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

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A Dog’s Purpose


Dennis Quaid goes nose-to-nose with one of the canine stars in the film.

(2017) Family (Universal) Josh Gad (voice), Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton, KJ Apa, Bryce Ghelsar, Juliet Rylance, Luke Kirby, Gabrielle Rose, Michael Bofshever, Britt Robertson, Logan Miller, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Pooch Hall, John Ortiz, Nicole LaPlaca, Primo Allon, Peter Kelamis, Caroline Cave, Jane McGregor, Robert Mann, Ron Vewymeren, David J. Lyle, Kelly-Ruth Mercier. Directed by Lasse Hallström

 

Let’s get one thing straight; I am a dog person. Seriously, Da Queen often shakes her head at the extent of my love for the canine species. I have trouble watching cruelty perpetrated to dogs on film (even in animations) and quite frankly all it takes is my dogs whimpering just the right way and I’m putty in their paws. In other words, I’m pretty much the target audience for this film so keep that in mind when reading the review.

The essential concept is that we look at the lives of a variety of dogs, all voiced by Gad, who have been reincarnated one life from the other complete with the memories of previous lives. Bailey belongs to a young boy (Ghelsar) named Ethan. Ethan rescued Bailey from the inside of a hot car and with the support of his mother (Rylance) and over the grumbling of his salesman father (Kirby) he is allowed to keep him.

As Ethan grows into his teen years (Apa) it becomes clear that his father is a drunk and abusive as well, frustrated over his lack of success. Ethan has become a high school football star and through Bailey’s timely intervention, the boyfriend of beautiful Hannah (Robertson). He is well on his way to a college scholarship but a tragic accident changes Ethan’s life forever.

Ethan does go off to college but only after breaking up with Hannah. Bailey goes into a tailspin (no pun intended) without Ethan and not long afterwards, his health fails and Bailey passes on. However, to Bailey’s surprise he wakes up young…and female. Now he’s…I mean, she’s…Ellie, a police dog whose handler (Miller) is lonely and maybe content to be that way – or maybe not. Still, Ellie is brave as can be and a fine partner for Al until…

…she comes back, this time as Tino, a chubby corgi who becomes the object of affection for college student Maya (Howell-Baptiste). Their relationship continues on past graduation and after Maya gets married and starts a family. It continues until it’s Tino’s time to leave and he comes back as…

Buddy, a lovable St. Bernard who ends up chained in the front yard of a dilapidated shack, ignored and neglected and occasionally abused, wondering what it all means until at last he finds a way to someplace familiar…someone who he remembers (Quaid).

Hallström has never shied away from sentiment and this might be the most sentimental of all his films. It’s based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron and while there are some differences in plot line, it is essentially the same where it matters. The subject matter is essentially a dog wondering what the point of it all is; what is his/her purpose in life and what is it about buttholes that is so dang appealing?

Of course this is really about the place of all of us in the universe, not just dogs. Do we just live and then die? It’s heady stuff for a family film and why the Judeo-Christian tradition of heaven and hell is largely ignored here, the film does suggest that our place in the universe is largely determined by how much we love. Dogs are a metaphor in that regard because after all, who is more loving than man’s best friend?

Some might be aware of the video that went viral just before the film that was released that showed one of the dogs – the one who plays Ellie – apparently being forced into the water and being submerged. It should be said that while PETA and other animal rights groups made a big deal out of it, as it turns out the video was doctored and CGI was used of the dog in the water. There’s no doubt that the film crew did have a reluctant dog that should not have been forced into the water (it had more to do with the position of where they were filming the stunt rather than the stunt itself which the dog performed on other occasions without incident) but there was no abuse going on and Hercules, the stunt dog in question, is alive and well. It’s another case of people manipulating truth to suit their own agendas.

The performances here are adequate. You know the old showbiz adage of working with animals and children – it applies here. The best performances tend to come courtesy of those with four paws. That’s not in any way denigrating the two-legged actors here; Quaid is fine as always and Apa looks to be an Elar Coltrane in the making. The focus is on the dogs here and so the humans tend to be more background than anything.

Some movies are tailor-made for critics and others are not; this falls in the latter category. For the most part critics don’t like emotionally manipulative films and this one is certainly that. Yes, the movie is rife with clichés and that’s a problem but I don’t think that kids are all that picky about such things. There are at least two or three places where tears were flowing down my cheeks without shame. As catharsis goes you won’t get better than what I got here in most any film.

REASONS TO GO: Dog lovers will be absolutely charmed. The film examines some pretty deep questions in a non-lofty manner. There’s a Middle American sensibility here.
REASONS TO STAY: Those who don’t like having their emotions manipulated won’t like this at all.
FAMILY VALUES: Children and sensitive sorts (particularly about animals) may have a hard time with the peril several dogs (and the family) are put into and may be unable to handle the passing of various dogs in the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bradley Cooper was originally slated to voice the various dogs in the movie but the scheduling couldn’t be worked out so Josh Gad was hired instead. Also, the bulk of the movie was filmed in Winnipeg.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Old Yeller
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Death Race 2050

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 Walk


The ultimate vertigo.

The ultimate vertigo.

(2015) True Life Drama (Universal) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, Clément Sibony, César Domboy, Mark Camacho, James Badge Dale, Steve Valentine, Ben Schwartz, Benedict Samuel, Sergio Di Zio, Daniel Harroch, Soleyman Pierini, Patrick Baby, Marie Turgeon, Joel Rinzler, Inka Malovic, Larry Day, Catherine Lemieux. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Some dreams are bigger than others. Most of our dreams are relatively small – taking the family to Walt Disney World, or eating a corn dog on Coney Island. They are infinitely doable without a whole lot of planning. Some, however, can be bigger than all the sky.

Take Frenchman Philippe Petit (Gordon-Levitt), for example. As a young boy, he grew fascinated by the circus performers who came to his small village. After learning the basics of walking on wires on his own, he convinced Papa Rudy (Kingsley), patriarch of the White Devils high wire act, to train him, often paying cash for each of Papa Rudy’s secrets. But even becoming a street performer in Paris after being thrown out of his house by his tyrannical father (Baby) isn’t enough, although he meets Annie (Le Bon), a fellow street performer who becomes his girlfriend.

No, he has his eye on bigger things. After walking between spires at the Notre Dame Cathedral, he still feels like there’s something else out there. While on a visit to the dentist’s office, he opens a magazine and sees the plans for the World Trade Center twin towers. He immediately knows what his destiny is to be – to walk on a wire strung between the two towers.

This actual event, chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, took place in 1974 and required years of planning. We see Petit assemble his accomplices (for the act which they called “The Coup”) including photographer Jean-Louis (Sibony) and inside man Barry Greenhouse (Steve) as well as ex-pat J.P (Dale) and shy Frenchman Jeff (Domboy), and of course, Annie.

Just getting the equipment up to the top of the towers is dangerous; it’s not just getting the steel cable up there, it has to be brought from one tower to the other and affixed, then tightened all of which requires specialized equipment as well as some brilliant improvisation – the conspirators get the cable across by shooting an arrow attached to fishing wire, then attaching the fishing wire to a rope and pulling it across, then that rope to a larger rope and finally the steel cable. They also string a wire across so they can communicate without using walkie talkies which could theoretically be intercepted by authorities.

Petit would cross back and forth across the wire for 45 minutes, making eight traverses between towers. His feat made him a bit of a folk hero; he was arrested but not thrown in jail; instead he was required to perform community service which included putting a show on for children in Central Park. Petit would become a resident of New York City (which he is to this day).

Zemeckis wanted to put his audience on the high wire with Petit and in this he mainly succeeds; there are a few CGI shots that look like CGI shots but for the most part your stomach will be lurching and your insides tingling with fear, especially if you have any sort of fear of heights. While I saw the film in standard format, I understand that IMAX and 3D presentations are absolutely jaw-dropping if you can still find the film in those formats.

Gordon-Levitt affects a French accent which is at times a touch over-the-top but otherwise captures the arrogance and single-mindedness of Petit nicely; he also has the athleticism and grace of the French performer. Gordon-Levitt inhabits this role as much as he has any other in his career and this is likely to be one of his signature performances. I’m not sure what his Oscar chances are – I suspect he’ll be on the bubble – but there certainly are going to be those at the Academy who will take notice. He gets some fine support from Le Bon and Sibony, as well as Kingsley in a small but crucial role.

Gordon-Levitt also narrates the movie, sometimes in voiceovers but also jauntily perched in the torch of the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the United States from France which is certainly not a coincidence that Zemeckis put him there. It contributes to the light and airy feel of the film, a delectable confection rather than a heavy-handed entree.

Of course, it’s difficult to view the Twin Towers – excellently re-created here down to the last rivet – without thinking about their fate. There is a moment at the film’s conclusion where it appears one of the towers is shaking as the movie fades to black but if I wasn’t imagining things that’s really the only overt mention of 9-11 in the movie. Zemeckis wisely allows it to remain in the back of our minds, knowing that we won’t be able to prevent thinking about it. He doesn’t try to and in that sense, he makes a more lasting tribute in the film itself which celebrates a good thing that happened there, something that those who witnessed it will never forget. In that sense, this is a fitting memorial to a pair of buildings that will be forever linked to the acts of lunatics that took more than two thousand lives; even if that was to be the destiny of the World Trade Center, it was still something else and something more once upon a time and it is high time that we remember that about them as well.

REASONS TO GO: Vertigo-inducing. Solid performances throughout. Clever narrative devices.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too vertigo-inducing.
FAMILY VALUES: Situation of peril, brief nudity, drug use, some historical smoking and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Kingsley and Dale appeared in Iron Man 3.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Man On Wire
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: India’s Daughter

The Purge: Anarchy


Purge biker chic.

Purge biker chic.

(2014) Thriller (Universal) Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Zoe Soul, Justina Machado, John Beasley, Jack Conley, Noel G., Castulo Guerra, Michael K. Williams, Edwin Hodge, Keith Stanfield, Roberta Valderrama, Niko Nicotera, Bel Hernandez, Lily Knight, Jasper Cole, Brandon Keener, Amy Pierce-Francis, Chad Morgan, Dale Dye, Amy Paffrath. Directed by James DeMonaco

In a brutal environment, survival itself requires more brutality. When the world is kill or be killed, so must you in order to survive it. The way things are going in this world, the future won’t be for the faint of heart.

As explained in last year’s surprise hit The Purge, the New Founding Fathers – a kind of crypto-fascist neo-Conservative Tea Party on steroids gun-loving bunch have taken over the country and given the people what they wanted – safety, stability and prosperity. Of course, only if you happen to be white and wealthy.

The rest of us have the Purge, an annual night in which all laws are suspended and everything is legal including rape, murder and destruction of property. It is a night to, as the newscasters enthusiastically endorse, unleash the beast. As the day draws to a close and the Purge draws near, people look at each other nervously, murmuring to each other “stay safe” and praying that whatever protection they have be they state of the art security systems with steel window  covers and titanium doors, or plywood nailed hastily over doors and windows will hold against the onslaught of the night.

Sergeant (Grillo) is grimly gearing up for the evening. He has a small arsenal at his disposal and he means to go out hunting. Sweet waitress Eva (Ejogo) returns home to her ailing pop (Beasley) and her rebellious daughter (Soul) – is there any other kind – and prepares to ride out the storm as best she can. She can’t afford her papa’s medicine and her bitchy boss won’t give her a raise so that she can live decently. She is one of the working poor and although she does her best to make a decent life for her family there’s not much she can do on the paycheck of a diner waitress.

 

Liz (Sanchez) and Shane (Gilford) are a couple who are on the verge of splitting up. They can’t even agree on who to tell first. Picking up groceries on the way home, their car breaks down as the sun begins to set and they know they’re in deep trouble. They will have to find a way to safety on a night when there is none to be had and when every human they see will be out to kill them.

All of these five’s paths will coalesce in a moment of conscience and Sergeant will find himself trying to lead these people ill-equipped to survive in the urban jungle to safety, all the while his mission of vengeance uppermost in his mind. The night though is long and the odds are longer that they’ll make it through.

I will say right off the bat that this is a slight improvement from the first film. While there continue to be holes in logic and common sense in the overall story I found there to be fewer in the sequel than in the original and the pacing of the story was much more frenetic. The political overtones continue to be fairly blatant – this is certainly a fairly thinly veiled uppercut aimed at the American right, particularly the neo-cons in the Tea Party and the religious right (before nearly every murder, the lily-white upper crust Purge participants pray, invoking God’s blessings on the New Founding Fathers). I can’t imagine Fox News will love this movie particularly and I can’t say as I blame them for once.

 

Grillo who has been a sterling supporting performer for years finally gets a lead role and quite frankly I see more of the same in his future. He’s got the brooding Clint Eastwood-esque anti-hero quality to him only there’s a little more warmth to him. He definitely carries the movie along and stands out in a group of solid but unremarkable actors.

Another issue I have with the movie is that while there’s a ton of violence, there’s no imagination to it. People just open fire with automatic weapons and pepper human bodies with bullets. Not that I expect that in a real life situation that mirrored this it would be any different, it just kind of all runs together. There’s no cleverness here, just carnage.

I think that those who liked the first movie may well like the second while those who didn’t will definitely NOT like this one. While I get the sense that the filmmakers are probably on the same side of the political aisle as I am, their views may be a little bit too extreme for me. Even Fox News has something of value once in awhile and not all conservative ideals are as bad as they are made out to be here. I’ve met plenty of compassionate conservatives although it must be admitted that there are some who the New Founding Fathers resemble very much.

 

Needless to say, this still isn’t quite good enough for me to recommend. There’s just too many plot issues and not enough well drawn-out characters to capture my interest. This is very much a one-trick pony and if you happen to like that trick, more power to you – enjoy. For those of us who need a little bit more variety in our hour and a half in the multiplex, this probably isn’t the movie to see.

REASONS TO GO: Different sort of film than the first. Grillo a promising lead.

REASONS TO STAY: Overtly political. Relentless violence. Not very thrilling as thrillers go.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots of violence, much of it unsettling and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead character, known here only as Sergeant, had most of his backstory cut from the film during post-production; his name in the script is Leo Barnes.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Warriors