Aisle of the Damned: 03/22/17- Logan’s Heroes

This is the worst photoshop you will ever see.

We’re back after a medical hiatus to discuss the latest that Hollywood has dumped on us! Just kidding; March apparently doesn’t suck anymore as we have some pretty damn good movies to geek out about, including X-Men outlier Logan, giant monster movie Kong: Skull Island, indie horror wunderkind Get Out and the latest in the Matt Damon series, Matt Damon Goes to China.

We also discuss some new trailers, like Wonder Woman and Baby Driver, finally crap on the Oscars, talk about Joe Carnahan’s good decisions and Sony’s stupid-ass decisions and talk about Disney’s battle with their own history.

All this and less on Aisle of the Damned!

Music:
The Aquabats- Stuck in a Movie
Big T. Tyler– King Kong

Aisle of the Damned: 12/24/16- A Baywatch Nights Christmas

Simply Red, Standing By

It’s the holidays and with so many Hassels to Hoff, we’re glad you found time to listen to our little duo.

We recommend some holiday viewing and talk about a new batch of trailers (Fate of the Furious, John Wick 2, Baywatch, etc.) Then we move on to some new movies: Moana is classic Disney, but what does Bryan think of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, not being a Harry Potter fan? Then we tackle the latest Star Wars “anthology” film: Rogue One. How does it compare to Episode VII? Is Alan Tudyk the best voice actor in the industry? Why does Tarkin look like he has way more liver spots than he did in New Hope?

All this and less on Aisle of the Damned!

Music:
The Aquabats- Stuck in a Movie
The Vandals- Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies

Aisle of the Damned: 10/17/16- Tim Burton’s X-Men

Tim Burton's X-MenDisney is weird and we talk a little bit about their current remake process as Kent discusses the new version of Pete’s Dragon, along with some other theatrical features like Morgan, Blair Witch and Tim Burton’s latest, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

We also discuss some films for the season with the “Bad Robot” restoration of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm and the blu rays of Conjuring 2 and 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Oh yeah, and we have our recommendations and our commentary on Paramount screwing the proverbial pooch again with Star Trek Beyond.

All this and less on Aisle of the Damned!

Music:
The Aquabats- Stuck in a Movie
Dave Gardner- Mad Witch

Aisle of the Damned: 7/6/16- Social Networkland

They had it coming.

Kent and Bryan are limping through a summer of unrequested sequels and retreads. We discuss the way a lot of sequels have been failing at the box office and which films have bucked the trend. We also give our top entertainment picks for this month, discuss the implications of the Ultimate Batman v Superman cut and also the 180 that Warner Bros. has pulled on Justice League. Later, they talk The Conjuring 2, Finding Dory, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Central Intelligence and the long expected follow-up, Independence Day: Resurgence.

Come and sequel, won’t you?

Music:
The Aquabats- Stuck in a Movie
The Lillingtons- Invasion of the Saucermen

Aisle of the Damned- 07/31/15: LeBron Leaves the Tune Squad

Then You Will Have My Permission To Drive

In a flurry of catch-upedness, Kent and Bryan bring us up to speed on movies they’ve seen over the summer including Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Terminator: Genysis, Ted 2, Trainwreck and Inside Out. But not before discussing our favorite theaters and our disappointment in Disney for announcing that Avengers: Age of Ultron will be out on digital download a full month before blu ray. Plus, random segues into Lebron, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, the virtues of Jurassic Park III and more!

You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll mostly cry.

Music:
The Aquabats- Stuck in a Movie
The Offspring- Bad Habit

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Muppets Most Wanted

Two frogs, no waiting

Muppets Most Wanted is a worthy follow-up to the characters’ 2011 comeback film and it starts right where the last one left off. In a strange opening, it is implied that the last movie was the film version of the story of their reunification. This isn’t unheard of in Muppet-dom, of course. It is reminiscent of the revolutionary framing device of the original Muppet Movie when the whole crew gathered to watch a film based on the story of their origins.

Leading into a song about making a sequel (and the law of diminishing returns), it is not the last time in the film that they make self-deprecating and effective references to the prior film, including a perhaps deserved jab or two at Walter, the Muppet introduced in the last film that wisely takes a backseat in Wanted so the spotlight is back on Kermit and Co. This film isn’t his story and the filmmakers understand that, not trying to force him into the proceedings more than is organic. It’s great seeing this kind of continuity built into the Muppet films, allowing them to build on each other even as they change in tone and focus.

Whereas the last film did a great job taking its cues from the original Muppet Movie, the new film feels like a retread of The Great Muppet Caper. In this way it reminds me of Star Trek Into Darkness; it feels unneeded and smacks of wasted opportunities to try something new, but it is too well made to deny its quality. The most positive change may be the introduction of the fantastic villain Constantine, aka the world’s most dangerous frog. With his awful Russian accent and penchant for blowing up everything in his path with a detonator (not to mention maliciously punning his way through Kermit’s catchphrases), he is not only effectively evil, but hilarious. He beats the hell out of Charles Grodin.

In a lot of ways, the sequel feels like a very confident statement from James Bobin and company that they feel they’ve survived trying to live up to the Muppet legacy and now they get a well-deserved chance to play around. The film doesn’t have the same heart as the previous outing. We don’t have anything like the relationship between Walter and his brother (Jason Segal doesn’t even cameo this time out) or the effectiveness of Kermit’s reunions with his old comrades in harms. Instead we get what may be the funniest 90 minutes yet featuring the characters. At times it comes across as more of a classic spoof movie than the type of Muppet films we got last time, sort of like if the Zuckers had used Kermit for the main character in Top Secret. There is a joyous absurdity to the film that carries across it from start to finish, only interrupted (as usual) by the obligatory Miss Piggy song. Though even that has more kick than usual and includes one of the most delightfully horrifying visuals ever put in a family film.

In addition to that, Bret McKenzie puts together what I feel is an even stronger set of songs which manage to continue the comic energy of the film rather than pull it back, something he is excellent at given his pedigree in Flight of the Conchords. He deftly maneuvers from one song styling to another and keeps them short and sweet.

As for the humans in the movie, the one that comes off best is probably Ty Burrell as a Cluseau-like inspector for Interpol. This is partially because of the writing, partially because of his chemistry with Sam the Eagle and especially because of the great writing poking fun at European work norms. Ricky Gervais also does well as Dominic Badguy (“It’s pronounced Bad-gzhee.”) Tina Fey is surprisingly the one that seems a bit out of her depth in comparison, never hitting quite the right tone in her role as a Gulag warden. That said, she still manages to elicit some good laughs when she finds her rhythm.

As someone that doesn’t find sentiment particularly enticing, it’s surprising that I actually find the film not quite as good as its predecessor. I would guess perhaps some of it was the element of surprise over how well it had turned out and some of it is definitely related to just plain how long it had been before we’d gotten a Muppet movie that good. Sure, their takes on Treasure Island and A Christmas Carol weren’t exactly slouches, but unless you’re a member of the generation that grew up on them as kids (and I know a few), they don’t tend to be seen as classics. The Muppets was pretty darn close. Muppets Most Wanted is not quite to that level, but darned if it isn’t a great time.

(Three and a half damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Wind Rises

The Japanese North by Northwest

Author’s note: This review is for the original Japanese language version of film. There is a dubbed version also being shown in the U.S., but I have not seen it. Check your local listings to see what is being shown in your area if you’re lucky enough to have it screening near you.

Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises is a little tough on us history majors, especially those of us who’ve studied World War II. Tough because the focus is on the creator of Japan’s Zero fighter plane, Jiro Horikoshi.

The film is a true story only in slightly more of a sense than was, say, Disney’s Pocahontas. Minus the anthropomorphic tree and plus fantastical sequences where he interacts with an Italian plane designer in their dreams. And that’s the tricky part. Jiro’s creations were used by the Japanese military to kill a lot of people. It would kind of be like doing an animated film where Wernher Von Braun is the hero. Regardless of the person or their intentions, they were working for some horrifying regimes.

In response to this, there are some things placed into the movie about Jiro speculating that Japan “will blow up.” At one point he is sought after by the Japanese “thought police” as one of his bosses refers to them, perhaps as a way to distance him from the people that would use his machines, though this is a plot thread left dangling and unresolved. But it can still be difficult to wrap your mind around the central character arc of the film, especially as a Westerner. We want to see Jiro succeed because Miyazaki makes him very sympathetic and human. But we also don’t want him to succeed at all because of what his success means. Jiro’s obsession and passion is creating “beautiful airplanes.” He wanted to be an aeronautical engineer since he was a boy and he worked hard for it. But we know his creations will be used in Japan’s attempt to conquer China and kill many Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Zero itself went on to become the plane most often used in kamikaze runs when the war was reaching its end.

As for the film itself, moral implications of its story aside, it is classic Miyazaki in tone and beauty. Like many of his films, it is mostly quiet, contemplative and often gentle, taking its time to unfold before the viewer. It is a story about feeling the need to create, regardless of what it takes. Jiro dreams of flying, but with his eyesight it is impossible. So he does the next best thing; he creates aircraft. (Seemingly under the direction of a Japanese version of Bob’s boss from The Incredibles.)

The film mixes elements about the driving nature of creation with a romance featuring no less than three “meet-cutes.” While the way the relationship comes together is ridiculously coincidental in the way that can only happen in cinema, the actual interactions between them are charming and tender, helping you care what happens to them. Despite its typically Miyazaki design and a color palate that is often quite bright, this is far more of an adult feature than most of his work. If Ponyo was for small children, this film is for the parents. There is definitely humor built into the storytelling, but the film is often moody and introspective.

It isn’t, as a friend of mine mused, Grave of the Fireflies-level depressing, though. Far from it. And it isn’t completely static, either. Early on there’s a stunning rendition of an earthquake that is such a new way of representing such an event, I was actually puzzled as to what was going on until a character explained. It is far more interesting than just a shaking camera with things falling over.

What’s great about the film is that it exactly what an American animation company would never do. Instead of an animated film, this is the kind of film we’d see made as a mid-level, live-action biopic starring someone trying to win an Oscar. For some reason, people are blind to the opportunities of the art form and put it in a box. But for Miyazaki, it is a way to capture a bygone era of Japan’s recent past. It is a way to show Tokyo being destroyed without resorting to spectacle. It is a way to show fanciful dream sequences that would be considered out of place and tone deaf in a live-action film. It is a way to resurrect dead technologies. There are so many logical reasons to film this story this way, but it isn’t an inherently family film or a straight comedy, so I have the sinking feeling some American audiences will come out of it confused based solely on their media conditioning. (Though for the record, there’s nothing in it that I’d be worried about kids seeing unless you’re fervently anti-smoking, because damn, the guy’s like a chimney.) If I’m wrong, I’ll be ecstatic about it.

Miyazaki has said this will be his last film, but then he’s said that before. Perhaps it would be wiser for him to say that he’s done until he finds another story that he feels a driving need to tell. If there’s any one thing that a person should probably be taking from The Wind Rises, it is probably that standing in the way of a creative passion is pointless.

(Four damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Saving Mr. Banks and Frozen

saving-mr-banks-quad

L1.33 (FROZN_003B_G - Quad (Olaf/Iceberg))

A double dose of Disney. That’s the alliterative way of putting what I did the other night. I started with the Mouse’s latest animated offering (finally) and then moved on to their behind the scenes tale of making their ’64 adaptation of Mary Poppins, Saving Mr. Banks.
The reason I chose to put the two reviews together is because in some ways they feed into each other and inform each other.

Saving Mr. Banks is a sanitized version of the trip that P.L. Travers took to Los Angeles to deal with Walt Disney, who’d been trying to obtain the film rights to her Mary Poppins stories for years.

Based on a logo that appears, it seems to be a BBC coproduction and actually reminds me of another ’60s set show biz tale that they were involved in, the Doctor Who-centric An Adventure in Time and Space. And like that film, Banks is imbued with the screenwriters’ attempts to be cute and tie everything together within the film as phrases and themes repeat over the course of its runtime; almost like a prequel built into the film itself, showing where every idea came from to a maddening fault.

Through far-away empty stares that turn into flashbacks, we see how everything in the Poppins books seem to come from exaggerations of her experiences growing up with her “Good Time Charlie” father (Colin Farrell) in Australia.

In doing so, they attempt to humanize her beyond what she reportedly presented in real life. While Richard Sherman of the iconic Sherman brothers (the duo that composed the film’s music and were actually responsible for a good deal of its tone, storyline and narrative) was involved in the film’s creation to a degree, some of his family has been outspoken over how many of their contributions were handed over to Travers in order to serve the dramatic and character needs of the film.

It’s true that a good bulk of Poppins was based on Travers’ books. But her books are widely regarded as being more of a series of vignettes than having any kind of a narrative throughline. Personally, I adore Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. However, without the character journey of Mr. Banks, the criticism Wonderland received with regards to a lack of narrative coherence is exactly the kind that would have been leveled against Poppins.

A history buff’s annoyance at the lack of subtlety aside, there is a lot to enjoy about the film. Emma Thompson’s prickly Travers is a euphoria of anxieties, failings and mental disorders. She sets herself up on a crusade to preserve her work from what she sees as the Disney machine. Part of me understands this, since I am an artist myself. (And the film acknowledges it in its own way through Walt.) Her performance always seems to be right on the edge of becoming utterly unlikable beyond repair, but she manages to keep from going over the top just enough to stay slightly relatable.

I’m a bit more on the fence about Tom Hanks’ performance as Walt Disney. I completely understand why they picked him. Like Disney, he is hugely known, widely acclaimed by the “Peoria” crowd and has managed to become a critical darling despite there being a group of sophisticates that disdains a lot of what he’s done as schmaltz. But to me, he never becomes Disney. He always just seems like Hanks with a mustache. Part of this may be the lack of any attempt beyond the ‘stache to make him look like Walt. Disney was ingrained so much in popular culture that even someone that was born more than a decade after his passing like me knows him instantly based on his television appearances and media saturation. I just never felt like he disappeared into the character of Walt. The voice and the mannerisms never seemed to consistently match. It might be a controversial thing to say, but when playing someone as famous as Walt Disney, there’s a need to have just a little bit of caricature involved. Karl Urban’s performance as Bones McCoy in the new Star Trek films is a perfect example of someone managing to imitate while maintaining enough subtlety in their performance to keep it from lapsing into parody. Hanks plays things so far from imitation that there’s never any danger of this, but there’s also never any danger of him truly embodying the Walt of public perception.

I was very impressed by the work of BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman as the Sherman Brothers. The duo manage to put out very different personalities with Schwartzman’s Richard being more naive and capitulating than Bob, the brother that was shot in the knee by the Germans. Novak serves as a release for the audience, visibly annoyed by the over-demanding Travers and sometimes voicing what most people would say when confronted by a person of her personality.

One thing that Mary Poppins (and the Sherman Brothers) did right was the music. They found a musical theme that fit the film and fed into the visuals. One wonders how much of the old ways are still present in the modern Disney studios, which seem to be in the early days of a third renaissance.

If there’s one main concern I would have about Frozen, it is that it doesn’t have that kind of strong musical thread to tie it together. While I have been a fan of Christophe Beck since his days scoring for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the music that he and the songwriting team of Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez use for the film just didn’t fit in my mind. From the Lion King-style gang vocals that almost seemed African to the top-40 Broadway-style songs, they seemed at odds with the production design that referenced Scandinavian culture mixed with the kind of Eastern European visual flair that filled Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. This isn’t to say that the music was bad, but it not only didn’t seem like a good fit, but was mostly forgettable.

(In the interest of fairness, however, let me point out that I may be in the minority for feeling that way. My sister-in-law says my niece has been singing Let’s Build a Snowman since seeing the film. And while that title personally makes me think of the show-stopper from Cannibal: The Musical, the number of parents chiming in saying the same thing would indicate that it certainly speaks to kids at the very least.)

Speaking of the visual style, my mind reels at the missed opportunities for lush backgrounds and animation (with some digital help for the beautiful, complex geometric patterns that come from the ice, of course) that could have been achieved had the film been drawn by hand as had originally been planned before the success of Tangled. Actually, most of my remaining issues with the film are similar in that it is one of the rare films that have me complaining that it’s not the movie I want to see.

I personally tend to hate that kind of criticism. And I rarely entertain those notions in my head. I’m here to offer thoughts and critiques of what is on the screen, not what I would have done. But there it was chugging along all well and good when it throws a late-narrative twist in which diffused what had been a better-than-average, complex character dynamic that the film had going for it. Seemingly for the sake of an easy conclusion.
Of course for me to care so much about things going (in my opinion) off track, it means there has to be something there in the first place. In this case, it’s a fantastic relationship between the main characters, Princesses Elsa and Anna. Their motivations are pretty well spelled out. There’s not a lot of subtlety here. It is a big musical, after all. But it’s a relationship that feeds on chemistry and on being different from any other Disney film. It’s a story based around sisterhood and family, and in less of a parent/child dynamic than Lilo and Stitch, which is probably the closest thing I can think of to their interactions. When you get down to it, the movie doesn’t need a villain. Their relationship and their sometimes misguided attempts to do the right thing are enough to base the entire story on.

When it comes to the cast, they’re uniformly good. For as much as I was unenthused by the music, Kristen Bell proves to be a highly competent voice actress with fantastic timing and a much better singing voice than I expected, given I don’t think I’ve ever heard her sing professionally before. I also think it’s grand that Alan Tudyk seems to be becoming a Disney regular after his terrific performance aping Ed Wynn in Wreck It Ralph.

It also is nice that most of the side characters are well done. Much better than you may expect after seeing the Ice-Age style trailers as a matter of fact. Olaf the Snowman and Sven the reindeer were severely overused by the Disney marketing department due, I can only assume, to how much people loved Maximus in Tangled. Thankfully they’re not nearly as annoying as they could have been in the film. Olaf seemed like he was going to be the most annoying sidekick character since Rosie O’Donnell’s Terk in Tarzan. But in the film he’s naive, slightly dim and utterly charming. A lot of this probably comes down to Josh Gad’s performance which manages to imbue him with a childlike innocence without ever tipping the scale to saccharine. And Sven, a character that easily could have been a Nickelodeon-style fart joke factory, manages to be fun because many of his visual jokes are background gags and instead of making him a person with horns, he is an embodiment of a slobbering, overexcited dog.

Meanwhile, speaking of critiquing what’s there instead of what isn’t, while I know in my heart of hearts that a hand-animated version of Frozen would have been better, the film still looks pretty darn good. The ice creations are gorgeous and the visuals do evoke the old Disney fairy tale films in many circumstances. The vague Eastern European-ness of it also works since there are times they invoke the timeless Universal horror films, especially James Whale’s Frankenstein films.

Overall, it’s definitely an entertaining film. It’s got a lot of great humor to it and it moves along at a good clip. It’s just not as good as their last two films in my opinion. I still strongly recommend seeing it. I will most definitely be revisiting it and seeing if maybe I get a little bit softer on the things that didn’t track with me.

Saving Mr. Banks:
(Three damns given out of five)

Frozen:
(Three and a half damns given out of five)

Movie Diary- 8/9/13

New player enters the game!8/2/13- Watched the second part of the Evangelion “rebuild” last night. It’s too bad I have no idea what’s going on, because it’s actually pretty damn cool in places. I described Pacific Rim as Evangelion with Star Wars overtones. I also maybe should have specified, “without all the psuedo-theological hokum and a plot that a sane person can follow.” What is awesome is that while the first one was just a compressed version of the TV series, this one was pretty divergent in a lot of ways. First off, Mari is an awesome addition to the cast. When the Mark 02 goes feral, it’s pretty damn impressive and the way they use color for her (especially after giving her that weird meet cute with Shinji) is just jarring and badass. Not only that, but the existing characters are actually more likable. Shinji doesn’t come across as such a whining wimp and doesn’t sit around crying the way he had so often in the show. Asuka (who has bizarrely had her name changed so that even the European characters seem to have Japanese surnames) is even more of a sociopath, but she’s given a bit of depth along with it and goals for her future. And the ending is just a whole bunch of “WTF.” If you liked the original series, you will either hate this for not being exactly the same or love it because it’s finally telling a new story. Hopefully it won’t end with as complete a narrative f@ck you as the show and the previous “End of Evangelion” movie did.

8/5/13- I have a rant about animation coming that I wrote at work and forgot to send to myself. In the meantime, I’ve watched a couple of movies with Spence and his girlfriend Allie. Brave being the main one. Which is still great. The thing’s hilarious and I don’t get why people just decided to take a big dook on it, because I think it’s really well made.

I got into a discussion about the glut of CGI animated films with my friend Jared. It turned into a gripe session of the current state of animation in general. I feel like the “dooming of 2D” is basically a self-fulfilling prophecy that was caused by the animation industry and Hollywood itself. If you look at recent history, the last big hand-drawn hit was probably Lilo and Stitch. Home on the Range crashed and burned because nobody liked it and Princess and the Frog did reasonably well. Certainly well enough to justify continuing the practice of making hand-drawn features. What’s really frustrating is that Frozen, the next feature from Disney, started out as hand-drawn but because of the success of Tangled, a film I actually really enjoyed in part because it aped 2D so well thanks to the handiwork of Glenn Keane, was switched over to yet another 3D feature and apparently the Diz has laid off nearly all their 2D animators.

It’s a sad day indeed given when John Lassetter took over the Mouse’s animation department, including the newly integrated Pixar, it sounded like they were going to actively pursue 2D animation again, in the spirit of the studio’s long history. I have no problem with 3D animation when it makes sense for the story. Pixar has done a good job of picking projects that seem to lend themselves to the particular look of CGI, for the most part. Wreck It Ralph made absolute sense to do in 3D because it was about computer-generated characters. But why aren’t these studios making movies based upon which medium is simply going to be better for the story being told? It’s not like making a film in CG guarantees it to be a hit. I mean, criminy, look at all the movies that have either failed to make a dent at the box office, if you’re speaking generously (or bombed if you aren’t.) Turbo is only the most recent example of one of them underperforming.

I find it very sad that Hollywood has convinced itself this is meaningless and that 2D is dead for no reason. At this point only France and Japan seem to be actively involved in creating hand-drawn films and I find it sad that the country which pioneered the animated film (and perfected the animated short through Warner Bros. and MGM) simply doesn’t care anymore.

At least we still get a stop-motion film or two a year, even if they’re falling into a pattern of nearly all having to be Burtonesque macabre comedies. (This coming from someone that enjoys that kind of thing.) I will take a pure CG movie any day over a mo-cap feature though.

Most of these Zemmeckis-pioneered features are mediocre at best and the visuals rarely have wowed me. As much as I enjoyed TinTin, and I do enjoy it a lot (more each time I watch it, actually) I am continually bothered by the awful decision to do it as a mo-cap feature with what is, frankly, some pretty grotesque design. Herge’s characters are pretty universally beloved throughout Europe and much of the non-American world, so why not actually make the characters look like they do in the comics? Or even just bite the bullet and film it as a live-action feature? Because instead it is a charmless and puzzling visual mish-mash that is simply unappealing. The look of the film really pleased noone that I’ve spoken to, with the distraction of the character design hampering the things that work really well like the imaginative set-pieces, a fine script by the cream of the creative crop currently in Britain’s TV and film industry and the best chase scene Spielberg has directed since Raiders. But that’s the problem with motion capture, period. I simply don’t know who it’s supposed to appeal to. The only film I can think of that really worked with it was Monster House. (This of course is not counting the stupendous work by Andy Serkis and the artists behind Gollum and other such instances of incorporating CG characters into live-action film, but rather a self-decribed “animated film.”) But the characters in Monster House were stylized so that they were more appealing and didn’t fall into the uncanny valley trap quite as hard. And even then, the motion capture seemed worthless because a good animator can do a better job of conveying emotion than some dots glued to a person’s face. There’s really very little reason to hire an actor when an animator is already doing the job of an actor if they’re any good.

Is it neat that Speilberg tried a different medium? Absolutely. With directors like Wes Anderson, Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton jumping from live action to animation and vice versa, it’s an exciting time for creative freedom in film. These folks are taking advantage in the blurred lines of filmmaking and picking up the reigns from the likes of Frank Tashlin to try to take advantage of the best avenue for them to tell their stories. It’s just a shame that one of them is completely closed off now. I’ve loved every one of Bird’s features, for example. He managed to keep the Mission: Impossible franchise from squandering the goodwill JJ Abrams presented it with and his Pixar films, especially The Incredibles, are not just some of the best animated films of the last 20 years, but a couple of the best films of the last two decades period. But I could not see The Iron Giant being what it is were it live-action or computer animated beyond what was used initially. (Speaking of which, why isn’t that on blu ray yet? Can Warners still not figure out that it’s a hugely popular cult film that could be sold on the basis of Bird’s megahits?)

Really the main disturbing trend is that animation in its various forms, especially CG, is more in demand than ever thanks to increasing special effects and more films flooding the market then ever, yet prospects for animation seem so bleak. Effects houses have publically been failing because they are not rewarded for a job well done in many cases (even when they win an Oscar.) Animators have become the pariahs of Hollywood. While art and “geek culture” proceeds to dominate the box office and the pop culture consciousness, the actual creators of the art in cinemas are being pushed around as though the work can be done by any schmuck off the street with the right software. This isn’t the case in every instance to be certain, but as a whole it seems like outsourcing and undercutting are the rules of the day. Perhaps they always have been. Rocky and Bullwinkle were animated (if you can call it that) in Mexico to cut costs and that was in the 60s. But for some reason it just seems worse now. Maybe it always seems worse now than in the past. It is human nature to paint the most dire portrait of the present. After all, I suppose at least as an audience we’re getting more content than ever and we’re no longer in the dark ages of the late 70s and early 80s.

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)