Kung Fu Panda 2


Kung Fu Panda 2

There's nothing like a little musical accompaniment when dueling to the death.

(2011) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Gary Oldman, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, James Hong, David Cross, Michelle Yeoh, Danny McBride, Dennis Haysbert, Victor Garber, Jean Claude van Damme. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Most of us are pretty well aware of our pasts. We know where we came from and it’s true, it helps us understand where we’re going. What we fail to realize, however, is that who we were isn’t as important as who we are…and who we intend to become.

Po (Black) has settled into his role as Dragon Warrior, protector of the Valley and a member of the Furious Five…who now have a plus one. Things are going swell for the time being, although Master Shifu (Hoffman) warns Po that if he is to continue in his growth, he must find inner peace. For the moment, the only inner peace Po wants is the one that comes after a big meal.

During a fight with some bandits in a village of musicians, Po sees an emblem on the armor of the leader of the wolf pack (McBride) and has a flashback to when he was a very small child. He thinks he might be seeing his mother. Later, he questions his father Ping (Hong) about it, and Ping is only able to tell him that he found Po in a box of radishes without any idea of how he got there. Po becomes determined to find out where he came from.

He might have picked a better time to take a stroll down memory lane. Lord Shen (Oldman), an albino peacock, has developed a weapon of terrible power and threatens to conquer all of China with it. He has already taken on the combined masters of Kung Fu (Garber, Haysbert, van Damme) and beaten them. If the world knows that there is a weapon that can defeat even these masters, will Kung Fu be at last broken?

Nelson worked as a story editor on the first film and makes her directing debut here. It’s actually a pretty self-assured one; she tells much of Po’s back story, and utilizes flashbacks by telling them in anime-style hand-drawn animation. The computer generated stuff is quite amazing and beautiful – some of the best-rendered animation outside of Pixar. It’s really too bad that all of the care taken on that score is ruined by watching it in 3D through dark glasses, ruining the color palate of the animators. All for the sake of a few cutsie pie effects that are just as effective in 2D.

The story here is ambitious. While there’s still an element of fat buffoon to Po, that’s been considerably toned down here. He is after all, the Dragon Warrior. The dynamic has changed between him and the Furious Five as well; where Tigress (Jolie) was once his adversary, now she’s his best friend. Hong also has much more of an expanded role in Ping – a very welcome development, in my opinion.

There are some pretty dark elements here, particularly when it comes to Po’s early life. That’s all well and good but when your target audience is kids, I find that kind of disappointing. Not that everything has to be sunshine and lollipops in kid movies, but there are some things in the story that I thought was a bit inappropriate for the younger set in the sense that it might cause them to feel a bit insecure. You may, of course, disagree with me in this.

I also found the charm of the first movie to be largely missing. By making Po competent and even a superior fighter, much of what I found charming about the first movie is taken away. Also, the primary relationship in the movie is between Po and Tigress; Shifu has little more than an extended cameo here and his relationship to Po was at the center of the first movie, and it is sorely missed here.

Adding Michelle Yeoh to the mix as an ancient seer is a master stroke of casting; she also does some of the narration and she’s a welcome addition, adding a bit of gravitas and authenticity. She is far too absent from the movies; it’s a bit of a shame because she’s one of the best actresses in the world but she’s sadly hit that age where actresses tend to be cast aside as being not young enough to be a romantic lead but not old enough to get the Meryl Streep types of roles. Hollywood has tunnelvision in many ways; I would hope that someday they’ll understand that women like Yeoh are far sexier and alluring than some of the 20-something hardbodies that pass for leading ladies these days. End rant.

I do admire the movie for its willingness to take a risk and not be just another money-grubbing animated feature. That may have translated to the disappointing box office take its first weekend with almost no competition for the family movie dollar, something which will change in a couple of weeks when Cars 2 enters the fray. I don’t think it was successful in everything it attempted to do, but I’m glad that they at least gave an effort to do something other than the safe and boring that is often passed off as family entertainment these days.

REASONS TO GO: The gang’s all back and the story gives us a good deal of insight into Po’s background.

REASONS TO STAY: Not as charming as the first movie and quite a bit darker.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence which might upset the really little ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DreamWorks executives visited Chengdu in China, considered to be the “Panda hometown” to learn more about Pandas and Chinese culture; elements of their visit were later incorporated into the film.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, the kids are going to want to see it in the theater so you may as well.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Black Snake Moan

Tropic Thunder


Tropic Thunder

Stiller and Downey share a tender moment in Tropic Thunder.

(2008) Comedy (DreamWorks) Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Tom Cruise, Jay Baruchel, Bill Hader, Matthew McConaughey, Danny McBride, Brandon Jackson, Matt Levin, Reggie Lee.  Directed by Ben Stiller

Hollywood is indeed a dream factory, a place in which fantasies are packaged and sold. In making these fantasies however, sometimes real life becomes blurred and the line between the two disappears completely.

Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is an action star who yearned to branch out and do serious drama, but his one attempt (“Simple Jack”) ended up in disaster, with Tugg playing a mentally challenged farmer who thought he could communicate with animals. It was a naked Oscar play and everyone knew it and now Tugg’s career is in the dumpster. He’s making a big-budget star-studded war film to do a little career resuscitation.

The movie he’s doing is based on the memoirs of a Vietnam vet named Four Leaf Tayback (Nolte), a tough as nails soldier who lost limbs in the war. Joining Tugg in the cast is Kirk Lazarus (Downey), a five-time Oscar winner and method actor who gets so into the role he has his skin surgically dyed so he is able to convincingly play a black Sergeant. Comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black) has made a career out of fart jokes and self-indulgence. A heroin addict, he is on the raggedy edge of falling apart.

This is enough to give any director cardiac arrest, and director Damien Cockburn (Coogan) is close to it himself. The massive budget is spiraling out of control, with the prima donna actors causing numerous delays while technical issues drive the production further into the red and behind schedule. The studio head, Les Grossman (Cruise) is placing enough pressure on Cockburn to make the Dali Lama pick up an AK-47 and start firing randomly.

So, taking a cue from the crusty Tayback, Cockburn decides to send the cast into the real jungle, with cameras set up in various places. No trailers, no personal assistants, no Blackberries – just acting in the jungle. Speedman is gung ho for the idea, even after things begin to go south. As in, they fall afoul of an actual crew of drug runners who are shooting at them with real bullets. The actors, not knowing any better, are merely waiting for someone to yell “cut”!

This is a nice little satire on Hollywood and its denizens, from the unctuous agent (McConaughey) to the harried studio assistant (Hader). Stiller turns this into a cross between Airplane and Rambo with a number of homages in between. In fact there are so many you have to keep a sharp eye open to catch them all.

With a cast like this you’d expect there to be some hilarity but very often in these kind of all-star romps it descends into a series of bits that ultimately don’t make much of a cohesive whole. That’s not the problem here. This isn’t a bunch of stars doing their thing – it’s a movie in which everyone contributes their bit, from Jackson as rapper Alpa Chino who as the only actor who is genuinely of African descent is annoyed at the antics of Lazarus who in his method haze genuinely believes he’s black to McBride as an explosives expert who is in above his head.

Downey in fact proves to be a terrific comic actor who isn’t above poking fun at himself. Downey is himself a method actor and stays in character onscreen and off until, as Lazarus puts it, the DVD commentary is done. Stiller bulked up to play the somewhat clueless Speedman. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel but still his character has a bit of Hollywood diva in it to make it more interesting than the average action star send-up.

Black is actually a little bit toned down here, although he has moments in which he indulges his usual manic persona a little bit. I think it works even in the context of Portnoy the heroin addict, although towards the end of the movie the character is wearing a bit thin on me.

For my money it is Cruise who makes the biggest impact here, completely going out on a limb as the foul-mouthed bastard of a studio head. His performance was so indelible that plans are afoot to make a movie based on his character when Cruise finishes his next film. There are those who think that Cruise restored a lot of bad karma to the good side with his performance here. I’m not such a big believer in that kind of thing, but I do believe you’ll remember Cruise long after the movie’s over.

There are times that the movie tries a bit too hard to be funny and becomes rather silly instead (which is usually what happens when you try too hard to be funny) but fortunately that doesn’t happen often enough to be of consequence. As comedies go, this one should be near the top of your list when searching the DVD racks for something funny to watch.

WHY RENT THIS: A terrific cast that works well together to make a great ensemble film, rather than a bunch of bits strung together. Cruise is classic as the foul-mouthed studio mogul.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Descends into silliness upon occasion.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of bad words, a lot of sexual innuendo, a bit of drug usage and a whole mess o’ violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to Stiller, Jack Black filmed most of the movie with bruised ribs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an excellent Mockumentary on the making of the film that is supposedly being made with a nod to Heart of Darkness and Werner Herzog. There’s a bit of raw footage showing how the actor’s improvised on set plus a piece from the MTV Movie Awards showing how a trio of the leads tried to promote the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $188.1M on a $92M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Everything Must Go

Your Highness


Your Highness

As proof of the disintegration of etiquette, an epidemic of pointing has broken out in Hollywood.

(2011) Fantasy Comedy (Universal) Danny McBride, Natalie Portman, James Franco, Zooey Deschanel, Justin Theroux, Charles Dance, Toby Jones, Damian Lewis, Simon Farnaby, Deobia Oparei, B.J. Hogg, Charles Shaughnessy. Directed by David Gordon Green

Have you ever wondered what The Hangover would be like set in a world of Dungeons and Dragons? Wonder no more.

In the Kingdom of Mourn, King Tallious (Dance) rules wisely with two sons – the heir apparent, Prince Fabious (Franco) who lives to go on quests, is good and noble and pure, and is loved by the people as a handsome and model prince. His brother Thadeous (McBride) not so much – he’s overbearing, selfish, whiny and more interested in chasing women, weed and drink than dragons.

Having botched an alliance with the High Dwarves, he returns home to find his brother Fabious returning in triumph, having slain a Cyclops and bringing home a bride for good measure, the lovely Bella Donna (Deschanel) – putting a big crimp into the plans of the evil wizard Leezar (Theroux). Fabious, being Fabious, asks his jealous brother to be the best man at the wedding. Thadeous, being Thadeous, blows it off to get wasted and chase sheep.

A good thing too, or else he would have been caught when the evil wizard Leezar showed up at the wedding to steal back Bella Donna and inform all assembled that he intends to use the virginal Bella Donna as his bride in a ritual that will give birth to a dragon and give Leezar control of the entire world.

Naturally that’s not a good idea, and Fabious wants to go rescue his bride understandably but there’s no way he can go it alone. The King decides that Thadeous should accompany his brother who he is understandably reluctant, but when the King threatens to banish him if he doesn’t, well, Thadeous really has no choice.

Along the way there’ll be vicious amazons, perverted amphibian wizards, a five headed hydra and Isabel (Portman), a warrior who might be better than even Fabious who has her own grudge against Leezar and is not to be trusted by those who might get in her way.

From the team that essentially brought you Pineapple Express comes this send-up of fantasy films ranging from 80s B-movies like The Sword and the Sorcerer to more modern entries like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is not quite as bad as the guys that brought you Vampires Suck and their ilk, but it isn’t very good either.

Portman just won an Oscar and Deschanel is one of my very favorite actresses but they don’t really have much to do but act as adornments for the guys. Franco was nominated for an Oscar but here he really is kind of personality-challenged. In his defense, it’s hard to do a character that’s so perfect without making him seem bland, but still he doesn’t really have much spice to him at all and he could have used a little.

McBride has developed a niche for himself going back to The Foot Fist Way and through movies like the aforementioned Pineapple Express and Land of the Lost which this is roughly analogous to in terms of quality. He plays the somewhat arrogant and stupid selfish guy in most of his movies and to his credit he does that role well. Hopefully one of these days we’ll see him stretch a little.

This is not that movie – even though he’s supposed to be somewhat romantic (all the chicks dig him, after all – many of them topless) he’s no romantic lead and in a sense, that’s one of the more funny aspects of the film.

The effects are decent enough although chintzy in places (and I think that was done on purpose) with plenty of lights and lightning bolts to light up the screen, as well as a minotaur penis (don’t ask) to darken it.

The problem is that while there are some very funny moments, there aren’t really enough of them. Repetition is only funny in small doses guys and some things are rammed down our throats until they are no longer funny even retroactively to the first part. Dropping F bombs in a medieval setting may be big yucks for the stoner crowd but even they will stop laughing by the fortieth or fiftieth time.

Now I have nothing against stoner humor or the like, even though I’m not able to partake (I’m allergic) but I’ve heard from friends who do that even they found it a bit too much. Give me a Cheech and Chong movie any day.

REASONS TO GO: Some fair special effects. A few good laughs here and there.

REASONS TO STAY: An over-reliance on shtick. Not enough funny moments for a comedy. Too much oafishness and too many “Thines” and “Mines.”

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of crude humor, some violence, a bit of foul language, plenty of drug use, some nudity here and there and a heavy dose of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although there was a script, director David Gordon Green noted that nearly all of the dialogue was improvised; only a plot outline and written notes were used on set.

HOME OR THEATER: Despite everything, the scale and the special effects are big screen-worthy

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The House Bunny

New Releases for the Week of April 8, 2011


April 8, 2011
Russell Brand is looking for his Ginger Rogers.

 

ARTHUR

(Warner Brothers) Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner, Greta Gerwig, Luis Guzman, Nick Nolte, Geraldine James, Evander Holyfield, Christina Calph. Directed by Jason Winer

The heir to a billion dollar fortune has lived a charmed life, having every need met instantly, cared for by a tough, sensible but ultimately caring nanny. When his mother determines that he must marry in order to increase the family fortune, he is at first reluctant; he has always wanted to marry for love but hasn’t found the right girl yet. So when the right girl shows up and turns out to be a poor tour guide, he is caught in between the age-old struggle between love and money.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for alcohol use throughout, sexual content, language and some drug references)

Born To Be Wild 3D

(Warner Brothers) Morgan Freeman (narration), Dr. Barute Galdikas, Dame Daphne Sheldrick. As the interrelationship between humanity and nature becomes closer as we learn more about how our planet works, the urgency of protecting wildlife and the environment becomes greater. This movie examines several extraordinary people who take wild animals that have been orphaned and train them to survive in the wild.

See the trailer and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: IMAX 3D

Genre: Nature Documentary

Rating: G

Hanna

(Focus) Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana, Jason Flemyng. A young girl, raised to be the perfect assassin by her rogue operative CIA father goes on a mission that will take her across Europe. It will also bring her face to face with her past, most of which is unknown to her and force her to re-examine her future – all the while pursued by a ruthless agency operative who has her own agenda and her own hidden secrets.

See the trailer, featurettes, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexual material and language)

Miral

(Weinstein) Freida Pinto, Hiam Abbass, Willem Dafoe, Vanessa Redgrave. A Palestinian orphan in a refugee orphanage at the emergence of the state of Israel becomes involved in the Palestinian underground resistance. Eventually she is sent to teach at another orphanage where she becomes romantically involved with a political activist.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic appeal and some violent content including a sexual assault)

Of Gods and Men

(Sony Classics) Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Lauderbach. A monastery in North Africa in the 1990s has never had any problems with their Muslim neighbors. After an Islamic fundamentalist group massacres a crew of foreign workers, tensions begin to escalate. When they are ordered to leave by their church for their own safety, they make the decision to stay despite terrible risks.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama Based on a True Story

Rating: PG-13 (for a momentary scene of startling wartime violence, some disturbing images and brief language)

Soul Surfer

(TriStar/FilmDistrict) Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, AnnaSophia Robb, Carrie Underwood. A young girl with dreams of surfing superstardom has her dreams cut short by a horrific accident. Driven by her own ambitions, her fierce will to overcome any obstacle, she beats the odds by getting back in the water, recovering from her terrible injuries and proving an inspiration to others not only as a surfer but in her devotion to helping others in the aftermath of the 2004 Christmas Eve tsunami.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True Sports Drama

Rating: PG (for an intense accident sequence and some thematic material) 

Win Win

(Fox Searchlight) Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Melanie Lynskey, Jeffrey Tambor. A struggling lawyer takes on legal guardianship of an elderly client to help keep his practice from going under. The lawyer also coaches the local high school wrestling team in order to bring in some extra cash, although the team is woeful at best. When the client’s troubled grandson comes to live with him and turns out to be a stellar wrestler, it appears to be a no-lose situation for the lawyer, but as such things usually do, things quickly begin to unravel.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language)

Your Highness

(Universal) Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel. When the fiancée of the heir apparent of the realm is kidnapped by an evil wizard, he must go and rescue her like any prince worth his salt. However, it’s more than he can handle alone – so he must take his good-for-nothing younger brother who has absolutely no wish to go on a quest. The two are aided by a fierce amazon who has her own reasons for going after the wizard.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comic Fantasy

Rating: R (for strong crude and sexual content, pervasive language, nudity, violence and some drug use)

Drillbit Taylor


Drillbit Taylor

It's Owen Wilson vs. the world.

(Paramount) Owen Wilson, Leslie Mann, Danny McBride, Josh Peck, David Dorfman, Alex Frost, Troy Gentile, Nate Hartley, Stephen Root, Lisa Lampanelli, David Koechner. Directed by Steve Brill

Sometimes standing up for yourself is a lot harder than it looks. Once in awhile, in order to stand up you need someone there to help you get off your knees.

Skinny Wade (Hartley), portly Ryan (Gentile) and nerdy Emmett (Dorfman) are all being picked on by a school bully, Filkins (Frost) who is psychotic enough to give Freddie Krueger nightmares. Despite their best efforts the hazing continues so they do what any sensible children of rich parents do; place an advertisement for a bodyguard.

They have to wade through a list of candidates that range from the unsuitable to the downright bizarre before they get the right guy. Who they get is Drillbit Taylor (Wilson), a homeless ex-Army ranger who has something of a Zen style of self-defense and for someone who is supposed to be lethal is awfully laid-back. After his attempts to instruct them in self-defense go hideously wrong, he decides that he needs to take a more direct hand in their protection; by taking a position as a substitute teacher in their school.

Things go really well for awhile, with Drillbit striking up a romance with comely English teacher Lisa (Mann) and the boys finally getting some relief from the constant harassment. Unfortunately, Drillbit’s secret comes out – he’s not discharged Army, he’s a deserter – and that his homeless buddies, led by Don (McBride) see his arrangement as more or less an invitation to rob the homes of his “clients.”

Humiliated and disgraced, Drillbit gets ready to leave for Canada, something that he’s always wanted to do but never been able to afford to. However, his charges are now back in miserable Hell, getting seriously beaten at every turn. Will he turn his back on them and run, as he’s always done? Or will he stand up for his new friends? Better still, will they stand up for themselves?

This is yet another comedy from the factory that is Judd Apatow, who produced this; his buddy, Seth Rogen co-wrote it. Usually you expect an Apatow movie to veer off course into something original but that really didn’t happen here.

Instead you have a bit of a mess. The jokes aren’t really funny although in all honesty, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of humor to be had in kids getting bullied. What saves this movie from complete and abject suckiness is Owen Wilson. He’s one of the most dependable comic actors working today, and even though he’s been in a lot of turkeys lately, he is usually the best thing in them and that is no less true here. He’s totally miscast – can you imagine Owen Wilson kicking anybody’s ass? – but he manages to infuse the part with his laidback charm, enough so that you are thoroughly engaged by his character even if you don’t quite believe him.

The three juvenile leads are more or less cheap-ass knockoffs from Superbad nearly down to a “T” (Rogen also co-wrote that movie) which may or may not have been intentional. Personally, I can’t say for sure. They are decent in this movie, but they don’t really stand out.

I can’t really say why I didn’t like this movie – oh wait, sure I can. For one thing, the jokes didn’t really work for me. For another, I didn’t connect with most of the characters the way I wanted to. Even Drillbit Taylor, the lead role, in the end fell kind of flat for me. The movie’s pretty disingenuous – there’s nothing particularly threatening about it – but a good comedy needs a little bit of edge, and this just doesn’t have a single one. In fact, it’s like a big ol’ beach ball on a beach full of razors; you just know the outcome isn’t going to be very pleasant for the beach ball.

WHY RENT THIS: Wilson has a certain off-beat charm to him and the movie is generally harmless.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An attempt to make a John Hughes-style movie falls flat and it isn’t really funny enough for modern comedy audiences.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some crude jokes (mostly sexual) and some fairly raw depictions of bullying, as well as a bit of partial nudity. Okay for older teens but I’d hesitate before letting the younger kids watch this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A friend of Apatow’s gave him an unfinished script treatment by the late John Hughes which Apatow gave to writers Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown to build a script off of.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Funny People

Despicable Me


Despicable Me

Gru doesn't quite get the concept of mooning his audience.

(Universal) Starring the voices of Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Julie Andrews, Russell Brand, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Mindy Kaling, Danny McBride, Dana Gaier, Elsie Fisher, Pierre Coffin. Directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin

It’s tough being a world-class villain. Not only do your grand schemes of world domination need to be extravagantly profitable, you always have to fight off some wet-behind-the-ears supervillain who wants to earn a reputation at your expense.

Gru (Carell) is as despicable as they come. He will make a child a balloon animal only to pop it; he’ll use his freeze ray on patrons in front of him in the line at Starbucks, and he’ll steal the Times Square Jumbotron to watch football games on. Unfortunately, there’s a new kid in town, a kid called Vector (Segel) and he’s outdone Gru by stealing the Great Pyramid at Giza.

This heats up Gru’s competitive juices to the boiling point, so he feels a need to one-up his new competition and his answer is elegant in its simplicity – Gru plans to steal the moon. Aided by his vaguely Twinkie-like Minions and his curmudgeonly scientific aide-de-camp Dr. Nefario (Brand, sounding nothing like Aldous Snow), all he needs is a shrink ray and a rocket. The shrink ray he can get – it’s the rocket that’s a problem.

Like any enterprising businessman, Gru goes to the bank to get a loan from the bank, but he can’t exactly walk into the nearest Citibank with a business plan that involves stealing a celestial body. Luckily for Gru, there’s always the Bank of Evil (in one of the film’s cleverest jokes, the front of the bank is emblazoned with “Formerly Lehman Brothers”). Unfortunately, Mr. Perkins (Arnett), the humorless blob of a bank president, is not willing to part with the money. You see, most of Gru’s grand schemes have, while successful, not been terribly profitable. However, if Gru can show the bank the shrink ray, they’ll give him the cash.

Easier said than done. The shrink ray is being tested by a Southeast Asian weapons laboratory, but Gru being nefarious and direct, steals the device by sawing a hole in the roof, sending a minion to manually operate a giant claw to pick up the ray gun and jet away. Hunky dory until Vector shows up to cut a hole in his roof.

Gru needs to retrieve the shrink ray from his archnemesis but infiltrating his modern, heavily defended lair proves to be impossible. However, Gru hits upon the scheme of sending in three orphans – Margo (Cosgrove), Edith (Gaier) and Agnes (Fisher) – to infiltrate the lair under the guise of selling Vector some cookies (cookies are Vector’s Achilles heel). Gru adopts the young tykes, but finds them to be major distractions, highly irritating and somewhat annoying. Can he rein in his young accomplices to carry out his diabolical plot, or will he succumb to the charms of the little girls?

These days computer animated features are a dime a dozen and audiences are demanding more sophistication and better stories. While Pixar continually delivers, the other animated studios are less consistent. This is Universal’s first computer-animated feature and the first in their partnership with Illumination Entertainment (who also have Hop and Flanimals on deck for 2011). So how did they do?

Well, there’s definitely a learning curve. Some of the movie works, but other places not so much. In checking out other reviews, I was amazed that most critics found the last half hour to be the best part of the movie; quite frankly, I was more impressed with the first part, when Gru is acting very much like the missing member of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. As the movie progresses, Gru gets more father-like and softer, losing much of the edge that made him notable early on.

Still, Carell does a good job with the character, vaguely channeling the Soup Nazi. The evil Gru is interesting, but it’s the Minions who steal the show. Certain to become pop culture fixtures for the younger set (in the same way Oompa Loompas did a generation ago), they’re cute and speak in funny voices, with a Looney Tunes-like tendency to do spectacular harm to one another. Don’t be surprised if they show up on a Saturday morning cartoon show in the near future.

The movie gets disappointing towards the end. It’s standard animated feature fare of the heart of a bad guy being melted by adorable little girls. That’s the type of thing Disney was doing 70 years ago. By the time the movie ends, Gru is bestowing good night kisses on his Minions. I can’t see a reason to see a sequel to this; Gru’s too soft, too ordinary. The more despicable Gru is, the better the movie is.

REASONS TO GO: The minions are awesome and Carell makes Gru memorable. There are some moments that are laugh-out-loud funny.

REASONS TO STAY: Typical animated feature fare; definitely skewed towards a younger crowd.

FAMILY VALUES: The movie has a PG rating due to rude humor but in my book, it’s perfectly fine for children of all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soda cup that the Carnival Barker is drinking from is based on the ones used at Walt Disney World, which has no midway games.

HOME OR THEATER: This is one of those rare instances where a movie is actually enhanced by 3D; unless you have a big screen 3D television, I would suggest a trip to the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

New Releases for the Week of July 9, 2010


July 9, 2010

The more minions, the merrier!

DESPICABLE ME

(Universal) Starring the voices of Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Danny McBride, Julie Andrews, Miranda Cosgrove. Directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin

Deep beneath a quiet suburban neighborhood lies the unexpected – the vast underground lair of the world’s greatest supervillain, Gru. He and his vast army of minions plot dastardly deeds, some of which they actually pull off. His latest scheme – to steal the moon. However, before he can do that, he must ward off his chief rival for supervillainy, Vector and something even more insidious; three heart-stealing little girls. With vocal talents from members of Judd Apatow’s crew and SNL, this looks to be a big hit.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG (for rude humor and mild action)

Cyrus

(Fox Searchlight) John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener. John has given up on romance after the dissolution of his marriage; that is, until he meets Molly. The chemistry is obvious and immediate between them, but for some reason she’s reluctant to bring him to her own home. One day he follows her home and meets the other man in her life – her son Cyrus, a 21-year-old musician who has no desire whatsoever to share her with anyone, particularly a boyfriend. Even more particularly, he doesn’t want to share her with John and thus a war of wits is undertaken that will leave only one man standing alongside Molly. Oh yes, it’s a comedy.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for language and some sexual material)

I Am Love

(Magnolia) Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Gabrielle Ferzetti, Pippo Delbono. The Recchi family of Milan has long been masters of an industrial empire. The patriarch is married to Emma, a Russian émigré. Cracks in the façade of the family’s domination are beginning to show, however; Edo, the grandson, has no desire to inherit the family legacy and instead opens a restaurant with his friend Antonio. Further complicating matters is that Antonio and Emma fall in love and begin a torrid affair that threatens to bring the powerful family to its knees.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for sexuality and nudity)

Predators

(20th Century Fox) Adrian Brody, Alice Braga, Topher Grace, Laurence Fishburne. Producer Robert Rodriguez takes this sci-fi franchise to a whole new level as he takes some of the most vicious killers on Planet Earth and deposits them on an alien game preserve, there to be hunted down by the most vicious hunter in the universe – the predators. How will they survive and even if they do, how will they get back home?

See the trailer, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for strong creature violence and gore, and pervasive language)