Monsters University

Monsters University
Starring the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman and Helen Mirren
Directed by Dan Scanlon
Rated G

    In 2001’s classic Pixar film Monsters, Inc., we met Mike Wazowski (Crystal) and Sulley (Goodman) and we just had to assume they were always best friends.  Now, 12 years later, we find out the truth about their past in this prequel.  What we learn is that Mike has dreamed of being a scarer since he was a little kid and that Sulley was a spoiled brat who thought his size and genetics would easily land him on the scare floor, following in the footsteps of his father.  Once in college, though, both of their dreams are crushed and they must find a way to not only respect one another but actually work together as a team.  

    When I first heard Pixar was going back to one my favorite animated films for inspiration, I was a bit disappointed.  After all, a prequel would leave out the heart of the film: the little girl, Boo.  Also, upon view of the first trailer, the movie looked like more of a kids Revenge of the Nerds than a cinematically savvy piece of animation.  Needless to say – I was worried that the Pixar creativity machine had dried up.  After all, Cars 2 wasn’t as bad as it was accused of being but it was a step down for them.  And Brave did away with all of storytelling magic we were used to from Pixar.  We expect so much from Pixar and I was afraid that now, officially, the expectations would need to be permanently lowered. 

    Fortunately, I was wrong.  While Monsters University isn’t their best film, it manages to make itself much better than it deserves to be due to a good script, great voice talent and a lot of love.  And even without little Boo, we still get a movie that hits in all of the right emotional spots.  Part of what works is that Mike and Sulley are believable as enemies.  And the fact that you know what they eventually become has no bearing.  Having Mike be the against-all-odds character full of courage but no talent and Sulley as the lazy natural, brings them together in a wonderful way that even allows for both to have a nice character arc. 

    I’ll admit that the film isn’t nearly as good as Monsters, Inc. but its strongest attribute is its comedy.  The film is just flat out funny.  And for a G-rated picture that is saying something.  As you would expect, Crystal and Goodman have a great chemistry, but here it is the script that shines.  It’s clever where it needs to be and throws in the right ingredients at the right time to deliver the best film that it possibly can.   It never forgets what it is, but what it is works well. 

    So while I would have rather seen an original and truly brilliant Pixar film, settling for this new Monsters prequel isn’t a bad way to pass the time.  B+


New in Home Entertainment – June 25, 2013

New in Home Entertainment

June 25, 2013

Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Korean director Chan-wook Park is world-famous for his stylistic yet violent movies such as Oldboy, Lady Vengeance and Thirst.  His first truly Hollywood film stars Mia Wasikowska as young girl whose father dies in a tragic car accident and whose uncle (Matthew Goode) she has never heard of suddenly appears for the funeral.  Her strangely ambivalent mother (Nicole Kidman) not only welcomes the guest, but practically replaces her deceased husband with him as well.  Then the movie gets twisted.  “Sometimes you have do something bad, to stop yourself from doing something worse” is a quote that fits the film perfectly.  Of course the “worse” spoken of here is inevitable as you would suspect.  This film is worth watching just for the superb performances and brilliant directing.  That being said, the film’s content will turn a lot of folks off.  This is not an easy film to watch, and if you don’t find it disturbing, you yourself are probably disturbed.  At my house, I loved it and my wife hated it.  The most important thing is that we kept talking about it.  This is a crazy and eclectic piece of cinema that is a great introduction for most Americans to this uber-talented filmmaker.  A-

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, dangerous stunts, a drug-related incident and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi are childhood friends who have a love for magic so deep that they grow up to headline a big Vegas stage act.  After years of boredom doing the same show over and over again, they fall prey to a new Chris Angel/David Blaine-like magician played by Jim Carey who wins the hearts of Vegas magic fans by performing crazy stunts.  From the moment you see Carrell and Buscemi grown up – this is a miserable watch.  The actors are so focused on acting like bored actors that they come off as bored actors.  The film not only fails to achieve a decent sense of comedy, but rather transforms itself into a state of depression.  It’s not until too late and too little that Alan Arkin pops up to save the day and gives the film what little comedic energy it possesses.  Of course then the third act hits and provides one of the stupidest endings imaginable.  It’s safe to say I’m not a fan.  D

A Place at the Table
Rated PG for thematic elements and brief mild language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

This very heartfelt documentary explores America’s extreme problem with the growing rate of hunger, especially that of hunger suffered by children.  The problem is explored not as a means to bring its audience down but rather to make aware and hopefully inspire.  You definitely get the idea that this is a solvable crisis, but that a paradigm shift needs to occur in both government and in the way we raise our own children.  Jeff Bridges, T Bone Burnett and The Civil Wars all lend their talents to help make this a truly impactful documentary worth watching.  A-

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids: The Complete Series
Available on DVD

For many white kids across America, including me, their chief exposure to black culture came from watching this seminal animated series, created, produced and hosted by Bill Cosby, about a group of kids from urban Philadelphia who learn life lessons while having fun hanging out.  For those unfamiliar with the show, it might now seem like a badly stereotyped cartoon in somewhat bad taste, but for many, Fat Albert is a wonderful piece of nostalgia and this new DVD box set delivers the most complete collection of the classic show ever assembled.  B+

New in Home Entertainment – June 18, 2013

New in Home Entertainment

June 18, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer
Rated PG-13 for intense scenes of fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language
Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D

The story of Jack and the Beanstalk is taken to the extreme with this version where Jack and the king’s men go after the princess when she is taken by giants.  This film’s relative lack of success can be blamed primarily on poor weekend placement.  Opening just one weekend before Oz the Great and Powerful, it seemed like Warner Brothers was trying to play chicken with the wizard and lost in grand fashion.  Now its being released on DVD one week after Oz where it might gain a few viewers but will no doubt lose again.  All that being said, Jack is a better film.  It is cleverly written and the pacing is terrific thanks to X-Men director Bryan Singer.  And even though the cast is relatively unknown, aside from Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci, the acting is just perfect for a film such as this.  It’s fun, witty and entertaining, however it might be a bit dark for the youngins.  B+

Rated PG-13 for strong language and suggestive humor
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

In a home for retired musicians, an annual concert sees a distraction from a new diva that has just moved into the facility.  While the plot isn’t the best and is fairly predictable, the performances by the classically aged cast are terrific and make the film very much worth the watch.  In his directorial debut, Dustin Hoffman proves he has the chops for bigger projects and the music, both the performances from the folks in the home and the lovely score by one of my favorite composers, Dario Marianelli (Pride & Prejudice), add a lovely touch to an adorable film.  B+

Killing Lincoln
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

From the National Geographic Channel and based on the book by Bill O’Reilly comes this documentary about the death of one of our most beloved presidents.  Narrated by Tom Hanks and told more like a reenactment than an actual narrative, the film does a good enough job in helping you understand the events but does a poor job in doing much else.  Robert Redford’s 2010 film The Conspirator serves as a much better representation of the story but those looking for merely a history lesson might enjoy tuning into this new version.  C+

Workaholics: Season Three
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Comedy Central has had some very good and extremely bad sitcoms throughout the years and while it pains me to say it, this comedy about three twenty-somethings starting out in the workplace really makes me laugh.  Yes its over the top, and gets more so by the season, but the majority of the jokes hit, largely due to the talented trio that head up the show.  And while I know its inevitable, I hope these guys can keep from growing up.  B

This is the End

This is the End
Starring James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride and Craig Robinson
Directed by Evan Goldberg
Rated R for crude and sexual content throughout, brief graphic nudity, pervasive language, drug use and some violence

    With as many end of the world comedies as we’ve been hit with currently, in order to survive a film has to be two things: original and entertaining.  This is the End excels in both.  Rather than place fictional characters in a post-rapture apocalypse scenario, first time co-directors and co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg decided that they should create a universe where everyone is playing themselves.  In this story, Seth and his best friend from Canada, actor Jay Baruchel, attend a party at the house of James Franco on a night that will begin the end of life on Earth.  The huge and impressive comedic cast each play themselves, or at least a version of themselves that most people inside and out of Hollywood can go along with.  To me, that is creative, extremely original and grabbed my attention from the first time I heard of the project.

    But in order to make the movie entertaining, the story has to be solid and the writing funny and fortunately we get both here.  Behind the silliness, there is an honest story of sincere friendship in a world where phony relationships abound.  You can tell that the cast has an understanding of this and doesn’t have a problem confronting it.  And then the funny is turned on and once I started laughing, I don’t remember stopping.  I love a movie where it feels as if you just worked out your abs because you laughed so hard.  It doesn’t happen often but it happened here.  There were times I laughed over dialog that I wanted to hear but couldn’t control myself.  I will probably even go see it again just to catch some of the things I missed out on.  

    What myself and many others might find disturbing is the actual subject matter.  Most of the end of the world films we have seen have been based on asteroids, aliens or natural disasters.  This one is based on the book of Revelation in the New Testament.  While the film chooses to not be overly religious, it does offer up a scary scenario that some will be uncomfortable watching.  I’m in that category.  I was extremely uncomfortable given my beliefs, but I still managed to sit in my seat and laugh and then pray for forgiveness afterward.  At the beginning of the movie Dogma, Kevin Smith writes “even God has a sense of humor.  Just look at the Platypus.”  Not sure if that counts here, but at the very least I think the movie is positive in that it will give people something to think about, whether Christian or not.  It aligns itself with the point the bible makes in that good karma doesn’t get you into heaven, but then stops short in declaring what actually will and instead opts for a more secular viewpoint.  

    But since I seriously doubt that most folks will take the film’s philosophical teachings too seriously, if you let your hair down and just try to sit back and enjoy, this film will give you a really great time at the movies.  A-

New in Home Entertainment – June 11, 2013

New in Home Entertainment

June 11, 2013

Oz The Great and Powerful
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language
Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D

This prequel to The Wizard of Oz sets James Franco as the young wizard who finds himself sent to the magical land of Oz during a tornado, only to be placed in the middle of a rivalry between competing witches (played by Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams).  Spiderman director Sam Raimi does a fine enough job with the vision of the Oz universe, but the storytelling is rather weak and the performances from the incredibly talented cast are less than stellar. The movie is beautiful to look at, and the 3D is better than most, but there seems to be a lack of energy coursing through the film and at 130 minutes in length, I think a trim and some reshoots could have helped.  C+

A Good Day to Die Hard
Rated R for violence and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

This fifth and hopefully last installment of the Die Hard franchise finds Bruce Willis heading to Russia to help his arrested son, only to discover his son is a undercover CIA operative smack dab in the middle of potential disaster with world-wide implications.  The story itself sounds like it has potential, but the horrendous script and a cast under sloppy direction make this whole project a stinker from start to finish.  The plot gets more preposterous as it plods along and the actors seem to feel it.  As of right now, this is looking like it could be the worst of film of 2013.  F

The Newsroom: The Complete First Season
Rated TV-MA
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

HBO’s newest hit series from West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin casts Jeff Daniels as an anchorman at a CNN-like news outfit who starts to shake things up for his station, viewers and colleagues when he chooses to express how he really feels to the world rather than just report the news.  While many will feel the show is nothing but liberal media, most open-minded audiences will find the show to be rather refreshing.  The first episode will tell you right up front whether or not your politics will allow you to follow along for the ride.  My only complaint is there is too much drama in the actual newsroom in regards to inner-office romances and silly rivalries, but maybe there is a hint of truth to that too.  B+

Wild Strawberries: Criterion Collection
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Criterion has had a lover affair with Swedish filmmaking legend Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal) for years and is continuing that with this new hi-def release of his 1957 classic.  Wild Strawberries tells the story of an old professor who is forced to face his past as he is about to receive an award for his life’s work.  Through a trip with his daughter-in-law and a series of dreams, he is able to come to terms with his life and all of the good and bad things he has done throughout the years.  While I’m not the biggest fan of Bergman’s work, I can certainly appreciate it and love that Criterion has taken such good care of his films and is releasing them in the highest quality possible.  This new 2K digital transfer looks beautiful and the film comes with a host of special features trying to convince its viewers that this is an important piece of cinema.  Unfortunately there are a lot of important films that aren’t necessarily entertaining or accessible and for many this is one of those.  B

Lilo & Stitch: 2 Movie Collection
Rated PG for mild sci-fi action
Available on Blu-ray

Now that most of Disney’s animated films have been released on blu-ray, they are starting to dig into their catalog.  While I agree with giving low-profile releases to The Emperor’s New Groove and Atlantis (as they are also doing this week) I think Lilo deserves a little more fanfare.  Lilo & Stitch came out when Disney was having a difficult time and it gave us all a bit of hope that things might turn around.  Written and directed by the talented team that brought us How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders), Lilo tells the story of a young Hawaiian girl who befriends a destructive yet lovable alien creature.  It’s fun, adorable and a bit naughty which leads to an extremely enjoyable flick.  Now I’ll admit that the direct to video sequel, also presented here, is a bit lame, but I still have a fondness for good ol’ Lilo and Stitch.  B+

New in Home Entertainment – June 4, 2013

New in Home Entertainment

June 4, 2013

Identity Thief
Rated R for sexual content and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Ever since her Oscar-nominated turn in 2011’s Bridesmaids, audiences have been craving more bad behavior from Melissa McCarthy.  Here she joins Jason Bateman as a criminal identity thief who pretends to be Bateman and thus stealing his identity, money and ultimately ruining his life.  Set on justice, Bateman goes on a journey from Denver to Miami to catch and bring her to the Colorado authorities in order to clear his name.  The movie does have some real potential but lacks any foothold into reality, making the over-the-top way too over-the-top.  While it does get silly and unbelievable, it never really achieves funny and really only provides a few decent laughs.  The strange thing here is that audiences really don’t care.  In spite of universally bad reviews and even low audience scores, the movie made a whopping $171 million in world box office and I’m sure the dvd will make millions more.  I just wish I could understand the appeal since this movie is a fairly miserable and depressing watch.  C-

Escape from Planet Earth
Rated PG for action and some mild rude humor
Available on DVD and Blu-ray/3D Blu-ray

When an alien astronaut lands on Earth and is captured by the military, his geeky brother must attempt to rescue him.  The whole time I’m watching this new animated flick from Weinstein Company I’m thinking that I have to have seen this before.  It copies off of several recent films such as Monsters vs. Aliens and Planet 51, but does so in a way that is neither creative or even half-way clever.  I’m sure kids will like it okay.  My three year old had a blast watching it.  His dad, however, was in a little pain.  D+

Brooklyn Castle
Rated PG for some language
Available on DVD

Brooklyn Castle is a documentary that tells the story of a junior high in New York where most of the students come from homes below the federal poverty level, but has still managed to win more national chess championships than any school in the country.  You feel bad for the students as you watch them lose funding for this very important program but then you gain a deep admiration as you watch their amazing resilience in the face of a country, state and city that thinks that cuts in important school programs is completely acceptable.  This is an absolutely inspiring movie that once again gives hope for the future of our country.  A

It’s a Disaster
Rated R for language including sexual references, and some drug content
Available on DVD

It seems we are getting pummelled with comedies about the end of the world, but fortunately this new pseudo-genre has given us some pretty interesting and funny films.  This new indie from writer/director Todd Berger stars David Cross, America Ferrera, Julia Stiles and several other talented and largely unknown actors who find themselves stuck in a house as their world is about to come to an end due to dirty bomb attack.  Rather than be about the imminent end to their lives, the dialog lends itself to their petty squabbles and plastic relationships.  The entire film takes place in a few rooms of one house, making it seem more like a play than a movie, but the writing is sharp and the directing is well-executed, especially for a new-ish filmmaker.  Sure the tone is dark, but when you aren’t having fun listening to all of the conversations that don’t matter at all considering the impending doom, you will start to imagine yourself being stuck in their awful position.  B