Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Shooting for the Moon: Despicable Me aims high

Image courtesy of Universal Studios and downloaded at

Every once in awhile, a movie exceeds the expectations set by the trailers. When I first saw the clips of Despicable Me last fall, Universal Studios' first foray into the computer-animated realm, I thought to myself: what is this piece of crap?

I had no intentions of seeing it. Another kids film that demeans its adult audience and insults the intelligence of our children, I thought. Also, the previews didn't give a very clear picture of what precisely the film was even about. Villain against villain? Stealing the moon? But where do these cute little girls come in?

If the trailers, like the movie posters, had shown more clips of the adorable minions, perhaps I would've been more intrigued. Which is why I was surprised when the reviews of Despicable Me, directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud (Ice Age films)showed that it was not, in fact, despicable.

Well. Being the critic that I am, it was up to me to get to the bottom of this. With my $13.50 in hand and my brain primed for pure analysis, I went and saw what there was to see.

Turns out there was a lot. So much, in fact, that I didn't feel comfortable doing a full-on review of this film until after having a second helping. One welcome change was seeing 3-D that was purposefully done, not a gimmick tacked on as an afterthought to satisfy the latest craze (i.e. Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.) I'm not sure the sheer giddy joy of Despicable Me could be properly replicated without it, as minions bounce through the air, rockets go off, and all manner of colorful gadgetry crawls toward you, freed from two-dimensional bonds. But paying twice for good 3-D is something that I can only bring myself to do if the actual plot and characters of the film are compelling.

Gru is voiced by the ever-versatile Steve Carell, who gives the villain with the soft heart a very thick accent, somewhere between Hungarian and Russian. There are elements of the Addams Family in his look, style, and certainly in his house - he might be the third brother of Gomez and Fester. Repulsive in some respects but rather debonair, like any good villain, there is something irresistible about Gru. His minions, which easily could have become annoying vapid fodder to satiate the kiddies, have individual personalities, an evil edge, and are rather sophisticated for being cute-as-a-button medicine capsules in overalls. The way they love Gru and come to love the little girls that come into his life is sincere and altogether, heart-melting without becoming soppy.

There are details a-plenty to look at that take a second viewing to really see and get, such as the "Gru-ray" logo on the sound system that one of the minions operates towards the end of the film. And groan-inspiring puns become devices for fun sequences, such as when Gru's associate Dr. Nefario (voiced by Russell Brand) makes a series of "Boogie robots" rather than "Cookie robots." And the level of detail, particularly to the textures of clothes and hair, is stunning.

The voice actors in this film (Julie Andrews makes an appearance, and I dare you to spot her) are so far into their characters it's impossible to pick them out, which allows for further enjoyment of being immersed in this little world that very quickly goes other-worldly.

There are moments where Despicable Me walks the knife-edge, almost dipping into the realm of cloying over-sentimentality, but in those moments the words ring so true we can allow ourselves to inwardly go "awwww" rather than "oh brother." And the back story - a young boy with a dream who wants to have the moon for himself - compliments the tale rather than hindering it with yet another stale child back story. This time, we actually CARE.

Do yourself a favor and go see something fresh and original. And tell me if you don't want to just take one of those little minions home with you by the end of the film!

Stay for the credits, and be sure to download the IPhone App (if you have one of those things) to translate what the minions are saying. If you don't have one, it's still hilarious.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

DVD Spotlight: The Soloist has heart and soul

Image downloaded from and courtesy of Universal Studios and Dreamworks Pictures.

It's hard to make a good film based on a true story without it being cloying or over-sentimental. So often, they end up being soupy, sappy messes (I'm looking at you, Patch Adams) that tend to induce the gag reflex rather than warm the heart. The Soloist, under the direction of Joe Wright, is one of those rare gems that stays true to real life while still remaining upbeat and - dare I say? - joyful.

The story revolves around journalist Steve Lopez, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, and his chance encounter with a homeless musical virtuoso named Nathaniel Ayers. Lopez, played by the ever-versatile Robert Downey Jr., is immediately intrigued and wants to do a story on the kind-hearted, but mentally scattered Ayers (Jamie Foxx), but finds himself quite literally having to hunt down Ayers to try to interview him. Being a journalist myself, I appreciate and relate to the lengths we writers have to go through to capture a story that is really worthwhile (i.e. the woman from Juilliard abruptly hanging up on Lopez as he is trying to confirm Ayers's attendance there). His growing friendship with Ayers plunges him deep into the heart of being homeless in the city, but Ayers never asks Downey to pity him - he says this is a life he has chosen, for his own reasons, as well-placed flashbacks tell us.

Downey is still wise-cracking and slick, but in a very different sort of way. The jet black slicked hair and well-groomed goatee of Tony Stark are replaced with a scruffy, graying beard and short, low-maintenance trim. He looks like the average, hard-working joe who's gotten successful based on his talent, and though his posh home in Los Angeles is impressive, he is still plagued by raccoons digging up his yard every night. Wright directs the film with a kind of deftness, like the well-tuned cello Ayers plays he knows how far to take the heartfelt encounters but still keep a pulse on what real life is like - without breaking the delicate strings of the storyline.

Perhaps what I appreciated the most about The Soloist is that it does not have the traditional happy ending, or even an overly sad ending. The ending is just life. Wright has a confidence in the viewer's intelligence and doesn't feel the need to spoon-feed some sort of trite moral lesson. He delivers, and we take from it what we will.

The only true weak point of the film was including Mary Weston (Catherine Keener)as the estranged ex-wife of Lopez who still works with him...not really the best idea, guys. Her emotion for him seems forced and frankly, even at the end, Downey acts like he could care less when she tries to be the good friend to him after Ayers's mental illness reaches a critical peak.

But no matter. What counts is that the story between Lopez and Ayers rings true, and the message of knowing how far you can go to help someone before you have to let go is an important one and definitely not stated enough. Wright shows us the extent of homelessness in America but doesn't harp on the awfulness of it, which makes it all the more poignant. And when an older woman reads Lopez's article and is moved to donate Ayers her cello that she can no longer play due to arthritis, it shows the power of the press and the capacity for kindness in the human spirit. My editor at work always tells me as a writer when telling a story to "show, don't tell" to get maximum effect. This is exactly what The Soloist achieves.

Be sure to watch the DVD special feature that interviews the real Mr.Lopez and Mr. Ayers. Hearing the story from their point of view is just one more bonus to this wonderful movie.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Great Connecticon Caper and hooray for Totoro!

Dear friends, thank you for being so patient. Interviews with the lovely Miz Michele Knotz and Mr. Bill Rogers have been accomplished. Videos will be going up, I hope, this weekend after I've had time to toggle and edit them a bit.

Connecticon this year was probably the best I've ever been to. Being only 40 minutes from me, it has always been the kind of convention that if it weren't so close, i probably wouldn't bother with it. But it was apparent this year that the convention has really come into its own.

One very interesting panel included Michele and Bill (voice actors well-known for their roles as Jessie and Brock in Pokemon) talking about their favorite anime and movie series. You'll see a tiny overview of that discussion in my interviews. Afterwards, they opened up the floor to allow the audience to join in what their favorite series were. I jotted a list down, enough to keep me in what looks to be quality anime fodder for some time now. The list includes:

The movie Five Centimeters Per Second
Last Exile
And the manga series Future Diary

My mission during the con was to find a copy of Heat Guy J, a cop buddy series with a sci fi twist created in 2003, and thankfully due to the eagle eye of my friend Dylan, I found all 26 episodes for $30, quite the deal! If any of you have ever seen Escaflowne, it's the same design team. Neo Tokyo has decided to build themselves their very own private eye android, whose construction is a combination of old-school steam power and high-tech gadgetry. Much like the antique look of the mecha in medieval Escaflowne, it incorporates the same mash-up of genres, but in the most intriguing way possible. I've just seen the first few episodes and it seems pretty solid. Of course, The Insatiable Critic will always give you the proper lowdown upon completion!

Another great panel I went to was on Hayao Miyazaki's films and the common themes that run through them. For those of you not anime-inclined, you probably know him because of Spirited Away or Howl's Moving Castle, both of which had a wide release in the U.S. I have just recently seen one of his great masterpieces called My Neighbor Totoro, which was created in the late 80s and I'm glad I saw it because it was discussed a great deal in the panel. It is such a sweet, simple story premise but it is far deeper than I expected it to be. Two young girls move into a new house with their father, an anthropologist, and discover several spirits that are living in and around the house. One of these spirits is Totoro, who I have been told makes an appearance in Toy Story 3. Maybe I'll actually have to bite the bullet and check it out. The two girls, Satsuki and Mei, try to make the best of their new home while their mother is in the hospital. Mei, who is about four, ends up meeting Totoro, a big, fluffy grey creature who is known to be the king of the forest. What happens after that is pure magic. What really struck me about the film is when Mei tells her sister and her father what she has seen, they don't pooh pooh her - they believe what she is saying and think it is wonderful she has had that experience. Seeing the adult world paying homage to the child's world did my heart good.

The movie explores an ever-constant message in Miyazaki's films of man's role in nature and the responsibility that goes with it, but it also explores the joy and strength of childhood imagination. It was so incredibly moving and delicately sad that I had tears in my eyes by the end of the film. It will make you believe in the goodness of the human spirit and take you on a spiritual journey without you having to leave your chair. That is the power of Miyazaki's films - they are not just animated eye candy, they are a voyage for the mind and the spirit. I can't say enough about it. Just go see it. And make sure you have tissues handy for the last incredibly touching sequence.

Also, I have a new love, and it's name is I can't tell you how glad I was to run into this in the artist's alley in Connecticon. Hooray for twisted history!

Til next time, stay classy cyberpeeps!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The long-awaited update

Dear Friends,
I am sorry I never did actually get around to watching and reviewing The Soloist yet - believe it or not it is actually still sitting on my coffee table waiting to be watched. The muse hasn't been in me to watch and review it just yet, and I've been crazy busy with other responsibilities that pervade my life.

However, your wait will not have been in vain. This weekend I will be attending Connecticon and interviewing two voice actors - Michele Knotz who is most famous for the voice of Jessie in Team Rocket on Pokemon, and Bill Rogers, who does the voice of Brock, on what their favorite movies and anime of all time are. Stay tuned for a special post of The Insatiable Critic!