Rewind Review: Despicable Me

Probably the hallmark of Despicable Me is that it has great sight gags and they will hit you very frequently indeed. Whether through dialogue or by visuals this film will have you laughing one way or another and that kind of persistence is something you have to love. It is a surprisingly good film because you may have thought it revealed all the tricks up its sleeve over the year plus Universal has been promoting it but there is more in store believe me.
It is also a film that asks you to take things at face value. It will not bend over backwards to establish this is the universe in which our story exists but instead will show you it. It may be challenging for adults who have to willfully suspend disbelief while children will gladly do so. One thing to keep in mind is that the inciting incident of this film is the discovery that a pyramid has been stolen and been replaced by an inflatable. In a world where such a thing can happen nearly anything can like orphans selling cookies, same-day adoption, shrink rays, etc.

A standout feature of the film was the score and particularly the “Despicable Me” theme song sung by Pharrell Williams. Heitor Pereira has long been making valuable contributions to film scores but his work on this film might be his calling card in the future.

Despicable Me (2010, Universal)

Despite the fact that the names of the actors were heavily advertised as well, the cast does a fantastic job of becoming invisible and blending in to their characters. Examples being Russell Brand who plays the elderly assistant Dr. Nefario. Miranda Cosgrove who plays Margo the oldest girl and you do even stop thinking about Steve Carell as Gru and just see Gru.

This is a film the effectively incorporates flashbacks to illustrate who Gru is on more than one occasion so we can see what his motivation for his lunatic plan is and why he feels he must do it but we also take the journey and start to see his change of heart. It is a film that also finds an extra villain, at least a temporary one, in a somewhat unexpected place.

The film really is ingenious on a number of fronts with its gadgets and gizmos, aforementioned sight gags, with the whole plot about the moon but especially with the creation of the minions. You get here the rare thing created in animation that just you can’t quite classify, you know not what language they speak or where they’re from but they’re just there and it’s great.

Despicable Me (2010, Universal)

The creativity and the quality of this film again illustrates how the animated feature is flourishing. About the only thing you can hold against the film is that Gru doesn’t explain that he didn’t call the orphanage, you understand he is torn at the moment but considering the character he is dealing with she could’ve been even more forceful in taking them back leaving him feeling worse.

Even with that Despicable Me is a joy to watch from start to finish and one of the summer’s most pleasant surprises and was, overall, a more throughly enjoyable experience than Toy Story 3. This film will likely be the most entitled to feel robbed should the Academy’s love affair with Pixar continue.
8/10

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Review – Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Anchorman 2 has been perhaps one of the more unrealistically anticipated sequels in recent years. What I mean by that, and I don’t claim to be not among them; is that over the years the reputation of Anchorman grew such that perhaps the bar started being raised a bit much.

My own experience with the first Anchorman was not love-at-first-sight. Sure, I laughed. I laughed a lot. However, I felt that the feminist theme while appreciated was handled clumsily and overtly. Yes, it’s a silly movie but the rest of it felt far more assured. My appreciation of it grew over time.

Fast-forward to this Anchorman and one thing that stood out before I saw it was the extra running time. Then you see Judd Apatow’s name attached and you wonder if it might be tremendously bloated. At nearly two hours as opposed to just scraping past 90 minutes last time. I don’t think it did feel extraneous, just a touch too much perhaps. I also think the commentary on corporate synergy and news media, while very on the head is more neatly folded in. Thankfully, there were also many new gags, and a lot more weirdness, as the riffs on the old jokes that worked because they were new didn’t really hit it.

To be brief, I didn’t expect a second coming of Ron Burgundy, he’s a character so perfectly buffoonish you can’t manufacture the surprise of first meeting him all over again; but I did think I’d be glad to see him again in a new story. I was and the fact that this story had point to make loudly that had more do with the modern day than the era it was set in is fine by me too.

8/10

March to Disney: Expanding Alexander’s Day

If there’s one critique I could never get behind in the realm of book-to-film adaptation it’s the kind I hear a great deal surrounding the transition of Where the Wild Things Are from beloved children’s classic to film property. Many found it odd, confounding even, that a 20-page book with scarcely any prose and mostly illustrations would be suitable for film treatment. I personally like the possibilities of expansion over contraction more times than not.

Stephen King when discussing rewriting in On Writing confesses to being more of a putter-inner than a taker-outer, which is to say he’d love to expand on a narrative rather than omit any time. The wisdom to know when to edit as opposed to over-embroider makes a skilled writer. However, a literal adaptation of something as sparse as Alexander… would not only be un-artful, but also far too short for a feature film. Therefore, expansion is necessary.

Furthermore, taking a short story and making it a feature is far less embellishment than taking a single volume and making it two or three films. Therefore, in the over-analytical film news cycle of today it’s a far less worrisome leap.

In fact, expanding on the book diminishes the over-analytical complaint that Alexander is whiny. By turning the film into a narrative with many prongs wherein everyone has a calamitous day it allows the protagonist to come to a realization on his own with minimal wallowing in self-pity and maximizing comedic moments.

However, it is another successful adaptation of a children’s tale that is well-liked in the Disney realm. The only truly bothersome moments are the very Disney realm of it all, which is double-edged sword. For example, the Peter Pan musical the daughter rehearses are with songs from the film not the musical; and the principal’s reference to Wreck-It Ralph seem somewhat extraneous. It would also be a bit odd if this family was being created in a supposedly real world that pretended Disney was not a thing. Furthermore, the viral sensation that Dick Van Dyke is involved in creating is a highlight of the film for sure.

A completely appreciated wrinkle was building in a fully healthy obsession for Alexander that rounds out his character (his obsession with all things Australian). It’s happy accident that Ed Oxenbould is also Australian, but it adds good dimension, sets up a great gag and introduces cool animals – and once again shows off the knack actors of all ages have adapting to American dialects.

Ultimately, the warmth and humor of the tale and the talent of the cast win out and deliver on the promise of a well-thought out expansive adaptation.

Best Films of 2013: 20-16

The easy question to ask is: “why do a list at all when you already have an awards slate on your site?” It’s a good question and I finally may have formulated the best response to it yet. Basically, it’s a less comparative discussion on each film that you feel marked the year fro you. In writing a list you discuss each film and a only every few numbers or so get bogged down in discussing placement.

I will try my best to avoid redundancy and will link and self-quote where I deem necessary but it was in re-watching something that I came upon the aforementioned truth. Awards with their winners and fellow nominees and then snub-ees can be read as a slight, though that is never the intent. A list as celebratory, if not more so because of the insularity of conversation.

Now 30 is a high number and I could’ve increased it. I saw the most eligible titles ever this year, but I wanted to further honor these films by having the percentile they represent be a smaller fraction than prior lists.

Let us continue with 20 to 16…

20. Philomena

Philomena (2013, The Weinstein Company)

This year, perhaps more than others, had some great surprises in it. I think that always has to play a role. And by surprises I don’t just mean exceeding expectations but really I mean coming out of nowhere unexpectedly. This film did that for me.

Based on the commercials you knew the basic premise: an elderly woman seeks to discover the fate of the child she put up for adoption 50 years prior. It plays it up like it’s going to be all giggles and a heartwarming “human interest story” as Steve Coogan’s character would’ve derisively put it at the beginning of the film. But much like that journalist we are treated to, yes, some laughs, quite a few surprises (both good an bad) and some tears. The film has some touches to it like its montages of home video that foreshadow the child’s life being learned about and the weaving through time Philomena’s memory occasionally does. Judi Dench is positively marvelous, as is Steve Coogan who plays against type and wore many hats to help make this film happen.

19. Mud

mud-2013-1

Every so often I seem to with no great pre-meditation happen upon a double-feature, one entirely of my and my viewing partner’s own devising, that really stands out. This year it was viewing Mud and Disconnect back-to-back at Philly Landmark Theatres.

Here Jeff Nichols strikes again with another great film. The scary thing is that he really makes it look fairly easy when we all know it’s not. There’s a lot more to Mud than meets the eye such as coming-of-age, a classic tale of unrequited love, a southern Gothic tale of river-life with just an allusion to recent realities treated in nearly a magical realist way. It’s a film that just may grow over time both with myself and in the public consciousness.

18. The Counselor

Michael-Fassbender-and-Brad-Pitt-in-The-Counselor-2013

If there was one prediction I had going into Awards season, and “List Season”, it was that I’d see The Counselor on a Best and a Worst list. I did. This is one of those films where I get the arguments against it. It’s one of those films where you either go along for the ride and appreciate it or you can just never get into it for any number of reasons. It certainly settles itself into the world its building eschewing getting over-concerned with the intricacies of the illegal activities being planned, and also builds a world prior to more firmly entrenching its characters. It’s got a unique brand of dialogue you’ll love or loath; all that and more are things I too as part of why enjoyed this film. Aside from the stories within the story that matter and the introspective, philosophizing criminals.

I’ve seen quite a few of Ridley Scott’s films and he never tried anything like this and it’s worth looking in to for that fact alone.

17. The Way, Way Back

Way Way Back 4

I like to send out a one tweet reaction to almost all the films I see. Part of why that is, is that I’m attempting to succinctly encapsulate my thoughts and preserve them for later reference.

Here’s what I said with regards to The Way, Way Back:

“The Way, Way Back” is quite exceptional. It’s hilarious, heartfelt, dramatic and full of wonderful performances by a spot-on cast.

In many ways this is a film that’s traveling well-trod ground, not that most of it isn’t at this date and time. However, there is a freshness and a truth to it. You have at the center of it Duncan (Liam James) who faces many familiar influences a first love, Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb); a mother (Toni Collette); an over-bearing new pseudo-stepfather, Trent (Steve Carell); and an adoptive father figure, Owen (Sam Rockwell). It’s the way these things blend, how the film achieves the aforementioned superlatives that make it stand out.

16. The Old Man

The Old Man (2012, Kazakhfilm)

This film is a testament to quite a few things: seeing films on the big screen (which I didn’t get a chance to), the power of cultural specificity and transliterating a story and the universality that can be found in such specificity. It’s a Kazakh version of the Old Man and the Sea that works brilliantly well.

This film is called Shal, when transliterated from its native language. In English it’s just referred to as The Old Man. In short, the sea does not apply to this tale instead the film is landlocked and tells the tale of an old shepherd. The wilderness he battles is the Eurasian steppe rather than the sea, which brings wolves into play. Thus, aside from the source material it brought to mind the recent film The Grey. However, I feel this film excels far more than that one did in its man versus nature elements because it’s defenestrated to a greater degree. There are fewer affectations of traditional action films and more human drama, more philosophy, more searingly gorgeous imagery and even further respect for the beasts of prey as there is the added element of the old man protecting his herd.

This is also a generational tale wherein quietly the Old Man’s grandson who he tongue-in-cheekily calls Sheitan-bek, translated as “dickens,” comes to a newfound maturity and shows his respect for his grandfather, and thus his elders. The setup of the generational divide is well-executed and though very steeped in indigenous culture and religious mores does have a universal quality to it. One example of it would be that though in rural Kazakhstan the grandfather’s passion for football knows no borders and he struggles with poor television reception to watch Barça and names all his sheep after members of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup team.

Review- Crazy, Stupid, Love

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love (Warner Bros.)

Crazy, Stupid, Love is for lack of a better word a film that isn’t receiving a lot of love but more important than that it is a film that breaks free of a few molds, works on a few levels and does so exceedingly well. It’s funny, heartfelt, dramatic and a truthful family story. It has pretty real and rounded characters that we meet in isolation and learn about more so when they interact.

Now I know that many of you are asking “Hey, isn’t this a RomCom and therefore sucky?” The answers to those questions are it’s not that easy and most definitely not. The problem with most romantic comedies is not just the formulaic nature but the lack of dimension, which they have. They too often tend to be all about the relationship and the obstacles two people face in trying to be with one another and reach that ultimate pinnacle. What separates a film like this is first it’s about its characters’ struggles and not a relationship but in each serious relationship it builds it does things a bit unconventionally and unexpectedly. The main relationship is a marriage of 20+ years that is falling apart, which is not your usual recipe for one of these films. Similarly, the secondary relationships don’t follow the typical patterns.

There’s also a lack of schmaltz, contrivance and other kinds of BS you’re usually saddled with in a film of this kind. I’d call this film the best of its kind since Love, Actually (In part because few make me want to see them and few are any good) but what this film does better than Love, Actually is it doesn’t need the pretense to tell several kinds of love stories, they’re all intertwined in much more organic way. I’m not sure it’s better than that but if it is we might be looking at perhaps going all the way back to French Kiss for something as good.

I could go on for quite a bit about the performances in this film, however, I will attempt to reach some semblance of balance. First, there’s Steve Carell, which brings to mind another apt comparison for this film is that this is kind of like what Dan in Real Life yearned to be, both in terms of his arc and performance but it just never got there. I’ve seen a lot of Steve Carell in the years since he left The Daily Show and this may just be his next great performance the only stronger being Little Miss Sunshine. Then, of course, you have his wonderful counterpart Julianne Moore, who is so consistently brilliant as of late it may be easy to overlook her contribution to this film.

Ryan Gosling has no simple task in this film either. He has to be equally convincing as the can’t-miss-womanizer and also a guy who lets his guard down and falls for the one girl who can crack through the facade. Similarly, Emma Stone has a deceptively simple job; she has to bring her comedic chops and feminine wiles to the same part so she needs to be equal parts sarcastic and smart and lovable. Her persona is infectious but as Zookeeper proves your aura does not guarantee the elevation of a film.

The third pairing features perhaps the most surprising turns. First, you have Jonah Bobo as Robbie. Bobo has been infrequently seen since his debut performance in Zathura. His character is refreshingly written in certain regards and very well interpreted. Bobo exudes an intellectual maturity and emotional naivete that are essential to this part. Conversely, Analeigh Tipton poignantly captures an essentially young girl with a woman’s desires and makes it a third strong combination.

This is a film, as the genre-related discussion above implies, is also a comedy, if not primarily, and it most definitely delivers in terms of laughs. There are laughs to be had in this film and in good quantity. Since I viewed it it’s already proven rather quotable but also it packs a wallop in terms of dramatic emotional content. This balance along with a sizable portion of it being funny is what places it head-and-shoulders above most films of its kind. This makes the film quite moving as well as funny in the end.

As if it was out to disprove many notions I typically find annoying this film also includes a twist which works to great effect and like a good one does it elevates the film and it’s helped by the fact that it’s not too close to the end and doesn’t have the whole film hinge on it.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is an old kind of film done in a more modern way. It takes some 21st Century notions and mixes it in with tried and true storytelling techniques that are executed here better than you’ll find in most films regardless of genre. Typically, the amount of value you get out of you admission price is not a barometer I use but this film makes itself worth the price of admission in many ways. It’s well worth it.

10/10