The Secret Life of Pets

For F*** Magazine

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS

Director : Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Cast : Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Steve Coogan, Ellie Kemper, Bobby Moynihan, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Albert Brooks, Tara Strong
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 1 hr 31 mins
Opens : 1 September 2016
Rating : PG

The Secret Life of Pets posterDouble lives make for inherently intriguing storytelling: from the playboy/vigilante to the Wall Street stockbroker/serial killer to the electronics salesman/superspy, we can’t get enough of them. This animated film sheds light on what pets get up to when their owners head out to work. Naturally, it’s not quite as dramatic as the above examples.

Max (C.K.) is a Jack Russell terrier who is completely devoted to his owner Katie (Kemper). His idyllic existence is upended when Katie brings home a new dog, the shaggy mongrel Duke (Stonestreet). Upset that he is no longer the sole beneficiary of Katie’s affection, Max plots to get Duke kicked out of the house. The two get into an altercation and get lost, running into a gang known as the “Flushed Pets”. These unceremoniously abandoned animals are led by the psychotic rabbit Snowball (Hart), who has vowed vengeance against all humans. Gidget (Slate), a Pomeranian who has been nursing a crush on Max, leads a group of their friends to search for and rescue Max and Duke. The group includes aloof tabby cat Chloe (Bell), geriatric basset hound Pops (Carvey) and Tiberius (Brooks), a red-tailed hawk who has to keep his killer instincts in check. An odyssey through New York ensues, as Max and Duke have to put aside their differences and try to make it home.

The Secret Life of Pets Duke, Katie and Max

The Secret Life of Pets is directed by Chris Renaud, who helmed the Despicable Me movies, and Yarrow Cheney, who was the production designer for them. Animation studio Illumination Entertainment is on a roll, with The Secret Life of Pets now a worldwide box office hit. The bits and pieces that have been cobbled together from other films are clearly evident and have been frequently pointed out: Max’s resentment of Duke echoes Woody’s jealousy when Buzz Lightyear enters Andy’s playroom in Toy Story and the story of stranded pets finding a way back to their owners is reminiscent of Homeward Bound.

The Secret Life of Pets Chloe, Max and Mel

While it isn’t exactly original, the film is energetic and vibrant and remains engaging throughout. The animation isn’t a dizzying sensory overload, and the design of New York City is just heightened enough while still being recognisable. Composer Alexandre Desplat channels George Gershwin with a breezy, jazzy score. Inventive moments of physical humour are showcased during several intricately choreographed set pieces, including a skirmish in which Max and Duke are bounced about between multiple clotheslines and when Buddy (Buresss), a dachshund, navigates a fire escape. While there are obvious jokes about bodily functions, The Secret Life of Pets does hit a few balls in the direction of the parents in the audience. “For me, every breath is a cliff-hanger,” the elderly Pops wheezes. Elsewhere, there’s a reference to the gentrification of Brooklyn. It’s the right shade of ‘adult’. A hallucination sequence in which Sausage Party seems to have invaded this film is more miss than hit, though. It’s not razor-sharp wit, but this reviewer laughed more often than not.

The Secret Life of Pets Chloe, Mel, Buddy, Tiberius, Gidget and Sweet Pea

This film marks C.K.’s first voice role. Cynicism and wry, world-weary observation is very much built into C.K.’s persona as a comedian – as such, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised at how convincing he sounds as an earnest, enthusiastic Jack Russell terrier. The conflict between Max and Duke is efficiently established and predictably enough, they have a few bonding moments along the way, eventually reaching inevitable that “hey, you’re not so bad” point. Stonestreet is a good choice for the loveable big lug, who isn’t as dim-witted as one might expect. Yes, we’re guilty of judging books by their covers.

The Secret Life of Pets Snowball and friends

Speaking of going off appearances, a lot of the humour in The Secret Life of Pets is derived from first impressions being deceiving. There’s the refined poodle who head-bangs to System of a Down’s Bounce, and of course there’s Snowball. Hart does a lot of manic yelling, and while it’s not a bad concept for the primary antagonist, the character’s drastic change of h(e)art towards the film’s conclusion is difficult to buy. As it stands, Snowball is not much more than a less esoteric Rabbit of Caerbannog from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

In this image released by Universal Pictures, Gidget, voiced by Jenny Slate, left, and Max, voiced by Louis C.K., appear in a scene from, "The Secret Lives of Pets." (Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures via AP)

Slate’s distinctive raspy tones sound very apt emanating from a Pomeranian, and the character’s determination to rescue her beloved Max is endearing. Brooks, voicing a very different animated character from Marlin in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, gets some of the film’s funniest moments. Tiberius is a lonely hawk cooped up in a cage whose nature as a predator gets in the way of him making any friends, and it’s always fun to see a kids’ film with talking animals actually acknowledge the fact that animals eat other animals, while giving the carnivore in question some redeeming features. Bell’s cool indifference as Chloe the cat is an amusing counterpoint to the overall enthusiasm expressed by the various dogs.

The Secret Life of Pets gnarly cats

            We’ve avoided this comparison for this long, so here goes: The Secret Life of Pets can’t match the warmth and profundity of Pixar’s best works, but it’s still sufficiently moving and entertaining, with quality animation work making it a visual treat. Oops, we said “treat” out loud. No, sit, sit!

Summary: Thanks to a funny, talented voice cast and eye-catching animation, The Secret Life of Pets is good fun in spite of its familiar aspects.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Finding Dory

For F*** Magazine

FINDING DORY

Director : Andrew Stanton
Cast : Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Hayden Rolence, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Idris Elba, Dominic West
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 1 hr 40 mins
Opens : 16 June 2016
Rating : PG

Pixar beckons us back fathoms below in the sequel to Finding Nemo. In real life, it’s been 13 years since the first film, but our story picks up a year after the events of Finding Nemo. Dory (DeGeneres), the blue tang stricken with acute short-term memory loss, begins to have flashbacks to her childhood, hitherto entirely forgotten. Dory recalls her parents Charlie (Levy) and Jenny (Keaton), and sets out on a quest to track them down. Dory’s friends, the clownfish Marlin (Brooks) and his son Nemo (Rolence), accompany her from the Great Barrier Reef to the Marine Life Institute in California. There, they become acquainted with the cantankerous ‘septopus’ (he’s lost an arm) named Hank (O’Neill); Destiny (Olson), a near-sighted whale shark who was Dory’s childhood friend; Bailey (Burrell), a beluga whale with self-confidence issue, and the sea lions Fluke (Elba) and Rudder (West). While Marlin wants nothing more than to stay home, he has to brave the unexpected yet again so his friend can be reunited with her family.

Over the years, DeGeneres has relentlessly lobbied for a Finding Nemo sequel on her talk show. Not only has she gotten her wish, Dory has been bumped up to the main character. In addition to voice actors DeGeneres and Brooks, director Andrew Stanton has returned. Stanton also co-wrote the screenplay with Victoria Strouse, with Bob Peterson and Stanton receiving a “story by” credit. There was always the danger of this being a mere retread of the first film, now considered a classic of contemporary animation. While it does cover some of the same territory and doesn’t arrive at the same purity of emotion that Finding Nemo did, the sequel is still packed with heart and offers entertainment by the tank-full.

Sequels have a tendency to lose sight of what made the first film work in their pursuit of being “bigger and better”. Finding Dory is actually smaller in scope than the first film, with most of the action taking place within the Marine Life Institute, modelled on the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. As we’ve come to expect from the studio, the animation is awe-inspiring and suffused with life, the environments spilling over with realistic detail. The animators have a lot of fun guiding Dory through the various mini-environments within the Marine Life Institute and the action sequences have a dynamic theme park ride feel about them.

Like its predecessor, it’s still a road movie: our heroes meet weird and wonderful personalities as they journey far from home in search of something, or someone. The story possesses a crucial forward momentum: there’s never a dull moment and the characters get from point A to point B in increasingly inventive ways. Not only is it fast-paced, it’s also frequently funny, with many jokes eliciting guffaws from this reviewer. A well-known actor who has appeared in a Pixar film before gets a riotous vocal cameo.

This reviewer was worried that Dory would be the latest victim of what we call “breakout character-itis”, wherein a supporting character becomes such a hit with audiences that their screen-time is massively increased in the sequel, sometimes to the film’s detriment. Dory’s appeal remains untarnished – much comedy is derived from the character’s ailment, but the film also recognises it as a source of profound tragedy, and this becomes the driving force in the plot. Dory’s back-story is established from the outset, and while it doesn’t quite tug on the heartstrings the way Nemo and Marlin’s bond did in the first one, there will still be no shortage of tears. Keaton and Levy bring understated warmth to the roles of Dory’s long-lost parents.

Marlin and Nemo receive just the right amount of character development: while they’ve both learned from their harrowing adventure, the essence of who they are remains unchanged. The pragmatism and impatience that Brooks brings to his performances ensure that Marlin remains an excellent example of the “comically serious” trope, while Rolence is as ideal a replacement for original Nemo voice actor Alexander Gould as any imaginable. Gould, now 22, has a vocal cameo.

O’Neill can play the curmudgeon in his sleep, and Hank is eminently endearing despite, or perhaps because of, his crankiness. Hank is the focus of many clever visual gags that make playful use of an octopus’ ability to contort itself and change its skin colour with the help of chromatophores to blend seamlessly into the background. Some of the other new characters, while often amusing, are not quite so memorable, and each of them have an obvious hook which seems like something a lesser animated film might fall back on. It’s always great to hear Elba’s distinct baritone, but he was better in Zootopia earlier this year.

Finding Dory isn’t as good as Finding Nemo, but considering the stratospheric watermark that film set, it’s to be expected. This film reunites us with the characters we love, just as we remember them, plunged into zany new scenarios. Pixar knows how to reel an audience in, and there’s so much here to hook on to. The short film preceding the feature, Piper, is an exercise in straightforward storytelling, starring a particularly adorable feathered hero and boasting some of the most sublime computer-generated animation this reviewer has ever seen. Oh, stick around for a post-credits stinger!

Summary: Seek and ye shall find all those Pixar hallmarks: beautiful animation, humour, moving sentiment and family-friendly thrills. It’s not as profound as some of the studio’s other work, but it’s so entertaining that its shortcomings are easy to forgive.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Concussion

For F*** Magazine

CONCUSSION

Director : Peter Landesman
Cast : Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, David Morse, Paul Reiser, Mike O’Malley, Hill Harper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 123 mins
Opens : 14 January 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

            In this medical drama based on true events, something is driving America’s football players to madness, resulting in dangerous mental instability and suicides. Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith) is a forensic neuro-pathologist from Nigeria, working under pathology consultant Cyril Wecht (Brooks) at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Steelers centre “Iron” Mike Webster (Morse) dies at age 50, homeless and deranged after suffering from dementia. Upon conducting the autopsy, Omalu finds it peculiar that Webster’s brain appears normal. The Steelers’ former team doctor Julian Bailes (Baldwin), having witnessed Webster’s decline first-hand, volunteers to help Omalu. Several other players display similar symptoms and die in quick succession. Omalu’s exhaustive research leads him to the conclusion that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease brought about by repeated brain trauma, is to blame. Omalu and his wife Prema Mutiso (Mbatha-Raw) must brave the uphill battle as the National Football League (NFL) aggressively attempts to discredit Omalu and bury his research.

            Concussion is based on the GQ article Brain Game: Football Players and Concussionsby Jeanne Marie Laskas. While a film about brain trauma research does not sound particularly exciting, the controversial hot-button issue of the NFL’s denial that collisions as part of playing football can lead to potentially fatal brain damage is fuel for a searing prestige picture. Writer-director Peter Landesman pitches Concussion as a rousing David vs. Goliath tale of the heroic little guy taking down the evil wealthy corporation, but the film always feels too slick and glossy and, as a result, inauthentic. While the death of noted football players from CTE is a tragedy that is worth discussing, the film tries to sell it as the worst thing to ever befall humanity in all of its history. There are multiple artificial attempts to pump the story up, all of it accompanied by an overblown score that sees composer James Newton Howard at his highest “sombre drama” setting.


            Because of the immense power and prominence of the NFL, the “standing up to the man” quotient that Concussionpossesses is worthy of admiration, but it’s insufficient basis on which to recommend the film. The romance between Omalu and Prema is treacly and feels entirely tacked on, while the film bends over backwards to simplify the medical jargon, boiling Omalu’s research down to its most easily understandable: football players get hit in the head; this is bad. There are things that Landesman gets right: Justin Strzelczyk’s (Matthew Willig) violent outburst against his wife and children is a frightening, haunting moment. When an angry football fan calls Omalu’s home to harass him, accusing him of “pussifying this country”, it’s a great example of how sports fans can sometimes be thuggish and bullying in their zealousness. 



            Smith is clearly gunning for Oscar glory with his performance in the film, and it is blatant stunt casting. While Smith has proven himself capable of strong, absorbing performances, he stops a good distance short of being convincing as Dr. Bennet Omalu. In a truly great performance, particularly a portrayal of a real-life person, the actor should completely vanish into the role. It’s evident that Smith has put effort into the performance, but when all is said and done, he’s still A-list movie star Will Smith. Even putting aside the fact that Smith bears almost no resemblance to the actual Omalu, his presence is distracting. Mbatha-Raw gets little to do as the designated love interest, and a scene in which Prema teaches Omalu how to dance at a club is almost cringe-worthy. Brooks and Baldwin contribute solid performances and Morse’s brief appearance as Webster, Pittsburgh’s favourite son-turned mad vagrant, is effectively disturbing and tragic.



            The nobility that drives Concussion often crosses over into smothering self-importance. Omalu has many speeches about the American dream, and he is depicted as an American hero who just happens to come from Nigeria. The shattering of Omalu’s idealism is handled via awkward chunks of dialogue. This is a film with something to say and it says so loudly and with conviction, but the feeling that Omalu’s story has been squeezed into the standard “inspirational underdog” tale mould is very hard to shake. Concussion is more Oscar bait than it is incisive exposé, and as much as it takes the NFL to task, it’s still relatively early days for CTE research and the full impact has yet to play out.

Summary: Concussion’s righteous indignation can only carry it so far, with a clumsy screenplay and a lead actor who’s not the best fit for the part letting it down.

RATING: 2.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong