Despicable Me 2 (2013)

2018 #155
Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud | 98 mins | download (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA, France & Japan / English | U / PG

Despicable Me 2

In this sequel to the popular animated comedy (which I wasn’t that fond of, personally), supervillain turned adoptive dad Gru (Steve Carell) is dragged back into his old world when the Anti-Villain League recruit him in order to track down the villain who stole a dangerous serum. Meanwhile, Gru’s daughters think he needs a girlfriend, and the AVL agent assigned as his partner, Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), seems the perfect fit. Also, his yellow Minions are still around, getting up to all sorts of ker-azy antics.

That’s the concise version, anyhow. This is a film that rambles around a lot in the telling, presumably out of fear that it might ever become boring to hyperactive youngsters. Unfortunately, it almost had the opposite effect on me. The main plot just felt like a shape on which to hang the romantic and Minion subplots, but those subplots just felt like a constant distraction from the main plot. The end result is a film that’s narratively unsatisfying on all fronts.

So. Many. Minions.

Instead, entertainment value comes from individual scenes or moments. Personal preference will dictate just how entertaining those are, however. I didn’t feel there was much consistency, with the humour able to spin on a dime from being pretty amusing to falling flat. It doesn’t help that it feels way too long, overloaded with subplots that don’t go anywhere meaningful and the Minions’ sketch-like shenanigans. And there’s a lot of the Minions, clearly the breakout stars of the first movie (and hence why the series’ next film was entirely centred around them). While they amuse me on occasions, I mostly find them annoying, and am slightly baffled that anyone over the age of about six can find them significantly amusing.

But it looks pretty great in 3D, at least — turns out Gru’s long pointy nose was made for the format — and it’s quite funny and imaginative in places. Still, a good trim would’ve benefitted it enormously. Unless you do really enjoy the Minions, I guess.

3 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of spin-off Minions is on ITV today at 6:15pm.

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The Big Short (2015)

2016 #161
Adam McKay | 130 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Big ShortYou wouldn’t think the 2008 financial crisis would make good fodder for a comedy-drama — it’s both too complicated and too grim — but Anchorman writer-director Adam McKay clearly felt differently. With co-writer Charles Randolph, he adapted the non-fiction bestseller by Michael Lewis (the author of the books that became awards season contenders The Blind Side and Moneyball) and turned it into… well, an awards season contender — but a funny one.

Specifically, it’s the story of the handful of men who saw the financial crisis coming, and arranged their finances to bet on it, too. It’s not a completely true account but, as it’s presented here, Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is the only one who actually spots it. He takes out insurance policies or something — look, the whole film is full of really complicated financial stuff and this was right at the start, OK? Here’s the Wikipedia plot description of what he does: “his plan is to create a credit-default swap market, allowing him to bet against market-based mortgage-backed securities.” So, he does that, the investment banks gladly accept his money because they think he’s mad, but a handful of others (including Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt) stumble across his research one way or another, believe he’s right, and begin to make similar investments.

Christian Bale tries to understand the screenplayThe narrative is laden with concepts that are so complicated even people within the industry don’t properly understand all of them (however did the market fail?!), but the movie nonetheless attempts to explain them in an accessible way. It’s half successful: you kind of understand them at the time, about enough to follow along, but the chances of remembering them later are next to naught. One of McKay’s tricks to engage us with these explanations is to wheel in random celebrities to deliver analogies. It’s a fun idea, though it’s success is debatable — I mean, I’ve just about heard of Selena Gomez, and I guess the “famous chef” that turns up must have a TV show in America, or something, maybe? Yeah, the ‘names’ he’s chosen are going to date this movie far more than its 2008 setting ever will.

Indeed, on the whole I could’ve done without McKay’s jittery directorial style, amped up through ADD editing by Hank Corwin. Both were Oscar nominated and I’ve read other reviews that praise the style, but to me it just felt needlessly hyperactive, like the film is so afraid of being dull that it has to constantly dance around in the hope you won’t notice. I did notice — not that the film was dull, just that it thought it was. I guess that’s what happens when a guy more at home making movies like Anchorman and The Other Guys instead makes one about the world of real-life high finance.

Not very impressedThough the conceptual explanations may fade almost as soon as you’ve heard them, what does stick with you is how it all ends. Essentially, the financial industry that destroyed peoples’ lives in pursuit of never-ending profit not only got away with it, but they actually started doing the same stuff all over again, just with new acronyms. What’s even more sickening is that people are clearly aware it’s going on — I mean, we’ve been told as much in an Oscar-winning movie — but they’re still doing nothing about it.

How’s that for a scary thought this Halloween weekend, eh?

4 out of 5

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

2015 #118
Lorene Scafaria | 91 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA, Singapore, Malaysia & Indonesia / English | 15 / R

This melancholic apocalyptic comedy wasn’t too well received, which is a shame because I thought it was absolutely brilliant.

As an asteroid heads inevitably towards Earth, Steve Carell decides to go on a road trip to reconnect with his high school sweetheart. Neighbour Keira Knightley tags along. Quirky things happen; they bond; as the end of the world nears, they rethink their lives.

Carell gives a very good performance, trading in the kind of understatement that makes him a much more interesting actor than his stock-in-trade outrageous comedies continue to imply. I guess Knightley is playing a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, at least to an extent, but I thought she was a plausible character nonetheless. There are certainly more egregious examples of the trope. It’s another strong performance, anyway, containing a lot more truth than your average MPDG.

Also, there’s a really, really cute lickle doggie.

The thing both leads nail, as does writer-director Lorene Scafaria, and what made the film so good for me, is an overwhelming sense of melancholy. It’s a hard feeling for films to evoke, I think — more complex than happiness or sadness, or excitement, or even fear. It comes to a head in an ending that actually brought a tear to my eye, a rare enough feat that it cemented a five-star rating.

5 out of 5

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World placed 11th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Foxcatcher (2014)

2015 #136
Bennett Miller | 135 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The director of Capote returns with another true-crime tale. Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) feels overshadowed professionally by his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), so when John Du Pont (Steve Carrell), heir of the richest family in America, offers his support in the run up to the 1988 Olympic Games, Mark eagerly accepts. Moving to special facilities constructed on the Du Ponts’ Foxcatcher estate, Mark soon finds himself in an odd symbiotic relationship with John, which turns increasingly sour when Dave is finally persuaded to join their team.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m British or because I was too young to be cognisant of events surrounding an Olympic Games held 27 years ago (the story’s climactic events actually occurred a few years later, but still), but I didn’t know what striking event happened at the end of Foxcatcher, just that something did. That tension — knowing something significant happens, but not what it is — lends the film a little air of the thriller. However, that angle is something entirely brought by myself (and anyone else who doesn’t know the story). The film itself is ‘just’ a character drama.

Fortunately, it has three leads who are up to carrying a narrative of that nature. In a rare dramatic role, and lumbered with a hefty prosthetic noise, Carrell’s John Du Pont almost feels like a caricature rather than a plausible human being… but apparently the film has actually toned down how odd the man was, so what are you gonna do? It’s a memorable performance none the less. Tatum is an understated lead, demonstrating he’s a better actor than you might expect as he displays emotional complexities in a man who doesn’t seem especially emotionally complex. Showing a character struggling with feelings he probably doesn’t quite understand is quite a feat, especially when it’s not explicitly conveyed in dialogue, so applause for Tatum there. Ruffalo, meanwhile, provides typically strong support, embodying a wrestler — right down to a very specific, unusual way of carrying himself — from the guy who plays Bruce Banner rather than the Hulk.

Unfortunately, for all their effort, the film is a little lacking in insight. Reading up some afterwards, it seems no one knows the true motivations behind the aforementioned surprising events, so it’s left to screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, and director Bennett Miller (for whom this story was something of a passion project), to posit any explanations. They do this subtly, leaving it up to the viewer to read what they want — or can — into everyone’s actions. However, it’s an issue that some facts have been bent to make for a more succinct narrative, making one wonder if anything the film may suggest is consequently wide of the mark.

As it finally shakes out, Foxcatcher is a solid movie, and certainly worth a look, but only really for the performances and the passing interest of finding out what happened, if you don’t already know.

4 out of 5

Get Smart (2008)

2010 #65
Peter Segal | 110 mins | Blu-ray | PG-13 / 12

Get Smart, as you likely know, was a TV series in the ’60s, which makes one wonder how it’s taken so long to get to the big screen. I guess it didn’t have the same fanbase or perceived relaunchability that led to an endless array of big-screen versions of ’60s/’70s series in the last decade or two — Mission: Impossible, Starsky & Hutch, Dukes of Hazzard — indeed, with the likes of Miami Vice and The A-Team, these big-screen-remakes are now moving on into the ’80s. Is Get Smart too late for the party?

Well, not really, because what does it matter which decade it came from — this isn’t a continuation, it’s a modern-day relaunch with current stars (or ‘stars’, if you prefer) and a modern sensibility. Though, in fact, Get Smart acknowledges its roots with a series of relatively low-key references that won’t bother anyone who’s never seen the series (like me) but I’m sure are pleasing for those who have. It also suggests it is a continuation of the series in some ways, despite the main character sharing a name with the series’ lead… but look, it’s just a comedy, let’s not think about that too much.

Get Smart, ’00s-style, is mostly quite good fun. Not all the jokes hit home, but enough do to keep it amusing — which is better than some comedies manage. Even after three Austin Powers films it seems there’s enough left to do with the spy genre to keep a comedy rolling along, even if Mike Myers’ once-popular efforts occasionally pop to mind while watching. And to make sure things don’t get dull, there’s a few action sequences that are surprisingly decent too, considering this is still primarily a comedy.

Some of this is powered by a talented cast: Carrell is Carrell, which is great if you like him, fine if you don’t mind him, and probably a problem if you dislike him; but Anne Hathaway and Alan Arkin manage to lift the material more than is necessarily necessary. Dwayne Johnson also shows he’s remarkably good at a humorous role, which is a little unexpected. How has a former WWE wrestler, whose first acting role had more screen time for his piss-poor CGI double than himself, turned out a half-decent career? The world is indeed full of wonders. As the villain, however, Terence Stamp is ineffectually wooden at every turn. Oh well.

What really makes the film inherently likeable, however, is how nice it is. You’d expect Carrell to be the looked-down-upon wannabe-agent bumbling loser, promoted when there’s literally no one else and still a constant failure, only succeeding (if he does) through fluke. But no — he passes the necessary tests, but isn’t promoted because he’s too good at his current job; when he does get the promotion, he shows an aptitude for spying, fighting, and all other skills, and the other characters acknowledge this. They respect him, in fact, both at the beginning and later as an agent — again, you’d expect Johnson’s character to be the smarmy big shot who either ignores or specifically brings down a character like Carrell’s, but instead he’s one of his biggest supporters. (That he turns out to have been A Bad Guy All Along, Gasp! is beside the point.) The office bullies don’t actually have any power at all and are frequently brought down to size. It makes a nice change from the stock sitcom clumsy-hero-who-eventually-comes-good with irritating-and-condescending-higher-ups on the side, the pedestrian and unenjoyable fallback of too many comedy writers.

Still, Get Smart isn’t without striking flaws. The subplot about a mole in CONTROL (alluded to above) is atrociously handled, not least the ultimate reveal. Perhaps director Peter Segal realised it was pretty easy to guess who it would be and just assumed the audience would be ahead of the story, but that ignores the fact that the other characters barely react to one of their best friends being unmasked as a traitor. It’s all a bit “curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal”, only without a smidgen of the humour that one-liner provided.

But the opening half-hour or so is the film’s biggest flaw. By the time the mole plot is resolved you can almost let it slide, but being faced with a weak opening is more of a problem. Some moments in it work, but there’s the odd jump in storytelling (Max comes across the destroyed CONTROL so suddenly I assumed we were about to discover it was a dream or simulation), or an extended period with either no or too-familiar gags. Once it gets properly underway things continually pick up, but it’s asking a little too much from not necessarily sympathetic viewers.

Still, despite early flaws and the occasional shortage of genuine laughs, Get Smart is redeemed by a proficient cast and generally likeable screenplay. It’s not exactly a great comedy, but it is a pretty good one. Comparing it to the scores I’ve given other comedies recently, that bumps it up to:

4 out of 5

Over the Hedge (2006)

2007 #51
Tim Johnson & Karey Kirkpatrick | 80 mins | DVD | U / PG

Over the HedgeCGI movies are far too common these days, meaning that the quality is dropping (demonstrated by the fact that the number produced has increased massively but the number of Oscar nominations in that category has remained at three).

Over the Hedge is certainly derivative — its character arc is almost directly lifted from Toy Story, for example — but it is beautifully animated and does have some laugh-worthy moments, even if they are almost entirely in the last half hour. There are better examples of the genre, but it passes the time entertainingly enough.

(Stay with it til the end of the credits for a little bit more, although if you bother you may agree with Hammy’s assessment of things.)

3 out of 5