There Be Monsters out There: “World War Z,” “Monsters University,” and Their Differing Pleasures

O Lucky Viewer! O Lucky Monster Fan! Today you get to choose from two new films – or see them both – that each tackle a different side of the monster equation. You get scary, and you get funny. And while neither film is a masterpiece, both deliver on their respective promises: the one pumps up your adrenaline, while the other pumps your belly full of laughs. Guess which one’s which . . . ? And, since the one is PG-13 (amazing!) and the other G, you could go to both with most of your family. Enjoy whichever one you choose – or both – on this happy blockbuster weekend.

World War Z

World War Z (Marc Forster, 2013)

There’s a lot to fault in this new zombie film from Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding NeverlandStranger Than FictionQuantum of Solace), adapted from the book (which I haven’t read) by Max Brooks (son of Mel). While the set-up is strong, with minimal (yet intelligent) exposition before the action gets rolling, the family dynamic that we spend the first 30 minutes investing in is summarily discarded in the second and third acts of the story, and the final five minutes of ending are among the lamest in recent memory and feel like something created by a group of people who had simply run out of ideas. Additionally, a very fine actress, Mireille Enos (The Killing“) ends up spending much of the film reduced to a typical secondary-character wife role, which is inexcusable.

That’s the bad.

The good is plenty, however. First of all, Brad Pitt – very much at the peak of his game these days (see Moneyball, if you haven’t already) – delivers an intense performance that anchors the film, even when it occasionally falters. He is entirely believable as a former United Nations investigator who has both the intelligence and experience to figure out how to defeat the zombies. Secondly, all of the action sequences are brilliantly rendered, leaving the viewer (well, this viewer, in any case), exhausted from the sheer tension of it all. And remember, it’s a PG-13 film, so this is tension of the Hitchcockian variety rather than of the splatter-fest kind. You won’t be grossed out, but you will be terrified. In fact, I was so tense at one point (during the final laboratory sequence) that I actually started laughing. Finally, the supporting actors are all excellent, including Fana Mokoena as Pitt’s former UN boss, David Morse as a rogue CIA agent, Ludi Boeken as a mysterious Israeli Mossad agent, Daniella Kertesz as an Israeli commando, and Peter Capaldi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Ruth Negga, and Moritz Bleibtreu (whom you may remember as the boyfriend in Run Lola Run) as scared-out-of-their-minds-yet-very-brave World Health Organization doctors.

Notice how two of the characters I mention are Israeli? That brings me back to one other bad thing about the film. At one point, it seems headed for a sort of weird Protocols of the Elders of Zion view of Israel’s role in the zombie outbreak, which seemed more than a tad unnecessary. It didn’t quite go there, and Daniella Kertesz more than makes up for that strange detour. And to be honest, no country ends up being all good or all bad in this film.

Which brings me back to one of the great things about the film. It had a truly global cast, with skin tones, ethnicities and accents from all over the place. Even more than that, those ethnicities and accents had no bearing on whether people lived or died, or on whether they did good or bad things. Yes, Brad Pitt is at the center of the movie, but this was no “White Man’s Burden.” It should be noted that Pitt’s character is a former UN employee (something the David Morse CIA character mocks), and not a former US employee. We are all one race, the film reminds us, and we must all – together – defeat the zombies.

So what’s the movie about? You really need to know? OK, here goes: the zombie apocalypse. Now go get your thrill on and see it.

Monsters University

Monsters University (Don Scanlon, 2013)

I love Billy Crystal. I first noticed him during his stint on “Saturday Night Live” in the mid-1980s. I loved him even more after his appearance as “Miracle Max” in The Princess Bride. What really sealed the deal, however – as it did for many, I am sure – was When Harry Met Sally. I can watch that film all day, every day, and still laugh at Crystal’s jokes. Hell, I even loved Crystal’s return to Oscar-hosting duties in 2012, in spite of what some mean-spirited reviewers thought (fortunately, others liked that performance).

I also love Pixar, with the exception of Cars and Cars 2. When Pixar and Crystal teamed up in Monsters, Inc., the result was one of the strongest entries in the Pixar canon. The addition of John Goodman – another actor I admire – did not hurt. The ending of that film, when Sully finds Boo again, left me teary-eyed and incredibly moved.

So I was disappointed when I saw the trailers for Monsters University, since they did little to promise anything of consequence. It looked like Cars 2 all over again. But then I remembered how much I hated the (to my mind) unnecessary crudeness of some of the jokes in This Is The End (a film I otherwise enjoyed), and thought I would check out a film aimed at a different target audience, just to clear the mind.

I was very pleasantly surprised. Though not nearly as witty and inventive as Monsters, Inc., this new film – a prequel to the previous one – is still quite good. We meet Mike Wazowski (Crystal) and Sully (Goodman) as they matriculate at Monsters University, each with a dream to be the next great scarer of human children, and see how their initial introduction the one to the other leads to hate at first sight. Huh? Weren’t they best friends in Monsters, Inc.? Yes, they were. And part of the joy of Monsters University is seeing how they get from the A of competitive rivalry to the B of everlasting brotherhood. Ah, yes, brotherhood. It might have been nice to have a strong female character in the new mix (something that could be said about a lot of films, although we do have The Heat opening next week, right?), but at least we get Helen Mirren in the role of the strict Dean of the school. I don’t know about you, but I’d pay a lot to be browbeaten by that silky voice . . .

Another joy of the film is watching how Randy (Steve Buscemi), the bad guy from the first film, goes from being Mike’s best friend and roommate to his (and Sully’s) eventual enemy. We also get a delightful cast of new characters in the fraternity – Oozma Kappa – that Mike and Sully pledge. The scenes between the frat brothers (and one mother) are among the funniest in the movie.

Not all of the jokes work, and some of the reconciliation moments feel a little saccharine, but otherwise this is a very successful bit of storytelling that should work even for those who haven’t seen the first film.

So get your laugh on. It’s worth it.


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