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Stewart Smith

Monsters University

Monsters-University_posterOkay, perhaps I’m a little biased for this one. I’m a huge fan of Pixar. I love their enthusiasm for storytelling and their unique ability to do it right. I’ve read books and watched documentaries on them, and I can name all fourteen of their feature films in order.

But with this fondness for them one can also expect the drawback of severe judgement. Pixar kept a perfect record in my book for a long time, and it wasn’t until the last couple of movies that this ideal slipped my view. Cars 2, Brave… Neither of them truly felt like they had the “Pixar Touch”, as it were. I don’t think that they are fit to hold up Pixar’s reputation. Cars 2 was really just a merchandising grab, and Brave felt a little too uncomplicated — like it was just a cookie cutter plot under the deceiving layer of a unique idea.

Having said that, I was pretty afraid for Pixar’s newest work, Monsters University, which is yet another sequel. (It seems like the studio suddenly decided to go down that road; it’s a scary idea, considering Pixar’s record for originality.)  And then I heard that Finding Dory, a Finding Nemo sequel, is set to be released in 2015. So I almost lost faith in Pixar for good.

However, after watching Monsters University, I am happy to declare it as a pleasant surprise.

Taking place years before the events of Monsters Inc., it follows Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) as they enter college together in the “scare program”. They eventually become rivals, each fighting to top the other, until their competition backfires dramatically and they have to work together in order to save their academic careers. Also involved are a fraternity in desperate need of inspiring and a series of athletic competitions, as per your usual camp movie standards. (Animal House, The Internship)

However, while not necessarily as heartwarming as some of its predecessors, this story manages to hold its own with a solid conflict and genuine funniness. The comic duo of Crystal and Goodman feels just as alive as it did twelve years ago.

The animation is of a high quality (as expected), with a loose, cartoonish feel. It really supplements the plot as a less serious, more entertaining venture. As with Monsters Inc, the characters are all originally designed with honest and lively natures.

 

Age Recommendation: It’s a kids movie, and it isn’t scary at all. No limit.

Final Verdict: I wouldn’t call it better than most of Pixar’s other work, but I would say that it fits in nicely with the collection, and that’s good enough for me. 8/10


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Stewart Smith

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby posterNow, I’ve never read The Great Gatsby. I know that it’s supposedly one of the greatest novels ever written, but I still never really got around to reading it. But according to various critics online, the Warner Brothers adaptation faithfully follows its inspiration, and so this assumption is what I’ll base my review upon.

Normally I’d think that this was a great thing. I often criticize movies for not being true to their inspiring writings, cutting and changing things left and right. In fact, I’ve often remarked that I would like to see a movie which almost exactly follows a book. Unfortunately, having seen The Great Gatsby, I think that I can safely say that a little change may be preferable.

The core problem is that books and movies are very different mediums. Books are renowned for their language in narration: the thoughts of a character and events in a world and how they are described in simple, delicate sentences. Movies, on the other hand, are all visual stimuli and character interactions. The key issue here is translating between the two mediums. Sure, you can take dialog directly from the text, but you have to dream up new ways to show descriptions, thoughts, and feelings.

Unless you take the easy way out and use narration, like Gatsby did. They wanted to preserve the language of the book, and that’s fine, but it really turns the story into more of an illustrated novel than a real film.

In addition, in their attempts to tell the entire story they speed through the exposition, turning the first half hour into a rapid series of quick shots, fast lines, and irritating voiceovers. It takes out a lot of emotion, and sets a poor tone for the film’s start.

The rest of the plot is Leo, Leo, Leo. I’ve heard a lot of people talking about Leonardo DiCaprio, and how he’s the best thing about this film. I can agree with that notion — he plays an eccentric Gatsby as well as a vulnerable one — but perhaps one of the reasons people dwell on him is that the movie milks him for all that he has. The movie is hardly anything until Gatsby is introduced, but then Gatsby ends up with more screen time and focus than anyone else in the entire film.

The setting of the film was rather well put together, with the exception of a soundtrack completely and utterly out of place. As I understand, there were no pop singers, auto-tunes, or car stereos back in the early 1920s, and I don’t think that adding them for a thematic boost really helps modernize the story so much as wound it’s believability.

It almost feels like anything without Gatsby is shrunken to accommodate as they try to make Leo carry the whole story. But while a strong titular character is important, supporting actors (especially in this story) need as much attention, and this was something that they simply didn’t receive.

 

Age Recommendation: The movie itself is moderately clean — there are some sex scenes and disturbing events, but all in all it’s probably fine for ages 10 and up. (But do them a favor and give them the book first.)

Final Verdict: This movie is trying to both tell the entire story of The Great Gatsby while also keeping Leonardo DiCaprio in front. However, this is executed poorly, with rushed sequences and overly modernized atmosphere. The story is broken, and the telling unsuccessful. Perhaps it’s good that Leo got his time — he’s the best thing about this flick. 3/10


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Stewart Smith

The Painting (Le Tableau)

Still from The Painting

The Painting is an animated independent film made in France in 2011. Telling a story of life in an unfinished painting, it tells a Shakespeare-esque story of a world plagued by racism in which a band of sketches and paintings searches for their painter to ask him to return and fix their world.

Rich with color and liveliness, it covers a lot of recurring themes in modern life, such as tension between completed and unfinished characters. The biggest theme, however, seems to be the use of religious metaphor. The characters feel abandoned by the painter, search for the painter, have faith in the painter, and pray for the painter. While the story itself is a nice change from the modern clichés you find in blockbusters, one can’t help but notice a few discrepancies, including a couple plot lines which are more or less abandoned as the film goes on. Some of the dialog and flow of the movie also felt a little clunky, and some of the characters seemed a bit empty.

The key aspect of the film’s allure is, quite obviously, its artistic style. Presented in a beautifully painted format with impressive color choice and form, it is a remarkable example of human expressionism.

The movie has a little bit of nudity, which may cause some giggles upon less mature audiences, but rest assured that it is all in the interest of recreating the feel of a painting, and that it’s generally no worse than that of Titanic.

All in all, the movie presents a moderately structured story with creative religious undertones in a style which breaks the modern cultural trend of paintings and turns the movie into less of a blockbuster and more of, well, a work of art.

This movie was reviewed as part of the American Cinematheque‘s Los Angeles Children’s Film Festival


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Stewart Smith

Frankenweenie

Frankenweenie PosterNominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film,  Frankenweenie is director Tim Burton’s latest divulgence into the world of stop-motion animation after working on titles such as Corpse Bride (2005) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

The movie follows the story of a young boy, Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), as he attempts to reanimate his recently deceased dog named Sparky. After succeeding in his attempt, he must try to keep Sparky’s existence a secret from his parents and friends.

In case you haven’t realized by now, Frankenweenie is an homage to Frankenstein, the 1931 classic based on the novel by Mary Shelley. The film is shot entirely in black and white with many nods to its inspiration as well as other films of the era such as Dracula (1931) and The Mummy (1932). It really manages to keep up an atmosphere in this way. The monochromatic tones compliment the characters and sets of the film, and the references don’t feel overdone or distracting to an audience new to the original films. It’s spooky atmosphere is only amplified by its fantastic music composed by Danny Elfman.

One of the most well sculpted things about Frankenweenie is its diverse cast of characters. Each one has a different design and personality which really makes the story feel like more than a bunch of talking humanoids. The plot also manages to tell a fairly nonlinear story without going too far off the deep end with attempts to explain each somewhat bizarre happenstance.

Being a Tim Burton film, one might expect it to be a little alarming to children below a certain age. While this may be true, its really up to the parent to know their kid. The nature of the film isn’t to make jump scares, it’s to tell a story about a boy desperately trying to revive his dog, which is something most of us can relate to. While the film gets a little more scary near the climax, it hardly feels like too much.

Age Recommendation: Frankenweenie was made to be a little chilling, but it’s also a lovely story which kids above that age-line will full-heartedly enjoy. Again, know your kid. 9+

Final Verdict: A lovely homage to the era. 9/10


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Stewart Smith

Speed

Wow! I can’t believe it’s been so long since I posted a review! My New Year’s resolution – post new reviews more often!  There will be more reviews coming soon but, in the meantime, here’s a review for an older movie I recently watched on Netflix.

In the action-thriller film Speed (1994), a terrorist (Dennis Hopper) rigs a city bus to explode if its speed goes under 50 mph. Let’s say you’re hurtling down a street at 50 mph alongside a line of 13 kids (average height at age 13) lying end-to-end in a straight line. Your car would race past them within a second.* So you can imagine how difficult it would be to maneuver the bus, diffuse the bomb, and move people on and off the bus.

In the film, L.A. cop Jack (Keanu Reeves) manages to get on the bus, with help from a passenger Annie (Sandra Bullock) to stop the bomb from exploding. The two stars of this film were really “accelerated” in their acting careers by this sudden hit. (Bullock has since won a Best Actress Oscar for The Blind Side. Reeves went on to star in many other hits including The Matrix.)

Directed by Jan de Bont, Speed is full of remarkable excitement, and action is kept at a quick pace. The cinematography (Andrzej Bartkowiak) is sublime, and the music keeps up a flamboyant tension. Some things did seem a bit cliche, however. There were a few plot holes that confused me greatly. For instance, nobody even considered the option of paying the bomber his ransom. It wasn’t even mentioned.

At the start of the film, several people are trapped in an elevator for ransom. The officers who are trying to free them say that in three minutes they will all be killed. Well, if there are really three minutes left, then wouldn’t the negotiators be going crazy? Or at least, thinking about options like delivering the money?

I thought of the film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) about a hostage situation in a subway tunnel. What I liked about that film is that it covered all the bases. Unlike Speed, that film really made me feel the awkward position of a hostage negotiator. It felt realistic and was heavy on the emotional side of storytelling more than the action side.

The villain’s backstory in Speed is left largely unaddressed. They mention little details – only those that point towards his location, but we never get a motive or any kind of painful instance that would be traumatic enough to make a man so violent. I think villains in films like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight are a lot more interesting, an absolutely wonderful film with a terrific antagonist.

Although Speed isn’t a very insightful film, it still has an active, exciting tone that really builds up suspense in a unique and unpredictable manner, which is absolutely brilliant.

Age Recommendation: Speed is very dramatic, and feels very intense. I would have children who watch it to be old enough to understand the course of events without panicking too much. Everyone else should take some time beforehand to really get to know the idea of such fast motion – such as I did with my schoolchildren analogy – so that you panic even more!

Final Verdict: As a thriller, it certainly kept pace, though it lacked in some key plot aspects. Still, it’s a worthy watch. 7/10.

*My mathematical standpoint – Feel free to correct any mistakes: 50mph is about four-fifths of a mile per minute. A mile is 5,280 feet. So if you multiply 5,280 by four-fifths, and then divide that by 60 (seconds in a minute), you get the number of feet per second covered at 50mph, which just happens to be a little more than 70 feet.


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Stewart Smith

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted posterDreamworks Animation’s second big franchise Madagascar is continuing on its merry way. The most recent film in the series – Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted was released last month, after two predecessors and a very successful television spin-off. Things seem to be going great for our batch of castaway characters.

But then again, it all sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? Anyone who’s read my review for Puss in Boots knows that I feel that the overall quality of the films in the Shrek series began slipping with the third film. The depth of the story started leaving and it began taking a more greedy, “please the child” sort of position.

Therefore, I was interested to see whether the Dreamworks team would manage to improve the franchise based on critiques of previous features. At first I feared that there would again be a further drop in quality, but for once, I wasn’t entirely correct.

Picking up where we left off, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted tells of the lost travelers Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), along with the elusive self-proclaimed lemur ‘King’ Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his entourage as they continue on their journey back to New York’s Central Park Zoo.

In search of a method of travel, they stowaway on a circus train, meeting new animals and exploring new environments all over Europe. Rich, 3D adaptations of cities such as Paris, Rome and Monte Carlo set the scene impressively.

The primary antagonist is a quirky Animal Control Worker – Captain Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand) – who seems to be the absolute corniest thing about this film. She fills the gap of something for the animals to fear, although as far as stereotypes go, she appears to be the fierce French general, with a hint of outback hunter. As a character, she is weak – nothing is explained about her, and she has no personality aside from obsession over the thrill of the chase. She comes over as a poor imitation of Peter Sellers’ bumbling Inspector Clouseau.

Interestingly enough, this episode captures the spirit of movement and action instead of the stationary surroundings of the others. One of the things I always admired most about the Madagascar series was its animation style. It was just so vibrant and everything kind of popped! Even the television series employed this in some way. And the action sequences really showed off this strength. So, since this film tries to be more active, it meets the standards of its style and therefore can be critiqued as a children’s film rather than as a childish movie with adult references that confuses the heck out of me and makes me lose my viewing platform.

And I know you might think, “Wait a second! The wit was childish and corny, the characters weren’t developed any further (although in Escape 2 Africa they did an admirable job of this), the story was standard and predictable, and yet for some reason this is supposed to create a more enjoyable experience? How?”  The answer lies in the fact that this movie is aimed towards kids, rather than trying to create a movie that tries to appeal to both kids and adults.

Dreamworks Animation has been criticized for being crude and aiming more towards adult entertainment. They were trying to make an experience all could enjoy, a real party! However, as it gets more and more apparent that the 3D animation market is primarily for children, and no longer for adults taking wonderment in the technology, the company chose to start catering towards kids more. And they have been going through an awkward transition with that. Movies are being made that don’t know what place they belong in.

To put it simply, I liked this film because it was straightforward enough for me to know what to expect and experience it accordingly. After all, you wouldn’t go to see Sleeping Beauty and expect Black Swan.

 

Age Recommendation: This is a children’s film. I wouldn’t even give it a bump for crude humor. This is fine for all ages.

Final Verdict:  6/10. An improvement on the original, with fine animation and a clear story. Not bad.


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