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

New Releases for the Week of July 10, 2015


MinionsMINIONS

(Universal) Starring the voices of Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders, Steve Carell, Geoffrey Rush. Directed by Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin

Before Gru, the world’s greatest criminal mastermind, there were Minions and those Minions have been a merchandising bonanza for Universal. It was only inevitable that the cute little yellow pill-shaped creatures would get a movie of their own and here it is. Here we discover the story of the Minions, a race of creatures existing only to serve the greatest criminals of all time. However, in 1960s New York City, they discover that this could end up being a much more dangerous undertaking than ever before – and could mean the end of Minionkind forever.

See the trailer, clips, an interview and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website .
Release Formats: Standard, 3D (opens Thursday)
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG (for action and rude humor)

Amy

(A24) Amy Winehouse, Tony Bennett, Blake Fielder-Civil, Mitch Winehouse. Singer Amy Winehouse had the world by the tail. A Grammy winner with million-selling albums, she was bringing back jazz singing almost singlehandedly. She had an unusual honesty, confronting her own issues in song. And she had plenty of issues, including an unhealthy lifestyle and troubled relationships with people who didn’t have her best interests at heart, leading to a tragic end for what might have been a bright future.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language and drug material)

The Gallows

(New Line) Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford. Students at a small high school decide to honor a tragedy 20 years earlier in which the lead actor was killed during the performance of a play by re-enacting the play. Of course, they do it at night without any adult supervision which is dangerous enough but worse still, their “tribute” stirs up restless spirits they’d have been better off not disturbing.

See the trailer, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for some disturbing violent content and terror)

Self/Less

(Gramercy) Ryan Reynolds, Ben Kingsley, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode. When a billionaire discovers he has inoperable cancer, his prospects look grim. However, a radical new procedure allows him to transfer his consciousness into the body of a younger man who is brain-dead but otherwise healthy. Grasping at straws, he doesn’t ask too many questions until after the procedure is completed. Then he discovers that the origin of the body is not what he was told and that those who made this miracle happen will stop at nothing to keep their sinister plans from going public.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: R (for sequences of violence, some sexuality and language)

Testament of Youth

(Sony Classics) Alicia Vikander, Kit Harrington, Taron Egerton, Emily Watson. A woman, who sees her brother go marching off to World War I, decides to volunteer herself as a nurse thus beginning a journey into the horrors of war. Based on the memoirs of actual nurse Vera Brittain, this powerful indictment of war has been quietly flying under the critical radar thus far this year.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including bloody and disturbing war images)

Misery Loves Comedy


Hanks talks comedy.

Hanks talks comedy.

(2014) Documentary (Tribeca) Freddie Prinze Jr., Amy Schumer, Tom Hanks, Jim Gaffigan, Christopher Guest, Jon Favreau, Jason Reitman, Steve Coogan, Kathleen Madigan, Martin Short, Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Andy Richter, Jim Norton, Kelly Carlin, Marc Maron, Lewis Black, Bobby Cannavale, Kevin Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Chris Hardwick, Sam Rockwell, Jemaine Clement, Greg Proopst, Kumal Nanjiani, Jimmy Pardo, Maria Bamford. Directed by Kevin Pollak

Comedy is like a drug, both to the audience and the comedian. The audience uses the jokes as a means of escaping their daily lives, a way to find insight into those lives and a way to realize that just about nothing is above laughing at or about. The comedian feeds on their laughter, the laughter a validation of their craft and indirectly of themselves.

This documentary, directed by veteran comic, actor and impressionist Pollak who never appears on-camera but can be heard conducting the interview off-camera, has more than 40 subjects many of whom are on the A-list of stand-ups and several of whom have graduated on to bigger and better things. Some of the interviewees are comic actors, others directors of comedies. There are many more interviewees than we had room for at the top of this review, with Rob Brydon, Janeane Garafalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Jeffries, Robert Smigel, Larry Miller, David Koechner, Stephen Merchant, Nick Swardson, Gregg Hughes, William H. Macy and hordes of others.

The interviews don’t really go into the mechanics of comedy – putting together an act, writing jokes and so on – but more into how people become professional stand-ups. It looks at the influences of the various comics, and at what life events prompted them to become comedians. Many of the people interview have traumas at some point in their lives that prompted them to go into comedy, using standup almost as therapy.

It isn’t required for a comedian to be miserable, muses one of them, but “you have to know misery.” That makes a lot of sense when you think about it; to understand what makes people laugh you also have to understand what makes them cry. A good comedian can do both.

You do get a real sense of the insecurities that haunt a lot of the comics; they talk about what it’s like to bomb, what it’s like to kill and how comics bond together hoping that they all succeed. Nobody likes to follow a comic that bombed; the audience is less primed to laugh. When you follow someone who just killed, it’s not only easier to get the audience to laugh but they also laugh harder. Laughter multiplies exponentially.

One thing that is kind of glaring; there is only one African-American comic and no Latino comics among the forty or so interviewees and quite frankly, there’s too many interviewees to begin with. I would have liked to have seen a little more diversity in the interviews which might have given us some different perspectives. A lot of the stories the comics told about not being accepted in high school and so on were a little bit too similar; getting the perspective of minority comics might have really made for a more three-dimensional take on comedy than what we received.

Yes, there are a lot of laughs here but there are some truly affecting moments, as when Prinze talks about his father’s suicide and how it affected he and his mother. Indirectly, Prinze Junior went into stand-up mainly because his grandfather urged him to “clean up what your father effed up” which for a young kid can be kind of a daunting burden, considering the fame his dad had. Bamford also tells us about the first time she talked about her time in a mental hospital onstage, prompting others in the audience to shout out their own experiences. It must be a very powerful thing, having the ability to help others heal through the gift of laughter. It’s also a nice little grace note that the movie was dedicated to Robin Williams, whose suicide likely had people in the business thinking about the link between misery and comedy.

This isn’t a complete primer on what makes us laugh and how the people who make us laugh do it, but it does give us some insight into the mind of the standup comedian and of the others who make us laugh on the big and small screens. It is said that laughter is the best medicine; this is essentially over-the-counter stuff but it gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of laughs as you’d expect hanging out with comedians. Powerful in places. Gives the viewer a sense of what the life of a standup comedian is like and why people do it.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many interviewees and only one African-American one and no Latinos. A little bit too scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly foul language and some adult comedy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pollak is best known for his standup routine and celebrity impressions, most notably Peter Falk and William Shatner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aristocrats
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Water Diviner

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb


Even Ben Stiller's flashlight isn't enough to make up for the light that left us when Robin Williams passed away.

Even Ben Stiller’s flashlight isn’t enough to make up for the light that left us when Robin Williams passed away.

(2014) Family Adventure (Paramount) Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Dan Stevens, Ben Kingsley, Rebel Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Rami Malek, Skyler Gisondo, Patrick Gallagher, Mizuo Peck, Dick van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Andrea Martin, Rachael Harris, Brad Garrett (voice), Anjali Jay, Regina Taufen (voice). Directed by Shawn Levy

Some movies can be extremely poignant and bring a tear even to the most heartless of people. Sometimes movies are lent extra poignancy by real life circumstances.

Things at the Museum of Natural History in New York City couldn’t be going better. They’ve added a brand new planetarium and opening night is a dazzling affair. Larry Daley (Stiller) has set up quite the soiree with President Theodore Roosevelt (Williams), Attila the Hun (Gallagher) and Sacajawea (Peck) leading the way, along with some animated constellations and Trixie the T-Rex. However, things go terribly wrong; Attila and the Huns (sounds like a great name for a garage band) attack indiscriminately, Teddy reads lines from his nephew Franklin and the exhibits who have come to life basically aren’t acting like themselves.

Ahkmenrah (Malek) whose tablet possesses the magic to keep his son living, discovers that the tablet is corroding somehow but it seems to be tied in to the issues that the exhibits are having. He isn’t quite sure why it is corroding now nor how to stop it; the one who really knows about the tablet is his dad Merenkahre (Kingsley) who happens to be in the British Museum.

So it is that Larry heads to London, taking with him Akhmenrah and Teddy – as well as Sacajawea, Attila and the tiny cowboy Jebediah (Wilson) and Roman legionnaire Octavius (Coogan) and Dexter, the mischievous Capuchin monkey. They seek out dear old dad who tells them that the tablet needs moonlight in order to recharge; like a battery, the tablet is corroding. Seems a simple enough fix.

Of course not. The vainglorious Sir Lancelot (Stevens) has seen the magic properties of the tablet and figures out that this is the Holy Grail he was sent to find and he can thus bring it back to Camelot and claim Guinevere to be his very own. The rest of them need the tablet to continue being reanimated at night; without it they’ll be permanent wax figures and thus the chase is on with the stakes being incredibly high.

I haven’t had a real love affair with this series but neither have I particularly hated it either. All three of the movies in the franchise I have found to be competently done entertainment. Many critics have lamented the waste of talent and I can’t say as I don’t disagree but for what the film is intended to be, it is successful.

There are moments that are the highlights of the series, as the penultimate scene that takes place on the roof when Dexter is stricken. There is some real tenderness in that moment and when Dexter whimpers it was a real shot to the heart and some of the more tender-hearted kids in the audience reacted so you might want to be sure your kids can handle an animal in distress, or the grieving that comes with impending loss. Other moments of grace include bringing back the trio of security guards (Van Dyke, Cobb and Rooney) who initiated the events of the movie originally.

There are also moments that remind me why I never warmed to the series in the first place, like Larry having a conversation about parenting with Laa (also Stiller), a caveman who seems to understand what Larry is saying but through a much simpler filter. Also Dexter saves Octavius and Jebediah from a lava flow in Pompeii by relieving himself on the lava – and on the figures. Nice.

While the chemistry between Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan is genuine, the same is not true for the rest of the cast. Mostly it seems very much like a paycheck rather than a passion project and for good reason. As much as the highbrow aim is to educate as well as entertain, they really don’t do very much of the former whenever they have a chance for the latter. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but when the humor is as unmemorable as the humor is here, there’s a problem. Rebel Wilson, for example, who plays an oversexed and dimwitted British security guard, is utilized poorly.

There is a vibe of finality to the film which isn’t entirely due to the movie itself; the passing of Williams and Rooney adds to that feeling. We are in essence saying good-bye to both of them which adds to the poignancy of the final scenes. While I was entertained in places and touched in others however, the movie isn’t cohesive enough to really keep my interest for the full length of the movie. Like an under-powered train chugging into the engine with its fuel exhausted, the franchise barely has enough in it to make it through the shortest running time of any of its films. Worth seeing? More or less but more to say goodbye to two of the greatest to ever walk onto a sound stage than for anything onscreen.

REASONS TO GO: Very touching in some places, especially on the British Museum rooftop. A nice way to say farewell to Mickey Rooney and Robin Williams.
REASONS TO STAY: Pretty generic and bland. Humor is of the lowest common denominator sort.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mildly foul language, a bit of peril and some humor of the pee-pee doo-doo kind.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Nick (Larry’s son) was played by Jake Cherry in the first two films; Gisondo plays him here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mannequin
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Force Majeure

The Trip to Italy


Behind Brydon and Coogan, things get a little less clear.

Behind Brydon and Coogan, things get a little less clear.

(2014) Comedy (IFC) Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Marta Barrio, Rosie Fellner, Timothy Leach, Ronni Ancona, Rebecca Johnson, Alba Foncuberta, Flora Villani. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Florida Film Festival 2014

Some may remember the 2010 British road trip comedy The Trip with British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing fictionalized versions of themselves going to the North of England to review fine dining restaurants for a newspaper. The two comedians got to riff with one another and trade impressions, check out locations made famous by poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and take stock of their careers and lives. The movie did surprisingly well in the States, amassing a cult following and becoming a popular rental on Netflix.

Now it’s time for the sequel and as we all know the sequel is supposed to be bigger, better and more of the same things that made the first film successful. This particular sequel adheres to that formula and does it well enough to make that rarest of the rare – a sequel that surpasses its original.

This time, it is Brydon – the happily married man – who is given the assignment to write restaurant reviews but this time it’s not the North of England but the Amalfi coast of Italy that is the destination and it is Coogan, whose American television show that he had accepted at the conclusion of the first movie has just been canceled, as the plus one.

The roles are somewhat reversed as Brydon, whose marriage seems to have lost its spark, flirts and at last has an affair with a pretty boat captain (Fellner) while Coogan goes all-out to reconnect with his son (Leach) whom he has rescued from a “boring Ibiza trip.” Yeah, we all know those endless discos and beach days can be a drag.

Like the first movie, the two comedians display dueling celebrity impressions, trade zingers and follow English romantic poets (in this case Shelley and Keats) while sampling gourmet food (with plenty of food porn shots) and seemingly ignoring the grand vistas of the Amalfi coast. Winterbottom makes sure that there are plenty of homages to Hollywood classics from the Mini-Cooper that the two men rent (from the original The Italian Job) to the spectacular cliffside Casa Malaparte that Godard used to such great effect in Contempt to the Camparian villa where John Huston and Humphrey Bogart shot parts of Beat the Devil.

And of course those impressions I mentioned. Expanding on the Michael Caine-a-rama that they utilized in the first movie, they expand it into a Batman-centric affair which morphs into a harried assistant director trying to get Tom Hardy to enunciate more clearly as Bane. It is one of the more hysterical moments you’ll see all year.

There’s also Brydon’s signature Small Man in a Box which he uses in Pompeii to our great amusement and Coogan’s disgust. I have to admit that it was a bit irreverent but I think we can safely say it’s not too soon.

I hope the two men continue to make movies together in this fashion (this is actually their third venture with Winterbottom playing versions of themselves). Hopefully this will achieve the kind of success the first film did, pulling in north of two million dollars which for an indie which got virtually no promotion is outstanding. This is actually opening in July (and is slated to come to the Enzian the following month) but as this is the last of my Florida Film Festival reviews for awhile, hopefully this will whet your appetite (figuratively and literally) for the movie when it does make its way to a theater (hopefully) near you.

REASONS TO GO: Coogan and Brydon are just as funny together. Wonderful cinematography.

REASONS TO STAY: Pretty much the same film as the first only more of it.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of salty language here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As with the first movie, first saw the light of day as a miniseries on the BBC which was later condensed down to feature film form for theatrical release.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Life in Ruins

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Fault in Our Stars

Philomena


Judi Dench tries to break Steve Coogan's delusion gently that he would have made a great James Bond.

Judi Dench tries to break Steve Coogan’s delusion gently that he would have made a great James Bond.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare WInningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Sean Mahon, Peter Hermann, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley, Wummi Mosaku, Amy McAllister, Charlie Murphy, Cathy Belton, Kate Fleetwood, Charissa Shearer, Nika McGuigan. Directed by Stephen Frears

A mother’s love cannot be broken. Not even separation can diminish it – tear a mother and a child away from each other and she’ll move heaven and earth to find her baby. While any woman can have a baby, not every woman is cut out to be a mother. Some however are not given the choice.

Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is at a crossroads, trying to re-assess and reinvent his life. Sacked as the communications director for the Labour Government’s Minister of Transport, Local Governments and Regions, he is unsure whether he is going to write a book about Russian history or take up running.

At a party he meets a waitress named Jane (Martin) who overhears a conversation between Martin and editor Sally Mitchell (Fairley) about human interest stories. She figures she has a whopper but Martin politely declines. He doesn’t do human interest stories. However, as he comes to realize that he really has no other prospects and Mitchell is willing to publish, he decides to take it on.

Jane’s mother, Philomena Lee (Dench) as a young woman (Clark) had a baby out of wedlock. In 1950s Ireland, this was a major no-no. Her shamed family sent her to a convent where she had the baby (which was born in the breech position) without painkillers of any kind as penance for her sin. But did her penance end there? No. At three years old her son Anthony along with Mary, the daughter of her friend Kathleen (Murphy) are taken away and given up for adoption by the church to a wealthy American family. Anthony and Mary are driven away, Philomena screaming and sobbing behind them.

Over the course of the rest of her life she kept quiet about the incident. A devout Catholic, she was sure that this was nothing less than she deserved for breaking the laws of God. It wasn’t until nearly 50 years had passed that she confessed to her daughter Jane, who didn’t know before that moment that she had a brother.

Martin and Philomena go to the convent where she had given up her Anthony years before and found it a different place entirely. Sister Claire (Belton) is understanding but can offer no help – apparently the records of adoptions had been destroyed in a fire years before. It appears that Philomena’s quest has ended before it has begun, but while having a beer in the local pub Martin discovers that the records may have been burned intentionally and that most of the babies that had been given up for adoption by the convent had gone to America.

As it turns out, Martin had been a BBC correspondent once upon a time in the United States. With his contacts, there’s a good chance they might be able to find records on that side of the Atlantic. Philomena accompanies Martin across the pond and finds the whole experience delightful; business class, a posh hotel, breakfast buffets – all are new and wonderful to her. However, what they discover in America will turn things on their ear and change the very nature of Philomena’s quest.

Frears is one of the best directors working out there and he’s delivered another gem. Dench is a treasure in the title role. Philomena isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but what she lacks in book smarts she makes up for in wisdom and compassion. When Philomena describes the plot of a romance novel to Martin while in an airport, it is absolutely delightful, punctuated by “I didn’t see that one coming!” She also praises at least a dozen hotel workers as “one in a million.” Dench gives Philomena a certain amount of gravitas but not so much that the character becomes caricature. Instead, Philomena is chatty and a bit batty but at every moment we’re aware she’s on serious business and that her heart is just aching. Dench has a good shot at an Oscar nomination although Sandra Bullock may have a lock on the statue this February.

Coogan, best known for his comic turns, has been trying to take on some serious roles of late and this one is tailor made for his talents. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s also the co-writer and producer of the film but certainly he also makes Martin a study in contradictions – he has a sense of humor that he uses sometimes inappropriately and his people skills are a bit raw, particularly in that Martin can be condescending in places. However, he is also doggedly determined to see this thing through and is fiercely protective of Philomena by the movie’s end. He and Dench make a formidable pair.

In fact, it is their differences that make this movie so compelling. Martin is an atheist, Philomena a devout believer. Martin is angry, Philomena forgiving. There is a scene near the end of the film when Martin confronts Sister Hildegarde (Jefford), a nun who was in the convent at the time Anthony was given away. Martin’s anger boils over; Sister Hildegarde is unrepentant and essentially says that Philomena and the other girls like her deserved what they got for the premarital sexuality. It is Philomena who turns out to be the most Christ-like, forgiving Sister Hildegarde and the convent for their misdeeds. When Martin turns to her in amazement and says it’s easy to forgive, Philomena snaps that it isn’t easy at all. It’s bloody hard. But she does it because it is what Christ would want her to do. In her mind, she is remaining true to her faith – even if the church itself has not. It’s a powerful moment.

This is one that might get by even film buffs. With all the big Holiday blockbusters and Oscar contenders coming out, this might slip below your radar. Don’t let it. This is an amazing film that hits all the right notes. Even though occasionally it does twist the knife a little bit, it still manages to cover a difficult and painful subject compassionately, perhaps more so than I, a Catholic, would have in the same situation.

REASONS TO GO: Marvelous performances by Coogan and especially Dench. Gripping story.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally manipulative.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some fairly strong language at times, mature thematic material and some sexual situations and dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Home movies are used as a flashback device throughout the film. While some of these were created specifically for the movie, some are actual home movies of the real Philomena Lee’s son.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Magdalene Sisters

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: In Darkness

New Releases for the Week of November 29, 2013


Frozen

FROZEN         

(Disney) Starring the voices of Kristen Bell, Idris Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciaran Hinds. Edie McClurg. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee

In a kingdom of eternal winter, an optimistic and brave girl teams up with a rugged mountain man, his loyal reindeer and a bumbling snowman to take on the forces of magic that have locked it there. The trouble is that the evil witch holding the kingdom spellbound is her sister.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for some action and mild rude humor)

Black Nativity

(Fox Searchlight) Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Jacob Latimore. A streetwise teenage Baltimore boy is forced to spend the holidays with his strict and devout relatives the Rev. Cobbs and his wife. Unwilling to live by the strict rules imposed by the pastor, he decides that he will return home to his mother, opening himself up for an unexpected Christmas miracle.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Holiday Drama (opens Wednesday)

Rating: PG (for thematic material, language and a menacing situation)

The Book Thief

(20th Century Fox) Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Roger Allam. During the Second World War a spirited young girl is sent to live with a new family in Nazi Germany. In a place where books are routinely burned and ideas that conflict with official state policy are dangerous, she  finds courage in the immense power of words and books.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material) 

Bullett Raja

(Fox STAR) Saif Ali Khan, Sonakshi Sinha, Vidyut Jamwal, Jimmy Shergill. An ordinary man is pushed to the limit and turns to a life of crime. Now a powerful criminal, he declares war on Indian society in an effort to take down the corruption that forced him to the other side of the law.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Good Ol’ Freda

(Magnolia) Freda Kelly, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr. As a shy young teen in Liverpool, Freda Kelly was asked to work for a young local band with great aspirations. She became the secretary to the Beatles as well as their friend and confidante. This documentary tells her story set to the music of the Fab Four, offering a whole new perspective on the band that changed popular music – and world culture – forever.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG (for some thematic material and smoking)

Homefront

(Open Road) Jason Statham, James Franco, Winona Ryder, Kate Bosworth. When a DEA agent’s wife passes away, he leaves the agency to settle down in a small town community to raise his daughter quietly and get past his own grief. Unfortunately the town he chooses is far from quiet or quaint and soon he finds himself in a war that he will have to go all out to win and keep his daughter safe.

See the trailer, a featurette and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for strong violence, pervasive language, drug content and brief sexuality)

Oldboy

(FilmDistrict) Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley. An ad executive and family man is kidnapped and held in a locked room for 20 years. In that time he discovers that his wife has been murdered and that he has been framed for the crime. When he is just as suddenly and as inexplicably released he goes on a quest to discover who imprisoned him and why. The more he discovers however, the more he realizes that his torment is far from over.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language)

Philomena

(Weinstein) Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham. An elderly woman and a BBC reporter go on a journey to find her son who was conceived out of wedlock and given up for adoption to an American couple. Although she had signed a waiver promising never to look into her son’s whereabouts, she still feels that connection and defies the Catholic Church and convention to reunite with the baby she gave up so many years ago.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and language) 

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

New Releases for the Week of July 5, 2013


Despicable Me 2

DESPICABLE ME 2

(Universal) Starring the voices of Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Russell Brand, Miranda Cosgrove, Steve Coogan, Ken Jeong, Benjamin Bratt. Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud.

Gru has retired from the supervillain biz, settling down to raise three orphan daughters. However when the world comes knocking on his door, asking for his help in defeating a new supervillain, Gru can’t resist the allure of new toys, new cars and of course new danger. With his faithful minions at his side, how can he lose?

See the trailer, clips, a featurette and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D (Opens today)

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for rude humor and mild action)

Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain

(Summit) Kevin Hart, David Jason Perez, Justine Herron, Michelle Alvarado. Hart, one of the world’s most popular stand-up comics, takes his tour to Madison Square Garden, perhaps the most famous concert venue in the world. This is a big moment for Hart and he’s not just excited and proud – he’s damn nervous.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens today)

Genre: Stand-Up Comedy

Rating: R (for pervasive language including sexual references) 

The Lone Ranger

(Disney) Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, Helena Bonham Carter. When a Texas Ranger is betrayed and left for dead (alongside his brother who IS dead), a Native American nurses him back to life and gives him a mission for justice. It won’t be easy however for the people who are opposing him are powerful and ruthless but a Lone Ranger is more dangerous than a hundred ordinary men.

See the trailer, promos and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens today)

Genre: Western

Rating: PG-13 (for an unsettling sequence) 

Stuck in Love

(Millennium) Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, Lily Collins, Kirsten Bell. A young woman returns home from college at Thanksgiving to announce that her first novel has been accepted for publication. She is estranged from her mother after she left her father for another man; for his part, her dad has stopped working on his own novel to obsessively spy on his ex-wife whom he is still deeply in love with. Can this fractured family find a way to cope with the holidays?

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language, teen drug and alcohol use, and some sexual content)