FRESH POUR: World War Z (2013) / Monsters University (2013)

Clint takes a look at two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

World War Z / dir. Marc Forster / Paramount Pictures

World War ZWorld War Z has had one of the roughest publicity problems I’ve seen in a recent film in getting to the theaters; between the constant reshoots, overspending and cries from zombie fans about the stark departure from the book it is based on, it’s any wonder the film turned out as well as it did. You heard it here, folks – World War Z is not bad at all. It’s not a classic by any means, but it’s an incredibly well-made and exciting thriller that feels more like The Kingdom than Dawn of the Dead.

Long story short, former United Nations investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt, carrying the film’s weight well on his shoulders) is dragged away from his family by the zombie apocalypse in Philadelphia, thrusting him on a globe-trotting search everywhere from Korea to Israel to try and find a cure for the zombie plague. This means that, instead of the typical zombie siege-movie where a group of survivors is picked off one by one as fortifications are compromised, Pitt Indiana Jones-es his way around the world, interviewing survivors, sticking close to a rotating cast of scientists and military personnel and scrambling desperately to find answers.

Another reviewer I highly respect hit the nail on the head when he said the film is about movement, and I completely see it: Gerry Lane is a character who wants to finally stop running from place to place at his job, but can’t resist enjoying the call to action when the world needs him. With the zombies now portrayed as frantic, spastic sprinters, often seen in masses of CG insects, they become synonymous with endless, unstoppable movement (the well-placed shots of ant and bee swarms in the opening credits don’t hurt the analogy, either). Without spoiling too much, I find it terrifically fitting that it is in stillness that Gerry finds the answer to saving the world. “Movement is life,” he says to one family early in the film, and it turns out to be World War Z’s primary subject.

Forster films his action scenes with aplomb, often occasionally dipping a bit much into shaky-cam for my taste but overall performing admirably, and the editing and pacing issues found in many of Forster’s other pictures (e.g. Quantum of Solace) are largely gone. The film focuses a bit too much on Pitt’s family after the inciting incident, as they mostly serve as symbols of what Pitt’s fighting for/avoiding with his adventures, but I suppose it hammers home the idea of Pitt’s fear of settling down. Pitt is visibly uncomfortable in the family scenes, whereas he is as wide-eyed and determined as ever during his investigations; you really get the feeling this is what he really wants to do.

For those who are concerned about the PG-13 nature of the movie castrating the zombies, I say let those hang-ups go; there are plenty of zombie makeup effects to satiate your lust for decrepit corpses, and the absence of buckets of blood almost makes it refreshing in a sense. After all, zombies and other movie monsters are always representations of some kind of human or social anxiety; the fact that they are metaphors for something different this time (i.e. the fear of change and of standing still) doesn’t make it bad. This consistency of theme, combined with a fairly effective road movie and a nice central performance from Pitt make it a surprisingly great thriller, and well worth checking out.

Clint’s Verdict: Loved It

Drinking Rules for World War Z:
1) Drink whenever you see zombies running in a massive group
2) Drink every time the film cuts back to Brad Pitt’s wife and children
3) Drink anytime the actual ‘zombie’ word is used
Finish Your Drink When:
Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) says, “This is not the end. Not even close.”

Monsters University / dir. Don Scanlon / Walt Disney Pictures

Monsters UniversityLike many, I’m a big fan of Pixar’s early work; what is refreshing about their films is that, by and large, they are about something. From Toy Story’s message about the emotional investment we put into our possessions, to Finding Nemo’s tale of responsible parenthood, to Up’s themes of dealing with loss and living life to the fullest, and beyond, Pixar has always been able to weave deeply personal stories into entertaining and energetic yarns. Monsters Inc. was no exception; that film explored subjects as varied as workplace politics, the nature of fear, and the importance of friendship.

Monsters University, the latest of Pixar’s attempts to sequelize its existing properties, takes that latter theme and runs with it, this time acting as a prequel about Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James Sullivan (John Goodman) meeting and forming their friendship in college. In addition to that, however, it also manages to say some interesting things about managing expectations, learning to adjust to hard truths in life, and recognizing our own strengths and weaknesses. Mike and Sully are just as entertaining as always, and have believable flaws – Mike is the overachiever who grossly overestimates his own scariness due to his tenacity, and Sully simply wants to coast by on reputation and basic talent. However, the film teaches them that you need both talent and resourcefulness to succeed in life, and that is the throughline by which Mike and Sully explore their friendship. The film celebrates diversity, and for that it should be applauded; one of the pivotal moments revolves around Mike sneaking everyone into the Monsters, Inc. grounds in order to show everyone that real scarers come in all shapes and sizes, using their own abilities as their advantage. Despite its flower-power ‘everyone is special’ mentality, Monsters University also demonstrates the importance of self-awareness and playing to your strengths; much of Mike’s conflict in the film is his inability to reconcile the fact that he cannot be what he wants to be, but is amazing at other things. The message is a little troubling at first (after all, everyone’s taunting that he “doesn’t belong” there is justified at the end), but is mitigated by the film’s valuing of Mike’s other strengths, which are considerable and undervalued by those around him.

Where the film finds its biggest faults is in its college setting; it feels like a strange choice to make a child’s movie that pays so much homage to 1980s film depictions  of college. College most certainly isn’t like that anymore, so it’s not meant to be a prophetic vision of nerds-versus-jocks to be sure. Monsters University feels most like Revenge of the Nerds, particularly as Mike and Sully join a particularly clueless fraternity of rejects and must build them up to become an effective scare team. While the characters are endearing in their own ways, the overall conceit is odd, as children would have no frame of reference to things like the Carrie reference in the frat party, with paint and glitter instead of pig’s blood. Using raunchy college comedies like Animal House as a framework for your children’s entertainment creates a bit of cognitive dissonance at times; luckily, the film remains fresh enough (and focuses enough on the characters) to make this a minor concern.

I also find it brave to make young Mike and young Sully even more flawed here than they were in their freshman effort. Well, in Monsters Inc. it was Mike who was more the pigheaded one, as Sully was just a well-meaning doofus whom Mike was hurting with his cynicism. In this installment, both of them have their own kinks to work out (which they do in an interesting, Spielbergian-flavored climax in the real world).

Overall, the film is still one of Pixar’s lesser efforts, but is still an incredibly strong kid’s movie – it’s more Toy Story 3 than Cars 2, which is refreshing, as it’s actually about something. All the same, it’s a decent little kid’s movie that you won’t regret seeing.

(NOTE: I also caught the ubiquitous pre-Pixar movie short, this one called The Blue Umbrella. It was cute enough, but how many times is a Pixar short going to revolve around two young lovers finding each other, losing each other, then finding each other again in a big, bustling city? It’s a perfectly sweet subject, but it feels weird seeing that story being told again right after the somewhat-better Paperman.)

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Drinking Rules for Monsters University:
1) Drink whenever a character roars
2) Drink anytime you see reflections or doubled characters (essentially, when you see multiples of characters/heads on characters)
3) Drink every time the film plays up a cliché of college life (or film depictions thereof)
Finish Your Drink When:
A small child says to Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), “You look funny.”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

3 thoughts on “FRESH POUR: World War Z (2013) / Monsters University (2013)

  1. I felt that the zombies in Land of the Dead were similar metaphorically, though as lumberers instead of fast-moving maniacs, representing the relentless, slow, UNYIELDING march forward of societal change. There, the message was that progress is an unstoppable force and physical speed had a lot to do with it as well. Then again, Romero’s outlook is considerably more cynical and bleak – “stick it to the man” – than a big budget summer action flick would ever be. There was no overcoming Romero’s zombies…

  2. I agree, though the fast zombies of World War Z are more the living embodiment of a pandemic than the slow encroachment of societal change – the movement is presented much more intimately, as it’s more about individuals settling down or escaping from family life.

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