As an animation studio, Pixar has very rarely settled for the easy option, preferring to explore new worlds and characters rather than revisit old ones. Because of this, it’s a little tougher for me to build up much enthusiasm for a return to a world that felt thoroughly worked over in a (admittedly great) film from over a decade ago, especially so soon after Cars 2, their least ambitious and least successful effort. Rather than continue forward from the events of the first film, Pixar has perhaps wisely chosen the prequel route, telling the story of how Mike and Sully first met in college and their gradual move from bitter rivals to close friends. Predictably, most of the film is made up of riffs from college movies like Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds, with a little bit of Carrie thrown in for good measure. None of this material really stands out as the sharpest Pixar has to offer, but the film gets away with it through a strong sense of timing and the clever twists the jokes are given to fit with the “monstrous” environment. Less predictable is the film’s final third, when it moves away from the more standard-order college hijinks for something a little more substantial. The final climax is the standout sequence, a brief venture out of the bright color palette of the monster world and into the darker, more ominous human world, with the isolated setting and the strong emphasis on flashlight beams evoking the early moments of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.
Like most animated films these days, Monsters University preaches the importance of friendship and teamwork. More important is the film’s main thematic arc, which focuses on Mike’s childhood dreams of becoming a scarer, and his realization in college that his career aspirations might not be the best fit for him. For Mike, the lesson seems to be “Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams, but make sure you have realistic expectations and don’t try to be someone you’re not!” It’s a more sobering message than what I was expecting, and however truthful it may be, I’m not entirely sure it’s the kind of message you really should be sending out to the children in the audience. The message is also mishandled slightly, particularly when the film reaches the resolutions of a handful of supporting characters, where the message seems to be “Don’t give up on your dreams too quickly!” Pixar has built a reputation out of reaching a little further thematically with their films compared to the works of other animation studios, but they don’t quite nail it here in the same way as they have in the past. Still, this is a step back in the right direction after a little bit of a rough patch, and it reestablishes some hope that in the next few years the studio is really going to regain its form. 7/10.
The lifespan of the BBS production company may have been short, but it was responsible for a number of legitimate cinema landmarks, films like Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The Last Picture Show. Sandwiched in between those films is the directorial debut of BBS regular Jack Nicholson. Adapted from a novel by Jeremy Larner, with additional screenplay work supposedly by Robert Towne and Terrence Malick, the film follows the exploits of two college roommates in the early 1970s. One is a basketball player who is having an affair with a married woman (Karen Black, not given much to do other than be abused both verbally and physically). He likes to mope around a lot and act like he deserves special treatment over everyone else. The other is a pill-popping radical who stages protest demonstrations and harbors paranoid delusions that the government is targeting him. He takes a lot of drugs and makes a complete idiot of himself at the draft physical exams. Both are monumentally irritating, and spending time in their company is a tough task. Any interest in the film comes from the supporting roles, particularly Bruce Dern as the high-strung basketball coach that doesn’t take any nonsense from his players. He commands the screen every time he shows up, but he’s not around long enough to be considered a major piece of the film.
It’s tough to get a handle on what Nicholson was going for here. Does he sympathize with these characters’ problems, and does he expect the viewer to care too? That becomes just about impossible when one of them informs his pregnant lover of his STD and the other one later on tries to rape her. The film doesn’t really have much concern for its female characters, even though they seem to be the ones getting hurt the most. Maybe the point was to demonstrate some of the darker aspects of college life during the time period, an era of general youth dissatisfaction, resulting in student protests, extreme drug use, and new attitudes toward sexuality. Mission accomplished I guess, but I feel like that could have still been done without focusing on characters you just want to strangle every time they walk onscreen. 3/10.
Along with Jack Nicholson’s Drive, He Said, the debut feature from Henry Jaglom could be called the “black sheep” of the era-defining BBS catalogue. The major difference between the two films is that, while Nicholson’s film is a very male-centric affair about the travails of two obnoxious college students, Jaglom’s film is more female-oriented, focusing on a young woman living something of a bohemian lifestyle in early 1970s New York. Her existence is not a happy one though, as she struggles with connecting to the people around her, in particular two lovers played by Phil Proctor and Jack Nicholson. Unable to deal with her situation, she finds herself retreating into a kind of fantasy world, a “safe place,” where she meets up with the comforting presence of a street magician, played by Orson Welles.
Now, I just made an attempt to describe what goes on in A Safe Place, but to be honest I can’t really say for sure if I got it completely right. Jaglom has built a reputation throughout his career on doing things his own way, always working independently and consequently not bound by any obligation to narrative or traditional structure. He talks in one of the DVD extras about how he was influenced by filmmakers like Antonioni and Godard, and you can certainly see that influence in the film, only without the strength of vision that those filmmakers brought to the screen. What I can say for certain is that the film is one of the more ponderous viewings I’ve made my way through in a very long time, just slightly over 90 minutes of complete nonsense. Orson Welles can kind of get away with spouting nonsense because, well, he’s Orson Welles, and his presence onscreen is almost always worth at least something. But most of the time the focus is on the unsympathetic Tuesday Weld, who makes the already-insufferable script even more so. It’s rare that a film comes along where I can find nothing to compliment or signal out as compelling, but this is one of them. My trek through the films of the BBS production company has mostly been incredibly rewarding, but I can say with absolute certainty that I won’t be returning to A Safe Place. 2/10.
If there’s any kind of significant gap in my silent film viewing, it’s the films of Harold Lloyd. The recent release by Criterion of Lloyd’s most famous film Safety Last, from 1922, finally gave me a good opportunity to correct that unfortunate absence. In a plot that shares some similarities with a few other films made around the same couple of decades (most noticeably the 1936 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical Swing Time), Lloyd takes a temporary leave from his fiancé to become successful in the big city. When he gets there, however, he finds that making a big impression might not be as easy as he initially thought. It’s a fairly standard-order through-line, lacking the more socially-conscious elements of Chaplin or the pure ingenuity of Buster Keaton. Perhaps because it was made in the Roaring Twenties, a considerably more optimistic time in American history, there wasn’t as much concern with stretching the boundaries with regards to plot.
Still, when it comes to silent comedy, plot is rarely if ever the main concern. Like Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd was an extremely gifted comic performer, although he had a different enough style to stand apart from his silent film contemporaries. His screen persona reminded me a little of Woody Allen is some of his earlier, more slapstick-oriented comedies, neurotic and oftentimes completely exasperated with his surroundings. Even with the threadbare plotting, the film is still full of classic bits of comedy. Lloyd and his roommate pretending to be coat racks to fool the landlord, Lloyd trying to hop on a streetcar overflowing with people, Lloyd’s attempts to avoid the department store manager. And of course, there is the famous moment of Lloyd hanging on to the clock hands while climbing 12 stories, which is really only one memorable moment out of several in what turns out to be a 20-minute long final climactic setpiece (which was done by building a climbing wall on top of a tower and using trick photography, but Lloyd handled the climbing mostly by himself, even though he had lost fingers on his right hand in an accidental prop explosion a few years earlier). At a brisk 73 minutes, the film never has downtime, and it remains terrifically entertaining throughout. Now that I’ve seen his most famous film, I’ll certainly be making time for more of Harold Lloyd. 9/10.
The works of William Shakespeare have a long history of being adapted to film, but with Much Ado About Nothing, there has really been only one high-profile film adaptation until now, which was the 1993 film from Kenneth Branagh. Compared to that lavish film, this new adaptation from Joss Whedon is much more modest, shot over a period of 12 days at his house, with a cast mostly made up of Whedon regulars. For me, this is a little more preferable over Branagh’s vision, which was probably truer to the original intent of the text but was sometimes a little tough to take seriously, with its cast members frolicking around the Tuscan countryside. Whedon’s film, by contrast, is stripped down and sexy, with its modern setting, black-and-white cinematography, and overall jazzy atmosphere. Despite preserving the original Shakespearean dialogue, there’s a kind of improvisational feel to the production, and you get the sense that certain shots and stagings were made up on the fly. Whedon also takes a little inspiration from Branagh’s version of Hamlet, using some brief, sometimes almost subliminal cutaways from the action to past events that fill out some of the subtext of the material (the first scene is a flashback to a “morning after” moment between central characters Beatrice and Benedick).
The film as a whole is very well cast in both its lead and supporting roles, but special mention should be made of three performers. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, like Emma Thompson and Branagh before them, play their respective roles as Beatrice and Benedick perfectly. The verbal sparring between these characters has always been the most enjoyable element of this play, and if you cast those roles wrong, your production is essentially doomed before it even starts up. But Acker and Denisof are up to the challenge; their interactions bring to mind some of the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s (you could almost say that Beatrice and Benedick were the original screwball couple). Elsewhere, Nathan Fillion, a rare but always welcome screen presence, nails his small role as Dogberry. Whedon wisely gives more focus to these characters rather than the frankly blander interactions of Claudio and Hero, and the film is all the better for it. It’s a production that flies by with ease, maybe the most casually enjoyable Shakespeare adaptation ever made. 8/10.
This 2008 film is the definition of a cinematic palette cleanser, a film more modest in its ambitions but also one that is not without its small pleasures. Alan Rickman plays a wine specialist who comes up with the idea of a blind taste testing of French and American wines. His attitude at first is that the French wines are infinitely superior to the American ones, but when he journeys to California to tour the vineyards, he finds the wines to be much better than he expected them to be. The best material in the film, unsurprisingly, all has to do with Rickman. He does droll and very British better than anybody; when one character asks him “Why don’t I like you?”, he responds “Because you think I’m an arsehole. And I’m not, really. I’m just British and, well… you’re not.” He’s also involved in some interesting discussions about the history and internal politics of winemaking, and how California winemakers had to struggle to attain respectability in the eyes of Europeans, with their deep allegiances to French wine, and the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, both Rickman and this angle take a backseat to the family drama surrounding a struggling Californian vintner (Bill Pullman) and his somewhat dysfunctional relationship with his slacker son (Chris Pine, sporting a terrible wig). This material is handled efficiently enough, but it also introduces to the film the implausibly beautiful intern played by Alice Eve lookalike Rachael Taylor. It’s tough to view her character as anything more than a writer’s construct, there only to set up a romantic triangle between her, Pine, and the sensitive aspiring vintner (Freddy Rodriguez). She sticks out like a sore thumb, and every time the film seems to be reaching for something more interesting, she comes back onscreen to bring everything back down again. To make a forced comparison to other wine-related films, Bottle Shock isn’t Alexander Payne’s Sideways, it’s not the incredible vintage that belongs on a collector’s shelf. It’s more like the $10 bottle of wine I’ll have every now and then; it will never be mistaken for anything special, but it goes down smooth and it gets the job done. 5/10.
Top five first-time viewings in June 2013:
The Friends Of Eddie Coyle
Berberian Sound Studio
Much Ado About Nothing (2013)