Rated PG for action and some rude humor.
Running time: 91 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
I realize I’m egregiously late in writing about “The Secret Life of Pets” — or any recent movie, for that matter — but I’m playing catch-up after being out of town with my family for a couple of weeks. So, apologies. But I wanted to get a few thoughts down quickly, especially because I had the pleasure of seeing “The Secret Life of Pets” while I was away.
It’s always fun to see movies in other places. I’m so accustomed to the ArcLight, The Grove and the AMC Century City, not to mention all the various screening rooms and revival houses around town. We’re truly spoiled having so many options here in Los Angeles. While on vacation for two weeks in Boston, New Hampshire and Montreal, Nicolas and I caught the first possible showing near us: 7pm on a Thursday at the Cinemagic theater in Hooksett, N.H., where an entire auditorium sold out, requiring the opening of another one. (We also caught the “Ghostbusters” remake in Montreal, where, at first, we accidentally went to the theater where it was playing in French as “SOS Fantomes.” But that’s another story for another time.)
Nic has been seriously pumped for “The Secret Life of Pets” for months now. We are a Minion-friendly household, in case you weren’t aware, and the marketing for “Pets,” which comes from the same production company (Illumination Entertainment), made it look as if it had a similarly adorable, anarchic humor. It’s actually the summer movie I’d been looking forward to most myself, between the impossibly cute characters, the strong voice cast (Louis C.K., Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Lake Bell, Albert Brooks) and the clever premise.
Yes, it’s essentially “Toy Story,” only with dogs and cats. But still — who doesn’t like that idea? And who hasn’t wondered what their pets do all day while they’re away? (We don’t wonder, however. We have a 14-year-old Boston terrier who’s deaf and has one tooth left in his head. We know what he does all day: He sleeps on the couch.)
It is an incredibly simple yet irresistible idea for a movie. It’s also exactly what you think it’s going to be — no more, no less. But the film from co-directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney is so perky and agreeable and eager to please — not unlike our own pets — that it’s hard not to be charmed. No, it does not have the thematic depth, narrative complexity or emotional power of a Pixar movie. Most other animated offerings don’t. But it’s beautiful to look at in terms of color, lighting and texture, it zips along nicely and it’s a totally delightful way to spend the afternoon with your family.
There is indeed a plot, albeit a thin one, which relies heavily on amusing sight gags. (Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch wrote the script.) Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) is an enthusiastic terrier mix who’s fiercely loyal to his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). The two of them have a cozy life together in their tiny Manhattan apartment, and when Katie leaves for work in the morning, Max is content to sit by the door and wait for her to return. He also has friends who keep him company through neighboring windows, including Gidget (Slate), a posh, puffy Pomerian who’s secretly in love with him; Mel (Bobby Moynihan), a nutty pug who’s constantly on the alert for squirrels; and Chloe (Bell), a surly, portly cat who has a love-hate relationship with the food in the refrigerator.
One evening, the kindhearted Katie comes back with another dog: the garrulous and galumphing Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who proceeds to make himself right at home to Max’s shock and dismay. But then the two of them end up off-leash together, no thanks to their distracted dog walker, and must rely on each other to get back home. Along the way, they cross paths with an underground group of homeless former pets — a truly random menagerie led by an insanely cute (but also just plain insane) bunny rabbit named Snowball (Hart), who’s hell-bent on revolution.
Manic animal antics ensue through the streets, alleyways, sewers and rivers of New York City. And that’s about all there is to it. Snowball wants Max and Duke to join his crusade, but they kind of like being domesticated. The biggest question isn’t whether they’ll ever get home again but how — something they figure out when their friends come to rescue them with the reluctant help of a hawk voiced with rich, gravelly menace by Brooks.
He is, of course, a standout among the cast, but my favorite of all is Slate. And this is something I’ve actually thought and talked about quite a bit since seeing “The Secret Life of Pets,” because Nicolas likes to hash through plot points after we’ve seen a movie together, and he keeps asking me who my favorite character is. It’s Gidget. (He likes Max best, in case you’re wondering, and Louis C.K.’s trademark smarts and self-deprecation are just right for the role.) Slate’s husky earnestness gives the film real warmth, and I love the fact that her character looks sweet and small but she’s actually quite brave and ballsy.
And you’ve gotta love a hero’s journey in which the real hero ends up being a woman.
“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” is a hard-R comedy that pummels us over the head with the same few, raunchy gags in hopes of beating us into submission. We’ve see so much better from all four of its likable stars — Zac Efron, Adam Devine, Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick — and we will again. For now, here’s my 1 1/2-star RogerEbert.com review.
Veteran French director Anne Fontaine approaches a spiritually and emotionally complex real-life slice of history with deftness and understated drama in “The Innocents,” about a group of nuns who became pregnant after Soviet soldiers raped them at the end of World War II. My RogerEbert.com review.
Rated PG for mild thematic elements.
Running time: 103 minutes
Three stars out of four.
If there were no such thing as “Finding Nemo” — if there were never a previous Pixar movie, ever — we’d all be blown away by “Finding Dory.” It’s gorgeous. It’s lively. It’s got terrific performances from a strong voice cast. It’s emotionally affecting without being heavy-handed.
The trouble is, the bar is just so high that a really well-made Pixar movie feels solidly upper-mid-tier compared to truly groundbreaking, profound offerings from the animation house like “WALL-E” (also from “Dory” director Andrew Stanton), “Up” and “Inside Out.” This is the problem when you’re the best at what you do: The expectations are just ridiculous.
Having said that, I really enjoyed “Finding Dory” — even though it’s essentially the same story as its predecessor, 2003’s “Finding Nemo” — in that it’s about a fish who’s struggling to reconnect with family and is willing to cross an ocean to make that happen. It is genuinely thrilling and moving, with one crucial shot that will make you cry (if you haven’t already), especially if you’re a parent. But it’s also just a lot of fun, filled with colorful, playful characters for the kids to enjoy, and it zips by at just the right clip.
This time, Ellen DeGeneres is front-and-center — or whatever the equivalent is in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean — returning to the character of Dory, a blue tang who has trouble remembering. Heartbreaking flashbacks reveal that this problem plagued her from childhood, when her parents (voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) taught her tricks and songs to strengthen her memory and keep her safe. Parents of children with special needs or learning disabilities surely will find comfort in the film’s sensitive depiction of a potentially tricky topic. Dory’s parents are kind, patient and loving as they help her remember how to remember, all the while instilling in her an essential sense of self-worth.
They can only do so much to protect her from the realities of the underwater world, however; eventually she becomes separated from them and ends up crossing paths years later with the characters she bonded with in “Finding Nemo”: Nemo himself (voiced this time by Hayden Rolence) and his dad, Marlin (Albert Brooks, functioning beautifully in his comfort zone of being uncomfortable).
It’s easy to take for granted how skillful these actors are in bringing these roles to life with just their voices. DeGeneres is so nimble as Dory, showing off her impeccable comic timing and energy but also digging deep into the opportunity to reveal a more dramatic, understated side to her talent. Dory could, in theory, be a potentially annoying, one-note character, but the script from Stanton and Victoria Strouse allows DeGeneres to provide complexity and shading. (Stanton also co-directed with Angus MacLane.) And the role of Marlin is so clearly in Brooks’ wheelhouse: He’s the smartest guy (or fish) in the room who’s miserable nonetheless. His dry, self-deprecating sense of humor is always welcome.
Anyway, Dory begins to remember that she has a family of her own and decides, against all odds, to seek them out across the ocean. She gets help along the way from Marlin and Nemo as well as various other sea creatures, including a reluctant octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill), a nearsighted whale shark (Kaitlin Olson) and an insecure beluga whale (Ty Burrell). All are consistently strong and provide just the right amount of heart and humor, but O’Neill is the scene-stealer, both for the cool way Hank camouflages himself and insinuates himself into impossible situations and for the way he evolves in his involvement with Dory.
Hank was Nicolas’ favorite character, too, and a great example of how well Pixar’s stories work on various levels for various kinds of viewers. Nic is 6 so he enjoyed the physicality and playfulness of the character; I was impressed by the way his perspective changes in believable ways over the course of the film. Again, all solidly entertaining stuff, but not necessarily life-altering. Then again, maybe it doesn’t need to be.
Nic and I were actually more wowed by “Piper,” the short that plays before “Finding Dory,” from director Alan Barillaro. It’s about a tiny sandpiper who overcomes his fear of finding his own food on the beach and develops the confidence to thrive. It is stunningly beautiful in its photorealism — in the waves that lap onto the shore, the individual grains of sand shimmering in the sun, the tufts of fluff on our steely hero. In just six wordless minutes, it brought tears to my eyes. So make sure you get to the theater, get your popcorn and find your seats on time. You don’t want to miss this small but powerful gem.
The sequel you never thought you wanted or needed to the 1996 smash-hit blockbuster “Independence Day” isn’t as terrible as you would expect, given that it wasn’t shown to critics before opening day. It’s just … dull. A massive waste of time and money. My RogerEbert.com review.
Bored, privileged French teens get drunk and high and engage in wild orgies after school in “Bang Gang,” the feature debut from writer-director Eva Husson. She creates an intimate, dreamlike portrait of angst and longing. But if you’re a parent watching this, you’ll probably think it’s a nightmare. My RogerEbert.com review.
Unrated but contains graphic language, sex, nudity, violence and drug use throughout.
Running time: 108 minutes.
One half star out of four.
So I actually made myself watch “The Do-Over” for a What the Flick?! review and I actually took notes because I’m a professional, dammit, so I figured, what the hell? Maybe I should write a little review, too, just for posterity — even though it feels a bit like beating a dead horse at this point. Nevertheless, here it is.
“The Do-Over” is typical Adam Sandler fare in every way, from the raunchy humor to the inclusion of his buddies to the deplorable view of women to the vacation disguised as a movie shoot to the forced sentimentality in the final act. It’s the latest in Sandler’s four-film deal with Netflix, which also brought us “The Ridiculous Six,” which earned a zero-star review from me last year. (Not that receiving critical praise is high among Sandler’s priorities.)
This time, Sandler stars as Max, who meets up with his childhood buddy, Charlie (David Spade), at their 25th high school reunion. While the swaggering Max seems to have gone onto a life of adventure (or so he says), the milquetoast Charlie has stayed in town, in the same house with the same job. Only now he’s married to the woman who was his high school crush: the trashy, scantily-clad Nikki (Natasha Leggero), who uses the occasion of the reunion to cavort drunkenly on the dance floor with her obnoxious ex (Sean Astin), the father of her bratty twin sons.
Do you see a theme emerging here? Everyone in “The Do-Over” is abhorent. And director Steven Brill (“Little Nicky,” “Mr. Deeds”), working from a script by Kevin Barnett and Chris Pappas, expects us to spend nearly two hours with these people.
But Max has an idea that will improve Charlie’s life and his own at the same time: They’ll fake their deaths. First, though, they party on a yacht and persuade the bikini-clad MILFs on a nearby boat to flash their boobs; the “payoff” of that joke is that Max shoots a flare gun at the ladies when they laugh at Charlie’s meager junk in response. Hilarious!
Max’s boat, by the way, is called the “Fish ‘n’ Chicks.” And it contains a Bud Light Party Ball. We know this because even before Charlie steps aboard, he sees the Bud Light Party Ball and exclaims: “That’s not a Bud Light Party Ball?!” (Later, they will order Jameson’s at a biker bar, just to mix things up.) Product placement is, sadly, pretty standard in movies these days, but Sandler tends to take it to an egregious extreme.
Then again, that’s keeping with his usual theme of using production as vacation. This time, the destination is Puerto Rico. After faking their deaths, Max and Charlie find a key that leads to a safe deposit box filled with cash, which leads to a mansion and a Ferrari on the scenic territory. There, they get shot at a lot in an elaborate case of mistaken identity, but Charlie also gets to engage in a three-way with Catherine Bell and Luis Guzman, who drips ball sweat on his face.
I will say, though — and this is why “The Do-Over” gets a half-star as opposed to zero — that eventually, it’s actually trying to be about something. It’s about finding a cure for cancer. No, really. I’m not saying the movie is successful in being about something. But the sentiment it aims to achieve feels vaguely less wedged-in than it does in most Sandler movies. Sandler himself looks less bored this time than he has recently. He might even be trying to act, an effort he seems to have abandoned since … oh, maybe “Funny People” back in 2009.
Paula Patton doesn’t fare quite so well, despite her efforts and her usual charisma, as the widow of a doctor caught up in Max and Charlie’s scheme. She’s basically called upon to look sexy, which culminates with her character taking part in a slow-motion girl fight with Kathryn Hahn’s to Madonna’s “Crazy for You.” Between this and “Warcraft,” Patton needs to have a serious talk with her agent.
She also must suffer the indignity of having Spade’s character beat the crap out of her for laughs: “I’m so tired of women lying to me and fucking me over!” he cries as he’s punching her in the stomach. But that’s basically the thrust of most recent Sandler movies: The only people you can trust are your bros.
“Warcraft,” based on the video game, is easily a contender for the year’s worst movie: an effects-filled fantasy extravaganza that’s unattractive, hard to follow and (worst of all) boring. My half-star RogerEbert.com review, where I’m guessing I’m very popular in the comments section.
Writer-director David Farr takes the giddy, heady days of early motherhood—the frustration and isolation, the exhaustion and confusion—and mines them for creepy, paranoid thrills in “The Ones Below.” Anyone who’s had a child will relate, but you don’t have to be a parent to get wrapped up in the tension. My RogerEbert.com review.
Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad tells the true story of Mohammed Assaf, the singer from Gaza who became an international symbol of hope when he won the second season of the “Arab Idol” TV singing competition. But the musical elements aren’t even the most compelling parts — in fact, they’re surprisingly clunky. My mixed RogerEbert.com review.