collegiate monsters in perspective

I tried to think up a punny “monstrous” title for this post, but smarter minds than mine have been thinking up slogans and, ah, “scarily” catchy titles for this type of thing for years. Ever since Monsters, Inc. came out way back in the cave man ages in 2001, in fact. And now every spooky stone and hair-raising hook has already been turned over and turned cliché. So forget that.

Anyway, the point is Monsters University, which I just had the pleasure of seeing earlier today. Though it isn’t Pixar’s all-time masterpiece by any means, it’s definitely an impressive piece of Disney’s classic movie magic.

For a little perspective, I’d like to also take a quick look at a couple other recent films. Namely, Man of Steel and World War Z. Am I trying to compare the latest Disney-Pixar family feature with a superhero movie and a zombie-apocalypse flick? No. Talk about comparing apples and oranges. But audience reaction levels are significant to a certain extent, no matter what the genre difference. And these three films spell something interesting when set beside one another.

For sake of parallelism, I’ll use three sources for each movie: Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb, and the tweeted opinions of my friend JC. Whom I totally did not ask for permission to quote in this post. So sorry, JC—your tweets fell too perfectly into my topic to resist. (@jsncrwfrd on Twitter; give him a follow.)

Man of Steel came out first, hitting the big screen just over a week ago on June 14. Rotten Tomatoes, ever the harsh viewpoint, scored it an official 56% on the tomatometer but acknowledged an 82% audience approval. IMDb was more favorable, rating the film at an impressive 8.0/10. JC was on the favorable side too, tweeting, “Man of Steel was really good! Solid acting, great soundtrack, great story. Loved how they told it. I give it an A. #NothingAfterCredits.”

The next week, World War Z opened. The tomatometer was gentler on this Brad Pitt blockbuster, scoring it at 67%, with audience satisfaction reaching 86%. This time, IMDb was less pleased, although it still rated the film a respectable 7.4/10. JC was less pleased as well. “#WorldWarZ: to me, it wasn’t a Zombie movie,” he tweeted. “More of an outbreak/disaster movie. Pitt was good. Story eh… Zombies were lame. Grade: C/C-”

That same date, Monsters University premiered. Rotten Tomatoes rated it a generous 77% with 89% audience satisfaction, and IMDb seconded the complimentary opinion with a hefty 7.8/10. JC’s tweet read, “Monsters University was awesome! Great film! I laughed so much. Well written and the short b4 was good too. No ‘Paperman’ though. Grade: A!”

Now this is where it gets interesting. To some extent, the above sources conflict over which of the two PG-13 action films is the more appealing. But the opinions are unanimously favorable, and even in general most favorable, about Monsters University.

Which is rated G.

That blows my mind.

It’s got to be one seriously good movie that can hold its own and get the attention of so many moviegoers without any mass destruction, without any sassy red-headed journalists, without any zombies, without any Brad Pitt. Without even an MPAA rating as mildly intense as PG. A movie that has to rely strictly on the chance of tapping into the inner child of each person who sits in the theater, on the fun of unlocking the joy of youthful imagination, no matter what the age of the audience member.

I guess what I’m trying to do is offer a salute to Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson, and Dan Scanlon, who wrote the screenplay for this highly-anticipated prequel to Monsters, Inc., and again to Dan Scanlon for directing it. Because this is a job well done.

I mean, I love adventure films, action films, superhero films, disaster films. And I’m definitely looking forward to the ones still to come out this year. But every once in a while, it’s refreshing to have a Tangled, a Wreck-It Ralph, or a Monsters University. A chance to laugh and eat popcorn and candy and toss away the deadlines and the drama and remember what it was like to be a kid. (Or for some of us in cases like this one, what it was like to be the brand new kid on a university campus.)

After all, as somebody really smart (and also completely fictional) once said, “There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”

Also, shout out to JC for doing those 140-characters-or-less movie reviews. Please keep them coming!

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Postscript: After reading the above post and reacting very graciously to being quoted without prior notice, JC alerted me to the further interesting fact that, according to Entertainment Weekly, with a 4,004-theater $82 million in earnings, MU swept first place at the box office this weekend, followed by—you guessed it—World War Z ($66 million) and then Man of Steel ($41.2 million). Of course, we can’t judge Man of Steel too harshly since this is its second weekend in theaters, while the other two are just now showing up to the party with a bang. But hey, this weekend Monsters University came in $16 million ahead of the closest contestant. Big surprise, right?

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Man of Steel in review, part two: the cons

And now, a few things that don’t quite work so well in Man of Steel. I do have to say that the issues below mostly aren’t bad things about the film—they’re good things about the film that just aren’t allowed to reach their full potential, or aren’t accomplished the best possible way.

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Purposefully romantic moments. I said in part one of this post that I like how Clark falls in love with Lois because she’s smart and believes in him. And I do. But the best moments between the two of them are character development/discovery moments, not the Okay Now It Is Time For a Romantic Encounter moments. Those feel sort of announced, forced.

My little brother called it when he said that really the most romantic moment in the movie is the moment when Clark cauterizes Lois’s wound on board the ice-buried Kryptonian ship. Talk about Lois meeting Clark! That’s a solid character-collision moment, and it works.

Another fantastic moment (although it doesn’t make sense in the scope of the story, but we’ll deal with that later) between the two leads is the private interview Lois gets to have with Clark when he “surrenders” himself to the military. They sit across a table. He’s in handcuffs. She asks him questions. It’s beautiful.

But then there are these other scenes between the two of them that just don’t rest easy with me. And they haven’t worked for anybody I’ve talked to, either.

Take the moment Clark and Lois finally kiss, after he saves her from plummeting to her death from the Kryptonian ship. The problem is that most of Metropolis is lying in ruins around them and thousands of people have been brutally murdered, and traumatized survivors who still badly need help are standing right there watching. Like basically they should have kissed during the classic kiss op they passed up earlier, when Clark was about to surrender himself to Zod’s summons.

I mean, I understand. You escape certain death by finding yourself suddenly in the arms of a tall dark handsome otherworldy man instead of splattered dead on concrete—you’re gonna want to kiss him. I’ve been there; I get that. Nope. That is definitely not true. I have definitely not been in that situation. But still, How to Behave During a Superhero Rescue from Certain Death 101: please, both of you, remember the suffering of the mortals around you, even standing very close to you and watching, and also do show some respect for the dead. But IF YOU MUST KISS, by NO MEANS allow yourselves to have an awkward quasi-comedic exchange about how it’s all downhill after the first kiss but that’s probably only true if you’re kissing a human. People. There will be times for that. Now is not one of them.

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Fantastic story concepts, faulty story flow/execution. This is the biggest problem I have here. The thing is, the amazing story moments—and there truly are amazing story moments—are not tied together with enough story throughout to hold them together, and therefore they feel disjointed. The formula tends to be GREAT STORY MOMENT –> break for fifteen minutes of action –> ANOTHER GREAT STORY MOMENT –> another break for fifteen minutes of explosions and crumbling buildings –> and so on. Great story moments don’t make a great story.

And then some of the story elements are brilliant in concept but then don’t feel executed to the fullest of their potential. Take Jonathan Kent’s death. He dies because he stops his son Clark from superheroically saving his life, because he believes the world is not ready to know who his son really is. That. Is. Fantastic. But why is Jonathan caught by the cyclone that kills him? He gets caught saving a dog. Even my pet-fanatic friend who watched the film with me my second time was less than thrilled about that. “I’m not for animal cruelty or anything,” she said, “but if it’s the dog or the father…ummm…” And when this happens, Jonathan has just saved a little girl—why couldn’t that have been his demise? Why the dog?

Then, there’s the way Lois’s character is used. It’s genius in theory, but I’m not sure I’m convinced about all of it in practice.

For instance, Lois gets a private interview with Superman during which he reveals his identity, which he refuses to reveal to anyone else. Perfect. But why? Why did Clark demand to see her, and only agree to surrender on condition that he could talk to her? I mean, Lois’s boss has dropped hints about her being accused of treason. Maybe Clark wants to make sure she’s safe from the government, but that’s a big stretch for us to make. I’m all for thinking, but if during your film you force your audience to think too hard, you interrupt their suspension of disbelief and remove them from your story.

Also why, then, do Zod’s forces insist on taking Lois on board with Clark in the first place? She mentions that she didn’t want to tell them about Clark, but that they read her mind without her will. Why. First of all, why do they need to extract information from her about Superman when they have Superman? And when he reassures Lois that they did the exact same mindreading thing to him anyway? And how did Zod even know about Lois? She certainly seems to magically pop up in the right places an astounding number of times. Ah, man, it’s such a beautiful thing, but it’s not justified in the scope of the story.

Then, Lois involved in the salvation of earth: fantastic. Especially since Superman is still the hero—Lois is simply his link to understanding from Jor-El. But hold up now. If Jor-El goes to the trouble of explaining both to Lois and to us his plan of teaching her how to send General Zod and his minions back to the Phantom Zone, so that she can then teach Superman, you’d better believe we moviegoers deserve to see what exactly is going on. What Jor-El teaches her to save the day. That’s just common storytelling courtesy. Lois is our human link into this alien amazingness. But instead, the critical information is left ambiguous. We know Jor-El teaches Lois the key to defeating the bad guys, and then Lois shows up on Clark’s doorstep saying, “I know how to stop them!” And after that, we hear Clark outline the plan in general, indicating Lois has taught him whatever she needed to teach him. But we never find out exactly what all that was.

That’s not fair.

One person with us on opening night surmised the answers to that whole deal must have been cut from the film for time purposes. If that’s the case, some of the fighting should have been cut instead of this vital story element, because…

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So. Much. Fighting. …there’s just so much fighting! One friend said this film should have been called Superman and the Death of Metropolis because of all the destruction. After seeing it a second time, I told another friend that I had started zoning out during the extended fight scenes to start planning what I’d write in this review. Her response: “ME TOO!”

But seriously. A lethal host from Krypton invading earth—of course there’s going to be mass destruction. I get that. And yet, Zod and Kal, what are we accomplishing by smashing each other personally through buildings over and over? As my friend said, “When is he going to die?”

It’s not the scope of the destruction I have a problem with. It’s the sheer time. After a certain point, all smashed buildings start to look more or less the same.

Conclusion. Don’t worry, Zod doesn’t win. The earth is saved from becoming Krypton 2.0. We’re safe, at least until the next superhero blockbuster threatens the existence of the human race.

Anyway, what’s the verdict—was this a movie of steel about the Man of Steel?

Yes. Just maybe not stainless.

Yeah, sorry. I couldn’t resist.

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Man of Steel in review, part one: the pros

With a creepy Kryptonian you are not alone ringing in my ears, I sat down to write a nice little blog review of the world’s latest salvation-by-superhero, Man of Steel. But then my nice little review turned into a monstrously long one and demanded to be broken into two pieces, one about the film’s pros and the other about the film’s cons. So here’s part one: what worked about Man of Steel.

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Disclaimer: following are some mild spoilers, especially depending on your knowledge of the DC universe (although these posts will look at the movie as a story-whole on its own and not within the scope of all its DC implications). But I won’t give away that Superman does indeed succeed in saving the world. Whoops. Just gave it away. But you already knew that.

Now, what worked. Because enough worked in this film to get it an initial IMDb 8.0/10 and a grade A with almost everyone I’ve talked to about it. And the following list is by no means comprehensive.

Russell Crowe/Jor-El. <–First off, this guy. There’s a basic undeniable principle here that when Russell Crowe is in a film, he automatically increases the coolness of said film. In this case, with his classic deep-voiced, sad-eyed dignity and grace he helps bring a level of added legitimacy to our grasp on the dying Kryptonian culture. He helps cement the seriousness of it all in our minds.

As the person sitting next to me whispered repeatedly, both during and after the film, “Best part of the movie: Russell Crowe in tights.” Though I don’t agree with that statement per se, the fact remains that in all seriousness, Jor-El is one of the coolest elements of the movie, both when he’s alive and otherwise.

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Amy Adams/Lois Lane. “She’s too old and I don’t mean to be a jerk but she’s not hot enough,” one of my friends said to me about Amy Adams before Man of Steel came out. I heard a lot of that kind of sentiment before the film premiered, both in person and online. There’s some legitimacy to the argument—you cast a redhead eight years older than your hero as Lois, you’re going to have some controversy. For the most part, we’ve all come to picture this fated reporter as a brunette. And on the sultry side, at that. It’s understandable that Adams feels a jarring choice.

But interestingly, those arguments about how she was too old and not hot enough seemed to decrease dramatically after the film came out. Sure, some people still were displeased, and opinions varied drastically. But with all of us opinionated fans waiting to devour her performance no matter how it turned out, that was inevitable. What fascinated me was that of the group with which I first saw the film, the young men were most pleased with her (one of them, a twenty-something, actually said afterwards, “What, she’s thirty-eight? She looked twenty-four!”), and the person least pleased with her performance was my best friend’s mother. I just think that has to say something about the attractive-enough argument.

I do have some issues with her character role through the movie, specifically the way her character is written, but I’ll talk about that in the next part of this post. The point here is that Adams makes a lovely Lois, though she doesn’t play the part as we were expecting it to be played. But she wasn’t aiming at playing the Lois we were expecting; she wanted to be a brand new take on the classic character. And with that goal in mind, at least to a respectable extent she succeeded.

Plus, she is a beautiful woman, but Clark falls in love with her because she’s smart and believes in him. To me that seems pretty full of win.

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Henry Cavill/Kal-El/Clark Kent. Christian Bale. Chris Hemsworth. Robert Downey, Jr. Chris Evans. Etc., etc. Now here’s Henry Cavill jumping into the superhero party—and he quickly makes it clear he belongs.

Yes, he looks the part. One of my friends said after the credits—and I quote—“Oh my gosh, he’s so gorgeous—what was the movie even about? I can’t get my mind off how gorgeous he is. EVERY FEMALE ON EARTH SHOULD WATCH THIS MOVIE.” And of course that’s a conservative response compared to some of the ones floating about the internet.

But it goes beyond that. Let’s be real here. It takes some serious testosterone to rock a red cape in the year 2013 and not look like a joke. And that’s what I think is so cool: Cavill doesn’t just look like Clark Kent. He succeeds in pulling off Superman. Which is a pretty tall order, considering some of the Supermans (Supermen?) we’ve seen in the past. I think Cavill’s biggest triumph is asserting Superman’s legitimacy as a serious superhero in our competitive superhero-saturated society.

Side note: I cannot give enough applause to whoever’s idea it was to lose the red underwear outside the suit. Yes. Yes and amen. Although I can’t be the only person who thought of the old Pixar film The Incredibles when I saw Zod get a hold of the edge of Superman’s cape and swing him around in circles. Looks like Edna Mode knew what she was talking about after all.

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Michael Shannon/General Zod. I love General Zod. Actually I hate General Zod. Actually I think he’s one of the best-written characters in the movie, and that’s why I love-hate him, which is a good thing. It’s refreshing to experience a villain who is not primarily:

(a) trying to prove himself to a father who favors another son over him, especially if said other son happens to be a good guy,
(b) on a power trip to turn all the peoples of earth into his slaves to fuel his prospective evil empire, or
(c) hoping to blast the earth out of existence because humans are stupid.

There is a level of option (c) about him, but that’s not his main drive. No, his primary motive is:

(d) ensuring the survival of his people at any cost.

The twisting of a noble impulse into evil is one of the most beautiful makings of a villain. All Zod wants is to save his people. That’s a good thing. But he ends up blowing his goal out of proportion and turning to the coldblooded murder of countless innocents in order to achieve it. And that’s a bad thing.

But it makes a crazy-good villain. Because when Superman crushes the chances of Krypton’s survival, Zod reacts out of an almost moral vengeance, not just personal revenge. He delivers a bloodchilling line, too, nearly frothing at the mouth, about how Superman stole his soul by destroying the only reason Zod is alive: the protection of the future of Krypton.

And that dim shadow of sympathy for the villain is delicious.

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The soundtrack. Let’s just all give a standing ovation to Hans Zimmer for his soundtrack behind this movie. Scratch that. Let’s not randomly stand up because we’ll look like idiots. The point stands, though; the soundtrack is exquisite.

Not that that’s a surprise, considering this is the mastermind behind the soundtracks for films like The Lion King, Gladiator, The Dark Knight, Inception, and a hundred others. Like, literally, he’s done over a hundred film scores. The guy’s a genius.

Conclusion. “You can save her; you can save all of them,” Jor-El tells his son in an especially climactic moment. I’m not sure if he isn’t counting on the multitudes who die at the hands of Zod before Superman prevails, or if he just means Superman can save the future of humanity and therefore ultimately save us all as a race. Either way, Clark/Kal/Superman does save the world, and he manages to do so through 143 minutes of superhero-movie exhilaration.

That’s no small feat.

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