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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


The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

"The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" is a movie that’s easy to like. Its cast is charming, committed and they get into enough interesting antics that it will hold your attention. Unfortunately, it’s also very easy to hate. With frequent comedic dry spells in a somewhat dull script with satire that is anything but timely, the film just lacks that special something. It will certainly muster some laughs out of even the most hardened viewer, mostly due to its willingness to embrace the goofier side of magic, but for every joke it nails, another lands with a thud. It’s easily the most uneven movie of the year so far and is bound to sharply divide critics who have to decide whether or not to give it a recommendation.

Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) was a lonely kid. He didn’t really have any friends, was picked on mercilessly by his peers and his mother was never there for him, to the point where on his birthday, she went to work and didn’t leave him a cake, but rather the ingredients to make one. On that fateful birthday, however, he’s given one gift: a magic set endorsed by famed magician Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). This changes his life forever and, along with newly formed pal Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), he makes it big and becomes a famous Vegas magician. Unfortunately, a new trend is popping up called street magic. The most famous purveyor of street magic is Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) and he’s stealing Burt and Anton’s patrons. This leads to the closing of their show, a falling out of their friendship and a feud between Burt and Steve. Having never planned for the future, Burt never put away any money and is now broke, so what’s he to do?

The answer to that question is fairly clear, following a narrative trajectory that’s been around since we first started telling stories through moving pictures. If broken down to the most simplistic analysis, "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" a story of the rise and fall and rise again of a popular character with contrived plot turns and obvious, trite romances. But to focus on narrative inconsistencies would be silly with a cast like this. What matters is how often it brings the laughs and when it does, it’s really funny.

In a great example of inspired casting, Jim Carrey steals the show as Steve Gray, the street magician shooting his television show “Brain Rapist,” a clear parody of Criss Angel’s “Mindfreak.” His rubber face and over-the-top antics are a perfect fit for the over-the-top nature of street magic. He, and the writers who wrote the character this way, understand that street magic is all about showmanship and macho posturing and with this knowledge, Carrey creates a character that is as absurd as he is amusing. He amplifies the inherent ridiculousness of street magic tenfold, capturing the essence, albeit exaggerated, of street magicians like Criss Angel. Jim Carrey, in a welcome return to form, saves this movie.

Yet one can’t help but realize that the parody is coming a bit late. With "Mindfreak" having been off the air for three years (and having lost its relevancy far before that) and Criss Angel a speck in our memories, what was the film trying to accomplish? The best satire relates to the present, making a point about something that is happening now and needs to be addressed, from big government decisions to silly pop culture fads. "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" feels like it was written during a week long DVD binge watching session of “Mindfreak” and quickly loses its relevance in a world that has moved on.

Some of its satirical bite, however, is not out of date, like when Anton heads overseas to impoverished countries devoid of food and water to teach kids magic. When asked by a reporter if he’s also bringing food and water, he replies with a smile, “No, just magic.” It’s a great jab at those who travel around the world preaching their own beliefs, be they religious or simply ideological, without providing the actual elements that are truly needed in those areas, but it’s not fleshed out. It’s little more than a side note in a movie that repeatedly shows it has no idea when it has something good going on.

Its best thematic endeavor comes with the idea that magic is, well, magical. It believes strongly that magic can instill a sense of wonder in everyone, from the smallest of tykes to the oldest of adults and it’s right. Magicians, for the brief time an audience is watching them, can make the impossible possible and the film taps into this idea and uses it to bring its characters full circle. Granted, there are better options out there if that theme is all you’re looking for, like the wonderful 2010 documentary, "Make Believe," but the fact that it’s there at all shows that the filmmakers at least had their own childlike wonder, if not passion, for the art of magic. It’s just a shame it’s stuck in such a middling movie.

I suppose at the end of the day, I have to join all the other critics and make a decision on where my opinion falls with "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" and I sadly fall on the side of a non-recommendation. It’s a decision I make with a heavy heart because there is a lot to enjoy here, but it’s impossible to overlook such glaring flaws. It definitely has an audience, though, so if you think you’re in it, go for it. At the very least, you won’t hate it.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone receives 2.5/5


Hope Springs

It’s not often movies aim at winning over the above 50 crowd. We have movies for children, adrenaline fueled young men, overemotional teenage girls and nearly everyone in between, but the older crowd is continually shafted when it comes to the movies. Where are the thoughtful, mature films starring older actors in a story about problems that detail the struggles they have to endure? They’re pretty rare, the last mainstream one I can think of coming in the form of 2009’s It’s Complicated starring Meryl Streep. This week’s latest, Hope Springs, which also coincidentally stars Meryl Streep, is more in line with that film than most that have come out in recent years. It’s for older folks, those who have lived a long enough life to know what real troubles are and what true love is. Being a male in my 20’s, I can’t say how well it captures such a life, but I can say we need more movies like it. Hope Springs is contemplative and deliberate, taking its time to tell its story in an age of fast action and frenetic edits. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s worth seeing.

Streep plays Kay, a housewife who is in a rut. Every day it’s the same routine. She wakes up, makes eggs and bacon for her husband, Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), and has dinner ready when he arrives back home, which he eats before falling asleep in his La-Z-Boy watching the Golf Channel. She has become increasingly unhappy with her marriage since her kids moved out and she wants to fix it, so she books a flight to Maine where noted couples therapist Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) works. She has paid for a week’s worth of his consultation hoping it will save her marriage, but first she has to contend with her unwilling husband.

Despite inevitable comparisons to the aforementioned It’s Complicated (especially considering both are aiming for the same demographic), Hope Springs is quite different. It’s Complicated tried to spice things up a bit, shoehorning in internet lingo and references to MTV shows in a desperate attempt to be hip. In this regard, Hope Springs is more adult, even if it does sacrifice much of its energy and laughs in being so. This isn’t a movie about a woman who’s sleeping around and juggling multiple men like It’s Complicated. It’s about a woman who wants to reconnect with the one love of her life after having grown distant.

The film rightfully refuses to take sides, showing that Kay and Arnold have both been compliant in allowing their marriage to crumble and they both behave as you would expect. Kay wants to express her feelings while Arnold wants to keep them inside. He’s nervous about the whole situation and is embarrassed to talk about their sex life, something he considers to be deeply personal, with Dr. Feld, which could be any random person for all he cares. Throughout the film, Arnold complains about what they’re doing, using sarcasm and general meanness as a defense mechanism to hide his true fears about losing his wife, which is both the strongest and weakest aspect of the film. He and his wife are in a serious situation, one that threatens to destroy everything they know, but these one-liners and sarcastic quips are the central comedic aspect of the film. It’s hard to make the dialogue be both meaningful and humorous. Hope Springs never fully succeeds in doing so.

Still, their evolution is convincing. Even as Arnold slowly comes out of his shell, his reservations still show through. In time, he realizes he must do something if he wants his wife to stay with him, but he doesn’t know what. Neither character ever fully figures it out, but they change anyway in an attempt to make things better, which, in a sense, is really what love is all about. By the time it ends, Hope Springs has delved deeper into that topic than what many will expect. It’s profundity isn’t necessarily apparent as you’re watching it—perhaps our brains are more tuned to less grounded, Hollywood manufactured takes on love—but upon recollection, it shows its beautiful face.

Hope Springs receives 4/5


Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

The oft heard question “What would you do if you had [insert number here] days left to live?” is not a hard one for most people to answer. Most would spend it with their loved ones waiting for death to take hold of them. The surprisingly simplistic answer of such a difficult question, and the ease from which it comes, says a lot about humanity. Despite our obsession with materialistic things, most of us know what’s truly important in life. That’s the driving force behind the new apocalyptic dramedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Although hardly a revelatory study on human behavior, the film is nothing less than sincere, even when it’s a bit too jokey for its own good.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World wastes no time in setting up its grim story. As it begins, Dodge (Steve Carell) and his wife Linda (Nancy Carell) are sitting on the side of the road in their car as the radio gives them some bad news. A 70-mile wide asteroid is heading to Earth and all attempts to stop it have failed. Humankind has three weeks left to live. Linda then hops out of the car and runs away, leaving Dodge all alone. He then goes about the next week of his life lonely and depressed until he runs into his British neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), who wishes for nothing more than to see her family. Unfortunately, they still live overseas and all planes have been grounded. Dodge knows someone who can help her out, however, and promises to reunite her with her family if she will accompany him as he searches for his long lost high school love, Olivia, before the world ends.

If Seeking a Friend for the End of the World had to be described in as concise a way as possible, it would be as a film with moments of profound beauty accompanied by an uneasy dose of emotion evaporating comedy. Its early moments are too farcical for its own good, laying a dishonest groundwork for a film that eventually reveals hidden layers of meaning as it goes on. With cameos by notable over-the-top comedians like Rob Corddry and Amy Schumer, the movie plays too much to its silly side while the characters face a grim and unavoidable situation. Despite an initial appreciation for these scenes, they don’t hold up upon reflection because what follows is a devastating, gut wrenching finale.

That in no way, of course, diminishes the impact of said finale. The ending is simultaneously terrifying and utterly beautiful. It manages to both make you smile and make you cry and the very last shot, which I dare not give away, will stick with you. It couldn’t have ended a better way. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World may be the most emotionally affecting movie to be released so far this year and that’s in spite of its larger deficiencies, like some awkward bonding scenes involving riots and a suicide assisted assassination.

Much of the credit can be given to Steve Carell, who once again proves his dramatic talent. His character is a very sad man, someone who waited his entire life for happiness to find him and now that he’s out of time, he recognizes he waited too long. Carell brilliantly realizes this man. He doesn’t whine over what could have been (and any mention of it is solely for expository purposes rather than a superficial attempt to win the audience’s affection); he just shows it on his face. Even when making a joke, even when he’s trying to feign happiness, his look gives him away. Sadness pervades him. Carell continues to impress in whatever role he’s in, be it comedy or drama, and though I doubt he’ll be recognized for it, he gives what is sure to be one of the best performances of the year.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, like so many movies, has tons of potential to be great, but squanders it. The fact that the ending of the movie still works as well as it does shows that with a little extra care, with some more reasonable early film decisions and a maybe a few cuts here and there, it could have been something special. But this is one of those rare movies you won’t look back on and remember disappointment. You won’t dwell on its problems. You’ll remember how the ending made you feel (and it’s bound to make you feel something) and the ensuing effect it had on you. While I can’t justifiably make the argument that the film is anything more than simply good, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World hits so many right notes that, in retrospect, its problems don’t seem so large at all.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World receives 3.5/5


Crazy, Stupid, Love

Crazy, Stupid, Love is neither crazy, stupid, nor particularly romantic. It’s a movie that bungles many things, but nails many others. Its quality fluctuates from slightly below average to slightly above. I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s a decidedly middle-of-the-road picture, one I’m not upset I saw, but one I’ll surely forget about before the year is out. It’s likable enough, but whether it’s worth seeing is hardly worth arguing. If it interests you, see it. If it doesn’t, don’t.

If you do, this is what you’ll get: a movie about love that doesn’t spend adequate time building emotion. And that’s precisely why it’s stuck in mediocrity; because love is emotion. If you don’t feel it, it’s hard to care. However, it must not be a minute or two into the film before Cal (Steve Carell) is hearing from his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), that she wants a divorce. It doesn’t establish their relationship prior to this, yet we are asked to sympathize. In a way, we do (mainly due to Carell, who shows the anguish most people must go through when they find out the love of their life wants to leave them), but the structure of the screenplay limits it. One can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers chose not to open their film more emotionally aggressive and allow us to see the love the two had before splitting them up.

Distraught by what his wife has told him, Cal immediately moves out and starts drowning his sorrow in alcohol at a local bar. While there, ladies man Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who seems to take a girl home with him each and every night, strikes up a discussion with him. He tells him he is embarrassing himself with his self loathing and agrees to make him over, promising his wife will “rue the day” she decided to give up on him.

But of course, in a movie about love, even a ladies man like Jacob is going to find someone to care about. She comes in the form of Hannah (Emma Stone), a “game changer” (with a strange attraction to Conan O’Brien) with whom he begins to fall in love. Though wildly uneven as a whole, Crazy, Stupid, Love succeeds on little moments and the romance between Jacob and Hannah is the best example of that. Their relationship is built on virtually one scene, but it takes its time, allows for character growth and it forces viewers to reevaluate their perception of Jacob. Such a character curveball can only be done with a capable actor and Gosling is more than up to the task, emitting charm and likability at every turn, despite some shades of what seem like mild misogynism. Because of him and the always effervescent Stone, the scene comes off as strikingly authentic and deeply moving.

The problem is that it’s followed by an ending where coincidences are stacked on top of contrivances, resulting in a ridiculous string of events that takes a level, if underwhelming, movie and tips it too far to one side. By the time the credits roll, the movie has tackled issues of guilt, forgiveness, family, infidelity and depression, though “tackled” isn’t really the right word. It’s more like what would happen if a football player ran at a brick wall. He would hit it, but he’s not making an imprint.

Crazy, Stupid, Love should be something more than it is, especially given the wonderful trailers, which, sadly, do a better job of bringing forth the desired emotion. What it amounts to instead is nothing more than a barely passable movie that does something wrong for every something right.

Crazy, Stupid, Love receives 2.5/5