Monsters University, World War Z,
Before Midnight & The East
June 27, 2013
Monsters University (**) G
Up until the release of the 2011 film Cars 2 the animation studio Pixar had a nearly spotless reputation both critically and financially. The release of that film changed everything and ever since I have begun to detect a certain leveling off of things from the studio in terms of quality. Monsters University, the prequel to the beloved Monsters Inc., is the latest product to come off of the studio’s assembly line with a feeling of been there, done that. The polite thing for me to do would be to say that Monsters University is harmless entertainment and that the kids will love it (and some will).
However, the truth of the matter is that I was bored senseless for too many stretches of the film and left with the persistent feeling of a lack of inspiration on the part of the Pixar team. It’s an endeavor coming across as bland and lacking the edge of Pixar’s product from years gone by. Sure, the voice talents are great as always and the animation is impeccable but the story just seemed old hat to me and I failed to connect with it more often than not.
The pic opens with younger versions of one eyed monster to be, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and his pal Jimmy ‘Sully’ Sullivan (John Goodman) as they make entrance into Monsters University in the hopes of getting the passing grade that will allow them to graduate to the point of scaring real children. When Mike is informed that he isn’t scary enough he is given one last chance to prove himself by joining a team of other hopeful monsters in the Scary Games (yes, you read that correctly). If Mike’s team chances to lose then he’s out of the University for good. Of course the attendant plot complications show up but the outcome of the film is never in doubt.
I’m not sure what the problem with Pixar is these days. I would be tempted to say that perhaps they took the wrong step by deciding to churn out more sequels than original stories here of late, although last year’s Brave, an original film, wasn’t much better than this pic or Cars 2. I think the solution is a simple one and one need not look any further than the delightful Toy Story 3 from four summers ago. That film was penned by Oscar winning screenwriter Michael Arndt, a gifted writer with a real sense of story and character. Monsters University boasts a trio of writers and it yet it feels like filmmaking by committee. The new film might scare up some box office but that doesn’t necessarily make it a pleasurable experience. That’s something that can only be remedied by the story department.
World War Z (***) PG-13
The long-delayed zombie film World War Z has been labeled as one of the most expensive films ever made. Of course a movie’s financial troubles can overshadow the real question as to whether a film has any merits on an entertainment or artistic level and I was afraid the perhaps that might be the case with this film. After seeing the pic, however, I believe that all preconceived notions of a cinematic bomb will fade away. There are action set pieces aplenty and some truly harrowing zombie attack sequences—some of the scariest I’ve seen in quite awhile—which will go a long way in delivering the goods that summer movie going audiences have come to expect from such highly touted films as World War Z. It may not be perfect but it’s rousing entertainment that manages to involve more often than not.
World War Z is based on a highly regarded novel by Mel Brooks’ son, Max, and revolves around the character of Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt). I’ve been told that the film has taken great liberty with the source material but I can neither confirm nor deny that, not having read the book.
Fana Mokoena & Pitt in World War Z
At any rate, things get off to a bang, as they often do in films like this, with the news reports of strange, inexplicable things, feral animals and the like. Gerry, recently retired from the United Nations, manages to get his wife and children to safety and to escape the chaos of seemingly reanimated beings going on the attack soon thereafter. He is pulled back into action and sent on a mission to find the source of the attacks, a journey that takes him to Bermuda and then Israel. There is a reference to India but apparently this footage was shot and not included in the final film. The final half revolves around Gerry making a stop at the World Health Organization as everyone puts their collective heads together in an effort to come up with some sort of vaccine that will keep the human populace safe.
The main complaint I have against the film is that it is simply too uneven. In particular, the first half, which is basically one action set piece right after another. The film doesn’t come into its own until the final section which places more of an emphasis on the human element of things. Still, let it be said that World War Z contains some of the most frightening imagery I’ve seen in quite awhile and for me, that’s enough to recommend it. I guarantee that you will feel something, one way or another.
Before Midnight (*** ½) R
There is no film that I’ve been anticipating more this year than director/co-writer Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. For the uninitiated, the film is the latest installment in Linklater’s series of ‘Before’ films, which also includes the previous entries, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. I’ll make a full confession by mentioning my personal connection to these films, which will go a long way in explaining my love for a series of films that are indeed an acquired taste.
I’ve seen all three installments during their theatrical runs, the first one in January 1995, one month shy of my impending marriage, and the second installment in August 2004 while in the throes of the dissolution of said marriage. Each time my life seemed to be mirroring, in some way, the character of Jesse, as portrayed by actor Ethan Hawke in all three films. During the first five minutes of the latest film, I found myself getting misty eyed watching Jesse deal with saying goodbye to his son, Henry, after a summer spent in Greece with Jesse and his other half, Celine (Julie Delpy). This too is something I’ve dealt with and immediately knew that Before Midnight had the potential to be one of the best films I would see this year. I could not have been more correct in that assumption.
The first two Before films dealt with the notion of romantic love as Jesse and Celine meet and share a night of romantic passion in the first film and then spend the second film flirting with the idea of what a life together might be like for the two of them if they were actually available to have that life.
Delphy & Hawke, better than ever
The third film goes in a different direction altogether by asking the question whether two people who are obviously meant for each other can keep the passion burning for the long haul. Anyone who knows the nature of romantic love knows that the answers aren’t simple ones and Before Midnight isn’t afraid to explore the not so pleasant other side of happily ever after.
There isn’t much plot to speak of in Before Midnight. Like its predecessors it is very talky and deals more with feelings and emotions than story in the traditional sense. What story there is involves the fortysomething Jesse and Celine contemplating changes in their lives—she wants to take a job that she believes will make a difference in the world, he wants to move back to the states to be closer to his son—but not knowing how to find the right compromise. This creates multiple resentments that rear their ugly heads during the film’s final section. Thankfully, things end on a somewhat hopeful note and the audience is left with some of the most emotionally honest filmmaking I’ve witnessed in quite awhile. The latest installment has left me wanting more of Jesse and Celine. Let’s hope Linklater and company will choose to reunite us with them again down the road.
The East (***) PG-14
The East, one of the final projects of the late film director Tony Scott, is the type of film that I’m a sucker for. It boasts both an original concept and forces the audience to think and question their own perception of what is right and wrong, something that audiences don’t get to do very often these days. Actress Britt Marling (Another Earth, Arbitrage) serves as both star and co-writer of The East. She’s been quoted in articles as stating that her reason for becoming a writer was that she had grown tired of only being offered the role of the blonde bimbo. In this film, she gives herself a meaty role and projects a sense of inner conflict and personal growth as the plot of the film unveils itself. I’ve always said that there’s nothing better in a film than an actress who exudes intelligence in direct proportion with her physical beauty and Marling does just that which makes her a force to be reckoned with here.
There are other reasons to embrace the film as well. As I said, the plot of the film is an original one to be sure. Marling’s character Sarah is an agent working for an elite private intelligence firm in Washington, DC. Sarah’s employer serves the interests of some very large corporations whose safety is threatened by an underground terrorist group known as The East and dedicated to giving top level CEOs a dose of their own medicine.
Brit Marling & Shiloh Fernandez in The East
For example, when a drug manufacturer is found to be negligent in the manufacturing of its product, The East manages to lace the cocktails of the corporation’s head honchos with said medication at a party to prove their point. Sarah eventually comes to realize that perhaps what The East is doing isn’t so bad after all, putting her squarely in the middle of both her career and the terrorist group she is attempting to apprehend.
The only complaint I have against the film is that I found it be a bit too leisurely paced at times. There are some sections, particularly in its first half, that I felt could have been tightened. Still, when the film is doing what it does best, namely forcing the audience to ask itself some very tough questions and to think long and hard just as Sarah’s character does in the film, it’s hard not to give into it. The East may not be the best film of the year but it is certainly one of the most interesting.
Monsters University and World War Z are playing at the Carmike and theaters all over this area.
Before Midnight and The East, at press time, are playing in Charlotte at the Regal Park Terrace 6.
Questions or comments? Email Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org.