By Ealasaid Haas
Alas, Poor Monkeybone!
Every so often, a film comes along that changes the way you look at the world, makes you sit up and think.
"Monkeybone" is not such a film.
But it is a good movie. It's entertaining, funny, and a good way to take your mind off whatever happens to be troubling you (in my case, it was final exams).
"Monkeybone" tells the story of cartoonist Stuart Miley (Brendan Fraser, at his awkward and loveable best), who has found an outlet for his nightmares and subconscious urges in drawing Monkeybone, a comic strip about a wily and often out-of control monkey in a fez and vest. With the monkey about to make the transition from comic strip to TV show and Stu's girlfriend (Bridget Fonda) ready to marry him if he can get the nerve to ask her, Stu has everything going for him. Naturally, fate intervenes - here, in the form of a car accident, which puts him in a coma.
And people in comas go to Downtown, a sort of limbo populated by creatures of the unconscious, mythical gods, and the spirits the comatose. In Downtown, Stu meets Monkeybone in the proverbial flesh (voiced by the wonderful John Turturro). When he learns his sister is going to pull the plug on him unless he wakes up soon, Stu persuades Monkeybone to help him escape Downtown.
Naturally, things don't go exactly as planned, and further hijinks ensue.
It's a charming film with a happy ending, a ton of laughs, a fair bit of suspense, and Whoopie Goldberg as Death. So why is it that most people haven't even heard of it?
The answer lies with the production company, Fox. When the honcho who greenlit "Monkeybone" was fired, Fox jerked the film around, first reediting it, then giving it back to the director to fix when test audiences didn't approve. To add insult to injury, Fox didn't actually start promoting the picture until about two weeks before the oft-moved opening day!
As a result, most people didn't notice it had opened until after it had left all but the second- and third- run houses.
And that's unfortunate. "Monkeybone" may not be the new "Citizen Kane," but it's a charming film with innovative design and very enjoyable acting. Brendan Fraser is perfect for the part, as is most of the rest of the cast. While the humor does stray into the immature at times (some of the tie-in products the producers in the film come up with are a little lame), it is often very witty, and the occasional unevenness in the plot is mostly made up for by the art direction and acting.
Heck, the film's official websites are even good! www.monkeybone.com doesn't have much to it, but www.bitemymonkey.com has three short "Monkeybone" Flash cartoons and a bunch of programs to play with.
If "Monkeybone" is still playing in your area, it's worth checking out - especially if you're just looking for a good time at the movies.
A Feel-Good Odyssey
By now, any filmgoer worth his or her salt knows who the Coen Brothers are. "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski," "Barton Fink" and the rest of their films are as brilliant as they are peculiar. The latest production of the talented twosome is "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" - still in theatres thanks to the Oscars (nominated for two, it won neither, further proof that the Academy is insane).
In case you've been living in a mayonnaise jar and missed all the publicity, "O Brother" tells the story of three chain gang escapees on the run from the law and trying to reach a buried treasure before the valley it's in gets flooded by a new dam. Along the way, the trio run into a Coen-esque mix of American and Greek mythology, from George "Babyface" Nelson to a trio of sirens.
Smooth-talking Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) is the de facto leader, but he's a little too smart for his own good, and it's hardly a real surprise to learn that the treasure isn't all he's talked it up to be. Luckily for Everett, his two travelling companions aren't particularly bright - short, sweet Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) is a nice guy but remarkably stupid, and tall, short-tempered Pete (John Turturro) isn't much smarter.
Set in Depression-era Mississippi, "O Brother" is richly colored both with golden vegetation and 'old-timey' music. As odd a story as it is, the film is self-contained and very coherent, as well as incredibly funny (the gubernatorial race which makes up one of the subplots is the source of a series of well-timed jabs at the political process). The characters are the usual Coen collection of eccentrics and oddfolks, but you can't help caring about them, because they're played so well.
Clooney pokes fun at his matinee-idol good looks as Everett, who is handsome and clever, and knows it. Clooney's good natured comedy and excellent delivery of occasionally tongue-twisting lines really sell the character, turning the potentially annoying Everett into someone you can root for. Tim Blake Nelson, director of art films like "The Eye of God" is absolutely brilliant as dim-witted Delmar. Delmar's unrelenting optimism and genuine affection for other people could easily have made the character saccharine, but Nelson inhabits him so completely that you can't help liking the little guy. Chameleon that he is, Turturro is practically unrecognizable behind a set of awful teeth and a thick Southern drawl. Sway-backed and angry-eyed, Turturro inhabits the character so completely, it's a shock to realize that he also played the na´ve and timid title character in the Coen's "Barton Fink."
The music in the film is practically part of the air the characters breathe, old-timey and warm, full of optimism and the blues. The soundtrack album is topping the charts, and deservedly so. This music is real blues and country, not the pop stuff you get on the radio now. No achy' breaky hearts here, just gorgeous harmonies and some mighty fine finger picked guitar. I defy anyone in the audience to walk out without humming.
Although history buffs will probably get more of the jokes, "O Brother" is a movie just about anyone can enjoy, except maybe those on the hunt for angst or action. What little violence there is in the film is mostly innocuous and played for laughs (although people fond of cows may have to look away from the screen at one point), and "O Brother" is quite possibly the most feel-good film the Coens have ever made.
"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is that rarest of things in film today, a comedy with a warm heart. If you haven't seen it already, check it out before it leaves theatres - it's a wonderful film that deserves audience support.