Whatever can be said of modern animated films, despite how good or bad they, are they're almost a sure bet for studios to make a killing, even when sequelizing a played franchise (Ice Age). While this has led to a lot of overly cute, homogenized pabulum, the form has pushed out some modern classics, and not just from Pixar and Disney. 2010 was a particularly good year, with the release of Dreamworks wonderful How to Train Your Dragon, the surprisingly good Puss in Boots -- a spinoff film that makes the awful Shrek movies almost seem worth it -- as well as the equally fun (and unique) Despicable Me. Oh yeah, and Toy Story 3. You have to look for the good amongst the bland.
Of course, owing to the mountain of kid cash Despicable Me raked in, we now have the aptly titled Despicable Me 2, proving once again that -- at least in Hollywood -- the first time is often the charm.
After stealing the moon, then getting a heart and putting it back, the wicked super villain Gru (Steve Carrell) has given up evil in order to be the adoptive father of Agnes, Edith and Margo (Elsie Fisher, Dana Gaier and Miranda Cosgrove) the three orphaned girls who got him to give up his life of arch-criminality.
Gru, who has gone legit by starting a jelly and jam business with his former henchman, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), is approached by Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), an agent with the AVL (Anti-Villain League) looking for the mysterious rouge responsible for the theft of an entire Artic research station, along with a lab that contained PX-41, a chemical that can morph seemingly harmless, cute creatures into deranged, mutated monsters.
Briefed by the head of the AVL, Silias Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan, obviously), Gru and Lucy team up and go undercover when traces of the chemical appear in the Paradise Shopping Mall. Gru immediately suspects a restaurant owner, Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt) of not only knowing about the heist but also of being El Macho, a legendary super villain long thought dead (after flying a rocket, strapped to a ton of TNT and a live shark into the mouth of an erupting volcano). Gru's admiration is still obvious.
Was Eduardo behind the heist? Will Gru's fear of women crumble under Lucy's nerdy charms? Will Agnes, Edith and Margo get the family they always wanted? You'll figure all of that out within the first 20 minutes. Your kids probably will, too.
Honestly, it's not as if Despicable Me broke any boundaries in terms of narrative complexity or left-field story telling -- and it wasn't without its share of cutesy kid bait, too (Gru's Minions). But it did feel somewhat fresh (fresher than Toy Story 3, at any rate) and enjoyed a distinct tone and art design. Stealing the moon was a sweetly ridiculous hook, fanciful in a way Despicable Me 2 doesn't even attempt to be.
With the returning creative team of directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud and writers Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (who have plumbed worse creative depths with Bubble Boy and Horton Hears a Who!), Despicable Me 2 loses much of the freshness and inventiveness of the original in lieu of a porridge of spoon-fed sentiment, limp plotting, and some weird proto-sexual undertones (not sure what was up with all the bananas, gushing geyser visual motifs or Silias Ramsbottom). It just feels like a cash-in.
The lack of any real jokes that stick (or many memorable sequences) hamstrings the first two acts (our villain, whose identity is meant to be a secret, does practically nothing after the opening heist until he is revealed). In the interim, there's plenty of character development, to the point of overkill, and where the plotting could have been more focused and the writing much sharper, instead, the story meanders without much of a pulse. There are some sweet moments, and the kids will likely be happy (if the 200 million dollar opening is any indication), but the film doesn't pick up steam until the last act and never does it feel like that there are any real stakes involved.
The voice cast is game though, with Carrell and Wiig enjoying a fun chemistry, making the all rote character development feel like something less of a slog. Benjamin Bratt as Eduardo is on a similar level, giving a boisterous performance -- really all the voice work here is fine, right down to the (thankfully) unrecognizable Russell Brand.
They work hard to make it seem like you are having a good time -- and nearly succeed.
It looks slick and clean and colorful, and there is still some neat design work going on here, but its lack of urgency and threadbare reason for existing -- outside of minting money -- makes Despicable Me 2 feel like an entirely different kind of evil scheme. One that steals time better spent watching something original.
In much the same way that last week's World War Z acts, if nothing else, as an inspiration to read (or re-read) the titular novel, German director Margarethe von Trotta's (Vision) new biopic of German philosopher and accused Nazi sympathizer, Hannah Arendt inspires an interest in everything from post-Kant German philosophers to the coldly bureaucratic mind of convicted Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann to the film's influential namesake herself. While Hannah Arendt certainly does more than scratch the surface (unlike WWZ) it's still a movie whose source material winds up being more compelling than the film itself.
Barbara Sukowa (reuniting with von Trotta after 2009's Vision) portrays Arendt, a philosopher and self-dubbed political theorist who is teaching German language and philosophy at New York's The New School in the early '60s when she's contracted to write a cover story for the New Yorker about the trial of Eichmann. Having escaped the Nuremburg Trials, Eichmann was kidnapped in Argentina by Israel's Secret Service, Mossad, and taken back to Jerusalem to stand accused of the mass deportation of Jews to the concentration camps.
But instead of penning a straight telling of the 1961 trial, Arendt -- a singularly astute thinker, and Jew, with a fascination for how totalitarian governments redefine both nations and politics -- deconstructed Eichmann's deeds dispassionately (years after suffering from severe depression when the scope of the Holocaust was fully revealed to her).
Arendt's conclusion: Eichmann was merely a hierarchal drone, robbed of the ability to think and be human by a system designed to eradicate conscience; basically a number cruncher and thus not capable of responsibility for the consequences of his admittedly awful job. Arendt's apparent rationalization for men like Eichmann and their actions -- that their mediocrity defined the true immorality of human nature, which she famously dubbed "the banality of evil" -- inspired animosity and scorn amongst her intellectual peers (as well as death threats) and international controversy. Particularly when she more or less suggested that the Jewish councils of the time were somewhat complicit in the Final Solution.
Not that it helped Eichmann, who was convicted of all counts and executed by hanging in 1962.
Directed by von Trotta and co-written with Pam Katz (Remembrance) Hannah Arendt is a frustrating mixed bag of compelling events and often stilted execution. Trotta, whose filmography is thick with television credits, exhibits the same visual strengths as her equally interesting Vision. She has a knack for capturing historical periods with detailed production design, faithful costuming and tangible visual panache, aided by the talents of cinematographer Caroline Champetier (Holy Motors).
But the same narrative weaknesses also prevail, as the earnest writing paints many characters with a distancing sense of caricature -- while the narrative perfunctorily fills in the gaps of Arendt's past when the main narrative loses steam. Actual footage from the trial is nicely interleaved into the film, ironically feeling more organic than many of the flashbacks Trotta employs to detail Arendt's past as a student, and lover, of her intellectual mentor Martin Heidegger.
Sukowa is fine as Arendt and many of the German cast fare equally well, particularly Axel Milberg (The International) as her second husband and soul mate, Heinrich Blücher. They enjoy a decent chemistry that sidesteps shallowness.
But much of the strictly English-speaking cast turns in hopelessly stilted performances -- coming off like half-assed community theater actors at a Chautauqua. Janet McTeer as Arendt's friend and editor, Mary McCarthy is notably annoying and wooden even when her crazy-eyed emoting wasn't totally weird and kind of funny. For someone with a clear grasp of so many elements of filmcraft, the uneven performances Trotta culls from her cast are frustrating.
But, it's not a slog, and despite its inconsistent qualities Hannah Arendt still manages to draw us in to a time a place that is doubtlessly compelling and will likely inspire a trip to the library -- or at least a lazy afternoon on Wikipedia.
Send all comments and feedback regarding Cinema to email@example.com.
Crossing the Finish Line
The Circle Cinema is Reborn for Its 85th Birthday
By Joe O'Shansky
espite being around since July 1928, it wasn't until sometime around the Circle's 80th birthday that I finally experienced the charms of its cozy and (at the time) 105-seat theater. It was the instant classic Let the Right One In followed by a midnight showing of Tokyo Gore Police (I knew the place was something special when I was offered a custom-made barf bag for the latter). The attention given to great exhibition and their clear love of movies for cineastes -- and midnight carnivores -- instantly set the Circle apart.
It's been a long road for Circle owner Clark Wiens, his dedicated staff, and their vision for a communal and technologically interactive art house theater. But this week finally brings their collective efforts to long-awaited fruition.
"These last steps went a lot quicker with the infrastructure and the wiring in place," Circle manager Chuck Foxen said. "All of that takes a long time, but now that it's in... it's moving really quick."
Indeed, last November saw the long-awaited opening of their second, 120-seat theater, with a 30-foot screen and all new digital and film projection.
Now, the official ribbon cutting on the brand new 268-seat theater (with the restored pipe organ in place), as well as the rebuilt ticket booth and lobby sneaks up on us this Monday, July 15th and will be preceded by a weekend of festivities to celebrate the Circle's long history.
Among the events includes the Made in Oklahoma Film Festival, featuring four films conceived and shot in Oklahoma. Split up over two nights, the entries include Bill's Thud and deadCENTER Film Festival-winner Home, James on Saturday night as well as 2008's deadCENTER winner Rainbow Around the Sun, and Left of Center on Friday night. Q&A sessions with the filmmakers accompany the exhibitions.
"We're also showing a program called Circle Cinema classics, and it's four of the best-attended films that we've ever played in the last 8 years," said Foxen. Those will also be stretched over the weekend and include crowd favorites, The Intouchables, Sweet Land and What the Bleep.
Other ribbon cutting highlights (attended by Mayor Dewey Bartlett, Brian Bingman and District 4 Councilor Blake Ewing) include the Sterlin Harjo Walk of Fame Dedication, student shorts from RSU, TU and Jenks, not mention music videos and blocks of classic serials, historical films, and animation shorts. Monday's events are free and open to the public, as well as some of the early weekend programming.
So walk up to the freshly tiled, outdoor ticket booth to get a stub, grab some popcorn at the rebuilt concessions stand in the restored lobby, and catch a new film or a cinema classic to celebrate the birthday of Tulsa's one and only art house theater. Thanks to the tireless work of the Circle's staff and the generous contributions of its many donors, it seems assured that there will be many more.
Opening ceremonies leading up to the grand reopening fun from July 13-15; for more information on ticketing and the scheduled events, visit www.circlecinema.com.
Share this article: