Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Monsters University

My letter jacket is buried in my closet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ah, the curse of the Pixar sequel. Except that of the four sequels they’ve done, two of them were better than the original. Only Cars 2 was a drop from the original film. In my opinion a rather large drop as I am a big fan of the first one and found the second to only be enjoyable. I don’t think I ever put it up on this website, but I ended up giving it two and a half stars (now changed colloquially to “damns given” because I’m incorrigible) and noted that it really was only a disappointment by Pixar standards. I believe I said something akin to “being the worst Pixar movie is like being the least attractive Playmate of the Year.” Regardless, it caused a critical backlash and a seeming sequel fatigue that is setting in, even with myself, despite Lassater and crew being much more picky about producing them than the Dreamworks factory that announced they were going to make six “How to Train Your Dragon” films.

“But wait”, you say, “that’s only three sequels!” Of course it is, my observant friend, because I’m leading up to their latest, Monsters University. Or, as I like to call it, When Harry Met Sully. Zing! It is their first prequel-style sequel, detailing the beginnings of friendship for our favorite scarers of Monsters Inc., a personal favorite of Pixar’s films. Unfortunately it is not as good as the original, though the improvement in computer animation in the intervening dozen years is certainly easy to see.

The other good news is that it is a bounce back for the house that lamp built over Cars 2 and, while not as brilliant as Toy Story 2 or bittersweet as Toy Story 3, it manages to never feel extraneous. Unnecessary, maybe. But it doesn’t ever settle into being a lazy cash grab and as a broad college comedy it manages to be a movie unlike any other that Pixar has produced, despite its sequel status. It certainly features callbacks and a few gags that require viewing of the original film to truly appreciate, but it largely works on its own as a story, never falling back on the ancient framing device of having the characters reminiscing, “Hey, remember when we met?” Pixar seems conscious of their chance to do some further world building in this reality where Monsters as wide and varied as ocean life all live together. Not only that, but it leads somewhere. There are messages to the film before it ends. Messages that I never expected to see in a so-called children’s’ film.

Personally, I’ve always hated that label for the Pixar films, because with one glaring exception they seem to be the very definition of the oft-vaunted and usually awful “family film.” That rare movie that manages to entertain everyone from the three year old clutching his Mike Wazowski plush doll to grandpa. In that regard they are often more successful than even their vaunted parent company has been when you average things out. One of my fondest memories was picking up my grandma from the nursing home and taking her to see Up before she largely stopped going out and eventually passed away.

But I’m rambling. There are some unusual things being taught in this film. Sure there are messages of holding onto your dreams and never giving up, but there are a metric ton of movies that throw that “Secret” style naiveté at us. The ultimate message seems to be ‘what can you do when your dreams are shattered, yet life goes on.’ And I never thought I’d see a college movie that actually indicates college isn’t for everyone, given the way higher education has become a sacred cow, necessary for everyone from doctors to hamburger chefs.

In the middle of this is one of the best pure comedies that Pixar has done with quite a few laughs, many of them laugh out loud. They are very successful in wringing out the remaining chemistry between Billy Crystal and John Goodman (who manages to actually seem to make himself sound younger despite adding a decade) while adding some new faces to the cast and a few familiar ones. Thankfully few of the latter since it is the lazy origin story that simply plugs all the original players into major roles. Among the new standouts are the frightening Dean Hardscrabble, portrayed with the ridged gusto one would expect for what amounts to a remake of Revenge of the Nerds. Or any other “snobs vs. slobs” campus comedy ever to hit the screen. At least it’s the best one to ever be rated G. Given the movies it’s riffing on, of course there is also the worst frat on campus, in this case Oozma Kappa. Voice talent like Charlie Day and Bugs Life-alum Dave Foley do a good job of making them the usual likable losers. And of course there has to be the rival frat of jerks, led by all-around scamp Nathan Fillion with an extra ladle of smarm.

Most of the film plays out just as all films of this type do (is it really even a spoiler to say the frat ends up involved in a set of fraternity games?), but with a fresh perspective brought by the gags involving the monster society and students. Just as a factory floor became a place of unbridled imagination, so does a campus, crammed full of sight gags, parody and background yucks. The simple skin-graft makes all the difference, turning what would otherwise be a rather cliche affair into something that, were it not for the first film, would feel pretty darn original. But because we do have that first film and we do have all the hijinx of every Animal House imitator, it never really manages to completely rise above and become something more, even with a very satisfying final act. I suppose what I’m saying is, it may not be one of Pixar’s all-time best, but it’s a solid triple.

(Three and a half damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Sapphires

I want that suit.

Ah, nostalgia. Much as 80s kids love movies based on toy lines, baby boomers love to watch movies that present a gauzy look at their formidable years, especially if they are imbued with a glimmer at “how far we’ve come” set to a soundtrack of golden hits. Like a racially-charged That Thing You Do, The Sapphires hits that target square on the head, albeit in a manner that makes it seem a bit fresher due to it being about a quartet of Aboriginal Australian girls that begin singing soul tunes in the 1960s. All snark aside, sometimes these movies just plain work, even on us cynics, and The Sapphires is definitely one of them.

A good deal of this rests on the shoulders of Chris O’Dowd. As a man sleeping in his car and torturously hosting local talent competitions, he discovers the girls and sees them as his ticket to something better, offering to manage them. And he does a surprisingly effective job, guiding them through a professional audition for a place in the USO, entertaining troops in Vietnam. O’Dowd is probably most known in America as the cop from Bridesmaids, a low-key role that allowed him to be charming but certainly wasn’t very meaty. A much better showcase of his talent is Graham Linehan’s beloved-among-the-Anglophile-set Brit-com, The IT Crowd, in which he popularized the phrase, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”

How an Irish comic actor making inroads to Hollywood managed to secure a role in an Australian feel-good flick is beyond me, but he makes the most of it, portraying an ex-pat with enough Motown in his soul to choke a camel. His performance feels effortless, yet he sells everything with utter sincerity. He manages to guide the girls away from their country music roots, lobbing such critical bombs as “Ninety percent of recorded music is crap. The other ten percent is soul.”

With such a statement, it is understood that we’re going to get some darn good tunes in the soundtrack and the film delivers. Even though playing CCR’s Run Through the Jungle over a scene in 1958 seems overly anachronistic. But that’s just being picky. There aren’t any original tunes, sadly, but the renditions of R&B classics are outstanding.

It is possible that the girls are better known in Australia, but they are certainly unknown to most in the US. But then I would figure I know more than most about worldwide pop culture and when I’m thinking of Australian actors my mind immediately leaps to Yahoo Serious, so a little research would probably help. A quick jump to wikipedia shows mostly TV miniseries credits and an Australian Idol contestant. Anyway, they are all very good in their roles. Each brings their own unique personality to the film and they manage to layer their performances just enough to keep them from being archtypes.

Instead, they exist as more fully-formed characters than they may otherwise be in lesser hands, and using the common tropes as a springboard to more intimate internal aspects they create a welcome chemistry with each other in which you actually feel like they have a shared history.

Another interesting aspect in the film is how, despite being a film mostly set in Australia, it focuses a surprising amount on recent American history. Most of the news clips are of Americans and the death of Martin Luther King has a decided impact on the story. It can be a bit jarring to go from a Kennedy newsclip to the Australian outback. Whether events in the US really did effect people on the other side of the world that much or not, it’s shorthand that can be used to sell the movie outside of the Southern Hemisphere, so once again, it’s just being picky.

The Sapphires may not be surprising, but it’s witty and effective and highly worth a look while in theaters.

(Three and a half damns out of five.)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: This is the End

You know, like that Doors song.

This is the End is undoubtably one of my favorite films of the year.

It is indulgent, inside baseball and meta to the point of insanity, but it is also hilarious, fearless and… meta to the point of insanity. An apocalyptic Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back for the Apatow-adjacent crowd, it takes full advantage of the celebrity-obsessed culture that exists more than ever in today’s America. The climate wherein actors are scrutinized in every detail. It uses the collective knowledge of their careers and relationships to skewer the TMZ-ized Hollywood bubble with pin-point precision that asks, “Why the hell do we care so much about/listen to these sociopathic dopes?” And yet, in the middle of that an emotional core emerges in the guise of a broken friendship in need of mending, leading you to actually end up caring about a couple of them despite their collective idiocy and bad behavior. If it wasn’t so well done and so self-deprecating, it could definitely come off as a vanity project. Instead it comes across as one of the most original mainstream films in some time and also one of the rare “special effects comedy” success stories. (You may wonder where the $30 million budget went while watching a majority of the film, but you find out in the third act.)

Everyone appearing in the movie plays a heightened version of themselves with little regard for ego. Seth Rogen is the common thread between them, appearing with each of the main players in at least one project. Seth is largely clueless about everything going on, having morphed from being the 20-something, weed smoking guy that echoes his character in Knocked Up to being a full-blown LA phony, taking part in ‘cleanses’ and jumping into fad diets.

This is in contrast with Jay Baruchel, a co-star of Seth’s from Undeclared and a long-time friend that still lives in Canada. (I gushed a wee bit on his hockey movie Goon last year as an example of a sports movie done right.) Jay hates Hollywood and the person that Seth is becoming as he hangs out with his new(er) friends like his frequent collaborator James Franco. Franco has his weirdness level set to 11, but creepily feels like he’s playing his “character” the closest to his real life self. His less than ambiguous affection for Rogen may inspire many, many gif sets on Tumblr when this film comes out on video.

Coming down to spend time with Rogen, Baruchel is dragged out into the belly of the proverbial beast (when he’d rather just hang out and play video games with his friend) to a housewarming party for Franco’s new pad, where we see a bevy of famous faces. I will say right here and now, if you like Michael Cera, you may love him after the beginning of this film. If you hate Michael Cera, you may still cheer. He gives what I would say is the funniest extended cameo in a film since Zombieland.

While Jay gets Seth to pop out for a pack of smokes to get away from the smug, the world starts going to hell. As the craziness piles up, they race back to Franco’s home in the Hollywood Hills where things truly get dicey. Trapped in Franco’s house waiting for help, Rogen, Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride (portraying himself as pure id) proceed to deal with life without an outside world. As society breaks down, wounds are opened up, both physical and emotional.

Gleefully rated R, there is plenty of gore, drug use (I’ve never understood what is supposed to make someone smoking a blunt inherently chuckle-worthy, but there is one fantastically funny bit involving illegal substances), foul language and more wang than you might want to see. So keep the kids at home. Unless your kids are already messed up, then who cares?

I have no idea how this film got made by a major studio because any executive reading the script had to wonder what the hell they’d gotten themselves into. God knows it may not age well because it is so cued into the moment and for maximum effect requires a working knowledge of their movies, careers and relationships. But for the time being it has cult comedy written all over it and with the fantastic callbacks set up throughout the film it will have an immediate shelf-life that rewards multiple viewings.

(Four and a half damns out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Man of Steel

Woman of Tissue

For all his flaws, I tend to be, if not a Zach Snyder supporter, then at least Snyder neutral. I found his Dawn of the Dead remake to be largely unneeded but not insulting (and the one film he’s done that actually had a good selection of songs.) 300 was entertaining and certainly gave us a lot of eye candy. I will defend Watchmen as having surface problems (like the mostly terrible soundtrack), but being near as good as anyone could have made it into a feature film. It certainly was more ‘extreme’ than the comic, but that in itself almost seems like a commentary on Watchmen’s effect on the comic industry. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole was not what I would consider a great film, but as a children’s film it was, once again, not insulting. It also was one of the better films at incorporating 3D. Plus, I respect any director willing to make the leap to a new type of media, the way Brad Bird, Wes Anderson, Spielberg, etc. have started to do, slipping from animation to live action and vice versa. The one absolute turd in the punch bowl of his career is Sucker Punch and on that one I will admit he made an abomination so bad that it is probably one of the worst films I have ever seen, even if parts of it were fun to look at.

To add further context, I’m one of the rare individuals out there that isn’t just a Superman fan (love the big, blue boy scout), but one that hates the Donner movies. And by extension, Superman Returns, which took all the flaws of the Donner films and multiplied them exponentially while cutting out all the redeeming qualities. I have never seen a more radical misstep than the storyline involving his illegitimate son. It’s not like I haven’t enjoyed Superman on film, but for some reason the interpretations I respected and admired were all on TV. The animated series would have to be top of the heap, along with it’s parlance into Justice League, but also the George Reeves series, Lois and Clark and even Smallville because they all were smart enough to respect the character of Clark Kent, unlike the bumbling fool that he became under Christopher Reeves.

So it was with understandable trepidation I approached Man of Steel.

Somehow, against all odds and beyond all reason, I finally found a Superman film I can embrace. Is it perfect? No. As I was dissecting things with a friend afterwards, more and more things started to come out to nitpick. To name a few things that came up, it was too serious, it was a little long, it effs with the mythology in ways that I was not happy with. And while he may be the Man of Steel, he apparently has a suit of dodgeball material. Seriously, that thing is terrible. Can we put the guy back in his proper uniform instead of this New 52 garbage? Yet in the most important ways, it was the Superman movie I have been waiting for.

Apparently, the over-the-top visual style of Zach Snyder and the gloomy story stylings of Christopher Nolan, for all the oddness of the pairing, resulted in them meeting in the middle. The best way I can describe the result is with an oxymoron: it is like an intelligent Michael Bay film. While a great deal of the beginning of the film moves slowly and focuses on character while detailing the life of Clark as he prepares to assume the mantle of Superman (Snyder’s restraint is admirable at this point), once the last third of the film kicks in, the action is nearly non-stop and features a kind of overkill in the destruction I have never before seen. It finally captures, someplace other than animation, the power of these characters engaged in combat. The military is featured in the film as a positive force (for the most part.) And where Superman Returns sought to eliminate it, Man of Steel embraces the character’s deep American symbolism. (It also embraces his Kansas roots in several ways, not running from the rural beginnings of the character.) Destruction, long action sequences and military rah-rah show up in Bay’s films all the time. The differences here are, a) someone seems to have given a crap about the script and b) Snyder is much better at actually putting together sequences that make a logical sense, or he has a much better editor.

Then there is the subtext; the religious nature of the Superman mythos has always been present. His origin is, after all, a cosmic retelling of the story of Moses. But Steel manages to inject the film with, if not a more subtle allegory, than certainly a more palatable presentation than we got from Bryan Singer.

My biggest problems with the film were the ways in which it messed with the mythology the most. There have obviously been changes when it comes to Superman’s mythos over the years. Hell, Kryptonite, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White all came from the radio show in the 40s and were adopted into the larger Superman universe. But at this point, some things are sacrosanct. The film flirts wildly with violating that… and yet, it seems to have been done from a respectful place. Most of the largest changes make sense within the story they’re telling, so I was able to put aside my bile and muscle through, much to my benefit.

So far as the performances go, Henry Cavill makes a splendid Man of Tomorrow, even if he needs a spit curl. His Clark is just plain good, with emotions simmering below the surface. Amy Adams and Laurence Fishburne as Lois Lane and Perry White are serviceable, if generic and subdued. The standouts here are Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner as Clark’s two dads from different worlds. Both do a hell of a lot with what they are given. Michael Shannon’s Zod manages to completely break with Terrance Stamp’s iconic portrayal, much to his gain. He manages to project genuine menace.

I’m not sure how I’ll feel towards this film with a second viewing or years down the road. All I know is, for the time being I finally like a Superman movie and it feels good.

(Four damns out of five)