The Secret Life of Pets

Answering that eternal question: What do our pets get up to when we’re at work?

The answer is lots of adventures that are slightly too reminiscent of Toy Story. This film has been constantly  advertised for the past year, with the first few minutes of the film making up the teaser trailer (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-80SGWfEjM). It all looks so promising at first, hilarious even, then the trailer appeared again. And again. And again. The gags in the trailer that were hilarious at first became funny to kinda funny to slightly overdone. In some ways that sets up the tone for the entire movie – an excellent premise that becomes an overdone caper movie.

Max (Louis C.K.) loves his life. He loves his motley crew of friends – made up of two dogs, Buddy (Hannibal Buress) and Mel (Bobby Moynihan),  a cat called Chloe (Lake Bell) and a budgie named Sweet Pea. He loves his spoiled life. But most of all he loves his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper). When Katie brings home a dog from the pound called Duke (Eric Stonestreet) Max is resentful at having to share Katie. Duke is determined to make a good impression; if it doesn’t work out with Katie he’ll have to go back to pound who will quickly get rid of him – permanently. Max uses this knowledge over Duke to blackmail him until Duke gets so sick of things he tries to make Max learn his lesson. However teaching Max a lesson results in the pair of them on the run from Animal Control and under the care of  “The Flushed Pets”, a gang of abandoned pets. Max and Duke will have to put aside their quarrels if they want to get back home and back to Katie. 

Writing the above plot summary confirmed my initial suspicion I had when watching the film. Substitute some of the above names  – replace Katie with Andy, swap Max & Duke for Woody & Buzz and the various pet names for Mr Potato Head, Slinky, Rex and Hamm – and you’ve essentially got the plot of Toy Story (1995). One is about what toys get up to whilst humans are away, the latter film is about what pets get up to whilst humans are away.The love-hate dynamics of the central duo were not necessarily invented by Pixar (there’s about 100 years of cinema prior that utilises the trope at various points!) but there are lots of similarities between Max & Woody and Duke & Buzz. Both Max & Woody have spoiled lifestyles being the centre of attention of their owners. Duke & Buzz are both the invaders of the aforementioned comfortable lifestyle. There’s a class between resident and newcomer which leads to them being far from home, they are kidnapped by an evil-doer and must unite to get back home.

This wouldn’t be too problematic if The Secret Life of Pets put a fresh take on it, but it doesn’t. Some of the gags and plot-points are overly familiar, with the film drifting from scene to scene without any sense of urgency. The film opens well, if with a sequence that has become far too familiar, yet becomes worn-out rather quickly. The film has a weird blend of realistic and pantomime, the later accelerates as the film rushes to its climax, never finding the balance and never sitting quite right. I laughed a few times but the jokes failed to elicit a belly laugh, many of the jokes prompted only a tight smile. I wasn’t alone in this reaction – few laughs were emitted by anyone in the 50% capacity screening. The two ten-year olds sat near me, who I used as a sort of human barometer were decidedly quiet throughout.

This is not to say the film is without charm. The animation is truly exquisite – a whole new level of depth in terms of animated cityscapes.  New York has never looked this good. I loved how the character were cute but not too cute – each character having a difference about added to the charm of both character and film. The stand out character had to be Snowball the villainous rabbit (Kevin Hart), a character who proved yet again that the villains are always the best character. I also appreciated how dark the film became at times, although considering the film has a U rating there were some themes present that were somewhat surprising.

The film looks brilliant, has some funny moments and some lovely characters. It’s not particularly original but will more than entertain most of the family.

 stars

Angry Birds

The first throwaway kids film of the Summer

Most of the Western world will have played, or at least heard of, the Angry Birds franchise which flew its way into our lives in 2009. Since then the download figures of the app have entered the billions category. Endless merchandise has successfully infiltrated the shops and the production of a movie is not that surprising, with that kind of pre-sold audience it makes business sense, although a degree of universal dubiousness was held over the prospect of 90 minutes of screentime being generated from a mobile phone app. The end result? Well, it’s not offensive or massively memorable…

Red (Jason Sudeikis) is the loner of Bird island. An orphan who has always been treated with a degree of suspicion and amusement  by his fellow citizens  he’s never really fitted in. Since childhood he has been quick to anger, something that is ill-regarded by everyone else, and when a new incident occurs which leads him to lose his temper once more he is sentences to anger management classes. The classes are run by Matilda (Maya Rudolph) and are attended by regulars Chuck (Josh Gad), Bomb (Danny McBride) and Terence (Sean Penn). The four of them want to help Red and offer friendship, which he refuses.  When a pig explorer, called Leonard (Bill Hader), comes to island Red is quick to voice his suspicions. When disaster strikes there is only one person Red thinks he can turn to, the Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage) who has been missing for years, and he’s going to need the help from those he just tried to reject.

By all rights Angry Birds is better than any app turned film deserves to be. It’s frequently entertaining and induces enough laughs whilst watching to earn its ticket price. However it’s a cinema watching experience that is resolutely hollow. Only 15 hours on from watching and I’m hard pressed to name a favourite sequence from the film – it lacks the substance we now come to expect from animated movies. The characters are silly and fun enough, the jokes deliver frequently and occasionally crudely amusing. The audience favourite character will probably be Chuck, but that will most likely be his resemblance to characters such Quicksilver or Deadpool – just U-rated versions! Also it needs to be said that is a mighty fine cast-list! It’s a shame there talent’s are pretty underused here.

Considering Angry Birds started just after an advert for the very long awaited Finding Dory and the Angry Birds villain also voiced a character (Fear) in Inside out , well a comparison between this and Pixar is an obvious thing to make. Angry Birds is not Pixar or Zootropolis, it does not have the warmth or wit nor anything occurring that is anywhere near as memorable as the aforementioned movies. But with Half Term on the horizon there’s enough here to distract the children for 90 minutes with more than enough amuse the parents too.

2 stars

Anomalisa

 

‘What is it to be human?’

Anomalisa is a masterpiece of cinema – a tale about the human condition told by puppets that is the most real movie in years.  We’ve all had awkward encounters – be that with ex-partners, conversations with strangers in a lift or the force-fed wisdom of a brusque taxi driver. We’ve all (hopefully) had a moment where you meet someone who, somehow and somewhere deep inside of yourself, you innately know that ‘this person is important to my future’. Now imagine a film that has the later as its main storyline but is layered with lots and lots of the former. That’s Anomalisa. It’s hilarious and sad at the same time, just like life, whilst reflecting on how bitterly lonely existence can be. Artistic greatness channelled through stop-motion puppetry.

It’s 2005. Michael Stone (David Thewlis), customer service consultant extraordinaire, is travelling to Cincinnati for a convention at which he is due to speak. To Michael everyone else on the planet appears to have the identical voices and faces. He is just spending one night at the hotel before travelling back home to his wife (Tom Noonan) and child (Tom Noonan. He decides that, as he’s in the area and plagued by self-hate, he’ll call up his old flame Bella (Tom Noonan) in the hope that Bella will help him find out what is wrong with him. Things do not go well, but upon retreating to his hotel room he hears a voice that is different from everyone else. He searches desperately and finds Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh. Michael is instantly enraptured by her different voice and face, desperately hoping that she will cure his crippling loneliness.

This film, written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman, does not have to try hard to be strange. Everything about it is strange, but that’s not criticism when you really reflect on how strange life often is. The most obvious ‘strange’ aspect is the fact the entire world is only voiced by three people – Thewlis as our lead, Jason Leigh supporting and Noonan as everyone else. Have one actor voicing 98% of this world has the most wondrously bleak effect, allowing for everyone else to blur in the background. They are unimportant therefore there characters are not defined, which is how our protagonist Michael Stone views the world. Few central characters are this self-hating, haunted by guilt and bad memories. Did the voices always sound the same, or has life for Michael etched away its beautiful nuances?

The interactions with both strangers and those who are supposedly the closed to him are all so affecting in there believability – many of them of the concealing-your-eyes-as-you-watch variety. But it is Michael’s interactions with Lisa that are the most beautiful and the most heart-breaking. Lisa is the exact opposite of Michael, Lisa is insecure and desperately lacking in confidence, yet is just as lonely as he is. Lisa is a great admirer or Michael’s and an obsessive reader of his book which helped her increase work ‘productivity by 90%’!  The beginning of their courtship is so tenderly handled, and perhaps the most human we’ll see on the big screen this year. Lisa’s serenading Michael with a cover of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ will fill your eyes with tears. The film’s title stems from this point of the movie, when Lisa reveals she has always felt like an ‘anomaly’ which Michael then teams with ‘Lisa’ to form her self-appointed nickname ‘Anomalisa’. This conversation alone personifies their relationship, Michael and the film itself. Is he laughing at her by giving her this name, or showing just how much he understands?

Watching Anomalisa is almost like watching an autopsy or listening to a psychiatrist’s evaluation –   cutting apart our very psychology, our brains and being, then showing us how they work. Like The Matrix it’s up to you whether you take the blue or red pill.

Breathtakingly beautiful and bitter in equal measure; dare you see it?

Inside Out

Pixar proving that it really does know us Inside Out…

This film is Pixar’s best outing yet. It’s so clever, moving and beautifully told – in the way only Pixar an master. An outstanding treat of a film for both kids and adults. Both silly yet serious, it manages to articulate the traumas of growing up in a way that both reflects them for the kids but prompts self-reflection from the adults. It cannot be emphasised enough how universal the film is, with a multitude of jokes that will appeal to all markets. It’s witty, yet warm and oh-so wise. Joy. Sadness. Fear. Disgust. Anger. These are all emotions that we feel, often simultaneously, yet this film makes us consider the true power of these emotions and how they are all equally important – in a manner that will make you giggle and possibly shed a tear or two.

11-year-old Riley lives in Minnesota with her mum and dad. For Riley, everyday is a great day. She loves her family, friends, hockey and goofing around. With Joy (Amy Poehler) at the helm in the Headquarters -Riley’s conscious mind- to influence Riley’s actions and memories. Joy, along with Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), use a control console to interact with Riley. Even after 11 years, they still cannot understand the purpose of Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Yet Riley’s life quickly changes, with her family moving to San Francisco for her dad’s work. Whilst Joy and the other three emotions are trying to negotiate Riley’s well-being upon moving, they most also deal with Sadness who has started to touch some of Riley’s happy memories, transforming them to be sad. When trying to fix one of these memories Joy and Sadness end up being transported away from Headquarters into the labyrinthian maze that is Riley’s mind.

It’s immensely hard to find the words to explain just how extraordinary this film is. In typical Pixar-style it has created a film with a premise that seems so obvious, the idea of our emotions having personalities, yet manages to create something so beautifully poignant, entertaining and moving. Riley’s turmoil is so well reflected, it will bring back evocative memories for all. For the parents of the audience it could only be doubly heartfelt – an opportunity to see inside your child’s mind!

How these aspects are converted onto the screen are what makes Pixar so innovative. We have the Train of Thought, Personality Islands and the dreaded Memory Dump. A stand-out sequence has to when Sadness, Joy and Bing-Bong (Riley’s long forgotten imaginary friend) stop by the production studio for Dreams. It’s just so meta, with the revelation that dreams are actually created in a movie studio style-operation, reflecting on the manufacturing and perception of moving image. All of this is incredibly astute, but told in a way that is accessible to all ages. But what really makes us care about the events of this film is the characterisation. All the characters are fully developed and three dimensional – Riley is portrayed as such a lovely kid going through a real crisis, her loving parents doing all they can to help and their bond is so endearing. The emotions do steal the show here – they each have nuances and quirks yet are all untied with their tender treatment of Riley.

If you decide to go to the cinema only once this Summer, this is the film to see. It’s conceptually daring in both emotion and intellect, so comforting and simple but also affecting and thoughtful. A masterpiece.

Mini-Review: Lava

lava

Like all Pixar movies this film starts with a short, a beautiful love story called ‘Lava’. Told through song, a lonely volcano expresses his need for a companion he can love. It’s a beautiful sequence, the colourings and textures of the island landscape with the camera panning over so elegantly create an almost mythical tone. It’s hard to believe how far, animation-wise Pixar and its technology has developed since ‘Knick-Knack’ (1989) one of its earliest and similarly themed shorts. A timeless and universal theme presented in a extraordinary setting and style – setting you up perfectly for the main picture.