Thursday, July 2, 2015

SPL 2: A Time For Consequences (杀破狼II)

For F*** Magazine

SPL 2: A TIME FOR CONSEQUENCES (杀破狼II)

Director : Soi Cheang
Cast : Tony Jaa, Louis Koo, Wu Jing, Simon Yam, Zhang Jin, Philip Keung, Ken Lo
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 2 July 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Violence and Drug Use)

Tony Jaa has no more time for elephants, only a time for consequences in this Hong Kong-Thai action thriller. Jaa plays Chai, a prison guard whose young daughter Sa is battling leukaemia. An unlikely new prisoner lands in the jail where Chai works: Hong Kong undercover cop Kit (Wu), who has had his cover blown while on the trail of organ trafficking ring kingpin Mr. Hung (Koo). Mr. Hung, himself terminally ill, is in Thailand for a heart transplant to save his life, forcing his younger brother (Jun Kung) to be the donor. Kit’s supervisor and uncle Wah (Yam) tracks his nephew down and travels to Thailand to retrieve him. It turns out that Kit is the only bone marrow match for Sa, so Kit and Chai must become unlikely partners to save their own lives and the life of little Sa as fists and bullets fly.



            SPL 2 is rather confusingly named – it is almost completely unrelated to the 2005 film SPL, starring Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung, even though both Simon Yam and Wu Jing were in the earlier movie too. This is a “spiritual sequel”, i.e. some other script with the “SPL” name slapped onto it. The film’s grammatically-impaired English tagline is “Real action. Real fight.” There are fights aplenty and action director Li Chung Chi choreographs some intense battles, including a shootout at a ferry terminal and a stylish climactic showdown in a pristine high-end medical facility. It is also a boon that Tony Jaa, Wu Jing and Zhang Jin are all highly skilled martial artists in their own right and are able to perform their own fights. Those looking purely for “real fight”, however, will probably come away slightly disappointed at the usage of stylised wirework for several of the sequences.


            While it contains enough fisticuffs to satiate action junkies, SPL 2 is burdened with an unexpectedly convoluted, labyrinth story. A key plot device is that of a terminally ill little girl and the search for a bone marrow donor – this seems more at home in a soap opera than in a martial arts flick. The plot has to straddle both Hong Kong and Thailand and this is often done quite clumsily. It seems as if screenwriter Jill Leung Lai-yin was tasked with finding a way to work Jaa into the story and ended up spinning a far knottier yarn that was needed. This is a film in which the two protagonists do not speak the same language, and have to communicate via smart phone translator app. If that doesn’t drive a wedge in the buddy chemistry, we have no idea what will.



            Tony Jaa is very likeable as an action hero and is experiencing something of a career resurgence after completing his stint as a Buddhist monk, making inroads into Hollywood with Fast and Furious 7 and the Dolph Lundgren-starrer Skin Trade. He has the earnestness and intensity down pat but of course, it’s his impressive Muay Thai-trained athleticism that makes more of an impact than anything else. Wu Jing comes from a different martial arts training background and they do complement each other, even though their partnership never feels complete because of the invisible cultural/language barrier that’s always there. Rocking a waistcoat, Zhang Jin is slick and dangerous as the prison warden and main henchman to Mr. Hung. Louis Koo puts aside his usual handsome, healthy appearance as the sickly master criminal; his portrayal sinister but never wholly threatening.


            Instead of having a little fun and being truly inventive with the action sequences, SPL 2 takes itself far too seriously – the faux-portentous subtitle “A Time for Consequences” should have been indication enough. Instead of being gritty and hard-hitting, the film is often frustratingly maudlin, melodramatic and hard to follow. The cliché use of very recognisable pieces of classical music in an attempt to elicit pathos, including Mozart’s Requiem and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (Summer), further mires the film in unintentional hilarity. The filmmakers clearly had access to the resources and talent to make a truly entertaining, breath-taking martial arts extravaganza, but have instead tangled themselves up in too much plot.



Summary: Even though it contains a fair amount of neatly-choreographed action, SPL 2 is slow, difficult to follow and fails to deliver a cohesive team-up between Thai action star Tony Jaa and Hong Kong action star Wu Jing.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Paradise Lost

For F*** Magazine

PARADISE LOST

Director : Andrea Di Stefano
Cast : Benicio Del Toro, Josh Hutcherson, Brady Corbet, Claudia Traisac, Ana Girardot, Carlos Bardem
Genre : Romance/Thriller
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 2 July 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Benicio Del Toro sure has moved up in the drug underworld, going from playing Bond villain henchman Dario in License To Kill to portraying notorious real-life kingpin Pablo Escobar here. It is 1983 and Canadian surfer Nick Brady (Hutcherson) accompanies his brother Dylan (Corbet) to Colombia, where the duo run a surfing camp. Nick meets and falls in love with Maria (Traisac), who happens to be the niece of local politician and drug lord Pablo Escobar. Escobar appears to take a shine to Nick and is keen to welcome him into his large family, Nick spending increasing amounts of time at Escobar’s luxurious Hacienda Nápoles estate. However, when Nick realises that he’s in over his head and the bodies start piling up, it might be too late for him.


Paradise Lost (also released as Escobar: Paradise Lost) is the writing and directing debut of Italian actor Andrea Di Stefano. Instead of making a straight-up biopic, Di Stefano has chosen to tell a story about the ‘King of Cocaine’ from a different angle. Our way in is the fictional Canadian surfer Nick, played by Hutcherson. Many films have an “audience identification character” whom viewers, unfamiliar with the world being portrayed, can relate to. In Paradise Lost, the fictional audience identification character is the primary focus, with the fascinating real-life figure relegated to a supporting role. This ends up being very frustrating, resulting in the nagging feeling that there’s a more compelling story taking place right around the corner from our protagonist, but we’re stuck with him.


This is not necessarily Hutcherson’s fault – he’s competent in the role and the character’s blandness is more a result of the writing than his performance. The romance between Nick and Maria, arguably the story’s linchpin, gets surprisingly little meaningful development. Their relationship progresses at an almost comically fast pace – they meet and are engaged in what is practically the next scene. There are also many times when Nick’s behaviour goes past ‘naïve’ into ‘just plain stupid’. This is clearly a very dangerous, very powerful man you’re tangling with, what did you think was going to happen?


Del Toro is the ideal candidate to play the larger-than-life drug lord. He has enough gravitas, ‘serious actor’ cred and that vital crazy streak required to pull off the part. The nature of the film is that, even though Del Toro has a good amount of screen time, Escobar is a background figure in his own story, which is something of a shame. He manages to find that balance between charming and menacing and, while it isn’t exactly a subtle performance, he never flies into over-the-top histrionics as a lesser actor well could have. There’s also the physical transformation, with Del Toro packing on the pounds to play the slovenly drug lord.


Paradise Lost is handsomely shot by cinematographer Luis David Sansans and was filmed on location in Panama. Production designer Carlos Conti does a laudable job of re-creating Escobar’s sprawling ranch, the grounds decorated with life-sized statues of dinosaurs because he’s just that wealthy. Unfortunately, this atmosphere of authenticity is often marred by how obviously tacked-on Nick’s story feels, to the point where it becomes an obstacle rather than a way in for the audience. Di Stefano does construct several moments that result in a genuine ‘pit of your stomach’ feeling and there is a sense of mounting dread, but it’s ultimately a pity that, with a subject as rich and fascinating as the notorious Pablo Escobar, Paradise Lost only scratches the surface.



Summary: While it boasts a memorable turn from Benicio Del Toro, Paradise Lost’s gamble of making the main character a fictional one doesn’t pay off.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Dark Places

For F*** Magazine

DARK PLACES

Director : Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Cast : Charlize Theron, Christina Hendricks, Nicholas Hoult, Sterling Jerins, Corey Stoll, Tye Sheridan, Chloë Grace Moretz
Genre : Drama/Mystery
Run Time : 113 mins
Opens : 2 July 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Some Coarse Language and Drug Use)

Old wounds are reopened and dark corners of the past are illuminated in this gloomy mystery thriller. Libby Day (Theron as an adult, Jerins as a child) is the sole survivor of a horrific, possibly cult-related killing in the small town of Kinnakee, Kansas that claimed the lives of her mother and sister. She testifies against her brother Ben (Stoll as an adult, Sheridan as a child), who has spent the last 28 years in prison. Strapped for cash, Libby agrees to entertain the request of amateur detective Lyle Wirth (Hoult), a member of the “Kill Club”, a collective of true crime enthusiasts. Lyle believes that Ben was innocent and drawing Libby into his investigation, terrible secrets and painful memories are brought into the light.





            Dark Places is based on the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl. Adapting the dense, plot-heavy book into a two hour film is a daunting task that writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner gamely tackles, but he ultimately lacks the finesse that David Fincher displayed with his adaptation of Gone Girl. The two works share certain similar themes, chief of which is the role that the mass media and public fascination plays in criminal cases. Libby is shown cynically living off the goodwill of charitable donations made out of pity, attempting to milk her own tragedy for personal gain not because she’s a terrible person, but just because it’s a relatively easy way to support herself. There is also some commentary on the so-called “Satanic Panic” that swept the United States in the 80s.



            The central case in the film, with its “small town with big secrets” intrigue, teenagers enacting dark rituals, the protagonist’s withdrawn older brother and his unstable much younger girlfriend ends up being not quite as interesting as it sounds. At the end of the day, even given the twists and turns and the emotional impact of it all, the plot feels like it might be something seen in a procedural television series like Cold Case or Without a Trace. The structure, which unfolds via lengthy flashbacks, is sometimes clumsily handled, especially during the tense climactic confrontation which feels like it has its momentum undercut.


            Charlize Theron brings a haunted, world-weary quality to Libby, calling upon her own personal childhood trauma to play the role. Like Libby, Theron grew up on a farm, and she witnessed her alcoholic father attack her mother, Theron’s mother shooting and killing her father in self-defence. Here, she is low-key and serious but one can’t help but feel she’s miscast. As good an actress as Theron is, she cannot fully pass for someone who grew up in the American Midwest, lacking the earthiness the character needs. Amy Adams, who was originally set to play Libby but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts, seems like she would be a better choice. Christina Hendricks, who plays Libby’s mother Patty in the flashback sequences, is fine as a single mother at the end of her rope but her performance is ultimately somewhat unmemorable.



            Playing the earnest “kid detective” archetype, Nicholas Hoult is plenty likeable and Mad Max fans will get to see Furiosa and Nux reunite under some very unlikely circumstances. The younger actors are good but not great; they have to carry a considerable amount of emotional heft in the flashback sequences and the strain on them does show through. Chloë Grace Moretz, arguably the main star draw besides Theron, does have fun playing Diondra, a troubled, wayward “bad girl” who might or might not be pregnant with Ben’s child. Unfortunately, she does tend to go over the top, which is jarring even given that it’s not a subtle part.



            Dark Places is atmospheric and appropriately grim and its female protagonist is a multi-faceted character, but the end result is mostly mundane. Judging from the film posters and trailers, the main selling point here seems to be the association with Gone Girl, and while there are similarities, Dark Places is a far more straightforward affair and lacks the many gut-punching moments that made Gone Girl so spellbinding.

Summary: Dark Places is led by a capable but miscast Charlize Theron and ends up being a grim mystery thriller than doesn’t pack as many surprises as it promises to.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Terminator Genisys

For F*** Magazine

TERMINATOR GENISYS

Director : Alan Taylor
Cast : Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J. K. Simmons, Dayo Okeniyi, Matthew Smith, Courtney B. Vance, Lee Byung-Hun 
Genre : Sci-Fi/Action
Run Time : 126 mins
Opens : 25 June 2015
Rating : PG13 (Violence & Brief Coarse Language)

“There is no fate but what we make” – the filmmakers behind the fifth entry in the Terminator film series hope to rewrite its fate, after the third and fourth films left most critics and moviegoers cold. Sci-fi fans know the drill – artificially intelligent network Skynet has taken over the world, killing most of earth’s population in the apocalyptic “Judgement Day”. In the future, John Connor (Jason Clarke) leads the resistance against the machines. In this reboot, John sends his trusted lieutenant Kyle Reese (Courtney) back in time from 2029 to 1984 to save John’s mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke) from the T-800 Terminator (Schwarzenegger/Brett Azar/Aaron V. Williamson). Kyle arrives in the past to discover he has entered an alternate timeline where Sarah Connor already knows her destiny and has been watched over by an aging T-800 she has nicknamed “Pops” (also Schwarzenegger). Forced to team up with Sarah and Pops, Kyle has to figure out what this means for the future as Skynet takes on a new form; the universal connectivity app “Genisys”.


            2015 has already seen the release of new Mad Max and Jurassic Park films, with the seventh Star Wars movie due in December. We won’t be griping about the prevalence of sequels and reboots, because those can be good – it seems the problem isn’t so much that Hollywood has run out of ideas but that studio executives are banking too much on brand recognition and the built-in audience a pre-existing intellectual property brings with it. Terminator Genisys is caught in a paradox: one won’t be able to fully grasp its place in the larger Terminator mythos without having seen the earlier films, but if one holds the first two movies very dear, it’s likely to be a considerable disappointment. The “alternate timeline” route, not unlike with the 2009 Star Trek reboot, seems like a reasonable premise for a series built on time travel. However, the directions that Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier’s screenplay takes this in often feel like desperate attempts to stretch out a series that should have ended with 1991’s T2 (or at least the theme park attraction T2: 3D Battle Across Time). Judgement Day is postponed - again - and our protagonists have to stop this new Judgement Day from happening – again.


            The film is comparable to a greatest hits album as sung by a cover band – it’s trying its darndest to add something to the existing material but often feels perfunctory in having to hit those certain iconic waypoints along the way. Genisys actually does a fine job of setting up its fairly convoluted back-story in its opening minutes – we’re told in relatively concise fashion what Skynet is, what happened on Judgement Day, who John Connor is, why Kyle Reese needs to be sent back in time and what the scope of the threat is. Even then, more than a passing familiarity with T1 and 2 is needed for all of it to make proper sense. There’s also the matter of the spectacle – sure, there are plenty of action set pieces and there is some cool new imagery, particularly during a scene involving a MRI scanner, but none of it is truly awe-inspiring or unique. The first two Terminator films, T2 in particular, broke a lot of ground in the realm of special and visual effects and packed in jaw-dropping moments that still hold up today. There is a marked over-reliance on computer-generated imagery and yes, while this is a series about robots, it all feels too synthetic. There’s a helicopter chase that looks entirely like it belongs in a video game and the T-1000’s (Lee) liquid metal effects are on about the same level as those in T2 24 years ago.


            Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to the iconic role of the T-800 does lend some legitimacy to the enterprise but we’re sure some fans will find it difficult to accept that the lethal killing machine is now relegated to a softer father figure and often functions as the comic relief. Schwarzenegger still possesses the chops to pull off the action beats and is still a believable badass. However, we don’t get anything half as heart-rending as the bond between the T-800 and a young John Connor in T2, even when the Terminator is supposed to have practically raised Sarah since she was a little girl. At times, this reviewer felt like he was watching a lavishly-produced fan film that had managed to snag an actor from the original show, akin to how Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols and George Takei sometimes make appearances in Star Trek fan productions.


            What makes it all the more difficult for this to be accepted as a proper Terminator continuation is that while Arnie is a recognisable holdover from the earlier films, all the other re-imagined characters look and feel so different than how we know them. Emilia Clarke goes from being the Mother of Dragons to the mother of humanity’s last hope. She is miscast as Sarah Connor, largely unconvincing as a badass woman who has spent most of her life under the tutelage of a purpose-built killing machine. When compared to how intense Linda Hamilton was in the role, Emilia Clarke seems like she’s merely playing dress-up, whiny rather than burdened with the fate of the human race.


            Jai Courtney looks and acts nothing like Michael Biehn, making him another puzzling casting choice. Where Biehn’s Kyle Reese was a sensitive, scarred but romantic figure, Courtney is more brutish. When Kyle and Sarah get into arguments, as they often do throughout the film, it feels awfully petty instead of carrying the weight of life and death. While undoubtedly a central figure to the mythos, John Connor has never really been the most interesting character of the series. Jason Clarke is fine in the role and the major plot twist in the film (which was spoiled in the trailers and the poster) does add an interesting layer to the character, but purists will probably find it sacrilegious. Lee Byung-hun does little more than run fast and look menacing as the shape-shifting T-1000 and J. K. Simmons is entirely wasted in a throwaway bit part as the lone police officer who believes Sarah and Kyle’s far-fetched story. Doctor Who’s Matt Smith also pops up in a small but crucial role.


            As a standalone sci-fi action film, Terminator: Genisys has its entertaining moments and isn’t as confusing in presenting its alternate timeline plot as it could’ve been. However, it’s impossible to pretend that this film doesn’t come with more than its share of baggage and doesn’t have a towering legacy to live up to. In riffing on what James Cameron had created with the first two Terminator films, Terminator Genisys director Alan Taylor has delivered a pale imitation of a sci-fi icon, an also-rans at best. Stick around for a mid-credits sequel-bait scene.



Summary: There is effort put into Terminator Genisys, but this attempt at continuing the franchise can’t help but feel it exists just for the sake of existing and is likely to alienate long-time fans of the series.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

American Heist

For F*** Magazine

AMERICAN HEIST

Director : Sarik Andreasyan
Cast : Hayden Christensen, Adrien Brody, Jordana Brewster, Tory Kittles, Aliaune “Akon” Thiam
Genre : Action/Crime/Thriller
Run Time : 94 mins
Opens : 25 June 2015
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language)

From Russia-based, Armenian director Sarik Andreasyan comes the crime thriller American Heist. Hayden Christensen plays James Kelly, an Iraq war veteran and New Orleans mechanic whose brother Frankie (Brody) has just been released from prison. Frankie took the fall for a crime the pair committed together, serving ten years in jail. Frankie tricks his brother into joining his small gang, which also includes Ray (Kittles) and Sugar (Akon). Together, they plan to rob a bank. Complicating matters is James’ girlfriend Emily (Brewster), who just happens to work as a dispatcher at police headquarters.





            American Heist is supposedly an update of the 1959 film The Great St. Louis Robbery, starring Steve McQueen and in the public domain. A Russian-American co-production, this film will feel right at home lining the bottom of the bargain bin alongside direct-to-DVD dreck. The 94 minute runtime may not seem long, but this is mind-numbingly dull, the heist proper only kicking in at the 61 minute mark. This means an hour is spent doing nothing but setting up the characters, who are extremely difficult to care about regardless. Andreasyan is aiming for a grittiness in the grand tradition of American crime films like Heat and The Town, but American Heist is inauthentic and fidget-inducing at every turn.


            Hayden Christensen and Adrien Brody play brothers. From the word “go”, suspension of disbelief flies straight out the window. The central relationship and the tension between the brother trying to get on the straight and narrow and the other who falls back into his criminal ways upon his release from jail is nigh impossible to latch onto. Christensen, whose career was never able to fully recover following his disastrous turn as Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels, is as stilted as ever, unable to compellingly essay a downtrodden average Joe. Brody, still the poster child of the so-called “Oscar curse”, is miscast as a swaggering, tough-talking thug who’s done hard time. Apparently, awkwardly bursting into tears in the middle of heated confrontations is supposed to pass for pathos.


Tory Kittles is saddled with some laughably pretentious speeches about how banking institutions are the real enemy. Akon, who plays a minor supporting role and provides the soundtrack, contributes nothing at all. It seems he is planning to encroach on 50 Cent’s “rapper attempting to act in sub-par straight-to-DVD fare” turf. Jordana Brewster plays the bog-standard designated love interest who will eventually discover that her boyfriend is involved in some unpleasant business.


            The film is competently shot by cinematographer Antonio Calvache and doesn’t look as cheap as it could have, but that’s far from enough to rescue American Heist from the doldrums it languishes in. The dramatic scenes that stretch out the first hour are plenty boring, but then the shootouts and stand-offs begin and those quickly become uninteresting too. Sure to bring about spells of mass listlessness among whatever audience shows up, American Heist is uninvolving, rote and poorly acted, adding nothing at all to the crime thriller genre.



Summary: This uninspired crime flick is plodding, shambling and other synonyms for “slow”. A movie with “heist” in the title should send the pulse racing instead of rendering viewers comatose.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

RIP James Horner

For F*** Magazine


It's a sad day for film music lovers everywhere - composer James Horner has passed away at the age of 61. An aviation enthusiast, Horner died when his personal turboprop aircraft crashed in the Los Padres National Forest in Southern California.

James Horner’s illustrious film composing career has seen him collaborate with directors including James Cameron, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Walter Hill and Ron Howard. He was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning 2 – Best Original Score and Best Original Song (shared with lyricist Will Jennings) in 1998, both for Titanic. Horner’s credits include such memorable films as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Commando, Aliens, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, The Rocketeer, Apollo 13, BraveheartA Beautiful Mind, Avatar and of course the afore-mentioned Titanic.

While he was often criticized for borrowing passages of music from well-known works of classical pieces as well as from his own earlier work, there is no denying the impact that his work has had on the landscape of film composing. Titanic: Music from the Motion Picture sold over 30 million copies and became the highest-selling primarily orchestral film soundtrack album of all time. “My heart aches for his loved ones,” Ron Howard said on Twitter, calling Horner a “brilliant composer.” “I just can’t believe it,” fellow composer Brian Tyler wrote.

Here are some of James Horner's works:










And my personal favourite of his compositions:



Thursday, June 18, 2015

Minions

For F*** Magazine

MINIONS

Director : Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin
Cast : Sandra Bullock, Michael Keaton, Jon Hamm, Steve Coogan, Hiroyuki Sanada, Allison Janney, Katy Mixon, Dave Rosenbaum, Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 91 mins
Opens : 18 June 2015
Rating : PG

Clad in blue overalls with thick goggles over their eye(s), preoccupied with bananas and spouting gibberish, the small yellow creatures known as Minions have scuttled their way into the collective popular culture consciousness. In this prequel/spin-off to the Despicable Me movies, we discover the origins of the Minions, who have been on earth since the dawn of time, drawn to evil masters whom they loyally but often ineffectively serve. It is 1968 and after a long period of unemployment, Kevin, Stuart and Bob set out to seek a new villainous employer for their clan. The stylish, dastardly Scarlet Overkill (Bullock) seems to be just the new boss the Minions seek. Her husband, inventor Herb (Hamm), outfits Kevin, Stuart and Bob with nifty gadgets and they are tasked to steal the Queen’s crown from the Tower of London for Scarlet, who dreams of ruling over the British Empire. Naturally, things go awry for our tiny yellow protagonists. Uh oh.

            It is very easy to be cynical about the existence of this spin-off film. A “minion” serves an evil overlord, who in the context of the Despicable Me series, is Steve Carell’s Gru. Here, the Minions, side characters by design, are given their own show to carry. There is an industry term for something with kid-targeted merchandising potential – “toyetic”. The Minions are as toyetic as they come, designed to be slapped on everything and anything that exasperated parents can fork over the cash for, with a new wave of Minion mania set to strike with the release of this movie. When McDonalds offered Minion Happy Meal toys here in Singapore, lines snaked around the block, rivalling those for Hello Kitty merchandise. It was a goofy, likeable idea to start with, but now it can’t help but feel all market tested and focus grouped out. A story focusing solely on the Minions would have worked fine as a short film or as a theme park attraction – actually, those already exist, but that doesn’t diminish the shiny, lucrative appeal of a feature-length summer release.


            That’s essentially a roundabout way of saying that Minions has no real need to exist, which sounds like a very curmudgeon-y statement indeed now that we’ve read it out loud. For what it is, the film is harmless, often quite amusing and very competently animated. Pierre Coffin co-directed both Despicable Me films and Kyle Balda helmed three Minion-centric short films included on the Despicable Me home release. Coffin and Chris Renaud, co-director of the Despicable Me movies, voice all the Minions themselves. There are several eye-catching sequences and plenty of fun period details for the parents in the audience to grab onto – Kevin, Stuart and Bob walking beneath a giant Nixon campaign poster is a delightfully surreal image. There are perhaps one too many pop culture references – for example, the Minions bumble into the Beatle’s famous Abbey Road crossing. The expected slapstick is not in short supply, but this reviewer’s favourite gag, featuring time-travelling mad scientist Dr. Flux, didn’t involve the Minions at all.


            It was assumed that the Minions were the genetically-engineered creations of Gru – the short film “Orientation Day” follows a bunch of freshly-cloned Minions around Gru’s lab. The Minions’ new back-story raises very many questions. Is this one tribe the only group of Minions in existence? What implications are there in these creatures’ nature to be drawn to only the most unsavoury beings currently alive? Would they have leapt at the chance to serve, say, Adolf Hitler? It makes sense if their lives have no meaning apart from indentured servitude if they were grown that way in a lab, but these creatures are naturally occurring. We’re definitely expending too much thought on it, but these notions did prove very distracting throughout the film’s duration.


            Sandra Bullock is the marquee-name star chosen to headline the film as Scarlet Overkill, the super-villainess kitted out in an array of dresses that also serve as booster rockets and who’s out to prove being a flashy career criminal isn’t just a guy’s game. She’s fine, but nowhere near as charismatic and entertaining as Steve Carell before her, and it is evident that she’s not a seasoned voice actress. Playing Scarlet’s laconic husband, Jon Hamm puts more effort into transforming his voice, but it’s not an especially memorable performance. Michael Keaton and Allison Janney voice a couple who let Kevin, Stuart and Bob hitch a car ride to the villain convention; it’s little more than a cameo.


            It’s an animated film containing popular, easily-marketable critters and it’s being released during the summer holidays, so of course Minions is going to do well at the box office. It’s mostly pleasant enough, sometimes annoying but never outright cringe-inducing and it moves along at a decent clip. Because of the inherent simplicity of the Minions as characters and the fact that they have to carry this movie on their little yellow shoulders, this lacks the crucial emotional backbone present in the first Despicable Me film. Kevin, Stuart and Bob may be designed to be analogues for Margo, Edith and Agnes, but they just can’t replace the heart that the three girls and their emotional connection to their adoptive dad bring to the franchise.

Summary: Yes, the tykes will love it and the accompanying adults might find some tidbits hidden in the 60s setting, but Minions can’t transcend its function as a cash grab vehicle.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong