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Monsters University © 2012 Disney/Pixar.
If you’re a moviegoer this summer, you have choices to make.
A) You can join the masses, watch the latest supervillains destroy major American cities, and then watch so-called “heroes” destroy the supervillains.
B) You can support the latest lowbrow comedy for 90 minutes of locker-room humor.
C) Or you can look for something new, something creative, something that you’ll still be thinking about hours, days, maybe even years later.
Here are a few recent releases for adventurous moviegoers who seek more than the cinematic equivalent of junk food.
Directed by Joss Whedon
Somewhere down the long Cineplex hallway, among the superheroes, space travelers, and special effects, you’ll find a black-and-white Shakespeare adaptation without anything artificial added.
Yes, Joss Whedon — whose writing has often elevated typical TV fare to something worthy of praise — has finally turned his attention to the Bard. And moviegoers are reaping the rewards. Much Ado About Nothing, filmed entirely at Joss Whedon’s home (a house his wife, an architect, designed), recasts the classic romantic comedy at a present-day party.
Fans of big-screen Shakespeare probably have fond memories of Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado, in which he starred with Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, and Kate Beckinsale. Joss Whedon’s version features cast members that only fans of his TV series will recognize. Nevertheless, his vision is just as inventive, and much funnier.
The film’s biggest problem is that its Beatrice, played with spunk and spark by Amy Acker, is far more engaging and enchanting than its Benedick. Alex Denisof plays Benedick as if he’s a Will Ferrell fool who thinks he’s a Pierce Brosnan sex symbol, and his performance swings much farther into slapstick than anybody else’s.
Thus, the supporting characters — Claudio (an achingly sincere Fran Kranz), Hero (the radiant Jillian Morgese), and especially Dogberry (Nathan Fillion in an inspired comic turn) — almost steal the show.
But as with any Shakespeare staged or screened, nothing ever upstages the language itself. And Whedon’s cast serve up rhythms, rhymes, playfulness, invention, insinuations, literary allusions, and double-entendres with wild abandon.
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Visit the vanishing world of riverboaters in Arkansas. Follow a young teen named Ellis (Tye Sheridan) runs from the pain of his parents’ pending separation, only to discover a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) hiding out on a river island.
The more Ellis learns about this mystery man called “Mud,” the more he becomes entangled in a drama of murder, revenge, and betrayal. Soon, Mud’s hope to reunite with a troubled — and heavily guarded — woman (Reece Witherspoon) endangers everyone.
Obviously influenced by director Terrence Malick, filmmaker Jeff Nichols has few peers when it comes to cultivating a persuasively particular sense of place. He’s getting better all the time at creating an immersive soundscape, and he gets solid work from his actors. The film’s point of view muddles matters, occasionally and unnecessarily straying from Ellis’s point of view. But Mud has a rare big-screen beauty, and its old-fashioned storytelling recalls A River Runs Through It, Night of the Hunter, Stand By Me, and Huckleberry Finn.
If you enjoy Mud — which has become the year’s surprise hit, lingering in theatres through spring into summer — then be sure to seek out director Jeff Nichols’ previous films. Shotgun Stories is about two families that share one patriarch, and how the sons of one mother make war with sons of another, raising questions about violence, masculinity, poverty, and privilege in America. Take Shelter focuses on a man who is either going crazy or becoming an apocalyptic prophet.
Directed by Richard Linklater
If you haven’t seen Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Richard Linklater's talk-heavy date movies from 1995 and 2004, then stay away from Before Midnight. Much of the new film’s power comes from how it revises the story of Jesse and Celine, who first met as a train pulled in to Vienna, and who fell in love during their impulsive all-night stroll through the city.
In Before Sunrise, their epic conversation led Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) from infatuation into one of the big-screen’s great romances. In Before Sunset, they reunited in Paris for another long conversation. That second stroll rekindled the flame. But we were left to wonder if that was a good idea, especially considering the commitments they had made in the meantime.
In this third installment, surprises spring up from beginning to end. The less said about the specifics, the better. Suffice it to say that they’re in Greece this time. And they’re interacting with other characters, for a change, discussing challenges related to long-term commitments, cultural traditions, gender roles, vocation, and what it takes to keep love alive as years go by.
Hawke and Delpy have never been better. And no love story that comes to this moviegoer’s mind has ever questioned so intently whether or not a couple can be completely honest with each other and sustain their love, their romance, and their hope for better days to come. The film’s third-act argument between the lovers is ferocious, brutal, and upsetting.
Viewers should be cautioned about the film’s harsh language, frank talk about sex, and nudity. But none of these things are gratuitous here; they play important parts in the film’s harrowing depiction of a troubled relationship, revealing how much harm can occur when two heads and hearts are so intimately entangled.
Before Midnight might be the most troubling date movie ever made, in that it confronts us with the darker side of long-term intimacy, behaviors most movies are too cowardly to address. But it might also be the best date movie ever made, in that it is likely to leave viewers solemnly asking if they have what it takes to climb the steep and rocky road of true love.
Directed by Dan Scanlon
If you’re taking kids to the movies this summer, you’re not likely to find a more entertaining movie than Monsters University. Much to the relief of moviegoers who loved Monsters, Inc., this Pixar prequel honors the original even as it delivers laughs and surprises, big and small.
It’s been 12 years since we were introduced to Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) and James “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman), two monsters who worked in a dream factory, showing up in kids’ nightmares to scare them. But ultimately they learned that it would be better to make kids laugh.
In this prequel, they’re still obsessed with scaring children. Nevertheless, the movie isn’t scary. It’s hilarious.
We follow Mike from childhood into college (specifically, “Scare U”), pursuing his dream of being a scary “scarer.” When Sulley shows up, the two become rivals, not friends. Sulley is lazy, relying on his family name for privileges. Mike is too desperate to achieve “scary” greatness. And their contentious clash leads to trouble, to mutual understanding, and to teamwork in a competition called “The Scare Games.”
That would be more than enough story for most kids’ movies, but there are even more important developments later, including a revelation that will probably get children thinking about the importance of pursuing success with honesty and integrity. Come to think of it, in this age of “anything goes” business strategies, there are plenty of adults who should take these lessons to heart, as well.
When Monsters, Inc. first opened, audiences were amazed by the animation techniques that made Sulley’s fur look so soft and huggable. Monsters University revels in Pixar’s standard-setting animation, constantly dazzling us with colors, textures, light, and shadow. It’s an aesthetically enthralling movie even as it goes to work on our heads, hearts, and funny bones.
Directed by Sarah Polley
This year at the movies, if you look away from the rock-em, sock-em blockbusters, you’ll find that you’re surrounded by movies in which lovers consider the value of marriage, the definition of true love, and the sacrifices that fidelity demands.
In Stories We Tell, actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley changes her focus from fiction to autobiography. And yet, just as her two intimate dramas, Away From Her (based on a story by Alice Munro) and Take This Waltz, were about marriage, infidelity, and compassion, so Stories We Tell wrestles with similar questions. It’s an investigation into the lives of her late mother, her father, and another important figure — a mystery man — in her family history.
But while Polley has gained remarkably generous contributions from her family members, including interviews that help her piece together the puzzle of her past, she’s unable to bring the most important witness to the stage: her mother, Diane Polley, who died of cancer when Sarah was only 11.
Secrets, lies, misunderstandings, mistakes, regrets — Polley shares all kinds of revelations through testimonies, home movies, and some visual cleverness that will delight the most attentive moviegoers. (I don’t want to spoil the film’s best surprises.)
But this isn’t just a movie about Sarah, her mother, and the men in her mother’s life. It’s also about how we construct the stories of our lives, and a sense of identity, by deciding which details to sift from the stock of available information: the countless facts, fictions, impressions, opinions, and guesses. Does this detective work lead us to answers? Or will the picture remain a mystery?
While the stories and questions are enthralling, Polley avoids the pitfalls of most confessional, autobiographical films. She is exceedingly and admirably humble. This isn’t a vanity project. She doesn’t behave as if her family is somehow more spectacularly interesting than others. Nor is she carrying out some vendetta, sharing this story with the world. In fact, we learn that the family had to tell their own story, or else other interested parties would have gone public with far narrower interpretations. Polley approaches every character with compassion, intent upon blessing them, and serving the audience with useful questions about how we seek the truth.
It’s a painful experience to watch people face, and then share, their own weaknesses and failings with the world. But more than that, it is a redemptive and inspiring experience to see how good things can rise in the ruins, and how grace can lead us from error, anger, and sadness into hope and healing.
Response is a magazine for thoughtful Christians worldwide, rooted in the people, life, and mission of Seattle Pacific University. The magazine explores the encounter between education, faith, and culture, and is an informed voice for Christian engagement in the world. Read features from our latest issue, sign up for a free subscription, and visit our archive of movie-related articles.
Posted Friday, July 12, 2013, at 10:44 a.m.
Hi Jeffrey. Yes regarding disturbances, I have more Flannery O'Connor in me than I care to admit.:) I will head over and look at your thoughts on “The Way Way Back” and also will look up Hildegard. Thx for the tip! I have noticed that the conversation on the internet about Arendt's “The Banality of Evil” has been stirred up because of the movie. Interesting and good especially in this day and age where the notions of evil are wide and varied. Although I suppose the interest is always there no matter what the current notions are.
Posted Wednesday, July 10, at 10:09 a.m.
Thank you for your comments so far, Luci, Rebecca, and Jon! Luci, I’m glad you enjoyed Before Midnight. It is certainly a disturbing film, but I’m glad that you, like me, find that “disturbing” can be a good quality. Sometimes, we need those disturbances.
Rebecca and Jon, Thank you for bringing up The Way, Way Back. I wanted to include that in my article, but the movie doesn't open in Seattle until this coming Friday. (It is already playing elsewhere in the country.) Because of silly rules about opening days and film criticism, Seattle critics are not allowed to post reviews of a movie until it has opened in Seattle. So I’ve had to keep my mouth shut about The Way, Way Back. My review will be posted at jeffreyoverstreet.com on opening day. Thanks also for reminding me about A Highjacking and Hannah Arendt. I reviewed another film by the makers of Hannah Arendt in Response a while back ... a movie called Vision, which was about Hildegard von Bingen.
Posted Wednesday, July 10, at 8:24 a.m.
Jeffrey, You have a great list here to see. We’ve watched all the “Before” movies and are waiting on “Before Midnight” to come out on streaming so my wife and I can watch alone together. I The series has been a date night series of sorts. We can’t wait to see how it ends. I missed “Mud” and “Much Ado About Nothing” in the theaters but had planned on doing the same with them. With entertainment dollars being slim and so many to see me and my friends have been trying to see the 1’s that “require” a big screen and sound. Like the 1’s you described at the beginning! haha We’ve taken the kids to see “Monsters U” and it was indeed funny with a good moral to the story. I hadn't heard of “Stories We Tell.” It looks like it would be pretty good as well. Another good 1 that I’ve seen is “A Highjacking” Not a big blockbuster. But a good intense drama concerning a highjacking by Somali pirates. And like Rebecca said, “The Way, Way Back” is a good film as well. Thanks for your thoughts!
Posted July 7, 2013, at 7:07 p.m.
Aside from the films listed above, We are also looking forward to seeing “The Way, Way Back” and “Hannah Arendt.” Jeffrey, Thinking you might appreciate this reflection on “Stories We Tell.” As people trail off about what her mother hid, what her mother thought and craved and feared, Sarah reflects that we can’t resurrect someone through our stories of them. In saying “she was like this” we risk turning her into a fiction, and feed the lie that Diane or any of us are a recipe of traits that if mixed in the proper order will rise and cool into a consistent personality. Given the gaps between stories, the discrepancies between the Diane her sister knew and the Diane her DNA-dad knew, Sarah wonders if any of us are truly knowable. This is the loneliest question. I know “I've asked it before and I've certainly seen it echoed by some of my favorite writers. T.S. Eliot’s Celia confides to her doctor, “It’s that I want to be alone, but that everyone’s alone” or so it seems to me. They make noises and think they are talking to each other; they make faces and think they understand each other. And I’m sure that they don’t. Is that a delusion “Being close,” Nicole Krauss writes, “as close as you can get to another person only makes clear that impassable distance between you.” www.mbird.com/2013/07/the-loneliest-question-knowing-whats-real-from-the-stories-we-tell/ (Also includes a kick butt quote from Aldous Huxley.)
Posted June 28, 2013, at 12:21 p.m.
We saw “Before Midnight” before midnight the other night. Profoundly intimate, disturbing, and revealing. Highly recommended.