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Minions: Rise of the sidekicks

The appeal of the Minions was immediately and instantaneously apparent in the animated blockbusters Despicable Me (2010) and Despicable Me 2 (2013), so it’s almost surprising it’s taken this long to give the yellow critters (whatever they are) a showcase of their own.

Yet here they are, under the direction of Kyle Balda (making his feature debut) and Pierre Coffin, encoring from the Despicable Mes, as bubbly and energetic as ever – and ready to take a big bite out of the summer box-office.

A prequel set “B.G.” (Before Gru), Minions is designed to explain and explore – in completely irreverent, slapstick fashion – the origins of the Minions in the millennia before they vowed allegiance to the Despicable one (with Steve Carell briefly reprising his vocal role).

Geoffrey Rush provides good-humored narration, with much of the action taking place in London in 1968 – a year that likely predates the majority of the attending audience, with a good number of jokes that may well sail over the heads of most youngsters. No matter. That’s where the Minions are and that’s where the story is set.

A star-studded voice-over line-up includes Michael Keaton, Jon Hamm, Allison Janney, Jennifer Saunders (of “Ab solutely Fabulous” fame), Steve Coogan (in multiple roles) and Sandra Bullock, leading the pack as vampish villainess Scarlett Overkill. But the most important voice is that of director Coffin, who provides the Minions with their incessant, side-splitting and near-indecipherable gibberish – although bits of Spanish, Italian and the surname of producer Christopher Meledandri can be detected.

There’s something of a plot here, involving Scarlett’s coveting of the Throne of England for herself, but this actually slows the film’s momentum. Minions works best when it piles on the pratfalls, visual puns, non sequiturs, and other bits of comic mayhem. The story is fairly incidental. Watching the Minions up to their monkey business is reason enough to revel.

Idealism spawns injustice

It’s a tangled legal and political web that surrounds A Murder in the Park, a true-crime documentary based on William Crawford’s “A Miscarriage of Justice” – which is certainly the case here.

In 1982, Anthony Porter was convicted of murdering two teenagers in Chicago and spent 15 years on Death Row, until the efforts of Northwestern professor David Protess and his tireless students on behalf of the Medill Innocence Project saw Porter released in 1999 and another man, Alstory Simon, imprisoned for the crime.

This development, which sent shockwaves throughout the nation and brought the issue of wrongfully condemned Death Row prisoners into the headlines, proved itself to be the miscarriage of justice Crawford wrote about – as Protess’ evidence proved unfounded and Simon was himself eventually released from prison. The Anthony Porter case effectively ended the death penalty in Illinois … yet the figurehead of that case was guilty of a double homicide.

Directors Christopher S. Rech and Brandon Kimber are both veterans of the small-screen true-crime documentary series “Crime Stoppers Case Files,” and with the familiar voice of Dan Nachtrab (“Warrior POV,” “Codes and Conspiracies”) narrating and some not-entirely-convincing re-enactments, A Murder in the Park would seem to be more at home on television.

But Rech (who also produced) and Kimber (also the editor and cinematographer) have done a laudable job in distilling a complex and convoluted case that is head-spinning in its implications. An idealistic, ostensibly heroic undertaking to right a wrong instead wronged a right, as it were – and caused considerable, in some cases unnecessary, embarrassment for those involved. A Murder in the Park stops short of greatness, but it’s effective and engrossing … and offers considerable food for thought, regardless of which side of the capital-punishment issue you happen to be on.

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