Tag Archives: Jon Hamm

Minions

Minions is a precision-tuned, finely-honed, 91 minute joke machine.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

minionsThe best parts of the otherwise middling Despicable Me, which I’ve never quite gotten as a whole in the same way everybody else seems to have, were the Minions.  I mean, what’s not to love about the Minions?  Their design is simple yet distinctive and adorable, their collectively simplistic and mischievous personalities are endearing, Pierre Coffin’s voice work – that combines words of various languages and straight up babbling into nonsense sentences – of each Minion is stellar, and they’re home to the film’s best examples of ridiculous physical comedy.  They’re great comic inventions, so it makes sense that the second Despicable Me would double down on their screen time and that they would eventually, much like their Madagascar counterparts in the form of The Penguins, get their own solo spin-off movie.

It also stands to reason that their appeal would run out quickly when turned from minor comic show-stealers to vital part of the plot to main stars of their own movie.  However, much like The Penguins, that’s yet to happen.  Despicable Me 2 was far better than the first movie, although the increased Minions screen-time is not the sole or even main reason for that, and Minions manages to keep up that comic momentum for pretty much all of its 91 minutes.  Unlike the Penguins of Madagascar movie, Minions is not a film that wants to add legitimate emotional depth to its comic creations, barring one small little scene cribbed straight from The Land Before Time.  Instead, it just wants to turn them loose for 91 straight minutes of loud, ridiculous slapstick silliness.

And that’s OK, because it works!  Or, at least, it worked for me.  There are some lame gags, namely whenever the Minions break out into choreographed song-and-dance routines, but most come thick, fast, and with a resounding cleverness and intelligence to the way it performs its slapstick.  The rhythm and pacing of the film’s comedy is such that film almost never lingers on any punchline for an excessive amount of time, perhaps best epitomised by a short gag where the Minions escape from a polar bear by swimming away on a sheet of ice only to immediately try turning around when they spot a grizzly bear on the other side of the lake, with the film cutting to a different scene almost as soon as the second bear is revealed instead of holding it for diminishing laughs.

That kind of blistering pace is kept up throughout the film.  Don’t like this one joke?  Don’t worry, another 7 will be along in a few seconds, maybe one of those will take your fancy instead!  The story – which, for what it’s worth, involves Minions Kevin, Stuart, and Bob (all Pierre Coffin) trekking off to find a boss for their kind to serve, stumbling into the life of female supervillain Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock) in the process – zips by as a result, being the launching pad for the gags instead of anything worthy of proper scrutiny, and any and all attempts at creating legitimate emotional depth will be undercut at every last opportunity by one gag or another.  Again, this would be a problem if the film wasn’t riotously funny, but I found it to be, I was in hysterics pretty much the entire time.

Strangely though, for me, the Minions almost end up being upstaged in their own movie by the supporting cast.  By its prequel nature, Minions gets the chance to explore the world of villainy more than both of the Despicable Me movies have been able to, which allows for a whole bunch of utterly ridiculous gag characters to make brief appearances – a time-travelling villain who keeps bringing his future self back for menial tasks, a prideful sumo wrestler, a unicycle-riding clown who juggles and spills bombs, one beautifully brilliant bait-and-switch that I don’t plan on spoiling here.  Their appearances are short but memorable and, although the film still doesn’t dig as deep into its world as I would like for it to do, they help shade in the world, make it feel like there is a world outside of our otherwise limited cast.

Which brings me onto Scarlet Overkill.  I love Scarlet Overkill.  I love everything about Scarlet Overkill.  I love her initial owning of her sexuality.  I love her amazing fashion sense.  I love her driven personality that starts off as affable and slowly goes more crazed and straight up evil as the Minions keep inadvertently screwing up her plans.  I love her wonderfully exaggerated facial expressions and body language.  I love Sandra Bullock’s slowly-unhinging voice work.  I love her relationship with her husband Herb (Jon Hamm), a relationship that is shown to be rock solid and filled with genuine devotion, in a sharp contrast to how most marriages are shown in movies, yet doesn’t fully define her life.  I love how much the film is willing to make her the butt of the joke and how funny she gets to be.  I love how she doesn’t command the film despite being, arguably, the best thing about it.  …I just think that she’s an amazing character, basically.

Animation-wise, Minions sticks to the Illumination standard, with simple yet endearing character designs in very good yet not amazing environments.  That said, Minions does show Illumination making strides in terms of technical strength, even if they still haven’t quite carved out an identity of their own yet.  Specifically, I really like the film’s commitment to shading.  Rather than working entirely from primary versions of the film’s various yellows and oranges, Illumination instead utilises different strengths of each colour to create this warm, comfortable glow that’s most noticeable when Kevin and Stuart are searching for Bob in a New York shopping mall.  It almost feels like a warm nostalgic filter that works very well for the 1968 setting, but also keeps the visual style from being a garish technicolour overload.

As much as I found myself laughing at Minions, though, I did also find myself missing that emotional undercurrent that could have pushed the film into being fantastic instead of just great.  Again, the film proceeds to undercut any attempt at legitimate emotional depth with a gag at any time; even the collective depression of the Minion tribe is played for ridiculous laughs instead of anything we’re supposed to take seriously, whilst the bond between Kevin and Stuart and Bob mostly just comes down to ‘these three share screen-time together’.  That is all fine because, again, the film is funny enough to make this a non-major issue, but I recalled how Penguins of Madagascar was able to foster a legitimate emotional depth and connection between its main protagonists and how pulling that off managed to push that film into being one of last year’s best animated features.  So I ended up a little disappointed in that not being the case here, especially since one of the reasons why Despicable Me 2 was such an improvement from the first one was because that emotional grounding was there.

Nevertheless, and despite it still not painting enough of a distinct or unique identity for Illumination to capitalise on in future films (more on that later this week), I really enjoyed Minions.  I’d been having a really miserable past few weeks prior to walking into the film, and so all I wanted it to do was make me laugh and cheer me up.  I just wanted something to laugh at for 91 minutes, I wanted what the film was selling me.  And I did.  A lot.  I laughed from the opening credits, that trace the origin and evolution of the Minion species, right up until the close, where it ties the whole story back into the standard Despicable Me series far quicker than I thought it would.  That is all I wanted, and that is exactly what I got, so I am more than satisfied with Minions.

Callum Petch made the scene, week to week, day to day, hour to hour.  Listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio (site link) and follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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The Congress

The Congress is an undeveloped, contradictory, near-incomprehensible mess that is worth watching for just how utterly bizarre it is.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

the congress 2

If absolutely nothing else, The Congress – the newest feature from Waltz With Bashir director Ari Folman – tries.  It tries.  It’s clearly got imagination and a desire to take the viewer to strange fanciful places and to angrily shout and rail against something.  Trouble is, I really don’t know what it’s supposed to be railing about.  I don’t even know what the overall point of the film is supposed to be.  I am about 48 hours removed from The Congress and I still struggle to tell you what in the blue hell actually happened in this thing.  Normally waiting to talk about a film allows it the opportunity to fully sink in.  To allow oneself the chance to wrap their head around the deeper parts of a film and make sense of that which can seem obtuse.  But it has been 48 hours and I still have no f*cking clue what The Congress was trying to do.

Word of advance notice, folks: a good majority of this review is going to consist of me recapping or relating the plot to you with bits of commentary in-between.  This is a film that is very much of distinct stages – each bit trying to do something different, each bit with its own problems – and trying to evaluate the film as a whole would simply devolve into me shouting “it’s a mess” over and over again like a housekeeper that’s been driven insane.  I am determined to try and approach this total mess with criticism that can explain why it fails, and this is the best way I can think of doing so.

So, with that in mind, The Congress follows Robin Wright playing a version of herself.  In this reality, she’s the actress who never made good on her initial promises.  After The Princess Bride and Forest Gump, she kept picking bad role after bad role, and developed a reputation for flaking on gigs minutes before shooting and being incredibly hard to work with on the roles she sticks with.  Her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), comes to her with one last offer from film studio Miramount Pictures: they want to digitise her and own the likeness, personality and identity of Robin Wright to use in whatever pictures they fancy – the caveat being that she must retire from acting.

So, for a good 40 or so minutes, Robin Wright agonises over this decision, the implications and darker side of the concept in theory are addressed and debated, and The Congress seems to be setting up to be an angry screed against the movie industry and the way it views and treats actresses.  Robin here is 42 which, in Hollywood terms, is effectively a one-way trip to the retirement home for actresses, and Al and the head of Miramount (played by Danny Huston) lecture her and frequently put her down for a career misspent in wrong roles and having the gall, the gall, to want to prioritise taking care of her two kids – her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who is suffering from a disease that is robbing him of his sight and hearing and has an obsession with box kites and planes, and her daughter (Sami Gayle) whose presence in the film is completely inconsequential.

As you may have gathered, subtlety is really not The Congress’ forte and its writing is the definition of loud and clunky.  Much, and I do mean much, of those opening 45 minutes involve characters outright saying or shouting sound bites or exposition at one another – the film’s method of addressing the parallels between the owning of an actor’s identity and the current way the film industry works is to have Harvey Keitel shout about how not-different the two things are for a good minute.  Pacing is also incredibly slow, one could cut this section down by at least half without losing anything except an interminably long period of having everybody stuck in this purgatorial loop of doing the same scenes over and over again but in a different location.

This segment of the film is shot in live-action and Folman’s direction of these segments is competent if uninspired.  The film gets a couple of decent shots in there – coming primarily from scenes where Robin visits a doctor (Paul Giamatti) with her son for an update on his condition, where the shots are staged in this flat direct way that alternates between making the son and Robin the POV of the scene, and the sequence where Robin finally gets digitised – but staging is mostly very flat and dreary, and, as previously mentioned, pacing is languid.  Both of those scenes I just mentioned are the highlights of the film – the digitisation scene, in particular, gets some of the best work I’ve seen out of Harvey Keitel in years – but both go on for what feels like an eternity, long after their points have been made.

Flaws aside, though, this part of the film is alright and is clearly building towards something.  At about the 45 minute mark of this near-2 hour movie, Robin finally gets digitised and the film seems like we’re getting ready to follow what happens when movie studios abuse a star’s image and how an actor goes about life when they are supposed to stop doing the thing they’ve made a living out of.  Except that, at this point, the film immediately jumps ahead 20 years to the end of Robin’s contract with Miramount.  She is off to speak at The Futurist Congress, where she will renegotiate her contract with the studio and help promote a drug that they’ve created that enables, as the film keeps stating without ever really explaining, “free choice” – the ability to perceive and project oneself as whatever they want to be seen as.

Oh, and The Futurist Congress takes place in a “Restricted Animated Zone” where its inhabitants are legally required to take said drug that has them exclusively perceive the world in animation.  Yeah.  This, unsurprisingly, is where things go off the rails.  Question: how much of what I just typed in this and the last paragraph seems related to what the film was about for 45 minutes beforehand?  That’s my point.  The first third of this film sets up and foreshadows a tonne of stuff, ideas, scenarios and themes but then never actually does anything with them.  Robin’s career as a virtual movie star comes up very, very rarely – the studio has reinvented her as a sci-fi (the one genre she wouldn’t touch, fnar fnar) action heroine in the one film clip we actually get to see – with The Congress content to instead start over and try something completely different.

It probably doesn’t surprise you, therefore, to learn that this film is based off of a book – The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem – a book which, I have been reliably informed, contains absolutely no references to anything that happens in the first 45 minutes.  Hence why it feels like a short film has been awkwardly stitched onto the main feature, or a film that shot its first third before Folman instead decided he wanted to make a completely different film but had spent too much money to just throw away his prior hard work.

In any case, there’s still some semblance of worth and promise in The Congress at this point.  The animation is very striking, consciously evoking Max Fleischer, Disney and psychedelic animation like Yellow Submarine.  There’s a lot going on in every frame and the constant barrage of colours and shapes and images did hold my attention long after the film’s flighty plotting lost it.  Plus, everything is always off in this rather clever way.  Animation fluctuates in fluidity, dimensions shift in this unnatural manner, and characters seem uncanny in many hard-to-describe points – it works to create this slightly nightmarish dream feel that works for about 45 minutes.  After that, though, the constant barrage that had made the film interesting to look at lost my interest – there is, after all, only so long you can go full-tilt before it all becomes dull and one-note.

Narratively and thematically, the film shifts its focus but at least remains clear in some respects.  Robin is understandably freaked out and apprehensive about being used to help market drugs and is clearly being haunted by the career that she technically never had, so the film still has an eye set on its original righteous fury against celebrity and the film industry.  It just now also seems prepared to tackle decadence and privilege – the congress itself is visualised like an upper-class version of Zion from The Matrix Reloaded – too.

Then terrorists attack The Futurist Congress and The Congress proceeds to collapse spectacularly.  Robin runs into a man who has spent the last 20 years helping animate her digital self (voiced by Jon Hamm), gets trapped in the hotel basement with him and then…  I, I honestly could not tell you.  It is at this point that the film becomes an absolute mindf*ck as Robin somehow ends up trapped seeing the world in the fake animation zone and being driven mad as a result.  She is placed into a coma for 20 years in the hopes that a cure will be found and then… stuff happens.

Put simply, the second hour of The Congress is a complete and total mess.  It blunders about from one scene to another with no rhyme or reason, its thematic through line becomes hopelessly muddled, its characters become inconsistent, and its lack of an emotional centre to guide one through the mess becomes abundantly clear.  As previously mentioned, the animation, which was a welcome breath of fresh air from the dreary and lifeless live-action segment, loses its charm and the film just becomes a procession of images with nothing guiding it through besides Robin Wright’s desire to see her son again.

Except that, despite that lengthy opening segment, there really is no actual emotion in her desire to get back to her son.  The bond doesn’t feel quite real, the film’s first 45 minutes don’t pay anywhere near enough attention to it, and the son’s disappearance from the film for a good long stretch afterwards leads to the relationship feeling hollow.  Ditto Jon Hamm’s animator who, surprise surprise, is in love with Robin Wright.  So there’s no emotional centre, its narrative is a mess, and its thematic backbone ends up so convoluted and contradictory that the film ends up finishing with a sequence where Paul Giamatti all but stares directly at the camera saying “drugs are bad and you shouldn’t take them to make yourself feel better about this sh*tty world” before the film ends up undermining that message too!"The Congress"

I will tell you the point where I just gave up trying to follow The Congress, the specific point.  The specific point came during a scene in which Robin Wright flies a box kite – which resembles one her son would fly cos, y’know, symbolism – into a commercial airliner.  That airliner crash lands and explodes in an airport, which causes all of the other airliners to explode as well.  And then, in front of the giant flames of the airport, animated Jon Hamm has sex with animated Robin Wright whilst the score plays some Dream Pop song that she’s singing.

I just don’t know what this film was trying to do, folks.  If it wanted to be a pointed angry satire of Hollywood, then why the sudden yet half-assed switch to existentialism in the second hour?  If it wanted to be a trippy, psychedelic mind-screw about the nature of reality, then what is with the non-animated segments?  If it wants to be an emotional tale about a mother battling to reunite with her son, then what’s with all of this unrelated bullsh*t and why doesn’t that core feel genuine?  If it wants to be a satire, then why is it so humourless?  If it wants to be psychedelic, then why are proceedings so utterly joyless?

The Congress is a near-total failure on every single level.  That being said, I don’t hate it.  I just don’t know what it was trying to be.  I’d recommend it for the animation segments, assuming you watch them in two 30 minute chunks so that the truly bizarre imagery of the last 30 minutes is able to actually provoke a full-on reaction, and for just how committed to its total nonsensical near-incomprehensibility it is, but that’s about it.  The Congress is clearly trying – and I applaud it for that – but I just don’t know what it was trying to do.

The Congress is out on DVD and Blu-Ray on Monday.

Callum Petch told you we’d make it on for another.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Disclosure: The reviewer received a screener copy from Emfoundation for review.

Million Dollar Arm

Million Dollar Arm could be a very good sports biopic… it’s just focussed on completely the wrong character.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

million dollar arm 2I am going to be blunt, folks.  In a sports biopic about the first Indian athletes that are signed to an American Major League Baseball franchise, your main protagonist should not be The White Man.  See, despite that subject matter, Million Dollar Arm is not about the athletes; it’s about the sports agent who plucked them out of India and how their eventual success saved his agency.  Look, I, like any man, love Jon Hamm; I could stare at his ruggedly handsome looks and chiselled jaw for hours, as I in fact did, but he should not be the lead character of this movie.  J.B. Bernstein, his character, should be a secondary character instead.  The athletes and their translator, Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma), Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal) and Amit Rohan (Pitobash Tripathy), should be the leads.  Hell, if you must make it about a sports agent, then why not make it about his Indian partner, Ash (an always nice to see Aasif Mandvi)?

But no, instead they’re side characters for absolutely no discernible reason.  Hell, I even hate to use that phrase because their characters basically amount to being J.B.’s MacGuffin for both his business and character arc, and repeating “Thank you, Mr J.B. sir” over and over as if that somehow substitutes for actual character work.  I count about six scenes that are solely dedicated to them and nobody else, the rest of the time they are basically children for J.B. to babysit; his love interest (Lake Bell, hopefully just taking a paycheque) even makes that comparison openly and his treating-them-right is basically what convinces her to open her legs to him.  There could be a brilliant sports drama about their struggle to adapt to life outside of their small little Indian village, of their homesickness, of being stuck in an unfamiliar and rather uncaring country, and the immense pressure for them to perform here.  Hell, there should be, this film is two goddamn hours, there’s no excuse for them having absolutely no character of their own outside of their brief introductions.

I know that I am supposed to review the movie we’ve got, not the one I want, but, dammit, this shit should not have happened!  Especially since this creative decision actually hampers the film we have totally, as well.  Not only are there no real dramatic stakes, seeing as the only thing we really know about these boys is that their success is important to The White Man and that makes it rather hard to care about how well they’re doing (it’s like when action films put a child in danger and they expect you to suddenly become really worried for the kid’s safety solely on the basis that it’s a kid, even though it has no character), it actually exposes the film as hypocritical.  J.B.’s character arc is that he learns to treat and see these kids as actual people instead of just walking contracts and deals, except that the film almost never portrays them as anything but walking contracts and deals for J.B. whose future rides on their success.  So if the film can’t be bothered to see them as people, then why are we the audience supposed to step in and do the film’s work for it?  Again, this film is two goddamn hours!  There is no excuse for this!

What’s worse is that if Rinku, Danesh and Amit were the lead characters, or at least had an equal amount of attention as J.B. gets, I’d be giving Million Dollar Arm a passing grade and maybe a light push to go and see it!  It’s a solidly made sports biopic.  It doesn’t bring anything new to the table (except an over-use of handheld cameras that all seem to have been operated by people desperate for a piss) and it’s too long, but it has good and charming performances, a nice light and warm mood, a pretty good soundtrack by A.R. Rahman, and a good grasp at the beats of the sports drama genre.  It’s nothing great, but it is comfort viewing and sometimes the cinematic equivalent of a nice slice of sponge-cake makes a good alternative to the relentlessly loud and cynical noise of everything else.

But they’re not and the fact that they’re not actually incenses me as I type these words.  I imagine that there will be some people out there who will think that I am getting all worked up over nothing and that, again, I should just give a passing grade to the film we’ve been given instead of a failing grade due to it not being the film I want.  Well, no.  I am not going to do that.  Not only does Million Dollar Arm blow the chance to say something interesting or do something new with its premise by not making the Indian athletes the leads, it reduces them to mere pawns and MacGuffins in The White Man’s personal journey, giving them no agency or character of their own and not seeming to care one bit about that fact.  I find that reprehensible and I refuse to let it off the hook for that.  This could have been avoided.  This could have oh so easily been avoided.  Instead, we’re here and Million Dollar Arm has nobody to blame but itself.

Callum Petch is looking for new maternal embrace.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!