Drive In Double Feature: Monsters University (2013) & Iron Man 3 (2013)

monsters university We’re pretty lucky to live in an area with not one, but three drive-in movie theaters that are less than an hour away. We usually go to the Warwick, but they’ve had some pretty strange pairings this year. I’m still not sure why they didn’t go with an Iron Man 3/Star Trek Into Darkness combo, but that’s neither here not there. As the parents of a 2-year-old without a regular babysitter, we’re pretty limited in our movie-going options, so we like to have at least one film that Lu will kinda-sorta like. So, when we saw that Hyde Park had Monsters University paired up with Iron Man 3, we figured it’d make for a pretty good outing.

Lu and I actually have never seen Monsters Inc., but we did both see the show at Disney World based on the film. Even so, I’d say we both enjoyed the experience. Lu loves pretty much anything that’s big and bright and I thought the movie was a fun, kid friendly version of the kinds of college flicks I’ve loved since I was a kid myself.

The film follows Mike (Billy Crystal), a young monster who wants to be a scarer who winds up getting in to the number one school for such things, Monsters University. There, the overachieving bookworm meets Sulley (the glorious John Goodman), another scaring student who’s the latest in a long line of scarers. The problem? Mike isn’t actually scary and Sulley relies too much on his family name. The two wind up in the same geeky fraternity which allows them to compete in the Scare Games. Thanks to a deal made with the dean (Helen Mirren!), if they win the Games, she will let them  back into the scare program. From there they have to join forces, become friends and learn to work together.

I like everything from Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds to PCU and Pitch Perfect, all of which either influenced or are somewhat similar to this movie, so it’s right there in my wheelhouse. Even though I haven’t seen the original, I didn’t feel lost when it came to this movie which was nice. I didn’t realize that one of the villains from the original was also in this one, but my wife told me about it on the way home, so I was in on the joke after the fact. I’d say this works extremely well as a stand alone film and a prequel because it does actually make me want to see how these characters act as adults. Time to move that flick to the top of the ol’ Netflix Queue!

iron man 3 Much as I wound up liking Monsters University, Iron Man 3 was the movie I was more excited about. Movies like this which are big on the geek radar can get a little tiresome to folks like myself who cover them on the interwebs. Even though I probably wrote a dozen or two stories about this film for Spinoff, I still enjoyed it and — more surprisingly — was still in the dark on a lot of the major plot points. It helped that I avoided every tweet and conversation about the film after it came out.

So, the story this time around is that Tony Stark’s going down a fairly dark path. He’s pretty disturbed after the events of The Avengers which saw him possibly destroy an entire world/army/dimension. He’s building all kinds of armors, but there’s a more physical threat gunning for him: The Mandarin. An international terrorist played by Ben Kingsley, the Mandarin has plenty of shady people working for him like Guy Pearce, but more importantly, his people have been imbued with Extremis, a techno-organic program that can rewrite a person’s DNA, making them a fire-breathing, superpowered menaces. They blow up Tony’s house which sends him out on his own without a suit to figure out what’s up with the Mandarin and spoilerific things ensue.

I’m not going to get into specific spoilers just yet, but I do want to talk about the ending of the film. Like I said, I went in relatively spoiler free, but I did figure that the extra armors Tony built would come into play during the film and boy do they. It’s so rad seeing Tony running around a giant structure, hopping in and out of different suits and fighting off bad guys. It’s the kind of thing that Joss Whedon did really well with the final battle scene in Avengers and something director Shane Black followed up on pretty well in this film.

Okay now it’s time to get into SPOILERS. Consider yourself WARNED. Man, I really liked what they did with the Mandarin in this movie even though the reveal feels a bit like the one used in Batman Begins with Ra’s al Ghul. In this case it helped that they got such a weighty actor and had him turn in first, a scary performance and second, a hilarious one. Going for the complete personality switch is what sets this apart and makes for a great moment. This was the element of the film I was most surprised hadn’t been spoiled for me yet. Then you’ve got the ending which certainly leaves Tony Stark in an interesting place in the Marvel Studios Universe. He’s still got that big brain of his, but he doesn’t have the ARC reactor which powers his suit. It’s the kind of move that would last for maybe a few years in the comics before something else would pop up and he’d have to, I don’t know, have his heart get blown up again or something. But, since we’re dealing with a film universe — even a shared  one — they get to play with the elements and the players a bit more. The real world side of things is that RDJ might not want to play Iron Man much longer — Tony Stark seems less taxing — and it might make sense within this new world to go a different route and have someone else fill in inside the suit. Of course, since the Extremis now exists in the movie-verse, it’s within reason that Tony will find himself in a situation where he needs to inject himself, this becoming Iron Man Version 2.0. There’s a lot of possibilities and it will be interesting to see where things go with the character from here.

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed the movie. It wasn’t perfect, but it was definitely a fun viewing experience. I also really liked the kid who played Harley and think he needs to be in a kids-dealing-with-craziness movie like The Goonies. At this point, I’m a general fan of the Marvel Studios films. Avengers is rad, I dig the Iron Man flicks and Captain America, Thor was okay and I haven’t seen Incredible Hulk in a long time, but didn’t like it at the time. I’m curious about the Thor and Cap sequels, but am far more interested in Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and the other flicks starring new characters. Let’s see what they can do with some new old characters.

Quick Movie Review: War, Inc. (2008)

War, Inc. is a strange duck of a film. It’s set kind of in the future with self-flying personal jets and futuristic cars, but still references to current pop culture elements. It feels like it’s trying really hard to be a satire on US capitalism and it’s intended spread to the Muslim world, but an unbalanced tone makes the whole thing just feel goofy and silly. There’s some cool ideas about technology and society, but the ending is filled with so many old hat tropes that I half expected the whole thing to end with “it’s all a dream.”

I decided to check this movie out because I’m a big John Cusack fan (starting with High Fidelity and Grosse Pointe Blank and then moving back to his older movies like One Crazy Summer and Better Off Dead. And it definitely has that typical Cusack charm and unassuming swagger, but it suffers from an all-over-the-place script and way too many comparisons to his other hitman movie, Grosse Pointe Blank.

The story finds Cusack, a hitman, heading to the small Mid Eastern country of Turaqistan that’s basically run by a US corporation. I don’t remember who he’s supposed to kill and honestly it doesn’t really matter because, much like in GPB, he gets wrapped up with a girl (Marissa Tomei) and a younger girl (Hilary Duff playing a pop star). Lots of nonsense goes on, some cool character bits, a few fun reveals of what this new world is like and some great performances by Joan Cusack (playing pretty much her character from GPB) and Duff (who really surprised me with some depth).

As I said, though, the movie winds up being really unbalanced. There’s a good deal of commentary in the film in that heavy handed the way that movies written or made during the Bush Administration tended to be, but the cartoony goofiness at the very end winds up making the whole thing feel kind of like a light weight/half-copy mess. I think the actors elevated the material, but they can only do so much without an actually solid script to make sense, make you think and make you laugh.

Book Vs. Movie: Shutter Island

It’s been a year or two since I read Dennis Lehane’s 2003 novel Shutter Island, so my memories are a little fuzzy. I do remember liking it. A lot. So much so, that I pretty much knocked the whole thing out over a weekend. That’s no small feat for me, as I read about as fast as a toddler going through his first Sesame Street book. There was a frenetic pace and such a deep level of intrigue in the novel, though, that I could barely put it down. Even the missus marveled at the speed with which I dispatched the book.

The book follows two U.S. Marshalls as they investigate an unusual escape on Shutter Island, a mental institute off the coast of Massachusetts near Boston. As the story progresses we learn more and more about our hero Teddy Daniels and the patients and doctors who keep Shutter Island in business. I will say that I highly recommend the book for anyone who enjoys mysteries, psychological adventures and perfectly crafted twist endings.

Shutter Island is a difficult book to talk about without revealing the surprise ending, so consider the rest of this review to be filled with SPOILERS until the last paragraph. Towards the end of the book (maybe 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through, maybe someone with a better memory can help me out with the exact moment) we find out that Teddy is actually insane. Leading up to this point, we’re made to think that Teddy is actually being persecuted by the government for looking too much into Shutter Island, which he thinks of as a place where experimental surgeries are performed on the insane. Lehane writes this so well and gets us so much on Teddy’s side that when the doctor first tells him he’s not only no longer a Marshall, but he’s been on Shutter Island as a patient for two years, we don’t believe him, but soon enough, we realize that Lehane and Teddy have both taken us for a ride, one with his incredible writing, the other with his delusions. In the great history of surprise twists, I’d say it’s more like The Usual Suspects where it doesn’t make everything you’ve just seen pointless, but allows you to examine it in a different light on further reading. I’ll talk more about the twist in a moment.

It seemed like just a few weeks after I finished the book, it came out that Martin Scorsese would be directing a movie version with Leoardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo playing the Marshalls. I was curious to see how the whole thing would play out and found out over the weekend when watching the movie on On Demand with the missus and her parents at their house in New Hampshire. Damn, it was great. There’s always a concern with great directors that, as they age, they lose their magic, but Scorsese doesn’t seem to have that problem, thankfully.

The film version had such a fantastic sense of atmosphere the entire time. Something was wrong and we just didn’t know what it was, unless, of course, you read the book or know the twist ending in which case you know why and it’s fun to see how it’s played out. Watching the movie, I felt like I did the second time I watched Usual Suspects (I love that movie, if you couldn’t tell already). I knew what all the sideways glances really meant and why people were acting funny and just like that movie, it all works. Scorses even goes so far as to make some really strange edits like a woman drinking from a glass of what that was just handed to her, but isn’t there, to capture how things get fuzzy for Teddy. He’s got sufficient mental problems that keep him out of regular society and that comes across the second time around.

Overall, I was very impressed with everyone’s performances–Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow and Michelle Williams are also in the flick–along with Scorcese’s direction which captured the feelings I remember when reading the book. Most importantly, he pulled the twist ending off without it feeling too out-of-nowhere. Like I said there were so many “huh?” moments early on that, once the twist is revealed, they make sense, like why does Ruffalo have such trouble getting his holster off his belt? In the book, the key to the twist was getting us so far on Teddy’s side that the mere idea of the truth just doesn’t seem possible until we get all the real information and discover one of the basic rules of literature and storytelling: never trust a first person narrator. In this case, Teddy believes he’s telling the truth and really does believe he’s seeing the people he’s seeing, but, as we learn, that’s just not the case. I like how well first Lehane, then Scorcese handled putting the audience so far on Teddy’s side and then launching us over to the doctor’s side. Well done all around.

So, now that we’re out of spoiler territory, I recommend both the book and the movie, though try not get the end ruined for you. It’s a lot of fun to experience it unadulterated for the very first time and then to experience it again to see what’s really what from the beginning.

Computer Movies: Sneakers (1992) & The Net (1995)

How can you not love movies from the 90s about technology? Especially computers. Everything was so new and foreign back then. Most of us didn’t know jack about those ever-shrinking boxes of information and even less about this internet thing. I love these movies so much, I’ve given them their own category and can’t wait to explore even more as time goes on. I’ve got War Games and Hackers high on my Netflix queue right now. In the mean time, I’m getting what I can off of instant watch. And luckily one of those options is one of my all time favorite movies, Sneakers.

I have no idea why I first rented Sneakers back when I was a kid. I was 9 when it came out and don’t quite know when I first saw it, but I loved it and rented it a number of times and watch it any time it’s on TV, but this is the first time I’ve watched the whole thing unedited in a while and it still holds up. Had I not seen this movie when I was younger, I don’t know if I would hold it in such high regard. The acting talent in this thing is top notch as you can see from the cast list on the poster there and the computer aspects of the plot were probably groundbreaking at the time, but in the end it’s a heist movie. I would like to think that the subject matter and cast put this up there with the better heist movies, but I am definitely biased.

The plot revolves around Redford and his business partners who test businesses security by pulling elaborate jobs to expose the weak points of their systems. What adds some depth to the movie is the fact that Redford and Kingsley used to be friends back in college who were on the forefront of the hacking world, stealing money from the rich (and right) and giving it to the poor (and left-ish). From what I’ve seen and read since, that really does fit in with the early computer mentality, so that’s cool. Anyway, some guys approach Redford, threatening to reveal his past crimes in exchange for them stealing a box that has a de-encryption key. They do, but it turns out they’re not from our government. Now they’re on the run and have to break back into Kingsley’s place to get the key back. It’s funny how much easier this stuff is to absorb after (ugh) 18 years of computer knowledge. Heck, I bet my folks could watch this now with no problems, maybe even my grandma who is impressively computer savvy. That’s what I like most about the movie, even if you don’t understand computers, you can follow the movie. I think it’s about time I got this one on DVD because the sound was screwed up on Netflix instant (the sounds were coming before the actions/sounds on screen) and I want to be able to watch it whenever I want.

The Net is not a movie I want to own. It’s not that it’s bad, I did like it and it plays on some of my biggest fears, but I just don’t need to watch it all the time. The plot is as old as stories, but gussied up with a “new” technological coat. Sandra Bullock plays a woman who debugs computer software. She unwittingly gets thrown into events that have nothing to do with her when a fellow de-bugger sends her a virus that leads to some crazy de-encryption software. In this case, a guy who designed anti-virus software put a backdoor program in so he could do whatever he wanted, crash systems and then make more money when people panicked and bought his anti-virus software. The details aren’t all that important, but like I said, it plays on some of my fears. First off, since Bullock’s character is basically a shut in who doesn’t know any of her neighbors or talk to anyone face-to-face (her mom even has Alzheimer’s), the bad guy very easily changes some information about her on the internet and no one knows her well enough to say anything different. It’s kind of a new play on that old storytelling convention where no one believes the person who’s seen the crazy thing even though it really happened. That idea of not being believed when something bad is happening and also being so easily erased freak me out.

There’s also the very popular idea that with a few strokes of the keys, someone’s identity can be erased or replaced with someone else’s. Identity theft hadn’t become a big dealin the meantime, but it doesn’t go quite as far as the movie does because almost everyone knows at least someone who could vouch for them and the whole “but computers can’t be wrong” excuse doesn’t fly anymore, but for a very brief time and for a very specific kind of person (basically me if I wasn’t married) this could have been pretty scary. Like being afraid of exploding Mini Disk players.

I will say that, even though I don’t need to watch The Net again, the script is fairly intricate. There are all kinds of pieces that fit together for this story to work and make you go “Ohhh” later on, like her mom having Alzheimer’s. It just seems like a regular thing at first, but then it turns out to be an integral piece of the puzzle because her mom can’t identify her. So yeah, it’s a pretty good thriller, but also a fun look back at 90s internet technology. The chat room sessions with the creepy robot voices coming out of the computer reminded me of my Prodigy days, but without the text-reading because I’m pretty sure that was impossible back then. Anyway, fun stuff. Also keep an eye out for the big laptops and Dennis Miller in one of his less conceited roles!

Quick Movie Review: The Wackness (2008)

I feel like I heard a lot about The Wackness (or at least acclaim for it), but I can’t remember where exactly it came from. Something made me put the movie on my Netflix queue and something made me watch it yesterday, but I’m not sure what those things were. In the end, it was an alright movie that could have been about 20 minutes shorter and had one or two more rewrites with an eye towards dialogue. See, it’s set in NYC in 1994 and is about the formerly fat kid from Drake and Josh (Josh) selling weed and falling in love with his shrink/customer’s (Ben Kingsley) step-daughter. Meanwhile, his dad gets in some financial trouble and they may or may not have to move out of the city. This is one of those movies that seems more interested in creating an atmosphere than a tight story. There’s lots of interesting bits of atmosphere to be sure (like all the hip hop stuff and Method Man’s character introducing Josh to Biggie’s music via a track he himself recorded with Biggie), but it definitely had its draggy moments. But, the thing that bugged me the most was the dialogue. I get that Josh is a product of the streets or whatever, but he says “yo” way too much for my personal taste. I was only 11 in 94 and definitely not selling weed in New York City, but it felt too forced coming from him and his love interest. Slowness and dialogue aside, though, this is a very interesting movie and had I not seen my share of movies where a dude falls for a girl who doesn’t like him as much and an old guy acts young, it probably would have had more of an effect on me. It’s not a bad movie, just not one that hit me the way I think it wanted to.