but nice touches.

I liked Treat Williams as Ralston's dad in those few short scenes. The man just has a real fatherly look about him.

When Franco rises into frame and yells, "Good morning, everyone!" I laughed aloud. Still laughing after subsequent viewings...I guess it's the crazed joy in his voice and the maniacal look on his face.

I can't recall being happier for a character than I was as Ralston was making his march to the helicopter. His appearance and the music made it an amazing end to an amazing movie.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Faster - Directed by George Tillman Jr., written by Tony Gayton and Joe Gayton, starring Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen - Rated PG-13

It's not a glorious return to action for Dwayne Johnson, but at least he's trying.

Do you remember back in 2003 when The Rock (Dwayne Johnson these days) starred in The Rundown? There was a scene in that enjoyable action comedy in which Arnold Schwarzenegger tells The Rock, “Have fun.” That was Schwarzenegger handing the action star reins to Johnson. I love Arnold Schwarzenegger and I was wondering who could possibly fill his void once he entered politics. The Rock was the perfect candidate. Then something terrible happened: for some reason The Rock became Dwayne Johnson, star of kids’ movies and inspirational football movies, and even one that’s both (I’m looking at you, The Game Plan). It was troubling to see all of these decidedly non-action films until finally, Faster was released and Johnson was back in action territory.

Is Faster a triumphant and glorious return to action, though? Not really, but it’ll do for now. The setup had plenty of potential for awesome action. Johnson plays an ex-con out to avenge his brother’s death. The character is pretty one-note in that all he wants to do is kill every single person who had any involvement in his brother’s death. He’s so one-note that he is never given a proper name and is only known as “Driver.” That’s fine; I don’t need to know much about Driver, aside from the fact that he wants bloody vengeance.

Faster does deliver on the vengeance. The film features quick and brutal action and it operates at a brisk pace. It’s also a very loud movie. When a gun is fired, you know it. In a pop culture that features constant gunfire it’s nice to see a film that still regards gunfire as a jarring experience. This is all put together in a 1970s vengeance film style that made the entire film an enjoyable, visceral experience. Faster probably won’t be remembered in the long run, but it’s not a stretch to say that some people will recall the opening credit sequence set to a 70s song or some of the images (such as Johnson, head out of frame, holding a gun near the head of a preacher). Overall, though, I look for this film to be forgotten.

Faster is fine for right now, though, as long as you don’t look too closely at it. My friends and I took this film apart piece by piece on the way back from the theatre. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there are plenty of moments in this film that make little or no sense. The ridiculousness of some character traits and motivations actually made me enjoy the film more. Certain characters as a whole, however, could have used some work…or less work, as it were.

Dwayne Johnson is not alone in this film. After Driver’s first kill, a troubled detective (Billy Bob Thornton) known only as “Cop,” starts looking for him. Thornton seems to be sleepwalking through the clichéd role, emphasis on the cliché. This cop character is a few weeks from retirement, is estranged from his wife, doesn’t connect with his son, and is a drug addict. It would’ve been better if the screenwriters had stuck with one cliché and just ran with it, rather than lumping all of this stuff together. Thornton’s sleepwalking actually makes sense because of the drug addict aspect, but I didn’t think he did anything special with the role.

Driver and Cop seem like enough characters for a film like this, but unfortunately, Faster didn’t know when to stop. A third character (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), known as “Killer,” was tossed in there and the lacking character development for the other two leads got kicked into overdrive. Killer is a British thrill seeker who overcame issues with his legs as a child. He also has commitment issues with his girlfriend. He talks with a therapist and is on medication. Why would you give a nameless character such detail? Isn’t the point of the generic titles that these guys are simple and determined? That’s true for Driver, but the other two needed some names. Or better yet, they needed less character traits or, in Killer’s case, should have been cut from the movie completely.

The attention to the third character is what disappointed me the most. I really could have done without the second character, much less a third. I wanted Dwayne Johnson stomping through nearly every scene creating havoc with each step. I only got one third of that. But that one third was enough for me, mainly because I’ve been waiting for a Dwayne Johnson action movie for so long that a subpar movie is decent just for existing.

Faster exists therefore it’s worth checking out. It’s mostly forgettable and terribly uneven in the character department, but The Rock is in it and it’s not meant for children and no one is inspired to play football in it, so there’s always that.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Strange how Tom Berenger is listed as part of the main cast yet his role can best be described as a cameo. I liked his one scene, though.

Dwayne Johnson is largely a mute in this film. He finally starts talking a bit in the second half. I'm not sure which character I liked more. It's not that Johnson can't handle dialogue, he truly can, but I found him much more imposing as the silent killer rather than the softer talker.

Speaking of killing, what was up with the fight in the strip club? First off, what kind of a strip club has some sleeping elderly man as a bathroom attendant? Maybe he's an old friend or something, that's fine, I guess. But as for the fight itself, it really looked like a death scene when the camera zoomed in on the stabbed man's face. That's why I figured Driver didn't finish the kill. Then I thought that Driver had realized he hadn't killed him and had had a change of heart after calling the victim's son. No, he decides to drive to the hospital to kill the guy on the operating table. I don't know, my explanation isn't doing the strangeness of the scene justice. I still can't figure out exactly what the point of it all was other than there needed to be an excuse to have Driver and Cop have a shootout in a hospital corridor.

After The Big Lewbowski, it should be against the law to use "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" in a movie ever again.

Killer's quick marriage, then target practice honeymoon was easily the dumbest and most pointless part of the entire movie.

I'm guessing the writers introduced the strip club victim's son (who sounded way too calm for someone who just found out his father has been shot on the operating table, by the way) so they could set up something like the potential (though extremely unlikely) Kill Bill sequel in which the avenger has vengeance taken out upon them. Can't wait for Faster 2: The Quickening or maybe they'll just go with Fastest.

Regarding sequels, Johnson's next movie is Fast Five, the latest in the Fast & the Furious movies. I guess he just really likes the word "fast"? Oh, and don't get used to seeing the action star, Johnson is working on Journey to the Center of the Earth 2: Electric Boogaloo as Brendan Fraser's replacement. The subtitle is a joke, but that is actually happening. So be prepared for my review of The Rock's next action movie comeback in 2015!

Monday, November 22, 2010

"The Next Three Days"

The Next Three Days - Written and directed by Paul Haggis (based on a script by Fred Cavayé and Guillaume Lemans, starring Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde, and Brian Dennehy - Rated PG-13

Hey America, wizards are cool and all, but Russell Crowe deserves some attention, too.

Russell Crowe is a refreshing rarity in the cinemas these days: he consistently makes movies for adults. While the masses clamor for an aging action star (a la Stallone, Willis, Neeson), Crowe has chosen roles in films that feature minimal action (even Robin Hood was light on the action as far as historical epics go). Unfortunately this means almost no one will watch movies like The Next Three Days. A very small percentage of the movie-going public wants to see a slow moving thriller these days and Crowe isn’t the draw he used to be. I’m glad he still makes movies like this, though, and hopefully a bigger audience will develop soon.

The Next Three Days is about John Brennan (Crowe), a Literature professor enjoying a quiet life with his wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), and their young son. They’re enjoying breakfast one morning when the police barge in and arrest Lara for murder. Cut to two years later and Lara has been convicted and is most likely going to die in prison. John decides to take matters into his own hands and break her out.

You may be thinking, “All right! Action packed prison break movie!” That is certainly not the case. This is a realistic movie about what it takes to break someone out. It’s not just about the logistics, though. It’s more about determination and just how far someone is willing to go to save someone they love. At this point, a good question might be, “Is John’s wife guilty of the crime?” In other words, is she even worth breaking out? The Next Three Days is interesting in the fact that all we have is John’s belief to convince us of Lara’s innocence. The pieces of evidence we sporadically receive seem to point towards the guilty verdict.

Planning and determination doesn’t scream entertainment, sure, but it works for character development. It really works when Russell Crowe is that character. I find Crowe utterly convincing in nearly every role and he continues to impress in The Next Three Days. He’s great at showing intense determination and it’s easy to get on his side in a film. He’s the only one who believes in his wife’s innocence? Good enough for me, I believe him.

Believing in a character is important, but when it comes to prison break movies, the plot must be just as believable. The Next Three Days, as far as I can tell, is very realistic…or at least it seems realistic. Now, I don’t know how hard it is to actually get reliable fake passports or anything like that, but this movie at least makes it seem more difficult than most films. Usually it’s a phone call and the documents are there. In a film like this, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

The entire process of how to possibly break someone out is set up early on in a cameo with Liam Neeson (don’t be fooled by the preview, Neeson is only in the film for a couple of minutes). He talks about how difficult it is to break out and how luck is a major factor. While this film is realistic, it also relies on luck quite a bit. I didn’t find the good or bad luck to be ridiculous, though.

Because an entire process is set up in this film, it might start to feel long. I didn’t really mind watching the planning stages, though. It was nice to see a movie about the “how” of an event rather than the event itself. That’s not to say this film doesn’t have any action. There are some very tense chase sequences and a great scene in a drug dealer’s house. The Next Three Days also includes a surprising and visually impressive scene featuring an out of control car. I don’t want to give the details, but I imagine you’ll be impressed when you see it. Director Paul Haggis (In the Valley of Elah, Crash) seems to be growing as a filmmaker with this one.

Haggis also adapted the script, from the French film Pour Elle, though I can’t say if it’s a faithful adaptation or if he even made it his own because the original film isn’t very available. Either way, I felt that he wrote a well thought out film. Whenever a new character showed up, like Olivia Wilde as a potential new love interest for Crowe, I asked why this character was wasting screen time. But the questions were always answered. In fact, one might say that the film answers too many questions. The film answers the question of Lara’s guilt. I thought that was questionable. I liked the ambiguousness of Crowe’s quest.

I call it a “quest” because Crowe mentions Don Quixote earlier in the film and questions the idea of the quest and what kind of world the hero lives in. Crowe is obviously a quixotic character in that he is a common man attempting to commit an ambitious crime even by veteran criminal standards. I found this connection very interesting and it tied into the whole theme of determination in the face of seeming uselessness.

The Next Three Days leaves something to ponder, provides an emotional punch, contains some tense action, and tells the story of a determined man planning a nearly impossible task. It feels long and gives a few more answers than I would like, but I was still very impressed with it. It was good to see a slow film that builds character and suspense. Even though I’m in the minority, I hope Crowe keeps this up…and I hope the studios keep putting the money up for it.

Random Thoughts

It was great to see Brian Dennehy in this. He seemed wasted for most of the film, but his quiet performance really pays off in the end.

I didn't mention it above, but Banks does a very good job in this film. She worked well alongside Crowe in their prison visit scenes.

Of course, Kevin Corrigan as...the drug dealer. It's great to see Corrigan, but he plays the five minute scumbag role far too often. I really hope he breaks out in some bigger roles soon.

I acknowledge that this film is completely implausible at times (the tennis ball to unlock a car is a bit whacky), but it works. When compared to Law Abiding Citizen, this movie is a documentary, so I give it a pass for the minor transgressions.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Unstoppable - Directed by Tony Scott, written by Mark Bomback, starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Lew Temple, and Kevin Dunn - Rated PG-13

Unstoppable features the most ridiculous out of control cinematic train since Highlander II: The Quickening.

Director Tony Scott and Denzel Washington must have really loved playing with train sets in their youth. Unstoppable marks their second film in two years that deals with transportation on tracks. I enjoyed last year’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, even though I felt that it was over-directed by Scott. When I heard about Unstoppable it seemed almost like a joke. Why would these guys make another movie about trains so close together? I’m glad they made another train movie, though, because Unstoppable is totally decent and coupled with Pelham it makes for an unlikely, slightly above average double feature.

Unstoppable is based on the “true” story of a runaway train loaded with hazardous chemicals in Ohio in which no one was hurt. In the film, which takes place in Pennsylvania, the drama is ramped up considerably. Not only is the train moving at higher speeds than the real train (upwards of 70 MPH in the film compared to 46-47 MPH in reality), but there is also a train of school children on the tracks, and the train is heading into a highly residential area. Add some police cars chasing alongside of it and even throw in some gunfire (there is real news footage of a deputy actually trying to shoot the fuel tank of the train) and you have yourself a movie. I’m not being sarcastic at all. I dug the “what else could go wrong?” plot.

What makes the film work, though, is Scott’s overbearing direction. This is a loud movie and I mean that in the best way. Scott places the viewer on the tracks and it gets intense. He also does a good job of making everything seem much more frantic than it really is; the train is on tracks, you know, and 70 MPH isn’t that insane of a speed. But I did get a feeling of urgency throughout and the film never slows down or becomes boring. With that said, I did feel like Scott used too many extremely similar shots to the point that I thought he was just reusing footage after awhile. And he does have to throw in the occasional pointless camera swing that has become his annoying trademark, but it is toned down in this film.

Scott has the train sensation down, but you still need to care about the people on the tracks. Denzel Washington and Chris Pine (Star Trek) are the two unlikely heroes who take it upon themselves to run the train down in reverse and try to stop it. Of course, Washington is fine. He’s not doing anything new, but that’s okay. I still enjoy his work even though he’s getting dangerously close to becoming a caricature now that he’s a regular target on “Saturday Night Live.” After a lampooning on “SNL” I can’t look at Mark Wahlberg without laughing; I hope the same doesn’t happen with Washington.

Pine handles himself well opposite Washington as the young whippersnapper to Washington’s disillusioned veteran. Their relationship is a bit uneven in the early moments of the film, moving too quickly back and forth from buddy-buddy to angry rivals, but by the end, they had earned a nice scene in which they talk about Pine’s marital status while speeding backwards in a train. The absurdity of the moment worked for me.

The rest of the cast is rounded out well. T. J. Miller and Ethan Suplee are amusing as the goofy rail workers who allow the train to get away. Rosario Dawson and Kevin Corrigan have some decent scenes from the command post. Kevin Dunn gets to slime up the screen as the greedy company man. My favorite performance, however, comes from Lew Temple as Ned, the overzealous, cowboy rail worker who shows up from time to time to yell at people. He really added some much needed humor to the film.

Speaking of humor, this film ends very strangely. Not to ruin anything, but for the first 95 minutes this is a relatively serious film, but the last five minutes are almost complete comedy. There’s even a cheesy montage that lets us know what happened to all of the characters that is clearly trying to evoke some laughs. It seemed out of place to me. Maybe the point was that after watching a loud train barrel down a track for nearly two hours, the audience was entitled to relax and laugh a little. It didn’t really work for me, though.

So is Unstoppable as ridiculous as the previews lead you to believe? Yes, actually it’s even more whacky than you may have thought. But if you just go with it, it ends up being an enjoyable time. I can’t lie, though; I hope Denzel Washington and Tony Scott have gotten trains out of their system. I’m not sure I can handle a trilogy.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Due Date"

Due Date - Directed by Todd Phillips, written by Alan R. Cohen & Alan Freedland and Adam Sztykiel & Todd Phillips, starring Robert Downey Jr., Zach Galifianakis, Michelle Monaghan, and Jamie Foxx - Rated R

Planes, Trains & Automobiles this isn't, but it's still pretty funny.

Comedy is my least favorite genre to review. I love a good comedy as much as anyone, don’t get me wrong, but to critique it is an exercise in futility. Comedy is subjective; it’s all about the viewer’s personal sense of humor. I suppose you could make this argument for all genres of film, but I find comedies are much more susceptible to divisiveness. The point is I can’t tell you whether or not Due Date is funny; I can only tell you if I thought it was funny.

With all that said, I thought Due Date was funny. I didn’t find it uproarious or anything, though. This movie, from writer/director Todd Phillips (The Hangover), tries to be a bit more than a laugh a minute comedy. Due Date wants to be Planes, Trains & Automobiles but it lacks the heart of that superior film. This movie does have insanely funny moments, but it’s mainly a film of polite chuckles rather than uncontrollable guffaws. I’m okay with that and I did like Due Date, but it is not a potential comedy classic.

I make the comparison to Planes because Due Date is a road trip movie in which an odd couple of men have to make it across the country in a set amount of time. Robert Downey Jr. plays Peter, the Steve Martin of the film, who is trying to make it home to L.A. for the birth of his child, hence the title. Zach Galifianakis plays Ethan, the obnoxious, but sympathetic John Candy role, who is traveling to L.A. to become an actor after his father has died.

Your enjoyment of Due Date doesn’t really hinge on great comedic writing; it’s more about the two stars. I’m starting to pick up on a bit of Galifianakis backlash lately and I can understand why: the guy is in everything it seems. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t see a preview, TV show, internet video, or movie that features his bearded face. I don’t mind because I find him hilarious. Others might be starting to tire of him.

Galifianakis, like John Candy in Planes, is disgusting at worst and only slightly annoying at best. Downey Jr. does a great job just reacting to the craziness. Sure, it’s funny enough when Galifianakis uses one of his antiquated exclamatory phrases (“I have never!”) and stomps off in a furious ladywalk, but just seeing the look of befuddlement and anger on Downey’s face is enough to make me laugh. It gets even better when Downey loses his cool and gets loud and violent. My favorite moments in the film involve Downey punching and spitting. That may sound odd, but when you see it, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

The stars work well together and most of the big set pieces, while completely ridiculous, are pretty entertaining. The few action-type scenes are filmed well. The supporting cast is amusing (though I thought Jamie Foxx was a bit underused). The point is this movie is completely enjoyable and worth checking out. But it does fail in a very noticeable way that may put some viewers off a bit.

This film tries very hard to have a heart. It’s understandable that Phillips would want to make a film with a little more drama to it since his previous films (Old School, Road Trip) are all laughs and little or no heart. The emotional scenes in Due Date are so unexpected and awkward, though, that they fail to produce any sense of drama. First off, Galifianakis is hard to take seriously and you want to laugh at the guy. I like to laugh at his stupidity, though, not at his grief. In a scene in this film, Galifianakis’s character is attempting to showcase his acting “skills.” It’s funny enough, but in the end of the scene he starts sobbing over the death of his father. When he switched over to the tears I heard multiple people in the theater laugh, not realizing that the funny scene just went sad. It’s not good when a movie makes you inadvertently laugh at someone’s grief. So Phillips has a way to go in the drama department. I would be okay with him never attempting again, though.

Due Date is the film that wants to have a heart but doesn’t. That doesn’t mean it is a bad movie. I enjoyed the majority of the film and I laughed consistently. This isn’t a comedy for the ages or anything, but it’s just fine for now. If you’re a fan of the stars, you should enjoy it. But remember, this isn’t a funny movie; it’s just a movie that I found funny. The comedy is up to you.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

It might be wrong of me, but seeing Downey Jr. punch a child in the stomach and spit in a dog's face made me laugh and laugh.

I'm pretty sure they should have been arrested at the end of the movie. They did cause quite a lot of damage at the border.

Danny McBride's short scene was funny. Even though the line is in the previews, I still like the idea of someone making reservations at Chili's.

Speaking of the preview, way too many jokes were given away. I was hoping they would take the example from Get Him to the Greek. That comedy's previews barely featured any footage that made the final cut. It showed the tone of the movie without ruining any of the jokes. Due Date's previews spoil a big chunk of the movie. But what can you do? It was really hard not to see any of the marketing for this film.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Monsters - Written and directed by Gareth Edwards, starring Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy - Rated R

This one just barely squeaked by with a Kurgan.

Monsters is the latest low-budget indie film to catch the attention of film geeks, so of course I had to check it out, especially since it became available On Demand. With a budget of $500,000, Monsters is pretty impressive from a purely economical standpoint. As an effective film, however, it staggers a bit.

The story goes like this: an alien invasion occurred six years ago in Northern Mexico. The governments of both Mexico and America worked together to quarantine the area. That is the backdrop for the story of Samantha (Whitney Able) and Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a runaway daughter of a media mogul and a struggling photographer, respectively. Of course, these two have to navigate their way through the quarantined zone on their way to America.

The couple is short on cash, so they have to use (figuratively) underground methods to reach America. Are you sensing the irony, yet? Oh wait, did I mention the characters are American? Okay, now, how does this sound: two Americans forced to illegally enter America? Start asking about whom those titular monsters really are and you have yourself an allegory. If you’re picking up on a bit of sarcasm (and I imagine you are), it’s because I didn’t really buy into the message of this film. It’s not that the message is pointless or anything, it just felt heavy handed. Normally I would excuse a fault like this in a film, but the rest of the movie isn’t good enough to warrant a blind eye.

The problem with the rest of the film is that it is too meandering. Long scenes of boring travel interspersed with near encounters with alien creatures. That would be fine if there was more tension in the film. I just didn’t find the characters compelling enough to warrant so many long stretches of them walking, sitting, and talking. I didn’t care all that much about them and that is a vital component of a film like this.

Monsters is an alien movie, though, right? So what about these aliens? Well, the low budget aspect really sticks out with the creatures, which sometimes look painfully cheap. That’s forgivable for me because I loved the creature design. The aliens would be right at home in an H. P. Lovecraft story, with all of their tentacles and strange noises. The design worked for me, but you don’t get too many good looks at them, which I’m sure is due to the budget.

Despite some budget issues with the aliens, the rest of the film looks great. There are some truly beautiful images in this film. The image (slight SPOILER) of the border fence as seen from the top of an Aztec temple, though geographically questionable, is amazing.

Visually, the film manages to work and even though I found the characters weak, I was still emotionally connected to the story. That mind sound contradictory but it is what it is. I was compelled by the relationship between the characters but not by the characters themselves. I chalk that up to the chemistry between the actors. They may not be the most impressive performances of the year, but they were genuine enough for me.

Something else that worked for me was the editing of this film. I don’t mean that in terms of cuts and transitions, but in terms of order. I’m not one to ruin anything (so stop reading this paragraph now if you want to watch this movie “fresh”), but I will say that you should pay very close attention to the beginning of the movie or, if you have the chance, watch the first few minutes of the film again after it’s over. I just thought it was really cool what the filmmakers did there.

Speaking of filmmakers, I think writer/director Gareth Edwards has a bright future in the industry. I may have found his message a bit preachy, but I imagine his future projects will only feature better writing because an attempt to hide a message in an actual story shows that he is ambitious, and Hollywood could always use more ambitious writers.

Monsters ends up being slightly on my positive side, but not by much. I would suggest just waiting for this to rent or even show up on a movie channel. It has its moments, but it isn’t very memorable or even original, really. But it looks great despite its budget, has a cool editing twist, and features some interesting creature design. Be warned, though, this film is called Monsters because you’re supposed to ponder the title, not take it literally. Do not expect an alien action bloodbath; you will be disappointed. (For the record, I was not expecting said bloodbath, but I am aware others might.) This is just a little sci-fi film with a message and it’s worth a look, if you get the chance.

PS – I am very proud of myself for not mentioning District 9 a single time in this review. Oh, wait…damn it.