Love, Gilda


Gilda and Gene as a couple were amazingly cute.

(2018) Documentary (Magnolia) Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, Chevy Chase, Laraine Newman, Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lorne Michaels, Michael F. Radner, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Paul Shaffer, Stephen Schwartz, Alan Zweibel, Robin Zweibel, Rosie Shuster, Cecily Strong, Andrew Alexander, Janis Hirsch, Anne Beatts. Directed by Lisa DaPolito

 

It’s not taking a controversial stance by declaring that Gilda Radner was one of the greatest comedians of her era and one of the greatest ever. Although she passed away at a too-young 43 in 1989, her best work on Saturday Night Live still holds up even now, 40 years later.

It’s hard to believe but for most people under 30 she’s been gone their entire lifetime. Fortunately there’s a documentary that will not only play on the nostalgic chords of baby boomers and others who are middle aged, it may introduce her to a whole new generation that didn’t get to be captivated by her amazing smile, who didn’t get to enjoy her compelling characters or laugh at her gentle humor.

The documentary is mostly told in Radner’s own words as we hear excerpts of her audio recordings that she used while writing her autobiography It’s Always Something which would be published two weeks after her death. She was also an insatiable diarist and we get to hear some of her most intimate thoughts read by modern comedians (and SNL alumni themselves) like Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy and Amy Poehler.

We also get to see plenty of home movies of her youth, backstage footage from her debut performance in Godspell in Toronto as well as from her one-woman Broadway show after her stint on SNL came to an end (but strangely, very little backstage or rehearsal footage from SNL itself). There are also some home movies from her brief but fulfilling marriage to Gene Wilder, some of it taken during cancer treatments during the last years of her life. Even though she remained optimistic despite the advanced stages of her ovarian cancer when it was detected, there came a point when she knew she wasn’t going to survive and she confessed as much to some of her closest friends. She faced the end with grace and humor as you might expect.

Radner was never a radical feminist but she did a lot of trailblazing for women particularly in the field of comedy which was then definitely a boys club (and is still so to a lesser but still profound effect today). Female comics revere her and rightfully so for that reason. She made inroads not by demonstrating but by doing; she wasn’t the sort to get in anyone’s face and scream. She knew there was discrimination against women but in her own non-confrontational way she fought against it. It didn’t hurt that nobody could deny she wasn’t as hysterically funny as her male counterparts, maybe more so in a lot of cases.

Given the amount of personal information and observations that the filmmakers were privy to, some aspects of her life seem to have little flesh on them when displayed here. We get that she spent most of her life looking for true love and being devastated when her latest boyfriend or husband (Wilder was her third marriage) didn’t work out. She wanted to be adored, but was intrinsically shy and preferred privacy even as she loved being in front of people, perhaps less than being with people. At least, that’s what I can glean from what is shown here; I may be way off-base. That’s the problem with documentary movies; the filmmaker has an hour and a half to dig into a life so often we are just left with the highlights and not so much with the blanks being filled in. I really wanted DaPolito to spend more time on her relationship with Wilder but we really didn’t get much more than we could glean from reading contemporary accounts in People magazine.

Radner’s fans will likely love the stroll down memory lane but be disappointed by the insight of which there could have been a lot more. I also found it surprising that the only members of the original cast to appear in the documentary were Newman and Chase; Aykroyd, Curtin and Morris are not to be seen nor is Bill Murray and his brother Brian (both of whom dated Radner at separate times back in the day) from the second season. That’s a shame to me and I don’t know why the missing members declined to appear (if indeed they did) or why DaPolito failed to ask them (if she didn’t).

Still, it is a worthy tribute to one of the most iconic performers of her era, one whose influence still resonates in the comedy business today. Even if it isn’t entirely satisfying from one hoping to gain more insight into what made her tick, I think for most people this is another – or maybe a first – opportunity to love Gilda.

REASONS TO GO: The excerpts from classic SNL sketches still hold up well. The journal entries are both poignant and illuminating.
REASONS TO STAY: The section on her relationship with Gene Wilder could have used some fleshing out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Radner based her Emily Litella character on her nanny whom she considered her second mom.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Painless

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Despicable Me 3


Gru can’t believe that his twin brother has Fabio hair.

(2017) Animated Feature (Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Nev Scharrel, Pierre Coffin, Steve Coogan, Julie Andrews, Jenny Slate, Andy Nyman, Adrian Ciscato, Brian T. Delaney, Katia Saponenko, Ken Daurio, Cory Walls, Carlos Alazraqui, Mindy Sterling, Laraine Newman, Teresa Ganzel. Directed by Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin and Eric Guillon

 

There’s this thing about the third film in a trilogy. Once in awhile, it turns out to be the best of the series i.e. the original Star Wars trilogy or Indiana Jones. Most of the time, however, the films in a trilogy tend to get progressively weaker. Which one in the Gru trilogy will the third film be?

Gru (Carell) is working with his new wife Lucy (Wiig) in the Anti-Villains League trying to take down Balthazar Bratt (Parker), a kid star from a forgotten 80s sitcom who is out to steal the world’s largest diamond. When that goes sideways, the two are fired by new no-nonsense AVL head Valerie Da Vinci (Slate).

When Gru’s mom tells her son about the twin brother Dru (Carell again) that he never knew he had, Lucy urges him to visit his twin along with the girls – Margo (Cosgrove), the level-headed one; Edith (Gaier) the playful one and Agnes (Scharrel), the shrill unicorn-obsessed one – to visit. It turns out that Dru has taken up the family business and plans one last big score with his brother. It’s back to being despicable once again – or is that deplorable?

The first movie felt fresh and fun, the sequel less so and this one feels tired and uninspired. Dru isn’t much of an addition to the ever-expanding family and the girls get more obnoxious and unendurable with each passing film. Worse yet, Bratt is an unremarkable villain who seems to be all gimmick and no interesting traits. The movie relies way too much on gadgets, some of which are admittedly fun but one gets into gadget overload – did the directors learn nothing from the mid-80s Bond films?

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the Minions up to now. That’s because they have a much-reduced presence in this film compared to the first two and I think that ends up hurting the movie overall. I can understand that the producers might have been concerned about an oversaturation of Minions, considering that they had their own movie a couple of years ago (and another one scheduled for 2020) but they have been the best part of the Despicable Me franchise from the beginning. Trying to rely more on Gru and the colorless Dru was a tactical error.

There’s enough here to keep the kids entertained and clearly they were – the movie was the only summer release to gross more than a billion dollars at the worldwide box office. However, parents who decide to rent or buy this one might want to find a reason to leave the room when the kids are watching.

REASONS TO GO: There are some great “mom” moments. Some of the gadgets are clever.
REASONS TO STAY: The franchise feels like it’s running out of steam. The film could have used more Minions and less Dru.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of cartoon action and some rude humor (if your kid goes ape for fart jokes, you might want to think twice about letting them see this).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elsie Fisher who voiced Agnes in the first two films was replaced by Scharrel because Fisher had outgrown the role.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Minions
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Man Who Invented Christmas

Sing


Ta-da!

Ta-da!

(2016) Animated Feature (Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, John C. Reilly, Tori Kelly, Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson, Garth Jennings, Nick Kroll, Peter Serafinowicz, Beck Bennett, Jay Pharoah, Nick Offerman, Leslie Jones, Rhea Perlman, Laraine Newman. Directed by Garth Jennings

 

It is said by some, not without justification, that this is the golden age of animation. Studios like Pixar, Ghibli and Laika consistently turn out features that enchant, illuminate, entertain and excite. They don’t dumb down their movies to basic levels because these studios have more respect for kids than that; they create stories that address things that matter, create unforgettable characters and transport us to worlds that elicit wonder.

And then there’s Illumination. The studio, which has a long term deal with Universal, hit their first pitch out of the park with Despicable Me but their output since then has left a lot to be desired. Their world building has been haphazard and their stories basic, utilizing cliché over imagination and marketing opportunities over characters. It is, in every sense of the word, corporate animation.

Sing is meant to appeal to those who find American Idol and America’s Got Talent to be supreme entertainment. It sends a message that anyone, no matter how large or small, can achieve their dreams if only…if only…well, if only someone markets a singing contest, which Buster Moon (McConaughey), a koala with a somewhat slippery moral compass, organizes in order to save his theater which is overrun by creditors and about to be seized by the bank. However, his ditzy assistant accidentally ups the amount of the prize from $1,000 to $100,000. Oops.

And so all sorts of animals inhabiting Anthropomorphic San Diego come crawling out of the woodwork to audition, including put-upon piggy mom Rosita (Witherspoon) who is in a perpetual state of exhaustion from taking care of 25 piglets and a seemingly uncaring husband (Kroll) who takes her for granted like a boss; Mike (MacFarlane), an arrogant mouse who cons his way through life and croons like one of the rat pack. Then there’s Ash (Johansson), a punk rock porcupine determined to emerge from the shadow of her boyfriend, and Meena (Kelly) an elephant with a case of stage fright as big as…an elephant. Finally there’s Johnny (Egerton – who has the best voice in the movie) who is the scion of a gorilla criminal and has the leather jacket to prove it, although just because this is a kid’s movie, Johnny has absolutely no criminal intent whatsoever. Get that kids? Crime doesn’t pay!

There are something like 85 songs (mostly snippets) that have at least some vague familiarity and are mostly from the last five years or so. In fairness, most of them are sung well or at least competently but it points out another depressing flaw in modern culture; we have become all about the singer and give absolutely no thought about the song. Apparently dreams should be about becoming stars, not becoming artists. Make money, not a lasting contribution to our culture is the message here.

Egerton is an amazing singer and McConaughey’s voice is virtually unrecognizable but it is still a fine vocal performance. To be fair the movie picks up steam in the second half and the finale is pretty nice, if predictable. While most of the animation is fairly rote it is at least entertaining to the undiscerning and some of the images are cute.

And it is this last adjective that really drives the movie; they’re not going for great, they’re going for cute. They want to see these characters on action figures, video games, fast food meals and whatever cross-promotional activity they can think up. You’ll walk out of the theater remembering none of the characters who were in it, nor will you be affected by the story in any way. What you will remember are the songs and if that’s all you’re after, that’s fine but what this amounts to is a 90 minute karaoke contest that really isn’t going to inspire repeated viewings unless you are six years old or the parent of one. Unless you have a child who absolutely insists on seeing this, there is far better movies that deserve your attention.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the animation is engaging and some of the performances are cute.
REASONS TO STAY: This is more of a marketing opportunity than a complete movie, with little thought given to characters other than how they’ll do as toys and absolutely no thought to story.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor but nothing most parents would be offended by.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marks the first occasion that Illumination has released two films in the same year. It is also the longest movie to date that Illumination has produced.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Idol
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: La La Land

The Late Bloomer


Touchdown!

Touchdown!

(2016) Romantic Comedy (Momentum) Johnny Simmons, Brittany Snow, J.K. Simmons, Maria Bello, Kumail Nanjiani, Blake Cooper, Paul Wesley, Jane Lynch, Lenora Crichlow, Joey Greer, Matt Jones, Beck Bennett, Jason Antoon, Sam Robards, Ileana Douglas, Laraine Newman, Brian Doyle-Murray, Bobby Flay, Page Tierney, Vanessa Ragland, Lauren Shaw. Directed by Kevin Pollak

 

Puberty is an uncomfortable time for all of us. Most of us remember it with a mixture of wistfulness and downright embarrassment. Most of us wish we could have a do-over for that time in our life. Imagine going through it though when you’re thirty.

For Peter Newman (Simmons), that’s exactly what he’s facing. A successful sex therapist who advocates abstinence in his proto-bestselling book From Sex to Success, he’s had few romantic relationships and *gasp* no sex. Let’s just try and put aside for a moment that a virginal sex therapist is about as useful as a basketball coach who’s never even seen a single game of basketball played before.

Speaking of basketball, while playing a pick-up game a particularly vicious shot to the family jewels sends Peter to the E.R. where he discovers something alarming; there’s a tumor on his pituitary gland. Mind you, it’s benign but its presence kept Peter from entering puberty. Once removed, Peter is going to get the whole enchilada.

Yes that includes acne, inappropriate erections, a massive urge to masturbate and a squeaky, cracking voice at the worst possible moments. Worse yet, his crush – his neighbor Michelle (Snow) who has the world’s most inattentive boyfriend (Wesley) and a dream of becoming a celebrity chef – suddenly becomes the subject of his sexual desires, jeopardizing his friendship with her.

For his friends Rich (Nanjiani) and Luke (Bennett) this becomes the source of great amusement. For his parents (Bello, Simmons) this becomes a long-awaited relief. For his boss (Lynch) it becomes horribly inconvenient just when Peter’s renown is bringing his clinic a ton of new patients and new revenue. For Peter it is sheer torture as everything in his life changes in the wink of an eye.

Believe it or not, this is based on actual events. The subject in question is former E! Network reporter Ken Baker whose book Man Made: A Memoir of My Body is what the movie is based on. Incomprehensibly, the committee of six (!) writers who are responsible for this thing chose to change professions and turn an interesting take on sexuality and puberty into a cross between a raunchy sex comedy and a clichéd rom-com.

Pollak, the same guy with successful stand-up/impressionist and acting careers (if you haven’t seen his impressions of James T. Kirk and Columbo, you’re missing something) was motivated to make a movie out of this story but something tells me that the script wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. Still, the veteran Pollak could call on friends to do him a solid which explains the really top-notch cast. Simmons and Bello shine as Peter’s hippie parents and Lynch as always is dry as a bone in her delivery but charismatic as hell onscreen.

There is certainly room for a great movie here; Baker’s story actually has a good deal of humor in it and some real insight into sexual stereotypes, growing up, and the role of sex in modern society. We really get none of that here; mostly the humor is crude and juvenile which wouldn’t be a bad thing if the jokes were a bit funnier – or to be fair, if more of them were as there are I have to admit some genuine laughs here. There just aren’t enough of them to overcome a script that is riddled with cliches and an ending that recalls the worst aspects of sitcom writing.

REASONS TO GO: A really fascinating subject for a movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Juvenile humor and bland writing-by-committee torpedo what could have been a terrific film.
FAMILY VALUES:  You’ll find plenty of sexual content (much of it of the juvenile variety), profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Wesley and Snow previously starred in the short-lived television show American Dreams.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forty Year Old Virgin
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

WALL-E


Apparently a robot can have more humanity than any presidential candidate.

Apparently a robot can have more humanity than any presidential candidate.

(2008) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver, Teddy Newton, Ben Bergen, John Cygan, Pete Docter, Paul Eiding, Don Fulilove, Teresa Ganzel, Jess Harnell, Laraine Newman, Andrew Stanton, Jeff Pidgeon, Jim Ward, Sherry Lynn, Lori Alan. Directed by Andrew Stanton

800 years from now, Earth is an empty, dead garbage dump. It is no longer capable of supporting life. In this whimsical, magical animated tale from the geniuses at Pixar, it is tended to by WALL-E, who compacts the trash and stacks the bricks, trying to tend the planet until its human inhabitants return, but it is another robot – EVE – who returns and discovers a tiny little plant growing. She and WALL-E miraculously fall in love with each other, but EVE must report back to the Axiom that it is time for humanity to return.

Humanity, however, has become obese and lazy their every need tended to by robots who have a different program in mind. Beautifully animated with tons of heart, this is one of Pixar’s finest animated films and clearly one of the best animated features of all time. The slapstick humor may be a little much for some (reportedly director Andrew Stanton and many of the top creative people behind the movie watched scores of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin movies for inspiration) but there is virtually no dialogue which helps make the magic even more…um, magical. This is definitely one of my favorite movies ever and it bears plenty of re-watching. Even Peter Gabriel’s closing credits song is perfect.

WHY RENT THIS: This is simply one of Pixar’s best ever. There are some big ideas made palatable for all ages. Love is front and center here. The characters are memorable and cute.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find it a little too slapstick for their tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When WALL-E has fully recharged his solar batteries, he makes the same sound as the Apple “Boot-Up” chime which every Apple computer has made since 1996 but is finally being retired later this year.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 3-Disc DVD set includes the short Presto which was shown before the theatrical release of WALL-E, as well as a short focusing on the welding robot BURN-E, a series of promos for the Buy ‘N Large corporation (including a training video), a kid-friendly guide to the 28 robots shown in the film as well as a digital storybook read by Kathy Najimy featuring the characters from WALL-E. The 2-disc Blu-Ray also includes the full length documentary The Pixar Story and several 8-bit arcade-type games featuring the characters of the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $533.2M on a $180M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silent Running
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

The Secret Life of Pets


Just one big happy family.

Just one big happy family.

(2016) Animated Feature (Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan, Michael Beattie, Sandra Echeverria, Jaime Camel, Kiely Renaud, Jim Cummings, Laraine Newman, Tara Strong. Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney

 

We all lead busy lives. We spend most of our waking hours at work or school, hanging out with friends, being everywhere but at home. Those of us who own pets know that one of the best things about leaving the house is coming back home to our beloved fur babies (and scale babies and feather babies). Dogs, with their over-the-top “I thought I was never going to see you again” greetings, cats with their indifference – it doesn’t matter. We are always happy to see our pets. But have you ever wondered what your pets are up to while you’re out earning a living?

Wonder no more. The filmmakers behind the Despicable Me franchise have figured it out for you. Max (C.K.) is a pampered terrier living in a New York apartment with his sweet owner Katie (Kemper) to whom he is absolutely devoted as only a dog can be. Elsewhere in the apartment complex are a menagerie of pets – a fluffy Pomeranian named Gidget (Slate) who has a major crush on Max, the good-hearted but not-bright bulldog Mel (Moynihan), the punk poodle Buddy (Buress), Chloe (Bell), a cat with the kind of appetite that would put a competitive eater to shame and Norman (C. Renaud), a guinea pig lost in the air ducts for two weeks.

Max’s world is turned upside down though when Katie brings home Duke (Stonestreet), a shaggy bear of a dog who is a rescue pet. She introduces him as his new brother, but Max isn’t so sure. The ginormous Duke quickly takes over all of Max’s creature comforts from his plush doggie bed to his bowl of kibble. For his part, Duke sees Max as a rival for Katie’s affection who needs to be put in his place. The two begin to conspire against each other, which leads to the two of them after a somewhat unlikely series of events being stranded outside of the apartment.

Chased by animal control and a group of pets who had been abandoned or flushed out into the sewers, led by a manic bunny named Snowball (Hart) who has a thing against pampered pets, the two flee through the streets of Brooklyn, trying to find their way back home to Katie. Forced to work together, they develop a grudging respect for one another. However, Gidget isn’t letting Max down; she organizes the rest of the pets into a rescue team. Aided by Tiberius (Brooks), a hawk who is trying to keep his appetite under control, and Pops (Carvey), a partially paralyzed beagle who has “connections,” will they find their friends before one of the two groups chasing them do, or will Max and Duke make it home on their own? Or will everyone fail, leaving the two “brothers” at the mercy of animal control or the homicidal bunny?

I was a little bit disappointed by the movie. The animation is top notch and is definitely a love letter to New York, which is rendered with charming detail. It’s the idealized New York of Gershwin and dozens of sitcoms since, and it works as a believable environment for the characters. The cast of some of the best comedians working in the business today deliver their lines with snap and patter and there are plenty of moments that are laugh-out-loud funny for both parents and their kids.

The problems are however that you feel that you’re watching a bunch of other movies. There are a ton of references to other films, stylistically, subtly, sometimes in your face and through little Easter Eggs. It’s the kind of pop culture deluge that made some of the later Shrek films kind of a slog. While I liked the concept just fine, the execution was where it fell down. The middle third – which commences once Max and Duke leave the apartment – goes at a bit of a crawl. Yes, the animation is wonderful but I found it a bit of a bore to be brutally honest.

In a summer where it seems family movies are king, The Secret Life of Pets has been a blockbuster and a sequel has already been greenlit. I don’t know that I liked this as much as some of the other animated features I’ve seen this year – to be honest few of them have really been better than average – but there is enough to satisfy the target audience nicely and not be too difficult for a parent to sit through multiple times. I certainly have no difficulty imagining that this will be a regular request for kids once it hits the home video market. Still, I would have liked it to be a bit less pop culture-oriented and a bit more timeless, like some of the films it paid homage to. The Secret Life of Pets had all the ingredients it needed to be a classic and at the end of the day, it’s just a decent kid-flick. That’s not nearly good enough given what it could have been.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really funny sequences here. The animation is superb.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags quite a bit over the middle third. It’s a little too derivative for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES:  A little bit of rude humor and cartoon action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film to gross over $100 million in it’s opening weekend that isn’t a sequel or based on previously released material.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Equals

Minions


Scarlet Overkill attempts to kill the Minions with kindness.

Scarlet Overkill attempts to kill the Minions with kindness.

(2015) Animated Feature (Universal) Starring the voices of Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, Geoffrey Rush, Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Katy Mixon, Michael Beattie, Hiroyuki Sanada, Dave Rosenbaum, Alex Dowding, Paul Thornley, Ava Acres, Carlos Alazraqui, Lori Alan, Laraine Newman, Mindy Sterling. Directed by Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin

We know the villains. They are often flamboyant, deliciously evil and unforgettable. But what of their henchmen? What of the cannon fodder they send to take on the hero, or to do whatever nefarious deed needs doing. What of them?

Master criminal Gru (Carell) has long been supported by his yellow pill-like Minions (all voiced by Coffin), odd creatures in denim overalls, usually with two eyes (occasionally with just one) who speak an odd high-pitched patois of every language on Earth as well as some gibberish that sounds like a 33 1/3 vinyl album played at 45 RPM (ask your parents or grandparents; they’ll understand the reference). But where do these non-human creatures come from?

It turns out from right here. An amusing opening sequence (much of which is seen in the trailer) shows them evolving from single-celled organisms who are determine that the best way for them to survive in a hostile world is to find the biggest, baddest villain they can, serve him and by doing so, come under his protection.

This goes badly for the Minions. It isn’t so much that their masters turn on them, as you might expect that evil villains might. It’s just that the Minions, in trying to serve, have an unnerving knack of killing their masters by accident. This causes the Minions to sink into a deep depression.

One of their number by the name of Kevin won’t sit idly by for this. He determines to leave their ice cave lair and find a new boss to serve. To accompany him will be Stuart, a would-be rock and roller, and Bob, the most adorable Minion and perhaps the most enthusiastic.

As the Minions have been in hiding for a number of years, the world has changed somewhat since last they had been seen. It is 1968 and it is New York City. You’d think that Minions would find plenty of villains there but they discover that, rather, Orlando is the place to be. That’s because a convention of evildoers is about to convene in The City Beautiful in the years Before Disney.

They hitch a ride with Walter (Keaton) and Madge Nelson (Janney) who are driving down to Orlando with their kids. It turns out that they are villains as well, expert bank robbers. And there are a number of Villains who might be worthy of the Minions, like Professor Flux (Coogan) or Sumo (Sanada). However, the biggest baddest villain of them all is Scarlet Overkill (Bullock) who it so happens is hiring.

Kevin, Bob and Stuart get the gig and go to London in Scarlet’s private jet (apparently crime does pay after all) where they meet her mechanical genius of a husband Herb (Hamm). Scarlet’s already got a job in mind for the adorable yellow Minions; to steal the crown of Queen Elizabeth (Saunders). Easy peasy, right? Of course, the Minions make a hash of it and things go rapidly downhill from there.

There has been a tendency in the world of animated features of late to populate them with adorable supporting creatures, from the slugs of Flushed Away to the penguins of Madagascar. Sometimes these creatures are more interesting than the main characters (see Skrat, Ice Age). The Minions may be the best of these, entirely incompetent but always worth a giggle. They often upstage Gru in his own movies.

They actually do an adequate job of carrying their own movie as well, although not a spectacular one. While their Minion language gets a bit old in its indecipherable glory, it still gets the message across. Their simplicity appeals to children who tend to like their characters to be uncomplicated and the Minions are definitely that.

The entertainment factor is solid. There are plenty of sight gags that are clever although truth be told they occasionally are too clever for their own good (like the Minions emerging from a sewer on Abbey Road only to be stepped on by Four sets of Fabulous feet at the crosswalk. It’s a famous album cover – ask your parents or your grandparents, they’ll understand the reference.

But the problem here is that there really is no there there, as Gertrude Stein might say. It’s entertaining, but only that; the content is so light and airy that the slightest of breezes will blow the whole thing away like a dandelion in spring. The story, while disposable, grinds to a halt in a few places and unnecessarily so. There were some scenes the movie could well have done without.

I would have thought that the Minions could have survived on their own but it turns out that they need Gru more than he needs them, which comes as a bit of a shock. At the end of the day, they are supporting characters and because they are meant to be in the background, they don’t really make an impression in the foreground for the hour and a half running time. This really feels like a Saturday morning cartoon stretched out to feature length, and while that may be a bit harsh and perhaps unjustified, nonetheless that’s the impression I walked out with. It’s entertaining enough that if you take your kids to see it you won’t be unbelievably bored (as with several animated features from last year) but at the very least this movie will make you appreciate Gru all the more.

REASONS TO GO: Reasonably entertaining for both parents and children. Minions are adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: Disposable fluff.  Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of slightly rude humor and animated action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Kevin, Bob and Stuart are watching Scarlet Overkill’s presentation at Villain-Con, Gargamel from the Smurfs can be seen sitting directly in front of them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flushed Away
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Ant-Man

Inside Out (2015)


Antonin Scalia reacts to recent Supreme Court decisions.

Antonin Scalia reacts to recent Supreme Court decisions.

(2015) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Bobby Moynihan, Paula Pell, Dave Goelz, Frank Oz, John Ratzenberger, Josh Cooley, Flea, Carlos Alazraqui, Laraine Newman, Rashida Jones. Directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo del Carmen

Growing up can be a dangerous thing. There are no manuals on how to deal with our emotions; we just have to do the best we can, which is generally not good enough. All we can do is learn from our mistakes and realize that it is okay not to be happy and cheerful every minute of every day.

11-year-old Riley (Dias) and her Mom (Lane) and Dad (MacLachlan) have moved to San Francisco from Minnesota and the usually cheerful Riley is not happy about it. She misses her friends, she misses playing hockey – a sport she loves and excels at – and she misses the shall we say less urban environment of her old home.

Up in her head, Riley’s emotions are working double time. In charge (more or less) is Joy (Poehler), a sprite-like being who wants all of Riley’s memories to be happy. Working alongside her are Sadness (Smith), Anger (Black), Disgust (Kaling) and Fear (Hader). Sadness is a squishy blue teardrop, Anger a red brick who sometimes blows flames out of his head, while Disgust is broccoli-green and Fear is a twitchy pipe cleaner with a bow tie.

The emotions work in Headquarters, the part of her brain where the emotions exert control and memories are made and separated into storage – long term, short term and core. “Islands” are formed by her core memories, helping to establish Riley’s personality – love of hockey, honesty, love of family, imagination and so on. A variety of workers keep the memories stored and occasionally, dump them to disappear (Phone numbers? Doesn’t need them. She keeps them in her phone) and make room for new ones. The memories manifest as little globes like pearls, colored by whatever emotion is associated with that memory although Sadness has discovered that when she touches a memory, the emotional hue can change.

Not long after that, a series of accidents strands Joy and Sadness together in the long term memory area of Riley’s head. Worse yet, the core memories have accidentally been sent there, which will slowly lead to her personality islands crumbling away. Joy and Sadness will have to work together to get those core memories back to Headquarters. They’ll be aided by Bing Bong (Kind), Riley’s imaginary playmate whom she hasn’t thought of in years. But they’ll have to hurry; Anger, Disgust and Fear have been left in charge and their decision-making process is, to say the least, untrustworthy.

This is one of the most imaginative animated features in years. Say what you want about the execution of the movie (which is, by the way, pretty dang nifty) but the concepts here are much different than any animated movie – or movie of any other kind – you’re likely to encounter.

The vocal performances are solid, albeit unspectacular although the casting of Black as Anger was inspired if you ask me. He steals the show whenever his rage button is pushed, which is frequently. Poehler gets the bulk of the dialogue as Joy but Kaling, Smith and Hader also get their moments and all of them encapsulate their emotional counterparts nicely.

True to its subject matter, the movie moves from whimsical (as when Bing Bong, Joy and Sadness move through the subconscious and change forms to two-dimensional and into Depression era animated figures) to downright moving (Bing Bong’s plaintive expression of his desire to make Riley happy, despite the fact that she’s forgotten him). While the emotional resonance of Wall-E and Toy Story 3 aren’t quite there, it still packs quite a powerful emotional punch in places. Softies, beware and bring plenty of tissue.

The only real quibble I have with the movie is that from time to time the story is not as straightforward as it is with other Pixar films and it might be a tad difficult to follow for younger kids, who will nonetheless be quite happy with the colors and shapes of the new characters that are likely to dominate the toy merchandise this summer (at least, until the new Minions movie comes out). It also has a tendency to set us up with what appear to be rules to follow only to do something a bit different. I’m not a stickler for such things – this is an animated feature, not a documentary – but some people who are anal about it might have issues.

The lesson to be learned here for kids is that it’s okay to be sad, or angry, disgusted or even afraid. It isn’t a requirement to be happy all the time – nobody is. We all must, sooner or later, deal with all of our emotions, even the not so nice ones. All of them are there for a reason.

Despite the minor flaw and given all of the movie’s strengths I found this movie to be beautifully rendered with a wonderfully imaginative setting and characters I could get behind. The storyline isn’t earth-shattering – essentially it’s about a disgruntled 11-year-old girl who wants to go back to the home she’s used to and acts out because of it – but all of us can relate to dealing with emotions, either because we know an eleven year old or at least been an eleven year old. Pixar has been on a bit of a cold streak as of late but this movie reminds us of how great this studio is and how much they have contributed to the animated feature genre. This is a gem, destined to be another in a long line of Pixar classics.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative and different. Moving in places. Teaches kids that it’s okay to have negative emotions as well.
REASONS TO STAY: Can be confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements may be a bit much for the very small; there is also some animated action and a few images that might be frightening for the less mature child.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mindy Kaling was reportedly so moved by the script that she burst into tears during the initial meetings with director Pete Docter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up
FINAL RATING: 8,5/10
NEXT: Ted 2

The Boxtrolls


I'll have some eggs with that.

I’ll have some eggs with that.

(2014) Animated Feature (Focus) Starring the voices of Ben Kingsley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning, Dee Bradley Baker, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Steve Blum, Nika Futterman, Pat Fraley, Fred Tatasciore, Max Mitchell, Maurice LaMarche, Laraine Newman, Brian George. Directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable

We have a tendency to look down upon those who aren’t members of our economic and/or ethnic stratum. If we are rich, the poor receive our disdain. If we are middle-class, we hate the rich. If we are white, we mistrust those whose skin tones are darker. And of course, right back at the whites from the other ethnic groups.

We might paraphrase Tom Lehrer when talking about this film; “All the red hats hate the white hats, and the white hats hate the red hats…and everybody hates the Boxtrolls.” That’s because these underground dwellers who come to the surface each night to scavenge refuse and spare parts have stolen a baby and killed his father, which according to exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley) was for a delectable Boxtroll delicacy. Snatcher, a red hat, has long coveted a white hat and sees the Boxtrolls as his ticket to le chapeau blanc. Lord Portley-Rind (Harris), whose main concern is cheese – the town of Cheesebridge is famous for their fromage – absently grants Snatcher his wish. Provided, of course, that he rids the town of every last one of the vermin.

The problem is with the scenario is that the Trubshaw baby isn’t residing in the belly of a Boxtroll. Nor is he even dead. The kindly Boxtrolls have adopted the young orphan and given him a box of his own to hide in – the Boxtrolls are timid creatures who have learned to hide and run rather than stand and fight. True to their custom, they have named the boy Eggs after the product that was stored in the box that he wears and uses as a convenient hiding place. Therefore other Boxtrolls are named Fish, Shoe, Fragile and Oil Can.

Winnie (Fanning), the spoiled daughter of Lord Portley-Rind, is fascinated by the Boxtrolls and by blood, guts and grimness in general. She is further fascinated by them when she discovers that a young boy her age is with them, although nobody believes her tale. When Eggs (Wright) returns to the surface during a cheese festival to try and stop the humans from stealing his friends and releasing those who are imprisoned, he runs into Winnie. She of course doesn’t believe his assertion that the Boxtrolls are gentle and far from dangerous. They are builders, not destroyers.

As it turns out, Snatcher has a fiendish plan in mind which if his henchmen Trout (Frost) and Pickles (Ayoade) had known about they might have had a philosophical issue with. It would mean the extermination of every Boxtroll in town – including Eggs. And as Lord Portley-Rind obliviously chews his cheese, his daughter Winnie realize that it will be up to her and Eggs to save the day if the Boxtrolls are to survive.

Based on a lavishly illustrated almost 600 page children’s book by British author Alan Snow entitled Here Be Monsters, this is the third movie from Laika, the stop-motion animation studio that previously brought us Coraline and ParaNorman. Like those films there is definitely a supernatural bent to the movie. Like those films, the painstaking process includes a fantastically detailed background with meticulously crafted characters.

Kingsley’s normally mild voice is given a kind of over-the-top Cockney villain infusion, breathing life into a character who has allowed his dreams to warp him. He will achieve that goal no matter what it costs and the devil help whomever gets in his way because God surely won’t. Equal parts Snidely Whiplash, Wile E. Coyote, the Child Catcher (from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Monty Python, Archibald Snatcher is a memorable villain who will delight children and adults alike.

So too will the environment created both in the town, which is perched on a hill much like the Wedding Cake town of Gondor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy while the underground home of the Boxtrolls is filled with Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions, unexpected beauty and plenty of gross protein. The entrance into their world is through fun looking slides which would be a slam dunk if Universal ever decides to put a Boxtrolls-themed play area for children in one of its theme parks.

Although Laika is based in the Pacific Northwest, the movie has a definite British sensibility (the source material is, after all, English) not only in the accents but also in the humor; all it lacks is Graham Norton skulking about looking for celebrities to interview. Anglophobes, take note.

Also the story is a bit simplistic which of course comes with the territory when adapting children’s books. While there is plenty of subversive class conscious mockery going on, there are definite bad guys and good guys. Even Archibald Snatcher’s motivation isn’t too hard to understand; if this weren’t geared for kids I suspect they would have made the character a little less malevolent and more sympathetic. I would have liked that myself because, after all, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to better your situation. The issue comes when you give up your humanity in order to do so and perhaps that’s the point they’re making, but even so I think it would have been more poignant if they’d made Archibald a decent fellow to begin with.

But that might not have worked so well with little kids who need someone with a black hat to boo. There is nothing really scary about the Boxtrolls other than maybe a scene or two when one or more of the characters is in grave peril but there isn’t anything wrong with bringing your littlest tykes into this one. It’s fun, there’s a definite Halloween vibe to it and adults will be as enchanted as their rugrats at the movies and in a year of mediocre family entertainment at best, this one stands out as pure gold.

REASONS TO GO: Wacky and as enchanting for adults as it is for kids. Kingsley voices one of the greatest villains of recent animated films. Beautiful stop-motion animation.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too British for some. Plot can be simplistic.
FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of rude humor, some peril and a bit of animated action. Okay for most kiddies.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pegg and Frost, good friends in real life, didn’t find out until after they’d recorded their portions of the dialogue that they’d both lent their voices to the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monsters, Inc.
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Trade

Despicable Me 2


Gru's angels.

Gru’s angels.

(2013) Animated Feature (Universal) Starring the voices of Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Miranda Cosgrove, Russell Brand, Ken Jeong, Steve Coogan, Elsie Fisher, Dana Gaier, Moises Arias, Nasim Pedrad, Kristen Schaal, Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud, Nickolai Stoilov, Vanessa Bayer, Ava Acres, Lori Alan, Laraine Newman. Directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin

It takes a thief to catch a thief, which sounds pretty logical on the surface although practically, it’s not absolutely true. However when chasing a thief, having a thief helps a whole lot.

Gru (Carell), master criminal, has given up thievery for a more suburban lifestyle raising up the three little girls who stole his heart in the first movie – Maggie (Cosgrove), Edith (Gaier) and Agnes (Fisher). He has gone from planning epic heists to planning birthday parties for Agnes. Dr. Nefario (Brand), Gru’s right hand man, has gone from designing super-weapons to designing a new kind of jam (unsuccessfully). Gru is less despicable as he was in the first film and more domesticated.

However, Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League’s Nigel Ramsbottom (Coogan) to investigate the theft of an arctic research base. They’ve narrowed down the list of suspects to a group of business owners in a mall and send in Gru and his new partner Lucy Wilde (Wiig) as owners of a cupcake shop to investigate the mall and find out who the culprit is. Meanwhile, Gru’s minions are disappearing and Margo has found a boyfriend (Arias) who happens to be the son of Eduardo (Bratt), owner of a Mexican restaurant in the mall and one of the suspects.

Gru however lets his emotions overcome his better judgment and soon he finds himself discredited. But nothing is always as it seems and it will be up to Gru to save the day. The world is in deep, deep doo-doo (or Gru-Gru, if you prefer).

I liked the first movie a little better. The despicable Gru which captured my imagination is completely gone; the soft fuzzy Gru is all you’ll find here. The more fiendish Gru was in the first movie, the more fun the movie was. Now basically it must rely on the minions to generate any interest in anyone above the age of four.

Thankfully, the minions are up to the task and the little yellow gibberish talking creatures steal the movie the way Gru once stole the moon. They’re getting their first movie of their own next year (referenced during the end credits) and I have higher hopes for that one, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

Like most modern animated features, there are plenty of colors to keep the really little ones occupied, and plenty of slapstick humor to keep their older siblings in stitches. There isn’t as much really oriented towards their parents although they may find the scenes at the mall and in Eduardo’s rancho to be at least of mild interest. However, as much as they try to make Gru a kind of animated Maxwell Smart, the attempt fails – although it should be noted that Carell played the stumbling superspy in the recent Get Smart reboot and has at least some experience at it.

All the Bond-age in the world won’t save a movie with a lame plot and underdeveloped characters however and this one suffers from both of those ills. Some of the more elaborate gags elicited chuckles and some fell flat. Carell does his best with his odd Eastern European accent and Bratt, Coogan, Brand and Wiig do their best to support but most of the human characters are far too bland for us to care too much about. It’s the minions who capture our imagination and it appears that Universal is wisely going to place their focus there and quite frankly, that’s where it belongs.

REASONS TO GO: Minions, minions, minions! Gadgets and tomfoolery!

REASONS TO STAY: Lame plot and weak character development. Needs more despicableness.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of rude humor and some violence of a cartoon nature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The phone number that Lucy gives Gru is 626-584-5723. If called, you’ll get to hear Lucy’s outgoing voicemail message.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100; the reviews were pretty solid.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredibles

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Death Note