It took me 15 minutes or so to warm up to this French-produced digitally animated family film. I was initially disheartened by the gratuitous use of "Sweet Home Alabama," the addition of an MSNBC newsman and a joke about Lehman Brothers -- I feared another too-snarky film tripping over itself to be "cool." But I'm happy to report that Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud's film settled in for a story that was funny, clever and increasingly sweet.
Its protagonist is Gru (voiced with a Russian accent by Steve Carrell), an evil inventor and mastermind, hiding in plain sight in a sunny neighborhood. (Well, almost: He has the only dead lawn on the block.) From his underground lair, staffed by thousands of hilariously adorable "minions" (who look like a cross between SpongeBob and a jelly bean), he hatches a plan to steal the moon. But a twist puts Gru in charge of three orphan girls, just when his showdown with a rival villain named Vector (Jason Segal) is heating up.
The storyline is reminiscent of How the Grinch Stole Christmas -- bitter man with hard heart softened by a saucer-eyed child -- and some of the gadgets and gags are worthy of Dr. Seuss. Yet despite a predictable plot, Despicable still feels fresh and fun. (Did I mention those super-cute minions?) Screening in both 2-D and 3-D, but this one is worth seeing with the extra dimension. The animation is crisp and eye-popping, and you'll thrill to the rollercoaster ride and the awesome credits, which you must sit through. Starts Fri., July 9. (Al Hoff) [3 out of 4 stars]
I'm not a huge Joan Rivers fan, but I'm fascinated by a performer who has so fiercely defended her career -- over decades, and in a business that is brutal even to its golden boys, and especially harsh on women. Love her or hate her, Rivers is a survivor.
Documentarians Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback) filmed Rivers over one year, her 75th. She's in a low spot early on -- bookings are down, and she's more punchline than headliner. But she finishes the year strong with her surprising triumph on Celebrity Apprentice. I wish there had been more clips of that show (who can forget Rivers howling "like Hitler at Buchenwald" at her rival Annie Duke), as well as historical footage, from when Rivers was a real trailblazer.
Rivers' act is to tell jokes -- she has file cabinets of them -- but she's also funny in her daily life, so the film is almost always entertaining. Rivers has borne some tough times (her husband's suicide, money woes, her failed talk show). But while the film touches on them, they're never explored in much depth. For bigger laughs, the filmmakers show her stage performances, where Rivers is pretty blue and shameless. (The opening sequence has her ad-libbing with f-bombs about the grotty nightclub she's playing, and snapping off a quip about her grown daughter's pussy.)
Piece of Work is admittedly hagiographic, but Rivers -- who is on camera in nearly every scene -- reveals quite a lot, and not all of it pretty. She's maniacal about working (and no job is too low); she's insecure, angry and slightly self-deluded (her real dream, even today, is to act); and her overarching commitment to plastic surgery seems sad. She's constantly vacillating between happy and sad, satisfied and anxious, confident and needy -- and must be exhausting to be around. But then, the normal people don't go into comedy. Starts Fri., July 9. Manor (Al Hoff) [2.5 out of 4 stars]
In this M. Night Shyamalan's new feature, two teens from the Air Nation rescue a tattooed, bald-headed kid named Aang (Noah Ringer), whom they believe is the "avatar." The avatar is a semi-spiritual figure able to bridge the nations of air, water, fire and earth, ensuring cross-elemental harmony. Which is not happening now: The Lord of Fire is busy enslaving everybody, I think.
I missed a chunk of the action, having the misfortune to sit behind the Lord of the Giant Head, and also being unfamiliar with the Nickelodeon series this film is based on. (Be forewarned: This film is only part one, and doesn't conclude so much as show the opening scene of part two.) The story comes off as poorly fleshed-out, kiddie-friendly spiritual mumbo-jumbo about various nations who seemed more defined by their groovy ethnic-inspired outfits than by any larger ethos.
The trio of young do-gooders winds up in the Northern Water Nation (read: ice), which seems to be a cross between leftover costumes from Dr. Zhivago, a Lego kit for an ancient Mongolian city and the pool of light from the Lost finale. The "action" is limited to "bending" -- people move tai-chi-like and make defensive and offensive weapons with their element. These scenes were deeply uninteresting, with all the dramatic tension of rock-paper-scissors contests. (Dirt wall defeats fire, but fire beats ice ball.)
The acting is strictly TV-movie-caliber, and only the elite of the Fire Nation delivered any heat: Dev Patel as a disgraced prince and Shaun Toub as his sympathetic uncle. The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi portrays the arch captain of a fire boat, but his hamminess just made me read his scenes as a lame late-night skit ("Fire Nation Evaporates Tea Party").
One last note: This movie is being sold as a 3-D experience, but it wasn't filmed for the format. It was converted post-production, and thus offers little in 3-D thrills. Use your hard-earned pennies instead at the Popcorn Nation. (Al Hoff) [1.5 out of 4 stars]
It's as if the characters in Nash Edgerton's gritty noirish thriller have never seen ... well, a gritty nourish thriller. It's bad enough that Ray (David Roberts) and Carla (Claire van der Boom), neighbors in a small Australian community, are having an affair. But when Claire sneaks home from an assignation and spies her brutish husband, Smithy (Anthony Hayes), hiding a bag of cash in the ceiling -- well, no good can possibly come of this.
But as sure as sparks fly upward (why yes, there will be a fire), Ray and Carla decide the money is their ticket out.
Things go from bad to worse to borderline insane. Some of the plot is well telegraphed (occasionally, too well), but Edgerton also enjoys the out-of-left-field jolt. The overall story -- of lies, betrayals and fixes that cause more trouble -- is familiar, but fans of such films (Blood Simple, A Simple Plan) should enjoy this outing, a worthy debut feature.
Also screening with The Square is "Spider," a short film from Edgerton that should resonate with anybody who's tried to negotiate a quarrel while driving. (The eagle-eyed should look for a shout-out to "Spider" in The Square.) Director Edgerton is scheduled to follow the July 9 and 10 evening shows with a Q&A. Starts Fri., July 9. Harris (Al Hoff) [2.5 out of 4 stars]
Stephenie Meyer's popular teen-loves-undead-dude series gets its third trip to the big screen, this time under the direction of David Slade. Newbie alert: The story kicks off where last year's New Moon left off, with the ongoing feud between vampires and werewolves, and a nasty vampire seeking revenge.
Eclipse is livelier (and shorter) than the second film, but the story still advances slowly. Not surprising, since the focus of this episode is several large indecisions, discussed again and again. Edward wants to marry Bella, but she doesn't; Bella wants Edward to make her a vampire, but he doesn't. Jacob wants Bella, but she wants Edward. Or maybe not. Edward knows what's best for Bella; no, Jacob does. (Be advised: Resolution isn't necessarily forthcoming. Presumably, that's what the next two movies will cover.) Such is adolescence, and these anxieties are only complicated when choosing between eternal life with a "cold one," or hunkering down with a werewolf.
On the upside, there's less moping, a fresh set of good-looking vampires, and the usual dose of pretty Pacific Northwest scenery. Taylor Lautner, who stars as the deliciously shirtless werewolf, Jacob, is more engaging this time out. On the downside, Robert Pattinson (vampire Edward) and Kristen Stewart (human Bella) seem more wooden than ever. (There's a reason the film has to endlessly remind you that these two are soulmates.)
And on the cheesy side: a cameo by the music-video-ish Volturi group of vampires, and flashbacks to bloodsucking episodes of yore, which offer the intrigue of Confederate Army nightstalkers.
The film builds a good deal of anticipation toward a battle royale between the "good" vampires and the bad ones who trek down from Seattle. But the ultimate showdown is disappointingly flat, and notable only for the revelation of a new way to kill vampires. Apparently, you can just snap their heads off, as if they were made of cheap plaster. (Al Hoff) [2.5 out of 4 stars]