Despicable Me 2 (2013) – Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
This follow up to the totally delightful Despicable Me is, I’d say, every bit as good as the first film. The plot isn’t quite as creative. The plot of Gru learning about love through the three little girls he’s saddled with is a better one than Gru’s rather by the numbers romance with Kristin Wiig’s hilarious Lucy. Gru has more baggage in the first film, mommy issues and aging and all that, plus he has farther to go in terms of character development, from megalomaniacal villain to loving father. But this film has enough pleasures that it would take a real Grinch to look at it and say, “Yeah, not as good as the first one!” Lucy is given brilliant voice by Kristin Wiig and brilliant characterization by the screenwriters and brilliant animation by the animators. She’s a great, invigorating character. The minions once again really steal the show and some of the scenes are just pure gold; Gru’s abortive effort to call Lucy for a date is riotously funny from start to finish, as is his hip-thrusting “search” of the Eagle Hair Club. And let’s not even get into Lucy’s martial arts or I’ll fall on the floor laughing just thinking about it. On the minor quibble front, the girls aren’t in this one nearly enough; nor is Russell Brand’s wonderful Dr. Nefario. But I suppose that’s the nature of the plot here. Anyway, loved the first one; loved the second one; looking forward to the spin-off. This series is one of the best animated franchises ever, if you ask me. Go see it; even for a cynical adult, it’s a delight. There’s really nothing quite like sitting with a bunch of your thirty-something friends and cracking up at the same moments as a group of six year olds sitting in front of you to make you really appreciate the unifying power of great comedy done absolutely right. Live action comedy, really, needs a renaissance; all the really funny movies of late have been animated. But, regardless of trends in comedy, this movie is joyous and a pure pleasure.
The Blue Umbrella (2013) – Saschka Unseld
This is the short film that precedes Monsters University, discussed immediately below. In this short film, a blue umbrella catches sight of a fetching red umbrella. They’re in a sea of boring black umbrellas and he’s smitten. As various buildings and other inanimate objects you might find on a city sidewalk look on approvingly, our title character sets out to . . . win the . . . heart of . . . OH SHUT UP. Incredibly saccharine with a really annoying score. These Pixar shorts are generally pretty good. This one was awful.
Monsters University (2013) – Dan Scanlon
This is a movie I admired more than enjoyed. The film has some surprisingly mature lessons to teach; the film initially seems to be a simple “follow your dreams” story, but things get morally complicated by the end. Yes, I said “morally complicated.” Moral complexity in a movie called Monsters University. Maybe there’s hope for society yet. There are some really wonderful moments; I particularly loved a moment when Mike walks up to a trophy he hopes to win and, in the distorted reflection of the trophy’s surface, he becomes massive, tall and wide, like a real “scary” monster; likewise a sequence where Mike’s fraternity sneaks onto the grounds of Monsters, Inc. is really wonderful, climaxing in a moment of Mike and Sully finally connecting on a human (monster?) level. And some of the side characters, particularly a two headed, four armed student (“I’m a dance major!” “And I’m not.” “One two three four and turn!” *crosses arms in defiance*), and a helicopter mom of one of the students (wait until you hear her “tunes”) are well done. Ultimately, though, the lessons are surprising; Mike and Sully want to win a contest so they can get into the Scarer Program – and they do, but only due to cheating, which gets them kicked out of the school completely. Mike wants to be a scarer more than anything, but at the end of the film he’s made peace with giving up that dream in order to pursue his ultimate career as Sully’s support tech; that’s right, the main character’s dream . . . is NEVER going to happen; and he’s okay with that. My God, what are we trying to teach kids here? Pragmatism? The reality of life? The process of maturing? And what a wonderful ending; Mike and Sully achieve their final goals of being a scarer and a support tech by . . . starting at the bottom of the Monster’s, Inc. ladder and WORKING THEIR WAY UP! Holy ****, this is bold stuff for a kid’s movie. Unfortunately, as mature as it is in themes and lessons, it fails on a superficially entertaining level, which I expect to also be in evidence on a Pixar film. But still, I admire their courage in making a film this mature.
The Lone Ranger (2013) – Gore Verbinski
Okay, let me say from the outset that I think this movie does not deserve the negative reviews it’s getting. Let me also say that it fails a lot of the time, but it is at least unique and clearly going for something unique. The good things first. Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer are both very good in their respective roles; and what is there to be said about Tom Wilkinson as the villainous train company executive? Per usual, he plays it totally straight, like he’s in Shakespeare and he is always a pleasure when he’s on screen. I loved the more modern spin on Tonto, ie. that he is of “broken mind,” you know, pretty crazy. There are two very good action sequences involving a train, though, unfortunately, the opening one is better than the climactic one. The first one, which involves Tonto and John Reid struggling to survive while chained together is darn good. Now . . . the bad. William Fichtner’s Butch Cavendish is woefully underused. For the last half of the movie, he seems to do nothing but stand around doing nothing. I really loved the way they worked the Indian legend of the Wendigo into the story and the whole “spiritwalker” plotline with John Reid being unable to die in battle and the whole “nature is out of balance” thing with the scorpions/rabbits, etc; so why did they frigging just abandon it? I love weird west stuff, so I was really loving the supernatural undertones here; I would have loved for Butch Cavendish to ultimately be possessed by a spirit of some sort. I’m not talking like turning into a monster, but just having something of real supernatural evil in his aura, if you get my drift. Hell, that’s the only reason the Lone Ranger has a silver bullet is because that’s the only thing that can kill a Wendigo and they still just act like we should just forget all that stuff. The third thing I really disliked also relates to Butch Cavendish’s character. There was a great chance for some real depth in the relationship between Wilkinson and Fichtner; Wilkinson is the man of vision, doing what he does to gain a future he believes in; Fichtner is the nihilistic force of evil, doing what he does because . . . well, because he simply has to fulfill his wicked desires. Wilkinson believes in the future; Fichtner believes in nothing. But this is left totally untapped. Finally, the action sequences are very, very odd. They’re clearly a riff on silent comedy, as in Buster Keaton. They aren’t pulse pounding or exciting really; they’re just . . . interesting in the methodical nature of them and the simple logistics that allows them to work. If you’ve seen them, you’ll know what I mean. The logistics, for example, of having two trains, in the climax, winding in and out of each other’s path, with characters transferring from one to the other over and over. Logistically, that must have been a bitch to plan and execute and, due to the silent film influences, it’s done very tongue in cheek and very slowly and methodically so we can really appreciate the logistics. Unfortunately, while I actually liked them, most people don’t go to summer movies to enjoy the logistics of methodical action sequences. On that score, I can see people really disliking the action stuff. Regardless, it fails a whole lot and, on the whole, I wouldn’t really recommend it. It’s certainly not the worst movie of the year or anything ridiculous like that. At the very least, they tried to do something different. For that, I have to applaud them.
Pacific Rim (2013) – Guillermo del Toro
I went into this somewhat skeptical. I mean, giant robots fighting giant lizards. I mean, yeah, okay, special effects will be good, but will there be anything to really care about? Well, the answer is yes. I found the film to succeed in both its action sequences and in its character based scenes. The performances are uniformly good. Idris Elba is a lot of fun as is the criminally underused Ron Perlman. The really exceptional performances come from Rinko Kikuchi as a young woman who wants to pilot a Jaeger, a giant robot, in order to take revenge for the death of her family and Charlie Day as a punky scientist who finds himself in way over his head when an experiment goes awry. There are other characters too and lots of emotional moments; I actually teared up at a moving scene of a father and son bidding each other farewell for what they know is probably the last time. So, yes, there’s a beating heart and, by my count, eight characters that I was genuinely invested in and cared about. I’ve seen straight dramas with less good characters than that. The action? Superlative. I was afraid the action would get too chaotic and obnoxious, but no; Del Toro is a master and the action is high-intensity without ever losing sight of the stakes and the emotional component. The layouts and physics of the fights are totally clear and high impact. These action scenes are the reason we go to action films in the first place; not for the loud noise or the shocking visuals or even the fast pace and intensity but rather for an intensity that crosses over into the emotional and then becomes transcendent. These action sequences are genuinely transcendent; they genuinely pulled me out of myself. So many amazing action moments. And will any visual this year be cooler than the “unfurling wings” shot? I doubt it. This is how you do sci-fi/fantasy/action with a heart. Del Toro is still the master. When’s his next one coming out? Next week? I wish.