We’re all friends here, right? We don’t judge each other based on our movie choices. We respect that we all have different life experiences that have led us to develop the tastes that we have. I’m bringing this up for a reason. We’ve got two movies this month that don’t sound like they would go together. Two movies that I’m going to review that are almost completely different and yet both are going to share the same rating from your dear friend, me.
Monsters University (2013) – [G]
Now, before you start saying “Collin, isn’t this a movie for children.” Yeah, sorta. Like all Pixar movies, it is ostensibly for children but adults can get a lot of enjoyment out of it as well.
You don’t need to have seen Monsters, Inc. to enjoy or understand Monsters University. The two movies share a tone and a few characters but where Inc., soared, University seems to coast a bit. This isn’t to say I didn’t like Monsters University. I’m just saying don’t go expecting it to replicate the heights reached in Monsters, Inc. Where Inc. was a buddy adventure film, University feels more like a family version of Revenge of the Nerds or Animal House.
It’s pretty remarkable how much warmth and affection is generated by Mike and Sully, the two main characters, who are really just ones and zeros on some dude’s computer screen. When Mike made his first appearance on screen, the audience in the theater I was at cheered as if he was a rock star. Part of that is attributable to the success of the first film, but I would argue a large portion of that is the vocal performance, body language and personality that is infused into the characters in the Monsters universe. It’s easier to believe that these characters are real than it is to believe Will and Jaden Smith in After Earth.
I read a review that said “Monsters University is the sort of film that’s easy to undervalue.” I completely agree. It’s easy to dismiss this film as mindless summer fluff that gets the kids out of your hair for a little while, but there is a lot more going on here. University has some very valuable lessons to teach (not just to children, I might add). When a character cheats, he is punished. When a character doubts, he is shown that there are reasons to believe. It is a great story about self-esteem, loyalty, not judging a book by its cover and doing things the right way, even if it is told by monsters. Don’t be too “adult” to miss out on that.
Let me tell you a story. I got to the theater just as the lights had gone down. I stumbled around in the dark and found a seat next to a family of three with what I am guessing was a four-year-old daughter. I sat next to the kiddo. During the movie, she kept looking over at me and roaring like a Cougar. I would pretend to be scared and she would giggle. When the movie was over, the mom leaned over to apologize for her daughter bothering me (which she wasn’t, really). The lights came up and the lady screamed, the daughter laughed and roared at me again, and the dad quickly ushered them out of the theater. Had those parents learned from the movie and taken a second to talk to me, not only might they have discovered that I’m a pretty all right guy who wasn’t going to eat their daughter, but the wife probably wouldn’t have forgotten her purse when she left the theater. I’m just saying . . . .
Viva Riva! (2010) – [R]
This one was a surprise. I saw the preview for Viva Riva! (click here for the trailer) before some other movie I watched on DVD a couple of months ago and thought, “Hmm, that could be good.” It’s been sitting in my Netflix queue and just happened to show up last week. I couldn’t have been more pleased.
Viva Riva! is a gritty crime and punishment story set in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sort of an exotic Pulp Fiction. That’s what the trailer would have you believe at any rate. But what ultimately separates and saves Viva Riva! from being just another clone is it’s heart and brain.
The hero (if you can call him that) of the film is Riva, a con man who has stolen a truck-load of gasoline from a group of mobsters from Angola led by the ferocious César. Riva plans to resell the gas in Kinshasa for a fortune. This detail in and of itself is telling. Where in the US, our movie criminals might steal diamonds or a famous painting to make their fortunes, the extreme poverty and shortages of the Congo make a truck-load of fuel worth it’s weight in gold.
Riva isn’t a very smart thief and while he is throwing around some of his ill-gotten gains, he runs into and falls in love with Nora, the girlfriend of local gangster, Azor. As the pressure mounts and his pursuers creep closer, Riva is squeezed into a tighter and tighter spot. What gives the movie that extra special something, however, is not the ratcheting up of dramatic tension but it’s examination of social realities and class in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gritty, crime drama brawn with heart and brains.
Hollywood blockbusters work because you get to see familiar faces in fantastic places and situations. The strength of Viva Riva! comes not from familiarity but from honesty and reality. These are real faces in real places with real problems. When you see Tom Cruise in trouble, you know he’s going to be all right because he’s Tom Cruise. When you see Patsha Bay, as Riva, in trouble in a place where you don’t want to be in trouble, you can’t be sure what will happen.
The film ends with what may be my second favorite use of music in a film ever. As the credits start to roll, director Djo Munga plays Franklin Boukaka’s “Le Bucheron,” a heart-breaking song from the 70s that laments what has become of his country after the Dutch have left and scavengers have moved in. Boukaka’s soft, compelling voice serves as a reminder that while these sorts of stories are fun diversions in the more developed Western world, they are all too common tales of everyday life in his homeland. Coincidentally, if you haven’t ever heard of Boukaka or his music, give a quick read to his biography and search for some of his songs on YouTube.
Both Movies: 8 paws out of 10.