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Despicable Me 2

When I originally wrote about the mediocre “Despicable Me” back in 2010, I ended my review on somewhat of a snarky note, saying that it was “like a fat kid running down the street” and that “it probably won’t get far, but at least it’s trying.” Three years later, my foot has been firmly planted in my mouth and the film has found enough success to warrant a sequel. Yet some things never change. What worked before works here and what didn’t is still ever prevalent. This isn’t a case of a sequel trying to improve on the original. It’s a case of a studio looking at their product, seeing how closely it resembled its predecessor and saying, “Good enough.” Fans of the original will likely enjoy this as well and bring it plenty of success, so I guess I should update my snarkiness to fit a more believable outcome. “Despicable Me 2” is like that surprisingly athletic fat kid running down the street. It shouldn’t get very far, but it somehow does.

Gru (Steve Carell) has given up his evil ways. Those three kids he fell in love with in the first movie, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Agnes (Elsie Fisher) and Edith (Dana Gaier), are now his entire life and he wants to support them through legitimate means, namely by producing the most awful tasting jelly imaginable. However, he’s soon recruited by Agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) and the Anti-Villain League, an organization dedicated to stopping crime on a global scale. Their current investigation has to do with the disappearance of a top secret research facility in the Arctic Circle that contained a dangerous transmutation serum. Given that Gru was once the most brilliant villain on the planet, they need his help, so despite his initial reluctance, he sets out to find the serum and stop the mastermind behind its disappearance.

Like the previous installment, “Despicable Me 2” does not lack an imagination. The sight gags, particularly that come from the mall Gru and Lucy spent most of their time in, are clever and well placed and the minions, those adorably clueless little yellow guys, are just as loony as ever. Their expanded roles in this movie that, without spoiling anything, are central to the overall plot, make way for some great moments that are easily the most memorable and enjoyable of the entire thing. The problem is that much of their humor and, indeed, the entire film’s humor derives from slapstick comedy, the laziest, cheapest, most lowbrow from of humor there is.

Within the first 10 minutes alone, someone falls off a roof, gets hit with a medieval type mace and car, sprayed with a hose and tasered. The movie clearly has a young demographic in mind, an understandable focus, but it caters to them not by offering witty and well written stories like the majority of Pixar or DreamWorks animated films, but rather by appealing to their most basic senses, not unlike when a baby laughs at their parent getting hit in the face with something. What little story it does have is rudimentary and predictable: another love story. The kids, as much as they love Gru, want a mother, so they pressure him into dating, which leads to an overarching theme that is no more effective than the underexplored blossoming of young Margo.

What “Despicable Me 2” is sorely missing, and what “Despicable Me” had in abundance, is a strong antagonist. Vector, voiced so wonderfully by Jason Segel, was a strong character whose eccentric personality and ideals conflicted with Gru’s, leading to a battle of wits that added an ever-so-subtle layer to the original film. This movie lacks that. Because the bad guy is a mystery for the majority of its runtime, no real threat or character is every really established, just the veiled persona the villain hides behind.

Still, “Despicable Me 2” does offer up the same charm of the first movie, even if it is less significant in what amounts to little more than a rehash. It’s inoffensive, goofy and bound to put smiles on the faces of the children and parents in the audience. But with a plethora of other, more meaningful animated films with wonderful messages about growing up and coping with the harshness of life (including the recent “Monsters University”), this just feels like a time waster. It’s by no means terrible, but “Despicable Me 2” needs to do a whole lot more than throw its characters around like abused ragdolls to make it worth the price of admission.

Despicable Me 2 receives 2/5


Rock of Ages

Movie musicals are magical. They’re the amalgamation of the two best art forms, the two that speak in one way or another to the most people. In recent years, however, musicals have been on a decline. The sexy, but underwhelming Nine comes to mind as well as 2010’s Christina Aguilera flop, Burlesque. You have to go back five years to reach the last great musicals in the form of Once and Hairspray. The latter was so lively and warm that all but the most cynical of filmgoers found joy in it. The director of that wonderful film is back this week with his adaptation of the hit Broadway play, Rock of Ages, and while it is disappointing upon recollection, it, like Hairspray, has a ton of energy and a great soundtrack. If it doesn’t get your toes tapping, then you might be dead.

The film takes place in 1987. Sherrie (Julianne Hough) is a fledgling singer who just arrived in Hollywood with the hopes of becoming a star. After meeting Drew (Diego Boneta), who runs to her aide when a purse snatcher attacks her, she lands a job with him at The Bourbon Room, the famous nightclub owned by Dennis (Alec Baldwin) that gave the world’s biggest rock star, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) his start. She quickly learns that fame isn’t an easy thing to achieve and that her idyllic dreams may not become reality.

Rock of Ages has a pretty simple set-up, one that doesn’t give much leeway for characterization. If the story is bare, then the characters are thin and their relationships blossom far too quickly to be convincing. If you’re expecting to care about the characters, similar to Hairspray or Once, you’re bound to be disappointed, but as far as pure spirit and vigor go, Rock of Ages has it in spades. The animated renditions of classic 80’s hair metal songs like Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” and Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” are wonderfully performed, both visually and aurally, though the former is definitely better than the latter. While you may be surprised by just how well Tom Cruise sings, he’s still far from excellent and given that he’s lip-synching anyway, one can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers couldn’t hire someone with more vocal talent.

The most exuberant moments in the film come from the meshing of popular songs, like Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero” and Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” They’re blended so well that what they create stands alone as a unique song, despite their familiar parts. Every musical number in the film, including these dazzling mash-ups, are performed with pizzazz from a committed cast and it’s impossible not to enjoy watching certain actors step out of their comfort zones to do something different, even if it is a bit painful watching Alec Baldwin through up the devil horns and sing into a beer bottle. Regardless of any criticisms that can be lobbed at Cruise’s questionable vocal talent, he puts everything into his role, playing a drugged up, constantly drunk womanizing rock star. The stuff he says is so off-the-wall that if his real world behavior hadn’t recently calmed down, I’d say he’s basically just playing himself.

Despite a general indifference most will feel towards the characters and what happens to them, the songs are nevertheless cleverly integrated into what’s going on at that particular moment in time. Unlike Across the Universe, which tried to create a narrative through songs from one band that weren’t necessarily connected in such a way, Rock of Ages borrows from many bands who sang about a number of different topics, allowing the writers more freedom to take the story in the direction they wanted to while still having the musical content to back it up. Unfortunately, the movie so often succumbs to melodrama and typical screenplay misunderstandings that too much of its runtime is given to slow ballads, which effectively sucks away much of its appeal.

But when Rock of Ages is fun, it’s really fun. The movie may be a bit mopey, but it knows it’s silly and occasionally mocks itself as it absurdly transitions into certain songs, like when Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin break into a rendition of REO Speedwagon’s love song, “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” You’ll be laughing at how clumsily the transition happens, but that’s precisely the point. You’re supposed to laugh at it. You’re supposed to have fun, whether that means laughing or singing along. Rock of Ages knows this and though it’s far from amazing, that is its greatest strength.

Rock of Ages receives 3/5



When a movie like Arthur comes along, I can’t help but sigh. Is the 1981 original really worthy of an update? No matter how you cut it, I would argue it isn’t. While a popular comedy in its own right, its name is not recognizable enough among all generations to ensure a high number of ticket sales, but more importantly, it holds up remarkably well. It isn’t a film that has degraded with time and needs a modern retelling. So who exactly is this remake of Arthur for?

Taking the role from Dudley Moore in the original is Russell Brand as the titular character. He’s the wealthy son of Vivienne, played by Geraldine James, who supplies him with endless amounts of cash ($950 million if we’re being exact) for him to live his life the way he wants. However, she has grown tired of his slacker ways and has become embarrassed by his confrontations with the law. His public troubles are hurting her company, so she tells him she is cutting him off unless she marries Susan, played by Jennifer Garner, a woman she hopes will set Arthur straight. Unfortunately, Arthur doesn’t love Susan, but agrees to go through with it anyway to keep the cash. However, he soon meets Naomi, played by Greta Gerwig, the love of his life, and he finds himself torn between love and money.

There are two things this remake does better than the original. In regards to the cast, Gerwig is infinitely more likable than the bland (yet inexplicably popular) Liza Minnelli. She has a radiant onscreen presence and, along with her performance in last year’s Greenberg, has catapulted herself to the head of America’s sweethearts. She is to die for and conveys a type of innocence that is all but missing from women in the cinema these days.

The other step up is that the romance in this update is sweeter and better developed. While largely thanks to Gerwig, it also helps that the Arthur character isn’t as obnoxious here. In the original, he was loud and grating, stumbling over his words and his feet as he drank himself stupid. It was never entirely clear why Minnelli’s character fell for Arthur, but it’s understandable in the remake. Although he does drink and can sometimes be a little too much to handle, his crazy antics rarely reach the unpleasantries of his 1981 counterpart.

The problem is that those crazy antics are what made that movie so darn funny. The romance may have been a bit weak, but its main goal was to make you laugh and it succeeded. That prioritization is the same in the remake, but it only gets the less important romance parts right while the jokes strain to get the slightest reaction from its audience. A few are undeniably funny, but the rest are lazy, boring and obvious.

A lot of the original’s charm and laughs came from the butler character, played by John Gielgud (who won an Oscar for the role), but that charm is entirely missing here. Instead, the role is taken over by Helen Mirren, who laces her lines with contempt. Rather than coming off as cynical, yet playful as she is supposed to, she simply comes off as mean. So when the time comes for the inevitable late movie bonding scenes, they feel forced and fake.

To continue along with this doesn’t-live-up-to-the-original rant, Brand is simply a poor replacement for Dudley Moore. He has given me plenty of laughs in the past in movies like Get Him to the Greek, but he is strangely subdued here, probably because he is forced to restrain himself to keep with the PG-13 rating. Aside from the previously mentioned positives, everything in this remake (including those left unmentioned) is a step down from the original. I suppose those who haven’t seen it may find something worth watching here, but if you’re like me, there’s really no comparing the two.

Arthur receives 2/5


Get Him to the Greek

It’s not everyday you see a comedy that’s truly funny, one that’s smart, well written and delivers laughs to the point of breathlessness. Sure, some are stupidly enjoyable (MacGruber), but those lack soul. The best comedies aim for something higher than simply producing laughter. The best comedies give you an interesting story and characters you can relate to. Get Him to the Greek is one of those comedies. I know it’s been said already by numerous other critics, but it’s true so I’ll reiterate: Get Him to the Greek is the funniest movie since The Hangover.

Jonah Hill plays Aaron Green, a young intern at Pinnacle Records who comes up with a great idea: get rock star Aldous Snow, played by Russell Brand, to do a tenth anniversary performance at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. The rocker has been on a downfall ever since he released a single called “African Child” that was claimed by critics to be “the worst thing to happen to Africa since apartheid,” and this performance may be his opportunity for a comeback, so he agrees. The executive of the record company, played by Sean “Diddy” Combs tasks Aaron with getting Aldous from London to LA, with a stop at “The Today Show” in between. He has three days and with an out of control rocker like Aldous, it’s not going to be easy.

If the name Aldous Snow seems familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve already seen him in action elsewhere. Remember the sleazy rocker having sex with Jason Segel’s girlfriend in Forgetting Sarah Marshall? Yeah, that’s him and he has been given his own spin-off here. Spin-offs always come with risks because a character that worked in small bits in another movie may not be able to fully sustain another and if you asked me beforehand, I would have argued Aldous doesn’t have it in him, but I’m happy to report he does.

From the wild opening to the rocking conclusion, this film provides constant laughs due to the excellent writing and, more importantly, the terrific comedic chemistry between Brand and Hill. It seems like an odd pairing, and it is, but it works. Brand's careless rocker persona is the perfect counterpart to Hill’s seriousness and dedication. Whereas he sees the crazy events unfolding around him and thinks of them merely as another day in the life, the young intern can’t handle it and begins to freak out, most notably in a hysterical late scene where he thinks he’s having a heart attack after taking a puff from a Jeffrey, a joint with all different kinds of ridiculous drugs packed in it.

What will come as a surprise as the credits begin to roll, however, is that you will actually feel for these characters. As I watched, I couldn’t help but compare this to other notable comedies, but I kept thinking, “Sure, this is funny, but I don’t really care what happens.” For instance, in The Hangover, I wanted to know what happened to Doug. Here it didn’t matter to me whether or not they made the concert. But that’s where the film tricks you. It’s not really about that. It’s about the development of Aaron and Aldous. Both learn things along the way, grow as people and when they each break down late in the movie and spill their guts, I was there with them. The emotion took me by surprise and further solidified this picture as quality material.

It’s not perfect, of course, and leaves a few loose ends, like an unfinished story with Snow’s father who shows up, gets his head smashed into a television and then disappears, but it’s nothing that’s going to negatively impact the film too hugely because this thing is funny. Only a handful of jokes don’t work at all and fall flat. The rest are at their worst amusing and at their best uproarious. You need to get yourself to Get Him to the Greek.

Get Him to the Greek receives 4/5