The Secret Life of Pets


Just one big happy family.

Just one big happy family.

(2016) Animated Feature (Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan, Michael Beattie, Sandra Echeverria, Jaime Camel, Kiely Renaud, Jim Cummings, Laraine Newman, Tara Strong. Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney

 

We all lead busy lives. We spend most of our waking hours at work or school, hanging out with friends, being everywhere but at home. Those of us who own pets know that one of the best things about leaving the house is coming back home to our beloved fur babies (and scale babies and feather babies). Dogs, with their over-the-top “I thought I was never going to see you again” greetings, cats with their indifference – it doesn’t matter. We are always happy to see our pets. But have you ever wondered what your pets are up to while you’re out earning a living?

Wonder no more. The filmmakers behind the Despicable Me franchise have figured it out for you. Max (C.K.) is a pampered terrier living in a New York apartment with his sweet owner Katie (Kemper) to whom he is absolutely devoted as only a dog can be. Elsewhere in the apartment complex are a menagerie of pets – a fluffy Pomeranian named Gidget (Slate) who has a major crush on Max, the good-hearted but not-bright bulldog Mel (Moynihan), the punk poodle Buddy (Buress), Chloe (Bell), a cat with the kind of appetite that would put a competitive eater to shame and Norman (C. Renaud), a guinea pig lost in the air ducts for two weeks.

Max’s world is turned upside down though when Katie brings home Duke (Stonestreet), a shaggy bear of a dog who is a rescue pet. She introduces him as his new brother, but Max isn’t so sure. The ginormous Duke quickly takes over all of Max’s creature comforts from his plush doggie bed to his bowl of kibble. For his part, Duke sees Max as a rival for Katie’s affection who needs to be put in his place. The two begin to conspire against each other, which leads to the two of them after a somewhat unlikely series of events being stranded outside of the apartment.

Chased by animal control and a group of pets who had been abandoned or flushed out into the sewers, led by a manic bunny named Snowball (Hart) who has a thing against pampered pets, the two flee through the streets of Brooklyn, trying to find their way back home to Katie. Forced to work together, they develop a grudging respect for one another. However, Gidget isn’t letting Max down; she organizes the rest of the pets into a rescue team. Aided by Tiberius (Brooks), a hawk who is trying to keep his appetite under control, and Pops (Carvey), a partially paralyzed beagle who has “connections,” will they find their friends before one of the two groups chasing them do, or will Max and Duke make it home on their own? Or will everyone fail, leaving the two “brothers” at the mercy of animal control or the homicidal bunny?

I was a little bit disappointed by the movie. The animation is top notch and is definitely a love letter to New York, which is rendered with charming detail. It’s the idealized New York of Gershwin and dozens of sitcoms since, and it works as a believable environment for the characters. The cast of some of the best comedians working in the business today deliver their lines with snap and patter and there are plenty of moments that are laugh-out-loud funny for both parents and their kids.

The problems are however that you feel that you’re watching a bunch of other movies. There are a ton of references to other films, stylistically, subtly, sometimes in your face and through little Easter Eggs. It’s the kind of pop culture deluge that made some of the later Shrek films kind of a slog. While I liked the concept just fine, the execution was where it fell down. The middle third – which commences once Max and Duke leave the apartment – goes at a bit of a crawl. Yes, the animation is wonderful but I found it a bit of a bore to be brutally honest.

In a summer where it seems family movies are king, The Secret Life of Pets has been a blockbuster and a sequel has already been greenlit. I don’t know that I liked this as much as some of the other animated features I’ve seen this year – to be honest few of them have really been better than average – but there is enough to satisfy the target audience nicely and not be too difficult for a parent to sit through multiple times. I certainly have no difficulty imagining that this will be a regular request for kids once it hits the home video market. Still, I would have liked it to be a bit less pop culture-oriented and a bit more timeless, like some of the films it paid homage to. The Secret Life of Pets had all the ingredients it needed to be a classic and at the end of the day, it’s just a decent kid-flick. That’s not nearly good enough given what it could have been.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really funny sequences here. The animation is superb.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags quite a bit over the middle third. It’s a little too derivative for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES:  A little bit of rude humor and cartoon action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film to gross over $100 million in it’s opening weekend that isn’t a sequel or based on previously released material.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Equals

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Uncertainty


Uncertainty

Heads I win…tails you lose!

(2009) Drama (IFC) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lynn Collins, Olivia Thirlby, Assumpta Serna, Louis Arcella, Nelson Landrieu, Manoel Felciano, Jenn Colella, Giana Luca, Sofia Luca, Ana Cruz Kayne, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Ed Wheeler, Michaela Hill. Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel

 

It is said that every decision we make creates an alternate reality. Take the right fork and life unfolds one way; the left and it turns in a completely different direction. We never know which way things will turn out.

Bobby (Gordon-Levitt) is a Canadian musician waiting for his green card. Kate (Collins) is a Broadway actress and dancer. They have been together for ten months and they are deliriously happy together. They meet in the middle of the Brooklyn bridge on the fourth of July and they are trying to come to a decision as to what to do. Bobby flips a coin; then they both run in opposite directions Bobby towards Brooklyn and Kate towards Manhattan. At the end of the bridge on either side they meet…each other?!?

Here the story veers off into two different directions. The Brooklyn side (in which the couple wears green) is one in which Bobby spends the weekend with Kate’s Argentine parents who are a bit old school. Kate’s mom Sylvia (Serna) doesn’t trust Bobby much and wants Kate to make something more of herself. Kate bonds with her little sister Sophie (Thirlby) who wants to follow in her footsteps while Bobby tries not to feel too out of place.

The Manhattan side (in which the couple wears yellow) the couple find a cell phone left behind in a taxi. When Bobby calls the number on it to get the phone to its rightful owner, he lands the couple smack dab in the middle of a situation. When someone comes to claim the phone, he is shot dead before their eyes. The two wind up running from a ruthless assassin hell-bent on retrieving the phone at any cost.

This is one of those parallel story films that occasionally crop up (Sliding Doors is the best-known of these) but the styles of story are about as dissimilar as you can get; one is a slice of life drama that explores the couple’s relationship and personalities whereas the other one is an action-thriller a la Collateral that moves at break-neck speed. The problem here is that the two storytelling styles are so dissimilar that they actually clash.

The pacing of the thriller gets thrown into painful reverse by the thoughtful reveries of the drama. The effect is jarring and off-putting. The sad thing is that if they had told the stories straight, both of these tales – or either one – could have been a compelling movie on its own, particularly the Brooklyn portion.

Gordon-Levitt is a reliable actor just coming into his own when this was filmed. You can see that he has gained in confidence from his indie films of just a year or two earlier. Collins is a performer who generally does a lot of supporting parts although she’s had lead romantic roles in a movie or two; she has some pretty good chemistry with Gordon-Levitt although Kate is a bit whiny in places.

I kind of wish they’d taken the couple from the Brooklyn film and put them into the Manhattan film; the Bobby and Kate of the thriller do a lot of stupendously dumb things, to the point where it becomes almost farcical. Conversely the Brooklyn portion drags in places, mainly because of the contrast with the high-energy Manhattan portion.

There was a good movie to be made here but unfortunately this turns out to be two mediocre movies crammed into the same reel. It wasn’t a bad idea – it’s just the thriller and the drama aren’t really compatible which ends up making the movie a little bit unsettling and quite frankly, life is unsettling enough without having to get the same feeling from your entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice performances by Gordon-Levitt and Collins. Nice idea.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Thriller and slice-of-life drama don’t mix very well. Sometimes seems awkward and forced.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, sexuality and just plain bad language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was written without dialogue. This was done on purpose so that the actors could improvise their dialogue on the spot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is some audition footage from Gordon-Levitt and Collins doing a scene that was never filmed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36,689 on an unreported production budget; this is most likely a box office bomb.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sliding Doors

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: 5 Days of War

It’s Kind of a Funny Story


It's Kind of a Funny Story

Zach Galifianakis tries to pretend he's listening to Keir Gilchrist

(2010) Dramedy (Focus) Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Roberts, Viola Davis, Zoe Kravitz, Aasif Mandvi, Lauren Graham, Jim Gaffigan, Jeremy Davies, Bernard White, Jared Goldstein, Alan Aisenberg, Thomas Mann, Rosalyn Coleman.  Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

The human mind is a funny thing and never is it funnier than when we are adolescents. I’m not talking funny ha-ha here, but the other kind of funny. That dichotomy in term makes the title of this movie a double entendre that is worth considering before viewing it.

Craig (Gilchrist) is a young 15 year old boy who feels unbelievable pressure, particularly from his dad (Gaffigan) to achieve. That pressure has become so intense that he is considering taking a swan dive off the Brooklyn Bridge. Instead, he calls a suicide prevention line and is directed to a local hospital where a doctor (Mandvi) evaluates him.

Although the doc is reluctant to, Craig insists on being kept there and finally the doctor agrees when Craig threatens to kill himself if discharged. What Craig doesn’t realize is that the observation is five days, not the several hours he thought it would be – and the teen wing is being renovated so the teens were scattered among the adult psychiatric population.

He is taken under the wing of Bobby (Galifianakis), someone who has been there awhile and whose marriage and relationship with his daughter is crumbling. Still, Bobby knows all the ins and outs of the system and encourages Craig to follow his dream and as it turns out, Craig’s dreams are a whole lot different than the ones his father and mother (Graham) have for him.

He falls for a girl (Roberts) who’s pretty messed up but a better fit for him than the uptight Nia (Kravitz) whom he has a big time crush on and who has been dating his best friend. Strangely, Craig’s incarceration has made him a celebrity among his classmates and rather thinking him  a freak, they think him more of a rebel and a hero.

This comes from the acclaimed directing team that directed Half-Nelson and Sugar. This is the first movie the team of Boden and Fleck have made that wasn’t an original screenplay. It is also a bit more comedic than their first two efforts, although there were certainly elements of comedy in Sugar. Here, the big star is not necessarily the focus of the movie (Craig is) and unfortunately, while that may be a bold move it’s not necessarily a good thing.

Galifianakis is especially good here. Most of us know him from his comedic roles as in Due Date and the Hangover movies but he shows surprising dramatic range here. He creates sympathy for Bobby who has made some very major mistakes that he might not be able to come back from. Still he manages to put up the veneer which crumbles if prodded too much.

Davis is also fine as Craig’s psychiatrist. She has that irritating manner that some psychiatrists have of being so non-committal as to be almost not human. Not that Davis is non-human here – she does show her humanity in spots – but her objectivity remains clear throughout. It’s an impressive performance in a role that might not get noticed for it. Veteran character actors Davies and Mandvi bring some quirkiness to their roles.

Roberts and Kravitz are both young performers with impeccable pedigrees (Roberts with father Eric and aunt Julia, Kravitz with father Lenny and mother Lisa Bonet) and bright futures. Although they are basically there to be played off of one another and to make a tug-of-war situation with Craig’s heartstrings. Roberts plays against type as a kind of tattooed rebel girl while Kravitz plays the self-centered object of Craig’s affections. Both are memorable in roles which could very easily have been forgotten if left in the hands of less capable actresses.

The trouble with the movie here is that it seems to take a long time meandering down the garden path with apparently no fixed destination and in no particular hurry to get there. Worse still, the path looks strangely familiar and you’ll probably recognize your own footprints on it. That’s not a good feeling when you’re taking your time to get to a destination that you suspect is going to be a place you’ve already visited dozens of times.

There are enough good performances here to make the movie worth your time, but the script holds it back from being a real major release. Still, it’s encouraging to see Galifianakis give such a layered performance. It bodes well for the man’s future in Hollywood, which gets rosier with every film he makes.

WHY RENT THIS: Galifianakis shows some surprising range in his first real dramatic role. Fine supporting work from Davies, Davis, Kravitz, Mandvi and Roberts.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat formulaic with a predictable outcome.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sex and drugs and language, and the overall theme is on the mature side.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the “Under Pressure” montage, Craig is dressed as Vanilla Ice who notoriously sampled the bass line for his “Ice Ice Baby.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s some footage from the New York red carpet premiere.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.5M on an $8M production budget; the movie was a financial flop.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Tangled