Monsters University review

monsters-university-posterNo match for Pixar’s best work, but a step in the right direction after some recent disappointments

Mike and Sully are back, but they are not friends till the end – well, at least not until the third act. It’s as if Pixar Animation Studios took a look at MONSTERS INC. and said, “The Mike-Sully relationship is just as good as Buzz and Woody, but it’s as if we skipped straight to TOY STORY 2, without ever getting to see them meet and become pals, so let’s go back and do that.” That’s right: MONSTERS UNIVERSITY takes the well-worn prequel path of leading up to what we already know, instead of showing us something new – or at least that’s how it seems initially. In fact, the new film is very much the Mike Wazowski story: it’s about the little guy who dreams big; who works harder than everyone else because, frankly, he doesn’t have the natural skills; and who must, ultimately, find a different path to success from the one he anticipated, because he’s never going to be the heavyweight champion he imagined. It’s a great message for children and a poignant reminder for adults: everyone has something to offer; the “cool” kids aren’t always cool; and sometimes the underdog has his day – though perhaps not quite in the manner he expected.

PLOT SUMMARY (MINOR SPOILERS)

After a school field trip to Monsters, Inc., the one-eyed Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) decides he wants to be a scarer when he grows up. To that end, he studies and earns admission to Monsters University, where he meets the over-confidant James Sullivan (John Goodman). “Sully,” as he is known to his friends, is a legacy student, coasting on his father’s reputation and his own natural abilities, which he does not bother to hone.Mike, meanwhile, works diligently, but an accident in class gets both of them kicked out of the university’s scare program.

Mike the know-it-all answers a question in class while Sully lays back.
Mike the know-it-all answers a question in class while Sully lays back.

Mike and Sully’s only chance to get back in is by winning the “Scare Games,” but to qualify, they have to join a fraternity, and the only one with vacancies is made up of losers, known as Oozma Kappa. Fortunately, Mike’s know-how and Sully’s skills propel the group to success as a team, but the final game requires each individual monster to prove his scare-skills, and Sully (well aware of Mike’s deficiency) rigs the results, which gets both of them expelled.
Determined to prove himself, Mike goes through a scare-door but finds himself trapped in a sleep-away camp filled with children who are not afraid of him. Sully goes through the door to aid his friend, but he lacks the confidence to be truly scary in a real-world situation. However, working together, they literally blow the door off the place….

COMMENTS (END SPOILERS)

I was never a huge fan of MONSTERS, INC. Though entertaining, it is not rich enough to stand up to multiple viewings as well as other Pixar classics; its main strength lies in the Mike-Sully relationship. Transplanting that element to an earlier time and a different setting engenders some new comic possibilities but not enough to sustain the follow-up as more than a mildly amusing time-waster that follows the typical prequel “surprise” strategy: Mike and Sully don’t like each other initially; the first film’s villain, Randall (Steve Buscemi), seems like a nice guy at first; and so on.
Fortunately, when the story moves beyond playing with our expectations about the familiar characters, the message about teamwork and learning to use one’s own personal resources enlivens MONSTERS UNIVERSITY; the well-executed third especially justifies the film’s existence as something more than a way to cash in on a successful predecessor.

Mike and Sully catching a rival university's mascot
Mike and Sully catching a rival university's mascot

Long before they realize it themselves, the audience sees that Mike and Sully are complimentary talents – the brains and the brawn, if you will . Mike is the self-made man, pulling himself up through determination. Sully is unformed raw material, impulsive, expecting success to come easy but afraid of failing to meet expectations implanted by his famous name. The benefits of collaboration are foreshadowed when their combined, if not premeditated, efforts capture a rival university’s mascot. From there, it may be predictable that they will succeed only when they become a team, but the result is no less satisfying.
The message extends beyond them. Midway through, when the Oozma Kappa (that reads “OK” in abbreviated form, get it?) are dispirited about their chances of winning, there is a brilliant sequence in which Mike sneaks them into Monsters, Inc. and shows them a scare-floor full of workers – none of whom have anything obvious in common. The point: you can’t tell who’s the best just by looks; each scarer uses his or her own personal skills; what seems like weaknesses may be hidden strengths; and everyone needs to develop what he or she can do best, rather than striving to conform an established norm. Sure, it’s basically REVENGE OF THE NERDS redone as a CG Muppet movie, but it works.

VISUALS AND 3D

Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren)
Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren)

The screenplay may be a mixed bag, but the visual execution is state-of-the-art, without being ostentatious. The backgrounds and the characters are so detailed that they seem almost palpable; we may be reaching the point where the champions of stop-motion effects can no longer point to the tactile textures of miniature models as a point of superiority over computer-generated animation. Mike and Sully are rendered even better than before, and there are some nifty new characters, too, including Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), an insectoid monster with demonic wings, who cleverly skirts the edge of the light while addressing students, seldom emerging fully from the shadows.
These qualities are magnified by some of the most beautiful 3D visual ever captured on screen. Unlike too many post-production conversions today (including MONSTERS, INC.), we are not seeing a simple separation of foreground and background elements. The characters and the props have depth. There is a curvature to Sully’s bulk that makes him appear almost real on screen. A nighttime seen beside a lake illuminated by a full moon extends from the edges of the movie screen and into the distance like a landscape viewed through a window.
The expressive capabilities of the animation are also amazing. The one-eyed Mike, in particular, has an amazing range, and it’s not the CGI equivalent of scenery chewing, either: a blink, a downcast look – these are the simple building blocks the animators use to show the mix of determination and self-doubt that make the little green guy come alive.
The Misfits of Oozma Kappa compete in the Scare Games.
The Misfits of Oozma Kappa compete in the Scare Games.

And the filmmakers know when to use all these elements in the service of a great set-piece. The games provide ample opportunities for visual fun (including a massive librarian-octopus who seems to have crept out of a Lovecraft story), but director Dan Scanlon is clever enough to modulate the mayhem, turning the volume up to 9 but saving the 10 for the end, which offers an unexpected highlight: a scene that takes familiar horror tropes suitable to a FRIDAY THE 13TH knockoff (dark cabin in the woods, rustling shadows, and scratching claws – all building up to the final reveal of the monster) and uses them as deftly as any live action movie. Especially impressive: for once, we in the audience are on the side of the monsters, but that does not diminish the sinister tension of the scene. This is MONSTER UNIVERSITY’s true “money scene,” the one that makes you realize you just got everything you paid for when you purchased your ticket.

CONCLUSION

Needless to say, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is very funny. A bit less expected: in the counter-programming sweepstakes with WORLD WAR Z (which opened the same weekend), Pixar’s G-rated film boasts an animated scare sequence that rivals Brad Pitt’s live-action trek through a zombie-infested corridor. More successfully than the PG-13 rival, MONSTER UNIVERSITY’s horror-movie-style climax completes character arcs that tease out previously unseen nuances in the familiar characters, bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion while setting up the events that will follow. The script even avoids the obvious, easy resolution, offering Mike and Sully a less expected route that will lead to MONSTERS, INC.
The virtues of MONSTERS UNIVERSITY are not enough to raise the film to the level of Pixar’s best work: TOY STORY 2, THE INCREDIBLES, CARS. Although it is fun to see Mike and Sully back in action, I’m not sure the sequel is even as good as its predecessor. Nevertheless, after the double disappointment of CAR 2 and BRAVE, this is a small step back in the right direction.
[rating=3]
On the CFQ Review Scale of zero to five stars, a moderate recommendation.
Note: MONSTERS UNIVERSITY is preceded by THE BLUE UMBRELLA, a cute Pixar short subject, in which common street objects (drain pipes, mail boxes) are given subtly anthropomorphized expressions. The simple story follows the titular umbrella (which looks like the real thing, but with animated features) meeting a pink (presumably female) counterpart. Their owners separate, but a gust of wind brings them back together. It’s vaguely similar to last year’s Oscar-winning short subject, PAPERMAN; though not quite as satisfying artistically, THE BLUE UMBRELLA features very impressive computer graphics to bring its street scene to life.
MonstersUniversityCastMONSTERS UNIVERSITY (Walt Disney Pictures & Pixar Animation Studios: June 21, 2013).  Rated G. Running time: 110 minutes. Directed by Dan Scanlon. Writers: Robert L Baird, Daniel Gerson, Dan Scanlon. Voices: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Alfred Molina, Tyler Labine, Nathan Fillon, Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan, Noah Johnston, Julia Sweeney, Bonnie Hunt, John Krasinski, John Ratzenberger.

Despicable Me 2: three trailers

Universal Pictures releases this sequel to Illumination Entertainments 2010 hit. The new 3D, computer-animated comedy follows the further adventures of reformed villain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) as he is recruited to the anti-villain league, where his past experience will prove invaluable at stopping a new super-villain.
Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud directed from a script by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul. Voices include Ken Jeong Kristen Wiig, Russell Brand, Miranda Cosgrove, Moises Arias, Benjamin Bratt, and Steve Coogan.
Rating: PG
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Date: July 3, 2013

Teaser Trailer #1

Trailer #2

Trailer #3

Poster

despicable-me-2-posterwithgru

EPIC: stunning beauty, stolid story

EPIC (2013) movie poster verticalBlue Sky Pictures offers epic artistry bereft of lively characters or dialogue.

EPIC – the new computer-animated film from 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios – marks an achievement of note, though not of honor: it is the most beautiful boring movie ever made. The 3D virtual photography is not merely eye candy; it is an absolutely stunning display of artistry, with vivid color and intricate details bringing its miniature world to life with breath-taking impact. Unfortunately, what happens within that world will be of little interest to anyone over the age of 12; the story – which is barely enough to fill an after-school special despite the presence of six credited writers – moves as slowly at the snail-and-slug comedy relief duo, whose unfunny patter leaves one yearning for visceral visual gags of director Chris Wedge’s Scrat character from the ICE AGE films.
Two plot threads intersect a bit conveniently in EPIC: After the death of her mother, Mary Katherine (Amanday Seyfried) is reuniting with her father, who believes a race of tiny people exist in the forest near his home. Meanwhile, the tiny forest people are fighting off the encroaching menace of Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and his evil minions, who want to turn the forest to rot. Mary Katherine (who likes to be known as M.K. now that she is not a child) stumbles upon Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles), who has been wounded after performing a ceremony to select a magical bud that will crown a new queen. M.K. is shrunk down to size, joining forces with the noble warrior Ronin (Colin Farrell) and the brash young Nod (Josh Hutcherson). There is a time-lock involved: the bud must bloom beneath the full moon at a very particularly time; otherwise, it will yield not a new queen but an evil dark prince.
Will M.K.’s quest to aid the Leaf People somehow resolve her estranged relationship with her father? You bet it will! Not that anything she learns or does leads to any maturation on her part; it’s enough just to know that his belief was not sheer lunacy after all. Unfortunately, that revelation occurs in the first reel, leaving little to develop over the remaining hour-and-a-half, which is loaded with more than enough action antics but not nearly enough of whatever magic elixir it is that makes us care about what is happening on screen.

Mandrake the meanie, voiced by Christoph Waltz
Mandrake the meanie, voiced by Christoph Waltz

The characters are all defined in simple ways, which should be good enough in a fairy-tale world of the imagination, but somehow never generates the primal sense of identification that should come from a confrontation between Good and Evil. Mandrake is a meanie but not a particularly memorable one; even with the benefit  Waltz’ voice, he never truly becomes a man you love to hate. Farrell fares a little better as the stoic Ronin because we’re supposed to imagine a softer side hiding beneath, but Nod’s character arc is as soporific as a lotus flower: he bristles at the rules and does things his own way, until he learns better. (This worked much better when the film was called RISE OF THE GUARDIANS last year.)
The dialogue (especially when it turns to jokes) lacks zing. The one exception is a brief hysterical bit, with a fruit fly going through it’s entire life cycle in a few seconds. The lesson here is that brevity is the soul of wit; unfortunately, EPIC takes its own title too close to heart, stretching its events out as if they were epic in grandeur and therefore needed to feel epic in length.
Ozzie the dog (here with the miniaturized M.K.) steals the show
Ozzie the dog (here with the miniaturized M.K.) steals the show

Sadly, this is not due solely to the script. As a director, Wedge attempts to build suspense – within individual scenes and within the film as a whole – by dragging out sequences that should have been short and snappy. He fares much better when avoiding dialogue and characterization; the film’s most fully realized character is Ozzie – an endearing one-eyed, three-legged dog who is as close as the film ever gets to capturing the manic energy of Scrat.
As for the rest: given forest full of beautiful creatures* (courtesy of production designer William Joyce, whose children’s book inspired the film), Wedge has little imaginative idea what to do with them. At various times, ravens and bats (for the bad guys) and hummingbirds and finches (for the good guys) duel in elaborate aerial battles, but none of them exhibits any defining flight pattern (you would think the hoovering hummingbirds and the acrobatic bats would offer an opportunity for an interesting match of competing skills, but you would be wrong). Instead, Wedge relies on sheer numbers to dazzle the viewer: so many birds that you cannot tell which is which, so many bats that they coalesce into an ominous cloud (admittedly, the last is a plot point, as they must blot out the full moon before it helps the bud bloom).
The stoic Ronin (Collin Farrell) astride his trusty hummingbird
The stoic Ronin (Collin Farrell) astride his trusty hummingbird

Wedge is at his best when portraying the pomp and circumstance of the Leaf People’s ceremony; otherwise, he is unable to invest the images with much excitement, let alone any kind of dramatic resonance. An exception is a doleful shot of a riderless hummingbird, waiting faithfully on a moonlit branch for a warrior we have seen fall in battle. A few more moments like this, and EPIC would have come closer to earning its name.
The final conflict is nicely realized if a bit generic, and the two plot lines finally dovetail nicely (M.K.’s dad discovered the voices of the little people while recording the sounds bats make to summon each other – a recording that proves useful at a crucial moment).
Even here, the film cannot resist the urge to over-egg the pudding, as the moment before M.K.’s return to normal size is elongated to allow a final romantic clinch with Nod. The filmmakers seem unperturbed by the notion of romantic longing frustrated by relative size, but no doubt they expect to shrink M.K. down again for a sequel – or, god forbid, turn the tables by growing Nod.
Queen Tara amidst the beauty of the Leaf People's world.
Queen Tara amidst the beauty of the Leaf People's world.

If not for the visual splendor, EPIC would be a total time-waster. Bereft of a compelling story, the imagery is better served in the film’s first trailer, where it is augmented by Snow Patrol’s song “The Lightening Strike” – which works much better than the Beyonce tune heard in the actual film. The haunting riff of “The Lightening Strike” suggests the epic grandeur that EPIC strives but fails to achieve. Potential viewers are advised to stay home and watch the trailer. Or better yet: watch THE SECRET WORLD OF ARIETTY.
[rating=2]
On the CFQ review scale of zero to five stars.
FOOTNOTE:

  • The one exception is Queen Tara, who angular facial lines are more suggestive of a plastic doll recreation of a Disney villainess.

Epic2013posterhorizontalEPIC (20th Century Fox: May 24, 2013). Directed by Chris Wedge. Screenplay by James V. Hart & William Joyce and Daniel Shere & Tom J. Astle & Matt Ember; from a story by William Joyce & James V. Hart and Chris Wedge, inspired by Joyce’s book “The Leaf Men and the Good Bugs.” Rated PG. 102 minutes. Voices: Amanda Seyfried, Collin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Beyonce Knowles, Blake Anderson, Steven Tyler, Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd, Pitbull.
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Cinefantastique's Greatest Movie Cheats: Tangled

TANGLED provides our first look at the cinematic strategy of "movie cheats."
TANGLED provides our first look at the cinematic strategy of "movie cheats."

All movies cheat, but horror, fantasy films, and science fiction films are a special case. Every motion picture shoots its scenes over and over, then edits the best bits together to hide the seams: camera angles conceal objects the filmmakers do not want us to see; lens filters enhance the look of real locations, while unreal locations are built on sound stages; computer-generated imagery airbrushes away flaws in live-action photography. Fantasy-oriented film-making takes this make-believe a step further: miniatures assume gargantuan proportions on the big screen; makeup alters men into monsters; and CGI creates not only imaginary creatures but also entire worlds in which they live.
In such a context, when everything seems possible and much of what is visible on screen exists only because it was created with special effects, how does one define a movie cheat? Like this: In most films, whether they are achieved with live-action, animation, or special effects, the techniques used are supposed to be invisible to the average viewer, creating a sense of verisimilitude. The film is meant to unreel as if the events are actually happening, and the audience accepts what they are seeing without questioning how it was achieved.
Some filmmakers, however, are bolder than this. Sometimes in order to make a dramatic point, or more often to spring a surprise on the audience — the filmic equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat — the filmmakers will violate the “internal reality” of the film with a clever visual or audio cheat. This is different from the special effects that create a fantasy environment: wizards and monsters exist in the imaginary world of LORD OF THE RINGS, so it is hardly a “cheat” to portray them by whatever means necessary.
In this context, a “cheat” means a piece of cinematic sleight-of-hand that pulls a fast one on the audience, that shows something contradictory or impossible according to the film’s own logic. In short, a cheat works because the trickery is visible – intentionally so – otherwise, the impact would be lost. You may need sharp eyes (or the reverse button on your DVD player), but you should be able to spot the subterfuge if you look for it.
Take, for example, Walt Disney Pictures animated gem, TANGLED (2010). Computer-generated imagery takes us so far into the realm of fantasy that one may question the wisdom of pointing out a cheat; after all, what reality is there to violate? Yet, this wonderful animated fairy tale does indeed include a classic movie cheat, one previously seen in Dario Argento’s TENEBRE (1982). Watch the following sequence of shots to see how directors Nathan Greno and Bryon Howard use a movie cheat to create an impossible surprise.
 Flynn Rider enters Rapunzel's castle and catches his breath. Notice the empty space to the right of the frame; clearly no one is behind him.
Flynn Rider enters Rapunzel's castle and catches his breath. Notice the empty space to the right of the frame; clearly no one is behind him.

When Flynn Rider first enters Rapunzel’s tower, he is seen in long-shot, clearly alone; there is nowhere for anyone to be hiding behind him.
The camera cuts in to a closer angle as Flynn Rider opens a satchel to admire his stolen prize. The space behind him is no longer visible.
The camera cuts in to a closer angle as Flynn Rider opens a satchel to admire his stolen prize. The space behind him is no longer visible.

As he pauses to open a satchel containing a stolen crown, the film cuts in to a closer angle, hiding the (previously empty) space behind him. However, before he can enjoy his ill-gotten gains….
As if from nowhere, a frying pan whacks Rider from behind.
As if from nowhere, a frying pan whacks Rider from behind.

Rider is wacked from behind, falling to the floor and revealing Rapunzel standing behind him, a frying pan in her hand.
After Rider falls, Rapunzel is revealed, occupying the space that had been empty in the long shot.
After Rider falls, Rapunzel is revealed, occupying the space that had been empty in the long shot.

How did Rapunzel manage to get behind Rider without being seen by the audience? In the long-shot that begins the sequence, there is nowhere for her to be hiding (unless her pet chameleon Pascal has somehow magically transferred his powers to her).
Presumably, Rapunzel sneaked up from behind, but there is a wall at her back and no object to provide cover. She could have entered the scene only from the right side of the frame, which should have made her visible to us – unless we are to assume that she crawled into the waist-high medium shot on her hands and knees, and then rose up once she had positioned herself so that Rider would hide her from the camera.
In short, Rapunzel’s appearance behind Rider is impossible within the “reality” presented by the film TANGLED. Does that make this a film flub? No, it is a wonderful example of an excellent movie cheat used to create a memorably effective moment that might have been mitigated by restrictions to the semblance of reality. This is movie magic at its best, using basic techniques of camera placement and editing to create illusions so convincing that we do not question them, even when they are “impossible.”
This article is the first in a series of favorite movie cheats visible in fantasy, horror and science-fiction films. These are all moments that catch the eye and/or provide dramatic impact because the films dare to violate the dictates of “realism.” Hopefully, exposing this sleight-of-hand will not undermine your appreciation of the magic; if anything, awareness of the cheat should increase your appreciation of the deft techniques used to achieve these remarkable and startling effects.
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2012 Roundup: CFQ Spotlight Podcast 3:52

The Faces and Feats of 2012.
The Faces and Feats of 2012.

The future is a bottomless well, its mysteries yet to be revealed. The past is the road that stretches behind us, a strange and twisted route littered with ghosts, demons, hobbits, hostile aliens, Dark Knights, the gods of myth, and far too many teenagers lugging amateur camcorders. 2012 is over, a year that, as with many before it, failed to keep all its promises but in compensation offered up enough surprises to remind us why we so love the films of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. So as the calendar rolls over, Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons offer up their lists of the top-ten genre releases of the year, with more than a few surprises in the discussion. Click on the player to hear the show.