Monday, June 24, 2013

"Monsters University" review

For three decades now, Pixar has been the leading innovator in computer animation. "Toy Story" is about twenty years old and, watching it today, it's still a marvel of technology. Pixar had continued to surpass itself, animation-wise, with each subsequent film. But now, the rest of the world has caught up. Dreamworks, Fox, Sony---they're all putting out their own CGI films to the point where the animation itself doesn't seem as special anymore.

For 15 years, Pixar could not do wrong. The films, bookended by "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 3," ranged from very good to excellent. Really, "Cars" is the only weak one of the bunch and it's still very watchable. The peak had to be from 2007 to 2010: "Ratatouille," "Wall-E," "Up," and "Toy Story 3." Three films that, amazingly, managed to top each other in quality. But after the very unnecessary "Cars 2" and the disappointing "Brave," Pixar must have been reeling a little bit. The films still made big bucks, but the studio was the toast of the town for so long. Suddenly, it seemed their creativity had reached an all-time low. And now they're going to make yet another sequel?

If they had to do a sequel to any of their previous properties, "Monsters Inc." definitely seemed like the best candidate. The original film, which came out in 2001, is easily one of their best and the characters were likable enough that nobody would mind revisiting them once again. With "Monsters University," Pixar does something that I can't recall ever being done in animation: a G-rated comedy set in college. On second thought, has any film managed to make a G-rated film set in college without it being completely lame?

That "Monsters University" actually works is an accomplishment on its own. The film begins with a young elementary school-aged Mike Wazowski who takes a class trip to Monsters, Inc. Mike is seen as a bit of an outcast, not particularly liked by other classmates who tell him that he doesn't belong. This doesn't phase Mike Wazowski who makes it his life mission to one day become a scarer at Monsters, Inc.

A decade later, Mike steps off a bus. His destination is Monsters University. Having never lost sight of Monsters, Inc., Mike Wazowski wants to do everything he can to excel at scaring, having entered the scaring program. He winds up becoming roommates with future foe Randy Boggs and while at orientation, is first introduced to future best friend James P. Sullivan or "Sully." As you might expect with this kind of movie, Mike and Sully do not start out being friends.

In fact, the two of them butt heads at every turn from the beginning of the semester to the end. Eventually, they are forced to work together and finally become close friends in the process. While the whole "enemies first, best friends later" trope has been done to death and "Monsters University" doesn't really provide a new spin on the story, the writers and animators do a wonderful job with adding a lot depth to this world. Despite the G-rating, anyone who went to college will have something to laugh at here. "Monsters University" provides a light-hearted satire at the world of college. There's no doubt that the writers and animators brought their own experiences to the process.

The film was such that I felt myself laughing much more than the kids in the audience. Most of the kids seemed to have a good time, assuming they all had seen "Monsters, Inc." I heard a couple of little kids yell "Sully" when he showed up 20 minutes into the film. It's funny because "Monsters, Inc" is twelve years old and so it very much feels like a passing of the torch. There seemed to be as many adults in the audience as there were kids and there's no doubt that some of those adults could have just like those kids when those adults first saw "Monsters, Inc." This is why Pixar is so great. At its best, it unites audiences of every age. The kids will laugh, and the adults will something to laugh at too.

"Monsters University" feels like a bounce back film for the company. It's not quite up to par with their greatest films, but it is very funny. As far as sequels go, it doesn't exactly have the emotional punch that the Toy Story sequels have, but it does have its fair share of poignant moments toward the end. Overall, it's actually really cool to see how Mike Wazowski and Sully got their start at the company. If you enjoyed "Monsters, Inc.," you will find a lot to admire here.

Grade: B

Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Man of Steel" review

Out of all the superheroes, Superman is perhaps the most famous of them all. He may have been recently eclipsed, thanks to all the Batman and Marvel movies. But there's no denying the icon and legend that is Superman. Richard Donner directed the first film in the franchise back in 1978. After the fourth Superman, which came out in 1987, there was nearly a 20 year gap between Superman films. Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns" was the first attempt at a reboot, but disappointing box office returns forced DC Comics and Warner Brothers to rethink the whole thing. This leads us to "Man of Steel."

Wisely, DC and Warner brought in the filmmakers behind the The Dark Knight Trilogy to put together the framework for "Man of Steel." Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer came up with the story, and Goyer wrote the screenplay. Goyer has a great amount of experience with rebooting superheroes as he played a big part in the development of "Batman Begins." But he's at his best as a screenwriter when he collaborates with others (like with Nolan) as opposed to writing it by himself. Add mediocre director Zack Snyder into the mix and you have a well-intentioned film with some great effects that is rife with problems.

Having said that, "Man of Steel" actually opens on a high note. Jor-El, along with his wife Lara, give birth to their son Kal-El. It's the first natural birth, on the planet Krypton, in centuries. On Krypton, natural births are in violation of on basic laws of the planet, where babies are to be bred via genetic engineering with a specific codex that gives each person a specific purpose in life. With General Zod (Michael Shannon) threatening to take control of the planet and a planet that's on the verge of destroying itself, Jor-El and Lara launch a pod containing their newborn son into space, destined to land in Earth.

The sequence is a stunner even if it fills in a ton of story in a relatively short amount of time. So much story, in fact, that it has to be explained in detail to Kal-El when he meets his biological father for the first time in the Arctic. Kal-El grew up in Smallville, Kansas as Clark Kent, son of Johnathan and Martha Kent. Understandably, Clark was a confused child. As a kid on Earth, Clark has unrealized X-ray vision and super-hearing abilities which scares him, but his mother helps him to focus and harness his powers, which are occasionally put to the test in extraordinary ways. But, his father, afraid of how the world would react to learning about such a supreme being, tells his son to repress these abilities. The world's not ready for them, he says.

"Man of Steel" is a re-telling of the classic Superman story and is heavy on themes and symbols. It makes Superman a much more interesting character. Here's someone who is not quite of this world with superhuman abilities, but he's unable to use them out of fear. When he's finally able to find his real, biological father, his father helps him realize the great amount of power he has, and how he can become a symbol of hope to these humans. On the surface, this makes Superman easy to root for.

But unfortunately, all the other elements of this story is completely lackluster. One wonders if the lengthy opening prologue has something to do with this. This sequence is so long that it condenses the rest of the story. Whether it's the villain General Zod, or Clark's love interest Lois Lane, or a thin plot that leads to the destructive final act---the lack of well-rounded characters or depth in the storytelling makes Superman's adventure feel hollow and devoid of any thrills. The action sequences contain top notch visual effects, but they don't go beyond merely being eye candy. Ultimately, there is simply nothing to get excited about in "Man of Steel." Thanks to Superman's incredible powers, he never really goes through a real, physical struggle. When we meet him in present day, he treats his super powers with little-to-no wonderment and, therefore, so do we. His father, Johnathan Kent, was afraid of how the world would react to learning about Superman, but we never get to see that reaction. We never learn what kind of impact he makes on the world, aside from destruction and devastation. There's never a point where you wonder how Superman is going to succeed. Any problem he may have can be quickly resolved from him flying incredibly fast.

You can call Superman a superhero, but every foe he faces in "Man of Steel" leaves such a disastrous amount of carnage that I'm sure would make everyone on Earth wish he never arrived on their planet in the first place. Seriously, he has come with a lot of baggage. General Zod wouldn't want turn the planet upside down if it wasn't for Superman's presence on it. And thanks to him, the entire city of Metropolis is destroyed. We get an incredible display of destruction as a result, but it makes Superman seem completely irresponsible.

What make matters worse is the one-note villain, General Zod. The plan is to turn Earth into planet Krypton, a plan which gives General Zod a clear motivation throughout the movie. But General Zod does nothing else other than shout at people. There's nothing about General Zod that is remotely interesting here and this severely handicaps the story. Because "Man of Steel" is so straight-forward and serious, the lack of an interesting villain keeps the film from being as involving as it should be. 

The heart of "Man of Steel" is obviously in the right place. It wants to update Superman into the 21st century, modernize him, give him a clear motivation, and some strong thematic material to work with. It does just that. But the execution of the story is completely mishandled with overly-expository dialogue and characters (aside from Clark/Kal-El) who lack any depth. On top of that, lengthy action sequences that lack the kind of thrills and imagination that a movie like this desperately needs. Nolan, Goyer, and Snyder may have succeeded in making Superman an interesting character; unfortunately, they put him in a dull movie.

Grade: C-

Saturday, June 15, 2013

This is a This is the End review

To put it simply, "This is the End" is hilarious. It's a tad self-indulgent, it drags a little in the second act, but all those problems are instantly forgivable thanks to a cast that is always game and always fun to watch. Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Craig Robinson... it's fun to watch this cast work with each other. The premise is awesome: a bunch of Hollywood actors have to take shelter during the apocalypse. It makes you wonder, what would actors do in such a situation? "This is the End" gives you the answer.

Jay and Seth are long time friends, both from Canada. Seth has made it big in Hollywood, Jay has a healthy movie career but insists on staying in Canada. When the movie opens, Jay decides to visit Hollywood to hang with Jay. After spending the day smoking and eating burgers, at Seth's insistence, they go to a party at James Franco's house. Pretty much everybody that's ever appeared in a Judd Apatow-produced movie is at the party. Plus, Rhianna and Emma Watson. Michael Cera is doing coke and getting oral sex. Craig Robinson sings a song called "Take Yo Panties Off."  James Franco shows off his pretentious art on the walls. None of this impresses Jay, who just wanted to hang out with Seth and doesn't care about Seth's Hollywood friends.

But then the apocalypse begins and suddenly Jay is forced to be trapped with Seth and four of his friends. They try to make the most of things when crazy shit is happening around them, but what they eventually come to realize is... surprise, they have the power to change their fate.

I won't give too much away though. When the six of them are stuck in Franco's mansion, it gives the actors an opportunity to riff on each other endlessly. What keeps "This is the End" watchable is how self-deprecating the actors are in the film. They make fun of each other, and themselves. Their personas. You may think this is a sort of vanity project, but really, it's just the opposite. "The is the End" shows just how down-to-earth and fun these actors really are.

And overall, in a summer with the Hangover crew, the aging Frat Pack, and (later in the summer) the Happy Madison gang... this crew (who we'll dub, the Apatow kids) clearly stand above all. "This is the End" is just a joy to watch. It has plenty of surprises to keep you entertained throughout. It's tasteless in the best possible way. Rogen and company are at their best here.

Grade: A-

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness: occasionally problematic, but mostly enjoyable

With a title like "Star Trek Into Darkness," you would expect some serious shit to be going down in the sequel to the 2009 reboot. JJ Abrams is back at the helm and he's brought back the entire cast. But is this film darker than the first? Not exactly. Is it a mostly fun, entertaining ride with some great action sequences? Yes, as a matter of fact. But so was the first Star Trek. It doesn't feel as though the stakes have risen in "Star Trek Into Darkness" and, because of that, it can tend to dip into "business as usual" territory.

What remains a weakness in both of the Star Trek reboots is the villain. Again, the 2009 "Star Trek" was a lot of fun to watch, but do you remember much about the villain? Remember? Nero? Played by Eric Bana? Exactly. And while the first film was able to get away with it more because it was still exciting to see all the familiar characters back in a modernized blockbuster element, the second film needed to up the ante and give us a reason to continue on this journey with them. If it was just to hang out with Capt. Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Scotty, that's one thing. But ultimately, there's a story to tell here, and the story for "Star Trek Into Darkness" just feels so... by the numbers.

When we meet Kirk, Spock, and company in the beginning of "Into Darkness," the Enterprise ship attempts to prevent the eruption of a volcano in order to protect a planet's civilization. A number of things go wrong, leaving Spock in harm's way. But Kirk breaks code in order to save him, leaving the Enterprise to be exposed by the primitives who inhabit the planet. Kirk gets reprimanded, loses his rank as Captain and then has to go back to the Academy. He's not ready to be a captain.

...For like five minutes. A series of events occur and then suddenly Kirk is back in the chair of the USS Enterprise. Just like that. A mysterious man named John Harrison has been making things very difficult for the Federation. He convinced someone to blow up one of their HQs in London and now he's a fugitive. Kirk and his team then make it their mission to go after him, they capture him in Kronos (where the Klingons live), and then imprison him in one of those fiberglass prisons that you see all the time in movies like these. There's really only two ways this scenario plays out: either Harrison tricks them all and manages to escape and then we spend the last third of the movie trying to find him. Or, they actually need Harrison and decide to "use" him to get what they want. This movie goes for the latter option.

The film's been out for about a month now so I guess it's no surprise at this point to reveal who John Harrison really is. If you still haven't seen it, don't read past this POINT.

But, honestly? Revealing this isn't that big of a deal. I knew John Harrison was Khan before I saw the movie and it really doesn't matter, to be honest. So he's Khan. And he's played by Benedict Cumberbatch who does a superb job with what he's given, unfortunately, he's given very little to do. While Khan has brief moments of evil badassery, it's too brief. Ultimately, considering how hard they tried to keep this character reveal under wraps, the way his storyline plays out is unimpressive.

That said, the movie is fun because the principal characters are fun. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto do a great job as Kirk and Spock. Simon Pegg is given a chance to shine as Scotty. Karl Urban and Zoe Saldana are enjoyable to watch as well. When these characters are together and are bickering or fighting together, they're a great team. The chemistry is definitely there. It's just a shame they have yet to be given a great plot to really stretch these characters out. They have great moments here and there, but honestly, there's very little character development among any of them. It's just more of the same.

While it was fun to see Mr. Robocop himself, Peter Weller, in the film as Fleet Admiral Alexander Marcus, the character of his daughter is utterly useless. Alice Eve plays science officer Dr. Carol Marcus and sneaks onto the Enterprise because... why exactly? Who is she? How did she get there? What? Who is this person? She doesn't play an important role in the film. It just seems like she's there for eye candy. Is she a love interest? No. Is she evil? No, but that would've been more fun. In a film where there's already plenty of characters, her presence in this film was a head scratcher.

Again though, "Star Trek Into Darkness" does the best it can despite a weak script. JJ Abrams does a great job from a technical standpoint and also in the way he gets to cast to play off each other. If there is going to be a third film, let's hope they get better writers because this franchise deserves better. With a great script, one of these Star Trek films could wind up being a classic. For now, it really does seem like it's just business as usual.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Frances Ha: the little movie that could

The "mumblecore" genre may have produced a handful of films that are rather insufferable, but it also gave us some genuine gifts. One of those gifts is actress Greta Gerwig, who once again effortlessly showcases her comedic and dramatic talents in Noah Baumbach's "Frances Ha." "Frances Ha" is a fun little black-and-white 86-minute comedy and was also co-written by Gerwig. The film shows director Noah Baumbach completely shifting his style after a string a films, starting with "The Squid and the Whale," had a more melancholy touch with characters that were hard to like. Personally, I love "The Squid and the Whale," and quite enjoyed his last film "Greenberg." But, as he hinted with his '90s output and the work he did with Wes Anderson on "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," Noah Baumbach definitely has a playful side. Luckily for us, Greta Gerwig has been able to help pull that side out of him for this film.

The film's plot may not sound very intriguing to some. It centers on a late-20s college grad living in various different NYC apts, trying to adjust her life after her long-time best friend and roommate decides to move in with her boyfriend. But, the secret to "Frances Ha" is the gleeful abandon in which it tells its story. Baumbach experiments with pacing and structure in ways he's never done before. The film is interspersed with French New Wave-style title cards, with some scenes lasting as little as a couple of seconds, and others playing out much longer. The film's music is a mix of your traditional old school film score coupled with pop music. This gives the film a bit of a throwback feel in two ways, as if John Hughes was trying to imitate Godard and Truffaut... if that makes any sense.

The film never takes itself too seriously, the characters are fun and likable, and its never bogged down by its more dramatic parts. Overall, everything feels very loose and the formal camera style allows us to get sucked into these characters' lives for a brief period of time. This comes into stark contrast of the typical hand-held style you normally see in films of this kind. Yes, most of these characters are hipster twentysomethings who borrow money from their parents so they can live comfortably in Manhattan. Thankfully, "Frances Ha" is always light and the characters are always funny. Supporting performances from Mickey Sumner, Michael Zegen, and "Girls" star Adam Driver definitely help matters. They appear to have a lot of fun playing these characters who, thankfully, are very down-to-earth. They're people you actually would not mind hanging out with.

And obviously the presence of Noah Baumbach behind the camera helps too. While his sometime-colleague Wes Anderson keeps refining his style, Baumbach's career seems to be defined by his need to switch things up. "Frances Ha" finds him in rare form, delivering a comedy that feels faintly familiar yet unlike anything else you've seen in quite some time. It takes familiar elements (NYC twentysomethings) and mixes it up into something that actually feels fresh and inspired.

It seems Baumbach has given himself a much-needed boost in creativity, with Greta Gerwig being his new muse. They're already planning on collaborating two more times, having already finished shooting another film, and another film, "While We're Young," is supposed to start shooting later this year. I mentioned Wes Anderson before and it's interesting to compare the two. Anderson is in a rare league of directors, in my view, especially with his latest ("Moonrise Kingdom"). Anderson is unashamed, 100% confident in his style and when he has a good story to tell, he's unstoppable.

What makes Noah Baumbach interesting to me is the way he's willing to change. In some ways, his sensibilities match up with Wes Anderson (as proven by their collaborations), but at his best, Baumbach is the more relatable, more intimate filmmaker. His movies are character studies. He's less interested in production design and fancy camera work, and more interested in story and character. His last two films were a bit more difficult to swallow because the characters were much rougher around the edges and weren't very inviting. The camera peered into their lives and showcased the ugly side of human behavior. That doesn't always make for a fun watch.

So it comes as a welcome surprise how thoroughly enjoyable "Frances Ha" is. There are no real-world ramifications here, it doesn't necessarily have anything crucial to say. But it's a well-executed look into the life of a woman in her late-20s who is still trying to put her life together. By the end, Frances has pretty much gotten everything figured out and we're happy for her. The difference between this film, and other films like it, is that you actually want Frances to succeed because she's a sweet and likable person. She just has trouble fitting in, and hey, we've all been there. She's always fun to watch, and that's largely thanks to Greta Gerwig. She just has a certain charm to her and she's quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses working today.

Overall, "Frances Ha" is a fun detour. In the end, it may feel a little slight, but it's a highly enjoyable film that will be worth revisiting over and over again. The film never drags and it doesn't feel too short. It's just a very well-executed comedy by a revitalized filmmaker. I can't wait to see what he has up his sleeve next. See "Frances Ha" twice. Don't be surprised if David Bowie's "Modern Love" gets stuck in your head afterwards.

Grade: A-