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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Star Trek Into Darkness


Alice Eve and Chris Pine try to out-blonde each other.

Alice Eve and Chris Pine try to out-blonde each other.

(2013) Science Fiction (Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, John Cho, Bruce Greenwood, Alice Eve, Peter Weller, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Noel Clarke, Nazneen Contractor, Amanda Foreman, Jay Scully, Jonathan H. Dixon, Aisha Hinds, Joseph Gatt, Deep Roy, Anjini Taneja Azhar. Directed by J.J. Abrams

The trouble with taking on an icon is that the bar is impossibly high. You’re not going to please everybody, particularly the diehard old guard fans of the franchise. The fever pitch of shrieking outrage usually begins with the second film in the reboot. J.J. Abrams knows that better than most; he has had his fingers in the hands of three beloved franchises – Mission: Impossible, Star Wars and Star Trek.

This is his second film in the reboot of the Trek franchise. The first got some grudging respect from the notoriously difficult-to-please Trek fandom who might very well turn their noses up if Gene Roddenberry were resurrected and turned up to direct a new Trek movie.

The new film starts out with a terrorist attack in London, ramps up with a conspiracy to militarize Starfleet’s science and exploration mission (think of NASA with missiles and bombs) and finishes up with the appearance of a familiar foe.

Normally I’m one to describe the plot in great detail, but I think I’m going to abstain this time – for one thing, I found that knowing little about what was to occur in the movie made it far more delightful. Knowledgeable Trekkers and those fairly familiar with the canon of the original series will find lots of references here, from Harry Mudd to Transwarp drive to tribbles. There is also a great deal of referencing one of the original series most popular episodes and most beloved films but not exactly as you might remember it.

Abrams has re-energized the franchise without a doubt. Part of the success of the reboot has to do with the casting – each of the choices are spot on. Pine in particular takes the essence of Captain Kirk created by William Shatner and loses some of the mannerisms that made the character a bit of a parody in later years. Pine understands the basics of the legendary Captain – the recklessness, the ego, the brilliant strategic mind and the penchant for womanizing, but takes out the quirks – the stunted speech patterns, the over-reaction reactions and the writers have kindly aided his cause by giving Kirk fewer pronouncements and more self-analysis.

Quinto also makes a terrific Spock, although I noticed in this movie that his jaw seemed a bit more set and he looked a little less like the original Spock in a lot of ways, but he does capture the constant war between the emotional human side and the cold, logical Vulcan in him. The trauma of Vulcan’s fate in the last film weighs heavily on him, although he doesn’t show it.

The relationship between Spock and Uhura is an interesting one, given that this is a recent invention. Zoe Saldana gives the character a little more action-orientation than Nichelle Nichols did in her day; I like also that the writers give her a lot more to do than being a glorified answering machine. She is much more a member of the team than she was in the original series, where much of the planning, decision making and risk taking was done by the male members of the crew. You’ve come a long way, baby.

Cho is a worthy successor to George Takei as Sulu. One of the great regrets I have when it comes to Star Trek is that we never really got to see too much of Sulu as Captain – in the couple of instances when we did see it Takei was amazing. Cho gets an opportunity to take command as Sulu and makes the most of it; I’m kind of hoping we see Cho in a spin-off someday.

Pegg is one of the world’s outstanding comic actors and while Scotty becomes more of a comic figure than he was in the original series (although depicted as a heavy drinker he had his share of drunk moments that James Doohan played beautifully) the main thrust of his character is his brilliance as an engineer and we get that from Pegg as well, although he is a bit more willful than the original Scotty and in one of the new film’s most underrated scenes stands right up to Kirk, something I don’t recall seeing the character ever do before but was a welcome moment here.

There are also “guest” characters; Greenwood as Pike is a bit of a mentor and a lot more of a father figure to Kirk. Alice Eve is gorgeous and plays her pivotal character as a lot more than you might guess from the surface – and the writers leave room for future glimpses of her character. Peter Weller, who had a couple of appearances on the Enterprise TV series, plays an admiral here whose character might remind long-time fans of an admiral who had a small but pivotal role in one of the last movies featuring the original crew.

That leads us to Benedict Cumberbatch whose character is…well, not who he appears to be. Fans of the original series will doubtlessly guess early on who he actually is but for now let us say that he is a brilliant adversary worthy of Kirk and Spock and whose appearance is done in what I believe is the proper way – coming into the series sideways, making the surprise all the more pleasant (although again savvy Trekkers will either know from Internet chatter who he is or guess based on the clues the filmmakers give us early on). Cumberbatch is an up-and-coming actor who looks to have a brilliant career ahead of him, and based on this film is already getting some scrutiny for some plum roles in franchise films. Before you know it this man is going to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Bet on it.

The stakes are higher here and the effects are as crazy good as they were in the last Star Trek film. I chose not to see it in 3D – who wants to see those annoying lens flares in 3D? – and I think that’s a wise choice. Some of the scenes are set in pretty dark places and the 3D glasses will only make it murkier. Besides, I didn’t get the sense that 3D would have added anything to the experience.

I liked the movie just a smidge less than the first one; what pleased me most is that the filmmakers are developing the characters in just the right way to set up more thoughtful episodes in the future. While there was some underlying commentary about the militarization of space, the usefulness of drones and of terrorism in general, this is still a little more action-oriented than fans of the original series may like but that does make the movie more palatable to non-fans. Oh, and you get to see Klingons too.

In my review of the first film I wondered if Abrams could repeat his successful reboot in the second film. The answer is a resounding yes. This is great entertainment not only for Trekkers but for general audiences as well, managing to thread the line nicely. Certainly this bodes well for the future of the franchise and with the 50th anniversary of Trek’s debut in 1966 only a few short years away, one can only be hopeful that there are a lot more places for the crew of the Enterprise to boldly go.

REASONS TO GO: Pine turning out to be an excellent Kirk and the rest of the supporting cast works well also. Nice effects, battle sequences and stunts.

REASONS TO STAY: The story is a little bit all over the place.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some pretty intense battle sequences in space as well as some pretty nifty fisticuffs.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christopher Doohan, the son of the original Scotty (the late James Doohan), makes a cameo appearance as a transporter technician working alongside the current Scotty in the transporter room.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100; pretty impressive reviews for a Star Trek film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avatar

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Russian Ark

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)


Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)

Anna Briem and Brendan Fraser test out the next theme park attraction based on the movie.

(New Line) Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem, Seth Meyers, Jane Wheeler, Jean Michel Pare, Garth Gilker. Directed by Eric Brevig

The trouble with making a movie from a classic novel – particularly one that has been filmed as many times as this one has – is that it’s easy for the audience to get the feeling that they’ve seen it all before, even if they haven’t.

Trevor Anderson (Fraser) is a volcanologist who gets little respect from his colleagues, particularly from Professor Kitzens (Meyers) who covets his lab space at the university to use for storage. Trevor has spent most of the past ten years trying to prove the theories of his brother Max (Pare) who had disappeared ten years earlier while out in the field.

To make matters worse, Trevor has forgotten that he has agreed to watch over his nephew Sean (Hutcherson) while his sister-in-law (Wheeler) is out of town. Sean and Trevor regard each other warily, with only the long-missing Max in common between them. Sean barely remembers his father; Trevor is a painful reminder of that.

His sister-in-law has also brought some of Max’s effects that she thought Trevor might want to have including a copy of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” There are some strange notations in Max’s handwriting in the margins, as well as a name – Dr. Sigurbjorn Asgeirsson.

Noticing that one of Max’s sensors in Iceland seems to be active, Trevor realizes that Max might have been onto something and here at last was his chance to prove Max’s theories once and for all. Reluctantly taking Sean in tow, he heads over to Iceland and to see Dr. Asgeirsson.

The Asgeirsson Institute of Volcanology turns out to be an unprepossessing shack in the middle of Icelandic nowhere – which is about as far away from anything resembling civilization as you can get. The good doctor turns out to be dead, but his daughter Hannah (Briem) isn’t. She reveals that her father, like Max, was a Vernian, a somewhat cultish group of people who believed that the works of Jules Verne weren’t fiction but was in fact documentaries of actual events. She knows the location of Max’s last sensor and can guide them there, which she does. However, a lightning storm chases them into a cave and then a stray lightning strike seals the entrance of the cave with a rock fall. Don’t you just hate when that happens?

Forced to find another way out, the trio find some old mine tunnels and go looking for an alternate means to the surface. Instead, they plunge through extremely thin rock and fall a long ways down into an entirely strange and different world.

Here they discover strange glowing birds, gigantic fungi and weird lifeforms that have either vanished from the surface world or were never there to begin with. However they discover to their consternation that the temperature is rising and if they don’t find a way out soon, they will all die and lie buried forever in the center of the earth.

We’ve seen this movie before, or at least a pale imitation of it. We’ve seen lizards masquerading as dinosaurs and fiberglass sets with twinkling lights. Here, we see a fully realized digital domain with amazing creatures and realistic environments. The movie was filmed using 3D, and there are plenty of 3D effects likely to make you jump off of your couch.

Fraser has the kind of charm that is lovable in a goofy kind of way. He is aw-shucks modest and a little bit clumsy as action heroes go but when the chips are down he can throw a punch. He’s the center of the movie and when he’s on as he is here he can carry a movie effectively.

Briem is a fresh-faced find, filling the romantic interest role with a different flavor than we usually get with American actresses. The only quibble I would have is that there wasn’t as much romantic spark between her and Fraser as I would have liked, although I think that the script was written that way in deference to the family audience it was going for.

The filmmakers (and probably the studio as well) seem to have been aiming for family-friendly action adventure and you get plenty of it here. It isn’t terribly offensive or scary (although there are a couple of scenes that the youngest of children might be frightened of) and therein lies the movie’s big issue. It is a little too whitebread for my tastes. I could have done with a few more scares and a little less of the annoying nephew. Still, if you have kids and you want to see something big and action-packed, this is your ticket.

WHY RENT THIS: Big, broad adventure for the entire family with some nifty 3D effects. Fraser’s goofy charm carries most of the movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely disposable and bland. There is little or no chemistry between Hannah and Trevor.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fairly scary dinosaur as well as some hungry carnivorous fish but otherwise suitable for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During an early scene in the caverns, the explorers come across emeralds, rubies and diamonds. The diamonds the explorers examine are already cut and polished; in the raw they would actually resemble yellowish pebbles.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Loaded with ‘em! It comes with both 2D and 3D editions of the movie, and four pairs of 3D glasses for viewing it in all its multi-dimensional glory. There is an interesting feature on the history of “hollow world” theories, as well as the scientists who loved them as well as a couple of interactive games.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Shutter Island