Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Blackfish

Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Produced by: Manuel V. Oteyza
Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Screenplay by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Eli Despres
Tim Zimmerman

Music by: Jeff Beal

Cinematography by: Jonathan Ingalls
Christopher Towey

Editing by: Eli Despres

Studio(s): CNN Films
Manny O. Productions

Distributed by: Magnolia Pictures (United States, theatrical)
CNN (United States, television)
Dogwoof Pictures (United Kingdom)

Release date(s): January 19, 2013 (Sundance Film Festival)
July 19, 2013 (United States)
July 26, 2013 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 83 minutes

Country: United States

Langauge: English

Production budget: N/A

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $1, 638, 411

So, here begins the second of my two paragraphs spiel's before I get down to having a look at Maniac. I'm on a roll here, so I'm gonna try and keep ploughing forward. I may be going on autopilot, given that I've just had a good bit of work and for the next five-six weeks there's only gonna be more of the same, but the fact is I just like to keep myself busy, even if it involves the occasional masochistic act, such as spending an hour's worth of wages going to see Grown Ups 2. If he proves me wrong, I'll take back all my nasty comments, but if I'm proven right, I expect Adam Sandler to teabag me, with a bit of Kevin James on the side. So, for my garbles about my yarbles, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film under the knife is Blackfish, a new documentary that has been released near simultaneously in cinemas and on home video (only yesterday I saw the film in the new releases section at Head Records on May Street), and is another recent example of a documentary making a stir in terms of it's subject matter. Gabriela Cowperthwaite's film focuses on the story of the killer whale Tilikum's captivity, using the death of the whale's trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, which SeaWorld claimed was due to her wearing a ponytail, as the starting point, and like many a film beginning at the end, backtracks to the central point of development of the tale. Apart from a Queens Film Theatre poster describing this as something along the lines of the "most powerful film about man and nature since Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man"(QFT has a tendency to overhype the film's they exhibit on occasion) and the fact that my friend is a big fan of the documentary medium, I went in to the picture more or less blank without knowing what I was in for. Shall we dance?

Starting with the good, earlier on I mentioned the structure as beginning at the end, and indeed, in this film I find a lot of similarities with the narrative structure of Citizen Kane, in a good way, of course. Going back to Tilikum's capture off the coast of Iceland in 1983 is not dissimilar to the scene in Orson Welles' masterpiece when little Charlie Kane is taken from his parents' home by Walter P. Thatcher. Also, the fact that we never get to hear Tilikum's view on the proceedings (not by choice) mirrors how we are kept in the dark regarding the mystery of Charles Foster Kane. Perhaps the comparison does not seem relevant to the film, but my point is that structurally, although by no means original, we are getting just about every viewpoint possible on the scheme of things. Now, I've mentioned in the past a quote that I had read mentioned that the word documentary has of late become synonymous with polemical, and while a lot of polemical documentaries are rather uninventive and propagandistic (that's why The Act Of Killing was such a breath of fresh air), the fact remains that more or less everyone interviewed in this film condemns the practices involved in this multi-million dollar franchise. Even polemics tend to have a (albeit uneven) quota to fulfil with regards to the pretence of presenting their work as objective: EVERYTHING here is condemnatory, and to see this in a documentary, as opposed to the two sides arguing with one another, is quite unique. Furthermore, to back up this point, it is a meticulously researched film. The interview subjects cover every aspect of the story, and it's not just like Cowperthwaite has went out and got a couple of talking heads to do retrospective analyses, but has instead managed to interview people who have been involved in whaling, former SeaWorld trainers, members of the Occupational Safety and Health Association, who sued SeaWorld following the death of Dawn Brancheau, etc etc. This research which leads to near-universal condemnatory is intelligently interspersed with advertisements by SeaWorld which, although I've never seen before and thus don't have a context to put them in outside of this, border on the ridiculous, with killer whales flying in the air through rollercoasters and what not. SeaWorld declined to participate in the film, and I suppose this is the filmmakers' way to compensate for their lack of an official voice, but the use of these absurd advertisements acts as a sort of cheeky jab at SeaWorld's marketing quota as being a safe, family-friendly environment.  I think that like Beware Of Mr. Baker from two months ago, much of the strength of the film relies on the basis of the subject matter. However, this is even more so the case here, and Cowperthwaite does a fine job in depicting some of the outright corruption involved with SeaWorld and various other organisations involved in the captivity of animals. There are some genuinely moving moments in which you just realise the tragic circumstances in which these whales are living and the pain and suffering that they are going through. In particular, there is a harrowing scene when a female orca has had it's calf taken from her (SeaWorld have agreed to the transfer of the calf to another resort), and the interviewees talk of how the mother was making noises that had never been heard out of a whale, and it was concluded (perhaps anthropomorphism had a part?) that she was calling out to her calf over a long distance a la echolocation. It's a heartbreaking moment in a movie that, although only eighty-three minutes, pushes your buttons and makes you think about what you are being told. 

Now, for what I did like about the movie, and I must say, I did think it was a great film, there are some problems with the film that deny it from the status of a masterpiece like, say, The Act Of Killing. For starters, unlike said film, although I do think the Kane-esque narrative structure is interesting, the methodology of the film is relatively uninventive and dull. For most it's running time, it consists of talking heads, talking heads talking over archive footage, talking heads talking over talking heads etc etc., which is why the occasional SeaWorld advertisement brought a bit of levity to the proceedings and gave the film a personality outside of the subject. Whereas Beware Of Mr. Baker was too multimodal for it's own good, Blackfish had too little in that regard. Also, as far as the story it tells, as important as it is to highlight such monstrous behaviour, there is nothing new being told here. Although it is a well-told story regardless, it does at times feel like a rehash of the old man-versus-nature/animal-in-man arguments that we have seen in countless documentaries before. 

Those issues that I had with the relatively uninventive methodology, lack of a unique identity outside of the subject and it being, in essence, a bit of a rehash of old ideas, Blackfish is still a great film. The narrative structure is strong (and akin to that of Citizen Kane), the lack of objectivity and the fact that EVERYONE outright condemns the SeaWorld practices, the meticulous research and the fact that the subjects themselves provide for a more harrowing and poignant argument than any amount of talking heads could ensure that Gabriela Cowperthwaite's film never teeters off the rails into the same dark waters of most polemical documentaries. It's a strong eighty-three minute thought provokers that pushes your buttons and, while acting almost as a genre thriller, makes you think about what you are being told.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.1/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Wetting myself (Jackie Stallone and Frank Stallone on Howard Stern is hilarious!)

Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Only God Forgives

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Produced byLene Børglum

Screenplay by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring: Ryan Gosling
Vithaya Pansringarm
Kristen Scott Thomas
Rhatha Phongam
Gordon Brown
Tom Burke

Music by: Cliff Martinez

Cinematography by: Larry Smith

Editing by: Matthew Newman

Studio(s): FilmDistrict
Wild Bunch
Film i Väst

Distributed by: Radius-TWC (United States)
Le Pacte
Wild Side Films (France)

Release date(s): May 22, 2013 (Cannes Film Festival, premiere)
May 30, 2013 (Denmark)
May 31, 2013 (Sweden)
July 19, 2013 (United States)
August 2, 2013 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 90 minutes

Country(s): Denmark

Language(s): English

Production budget: $3.5 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $9, 743, 009

Ahoy there, strangers. For the first time, I'm not actually doing my reviews in consecutive order, as I have yet to get watching Maniac yet, so essentially I'm doing the first two paragraphs for this and Blackfish, to get myself up to speed. I have two days off work, so I'm just planning on chilling out around the house, as opposed to my original plan of seeing Grown Ups 2: I'm a masochist, but I'm not that far down the line, there's always next week to put off that monstrosity. Normally, I withhold my opines before seeing a movie, and maybe it'll surprise me (cough!), but I can't imagine it being anything more than completely vomit-inducing bilge. So, for more movie reviews and pre-emptive strikes at Adam Sandler's second holiday video to be theatrically released, keep your eyes posted!

Today's movie is a rather well-anticipated released, Only God Forgives, the first film by Nicolas Winding Refn since 2011's Drive, a masterwork that garnered Refn the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival and risen in it's relatively short lifespan to the status of a contemporary classic. At that same Festival in 2013, Only God Forgives was met by both a standing ovation and a collection of boos, and the critical reception indicates a similar level of polarisation. On the one hand, you have a vocal group, including Peter Bradshaw, who gave it a five-star rating in his Guardian review, and another equally as loud, who argue that the film is mere style over substance. Taking my own perspective, I'll just briefly sum up my own history with Nic Winding Refn. The first of his films I saw was Bronson, a movie which at first I fell for over Tom Hardy's magnetic lead performance (he won the Best Lead Actor award for my good self for this role), but in hindsight it is also so much a Refn film. Then he made Valhalla Rising, a movie that is completely left of field, featuring a subtly great performance by Mads Mikkelsen, a film not without it's flaws but nevertheless mesmerising, which made me wake up to this artistic talent. 2011's Drive was the peak of an upward progression in Refn's artistry, the summation of everything he'd been going towards in his career, although, sometimes I feel the best is yet to come for Refn. In short, with that context at hand, I went into Only God Forgives with a bit of foreknowledge that, although he made the more accessible, pick up and play films Bronson and Drive, he'd looked long into the abyss with Valhalla Rising, so perhaps my expectations weren't that, with Ryan Gosling back in the van, we'd be getting Drive Mk. 2. Brief plot synopsis, Gosling plays Julian, an American expatriate living in Bangkok, whose boxing club serves as a front for a drug smuggling operation. When his brother Billy (Tom Burke) is killed following his rape and murder of an underage prostitute, their mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), after Julian fails to follow it up, sets out for revenge on her son's killer. However, things are a bit more complicated than they seem, with the involvement of police officer Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), known in the underworld as The Angel Of Vengeance.

Going into Only God Forgives, it is inevitable for audiences to think of Gosling and Refn's previous collaboration, but thankfully, this is a very different beast that doesn't simply retread the same tried and tested waters. Dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky, Refn goes perhaps even further down the rabbit hole than Valhalla Rising in terms of his attempting to explore the language of cinema. This is an abstract piece of emotional experience that is hard to define, and the film is awash with atmosphere. Furthermore, as with much of his work, Refn injects the film with a high level of tension, so that when the silent mood is broken, the violence has meaning and packs a fierce punch. Larry Smith's cinematography soaks the picture in tones the likes of which have never been seen on the screen. His use of lighting and the movement of the actors in shadows in a unique attribute to this picture. Since the beginning of cinema, it has often been taken for granted that just about everything onscreen must be visible, a ubiquitous rule that certainly needs to be overwritten. The sheer beauty of the photography, of an artistic quality that could be hanging in a gallery, is like a neo-noir digital equivalent of, say, Gregg Toland's work in Citizen Kane, or that of Arthur Edeson in Casablanca. Those were two black-and-white films that explored the use of shadow, tones and lighting to tell a story in a new way, and Smith's work with the Arri Alexa is of the same vein. Another interesting aspect of the film is the editing and the use of montage to speak to the audience. The film is largely silent, Ryan Gosling only speaking twenty-two lines in the entire film (not far off Arnie's sixteen lines in The Terminator), and thus Matthew Newman does some new things with the old tricks of montage editing. Despite the Kuleshovian effects that this has on the viewer being nothing, Refn has something to say with these images, and Newman mixing the colours, if you will, gets across the thematic content of the film. As with other films of his, there is something potently erotic, almost masturbatory, about the portrayal of violence and this sense of uber-masculinity, but there is also a lot of stuff going on in there about mythologisation and familial relationships, including an (almost) Abel and Cain fraternal interaction, an absence of a legitimate father figure and the presence of an overbearingly powerful mother, which brings about a pervading Oedipal tone to the whole picture. Speaking of mothers, in terms of the acting Kristen Scott Thomas steals the show as Crystal. Right from her first scene, when she abuses a well-meaning hotel receptionist in front of her manager, you know this is one peroxide-blonde you don't want to mess with. Stern, abrupt and to the point, Scott Thomas' delivery of her lines is done in such a vicious, snappy pace that you almost feel like you're being lashed, and that despite being terribly insulting to her son, saying his dead brother was better than he, when she demands "Now, kiss you mother!," you better believe by God you'd do it yourself if Gosling's Julian didn't. Also, Vithaya Pansringarm is great as the Angel Of Vengeance. I don't know much about the guy's history (he doesn't even have a Wikipedia profile), and the only major movie he was in that I have seen was as a minister in the terrible Hangover Part II, but he has been perfectly cast in this part. His face for starters is reminiscent of those Buddisht figures that are the subject of much idolatry, and there is a question to be asked as to whether or not he is the eponymous 'God' of the title. Giving the film another layer, Cliff Martinez' score is full of textured ambience that not only give the film a forward momentum and help tell the onscreen story, but there is also a sort-of subconscious suggestiveness at work behind the pulsating synths: like the film as a whole, which is a tonal poem, there is something else a lot more subtle going on behind the works. Although by no means perfect, Nic Winding Refn's wholly unique exploration of the potential of cinematic language is a big step down the rabbit hole of artistry. 

Now, for all those things that I admire about the film (I do think that it is a unique and artistically daring attempt at transgressing the boundaries of cinematic language), there are a number of issues that deny it from being a great movie. I will watch it again, and perhaps I'll reassess it as a whole (Lord knows, I used to think Children Of Men was boring, now I think it's a masterpiece), but I still feel that despite all the new and interesting things going on, it is fundamentally flawed, and that is down to Nic Winding Refn's script. Ryan Gosling, although being a fine actor graced with a face you could look at all day, unfortunately doesn't much to do, his character being a purely existentialist cypher. I don't mean to wag the dog, but if you take his previous film Drive, which had a similarly afflicted existential protagonist that looked long and hard into the abyss, there was something there above and beyond the cypher, whereas here Gosling's Julian has the paradoxically clashing elements where he could be everyone and at the same time absolutely no one. He lacks the connection to the audience necessary to drive (terrible pun intended) the film upwards into greater heights. Also, although I referred to it as a tonal poem, it does not contain enough poetic complexity. If you take, for instance, James Clarence Mangan's Siberia, what you have in eight sections of five lines includes apocalyptic religiosity, absurdism, life and death, and Siberia as an overarching metaphor for the desolate wasteland created by Ireland's Great Famine. I know I'm talking creme de la creme in terms of poetry, but frankly Only God Forgives, though very good, is by no means wallowing "In Siberia's wastes," if you get what I mean.

Though I do have certain reservations about the film as whole, being nowhere near as rich and textured and complex as it could have been, Only God Forgives is a unique film experience. I've said everything already, so I won't repeat myself, but simply relate a story of the screening I attended at the Queens Film Theatre. In front of me, a couple about twenty-five/thirty minutes into the film got up and left, and I'm sure there were probably more. Also, from about half-way in, there were smattering of people sniggering, not with genuine laughter but that awkward pompous sound that's somewhere in between a sigh and a guffaw. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, but these are probably the same people that booed Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura at the Cannes Film Festival. Although I don't feel that this will be retrospectively considered up there among the greats with that film, it will I feel, due to Nic Winding Refn (the great contemporary existentialist filmmaker), be reassessed for its bold, daring approach to challenging to the conventions of cinematic language and storytelling. 

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 7.6/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Relaxed (a few days off before Creamfields is always welcome!)

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Thin White Dude's Movie Of The Month: July 2013 - The Act Of Killing

Mesmerising, bizarre, surreal, entertaining, and one of the few legitimately unique film experiences of the past few years, Joshua Oppenheimer's masterpiece is a truly extraordinary work. If anything, my estimations of the film have probably risen since I first saw it, and I plan to take my promoting of the film above and beyond the medium of film criticism, more of which will be revealed in due time. My own perspective is a mere glance of the surface on it's richly textured weave, and I urge everyone to see this most important of films.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 9.5/10

Runner-Up: Pacific Rim - A majestic work of terrific imagination, Guillermo del Toro dares to dream, and gives what will most likely be the best big-budget blockbuster release of the summer.

Honorable Mention: Maniac - An existentialist exploration of the human psyche that also happens to be a horror movie remake shot completely from the murderer's POV, with a transcendent lead performance by Elijah Wood.

'Second-Most Deadly Disease': The Internship - You may be able to tell from the grammar I mean that ironically, because even though it is stupid and about eight years too late, I still thought The Internship was a strangely funny comedy.

Avoid Like The Plague: Man Of Steel - I don't know how they did it (I do, but for the sake of argument...), but Zack Snyder and co. actually managed to make Superman cumbersome and boring.

Monday, 12 August 2013

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Maniac

Directed by: Franck Khalfoun

Produced by: Alexandre Aja
Thomas Langmann
William Lustig

Screenplay by: Alexandre Aja
Gregory Levasseur

Based on: Maniac by Joe Spinell

Starring: Elijah Wood
Nora Anezeder
Jan Broberg
Liane Balaban
America Olivo
Megan M. Duffy

Music by: Rob

Cinematography by: Maxime Alexandre

Editing by: Baxter
Franck Khalfoun

Studio(s): Canal+
La Petite Reine
Studio 37
Blue Underground

Distributed by: IFC Midnight

Release date(s): May 26, 2012 (Cannes Film Festival)
January 2, 2013 (France)
March 15, 2013 (United Kingdom)
June 21, 2013 (United States - New York only)

Running time: 85 minutes

Country(s): France
United States

Language: English

Production budget: $6 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $26, 826 (domestic gross only)

Alrighty then! So, after a good few weeks, I've finally got down to watching this movie only today, and following this I will post a slightly belated but nevertheless necessary Review Of The Month for July. I've also got reviews in the back-burner for Only God Forgives and Blackfish (as you'll be able to tell when I get down to posting them, I've already got a headstart), so, for all the latest in movies and my, oh my (I should really be using a registered trademark there, considering how often I use George Takei's catchphrase!), opines on them, keep your eyes posted!

Today's movie up for review is Maniac. Another horror film remake, this one attempts to at least do something different with the material, and is based on the 1980 William Lustig film of the same name, which I have failed to see but I know caused quite a stir back in the day (hello, video nasty!). The film stars Elijah Wood in the eponymous role as Frank Zito, a mentally disturbed young man who has taken over his family business in the restoration and sale of mannequins, who moonlights as a serial killer, scalping the hair off of his victims and attaching them to his mannequins. Young photographer Anna (Nora Arnezeder) takes an interest in his work, and from there the dramatic tension emerges from whether or not Frank is able to develop a meaningful relationship with someone and break the proverbial spell of his psychopathy. Perhaps because I never saw the original and that reviews had hailed it as "A Modern Horror Classic (Bloody Disgusting)" and "Drive's Psychotic Cousin (Zoo)," I was able to go into it more open-minded than I do with most horror remakes. At the other side of the spectrum, the old arguments of the viewer's complicity with voyeurism and misogyny have reared their head: notwithstanding a monopoly of opinion and the invention of one's own vocabulary, Kyle Smith argues that "even non-feminists, however, will find it hard to disagree that the film is exactly what it intends to be: the purest exploitational trash." It sits presently at 47% on RT's Tomatometer, so, with these things being said, let's get cracking!

To start off with the good about Maniac, as mentioned, it does do something different with the material, the central concept being that the entire film is shot from the perspective of the murderer. While it does resemble a bit of the found footage genre that has become ferociously overexposed, it is largely bereft of the limitations that come with the genre. POV shooting is a trademark of horror and thriller cinema, but Maxime Alexandre's work here is like the ne plus ultra of POV, full of ingenuity that more often than not a perfect blend of style and substance. From a stylistic standpoint, we see things from a view, while present in the likes of Dario Argento's catalogue, isn't pushed this far conceptually and provides some of the most genuinely grisly scenes in recent memory. As far as substance goes, it puts it into the head of a psychopath, making us feel hemmed in and claustrophobic, but also saying something about his (and our) own image and self-perception, questioning the very nature of his being and existence. Tying in with the cinematography is a terrific lead performance by Elijah Wood. Given the technical nature of the film, it could have gone the other and not worked at all. While he is often only glimpsed at smallest moments in reflections, Wood's presence is key to the success of the film. Since The Lord Of The Rings, Wood has proven himself a versatile character actor, and this is up there at the top. He brings an everyman quality to the part, in that he just subtly slips into the part, and we never look at him as an actor playing the part of the character, but simply accept him as Frank. Strangely, although he is never a fully tragic figure by any means, Wood plays him at the right pitch between terrifying and sympathetic, a fresh change from some of the self-mythologisation that can come with a serial killer movie. Furthermore, his voice is nigh-on unrecognisable and tonally appropriate to the character, and physically he fits the role like a glove, his depiction of Frank's psychosis at times harrowing. Another aspect of the movie worth mentioning is the original score by the French musician Rob. Even though it is a NEU! movie, in many ways it is also a throwback. Rob's score at times definitely has inflections of Goblin's work with Dario Argento by way of Giorgio Morodor and the score/soundtrack of Drive. It's an interesting and evocative hybrid score that does much to keep us engaged in the thoroughly (but appropriately) repulsive things onscreen. Perhaps I'm biased, being a fan of Krautrock and most things synthesiser, but this score did much to aurally capture the thematic qualities of the film and injected it with a real personality. Finally, although his previous work such as P2 were criticised, Franck Khalfoun in his capacities both as a director and editor (with Baxter - what is it with this film and mononymous names?) shines. This is a daring, bold and confident piece of horror filmmaking that is more than a shade or two above the curve that we expect from contemporary horror filmmaking. 2013 is shaping up to be the best year in horror film's already with the weight of this and Evil Dead alone, two remakes that take their central premises and see the filmmaker's turn it on its head for their own devices. The editing is sharp and seamless, especially impressive when it comes to alternating between reflective objects such as mirrors, and his direction is one of conviction. Much has been made in reviews of it's owing much to Nic Winding Refn's 2011 Drive, and while it bears some similarities (I'm surprised not as many directors has tried emulate the stylistic qualities of said film), Maniac is a film very much it's own beast. By the time the credits rolled after a haunting and metaphorically powerful climax, I'd say there was at least three of four moments that left me gobsmacked, a testament to the fact that if ingenuity and creativity flourish, there is still space for great genre cinema to emerge.

As I'm sure you can tell by this stage, I though that Maniac was a great horror movie, and certainly one of the best I have seen in the past few years. However, it does have a couple of problems that deny it from being a masterpiece. The first of them is, strangely enough, one of the film's strongest points, the POV concept. While a relatively minor issue and working most of the time, on occasion it does become a double-edged sword and threaten to tip the film over into the realm of self-indulgence because it is just that, a concept. The other main problem is the film's script. Written by Alexandre Aja (also producer) and Gregory Levasseur of Haute Tension fame, two people family with making horror movies with psychopaths, but while it's not a bad script, some of it just isn't up to the standard of the rest of the film. The characters, though our view of them may be clouded because it is, after all, Frank's view, remain as much, perhaps less of a caricature than the mannequins in Frank's store, only Nora Arnezeder escaping this pitfall. The big issue is the dialogue, some of which sinks lower than the depths of mere stock conversation. There's one point in the movie where I found a particular line as cringeworthy as some of the action onscreen. This is not to say that I disliked Maniac, far from it, but there are some reservations to be taken into account.

Despite these reservations regarding the double-edged sword that is the POV concept and some script defects, most specifically in the dialogue, Maniac is a great horror film. While conceptually the POV concept is occasionally problematic, is technical practice what Maxine Alexandre does is quite extraordinary, and it goes hand-in-hand with a transcendental lead performance by Elijah Wood. The score by Rob injects a flavour of real personality into the film, and director-editor Franck Khalfoun shines in both creative departments. There are some real ideas here, saying something about the human psyche, and I do think there is something very existentialist about the film. It was a real pleasure to be privileged once again with a great horror movie.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.5/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Wall-to-wall (sandwiched between work and work)

P.S. Nora Arnezeder is great in the film and has great chemistry with Elijah Wood, I just stupidly forgot to mention how good she was in this!

Thursday, 8 August 2013

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Monsters University

Directed by: Dan Scanlon

Produced by: Kori Rae

Screenplay by: Daniel Gerson
Robert L. Baird
Dan Scanlon

Starring: Billy Crystal
John Goodman
Steve Buscemi

Music by: Randy Newman

Cinematography by: Matt Asbury
Jean-Claude Kalache

Editing by: Greg Snyder

Studio(s): Walt Disney Pictures
Pixar Animation Studios

Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Release date(s): June 21, 2013 (United States)
July 12, 2013 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 103 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $200 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $613, 990, 000

I'm back (again, again, as the Teletubbies would say, rotund peons that they are!)! So, after a long, hard but thoroughly rewarding week with my Scouts at Tipperary Wood, hiking, sleeping in bivouacs and an assortment of related activities (including a thoroughly juvenile spell running around, releasing my inner ten-year-old in an amusement arcade), I've decided to level out my six consecutive twelve hour shifts with a bit of film reviewing. Although, as I mentioned in previous entries, reviews will be more sporadic for August and September, following this I will put in my opines on Maniac and do a review for the month of July, and then proceed forth into August, during which period no doubt I'll see Grown Ups 2, because I'm a masochist, and hopefully get in The Wolverine and Only God Forgives, yadda yadda yadda, KEEP YOUR EYES POSTED!

A perpetual and perhaps unnecessary use of caps lock aside, I do have a review to get through, so, lets shoot on with Monster University, the latest outing from Pixar. Anyone who has followed this blog for the past few years will know that I have more than a few praiseworthy things to say about Pixar and how it is the contemporary dream house of cinema that does more for the arts culture and puts more smiles on people's faces than pretty much any other production company, precisely because they are passionate and genuinely care about what they are doing. You can feel that passion from the very beginning with 1995's Toy Story, and then in 2008 Andrew Stanton took Pixar to a new plateau with WALL-E, a film which showed that Pixar could match the artistic heights of a great Ingmar Bergman film. This was followed with more traditional but a still terrific movie in Up, and in 2010 with Toy Story 3 they achieved a film that is not only the perfect example of a synthesis between the old 'art versus entertainment' debate, but also, for my money, the greatest film of the past ten years. And then, out from the bowels of artistic drudgery came Cars 2. No movie was going to top Toy Story 3, but how on earth Pixar were able to take the charming characters of the first film and make them incredibly annoying, populating a film that was frankly one rotten dullard of a work, and one that, in it's own way, stopped me from going to see Brave last year. I will catch up with that one, but I was both angry and despondent when Cars 2 came out, so I needed time to recover the post-traumatic stress inflicted at the prospect that Pixar could in fact do wrong. So, with the acceptance of that possibility, I made a venture with my good friend over at Danland Movies to our local haunting The Strand and went to see this bad boy. A prequel to Monsters Inc., the film which up until WALL-E and Toy Story 3 was my favourite Pixar release, Monsters University is a movie easy to sum up in plot terms by way of it's title. Akin to Cars 2, there's a small switcheroo in the lead character, with Billy Crystal's Mike Wazowski taking centre-stage as we follow him on his quest to become a scarer. During his stint at Monsters University, he meets for the first time James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) and Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi) and many other characters as a series of monster-related activities with a bit of a frat-house/campus flavour to them. You got that? I'm easy!

To start with the good, the voice acting is of a high quality. The chemistry between John Goodman and Billy Crystal was one of the things that sold the audience on Monsters Inc., and they bring that established rapport over to Monsters University: if something isn't broken, why try to fix it? Furthermore, Crystal is the anchor of the cast, holding the movie's narrative drive together, giving us an entertaining and engaging lead in Mike Wazowski. Steve Buscemi's Randall 'Randy' Boggs is a welcome surprise, Buscemi giving the character a Woody Allen-esque neurotic flavour as a shy nerd who becomes the slithery villain of Monsters Inc., and the collective Oozma Kappa members are an endearing bunch of losers that we can get behind. It's nice to see that the writing quality in terms of dialogue and gags has gotten back on form. Unlike Cars 2, which seemed to just consist of car puns, Monsters University is at it's best moments a very funny movie. We see things like the arts society throwing paint over one of its members, who proceeds to slam his head into a canvas, and the softly-spoken mother who listens to Mastodon, and it's little things like this that show the writers give a damn. Also, it contributes to the microcosmic effect that this and the first film possess, with the monster world being a colourful, distracting and ultimately entertaining illusory metaphor for ourselves. Furthermore, and I don't mean to keep bringing up Cars 2, but unlike Larry The Cable Guy's Mater, a  strangely charming supporting character but a ferociously annoying lead, Crystal's Mike Wazowski is a character that has been developed well-enough to more than hold his own as the lead. As is to be expected with a Pixar movie, the animation's of the highest standard, but I still want to say a few things about the work done here. The proof is in the pudding with regards to the details and effort put into the textures of the monsters. On the Monsters Inc. DVD, I always remember watching a feature which showing the complications that came with animating Sully's fur, with each individual hair having to be worked on, and if anything, not just with Sully, but all the monsters, they have outdone themselves. Also, the colour palette of the movie really catches the eyes, and the rich, textured look that the animators have imbued the film with is to its benefit. The returning Randy Newman delivers another of his irrepressibly pleasure scores that will find you tapping your feet and humming along with it, and debut feature director Dan Scanlon gives the film a relative level of freshness.

So, as you can see, Monsters University has a lot going for it. However, and I know I'm at risk of repeating myself, but while the dialogue, gags, and set-pieces are well-written, the overall story and character arcs move not just in predictable ways, but in uninventive and sometimes dull directions. In most other movies, this would be a bigger issue, but it is still the big issue that denies this from being a great film. For starters, while I have no problem with it being a prequel, the fact that we know the foregone conclusion that Mike is not going to end up being a scarer takes away from any genuine source of dramatic tension. Also, it frankly does nothing new with frat-house movie, which arguably reached it's high point well over thirty years ago with Animal House. You have the usual fraternity rivalries, competitions and what have you, and, hey!, we know what way it's going to end up from the start. Furthermore, the predictability of the plot in just about every single aspect and facet ensures that the film does drag out longer that it needs to. I mean, it's about a hundred minutes, but it feels a bit longer, and this is a significant problem.

Aside from suffering a gouge in the hip from a predictable and (story-wise) unimaginative script, with other movies it'd be more of a problem, but Monsters University is still a very funny movie. The voice cast, in particularly, Billy Crystal, is uniformly solid, the dialogue and gags are well-written, and the animation standard that we have come to expect from Pixar has once again surpassed itself, particularly with the details and colour palette. Finally, with Randy Newman being his usual good self and Dan Scanlon giving a relative level of freshness, Monsters University does not reach the heights of it's predecessor or much of the rest of the Pixar stable, but it's still an entertaining flick that's worth your time.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 7.3/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Lazy (apart from walking the dog, haven't moved a muscle all day)