Movie Review ~ Minions: The Rise of Gru

The Facts:

Synopsis: The untold story of one twelve-year-old’s dream to become the world’s greatest supervillain.
Stars: Steve Carell, Pierre Coffin, Taraji P. Henson, Michelle Yeoh, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lucy Lawless, Dolph Lundgren, Danny Trejo, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Alan Arkin
Director: Kyle Balda
Rated: PG
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review:  It surprised me how much I had enjoyed 2010’s Despicable Me, primarily because by the time that non-PIXAR/Disney film arrived, I was long out of the target audience for its colorfully wacky shenanigans. Following Gru, a supervillain and his tiny yellow minions who are changed when he takes in three orphaned children, it spawned two sequels and launched the goofy golden sidekicks into their own spin-off in 2015. While I had enjoyed the sequels (and even the eye-popping, brain-shaking Minions ride at Universal Studios Florida), I found that outing for the Minions pre-Gru to be lackluster and missing some of the charms that made the Despicable Me films so engaging. Even boasting the voice of Sandra Bullock in a rare villainous turn couldn’t sway the movie in my favor. 

Seven years and one major global pandemic later, we have Minions: The Rise of Gru, and returning director Kyle Balda and writer Brian Lynch (co-scripting with Matthew Fogel) have learned a bit since their last Minion-centered adventure. Far funnier than any previous franchise entry, it wisely retains a period setting (adjusting slightly into the mid ‘70s) and begins to weave threads of early Gru (Steve Carrell, Foxcatcher) into the mix. That makes it less of a Minions-only movie and slightly more akin to a bona fide Despicable Me prequel, but with main Minions, Kevin, Stuart, and Bob (all voiced, as all Minions are, by Pierre Coffin) primarily driving the action, fans clamoring for more of the banana loving creatures will get their fill.

The year is 1976, and the Vicious 6 is a top criminal organization being watched by the Anti-Villain League. Led by Easy Rider-ish Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin, Indian Summer), the remaining crew is comprised of Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson, What Men Want), Jean Clawed (Jean-Claude Van Damme, The Last Mercenary), Nunchuck (Lucy Lawless), Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren, Aquaman), and Stronghold (Danny Trejo, The Legend of La Llorona). Hunting for a stone that harnesses the power of the Chinese Zodiac, the group faces a division that leaves them down a member, an opening that Gru hopes to fill. The trouble is, he’s only 11 and still in school. 

With the help of his trustworthy Minions, who will do anything for their leader, Gru first sets out to join the Vicious 6, but after finding out they aren’t as welcoming as he’d hoped, he winds up on the run from them. While Gru goes in search of assistance from an unlikely source that knows the inner workings of the Vicious 6, Kevin, Stuart, and Bob receive education in Kung Fu from a former teacher, now acupuncturist Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh, Gunpowder Milkshake). All will need to be at full force to face what’s coming toward them, a crime ring of villains with an ancient power they are ready to wield at anyone daring to challenge them.

For most of the running time, Minions: The Rise of Gru is a breezy bit of comic mayhem that takes every opportunity to capitalize on the appeal of the jibber-jabbering of the titular characters. Their amalgam of languages and speech will never be truly deciphered, yet you understand them all the same. When in doubt, Balda/Fogel/Lynch shows a Minions yellow rear end and lets the laughs rip…and at least in my audience, the effect of seeing the little round butt worked like a charm on the kids who roared with hilarity each time. It’s not a sophisticated comedy for the most part (though again, as in the last film, Balda has the Minions gibber through a surprisingly adept song in their native tongue), but it lets the 87-minute film fly by with ease.

What doesn’t work in quite the same way is a scary finale that comes out of nowhere, and parents will likely want to keep an eye on their kids to see how they react to a slew of creatures who pop up for a battle royale with Gru and the gang. The animation in the sequence is dazzling, but it’s an oddly intense passage to have when so much of the overall vibe has been chill. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t say that it’s disappointing to see Yeoh slogging her way through yet another “wise combat teacher” role she’s played countless times before. Coming on the heels of a career-best (and maybe Oscar-winning?) role in Everything Everywhere All At Once, this feels like a giant step backward. 

I’ll spare you the extra sit and say that once the final credit crawl gets underway, you can head home, but stay through those first few minutes after the movie ends for a bit of fun. It’s another way the filmmakers behind this series think in complete sentences throughout. These movies may not sit on the same shelf as the emotionally complex features from the heyday of Walt Disney Pictures or even the more modern classics at Pixar. They are indeed quite entertaining, though, and that’s often worth more than any number of tears that those films can wring from our emotions. Minions: The Rise of Gru ranks higher than the previous film and is one of the strongest in the overall Despicable Me franchise. If I had to choose between this and Lightyear, I’d want to watch the little yella fellas have their fun again.

Movie Review ~ Death on the Nile (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot’s Egyptian vacation aboard a glamorous river steamer turns into a terrifying search for a murderer when a picture-perfect couple’s idyllic honeymoon is tragically cut short.
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Dawn French, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Rose Leslie, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders, Letitia Wright
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 127 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  It’s probably a good idea to let you in on a little secret now, lest I be caught in a dramatic reveal later. In many ways, the original 1978 Death on the Nile, a sequel to the 1974 Oscar-winning Murder on the Orient Express, exceeds its predecessor. It’s got stunning visuals, a tight script with multiple zingers flying around when murder isn’t taking center stage, and delightful Oscar-winning costumes. If the cast doesn’t match the original as equally for all-out star wattage, they are absolutely enough heavy hitters to cover any shortage of incandescence. Of all the outings Peter Ustinov took on Agatha Christie’s famous Inspector Hercule Poirot (1982’s Evil Under the Sun, 1988’s Appointment with Death, and several made for television films), this is by far the most deluxe.

That’s why for as much as I enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s first excursion as Poirot in his 2017 remake of Murder on the Orient Express, I felt my heart flutter at the end when it was strongly implied the authorities needed Poirot in Egypt next. While it made no sense in terms of the plot of Death of the Nile, for fans hoping the Belgian detective could have a new mainstream life, this was a promising sign of confidence. Mere weeks after Murder on the Orient Express arrived in theaters around the globe, 20th Century Fox let it slip that indeed they were already planning to remake Death on the Nile and they hoped to release it by Christmas of 2019. 

With Branagh (Belfast)  back on board and another starry cast assembled, the film went through some rough waters during production and wasn’t even complete until the final days of 2019, eventually moved to an October 2020 release date. First the team had to battle back lousy press brought on by one of its leading men (Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name) and the eyebrow-raising allegations against him. Then with the pandemic remaining in full force, 20th Century Studios (now owned by Disney, so the Fox was dropped) had no choice but to continue to delay the release until early 2022. Death on the Nile is now dropping anchor in theaters a full two years after principal photography had completed and over a year since its original release date – and it sounds like moviegoers still aren’t sure if they want. It’s hard to wrap your mind around a movie filled with so many stars that began production with such promise could wind up arriving with such indecision.

All of this information we’ve gone over in the past three paragraphs would be sad news to report if Branagh’s sequel were a strong showing for him and his cast. Yet there’s an oddity to much of Death of the Nile which hangs over it like a gaseous cloud, often paralyzing the critical external parts of the story in favor of more internal moments that don’t work as well Branagh thinks that they do. I know that Branagh’s Poirot shouldn’t be expected to perform just like Ustinov, Albert Finney, or the incomparable David Suchet. He still should be consistent from scene to scene, though. While a prologue giving clues to Poirot’s origins (at least his mustache) is appreciated from a filmmaking standpoint, it perhaps tells us too much about a man that is in large part designed to be the aloof observer.

Always in the right place at the right time, Poirot is in a club to hear famous blues guitarist Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo, Hellboy) sing and catches the moment Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot, Red Notice) first meets Simon Doyle (Hammer) and they fall in love. Of course, Simon’s been introduced to Linnet by her friend and his girlfriend Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), and Jackie doesn’t take the rejection very well, eventually showing up at Linnet and Simon’s wedding celebration in Egypt, where Poirot happens to be vacationing. Attempting to get away from Jackie showing up when they least expect it, Linnet and Simon charter a steamer boat for their wedding party to spend a few days on. Of course, Hercule is invited…and of course, Jackie finds her way aboard the ship eventually as well.

Up until this point, screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) has gone ahead and given Christie’s 1937 novel a nice knuckle twist, removing characters or changing their professions to better fit into the narrative that chooses to focus on the romance of the situation more than the mystery. Pairing people off is usually the kiss of death in these thrillers because they could be going away with a murderer. Still, Branagh appears content to get people alone with one another, only to express their innermost thoughts. The vulnerability he begins to show as Poirot to Okonedo’s character gets off-putting; you don’t want to see Poirot this thrown off his game. Adding in Annette Bening (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) as the side-eye glancing mother of Tom Bateman’s (Snatched) returning character Bouc is a coup of casting, but because the characters weren’t in the original novel, it’s no wonder the lauded actress can often feel like an afterthought.

However, someone has to get killed for a case to get opened at a certain point. While I won’t reveal who that is (and, good for those editors, the trailers have done a great job concealing the person(s?) that don’t make it back to shore with their blood still circulating), at least when the mystery does take over Green doesn’t change the precision in which Christie plotted out the crime. I don’t think Branagh has a tight grasp on this one as he did Orient Express. However, the film is still an entertaining watch because of performances like Gadot (proving she can play something other than Wonder Woman) and especially Okonedo, who steals each scene she’s in. Okonedo understands the assignment and while I missed the character being a tipsy romance novelist, recasting her as a Sister Rosetta Tharpe-style performer is a good touch.

The bad news is that the filmmakers still had to deal with Hammer, and no amount of new camera angles or clever editing can fix that. You don’t see Hammer’s face full-on for a good ten minutes…and that’s weird when everyone else has had an establishing shot. I also feel there were other scenes he was in that were trimmed or cut out because he vanishes for significant stretches. The most unenviable task falls on comedy duo Jennifer Saunders (Isn’t It Romantic) and Dawn French playing a socialite and her nurse/companion, Bette Davis and Maggie Smith’s exact roles in the original. Davis and Smith were so riotously funny that anyone who follows could never match up, even with a storyline smoothed out to be less vague in one particular aspect.

As with most Christie yarns, even when the mystery is solved, it doesn’t mean that the suffering is over, and Branagh chooses to learn into that notion hard during Death on the Nile. That leaves the viewer in a cold spot as the film reaches the end of its voyage, in a place with far less hope than where we began or where we left off at the end of Orient Express. I’m not so sure we’ll see Branagh’s Poirot again. I hope we do because I want to see what he could handle next. I wish they’d resist the urge to change Poirot to fit a modern ideal, though. This Belgian operates in a specific time and place. 

The Silver Bullet ~ Death on the Nile (2020)

Synopsis: Detective Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a young heiress aboard a cruise ship on the Nile River.

Release Date:  October 23, 2020

Thoughts:  Only a few years back in the late summer of 2017 I was expressing my doubts that director Kenneth Branagh (Cinderella) was going to be able to remake Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and improve upon the sterling 1974 film.  Released in November of that year, it did solid business with audiences but left many critics feeling they had hopped on a slower ride than expected.  I quite enjoyed the update, actually, finding Branagh’s fussy Hercule Poirot cucumber cool fun and the rest of the starry cast more than up for the devious twists and turns Christie plotted out.  It was perfect winter weather viewing, the kind of film that deep armchairs and warm blankets were made for.  As viewers were already aware, that film ended with Poirot being called to Egypt to investigate a “death on the Nile” and come October the promise of a sequel is finally arriving.

Itself a remake of the 1978 follow-up the blockbuster smash of Orient Express, Death on the Nile is another opportunity for Branagh to gather an impressive crew of suspects and victims that board a cruise ship headed for doom.  With the sort of jaw-dropping but still believable plot machinations that only Christie truly perfected in her lifetime, some prefer the original sequel to its predecessor so I’ll be interested if Branagh can win over his original naysayers on this second round of whodunit.  This downright beautiful first look certainly bodes well for it being another tantalizing mix of A-list stars (Wonder Woman 1984’s Gal Gadot, Call Me by Your Names Armie Hammer, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’s Annette Bening) and up and comers (Emma Mackey of Netflix’s Sex Education, Letitia Wright from Black Panther, and Furious 7’s Ali Fazal) that come under suspicion when murder drops anchor.  I’m expecting another classy affair from Branagh and company…and who knows if by the end we won’t get a tease of where Poirot might be headed next.  The possibilities are endless…

The Silver Bullet ~ Trolls

trolls

Synopsis: This holiday season, enter a colorful, wondrous world populated by hilariously unforgettable characters and discover the story of the overly optimistic Trolls, with a constant song on their lips, and the comically pessimistic Bergens, who are only happy when they have trolls in their stomach.

Release Date: November 4, 2016

Thoughts: If you’ve yet to watch the trailer for Trolls,  the new animated film from Dreamworks, you should probably put on a pair of sunglasses. Not only is the color palette so vibrant it practically vibrates but the overall cheer of the piece is as sunny as a day in May.  Already making a splash with a catchy music video from Justin Timberlake, Trolls takes those whispy haired wonders from being mere lucky Bingo idols to the big screen in an original musical adventure.  It looks like quite the trip and with voices from Timberlake (Inside Llewyn Davis), Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect 2), James Corden (Into the Woods), Gwen Stefani, and more all signs point to a zany treat come November.

The Silver Bullet ~ Paradise (2013)

paradise

Synopsis: After surviving a plane crash a young conservative woman suffers a crisis of faith.

Release Date: October 18, 2013

Thoughts: Not to be confused with the 1991 drama starring Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith (which I review here), this is the first film directed by Oscar winning screenwriter Diablo Cody and it seems very much in line with her past work.  I was a big fan of 2011’s underappreciated Young Adult so am interested to see what Cody has up her sleeve…especially since this isn’t a cast I’d normally be knocking down the theater doors to see.  The last time Julianne Hough and the supernaturally annoying Russell Brand teamed up we got the 2012 musical disaster Rock of Ages but here’s hoping that the welcome presence of Nick Offerman and Oscar winners Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station) and Holly Hunter (Copycat) counter-balance the players.  Cody’s first directing gig has been long in the making (I’m still holding out hope she gets her Sweet Valley High re-imagining off the ground) and I want to believe that the wait will be worth it.   

Movie Review ~ Despicable Me 2

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despicable_me_two_ver7

The Facts:

Synopsis: Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to help deal with a powerful new super criminal.

Stars: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Russell Brand, Steve Coogan, Ken Jeong, Benjamin Bratt

Director: Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin

Rated: PG

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It’s unfortunate that every computer animated movie needs to be compared to a PIXAR film.  True, PIXAR is clearly the gold standard of CG animation with their endlessly inventive technique and knack for tapping into story and characters that stick with the audience.  Over the years numerous studios have tried and mostly failed to capture that same magic.

I remember going in 2010’s Despicable Me with a bit of a grumpy attitude – here was yet another animated 3D film with A-List voices that would probably wear out its welcome before the first reel was over.  So you’d imagine my surprise when I found myself engaging with the movie and enjoying every minute of it.  With its crisp animation and sprightly voice talent a delightfully entertaining movie emerged and though it failed to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, its huge box-office take did allow Universal Studios and Illumination Entertainment (who also made the impressive Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax in 2012) to inch closer into PIXAR’s corner of the market.

Raking in millions pretty much guarantees a sequel for any movie released in this modern era so it’s not totally shocking that we find ourselves three years later with Despicable Me 2 and while it isn’t quite as on the button as its predecessor, it comes very close thanks to director Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin’s understanding of what the audience wants more of.

That would be The Minions.  The little yellow scamps that speak their own language and have a playful way of interacting pretty much steal the show…which is exactly what they were designed to do.  This being a sequel you have to give the audience something bigger and more substantial so the significance of these little imps has grown and they provide a large percentage of the laughs in a film that has plenty to spare.

Now the father to three orphaned girls, the one-time villain Gru (again voiced in a thick European accent by Steve Carrell, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and The Way Way Back) is settling into life as a single dad.  What I appreciated about the film is how it didn’t go the expected route and make the sequel all about the fatherhood angle but skillfully lets that part of Gru’s life continue to develop even as he’s called into action by the Anti-Villain League when a deadly formula is stolen from a top secret arctic research lab.

Going undercover at Paradise Mall (which looks like a snow globe and contains shops like Bake My Day) he’s teamed with a goofy agent voiced by Kristen Wiig (who, incidentally, voiced a different character in the first film) and they soon find themselves uncovering not only a plot to take over the world but a burgeoning romance of unrequited love.

It’s a fairly standard set-up that in lesser hands may have resulted in a movie that would soon take up space in the $5 bin at Target.  What keeps the  movie moving ever forward is it’s fast-paced jokes that give our stars nice room to flex their comic vocal chops and the animators room to be as creative as they want within the mall. Though the film does have a breakneck pace, I did find it a little long at 98 minutes – cutting out one or two extraneous subplots could have had this one clocking in about ten minutes shorter without losing any of the elements that work nicely.

Like the original, Despicable Me 2 is being released in 3D and there’s a case to be made of paying the up-charge to the 3D format.  Not only does the technology give the viewer more depth in some precisely designed scenes but the end-credits sequence has impressive effects that had young audience members (and at least one old one) reaching out to pop a bubble or dodge a flying object.

With its colorfully created world the movie will appeal to young children as much as its James Bond-y plot might speak to young teens and adults.  In a world of sequels that don’t measure up to the original, Despicable Me 2 is recommended as a worthy follow-up of solid entertainment.

The Silver Bullet ~ Despicable Me 2

despicable_me_two_ver3

Synopsis: Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to help deal with a powerful new super criminal.

Release Date:  July 3, 2013

Thoughts: I was a surprising fan of 2010’s Despicable Me, finding its skewed humor fit nicely within the animation created by Dreamworks Studios.  Like the penguins from Madagascar, the tiny yellow imps that are the secondary characters here threaten to steal the film out from under our main hero/villain and that’s AOK with me.  After the bomb that was The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Steve Carell must be thanking his lucky stars he has this film coming up in June because this one is a sure-fire bet to clean-up at the box office.