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

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13 Assassins (Jusan-nin no shikaku)


13 Assassins

I don't know if I could fight with a straight face against a bunch of guys with dinner plates on their heads.

(2010) Samurai (Magnet) Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yusuki Iseya, Goro Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Mikijiro Hira, Hiroki Matsukata, Ikki Sawamura, Arata Furuta, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Masataka Kubota, Sosuke Takaoka, Seiji Rokkaku. Directed by Takashi Miike

When you are trained to a life of service and honor is your most prized possession, justice is an important and necessary function of what you do. When justice is replaced by cruelty and barbarism, what is an honorable man to do?

In feudal Japan, the tradition of the samurai is on the wane as the Land of the Rising Sun slowly but definitely approaches the Meiji era, kicking and screaming in some places. The Shogun is still the de facto political power, deriving his power from the Emperor but in many ways wreathed in more temporal power than he.

The one currently in power has appointed his half-brother (and son of the previous Shogun) Lord Naritsugu (Inagaki) as his heir and the head of the country. Naritsugu, however, is corrupt and amoral, raping and killing without fear of reprisal because of his standing. Even other feudal lords aren’t immune as he attacks members of other clans without conscience. The country is on the verge of being plunged into civil war and even the Shogun knows it. He cannot openly oppose his half-brother or demote him from his position; to do so would lose tremendous face for him. However, through back channels he approaches one of the few samurai left who are honorable but without master – Shinzaemon (Yakusho).

Shinzaemon is shown the proof of Naritsugu’s depravity; a limbless woman whose tongue has been torn out, the wife of a peasant who dared speak out against Naritsugu’s depravations. She has been repeatedly raped and when asked what became of her family, she took a brush in her mouth and wrote out the words “TOTAL MASSACRE” before letting loose a wordless animal scream that is as compelling a moment as you’ll see on the screen this year – and also much more indicative of Miike’s usual style.

Shinzaemon knows that Naritsugu will be nearly impregnable in his palace in Edo (Tokyo) but awaits him to leave for the long journey to his home castle. He knows that even the well-protected Naritsugu will be vulnerable on the road. He can’t have a very large army like Naritsugu does; a pitched conflict would probably not end well for Shinzaemon and quite frankly would further destabilize the situation.

No, this is meant to be an assassination and to make it happen, he enlists the help of twelve like-minded samurai, including his nephew Shinrouko (Yamada). The task is made doubly difficult because Shinzaemon’s protégé Hanbei (Ichimura) is Naritsugu’s bodyguard and while Hanbei doesn’t approve of what Naritsugu does, he is loyal to his master as a samurai should be and will protect him to the best of his abilities, which are considerable.

Shinzaemon’s plan is to divide Naritsugu’s forces and send him through a specific town. In order to do that, he has to bar his travel across a single bridge. Fortunately, the clan that owns that bridge is more than happy to send Naritsugu on his way. The stage is set but Shinzaemon has to get ahead of Naritsugu by traversing a mountain. Unfortunately he gets lost but he comes upon a hunter named Koyata (Iseya) who while descended of samurai stock actually finds the samurai quite boring and unexciting.

Once they get to the village they turn it into a death trap with hidden fortifications, explosives and burning bulls (CGI flames animal lovers – don’t get your panties in a twist). However when Naritsugu arrives later than anticipated, Shinzaemon’s plan is thrown into disarray when it is discovered that rather than the 70 soldiers that they estimated he had with him, he has more than 200, a ploy used by the clever Hanbei to buy time to get reinforcements.

This leads to an epic battle in which much blood will be spilled, heads will roll, heroes will fall and Hanbei and Shinzaemon will cross swords at last. Will justice be served?

Miike is best known for his twisted and sometimes graphic horror films, but there are some who find his sensibilities a bit of an acquired taste. Fortunately, it’s a taste I’ve acquired. Miike has a reputation for deconstructing different genres when he attempts them (slasher horror, superhero and so on). He is incredibly prolific although this one seems to have taken more time than he usually does.

In fact, in a somewhat surprising move, Miike has opted to play this one more or less straight (other than a few occasional images including the limbless lady) which considering the depravity of Naritsugu probably brought up a few of Miike’s admirers up short. Samurai movies are a staple of Japanese cinema, and pretty much reached their nadir with Seven Samurai, Kurosawa’s epic (which inspired, among other things, The Magnificent Seven. This is based on a movie from the same era from a different director and perhaps more in need of a remake but Miike does surprisingly well.

The cinematography is beautiful and ugly at once, with lush Japanese countrysides and bucolic villages combined with horrifying images of brutal violence. The final battle sequence takes up nearly half the movie and is the reason you’re going to either love this movie or hate it; some will find the sequence too overwhelming and over-the-top, some too long and others might even find it not long enough. In any case, how you feel about battle sequences is largely going to determine how you feel about 13 Assassins.

The acting is pretty decent here. Of note is Japanese rock star Inagaki who plays the powerful Lord as almost childish in his petulance crossed with an amoral serial killer and rapist. He is completely corrupt and without any sort of morals – sort of like a Wall Street CEO who suddenly realizes he can get away with anything.

Yakusho is a big star in Japan and he shows why here. He is charismatic and powerful, a man used to being obeyed (at least Shinzaemon is) and certainly confident in his talents. Shinzaemon is a man worthy of respect (and if you don’t show him the respect he deserves, he’s liable to lop off your head) and is a worthy leader of these disparate samurai. Iseya provides much-needed comic relief. He is agile and monkey-nimble, but surprisingly strong using rocks and sticks to kill his armed and armored opponents.

Part of the movie’s problem is that 13 are really too many samurai for us to get to know properly. Most are little more than a single personality trait that quickly gets lost in the carnage. Remembering their names? Forget about it. I couldn’t always keep them straight and I’m usually pretty adept at that sort of thing.

What this boils down to is an epic struggle, one in which honor takes center stage. The honor of a man avenging injustice against the honor of a man defending his master until the bitter end. It is truly a morality play, Japanese-style and the swordplay and buckets of blood are merely window dressing on it. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like samurai films you’ll like this one. If you like extensive battle sequences showcasing the sword skills of samurai you’ll love this one. If you like character development, you might want to give this a pass.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of awesome battle sequences, lots of blood violence and a truly hiss-able villain.

REASONS TO STAY: A little on the too long side, and it is difficult for Western audiences to really get too involved with the individuals who, except for the top three or four leads, aren’t developed as characters very much.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of bloody violence, some disturbing images, a rape and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was based on an actual incident in feudal Japan, and was previously made into a black and white movie in 1963.

HOME OR THEATER: The epic scope of the film virtually screams theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Stuff

Timecrimes (Los cronocrimenes)


Timecrimes (Los cronocrimenes)

Now, there's a figure you'd hate to see coming at you in the woods.

(Magnet) Karra Elejalde, Candela Fernandez, Barbara Goenaga, Nacho Vigalondo, Ion Inciarte, Miguel Angel Poo, Libby Brien, Philip Hersh. Directed by Nacho Vigalondo

Movies about time travel always seem to focus in on the paradox that if you change the past, you affect the future in some way. However, it would be safe to say that since the very act of time travel changes the future, that in traveling through time, aren’t you really preserving the future?

Hector (Elejalde) is a middle-agent affluent Spaniard who has a beautiful summer home in the countryside of Spain that he has just moved into. His wife Clara (Fernandez) is as happy as a clam working out in the garden while Hector naps. She goes out grocery shopping and Hector decides to sit in his back yard with a pair of binoculars.

At first, he sees a pretty young woman (Goenaga) stripping her clothes off, which is more or less what every guy wants to see when he looks into a pair of binoculars. However, when it becomes clear that there’s something bad happening out in the woods, he goes out to investigate. When he finds her lying half-naked on the ground, apparently unconscious, he is suddenly and violently stabbed with a pair of scissors by a mysterious figure in a trenchcoat whose head is completely wrapped in pink bandages.

The mystery man chases Hector through the woods until Hector arrives at a strange scientific instillation. It’s apparently deserted, being a Sunday, but there is one scientist (Vigalondo) there and he urges Hector to run up the hill to an outbuilding where he can hide until the police come. Unfortunately the mysterious scissor stabber follows Hector up the path to the building and the scientist has Hector hide in a strange water-filled tank.

When Hector emerges, it is one and a half hours earlier. The scientist is astonished that the machine actually works…and tries to figure out what’s going on. All of a sudden there are two Hectors – the one who is just arriving at his house for a nap, the other having traveled back through time. But who is the mysterious figure in the pink bandages and why does he want to kill Hector? Hector needs to solve this mystery if he is to survive these time crimes.

Time travel movies can tend to be overly complex at times. When done well, like Back to the Future or Primer, they can be intriguing and very entertaining. When done badly, like A Sound of Thunder, they can be confusing and irritating. Fortunately, this one falls in the former category. Vigalondo doesn’t waste time with explaining how the time travel operates; it’s a McGuffin that really doesn’t need to be explained. Instead, he deals with the effects of the time travel on Hector and the people around him.

That’s a wise choice. Hector starts out as a fairly boring character but the more the movie goes along and Hector has to make terrible choices, the more interesting he becomes. That’s not to say sympathetic – as time goes by and we see the things he does to maintain the time continuum, he becomes a bit of a monster in some ways. However you’d have to wonder what you yourself would do under similar circumstances, not that you’d find yourself there mind you.

I admire the simplicity of the movie; there are very few characters to deal with and the action is kept to a few locations. However, that simplicity is overrun at times by the time travel paradoxes which are inevitable in a movie about time travel; you may find yourself scratching your head in confusion as I did from time to time. However, once Hector ventures out into the woods and sets this whole thing in motion, the tension level is kept at a very high level, making this a movie to see with someone you trust.

WHY RENT THIS: A wonderful thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat once the action begins.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Following the time travel paradoxes can be confusing at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity, violence and some very disturbing images. There is also a fairly hefty amount of blue language. I’d think this was okay for mature teens, but no younger.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The short film included on the DVD, 7:35 de la Manana, was nominated for a Best Live Action Short Film in 2005.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a short film from earlier in Vigalondo’s career called 7:35 de la Manana that is intriguing although not related to this movie, and an interesting but perhaps a trifle long featurette on the marketing of the movie through online interactive games and videos.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Miss March