Movie Review: “Monsters University”

Starring
Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Nathan Fillion
Director
Dan Scanlon

For the first 15 years of their existence, Pixar was bulletproof. For the past three years, less so. Following the soaring success of 2010’s “Toy Story 3” was going to be difficult regardless, but 2011’s “Cars 2” and 2012’s “Brave” marked the first time in the company’s history that they released back-to-back films that could be considered disappointments (at least from a critical standpoint; they still made just under $1.1 billion in worldwide ticket sales). With the announcement that their next film would be “Monsters University,” a prequel to 2001’s “Monsters Inc.,” people smelled blood in the water. They’ve run out of ideas. They’re not even trying to be the Pixar of “old.” (That last line is an actual complaint from a fellow critic.) And to be fair, “Monsters University” doesn’t tug at the heart strings the way its predecessor did, but at the same time, how could it? Boo was one of the cutest characters in movie history, and there was no organic way of playing that card in a college setting.

So no, “Monsters University” won’t be anyone’s favorite Pixar movie, but it’s still quite enjoyable, funny, beautifully rendered, and it has a great message for kids about not letting anyone tell you what you can or can’t be. It’s no “Up” or “WALL∙E,” but it’s better than Pixar’s last two films combined, and for that alone, we should be thankful.

Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) arrives on the campus of Monsters University with stars in his eyes. He has wanted to be a scarer since he was a little boy, and has read every book on the subject. Jimmy Sullivan (John Goodman), on the other hand, is a prodigy, a natural born scarer who takes his gifts for granted. After both are kicked out of scaring school because of their obvious shortcomings (Sulley is lazy, and Mike just isn’t scary enough), Mike makes a bet with the tough-nosed Dean Hardscrabble (a pitch-perfect Helen Mirren), where she will let him back into scaring school if he and his oddball fraternity brothers win the annual Scare Games competition. If he loses, he’s expelled from school. Yep, it’s “Revenge of the Nerds,” with monsters, and John Goodman on the ‘nerd’ side of the battle this time around.

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SXSW Film Fest 2012: Day Four

This is my third year down in Austin for the South by Southwest film festival, and I think that I’ve finally figured out the science to covering the event all on my lonesome. Instead of past years, where I’ve done a mix of both full-length and shorter movie reviews, this time around, I’m going to be doing daily blogs with even shorter, capsule-style reviews of the films that I saw the previous day. I’m hoping this will make me more productive than usual, but as my schedule is constantly in flux, please bear with me. And if you can’t wait for my daily posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @JasonZingale for more.

“The Do-Deca-Pentathlon”

Completed way back in 2008 before the Duplass brothers put it on the back burner in order to focus their attention on “Cyrus,” “The Do-Deca-Penthathlon” harkens back to the days before the directing duo was working with A-list talent like John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill. It’s a far more unpolished mumblecore dramedy reminiscent of “The Puffy Chair” that stars unknowns Steve Zissis and Mark Kelly as a pair of ultra-competitive brothers who participate in a homemade Olympics in order to prove once and for all which one is the better sibling. Like many of the Duplass brothers’ films, “Do-Deca” is an incredibly lo-fi production shot with handheld cameras and mostly improvised by the actors. But that’s the problem; it’s almost too much like their other movies. While the setup is ripe with comedic potential and the film doesn’t shy away from getting a bit dark at times, it still doesn’t compare to their studio films. In fact, for as much as fans of Mark and Jay Duplass will enjoy the movie, the one thing that kept running through my head while watching it was just how much better it would have been with more talented actors.

“Small Apartments”

Continuing in the spirit of this year’s festival, “Small Apartments” is yet another case of a great ensemble cast wasted in a movie that is both tonally and narratively unfocused. Based on a novella written by Chris Millis (who also adapted the screenplay), Matt Lucas of “Little Britain” fame plays an eccentric shut-in named Franklin Franklin who has just killed his seedy landlord (Peter Stormare), although whether it was on purpose or by accident is unknown. As he tries to clean up the mess by making it look like a suicide, police detective Burt Walnut (Billy Crystal) is called in to investigate the death, crossing paths with a number of Franklin’s equally eccentric neighbors along the way. Unfortunately, while the story is populated by an entire apartment complex of wacky characters, none of them are given enough depth to validate their existence. It’s great to see Crystal back on the big screen again, and Johnny Knoxville actually delivers one of the film’s better performances, but there’s nothing about the story (or how it’s been executed by director Jonas Åkerlund) that explains why so much talent would be attracted to the project. “Small Apartments” is just weird for the sake of being weird, and it never really translates to many laughs.

  

The Light from the TV Shows: Sneaking a Look at USA’s “Common Law”

When you’re a TV critic, sometimes the coolest opportunities come up at the very last second, and you’re put in a position where you have to scramble to take advantage of them. Such was the case on Monday of last week, when the boss-man of Bullz-Eye forwarded me an email and asked, “Is this something you would be interested in?”

In this instance, I was being offered the opportunity to fly to New Orleans, visit the set of the upcoming new USA series, “Common Law,” be among the first people to view the pilot for the series, and meet and participate in roundtable interviews with a few of the cast members. The only catch: the trip was taking place on Thursday.

Rationalizing that I could surely finish up all of the assignments on my plate before my departure, I said, “Sign me up!”

As it turned out, I could not finish up all of the assignments on my plate before my departure. In fact, I didn’t even come close. I ended up having to finish one of them late on Thursday night, after having had a couple of Abitas, a couple of glasses of wine, a bourbon and ginger ale, and a Pimm’s Cup. That was possibly not my best work. Then I woke up Friday morning and finished two more assignments. And in the midst of the set visit, between roundtable interviews, I finished the last of the deadlines that had to be completed before the weekend. Of course, I still had two more that had to be finished by Sunday night, but I finally just had to say, “Screw it, I’m in New Orleans, that shit’s gonna have to wait ‘til I get home on Saturday.”

But I digress.

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