Archive for July, 2013

Fruitvale Station

Posted in Biography, Drama with tags on July 31, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Fruitvale Station photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgIn the early morning of January 1, 2009, Oscar Grant III was fatally shot by the BART police at the Fruitvale station in Oakland California. The picture opens with actual cell-phone video of the killing taken by a bystander. It’s a compelling start to a story that I am very familiar with living in the Bay Area. What happens in the 24 hours leading up to that fateful encounter, is the subject of this heartbreaking chronicle.

First time director Ryan Coogler’s film is important because it upholds that an innocent life is something to hold sacred. On the surface Oscar was nothing special. He was just an ordinary man. Actually some could even contend he was much worse. Not an exemplary member of society, we see him as a liar, a cheater, a drug dealer, unemployed and as an ex-con. He also has a wife, a daughter and a mother – all of whom he loves dearly. Actor Michael B. Jordan does a good job at portraying Oscar Grant. We are drawn to him despite the fact that he is flawed. He is human. You care for this man. That is what makes the drama so effective. His loving relationship with his daughter (Ariana Neal), girlfriend Sophia (Melonie Diaz), and mother (Octavia Spencer) help humanize a man that might be viewed as merely a criminal at first glance.

Knowing how this ends actually gives weight to these dramatized events. When his mother encourages him to take the train because it’s safer than driving in traffic, the conversation resonates more. We get a glimpse of a passing BART train in the background one moment and the image is particularly haunting. Occasionally, director Coogler pushes too far. A scene where Oscar bonds with a well-to-do white man on New Year’s Eve feels like massaging the audience. See he likes white people! None of that is necessary because the ultimate message of injustice is unmistakable. Coogler shows that it’s not required for Oscar to have been a paragon of virtue for his life to have value. The point is that he had a right to live.

What went down in the East Bay Area early morning New Years Day in 2009 should have never occurred. Fruitvale Station covers a life needlessly destroyed by the people entrusted to protect it. The system failed. Through the course of one day we get a snapshot of Oscar Grant. The events, as presented here, will inspire anger, frustration but mostly sadness over a spirit recklessly taken away. Writer/director Ryan Coogler’s drama does not set out to deify this man. Oscar isn’t a saint, but he certainly isn’t a monster either. What keeps coming through each vignette is that he was human. His existence had purpose because he had a soul. In Coogler’s small-scale portrait, we get the presentation of an individual unfulfilled. A powerful film about an American tragedy.

Happy Gilmore

Posted in Comedy, Sports with tags on July 30, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Happy Gilmore photo starrating-3stars.jpg
Shooter McGavin: You’re in big trouble though, pal. I eat pieces of sh– like you for breakfast!

Happy Gilmore: [laughing] You eat pieces of sh– for breakfast?

Adam Sandler is Happy Gilmore, an unsuccessful ice hockey player with a powerful slapshot. After a challenge, he discovers he has a talent for golf. To be specific, he has an easy facility for driving a golf ball 400 yards. His putting, on the other hand, is horrible. Under the tutelage of club pro Chubbs Peterson (Carl Weathers), he joins a golf tournament. Happy hopes to win enough money to help out his grandmother whose house is about to be repossessed.

Sandler’s second major starring vehicle is his riff on 1980’s Caddyshack, another golf comedy. His idea of funny is to transplant the loud obnoxious environment of the hockey rink to the quiet, sophisticated atmosphere of the golf course. It’s clear Happy has an anger problem and he’s frequently given to losing his cool. The humor is lowbrow and a lot of it rests on Happy Gilmore’s boorish demeanor as contrasted with stuffed shirt Shooter McGavin, a villain embodied in full hissable glory by Christopher McDonald. There’s sort of an idiotic joy in seeing Happy’s aggressive behavior conflict with the civilized gold pros. A confrontation with Bob Barker of TV’s The Price is Right is a savage delight. But he doesn’t remain that way. As the plot develops, Happy becomes more likable. I think it’s relevant to point out that Happy begins as a flawed character, unable to control his temper. By managing his emotions and finding his “happy place” he finds success. Nice moral. It’s not as inspired as something like There’s Something About Mary from the same era. However Happy Gilmore has achieved a cult status and like all such films it improves with repeated viewings.

Note: Will Damron over at Papa Kenn Media was my inspiration for revisiting Happy Gilmore. He is examining vintage Sandler movies from the past. He prompted me to watch this so I could provide my own insight. Please check out his page as well.

The Wolverine

Posted in Action, Adventure, Superhero with tags on July 28, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Wolverine photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgFor those keeping track, this the sixth installment in the X-Men film series and picks up where #3 X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) left off. In it our fearless hero the Wolverine–a.k.a. Logan–is confronted by the past as he experiences hallucinations of Jean Grey as well as the Nagasaki bombing of 1945. There he reflects back on a Japanese soldier he saved. Yashida is now a CEO dying of cancer and wants to return the favor with an interesting proposition.

In this cluttered cast there are actually three women vying for our hero’s attention. First there’s the ghost of Jean whom he was forced to kill. She keeps popping up to haunt our protagonist. She’s lovingly photographed in white with soft focus. Is that a halo I see? In addition we get Yukio, a woman who has powers allowing her to see people’s deaths. She is the messenger sent to bring the Wolverine to Japan. And then there’s Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko, whom he meets when he gets there. Not vying for his attention is a villain named Viper who looks like a porn star. She’s played with ultra camp by Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova. She forces The Wolverine to confront his own mortality. For the majority of the saga, the Wolverine can be hurt as any human man. That’s a bummer because it reduces the drama to that of an ordinary person, albeit one who looks like Hugh Jackman. This is not an event in the way that Man of Steel or Iron Man 3 were this summer. It’s a much smaller picture.  I should be clear, though, this is BETTER than Man of Steel. Nevertheless, with his powers removed, this could be any generic 90s actioner.

The Wolverine is a middling attempt with a plot that is kind of dull. For a superhero film, there’s not a whole lot of fantasy. There’s a rousing sequence atop a speeding train. That got my pace quickening a bit. But for the most part it’s a minor entry in the X-Men franchise. I’ll admit there’s something to be said for a toned down effort with limited special effects and an intimate story. But this feels like a B-movie with characters cobbled together by screenwriters who have liberally sampled from Ninja, Samurai and Yakuza films. It all climaxes in a silly way that has nothing to do with the rest of the tale. No detailed spoilers, but a robot is involved. I’m not kidding.  It’s telling that the most exhilarating part of the entire picture comes 1 minute after the credits start rolling. There we’re given a glimpse of what could have been.

A Note for Parents: This sets a new high (or low) for PG-13 rated entertainment. It is extremely violent. They creatively edit around it so the amount of blood is minimal. However there are a multitude of stabbings and when the Wolverine operates on his own chest by slicing it open, well I had to look away. The scene where he is mercilessly shot in the back with poison-dipped arrows so that he resembles a porcupine, was an image I won‘t soon forget either. If this had been rated R, I wouldn’t even be talking about this. The MPAA have always had harsher restrictions for sex and profanity than violence, but their hypocrisy is really shameful here. This far exceeds the normal level for a PG-13 rated film.

20 Feet From Stardom

Posted in Documentary, History, Music with tags on July 24, 2013 by Mark Hobin

20 Feet from Stardom photo starrating-4stars.jpgEver want to know more about the people who sing backup vocals on your favorite hit songs? No? Well to be quite honest, neither did I. Or so I thought.  That’s the beauty of this documentary. 20 Feet From Stardom takes a subject of vague interest and makes it captivating. On display are the contributors that rarely get mentioned, save for the microscopic print of the liner notes on an album. It’s a fascinating watch. 20 Feet From Stardom doesn’t purport to tell the story of all supplementary vocalists. What it does do is delve into a sampling of the prolific talent that has been harmonizing on songs you’ve loved for years but never knew who sang those secondary parts.

I suppose in some way this presentation speaks for all backup singers as it tells these stories, but it specifically recounts the detailed histories of Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Táta Vega. Every tale is unique with a distinct take and their own remarkable window into the world of popular music. The rationale for why these performers never became household names are multilayered and vary. For some perhaps racism and/or sexism. In others maybe just dumb luck. A simple lack of a desire to seize the spotlight is even suggested. In the case of Darlene Love, there was the megalomaniacal (albeit gifted) Phil Spector to contend with. Only one ego in the room please. Her drama is especially heartbreaking in the sense she sang on some of the most beloved songs without nary a credit. She along with Fanita James and Jean King, were founding members of The Blossoms. The trio sang backup on Sinatra’s “That’s Life”, Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash”, the holiday classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and countless others. They notably recorded the #1 hit song “He’s a Rebel” but Spector released that single under The Crystals, a completely different group, so Love and her fellow Blossoms never got the recognition or the stardom they deserved. Yet Love’s story inspires happiness nonetheless. They became first call, A-list session singers, highly in demand. Their voices are still infectious today. They are permitted to sing here and their talent speaks volumes that words cannot.

I always instinctively assume that the background vocals belong to the group/entourage associated with the artist on the single. But in many instances they are hired guns that come in, lay down their vocal tracks and then move on to the next gig. Director Morgan Neville’s document gently suggests various reasons for their lack of fame but allows the viewer to arrive at their own conclusions. In the meantime we’re treated to some of the best music of the 20th century. These vocalists have worked with the likes of Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, Luther Vandross, Sting, Ike and Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Bette Midler. Many of these legends appear singing the praises of these unheralded talents. By and large, the chronicle is an uplifting tribute. There’s something exhilarating in seeing these artists get their due. It’s amazing how pervasive their contributions are to pop culture. For example the Waters Family were featured on “Thriller”, “The Circle of Life” and even recorded dino-bird sounds for Avatar.  There are at least half a dozen sagas here that command your attention. Each performer could highlight their own movie. Perhaps none more so than that of Darlene Love. Her story is one of frustration, perseverance and ultimately joy. That’s the ultimate message of this wonderful film.

The Conjuring

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on July 21, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Conjuring photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgWhen The Conjuring was slapped with an “R” rating, the producers couldn’t have bought better publicity. Setting out to make a PG-13 film, the picture earned the more restrictive classification, not on account of blood, gore, swearing, or sex – but because it was simply TOO SCARY to get anything less. The decision to leave things as they were worked. It had the highest debut for an original R rated movie ever. Even taking inflation into account, it still ranks up there with record holders like The Sixth Sense and What Lies Beneath. I must profess the strategy worked on me. Anticipation levels were off the charts and I was primed and ready to be scared out of my wits. To be honest, I found PG-13 fare like The Ring and Insidious to be far scarier. Of course such an assertion is highly debatable as it rests entirely on personal tastes. That’s not to say The Conjuring isn’t satisfying. It’s a smartly told, well acted tale that earns its scares legitimately.

What pushes The Conjuring into watchable entertainment is the game cast that gives the proceedings an air of substance and respectability. The screenplay is taken from the true story of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). The Amityville Horror was based on their research. Their portrayals are sound. Vera Farmiga is genuinely good at eliciting our concern. Also superb are the Perron clan—Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their five daughters—victimized by demonic forces after moving into their new home. Naturally their domicile is dilapidated, old and really eerie. I mean the dog won’t enter the house. Lili Taylor reminds us of how underrated an actress she actually is. She undoubtedly gets the juiciest part, but she makes the most of it.

The Conjuring is set in the 70s and the milieu lends the environment an atmospheric elegance. We’re informed Ed Warren was the only American layman permitted by the Catholic Church to perform exorcisms. That’s a nice bit of information. This is intelligent terror that ironically creates tension with well worn clichés. There’s a music box, a creepy doll, birds behaving abnormally, kids in peril. There are at least a dozen conventional tropes from which this appropriates. Horror aficionados will have a distinct feeling of déjà vu. You can roll your eyes at all the movies this borrows from or just go with the flow. If you’re going to imitate you might as well copy from the best I suppose. There is a refined simplicity to the action that is rather effective. When Vera Farmiga is hanging laundry on a clothesline, a white sheet takes on a human form as it blows away from her grasp. I think it’s telling that the simple image elicited gasps from the audience. Director James Wan is continuing the sophisticated path he started with Insidious. His high regard for the classics of the genre continues as he seems to have abandoned the gross-out style he exploited with the first Saw. This isn’t really a step forward, but it definitely isn’t a step back either.

The Way Way Back

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags on July 17, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Way Way Back photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgMud, The Kings of Summer, the final third of The Place Beyond the Pines: This is the season of coming-of-age stories. What sets each one apart is the ability to capture a moment, to portray real life as it actually occurs in all its raw unrelenting confusion. Now we have The Way Way Back and it possibly bests them all. 14-year-old Duncan is on his way to a Cape Cod beach resort with his mom Pam and her boyfriend Trent and Trent’s daughter Steph. We immediately feel ill at ease with a rude exchange during the car ride up between dictatorial Trent and shy Duncan who lacks confidence. Duncan rates himself a six on a scale from 1 to 10. “I think you’re a three,” says the overbearing Trent. But Duncan is soon to embark on an odyssey of sorts. A journey in which he will come to terms with who he is. He’ll confront his own insecurities through the guidance of one idiosyncratic manager at the Water Wizz theme park near the summer home where he’s staying. I seriously thought that name was a pun but apparently there really is a water park with that moniker in Massachusetts.

The Way Way Back is one of the best ensemble casts of 2013. Let’s start with Liam James as Duncan. The adolescent actor doesn’t appear to be fabricating a part. He IS that awkward teen, superbly conveyed through gestures, facial expressions and silence. He is pathetic and likeable at once. Duncan is in direct opposition to his mother’s boyfriend played by Steve Carell. Carell has portrayed the embarrassing buffoon before, but I’d be hard pressed to name a time where he came across as such an unlikable jerk. Their scenes together are a master class of controlled rage as Duncan bites his tongue amidst exchanges that will make you want to sock Steve Carell in the face. Toni Collette is Pam, Duncan’s compassionate, but somewhat naïve mother in love with this inconsiderate man.

The supporting parts are equally revelatory. Blossoming actress AnnaSophia Robb is the girl next door that is anything but a cliché. A pretty blonde beauty, she’s the spitting image of Virginia Madsen 3 decades ago. Surprisingly supportive she takes an unexpected liking to gawky Duncan. Allison Janney in a riveting portrayal, is Betty, her boozy fun loving mom. She absolutely commands the screen with her nonstop inappropriate remarks that seizes the center of attention whenever she is talking. And last but certainly not least is Sam Rockwell as Owen, the employee who hires Duncan at the water park and becomes sort of a mentor to him. He’s treats Duncan like an adult. Based in part on Bill Murray in Meatballs, he’s fast, loose and funny. The role takes advantage of his strengths and exploits them. We even get to see him dance again. Rockwell has always been a favorite of mine, but I dare say this might be the most exhilarating performance I’ve ever seen him give.

I know it’s only July, but is it too early to start talking Academy Awards? The Way Way Back enchants not with action, or special effects. It captivates because it concerns people, authentic people who yearn, hurt, care, and love. The cast is a flawless assemblage of talent, with several noteworthy performances. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are now officially a force to be reckoned with in the world of writers. I thought their screenplay for The Descendents was pretty wonderful. There are similarities, but nothing prepared me for this. They have an admirable understanding how to fashion a riveting story from beginning to end. Perhaps their experiences growing up were similar to Duncan’s. They have captured his adolescence brilliantly. You’ll laugh, cry and cheer at Duncan’s awkward trek. Here they write and make their directorial debut as well. Not only are they exemplary behind the camera, but they even manage to play quirky minor roles. The Way Way Back is a tale about grown ups and children who sometimes assume the manner of the other. It also exemplifies how sometimes just the simple encouragement from a sympathetic adult is all a child needs to thrive. Now who doesn’t like to see that?

Upstream Color

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction with tags on July 16, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Upstream Color photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgShe shot the wrong guy! – Me

When does a film go from merely boring to cruel and unusual punishment? That question is explored with Shane Carruth’s 2013 work Upstream Color. If you endured his last opus, Primer, you will know that the director enjoys confusing his audience. But where that was mind-bending, Upstream Color is positively mind-numbing.

A woman’s life, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is shattered when she is stun gunned at a club by a man known only as Thief in the credits. He force feeds mysterious worms to her that have mind control properties. During the next several months he tricks her into writing checks to him from her bank accounts. Then he flees with her money. Still tormented by the worms Kris meets the Sampler who de-worms her. There’s an extended montage where we watch the Sampler extracting sounds from nature. He uses this “music” to lure other infected people to his farm. More on the score later. His farm is full of pigs which have some sort of mind meld with humans. Anyways, Kris must now pick up the fragments from her life and begin anew. She gets a new job and meets Jeff – played by the director. Incidentally Carruth cannot act but who’s going to tell him? He‘s also the producer. Kris and Jeff bond over similar backstories, neither of which are very interesting. You see it’s a romance (pause) between 2 very dull people.

There’s something to be said for experimental cinema. If you think the greatest transgression is when a filmmaker doesn’t trust his audience to comprehend what’s going on, you’ll adore this. Upstream Color is a most cryptic story. The problem is that it is an agony to watch. The saga is made even more tortuous by the score, I absolutely hated it. It’s a tedious combination of blaring horns, wind chimes, glass harps and ambient noise. Anyone familiar with “war on terror” tactics will know where I‘m going with this. At first it’s just eerie but over the course of 96 minutes it’s music torture. Interspersed with these sonic blasts are scenes that recount a tale of sorts, often without words. The joy of the picture is the ability to put these puzzle pieces together and understand what the <bleep> is going on. Those who can (which I did) are apparently supposed to sustain a sense of superiority over those who cannot. I did not feel this. What I felt was boredom. The acting is wooden, the conversations are routine, scene compositions are static, cinematography is mundane. If this was a developmental movie from a first year film student, I’d say interesting attempt. Some half formed ideas are addressed but remain unexplored. As a theatrical release, however, it is most unsatisfying experience.

What my fellow bloggers had to say:
(If you’ve written a review for this film, let me know, and I’ll add you to this list.)

3 Guys 1 Movie
The Cinema Monster
The Code Is Zeek
The Movie Blog

Pacific Rim

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 14, 2013 by Mark Hobin

pacific_rim_ver12STARS3.5They don’t get dumber than this. It has a primitive story (robots vs. monsters), explosive special effects and game actors willing to say or do anything to get a laugh. You’ve got to give Guillermo del Toro credit for persuading Hollywood to indulge his fanboy urges. He combines monsters, er uh excuse me Kaiju, robots, an international cast, a huge budget ($190 million!), and throws it all against the wall to sees what sticks.

For the most part, it works. I only wish that Guillermo had the innovation to push this into material that excelled beyond primary concepts. Like puzzle pieces, each actor inhabits a stereotypical role you’ve seen before. Main protagonist Raleigh Becket has lost his brother in an attack and now lives a nomadic lifestyle mentally scarred by the loss. He reports to Stacker Pentecost, a stern commander that has two emotions, pissed and very pissed. I’m curious, was Charlie Day supposed to look like Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters and Burn Gorman recall Crispin Glover in Back to the Future? Regardless the screenplay is funny. Much of it unintentionally so. And my enjoyment was completely dependent on the fact that I was able to laugh with and more importantly AT this picture. There are a lot of humorous developments. Raleigh Becket butts heads with another rival, Chuck Hansen in a full display of alpha male posturing. Just the way actor Charlie Hunnam swaggers into every scene with chest puffed out is good for a few laughs. How many times does this guy need to change his shirt? And there’s something inherently amusing about a woman who has been brilliantly taught her entire life to fight like a champion by her English speaking guardian, but possesses only the most rudimentary command of that language. Was that not part of the lesson plan? Eh! No matter. The production really spoke to the 12 year old in me.

Pacific Rim unfolds like an homage to those Japanese giant monster movies. You know the ones.  Toho studios put them out starting in the 1950s with Godzilla. I grew up on those flicks. They played on TV weekday afternoons after school. (No I wasn’t alive when they came out if that‘s what you‘re thinking) Thankfully the script doesn’t spend too much time on boring exposition. There’s an opening crawl that kind of sets everything up, then lets the computer generated imagery do the talking. Occasionally there’s a slog through some dialogue that will have the viewer asking, “I wonder what the monsters are doing now.“ More often than not the plot has the presence of mind to get back to the combat. And oh what battles! These monsters spit liquid, sprout wings and scream with all the sonic force that modern technology can muster. The pleasures are pure and simple. I appreciate this much in the same way I get a kick out of Congo or Anaconda. No, those aren’t great films, but they are fun. And that’s why you watch something like this anyway, right?

Much Ado About Nothing

Posted in Comedy, Romance on July 10, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Much Ado About Nothing photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgI won’t put on airs. I don’t enjoy Shakespeare. I’ve always found his language ponderous and more suited for study in the classroom than as a pleasant diversion performed in the park. I can appreciate his facility with words, but without the proper context it all just seems so impenetrable. Cue Joss Whedon. The director could scarcely come up with a more divergent follow up to The Avengers than a Shakespearean comedy. The play has been adapted before – notably in 1993 by Kenneth Branagh. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most lighthearted works in fact, as it contains not a single death, although that doesn’t mean the idea isn’t flirted with. Whedon’s contribution is to film the piece in black & white, populate it with attractive Californians, set the action inside his very own stylish home in the present, but have the actor’s speak Shakespeare’s original text without any concessions to 21st century vocabulary or mores. It’s an admittedly odd mix. Akin to an episode of Friends inspired by classic Hollywood comedies of the 30s but spoken in Early Modern English. By and large it works.

I must admit, for the uninitiated the vernacular is a bit perplexing and if you have no familiarity with the play, you’ll be a little confused in the beginning as to where the story is going. There are lots of characters and their names are tossed around without any care for the viewer’s comprehension. You’d be mindful to know the plot beforehand.  Otherwise you’ll be lost as to who they’re talking about. I, unfamiliar with the play, had my arms folded for the first 30 minutes. But as the saga develops, a curious thing happens. A relationship emerges between two couples that had me captivated for the remainder of the picture. It basically concerns four people: Benedick and Beatrice supposedly can’t stand one another. They proclaim it to everyone within earshot. Down with marriage in general, but especially to each other – they affirm. In contrast there’s Claudio and Hero, young lovers deeply in love with love and each other of course. The whole company is portrayed by a talented cast who delivers their lines as if they’ve spoken this way all their life. The dialogue is pretty captivating.

The conversation is witty, the barbs fly fast and free and the whole undertaking has the refreshing wit of a screwball comedy. Yes it’s funny. At times, laugh out loud so. The up-to-the-minute touches at the wedding: Sprinkles® cupcakes, an iPod as DJ, are hilarious embellishments that imbue the drama with a fresh sensibility despite the antiquated codes. That a woman’s virginity is more important than her humanity, is asking a lot for today’s audience to swallow. Still, if you’re willing to accept the Elizabethan morals and language, with contemporary dress and surroundings, you’ll be in for a treat. This is poetry from the Bard that I can support. It’s Shakespeare for people who don’t like Shakespeare.

What my fellow bloggers had to say:
(If you’ve written a review for this film, let me know, and I’ll add you to this list.)

Best for Film
Cinema Romantico
The Code is Zeek
Coogs Film Blog
Dan the Man’s Movie Reviews
Digital Shortbread
Evan Crean for Starpulse
film by felix
Let’s Not Talk About Movies
Movies With Markus Online
Nothing is Written
The Popcorn Junkie
Rorschach Reviews

Despicable Me 2

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Crime, Superhero with tags on July 3, 2013 by Mark Hobin

despicable_me_two_ver7STARS4.5When we last saw Felonious Gru, former super-villain, he had adopted three adorable orphan girls: Margo, Edith, and Agnes.  They’ve formed their own surrogate family as he’s settled into a life of blissful domesticity.  However, when a secret laboratory somewhere near the Arctic Circle, is lifted and taken by a large flying magnet, The Anti-Villain League (AVL) calls Gru out of retirement so he may help solve the case by thinking like a criminal.  This is the basic outline of the tale, but Despicable Me 2 is a much more relaxed affair than its predecessor.  The storytelling isn’t centered on advancing plot but rather focused completely on earning laughs.  It’s almost Zen-like in its approach to humor.

The voice actors give the cast vigor pushing this from the enjoyable to the revelatory.  There’s a zippy exaggeration of their actions that make their performances even funnier.  Steve Carell is once again, compelling as the lead.  When Gru walks down the street with the confidence of a man in love, the musical interlude is as triumphant as John Travolta’s famous strut in Saturday Night Fever.  Kristen Wiig is back, but this time as Lucy Wilde, an AVL agent.  The actress’ real expressions and body movements can be seen in the animation.  Every raised eyebrow, awkward statement, and nervous gesture is there. Watching her behave is an absolute delight.  Her development from adversary to ally is bewitching.  It’s unusual that while she is competent, she’s not particularly beautiful, a rarity in a cartoon love interest.  The complete manifestation of the character is captivating.  The head of the AVL, Silas Sheepsbutt, oops I mean, Ramsbottom is played by Steve Coogan. (That was their joke, by the way)  He speaks with an affected sophistication.  Ken Jeong as a wig store proprietor and Benjamin Bratt as the owner of a Mexican restaurant, are possible suspects in Gru’s search.  They’re amusing editions that highlight great voice casting coupled with wonderful animation.

Where sequels often lazily retread Part 1, Despicable Me 2 aims higher.  Gru is now an entrepreneur with a new line of jams, tapped to aid in the capture of a mysterious evildoer.  In his personal life, he’s attempting to meet someone special.  The story unfolds with the focus of a gentle stroll and the production is the better for it.  The chronicle builds upon Gru’s character from the original as it explores the possibility of a girlfriend for him.  There’s a familiarity, a knowing sarcasm with the pitfalls of the dating world that infuses Gru’s journey.  This is especially true concerning Shannon, a gum-chewing blonde bimbo he goes on a date with.  She favors unnaturally orange tans and leopard print dresses.  You could say she comes across as a tad superficial.  “Your accent is so exotic,” she says in her Valley Girl patois.  “I know someone who can fix that for you.“

For all of Despicable Me 2’s speedy 98 minutes, it never ceases to be anything less than a snappy joy.  It is a gag-filled fun fest.  We hear a rumor that a past villain died while riding a shark into a volcano with 250 pounds of TNT strapped to his chest.  Then they proceed to show you what that might look like.  The atmosphere is steeped in the manic lunacy of animator Tex Avery’s MGM cartoons of the 40s and 50s.  This brings me to Gru’s minions which take on an even more pivotal role this time around.  Their nonsensical language is exploited for maximum giggles.  I can’t over-emphasize how wonderful they are here.  There’s a zaniness that children will adore, but there’s also an edge that adults will appreciate.