Sunday, June 23, 2013


While it may not be a return to form for Pixar, "Monsters University" is still immensely enjoyable and probably among the best animated offerings we'll see this year, a bright a colorful frolic that packs enough creative punch this animated studio is known for. As a prequel to 2001's "Monsters Inc.," it doesn't brim with the incomparable originality of the first, but these filmmakers also obviously don't want to rest on their laurels.

Directed by Dan Scanlon who wrote "Cars" and from a screenplay by Pete Doctor and Andrew Stanton, the premise is refreshingly simple. A young Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) goes on a field trip to Monsters Inc. and ever since dreams to attend Monsters University to become a scarer. Once on campus, Mike meets his roommate Randy (Steve Buscemi), a geek who wants to get in with the cool crowd -- one of the movie's many winks to the original. Mike is a geek who doesn't mind remaining a geek and spends the entire semester skipping out on parties to study.

The bookworm Mike butts heads with a young, cocky Sully (John Goodman) who uses his family name, Sullivan, on the intention of sliding through school and becoming a scarer on his own merit, no studying required. When confronted with an ultimatum by the severe-looking Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), Mike and Sully are forced to join the same fraternity to compete in the university-hosted Scare Games. Their frat, however, is the opposite of Roar Omega Roar, the popular kids on campus. Oozma Kappa is where Mike and Sully meet fellow teammates Squishy (Peter Sohn), Don (Joel Murray), Terri (Sean Hayes) and Art (Charlie Day). As a bunch of cuddly monsters, these characters and the voice acting are quite funny.

What's added fun about "Monsters University" is that it truly does capture college life, which is cleverly tongue-in-cheek for a kids' movie. The games themselves, a trial of challenges from don't wake the parents to don't scare the teenager, are a whole lot of fun. The movie has a zippy, high energy with pastel hues bouncing together and photo realistic textures making a constant delight for the senses. And in classic Pixar tradition, there's a final hook in the story that might even put a lump in your throat. Pixar fans, have no fear: this is no "Cars 2."

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


There's no pretending these characters are even remotely likable. The girls at the center of this true life bling ring are privilged bitches, celebrity-obsessed teenagers who represent the worst in American youth culture: the fetishising of actors not for talent but rather their glamorous lifestyle and designer labels. In the same vein as Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers," Sofia Coppola's fifth feature, "The Bling Ring," is an examination of girls gone mad, a sleek and sexy film that's deceptively vapid with a stinging subtext that runs deep.

Based on the Vanity Fair piece, "The Suspect Wore Louboutins" by Mary Jo Sales, the movie follows high schoolers Nicki (Emma Watson), Sam (Taissa Farmiga), Rebecca (Katie Chang), Chloe (Claire Julien) and the one guy, Marc (Israel Broussard), who spend their evenings sneaking into the homes of A-listers like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Rachel Bilson. "I want some Chanel," Rebecca croons. "I want to rob," says Nicki. They treat the break-ins like personal shopping sprees, parading through extravagant closets and and endless collections of luxury clothing. They find the addresses online, all are easily accessible and some of the houses are even unlocked, so to them it hardly feels like breaking and entering. And it of course took these far-flung celebrities a long time before they noticed anything was even missing.

The girls' personalities are basically interchangeable. They're all materialistic, vain, shallow, selfish, checking themselves out in the mirror, hiking up their skirts and looking for the next club to hit up. Emma Watson's Nicki is especially nightmarish, a Valley Girl from hell who is home-schooled by her mom (Leslie Mann) and gets lessons from her based on "The Secret." The ringleader of the group is actually Rebecca, played with an icy blank expression by Katie Chang. She first brings in Marc who's only looking for friends at a new school, to feel like he belongs and in these morally bankrupt divas he finds his answer.

Coppola presents the action as perfectly matter-of-fact, riding the fine line between empathy and satire without ever falling into either category. Through the crimes and then the LAPD investigation and court ruling to follow, there's a tone of wry irony and a dark sense of humor. The girls say nothing of value. Their vocabulary consists of "chill" and "hot," they order bottle service at the club taking selfies and posting everything to Facebook. There's an inherent voyeurism and entertainment in watching these events unfold, but there's also a definite technique to its sheer emptiness. Watch the club scenes closely, and you'll see the desperation.

The easy route would be to chalk their behavior up to bad parenting and a sign of the times. But that's not what Coppola is going after. These adolescents are numb to life, striving to emulate their false icons and wanting something to feel alive. And this writer and director, who has been increasingly criticized since "Lost In Translation," is a smart, singular talent who exquisitely crafts every mood and meaning. She has always been interested in fame and isolation, characters committed to an island. "The Bling Ring" also marks her most obvious film, which isn't necessarily a knock. The movie's last line, delivered by Nicki, drives it home. So what's scarier? These teenagers' actions, or how they ended up getting exactly what they wanted?

Saturday, June 15, 2013


Finding reason to bring back Superman in a bold way and creating a new superfranchise for fans to latch onto, that in itself was no easy task to undertake. Zack Snyder has done so with his own flourish of panache, even if it that means his bombastic style comes with it. Everything about "Man of Steel" is huge, melodramtic and operatic. There are a lot of things the director we've come to know from "300," "Watchmen" and "Sucker Punch" does right here, and part of me wants to call this reboot a resounding success. But doing so is impossible without taking into account the film's final act, a brute force of clunky metal, a cacophony of noise that drowns the mind and nearly erases everything that came before.

Taking the darker, more brooding "Batman" route à la Christopher Nolan, who helped develop the story into a script by David S. Goyer (who also penned "The Dark Knight" trilogy), the opening sequence warrants its serious-minded tone. In the most complete origin story we could ask for, we're shown the fatal demise of Krypton, and Superman's father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), shipping off his son to planet Earth for a better future. This sends Jor-El's mortal enemy, General Zod (Michael Shannon, basically doing an exaggerated impersonation of himself), on a galactic rampage to find Superman, destroy him and bring Krypton to its former glory at the expense of Earth. It's an opening that may be lengthy but is extremely well done and boasts the movie's dramatic chops, visual splendor and gorgeous score from Hans Zimmer.

In his adopted life, Superman has been raised by the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) and given the name Clark Kent, a boy who must keep his other worldly powers a secret. Played by the Brit Henry Cavill, the adult Clark Kent/Superman is of course universally handsome -- robust body and chiseled jaw -- and he charms in the role. The 21st century version of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, demanding, resourceful and sexy. On their own, Adams and Cavill are great but together there could be a bit more spark to create some heat.

After spending his life as a drifter, Lois gets on his trail and tracks him down. In the process, the film brings us back to Clark's childhood: the incident where he saved a school bus of children, the sometimes tumultuous relationship with his adoptive parents wondering where he came from and the dooming realization that one day he has to decide what to do with his powers. And as an adult, Jor-El comes to Superman in a vision. Him donning the blue suit and red cape and flying for the first time is glorious. In these quieter moments, the movie soars. It's when General Zod invades Earth that the experience turns into a long, bloated slog.

The last hour is borderline laughable in its barrage of noisy, non-stop action while Superman and Zod go head-to-head. Endless bodies crash into an endless number of skyscrapers taking New York City to the ground. Cement crumbles to bits, flaming explosions engulf the sky -- it's the type of sequence we've seen in every superhero movie that has come before. It makes for great spectacle but is no less mind-numbing and woefully repetitive.

Zack Snyder coats his superhero story in a layer of gloss and sheen (as he did with "Watchmen") making the poetic moments really pop. He also succeeds in making the story as human as possible, and had he carried that emphasis through to the film's end, it would've been something special. Instead, the director gets wrapped up in his own grandeur desiring for something bigger, louder, more epic and ends up diminishing the new franchise's potential for true greatness.


"This Is the End" is a comedy where we find Seth Rogen (Seth Rogen), Jay Baruchel (Jay Baruchel), Craig Robinson (Craig Robinson) and Jonah Hill (Jonah Hill) all hanging at James Franco's (James Franco) new digs in L.A. for a housewarming party. Rihanna is there, and so is Aziz Ansari, Jason Segal, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mindy Kaling, Emma Watson and a coked-out-of-his-mind Michael Cera. Then comes the end of the world as they know it. Yeah.

In its meta-filled nudges and self-pleasing schtick about actors playing parodied versions of themselves (the Academy Award-nominated Jonah Hill is faux pretentious and refers to himself as that actor from "Moneyball"), here's a comedy that is delirious, outrageous, wildly inspired and roll out of your chair in tears hilarious. It's the funniest movie since the original "Hangover" and likely to be the funniest movie of not only this year but perhaps a few years.

The script was penned by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who previously collaborated on "Pineapple Express" and "Superbad," the movie which kicked off most of this gang together. This marks their directorial debut as they take a one-joke movie and keep delivering and riffing on it with awesome comic timing. Once the four guys are holed up inside Franco's house, Danny McBride (Danny McBride) shows up and throws a wrench into their whole survival plan, eating all their food and drinking all their water. It's like an apocalyptic actor-starring "Real World," a pressure cooker of a situation where the main goal is to poke fun at these actors as much as possible.

You have to know these guys' stuff to be in on a lot of the jokes, of which these self-referential zings are the laugh-out-loud funniest. Take for example an entirely homemade sequel to "Pineapple Express" guest starring Woody Harrelson. But I've already said too much. You gotta see to believe how zany, nutty and balls-to-the-wall insane things get escalating to gut-busting proportions. In a raunchy mix of comedy and horror, Rogen and his team absolutely deliver the goods in a product that actually feels refreshingly independent aside from its major stars. It's smart about its stupidity and even squeezes in something to say about the status of celebrity and the nature of faith. And if you thought all those cameos at the start were something, just wait.


Shot in his own house and made in between the hours dedicated to his "Avengers," Joss Whedon's Shakespeare adaptation "Much Ado About Nothing" is certainly the writer-director's passion project. The family-and-friends production may feel like something he created as a vacation from his other work, which -- surprise -- that's actually the case, but that doesn't deter the piece from being any less fully-realized and richly entertaining.

Created wholly inside Whedon's own production company, he even took a leap to score the film himself and cast friends Amy Acker as Beatrice and Alexis Denisof as Benedick, the play's leads, after he was inspired by their reading Shakespeare together at his home. The nature of the film, what he calls a noir comedy, matches that sentiment, shot on handheld cameras in beautiful black-and-white to enhance the intimacy. With great precision and love for the context, Whedon pares down the passages choosing the bits that bite and the humor that stings without ever dumbing down or swapping out for more common dialect.

Whedon's gorgeous home which contains the entirety of the play becomes a character in itself through an extended boozy party-turned-wedding. Claudio (Fran Kranz) is madly in love with Leonato's (Clark Gregg) daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), and requests her hand in marriage. Convinced that love can conquer all, Claudio and Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) hatch a scheme to bring together the quarreling Benedick and Beatrice against their own wishes. The witty barbs and verbal sparring that unfolds shows where Whedon's love for storytelling lies and -- more telling -- reveals why the interplay between the quibbling superheroes was the best part of "The Avengers."

He also doesn't shy away from a generous use of slapstick which ups the humor, and on the flip side he certainly doesn't avoid delving into the pathos behind Shakespeare's words. When Claudio discovers Hero's betrayal the night before their wedding, the drama is potent. And in stretching to both ends of the light/dark emotional spectrum, so do the actors. Most notable is Nathan Fillion as the bumbling Dogberry whose affronts and offenses are the film's most delightful moments. "Much Ado" may be slight, but it's fun -- and shows us a singular voice coming from a filmmaker who refuses to be muffled by his gargantuan Marvel duties.