Saturday, July 27, 2013

Monsters University (2013) ****

Over the years, Pixar’s animated films have tended to fall into two categories: Wonderful tales with surprising emotional depth that entertain the entire family (“Wall-E”, “Up,” “Toy Story 3”) and shallow misfires that the kids will still watch (“Cars 1 and 2”).  Fortunately, most of their films fall into the first category, so much so that I am generally pretty disappointed when they fall short (e.g. “Brave”).  “Monsters, Inc.” was definitely one of the good ones, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.  I never thought it needed a sequel, though, let alone a prequel.
I was skeptical, then, when I heard about the prequel “Monsters University.”  I figured it was just Pixar trying to cash in.  After all, the heart of “Monsters, Inc.” is the love story between big, scary Sully and a three-year-old child.  I figured the creators of the prequel would fail by trying to make basically the same movie minus the little kid.  I was pleasantly surprised to see them take a completely different tack, telling a story about growing up, finding yourself, and making friends.
“Monsters University” tells the story of how Mike and Sully, the monsters from the first film, met in college and became a team.  The tale is told from Mike’s perspective, as he pursues his lifelong dream to become a scarer, the esteemed monsters who slip into kids’ rooms at night to spook them and collect the scream energy that powers the monster world.  Mike is an academic whiz, and he enters college ready to study his way to the top of the class.  The problem is that Mike is, at the end of the day, just a big eyeball, and not that scary.  Sully, on the other hand, strolls onto campus with the swagger of a star athlete.  Big and hairy, he is naturally scary, but he is too lazy to study.  Both get booted from the scarer program, and their only hope of getting back in is to join the nerdiest fraternity on campus and help them win the Greek Scare Games.  Did I mention that Mike and Sully can’t stand each other, or that they eventually work through their differences to become fast friends?  There aren’t a lot of surprises here.  The story will be quite familiar to anyone who has seen “Revenge of the Nerds” or any of the many other movies where a group of misfits teams up to take on a bunch of jocks.
Lacking as it is in originality, the movie is still a barrel of fun.  The movie works because, in the Pixar tradition, they take the time for real characterization and to make the characters’ actions make sense.  I still think “Monsters, Inc.” is a slightly better movie, but “Monsters University” is a welcome addition to the story.  It truly is fun for the whole family.

4 stars out of 5

Friday, July 26, 2013

Before Midnight (2013) ***1/2

It’s been a long wait for a sequel, but for most of it we didn‘t even know we were waiting.  Those who are fans of the Richard Linklater films leading up to this movie know what I am talking about.  It was in 1995 that “Before Sunrise” introduced us to Jessie and Celine, a couple of strangers who meet on a train, then spend a long night in Vienna talking and falling in love.  Then, nine years later, “Before Sunset” came along in 2004 to finally get the two together properly.  At that point, according to the Hollywood paradigm, the story was over.  Almost every movie is about people falling in love.  Once they achieve that, what else is there to tell?  They just live happily ever after, right?
In his latest film, “Before Midnight,” Linklater, along with co-writers Delpy and Hawke, explores that question of “What happens next?”  The movie finds Jesse and Celine raising girls of their own and trying to see as much as possible of Jesse’s son from his first marriage.  This is challenging, because they live in France, and Jesse’s son lives in Chicago.  Jesse is a successful writer, and Celine is considering a major career change.  Then Celine and the girls are kidnapped, and Jesse is forced to save them himself, with help from a grizzled, old assassin played by Clint Eastwood.
Did I have you going for a second there?  Probably not, because if you know Richard Linklater’s work, you know he doesn’t make violent action movies.  What he does is make action out of the everyday activity of conversation, and he does it again in “Before Midnight.”  This time around, the conversation isn’t always as benign as in the first two films.  One rule of humanity is that no matter how good we have it, none of us thinks our life is easy or simple.  Jesse and Celine are no exception.  In “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset” they were flush with the thrill of falling in love, but now they are just trying to raise their kids and pursue their individual dreams together, or perhaps separately.  They enjoy a life that includes long vacations in Greece and dinner with artists and writers, but there is plenty of dissatisfaction to go around.
“Before Midnight” is very much the sort of thing you will like if you like this sort of thing.  The characters talk and talk and talk.  If you don’t know whether you would like such a talky, action-free movie, then rent “Before Sunrise” and find out.  If that hooks you, then go ahead and watch “Before Sunset” and finally, “Before Midnight.”  I suppose it would be possible to watch and enjoy “Before Midnight” without having seen the first two movies, but why would you want to?  I think this film will resonate much more if you have that history with the characters.
So, did I like “Before Midnight”?  I did like it, but I didn’t ENJOY it as much as I did the first two films.  The material is more difficult.  Instead of falling in love, they are trying to stay in love.  As Celine puts it, “Sometimes I think you are breathing helium, and I am breathing oxygen.“  Watching this film is like hanging out with that bickering couple we all know. There were times when I just wanted to yell, “Stop picking at each other!”  Still, you have to give them credit for making such a real, emotionally gritty film.

3.5 stars out of 5