Monsters University (2013)

Monster University (2013)

School and university… they’re formative institutions for many people. You get an education, make friends, and the more liberally-inclined would say they “find out who they really are”. I guess it’s a better place to “find yourself” than on a beach in Thailand though, which is where so many middle class 21 year olds from the UK will tell you. Seeing films set in universities or schools is nothing new; it’s been done time and time again. I think Hollywood actually gave me an impression of what to expect from university: girls, beer and hijinks. Not all of it came true, and I never saw a single red cup at a house party. That seems to be very US-centric… thanks for that American Pie! But the current film doesn’t bring up beer… it’s a kids’ film after all. But it does (scratch on) girls and hijinks… Yes, Monsters University has rolled onto campus, but is it the class clown or is it going to graduate magna cum laude?

Monster University (2013)

First… can I just dwell on the title? Does it bug anyone else that it doesn’t have an apostrophe in there? Shouldn’t it be Monsters’ University? I guess I can let it slip though, and someone will probably enlighten me as to why it shouldn’t be in there. I’m sure they wouldn’t have let that slip! Anyway, Monsters University is the prequel to 2001’s hugely successful Monsters Inc. – yes, that’s a 12 year gap between instalments in the series. Luckily, Disney Pixar have a great DVD / streaming market, because the target audience this film is aimed at is far too young to even have been alive when the first film came out. I’m not sure why there was such a delay in this happening!

Thankfully though, we see the original cast return: namely John Goodman as the voice of Sully (big, blue and furry) and Billy Crystal as Mike (small, green and eyeball-y), plus a whole host of other favourites that fans will recognise from Monsters Inc. Essentially, Monsters University goes back to Uni (who’d have guessed that?!), where Mike is the geeky try-hard student of scaring, who isn’t actually scary, whilst Sully is the cocky, “I don’t need to learn” type that is scary… but can’t apply himself. Mike and Sully turn into rivals, but are kicked out of university… the only way they can get back? To join the house of OK (Oozma Kappa) – a group of monsters that are going no-where. They’re the outcasts – the bottom rung of society. Only by joining OK can they enter the Scare Games… their one chance to get back into their course… but can they work together?

Monster University (2013)

So, you can probably figure out how the plot’s going to play out, as it’s a bit contrived and obvious. But as is the case with so many movies aimed at the younger demographic, that’s to be expected. What’s also expected in these types of movies is humour – both for the kids and for the adults in the audience. This is what’s made Pixar such a gold standard over the past two decades… but Monsters University doesn’t quite hit all the high notes it should do in this regard. The screening I was in had the perfect split of kids and older audience members, but laughter was at a bare minimum… from both demographics. Normally, I’d expect the children to be laughing at this type of movie, but you can only imagine that some of the laughs were lost owing to the setting for the movie: university. No pre-teen kid will have much of an idea of what university entails. It’d have been wiser to set this Monsters instalment in school – a concept that could be latched upon by kids and adults.

Then again, the university setting didn’t elicit copious laughs from the older audience either. In all honesty, the script just wasn’t that funny. Endearing? Yes. Funny? No. I don’t expect belly laughs, but I do expect a wry smile to creep over my face quite frequently, but it was sadly lacking. Don’t get me wrong here – I enjoyed the movie and the runtime evaporated in no time, but I didn’t get the series of laughs that I was expecting from a movie like this.

Monster University (2013)

What I did enjoy were the gorgeous visuals we’ve come to expect and the colourful supporting cast that rounded out the Monsters University world. It all came together well and made the world “pop” – something that Pixar has always been quite adept at achieving. As previously stated, the plot was quite formulaic and the laughs weren’t ten-a-penny, but the film itself? A success… even if it wasn’t quite the big bombastic return of Sully and Mike that I was expecting.

Monsters University enriches the world set forth in Monsters Inc. and contains a lot of fan service in terms of cameos and “origin stories”. Whilst it seemed to miss the mark with the audience I was viewing with, it nevertheless maintained a fun, upbeat vibe that had me compelled from beginning to end. It may not be Pixar’s finest film to date, but it’s another solid entry in their catalogue. Besides, sometimes it’s just good to spend time with old friends yet again. So long as they’re not Cars… or Planes

So whilst Monsters University isn’t a new American Pie 2 in the way it portrays university, it hits a lot of the right notes. Sure, we have no beer pong, no foul language and no sex with pies, but we get the right vibe from it all. Although having said that, I’d like to have seen how the characters would have coped if you’d merged the two aforementioned franchises. Would Stifler pick on little Mike? Would Sully assume the role of Oz the star lacrosse player? And just how would the film deal with the thorny issue of “exotic” magazines? Stay tuned for Monsters Go Wild

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star

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The Hangover Part III (2013)

The Hangover Part 3 (2013)

The law of diminishing returns… it’s something I presume we’re all familiar with? Essentially, the more you do something, the less appealing it becomes. It’s a universally true rule. Ok, unless you’re a heroin addict, in which case it’s the law of increasingly fun returns. But then again, who gets the last laugh when you’re crashed out on some random, filth-filled bed with a faint heart beat? The law of diminishing returns. See, it’ll get you eventually. Like Dog the Bounty Hunter. Even films occasionally succumb to this law – the more sequels a franchise spawns, the less appealing they ultimately become. You get an immense amount of deja-vu, the enjoyment falls and the frustrations rise… Does the latest instalment in The Hangover franchise buck this trend and leave you blissed out like a junkie, or does it leave you feeling dirty and used… like a junkie?

The Hangover Part 3 (2013)

I don’t think The Hangover is new news on anyone’s radars is it? The original story followed three guys as they quested to hunt down their one lost friend following a night of debauchery in Las Vegas. Let’s not beat around the bush, the original was fantastic and raised the bar for “this” type of humour. Many copycats would emerge, but few could top it. Then, back in 2011, The Hangover Part II emerged… and it brought more of the same. Well, that’s not entirely true. It almost brought exactly the same film to you. The location changed to Bangkok, but the jokes and pacing were near enough identical to the original. This pleased some (typically the easily-amused populace), but vexed the rest of us, as we knew the cast was capable of so much more.

And so this brings us to The Hangover Part III – the final instalment in The Hangover franchise. Does it follow the same formula as its predecessors? Thankfully not. This, in itself, is a refreshing twist. There is no hangover in sight, the tone shifts somewhat and the laughs near enough evaporate from the entire film… Oh, wait, that’s not an altogether good thing is it?

Car crash?

Car crash?

Briefly, the film once again follows Phil (my boy, Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and Doug (Justin Bartha) on another set of hi-jinx. This time, they’re charged with tracking down the always annoying Chow (Ken Jeong), as it turns out he robbed big time crook Marshall (John Goodman) of a cool $21 million. Marshall has therefore taken Doug hostage (so some things are the same as the first two movies… never mind Justin Bartha), and tasks the other three with finding Chow. Oh, and there’s also a sub-plot involving the fact that Alan needs to grow up and act his age, but that soon proves pointless.

So, the film breaks with tradition and moves away from the “Why are we here? Where is Doug?” routine, but isn’t met with the greatest of success. The tonal shift of the film is quite stark; gone are the goofy send-ups and outrageous gross-out humour, which were the mainstays of the previous instalments. Well, mostly… you still have Galifianakis going full-tilt mental the whole way though, but that’s not an asset, which I’ll come to in a moment. But also gone is the air of mystery. In previous films I’ve genuinely cared about Doug and wanted to find out how the crazy chain of events led to him being where he was! Here? None of that. I found myself caring less and less about where they were going; primarily because they were chasing Ken Jeong. I didn’t want to see him on-screen again. His OTT Chow really destroys the film for me – I didn’t care for him much in The Hangover Part II, and the same is true here.

The Hangover Part 3 (2013)

But the humour is what really levels the film. I think the most apt comparison is with American Pie: The Wedding. Do you remember how it seemed like they’d taken Sean William Scott‘s Stifler and just turned the dial up too high? It seemed like a caricature of a character you used to like. The same is true with Zach Galifianakis‘ Alan. They really ramped his character up too high and it became a pastiche of itself. The jokes fell flat, or were just plain predictable. I am a fan of Galifianakis and think he’s a genuinely funny comedic actor, but I wasn’t feeling it here. There were a couple of lines that made me snigger, but nothing near the level of The Hangover or Due Date. Some malign Due Date, but I still say it had some great moments… But I digress…

Ever wanted to see Bridesmaids meets The Hangover? Here's your chance...

Ever wanted to see Bridesmaids meets The Hangover? Here’s your chance…

What of the others? Well, I of course have a lot of time for Bradley Cooper. I make no secret that The Phage is a huge fan of his. Cooper‘s back in his stereotypical “cool guy” role here – the one that got him his fame. Although he’s not going to win any recognition for this performance, it’s good to see him back playing to his strengths. Having said that, I can’t wait to see him in Serena, which should be up next. Ed Helms however does seem to be phoning it in a little bit here. His performance isn’t a stand out one and I think that’s in part due to poor writing, as opposed to acting. The script is very Jeong / Galifianakis centric, and it suffers for it… I’ve simply seen enough of Ken Jeong‘s Chow to last a life time. There’s also a whole host of cameos in here designed to nod back to the first two instalments, but that leads to the big takeaway message…

Ultimately, The Hangover Part III felt like a holiday album where you look back at the good times and remember everything that went before. Unfortunately, this is a photo album where you looked so much happier in the past. As you turn the pages you see the happiness fade and fade until you look up and into a mirror and realise how old and tired you’ve become over the years. You’re not the same edgy Phage you once were. You changed. So too has The Hangover become old and long in the tooth. I really hoped we’d see a return to form here, or at least a funny send off for the Wolf Pack, but they’re very much leaving with their tails between their legs…

So once again the law of diminishing returns proves infallible, with The Hangover Part III being unable to hit those same blissful highs that it once was able to. Instead we do indeed feel like a junkie that wanted that “one last hit” before they quit… but that hit was too much and was like one long, bad trip. A bit like a hangover you might say, but at least with a genuine hangover you’ll get over it, pick yourself up and get out there again; you’ll erase those memories and replace them with something better. With this film though, it’s the last of the trilogy… so that dirty feeling you have? Well, it’s going to last… no more bliss for you!

Phage Factor:

2 Stars

Argo (2012)

In previous reviews I’ve talked about how true stories are sometimes more intriguing and exciting than those dreamt up by a writer supping malibu by his pool in Malibu. The Imposter, for instance, was a riveting film that was made all the more enjoyable because you knew it was true. Although Argo is very much dramatised, with genuine actors unlike The Imposter, it still sits in the same vein. And it also comes with Ben Affleck both in front of and behind the camera – a guy who’s seeming like he can do no wrong any more. Add to that it’s a spy story, at a time when James Bond is dominating the box office, and you’ve got to wonder if Affleck can romance the crowds against the bang and bravado of Skyfall… So… can he?

Affleck vs Craig: One Spy To Rule Them All.

Firstly, if you’ve read my review of James Bond’s latest, Skyfall, you’ll be aware that I thought it was OK, but overall was very underwhelming. Especially against the backdrop of all the hype and fanfare it’s receiving. Argo is a different customer entirely. It doesn’t feature a slick British agent cavorting around the world, nor does it feature a “super-villain” in the same pantomime way as Bond. What it does offer is perhaps the best spy-related film of the year.

Argo, which is based on a true story, follows the attempts to rescue a set of US embassy workers that are trapped inside of a revolutionary Iran, where the Great Satan (aka USA) is vilified and hated by all. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) of the CIA concocts a way to evacuate them: by getting them to pose as a Canadian film crew that are doing reconnaissance for a sci-fi film known as Argo. Whilst in the US, Mendez puts together a team of  Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and John Chambers (John Goodman) to set all the wheels in motion for this film that will never be made. Whilst liberties have been taken (such as Lester Siegel being fictitious), the plot follows the actual events of the 1979-1981 crisis.

Affleck & Cranston: Two of a fantastic cast.

I’m tempted now to throw down a list of all the brilliant actors in this film, such as Bryan Cranston and Zeljko Ivanek, but I’ll have to resist. Needless to say you’ll be seeing faces you will and won’t recognise. Some with a keener eye for cinema may spot actors from this year’s Killing Them Softly (Scoot McNairy) and 1998’s The Faculty (Clea DuVall), all donning very late 1970’s attire and hair. There are no weak links in this acting chain.

If you don’t know where I’m going with this, then let me explain: the characters and acting are fantastic. Ben Affleck yet again shows us that he’s a truly talented guy, both in front and behind the camera. It seemed for a while that his old buddy Matt Damon may have truly ridden away into the sunset in terms of great roles and great performances, but boy… Affleck is good. Really good. Kudos also has to go to the screenplay writers here too. The movie has tension in spades, but also has some guffaw-inducing humour – normally coming from either John Goodman or Alan Arkin. Both are on top form and their comic “old school Hollywood” personalities really shine through on that script. Also providing a not-safe-for-children’s-eyes catchphrase that you’ll no doubt utter as you leave the screening.

“Argof’yourself!”

Although I can’t talk much about the plot, as it’d spoil everything, I can say that I found the film riveting. I didn’t ever find myself bored or distracted. I was fully absorbed for the full 120 minute runtime. Also, with the events occurring a few years before me even being born, I can’t quite comment on the accuracy of events. I could go and read all the documents that were declassified by Bill Clinton back in the 1990’s, but I think I’d prefer to have “this” version of events as my canon. I’m sure that the film has been bent and adapted to make it more appealing to cinema-goers, but I’d genuinely believe this is “based on a true story”… and not in the same way that Paranormal Activity is “based on a true story”. That and it’s actually really good.

Skyfall may be what all the press and your friends are talking about right now. They may all be heaping praise on the film too. But Bond’s been beaten hands down by Ben Affleck‘s Argo. There’s no hamfisted plot twists, no weak characterisation and no product placement. What Argo delivers is a captivating true story with some of the best performances we’ve seen in this end of 2012. It also features far funnier lines than anything in Bond’s recent repertoire too.

If this is spy season at the cinema (after the summer’s superhero season, and mid-October’s animated-horror season), then there can only be one film you’ll need to see, and it’s not the one featuring a guy who likes his Martini “shaken, not stirred”. Once again, the truth is way more exciting than fiction.

Phage Factor: