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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Hidden Netflix Gems: Raising Arizona

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday. 

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: Raising Arizona (1987)

Even if you haven’t heard of Joel and Ethan Coen, you’ve sure as hell heard of some of their films. The brothers have jointly written, directed, and produced such modern classics as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit. Their work bounces around in time, space, and genre—the Coens never make the same movie twice—and they’ve been renowned for it over the past three decades, with 13 Academy Award nominations and four wins.

Before all those accolades, the Coen brothers made their debut with 1984′s Blood Simple, a neo-noir thriller. Not wanting to make a reputation as one-trick ponies, they avowed to make to their next project as different from their first as possible. Out of that desire, the one-of-a-kind screwball comedy Raising Arizona was born.

Our protagonist is Herbert I. “Hi” McDonnough, played by the polarizing Nicolas Cage, who can make or break a movie depending on whether or not he fits his character. Hi is the type of lovable nitwit that often fills Coen fare: an erudite idiot reminiscent of Lebowski’s Dude, if he’d been born in an Arizona trailer park and had a penchant (though not necessarily a skill) for robbing 24-hour convenience stores. Luckily, Cage slips into Hi’s skin masterfully, right down to the wacky hairdo and funny accent (“Temp-ee, Arizona”). The performance remains one of his best to date, although ultimately Adaptation takes the cake.

Opposite Cage is Holly Hunter as the tight-lipped policewoman, Edwina or “Ed,” who’s always taking the recidivist Hi’s mugshot photos. After one particularly fateful arrest, Hi finds Ed in tears and learns that her fiance has left her. He proposes after his latest release from prison, and the two get married and move into a tiny trailer in the Arizona desert, which Hi lovingly calls a “suburban starter home.” One of the film’s many sources of comedy is the contrast between the upbeat world of Hi’s narration and that of the more objective reality we see on screen.

Hi does his best to “stand up and fly straight” after settling into married life, getting a job in a machine shop, but finds it difficult “with that darned Reagan in the White House.” Nonetheless, as time passes, the couple want to take the logical next step and start a family. Unfortunately, “biology is against them,” as they receive the unhappy news that Edwina is “barren,” and they’re denied the chance to adopt because of Hi’s criminal record.

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The Light from the TV Shows: Pilot Season Ahoy!

It’s a sure sign that spring is on the verge of emerging when the networks start to let slip the names, premises, and attached actors for all of the pilots under consideration for the next TV season. Most of these pilots go nowhere, which is the way the cookie has always crumbled, but a few lucky programs end up getting the go-ahead for a series commitment. I don’t claim to have any real idea how the networks think – as a critic, it’s pretty much a given that I never know what the networks are thinking (and, in turn, they don’t care what I’m thinking) – but that doesn’t mean I’m afraid to give my thoughts on 15 of the pilots that I’d like to see come to fruition and join the fall schedules of their respective networks. You can check out a much fuller list from The Hollywood Reporter by clicking here, but in the meantime, here’s the stuff that I’m hoping to be TiVo’ing in a few months’ time….

1. Gilded Lilys (ABC)

It’s been quite awhile since a broadcast network has managed to sell viewers on a period piece set prior to the 20th century, so the fact that ABC is even considering this series, which takes place in 1895 and revolves around the first luxury hotel in New York, is proof of how much pull executive producer Shonda Rhimes has with the American Broadcasting Company. In truth, the big selling point for me is John Barrowman. This doesn’t exactly bode well for another season of “Torchwood,” but the dude deserves a big U.S. break. You never know: this could be it.

2. Untitled Louis C.K. / Spike Feresten Comedy (CBS)

Go on, admit it: you were sold the moment you saw the name “Louis C.K.,” weren’t you? And Spike Feresten isn’t bad, either. Seeing these two guys attached to this project is the only reason why it stands out, since the only real description available is that it’s an an ensemble comedy about a bunch of twentysomethings trying to make their dreams come true despite today’s crappy financial climate. But, damn, after two seasons of “Louie,” the idea of Louis C.K. putting his spin on anything makes it something that’ll surely be worth seeing. With that said, however, I hope Dan Byrd ends up not being available to do the show, as that will mean that “Cougar Town” has been renewed.

3. Animal Kingdom (NBC)

Two words: Tyler Labine. I mean, come on, America, what more does this loveable teddy bear of a comedy actor have to do to get a show to stay on the air for more than a season or two? NBC is, if memory serves, the last of the broadcast networks that has yet to cancel a series out from under Mr. Labine – “Invasion” was on ABC, “Reaper” was on The CW, “Sons of Tucson” was on Fox, and “Mad Love” was on CBS – and, frankly, this could be his last stop before the autograph-show circuit. Doesn’t Tyler Labine deserve a better fate than that? You’re damned right he does.

4. Untitled Kevin Williamson serial killer drama (Fox)

The man behind “The Vampire Diaries” brings Kevin Bacon to the small screen to play Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent on the hunt for serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), who’s busy building himself a whole cult full of serial killers. If that isn’t enough to sell you, the cast also features Natalie Zea (“Justified”).

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