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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The Last Rites of Joe May


Dennis Farina, the prototypical tough guy.

Dennis Farina, the prototypical tough guy.

(2011) Drama (Tribeca) Dennis Farina, Jamie Anne Altman, Gary Cole, Meredith Droeger, Ian Barford, Matt DeCaro, Mike Barcella, Chelcie Ross, Rich Komenich, Brian Boland, Kyle Gibson, Peter Defaria, Billy Dec, Jack Bronis, Nydia Rodriguez, Phil Ridarelli, Dennis Sepanik, Ernest Perry Jr., Craig Bailey, Hans Fleischmann, Maureen Steindler, Andrzej Krukowski, Marla Seidell. Directed by Joe Maggio

There are people who hang out on the fringes of society, people who never get a break in life but live as if they make their own breaks. They are the kings of their own domain, so wrapped up in their own fantasies of greatness that they never truly realize how pitiful they are. Joe May is a lot like that.

Joe May (Farina) has just checked out of a Chicago hospital after a bout of pneumonia. He takes a city bus to a local bar where the bartender exclaims “I thought you was dead!” in a tone that suggests he doesn’t really care if he was or wasn’t as long as his tab gets paid. After having a few drinks, Joe heads back to his apartment.

Only it’s not his apartment anymore. The landlord, falsely believing Joe had passed away, had rented it out to a single mom named Jenny (Altman) and her daughter Angelina (Droeger). Joe’s not particularly fond of kids but after sleeping out in the cold streets of Chicago on one winter night is enough to convince him he needs a place to crash in a hurry. Jenny, needing help making ends meet, gives him the spare room in exchange for help with the rent. Bad idea.

There’s nothing sexual about their relationship but Joe slowly becomes involved with the lives of Jenny and Angelina, striking an unexpected bond with the little girl who is street tough beyond her years. Joe is getting dregs jobs from his old boss (Cole), schlepping a side of lamb around to restaurants trying to get them to buy the meat at a cut rate price. Yeah, I wouldn’t bite either if I owned a restaurant.

To make matters worse, Jenny’s boyfriend (Barford) is a cop who once in a while likes to give his girlfriend a beating. For an old school man like Joe, this simply cannot stand. With all the burdens finding their way to his shoulders, Joe decides to take one last shot at redemption.

The late Dennis Farina was one of the great tough guys in cinema for the last 30 years. This was one of his finest roles – many have thought it was THE finest performance of his career. I’m one of those; Farina was never really a leading man during his distinguished career, but he showed here that he could carry a movie on his own. Joe May is a bit self-deluded and more than a bit cynical, but he wasn’t a bad guy really. He just has the kind of fashion sensibilities that Popeye Doyle would have admired, and maybe he was stuck in the 70s a little bit. But beneath the swagger, there was a man who was world-weary and maybe the nagging doubts that he was in fact a loser were beginning to ring that doorbell to his psyche a lot more insistently.

Filmed mostly on the West Side of Chicago, this is the less glamorous side of the Windy City. There are no skyscrapers, no great museum and little of the awe-inspiring architecture of the Loop and the downtown area, nor does it have the unique charm of the South Side. This is a working class neighborhood with squat buildings low against the freezing cold. This is a place you survive, not live in.

The script is pretty well-written with believable dialogue and the supporting cast, while not well-known for the most part, does a surprisingly strong job. If the action is a little bit predictable (hey, the title gives the denouement away) it is still intriguing and having Farina at his best certainly elevates what might have been a pedestrian tale of an old villain looking to redeem himself before he dies. His performance is certainly worth its weight in gold here and even if the movie isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, you’ll rarely see it better.

WHY RENT THIS: Farina delivers one of the finest performances of his career. Shot with an uncompromising eye.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult situations, foul language and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farina was a Chicago cop for 18 years.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: An interview with director Maggio and an outtakes reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Information not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sling Blade
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Jack of the Red Hearts

The Woman in the Fifth (La femme du Vème)


Ethan Hawke admirably keeps his eyes up.

Ethan Hawke admirably keeps his eyes up.

(2011) Drama (ATO) Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Kulig, Samir Guesmi, Delphine Chuillot, Julie Papillon, Geoffrey Carey, Mamadou Minte, Mohamed Aroussi, Jean-Louis Cassarino, Judith Bennett, Marcela Iacub, Wilfred Benaiche, Pierre Marcoux, Rosine Favey, Anne Benoit, Gregory Gadebois, Donel Jacksman, Laurent Levy, Doug Rand, Tercelin Kirtley. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Offshoring

The things that inspire us sometimes conflict with our baser natures. Sometimes they come from that aspect of our personalities. Regardless of our best intentions, that conflict can save us – or destroy us.

Tom Ricks (Hawke) was a young Turk in literature once upon a time. Having written a very well received book, he seemed poised to become a big success – but that was long ago and far away. So too was his wife Nathalie (Chuillot) and daughter Chloe (Papillon) who in the case of the former had divorced her husband and in the case of the latter moved with her mommy back to mom’s native Paris. Tom has followed them to the City of Lights after a brief incarceration and hopes to reconcile.

However Tom imagined that first meeting would go, it went badly with the police being called and Tom having to flee. Exhausted and with nowhere to stay, he boards a bus and falls asleep whereupon things go from bad to worse – all of Tom’s belongings and documents are stolen. Now he’s really in a pickle.

Near the bus terminus he finds a bar where he purchases a cup of coffee for the last remaining coins he has in his pocket. The barmaid, Ania (Kulig) takes pity on his plight and points him to the bar owner (Guesmi) who has a crummy apartment Tom can use and a job that Tom can do – a kind of a night watchman who sits in a cubicle with closed circuit television monitors and when people come to a door and give the right password, he buzzes them in. Tom has no idea what goes on behind the door and doesn’t much care; he’s busy writing his next novel but before that, writing long letters to Chloe.

He’s also carrying on with the barmaid who it turns out is the girlfriend of a local mobster which is liable to make things go from worse to desperate. Still, things are actually  looking up; Tom is recognized while browsing through a bookstore and invited to an event for authors. While there he meets Margit (Scott Thomas), a beautiful and elegant woman with an interest in the arts. She and he end up getting intimate and begin an affair but with strict (and strange) guidelines;  he must meet her only at her apartment in the 5th arrondissement at 5pm sharp on two specific days of the week. He is not to ask her any questions about what she does for a living or her past. All she’ll tell him is that she’s a widow but Tom seems fine with the rules; after all, she’s beautiful and willing.

Tom’s unsavory neighbor finds out about Tom and the barmaid and threatens to tell her boyfriend. Tom is devastated but as luck would have it, the neighbor ends up murdered. As Tom’s luck would have it, he comes under suspicion of committing the crime. Tom though has an alibi – he was with Margit at the time. However, when it turns out that Margit isn’t what she appears to be and his trysts with her aren’t what they seemed either, Tom’s problems have gone from desperate to impossible.

Pawlikowski’s next film (Ida) would go on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and you can see a few of the markers that connect that film with this one. For one thing, you don’t always know what the characters are thinking and they sometimes do things that are out of character for them but perfectly logical to us as the audience. Like that film, The Woman in the Fifth is filmed with an eye towards the austere; the side of Paris the tourists don’t see. The hallway lit by the pallid fluorescent lamp that makes skin tones look green, the squalor of Tom’s apartment have a severe tone. Even Margit’s lovely apartment in the Fifth has a sterile quality to it.

Hawke, who also was involved in the Oscar festivities this year for Boyhood, has been on a roll for awhile. He seems incapable of choosing an uninteresting project or delivering a subpar performace at this stage of his career. He carries the movie as a man who has been kicked around by life, many of the kicks delivered by his own foot to his own behind. Tom is unpredictable, capable of violence and yet he is almost obsessively devoted to his daughter. At first his situation seems to be that he is being punished by a vindictive bitch of a wife; as the film goes on, we are less sure that she isn’t absolutely right in trying to keep Chloe’s father away from her.

Scott Thomas is a marvelous actress who has found a lucrative career in France, rarely doing films outside her borders. The French have known, unlike Hollywood, the allure of the “older women” and write parts for actresses in their forties and beyond that are both sexy and intelligent. Hollywood tends to want to put the spotlight on actresses who are younger and with few exceptions, rarely creates roles for women of that age group that have any sort of sexuality, preferring to restrict them to mommy roles or at a certain point, grandmommy roles. It’s as if that women once they turn 40 are expected by Americans to set aside everything but their nurturing side. I suppose that is part of our Puritan heritage, but fortunately the French see things differently and actresses like Scott Thomas are regularly employed there.

As the movie goes on, there are twists to the plot that come from nowhere and are unexpected to say the least. Not wanting to give anything away, I won’t say more than that but those twists are a bit complicated and those who aren’t patient with such things may find this film to be rather more frustrating than they might find comfortable. From my point of view, these types of things are challenging; you can believe what you choose to believe in terms of what you think is going on but I guarantee you, you won’t be right – nor will you be wrong. It really is up to your interpretation.

This is truly an international film, with a Polish director who is based in England but makes a film set in France (backed by French, English and Polish producers) and based on a novel by an Irish-American author. In that sense, there is an Eastern European austerity and a French sensuality, along with an American type of thriller merged with an English style suspense. Something for everyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Hawke is always interesting. Scott Thomas is right in her wheelhouse here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May get too convoluted for some. Can be frustrating.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality (and plenty of it), some violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Pawlikowski is a noted Polish director, this was filmed in France and mostly financed by French sources (along with British and Polish as well).
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $113,800 on an unknown  production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD rental), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ghost Writer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring continues!