Instant Gratification: “Charles Bradley: Soul of America” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix Instant


Pick of the week: “Charles Bradley: Soul of America” — A former James Brown impersonator, Bradley has grown into a soul music force of nature in the twilight of his life, and this affecting documentary looks at both his recent success and the long, hard road that led up to it.

Action film of the week: “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame”My full review is here. Legendary Hong Kong director Tsui Hark mixes martial arts and Sherlock Holmes-style mystery in this lavish tale, as a 7th-century gumshoe looks into a conspiracy to assassinate the Empress.

Sci-fi film of the week: “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” — This film is a deliberately bad parody of cheesy ’50s sci-fi movies, as scientists compete with each other for control of a valuable alien substance.

Comedy of the week: “Heaven Can Wait” — Warren Beatty plays an easygoing quarterback who gets zapped into the after life before his time in this witty 1978 comedy, which also includes the invaluable Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon.

TV show of the week: “Orange is the New Black” — I don’t normally do TV shows on Instant Gratification, but I have to sing the praises of this great Netflix Original series, starring Taylor Schilling as a privileged woman who goes to a federal women’s prison for a year. It’s absolutely nothing like you would think of “women’s prison drama” would be — it’s funny, insightful and often very moving.

“Somm”: Pouring your heart and soul into a glass of wine


Somm” screens Friday only at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Unrated, 1:33, three stars out of four.

Do you love wine? Are you the sort of person who swishes the liquid in the glass, holds it up to the light, pronounces it to be redolent of “black currant, baking spices, and freshly opened tennis balls.” If so, then Jason Wise’s “Somm” is your kind of documentary.

But even if you buy your wines on clearance at Target, you might find yourself swept up in Jason Wise’s engaging film. Because it’s really more about guys who live and love wine, and their quest to be recognized among the elite wine experts of the world.

(UPDATE: I just learned Monday afternoon that the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art screening and wine tasting set for Friday has been cancelled. Bummer. “Somm” is still on iTunes to rent or buy, so uncork your own favorite wine and do a tasting at home, won’t you?)

Four young men are preparing to take the master sommelier test, a grueling three-part exam that only 200 people in the world have cleared. The first part is a general knowledge exam on wine and spirits, the second part is a service exam where the applicants have to role-play in a mock restaurant.

It’s the third part that’s the killer — a blind tasting of six wines, three red and three white, that could come from anywhere in the world. Years of knowledge, experience and developed senses all come together for these wine stewards in those few minutes.

No wonder it’s such an obsessive goal, one that causes the men to put aside their regular lives (including long-patient girlfriends and wives) to taste and taste again, preparing for the exam. Some of the tasting scenes confirm the stereotype of wine nerds as almost comically overwrought about wine; we see wine snobs take a swig and declare that it has notes of “Grandmother’s closet” and “freshly-cut garden hose.” (Who cuts a garden hose?)

But Wise’s film is as much about the type of personality that would commit themselves to this kind of quest, and the strain that such shared ambition can put on friendship. They’re not the effete, bloodless caricature we have of wine snobs, but driven, at times arrogant young men; you could just as easily imagine them training to become surgeons or trial lawyers as sommeliers.


Wise follows the four men in the last few weeks of preparation before the exam: the type-A Ian Cauble is a bundle of nerves going over index cards every waking moment, while the more laidback Brian McCorkle worries about the worst-case scenario — that all but one of the friends will pass, leaving the other behind.

The suspense builds effectively as the four men head to Dallas for the exam, and then — Wise’s cameras are prevented from going inside the exam. That’s a little frustrating, although the scenes of the men torturing themselves as they wait for the results, nervously comparing their choices in the blind tasting, almost make up for it. When the results do come in, some surprises are in store.

“Somm” is an enjoyable portrait of these men, as well as a sincere evocation of their deep appreciation for wine. As Cauble puts it eloquently at the start of the film, a tasting is one of those rare moments where he can experience life entirely through his senses. Although you can’t blame one guy when, at the height of his preparations, he dreams of going off on vacation — and having a beer.

What’s playing in Madison theaters: July 12-18, 2013


All week

Pacific Rim” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Cinema Cafe) — Rex Reed sniffily dismissed this as “Godzilla vs. Predator,” which means that a) he thinks the Predator was a robot and b) he doesn’t realize how awesome that concept would be. In fact, reviews are saying that when the robots and aliens are duking it out in Guillermo del Toro’s sci-fi epic, “Rim” is a blast. When humans are talking to each other on screen, not so much.

Grown Ups 2” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Cinema Cafe) — Adam Sandler seems to pushing himself to new depths in his last few movies, and this sequel to one of his most smug films looks like the bottom of the barrel. It makes one hope he actually does do “The Re-Do,” the fake movie-within-a-movie in “Funny People.”

20 Feet From Stardom” (Sundance) — This enthralling documentary looks at the voices behind some of the biggest hits in rock music — not the lead singers, but the immensely talented backup singers who helped make songs like “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Gimme Shelter” classics, but whose names were never known.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” (Star Cinema) — The inspirational story of the Olympic runner Milkha Singh (“The Flying Sikh”) is told in this Indian-language epic.


Kung Fu Panda” (7 p.m, Warner Park) — Madison Parks’ Moonlight Movies series continues with this terrific animated film that’s a great action movie as well as a fine comedy, in which rotund panda Po (Jack Black) pursues his dream of becoming a martial arts warrior. Free!

The Third Man” (7 p.m., Marquee Theater, 1308 W. Dayton St.) — The Cinematheque’s summer-long tribute to Roger Ebert begins with one of the greatest of the great movies, the twisty, cynical noir starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles and set in post-war Vienna. Required viewing on the big screen. Free! My story on the Ebert series in this week’s 77 Square is here.


To the Wonder” (7 p.m., Marquee Theater) — My full review is here. The last film Ebert reviewed before he died was Terrence Malick’s lustrous drama about love and faith, starring Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko and Javier Bardem. Some critics question whether there’s much going on underneath those pretty pictures, but the pictures are indeed pretty, especially on the big screen in a a 35mm print. Free!


“The Last Starfighter” (9 p.m., Memorial Union Terrace) — Remember the heady ’80s, when being good at an arcade video game was enough to lead to fortune and glory? That’s what happened in this sci-fi hit, in which a teen is conscripted into a war between alien races. If my memories of reading Starlog are correct, I believe this is the first movie to use computer-generated spaceships instead of models, but don’t quote me. Free!

The Hunger Games” (10 p.m. Star Cinema) — With “Catching Fire” on the horizon, catch up on the massive hit starring Jennifer Lawrence as a teen in a dystopian future, enlisted to fight other teens to the death while the world watches. Only $3.



Escape from Planet Earth” (10 a.m., Eastgate and Point) — I saw this animated film, about an alien who has to rescue fellow aliens from Area 51, in the viewing room at Rocky Rococo’s for a child’s birthday party. That’s pretty much the ideal viewing environment for this utterly disposable second-tier kids’ flick. Only $2.

The Hunger Games” (10 p.m., Star Cinema) — See Monday listing.


Turbo” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Cinema Cafe) — It’s “A Bug’s Life” meets “The Fast and The Furious” (or, more likely, “Cars” meets “Cars 2”), as a snail (Ryan Reynolds) with a need for speed ingests some nitro and becomes fast enough to compete in the Indy 500.

Escape from Planet Earth” (10 a.m., Eastgate and Point) — See Tuesday listing.

The Hunger Games” (10 p.m., Star Cinema) — See Wednesday listing.


Yoyo” (7 p.m., 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave.) — In addition to its fine Ebert series, the UW Cinematheque is also showing the five films of French comic master Pierre Etaix, including this charming family saga which starts as a silent film and evolves into a talkie as the years pass. Free! My story on the Etaix series is here.

“To the Wonder”: Looking for poetry in a Walmart parking lot

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To the Wonder” has its free Madison premiere on Saturday, July 13 at 7 p.m. at the Union South Marquee Theatre, 1308 W. Dayton St., as part of the UW-Cinematheque’s tribute to Roger Ebert. R, 1:52, three and a half stars out of four.

Can you find poetry in a Sonic drive-thru? In 2011″s “Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick presented a rapturous portrait of childhood lost, every image of a 1950s boyhood in Texas so beautiful that you hated to see them fade.

Malick now gives a contemporary love story the same treatment in “To the Wonder,” a love story again told in visual poetry and half-heard whispers. I loved “Tree of Life,” but this time around, I was a harder sell. Does this romance deserve this kind of epic treatment, I wondered, or are we in the hands of a filmmaker so used to reaching for beauty that he sometimes can’t touch the humanity that’s right in front of him?

Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) are new lovers in Paris, rapt with each other and with the idea of each other. We see them cavorting in the park with Marina’s daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) and visit a Benedictine abbey built on sand. The sight of the tide coming in and sluicing through the tiny ripples in the sand is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on a movie screen.

But rapture can’t last. Neil invites Marina to come live with him back in suburban Oklahoma, a land of Wal-Marts and homes that look they were just taken out of the box, the empty landscape divided into high-fenced yards. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki searches for poetry in this new world, just as Marina does, and they both occasionally find it. But Neil grows taciturn, perhaps worried that his twirling, girlish French lover doesn’t fit into the neatly-arranged boxes of his home life. Marina grows restless, passions cool, and Marina eventually takes her daughter back to France.

Back home, Neil connects with an old flame, Jane (Rachel McAdams), a rancher who seems to fit in perfectly in Neil’s life. But then Marina returns, seeking another chance, and a classic, tragic love triangle is played out against the empty, pitiless vista of an Oklahoma sky.

Faith has been a powerful theme running through Malick’s films, and here it takes the form of a Spanish priest (Javier Bardem), an expatriate like Marina, who tends his diminishing flock and privately nurses doubts about his faith. Parallels are drawn, between the imperfect love we feel for others and the mysterious love we feel from God. Can we make a necessary leap of faith in both our carnal and spiritual lives?

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I will confess that I found myself watching “To The Wonder” on two parallel tracks. One was a state of snarky cynicism, that Malick’s attempts to take an ordinary relationship and inflate it to awe-inspiring heights was pretentious and almost laughable. As I said on Twitter, the one thing I learned from the film is that puddle-splashing and pasture-twirling are not a solid foundation on which to build a relationship.

But on the other track, I was buying in. The film’s flowing imagery and minimal dialogue induce a kind of meditative state, much like in “Tree of Life,” and when those images rhyme with the emotions beneath them, it was quite powerful. The shot of the doubting priest hiding in his house, as an impoverished parishioner pounds on his frosted-glass door, was a haunting image of shame, as unforgettable in its own way as those tide pools in France. So I found my higher and lower selves having different, simultaneous reactions to the film — and I couldn’t tell you for sure which was my higher self and which was the lower.

In the end, transcendence won out. “To the Wonder” is an imperfect film that perhaps reaches too high and too far, but I admire the effort, and am grateful for those moments when Malick does connect, and the film suddenly becomes glorious.

Pierre Etaix: The French comic genius you’ve never heard of

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There’s a scene in Pierre Etaix’s “Le Grand Amour” where a middle-aged businessman is lying in bed. As he begins to slip into dreamland, his bed glides out of the bedroom and out of the house, and is soon zipping down a French country lane, the man riding in it serenely, like he was on a Sunday afternoon drive in his Peugeot.

That’s a funny scene, both clever and lyrical. But it was when the man passed another bed stalled out by the side of the road, its grease-stained owner looking perplexedly under the hood, that I know I was in the presence of a zany comic genius.

I had never heard of Etaix prior to the UW-Cinematheque’s announcement that it would show all five of his feature films (plus all his shorts) during its summer series, beginning with “Le Grand Amour” this Thursday, July 11 at 7 p.m. (All the Etaix films are free and will play at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave.)  Even then, I was understandably more focused on the main Cinematheque series this summer, a tribute to Roger Ebert through the movies he loved.

But now that I’ve seen two of Etaix’s movies, “Le Grand Amour” and “The Suitor,” I’m excited. This is a master of movie comedy, someone who combines the physical antics of Buster Keaton with the visual absurdities of Monty Python and the social satire of Jacques Tati, along with a healthy dollop of humor all his own. Don’t miss these films.

Etaix made five films between 1963 and 1971 that went largely unseen for decades because they got tangled in an unwise distribution deal he couldn’t extract them from. Finally, last year, Etaix was able to get the films back and supervise their restoration, and after an arthouse revival tour from Janus Films last year, Criterion released a boxed set in April.

Before he got into filmmaking, Etaix was a clown and acrobat, and his first feature “The Suitor” (July 25, 7 p.m.) pays loving homage to his silent comedy heroes. The blankly handsome Etaix plays a Frenchman unlucky in love who, after striking out with one real woman after another, zeroes in on a singing star he sees on television. (In one sequence worthy of Chaplin, he absent-mindedly tries to make a cup of tea as he watches her, transfixed, pouring the milk in the sugar bowl and spreading jam on his empty plate.) When the action finally does move to a circus, we get a tour de force of Etaix’s comic skills on screen.

The hero in 1969’s “Le Grand Amour” should be less likable, but there’s something so elegant and engaging about Etaix’s befuddled screen presence that he somehow wins you over in the role of a mild-mannered businessman who pines for his beautiful young secretary. Part of the charm may be that the man is so befuddled that he poses no kind of romantic threat, and part may be how Etaix’s satirizes his obsession with a freewheeling cavalcade of  dream sequences and other surreal touches. By “Amour,” he had gotten more adept at using filmmaking techniques, and not just his antics wit in the frame, to get laughs; in one dinner scene between the man and his secretary, every time Etaix cuts to the man he looks progressively older, until he’s a doddering old geezer.

The other films in the series are Etaix’s personal favorite “Yoyo” (July 18), followed by a double bill of “As Long As You’re Healthy” and “The Land of Milk and Honey” on Aug. 1.  The latter was a departure for Etaix, a bold documentary satirizing French life. It was not received well by audiences or critics, and essentially ended his career as a filmmaker.

I couldn’t find any Ebert reviews of Etaix’s films, although I bet he would have loved them, and he included links to a couple of his shorts in his “Ebert Movie Club” newsletter. That the world is finally discovering these films within Etaix’s lifetime must be a gift for him; his gift to us is five nearly perfect comic gems.

Instant Gratification: “56 Up” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix right now


Pick of the week: “56 Up”My report from the Wisconsin Film Festival, including comments from subject Nick Hitchon, is here. The latest installment in Michael Apted’s revolutionary documentary series, which checks in on the same group of people every seven years of their lives, finds the subjects in a ruminative mood. The deft editing between prior installments shows the people (including UW-Madison professor Nick Hitchon) growing older, living with the choices they made along the way. Watching them it’s impossible not to think of the milestones in our own lives, those passed by, and those yet to come.

Drama of the week: “Starlet”My full review is here. It sounds like a terrible idea for a sitcom — an octogenarian bingo addict and a young porn star become friends. But this indie drama is a restrained and insightful character study of a strange but lasting relationship.

Foreign film of the week: “As Luck Would Have It”My full review is here. In this pitch-black media satire from Spain, a down-on-his-luck man becomes a media star after his head becomes impaled on a steel rod at a construction site. As reporters, politicians, and agents swirl around him, all looking for ways to exploit the situation, the victim becomes complicit in the selling of himself.

Comedy of the week: “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” — As a director, George Clooney now makes pretty respectable entertainments like the upcoming “Monuments Men.” But his debut was this gonzo film that posits “Gong Show” host Chuck Barris was secretly a CIA assassin. The film features a great performance by Sam Rockwell in the unhinged lead role.

Thriller of the week: “Nick of TIme” — It’s Johnny Depp in the most shocking role of his life — a completely ordinary guy. In this well-plotted 1995 thriller, which unfolds in real time, Depp plays a dad blackmailed by Christopher Walken into assassinating a politician.

Would I have been better off never seeing “Before Midnight”?


This isn’t a question of whether I think “Before Midnight” is a good movie or not, or whether I “liked” it in any traditional sense. I think Richard Linklater’s third film featuring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke as loquacious paramours Jesse and Celine is a great film.

The question I have is more fundamental, on a level more basic than that of a film critic: Would I have been better off never seeing “Before Midnight”?

The first two films in the series were literate and romantic movies with the most memorable unresolved endings in movies. In 1995’s “Before Sunrise,” we followed twentysomethings Jesse and Celine as they met on a train in Vienna, decided to spend the day together on a whim, and had a 24-hour love affair with more depth and passion than most long-term romances. They parted at the end of the film, promising to meet back at the same spot in 6 months, and we left the theater figuring we’d never find out if they made that date. But hoping they would.

In 2004’s “Before Sunset,” the pair meet up in Paris in their early 30s. Celine has come to Jesse’s book signing, and the pair walk around Paris, talking about their lives, the roads taken and not taken. Both are unhappy, both feel that connection rekindling. The movie ends in Celine’s apartment, Celine charming the socks off Jesse, Jesse about to miss his flight back to his wife and son. We don’t know if they actually get together. But hope they would.

So, should we have left it there? By “Before Sunset, I and a lot of other fans became deeply invested in the love story of Jesse and Celine, in the notion that a connection that can change your life could always be just around the corner. Sure, there’s an element of romantic fantasy to that, but is that so bad?

In 2013, now comes “Before Midnight,” which definitively answers the question posed at the end of “Before Sunset.” Yes, they did get together. They didn’t get married, but Jesse left his wife, moved to Paris, and the couple had twin girls. In the first five minutes of “Midnight,” it looks like the best possible outcome of the options floating in our minds at the end of “Sunset.”

Except Linklater, Delpy and Hawke have something different in mind for “Midnight,” something of a bait-and-switch for fans of the series. The first hour of the movie is still based heavily on conversation, on long takes of Jesse and Celine talking about their lives to each other. (Although, they hardly ever talk about their daughters, which is so strange as to be significant.) But the similarity to the first two movies is deceptive — you notice that the conversation is a little more strained than before, with an undercurrent of sourness and disagreement. Jesse has to work harder to charm Celine, using silly voices or ironic come-ons. The film even makes clear that this is the first time in a while they’ve had lengthy conversations like this. Celine resents that she had to downshift her career when the girls were born, and it sets her off when Jesse raises the possibility of moving to Chicago to be nearer his son.

And then the film takes all the romantic projection and goodwill built up over two-and-a-half movies and sandbags us with the last half hour, which is an on-screen marital fight as brutal and unrelenting as we’ve seen. All the tensions simmering during the film come boiling up to the surface, and we see the most unpleasant sides of Jesse and Celine on full display.

It’s just awful to watch, like watching your parents fight. We learn things about the couple we never wanted to know. After giving us such a romantic, lofty view of life in the first two movies, “Midnight” brings us crashing down to earth. Love is hard, and just gets harder over time, the movie tells us. The dream can’t last.

I think it’s the final scene, the supposed reconciliation between the two on the dock, that’s even harder on the notion of romantic idealism. Jesse wins over a begrudging Celine, at least temporarily, with a goofy story about being a time traveler from the future, telling her that they’ll get past this and everything will be fine someday. It’s a perfect bookend to the time-travel tale he told her on the train at the beginning of the first movie. Then, it seemed like a clever way to think about fate and chance.

Now, it just seems like a tired, desperate parlor trick, and Celine doesn’t so much play along as give in, because it’s easier than to resist. “Midnight” ends on an unresolved note as well. Only this time, instead of giving us a “maybe,” it gives us “maybe not.”

I think it’s going to take me a while to sort out my feelings about that. On the one hand, it’s a gutsy turn for the series to take, and it definitely has an impact. On the other hand, I don’t think I’m ready to embrace the cynicism of that turn, showing us that even one of Generation X’s great movie love affairs has to fall back to earth sometime.

It’s a great movie, to be sure, one I still think about weeks later. But part of me wishes we could have left it back in that Paris apartment in 2004, Delpy channeling Nina Simone while an enchanted Hawke watches, and all possibilities lay before them.

What’s playing in Madison theaters: July 5-11, 2013


All week

Despicable Me 2” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Sundance, Cinema Café) — My full review is here. While the first “Despicable Me” was a delightfully naughty animated film with a great premise (Blofeld becomes a single dad), the sequel plays too nice, reducing the diabolical Gru to a feeble hero. The Minions are still funny, though, and the 3D is eye-popping, especially during the closing credits.

The Lone Ranger” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Sundance, Cinema Café) — Tonto gets equal status with the Masked Man — not surprising, since Tonto is played by Johnny Depp. Many critics have been slagging Gore Verbinski’s film as another overbloated action epic in the vein of a later “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, but I’m seeing enough dissenters, who see sly wit and even subversive themes beneath the mayhem, to make me want to check it out.

Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain” (Eastgate, Sundance) — A mix of tour footage and performance from the immensely popular comedian’s Madison Square Garden show, which shows his ability to tell long, surreal stories that build in manic intensity.


Men in Black” (UW Memorial Union Terrace, 9 p.m.) — After being disappointed by last summer’s “Men in Black 3,” I went back to the 1997 original wondering if it was as good as I remembered. It was — still funny and fleet-footed, and any movie that features Green Bay’s own Tony Shahloub as an alien who can regrow his own head is worth seeing. FREE!


African Cats” (10 a.m., Point and Eastgate) — It’s nice to see Marcus’ Kids Dream summer film series is going heavy on Disney nature documentaries, since it provides nice counter-programming to the animated mayhem elsewhere. Here, the film follows a cheetah, a lion and a lion cub on their adventures, with Samuel L. Jackson narrating. (Don’t worry, it’s G-rated.) Admission is $2.


African Cats” (10 a.m., Point and Eastgate) — See Tuesday listing.


Le Grand Amour” (UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, 7 p.m.) — Cinematheque is back! And the free on-campus film series is bigger and better than ever this summer, with a big tribute to the late Roger Ebert. We’ll get into that next week, but the summer series also includes the films of French comic filmmaker Pierre Etaix, whose absurdist satire was an inspiration to Terry Gilliam, David Lynch and others. The series begins with the daffy “Le Grand Amour,” in which a married man pines for his young secretary. It’s preceded by a short, “Happy Anniversary,” in which a couple’s celebrating is thwarted by Paris traffic. FREE!

African Cats” (10 a.m., Point and Eastgate) — See Tuesday listing.

“Despicable Me 2”: Even a touch of evil would be nice


“Despicable Me 2” opens Wednesday at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema, Cinema Cafe and Sundance. PG, 1:38, 2 1/2 stars out of four.

When I took my daughter, then 6, to see the original “Despicable Me” in 2010, she laughed at the joke about how the villainous Gru’s evil scientist henchman Dr. Nefario is hard of hearing, so when Gru asked him to design a dart gun, he instead created a fart gun. She laughed about this — she laughed during the closing credits, she laughed on our way out the theater, she laughed down the hall and into the lobby, she laughed out in the parking lot and into the car, and she laughed all the way home.

It would be too much to ask the sequel to hit that same comedic sweet spot for her, of course. And “Despicable Me 2” did make the kids laugh, although not as long and not as often. It’s an amiable, visually eye-popping animated movie that holds your interest, even as you sense that it’s not really taking advantage of the possibilities offered by the first movie. And the fart gun appears a couple more times, to increasingly diminishing returns.

The delight of the first “Despicable Me” lay in its wicked premise: a Blofeld-like supervillain named Gru (Steve Carell) gets distracted from his evil plans by having to adopt three orphan girls, and finds himself ultimately tamed and charmed by them. It was genuinely sweet, but it also had a a naughty edge to it. The nefarious glee Gru took in both stealing the moon and popping a kid’s balloon animal was hard to resist.

In “Despicable Me,” that edge is mostly gone. Gru is now a happy single dad who dotes on his three girls, and converted his secret lair into a jelly-making franchise. He’s content, until secret agent Lucy (Kirsten Wiig) approaches him; the Anti-Villain League is trying to find another supervillain who hijacked a secret laboratory, and wants his help.

Gru reluctantly agrees to play hero, and goes undercover at the local mall, where the AVL are sure the supervillain is hiding. Is it the proprietor of the local Mexican restaurant (Benjamin Bratt)? Or is it the owner of the men’s wig store (Ken Jeong)? Or is it — actually, that’s all the suspects the screenplay bothers to come up with.

After the outlandish plots and visual gags of the first “Despicable Me,” going undercover at the mall is pretty underwhelming. And, more fatally, Gru as hero is just not as interesting as Gru as villain. I mean, it’s adorable how much he cares for the little tykes, and the tentative romance between him and Lucy is nice and all. But it would have been funnier to see an inkling of the old Gru peeking through, perhaps momentarily swayed by the idea of rejoining the dark side. He’s just so (shudder) nice.

The filmmakers seem to recognize that a tamed Gru isn’t that interesting, because a hefty chunk of the film focuses on his adorable, marketable Minions. (The next movie in the franchise won’t be “Despicable Me 3,” but a Minions movie.) Voiced in a kind of pidgin French by directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, the Minions are like an army of little yellow Stooges, and the film diverts its path several times to give them room to get some laughs. (They also figure into the villain’s dastardly scheme.)

The antics of the Minions are enough to keep kids and adults involved, as is the dazzling 3D, including a post-credits sequence where bubbles and butterflies float out convincingly over the audience. The kids will be happy with “Despicable Me,” the parents won’t mind.  But I couldn’t help wanting to see Gru haul out his old panda bearskin bug, just for old time’s sake.

Instant Gratification: “The Interrupters” and four other good movies to watch on Netflix right now


It’s the beginning of July, and at the start of the month a lot of new movies usually go up on Netflix Instant. This time around it looks like a bonanza of good films from the ’70s and ’80s just became available along with some newer ones.

Pick of the week: “The Interrupters” — This documentary from Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) was one of my favorite films of 2011, an intimate look inside crime in inner-city Chicago through the eyes of ex-gang members who now work to prevent violence before it starts. It will change the way you look at inner-city crime — how it starts, and how it might be stopped.

Thriller of the week: “The Parallax View” — One of the great conspiracy thrillers of the ’70s stars Warren Beatty as a journalist looking into an assassination, and uncovering a sinister cabal that seems to control all aspects of public life. Highly recommended.

Western of the week: “Breakheart Pass” — I’m a sucker for this 1974 film, as much mystery as Western, as Charles Bronson plays a prisoner on a train heading to a remote outpost and finds few people on the train are really what they say. Including himself.

Drama of the week: “The Boxer” — This film from director Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot”) has a great performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as a former IRA member trying to go straight and open a gym for Irish youth, but is bedeviled by his past.

Animated film of the week: “Tokyo Godfathers” — In this gorgeous anime remake of the Western “Three Godfathers,” three oddballs find an abandoned baby and try to track down its parents.