Monday, June 24, 2013

Movie Review: Monsters University

I think my wife called this one: when we walked out of the theater, she said it felt like a really good direct-to-DVD sequel. Before everyone assumes that's strictly a negative, I do want to stress the really good part of that summary: Monsters University is a lot of fun. There's some great world-building on display here, and the core story is really effective. But there's no denying the movie is extremely unambitious in scale.

It's definitely worth seeing if you enjoyed the original. But unless you loved the first movie, I don't think you need to see this in the theater. And it kills me to say that. You see, I do love the original. I skipped it when it was in the theaters, dismissing the colorful trailers as cheesy. When I finally watched it on DVD, I immediately swore to never again miss a Pixar movie until the company started to disappoint me.

After numerous successes, they finally faltered with Cars 2. Yeah, I actually kind of enjoyed that movie, but there's no denying it was pretty bad. And now, a few years later, it's becoming clear that Pixar has grown stagnant.

Sure, they're still making enjoyable movies. Brave was really good, despite what critics continue to say, and - like I've already said several times - Monsters University was good. But I don't think anyone could seriously claim it's great.

Let's get into the details. The movie's setting is topnotch. It builds on the world of Monsters, Inc., expanding it in new directions. The character and building designs are a lot of fun: the rival fraternities and sororities are awesome. The main characters are incredibly interesting, both as earlier versions of the characters we met in Monsters, Inc. and on this movie's own merits.

As a fantasy, it almost crosses that line into greatness. But this isn't a fantasy, at least not solely. First and foremost, it's a comedy, and as a comedy, it's disappointingly mediocre. A large segment of the supporting cast are over-the-top caricatures: the exact type Pixar used to be famous for avoiding. The jokes are mixed - there are several hilarious gags, but there are at least as many that just aren't funny.

The rivalry and eventual friendship between the leads saves the movie. It's more Wazowski's movie than Sullivan's this time, which works a hell of a lot better than making Mater the main character of Cars 2. The theme of the film is also impressive. Remember when Incredibles called bullshit on the notion that "everyone is special?" This time they're putting the notion that anyone can achieve their dreams on the chopping block. And it's about time: that poetic turn of phrase probably does more damage to kids than any of the other lies they're fed.

So, in summary, this is a good little movie, but it's not something you absolutely have to go see in the theater. I'm glad I saw it - I did have a good time - but it's certainly not a classic. All said, I'd still go see a movie about Mike and Sulley in a retirement community if Disney decides to cap off the trilogy.

Before I wrap this up, I want to mention the short that prefaced Monsters University. It's a brief, sweet piece called "The Blue Umbrella" that invokes old Disney cartoons. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but that's not why I'm bringing it up.

When the short finished, I leaned over to Lindsay and asked her whether it was live action with some digital effects or if was entirely computer generated. I honestly couldn't tell, and she couldn't either. Apparently, it was entirely digitally created.

Okay, I'm impressed.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Movie Review: Man of Steel

Between the movie's sub-60 freshness level on Rotten Tomatoes and my lukewarm response toward the trailers, I wasn't expecting to have a great reaction to this. Most of what I saw beforehand suggested a hard-SF spin on Supes; another in a long line of DC superhero movies embarrassed of being a DC superhero movie. But it turns out while Warner's marketing department might be having cold feet, Zack Snyder was making a comic book flick through and through.

Sure, this is a different interpretation of Superman and Krypton than Donner's. And, yes, the costume looked better with the red shorts (I suspect the director secretly agrees: there were very few shots showing Kal-El's waist clearly). But, overall, this adaptation of Superman felt as valid and as authentic as any live action version that came before it. Maybe more so.

All the talk about this being a new version of the story is bull. The Superman on display here is one generations of comics readers have imagined. It's a darker spin than we got in the older movies, but it's nothing new to the comics, where Superman has had to face incredible odds - and often stark reminders of his limitations - for a long time. On some level, this is the story Superman II tried to tell in 1980... it just does it much better.

The movie opens on Krypton and puts to rest any concerns about them taking too serious an approach. This is pure, unapologetic Burroughs science-fantasy. And it's fantastic.

When Krypton blows, the linear story-telling goes with it. Much of the movie is a series of vignettes, feeling almost like a silent picture at times. The movie's actually at its best when it embraces this, using images to build a cohesive world, characters, and tone. It doesn't quite succeed in delivering a fully cohesive narrative, but it doesn't really need one. Superman was never really about stories, anyway.

Man of Steel struck me as fundamentally true to the character and mythos of the world's first Superhero. Just as importantly, it delivered easily the greatest Lois Lane we've gotten outside of the Timm/Dini animated series.

This is absolutely worth checking out. It's got some issues - you'll roll your eyes at least a few times before the end credits roll - but the movie delivers a live action portrayal of comics' first hero a lot of us waited a long time to see.

Here's hoping Warner Bros. moves forward with plans to expand this into a fully realized DC live action universe, including a new Batman, Green Lantern, and - for the love of God - a long overdue Wonder Woman movie.

Only, if it isn't too much to ask... maybe give Superman his shorts back for the sequel.