Blu-ray Review: Monsters University (2013) and The Blue Umbrella (2013)

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Related Review
Monsters Inc. 

Although nobody does CG friendship quite as well as the studio that brought us the original Monsters Inc., this prequel to the Pixar smash takes viewers back to the days before Mike and Sulley were brothers-from-another-monster, back when they first met as rivals in Scare School at Monsters University.

Of course, those paying close attention may recall a line in 2001's Inc. that referenced a jealousy between the two stretching back to the fourth grade. But first time Pixar feature-length filmmaker Dan Scanlon and his talented team of roughly two hundred collaborators have chosen to let that snippet of dialogue fall-by-the-wayside (owing perhaps to Mike Wazowski aka Billy Crystal exaggeration), creating in its stead an absolutely delightful predecessor for the series that deepens not only their relationship but our understanding of the two as individuals.


Inc. was arguably Sulley's picture as it followed the emotional journey of the John Goodman voiced lovable Inc. employee Scarer whose fright-inducing fangs captured energy needed to run Monstropolis from the screams of "toxic" children he visited through magical doorways at night. Whereas his character found himself questioning all that he'd held true when a darling and not-at-all toxic girl followed him out of the doorway from the human world and into his own, this time around, Sulley takes a backseat to wide-eyed optimistic, over-achiever Mike Wazowski whose underdog plight to become a Scarer is chronicled from childhood through college.


Drawn to the hallowed halls of Monsters University after a Scarer he idolized (voiced by John Krasinski) gave him an "MU" cap on a memorable grade school field trip, Mike gleefully crosses each item off on his checklist with his eyes on the prize of the job that the audience already knows that Sulley holds in the future.

Assigned Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi) as a roommate -- therefore teasing that contentious relationship as well-- Mike is soon dismayed to realize that sometimes hard work and study just aren't enough to make up for what seems obvious to everyone else. Simply put, the adorable one-eyed little green guy just isn't all that scary.


The son of a legendary Scarer himself, Sulley is the epitome of everything Mike has come to envy. So assured in his natural ability to roar his way out of any situation that he doesn't even bother bringing a pencil on the first day of class, Sulley finds himself at odds with Mike as each monster represents the one thing the other one envies -- brains vs. talent.


After a fight in class gets them kicked out of the program, Mike fast-talks his way into one last chance back into the path to Scarer Superstardom, by teaming up with the least popular fraternity on campus to compete in the annual Scare Games... along with Sulley as a teammate.

Borrowing gags from classic campus comedies and riffing on traditional collegiate pranks, school spirit and higher education superstition, Monster's University is filled with the same all-ages friendly hilarity evident in other Pixar pictures. In fact, this one may play even better to adults than children who've experienced the environment firsthand and can quickly identify the various references onscreen from the hard-nosed dean (voiced by Helen Mirren) to a kiddie-friendly homage to Carrie in a frat house.


While it's all very diverting, similar to the original Monsters Inc. (and indeed many of Pixar's titles), University is particularly groundbreaking for addressing a contemporary idea subtextually by taking a postmodern spin on an old Disney promise that promised children generations ago that they could be whatever and whoever they wanted to be, if all they did was wish upon a star and believe it.

For as Mike encounters onscreen-- and indeed many people find out right around university age whether life or family get in the way with pregnancies, military deployment, illness or loss of a scholarship that prevents you from going to "the only school you wanted" etcetera--  sometimes life leads us down a winding path that's far different than the one we planned.


In a world where adults are expected to change careers roughly half a dozen times, there's no "final" thing anymore and the ability to adapt is a necessity. The sense of entitlement or "all or nothing" embodied by some in the post-boomer generation is given a rude awakening in college and for the first time that I can honestly recall, it's dealt with in an honest, humorous, wise and endearing way in a children's movie that makes Monsters University far more existentially meaningful than a typical viewer may expect when putting it on for their tots.


While, sure, those who've seen Inc. realize that Mike is happy working as a Scare Coach to Sulley at his dream place of employment, discovering the hard work and dedication that brought him there (through the mail room no less!) as well as watching him have to face the realization that his dream may be out-of-reach from a traditional perspective makes it that much more heartfelt, humanistic and rewarding.


Also featuring one of the studio's best short films in years in the form of writer/director Saschka Unseld's The Blue Umbrella, which --even before I became lost in Jon Brion's majestic score -- seduced this lover of parasols and rain on film instantly.


A Pixar spin on a French New Wave feature as imagined by Punch Drunk Love era Paul Thomas Anderson that also recalls the iconic "yellow vs. black umbrella" city sequences on How I Met Your MotherThe Blue Umbrella soon breaks free of its influences to dazzle audiences in the promise of a grown-up romantic animated work for adults (even more than kids) and the result is an utterly lovely short that's sure to be on the Oscar short list for shorts. 


Likewise, it made me wonder what Unseld could do if he took a cue from the umbrella and broke free, enlisting the others at Pixar to make a full length CG sophisticated romantic feature for grown ups as the studio has proven again and again that there's a market for their movies in fans of all ages and perhaps an under-served demographic as well.

Beautifully transferred to Blu-ray, the 3-disc release that offers viewers a digital and DVD copy of the film as well comes complete with a Maximizer test screen to help viewers ensure that their home theater audio/visual settings are at the right levels to make the most out of the lush colors and rich sound. Boasting an extra disc loaded with superlative behind-the-scenes Pixar extras (per the company's tradition), Monsters University makes a stunning addition to your high definition library. 

Text ©2013, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.


Blu-ray Review: Only God Forgives (2013)

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A Freudian fever dream that trips the bright lights of Bangkok fantastic like an ultraviolent David Lynchian version of Sleeping Beauty, Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives expands on the stylistic stream-of-consciousness technique he served up in Drive to outrageous effect, alienating most of his audience within the first act alone in a film determined to repulse and attract in equal measure.


Saturating the rich reds and greens of Thailand nightlife to Disneyfied effect by Eyes Wide Shut lensman Larry Smith, the aesthetic appeal of Only God Forgives is undeniable, particularly when the mostly dialogue-free images of Refn's nightmarish silent movie are married to Cliff Martinez's imaginative score, which creates horror with ambient noise and repetition and romance with native instruments to heighten the visceral response to Refn's work.


Although Forgives appears to be structured and indeed it was advertised like a modern day spin on a Charles Bronson revenge movie, the final result is anything but in a script so bizarre that lead actor Ryan Gosling wasn't shy about calling it "the strangest thing" he'd ever read.

Exiled from his Miami home for reasons that become apparent late into the picture, Muay Thai fight club manager Julian (Gosling) learns his volatile older brother has been murdered shortly after the film begins.

Initially driven to gun down the man who beat his brother to death, Julian changes his mind once he realizes that his brother Billy's death had been an act of revenge in its own right, discovering the unspeakable crime Billy had committed that sets the brutal (not to mention disturbingly misogynistic) tone of the movie and brings their Lady Macbeth-esque mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to town.


Demanding the head of the man who ended her son's life on a platter, Thomas gleefully chews scenery as the dominating matriarch whose relationship with her son bubbles over with incestuous Oedipal overtones from the moment she first appears in his bedroom in the exact same spot as his hired lover.

Easily dominating Gosling's near silent "Sleeping Beauty," who in fact utters one fewer line than Disney's heroine fifty-four years earlier by speaking just seventeen lines of dialogue in the film's ninety minute running time, Thomas's campy send-up of Donatella Versace meets Joan Crawford's Mommie Dearest helps keep you awake and interested when it becomes clear that the only audience Refn is playing to is himself.


While it undoubtedly would've been much stronger choosing one specific tone for the work as it moves uneasily from Lynchian shots of hallways to sequences of over-the-top revenge movie violence, ultimately Refn pulls us out of the Freudian dreamscape with far-too-literal interpretations of his psychosexual obsessions about wanting to return to the womb etc. to the point that it moves past pretentious to become something more than a little silly overall.

From an enigmatic "Angel of Vengeance" (Vithaya Pansringarm) who wields a sword while on duty as a Bangkok detective to serve as judge, jury and executioner (or more often remover-of-limbs) to an anticlimactic "fight" between the Angel and Julian, Refn has all of the pieces of a much better movie at his disposal but never quite manages to fit them together in a way that makes any sort of worthwhile bigger picture.


While fans of Kristin Scott Thomas won't want to miss the opportunity to see her play someone the likes of which we've never witnessed onscreen before – from the rape and murder of a teenage girl in the first act to the disturbing mothers vs. sons sexual battle message that pervades the film and results in the treatment of Thomas like a dragon to be slain – Forgives's heart is in the wrongest of places.

A tragedy when you realize how much talent is wasted by Refn, for those able to look past the nightmarish "message" of what basically amounts to a cinematographic therapy session, Only God Forgives is best experienced like a feature-length music video to appreciate the two greatest strengths of the work in the form of Smith's fairy tale visuals and Martinez's otherworldly score that shine in this Blu-ray transfer.    

Text ©2013, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.


Blu-ray Review: Walt Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989) -- Diamond Edition

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Photo Slideshow

"I don't know when, I don't know how, but I know something's starting right now," Jodi Benson sang as Ariel in 1989 and this gorgeous line not only anchored the Little Mermaid's theme song "Part of Your World," in Walt Disney Studio's first fairy-tale in roughly thirty years but it also ushered in the Renaissance in animated filmmaking that brought about a new wave of classics from Mermaid to Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, up through The Lion King.

Expanding upon the experimental pop rock opera approach utilized in the music heavy Dickensian Disney dogs feature Oliver & Company but injecting it with much needed humanism and a strong sense of post-Baby Boomer feminism that grounded the Hans Christian Anderson source material in contemporary awareness, Disney offered young viewers a new kind of female heroine who was a far cry from the monosyllabic Sleeping Beauties of their past.

Giving teenage mermaid Ariel a clear goal long before she had met the man of her dreams, we're introduced to the seventh and youngest daughter of ruler of the Mer-People, King Triton, who, in a long line of Disney films, is doing his best to raise his children without the benefit of a mother.

An outsider who spends her days searching for lost treasure from sunken ships navigated by those above who walk on land with two legs, Ariel is quickly called to action in the film when she rescues the handsome Prince Eric from a watery grave after his ship hits rough waters. Needless to say -- and particularly to young girls watching in the theatre at the time of its release -- the fact that it's the mermaid who saves the prince and not the other way around (as is often the traditional case for Disney) was a huge step in the right direction narratively speaking.

While the introduction of Eric and Ariel's love for him solidifies her determination to be "part of" his world, it's an important distinction that she longed for life on land before Eric, making the addition of a potential mate to share her goal with just happy icing on the cake and these lessons subtly implanted in the film -- undoubtedly trying to appeal to changing times -- are much more appreciated upon repeat viewings.

Offering us easily the most terrifying female villain since Cruella de Vil, Ariel trades her voice for legs, later learning that you're never as powerful as when you (retain) and listen to your true voice, as only once does Eric see her as a full being with a voice and not a mere beautiful object does he realize how much he truly loves her.

Filled with gorgeous animation that's all the more heightened by attention to detail that makes us nearly forget we're watching drawings edited together, thanks to the animators painstaking adherence to Walt Disney's practice of using actors to bring the action to life for artistic reference, The Little Mermaid has never looked or sounded quite as stunning as it does in this digital restoration.

Giving even the amateur Disney historians among us a plethora of new material to pour over, Disney gold is best on display in "Under the Scene -- The Art of Live Action Reference," as we watch Groundlings veteran Sherri Lynn Stone enact the film, improvising some of Ariel's now most identifiable mannerisms and movements on the spot. 

The first film that I specifically chose to see in the theater as a child (selecting Mermaid over the morose sounding All Dogs Go to Heaven from former Disney animator Don Bluth) when I was just eight years old, The Little Mermaid holds up amazingly well on Blu-ray. Also boasting a digital copy of the feature, the two-disc BD/DVD set offers those of us who grew up in the Disney Renaissance new treasure to explore in this long-awaited release, timed for Diamond Edition Blu-ray debut to (nearly) coincide with its twenty-fifth anniversary.

Related Reviews
101 Dalmatians (Live-Action)
Waking Sleeping Beauty (Disney Renaissance Era Documentary)

Text ©2013, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.