The Secret Life of Pets 2 is directed by Chris Renaud and stars the voices of Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Tiffany Hadish, Lake Bell, Nick Kroll, Dana Carvey, Ellie Kemper, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, and Harrison Ford.
I have, admittedly, a soft spot in my heart for Illumination's The Secret Life of Pets: a film advertised as a top secret, inside scoop of what pets do at home when their owners are away. Sure, the plot ended up being a total copycat of the first Toy Story, but at least the film had enough charming, humorous pet moments to show at least a commitment to making us appreciate why dogs, cats, birds, etc. are such beloved companions. I have no soft spots at all, however, for the 2019 sequel, The Secret Life of Pets 2, most certainly to be the second installment of what will one day be a Secret Life of Pets trilogy, because just about everything now comes in threes. The Secret Life of Pets 2 is about as "meh" of an animated film as you'll find this year, which is better than straight-up mediocrity, although given the standard that Illumination has set for itself with its animated features over the years, the range between mediocre and meh is rather small. What exactly is it then, that makes Secret Life of Pets 2 a "meh" film? The story? The characters? The comedy? It's really a bizarre mixture of everything, although if I were forced to choose one particular part, it would have to be the story.
The story takes place sometime after the events of the first film. Jack Russell terrier Max (Oswalt) and Newfoundland mix Duke's (Stonestreet) owner Katie (Kemper) meets a man named Chuck (Pete Holmes), marries him, and has a son named Liam (Henry Lynch). At first, Max is repulsed by Liam, but he quickly comes to love him, and later starts to be overprotective of him. The family then goes on a road trip out to the city, where Max has trouble adjusting to the new setting. Before they leave, Max assigns white Pomeranian Gidget (Slate) to watch over his favorite Busy Bee toy, but Gidget loses Busy Bee inside an apartment that is rampant with cats. While that's going on, former villain turned superhero bunny Snowball (Hart) teams up with a Shih Tzu named Daisy (Haddish) on a quest to rescue a White tiger cub named Hu from an abusive circus owner named Sergei (Kroll).
There are several frustrating things about this story: first and foremost, it's made up of three separate sub-stories that have almost nothing to do with each other, that is until the third act mashes all three together by force. Secondly, only one of these sub-stories has anything resembling stakes or consequences; the other two just sort of happen with no clear purpose. The Gidget sub-story kind of has stakes: if Gidget doesn't retrieve Max's Busy Bee toy, she will fail him as a friend and blow any hopes of one day being romantically involved with him. Too bad this little nugget is discarded entirely for the sake of the third's act final sequence on a train, thereby rendering the entire story line almost pointless to begin with. Third, it's impossible to guess which of these sub-stories is supposed to have greater priority over the other two. It has to be Max's story because he's the main character, right? It seems that way, at least up until the finale, which is centered around bringing closure to the Snowball-Daisy tiger rescue story line. It's confusing as all hell to figure out how this is all supposed to fit together, and with a mere 86 minute runtime, there's next to no time to figure anything out.
- It pains me when I have to really scrape and claw my way through a movie just to figure out some sort of high point to discuss, and The Secret Life of Pets 2 is absolutely one of those movies where finding something of true substance is a frustrating (and somewhat wasteful) use of my time. There is only one thing I can dig up: Harrison Ford in his first ever voice role as a Welsh Sheepdog named Rooster. If anything, Ford brings an "old guy who knows how everything works" kind of charisma to his role, and it's the only charm to be had from a cast that is basically sleep-walking their way through their performances. I suppose if there's anything else to speak nicely of, the animation is bright, detailed, and cheery, as seems to be the norm for an Illumination film. Solid animation is colorful and artistic, and Illumination is no exception to this.
- The Secret Life of Pets 2 is targeted primarily at children, which is kind of horrifying considering the contempt put on display by the film's story. Trying to juggle three semi-connected stories is one thing. It's another how unorganized the movie is with keeping them all in line, with the blame solely being placed at the feet of the film's ridiculously short attention span. It almost seems deliberate the way the film bounces from one sub-story to the other, and from one stupid joke to another. Illumination clearly believes children can't follow a concept for longer than 11 seconds, so why should the movie bother to do so? Max's storyline starts out as a metaphor for helicopter parents, only to then suddenly switch gears and turn into a life lesson on how the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. You see, it's not the fear for Liam that ends up being important to Max; what ends up being important is the fear he has for himself, because Illumination knows pushing the initial metaphor over the finish line would have taken extra thought and effort.
There's no consistency to any of this. The Secret Life of Pets 2 gets so wrapped up in what it can do at this very moment, that it's completely oblivious to the bridges it burns and the general disregard it shows for its target audience. Children are more than capable of watching colorful animated films full of complex themes that require your attention from start to finish to fully understand. Films like The Secret Life of Pets 2 lead us to think that Illumination doesn't share this same mindset. To them, children need to have something goofy thrown at them every ten seconds to stay engaged, and as long as parents are willing to throw their hard-earned dollars at these movies, why would they ever change?
I don't want to end this review sounding like I'm knocking films that just want to be goofy and have fun. There's nothing wrong with such a movie as long as the comedy is there, and the story is something at least halfway decent. The Secret Life of Pets 2 though, is not a good example to use, because it's an extremely "meh" film that teeters dangerously towards being a mediocre one. Harrison Ford is a bright spot in a talented yet uninspired cast, but aside from that and the generally high quality of the animation, there's hardly anything of substance The Secret Life of Pets 2 has to offer. A metaphor about helicopter parents? Nope. Hilarious jokes that transcend low-bar comedy like fart jokes or bathroom humor? Also nope. What we get instead is a discombobulated story with the attention span of a goldfish, potential payoffs that get scrapped altogether, and an animation studio that is basically telling the world, "we don't need kids to look up more than a few seconds from their devices in order for them to follow along." This is bad practice from an animation studio that thinks it's a lot smarter and more successful than it actually is, and if they keep churning out "meh" films like The Secret Life of Pets 2, well, I pray and hope that children and their parents will have the smarts to put their foot down and say no. Real life pets are more fun than the like of Max and Snowball anyway.
Recommend? No. While the movie is very short, it's rather unsatisfactory viewing.
I am not someone who is loved. I'm an idea. A state of mind.
Joker is directed and co-written by Todd Phillips and stars Joaquin Phoenix as the titular Joker. The film also stars Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, and Marc Maron.
There is something kind of refreshing about a film like Joker: one that takes place in an extremely familiar universe but is almost completely opposed to drawing attention to the mechanics of that universe. Yes, Joker takes place in Gotham City: known all too well for being the sight of the infamous Batman and his adventures in fighting crime. In Joker however, Gotham is just a name: the name of a city plagued with crime and unemployment, no different than say Los Angeles or Baltimore. Batman is completely nonexistent in this version of Gotham, and thus, anything having to do with superheroes is completely nonexistent in Joker. It's as anti of a superhero movie as you'll find, and to be placed smack dab in the center of this day and age of what I always liked to call the Superhero Renaissance, well, that does this man's heart some good.
Something else that Joker is: controversial, which I'm more convinced is due to the nature of today's hypersensitive media then it is Todd Phillips condoning some morbid branch of psychology that would have him thrown in jail and barred from working on a motion picture ever again. In a nutshell, the film's controversy is fixated on the dark tone and the portrayal of mental illness. Joker is not just doing a psychoanalysis on a person that is clearly suffering from some form of mental illness; the film is victimizing that mental illness, as if to say mental illness is something that immediately places someone in the category of the oppressed, the alienated, whatever other word you can think of to mean a victim. So in a way, Joker is taking a defensive stance on mental illness, and in a time where the news is rampant with shootings, bullying, and other forms of crime or oppression, it's to be expected that a lot of people will get a little hot and bothered. The last thing they want to see is a movie romanticizing one of these troubled people, regardless if it's one of the most famous villains of the superhero genre.
The story of Joker follows Arthur Fleck: a party clown who lives with his mother, Penny (Conroy). Arthur suffers from PBA (pseudobulbar affect), a disorder that makes him burst out with laughter at awkward or inappropriate times. After a gang beats him up in alley to start the movie, things look to be trending in the right direction for Arthur: his co-worker, Randall (Glenn Fleshler), gives him a gun for protection, and he starts to date his neighbor, single mother Sophie (Beetz). It all goes south in a flash, however: Arthur loses his job after having his gun exposed during a visit to a children's hospital, and he then shoots and kills three businessmen while riding home on a subway. News of the murders dominates headlines, and Arthur, seeing the growing number of protests against Gotham's elite, starts to embrace a life of crime and his identity as the Joker.
- Anything less than an R rating would have been unacceptable from Warner Bros., because Joaquin Phoenix should have no kind of handicaps in this type of role. Phoenix has received almost universal praise for his performance, so if you're wondering: no, I am not going to go into the whole Heath Ledger vs Joaquin Phoenix debate on who played the character better. Phoenix's Joker is easily the most "hardcore" rendition of the character in live action: brutal, graphic kills and the undeniable sense that this is nowhere near some goofy version of the Joker you'd likely find in a Saturday morning cartoon. This is truly an individual suffering from a disease eating away at him inside, and what makes it different from the Joker's presentation in The Dark Knight is the all-in focus on the Joker's state of mind and how it starts to unravel as the plot progresses. In The Dark Knight, the Joker is already immersed in his nihilistic beliefs, and the movie doesn't need to show him walking down that path.
So anyway, Phoenix is excellent with how a budding Joker would act: twitchy body movements, a shaky, fluctuating voice, and finding a delicate balance between what could be perceived as funny versus something kind of gruesome. Arthur will randomly burst out laughing and make light of a sticky situation, and at least for a little while, you feel like you can start laughing along. Then a split second later, Arthur performs a complete 180 on the situation and leaves everyone in stunned silence. As shocking as such a moment is, nothing comes off as awkward or nonsensical, because such moments perfectly capture the fear of what it's like to be close to someone who seems like they could lose it at any moment. Phoenix's Joker is a prime example of that someone, and, all controversy aside, it's highly effective because of Phoenix's great performance.
- Joker's cinematography looks like something straight out of an early 2000's superhero film, but for what the film is trying to be, it's a strength, not a weakness. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher looks to be out of his element here; he's the same guy behind the cinematography of raunchy comedies like The Hangover films, The Dictator, and Garden State. Despite his track record, Sher brings his A-game with making Gotham look as grotesque as humanly possible: inky color schemes, grimy set designs, and shadowy interiors every which way you look. It's almost nauseating to look at anything other than the characters on screen, which is why it's a bit unfair that Phoenix gets all the love. I guarantee Phoenix's Joker would not be as menacing if he was placed in some bright, rainbow-y imagination land and not home sweet home for Oscar the Grouch. Even scenes taking place in broad daylight look dark and unpleasant, as if Sher has a fond hatred for the Sun and wants to keep it out of the movie as much as possible. There are no warm fuzzies or happily ever afters in Joker; the cinematography blots out anything and everything suggesting love and happiness.
- For all its psychoanalysis and impressive cinematography, Joker ends up being nowhere near as deep as one might think it can be. Arthur's Joker turns into the symbol that inspires Gotham's oppressed to rise up and fight back against Gotham's elite. Meanwhile, Arthur's story becomes, "the hopeless loser who overthrows the system that so terribly wronged him." This isn't bad story-telling; the problem lies in the fact that there aren't enough juicy, unique details to help propel Joker over any other "the victim overthrows the perpetrator" story. What is it about the Joker character that encourages Gotham's low-lifes to don clown masks and start to stage protests? Is it just because he had the guts to fight back against a couple drunk guys on a subway? What exactly is it about a clown or clown-makeup that makes it the perfect fuel for a rebellion? In Batman Begins for example, Bruce Wayne overcomes a fear of bats, and thus, becomes a hero that helps his city overcome its fears.
Part of why the Joker is Batman's arch-nemesis is because the two are almost complete opposites: Batman is a figure of the dark who stays in the shadows and has motivations that are rooted in fear. The Joker is an outlandish figure that loves to be in the spotlight, creating fear from anything normally considered funny. Hardly anything of what happens in the 2019 Joker resembles what is typically associated with the Joker character, and while that's not a back-breaker, it does sting that what we do get boils down to nothing more than, "these people are tired of being treated like dirt, so it's time for them to take a stand."
What I think would have made Joker a masterful origin story would be to take a neutral approach to the Joker's mentality and what causes him to take up a life of crime. The controversy surrounding the movie deals with how it is seemingly taking a defensive stance on people who suffer from mental illness, and that it's openly welcoming people to take on acts of real-world violence. In a time where mental disorders are a buzzing topic, a movie like Joker, had it been nothing more than a pure analysis on what exactly might go on in a mentally unstable person's mind, would seem like the perfect movie. To a certain extent, the movie accomplishes this goal, mostly thanks to a terrific lead performance by Joaquin Phoenix and some excellent cinematography by Lawrence Sher. What's unfortunate though is the movie is nowhere near as deep as it thinks it is, which kind of sucks since Joker takes place in a well-known superhero setting, but has no interest whatsoever in the pizzazz of a superhero flick. That lack of superhero pizzazz is certainly doing nothing to diminish the movie's box office results, which, as of this writing, is setting records for an October release. Controversy or not, that's putting a smile on Warner Bros. face.
Recommend? Yes. Despite its flaws, the movie offers an excellent lead performance worth seeing.
Pretender to the Throne
Godzilla is directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich and stars Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Maria Pitillo, Hank Azaria, Kevin Dunn, Michael Lerner, and Harry Shearer.
If one were to consider the 1998 American Godzilla to officially be a part of the Godzilla library, the question must be asked: what exactly is it about the 1998 Godzilla that is impressive enough to qualify it as a Godzilla film? Certainly, we are not dealing with the same Godzilla that made Tokyo and all of Japan his personal playground for the better part of the 40 years prior. No, this is a Godzilla that is making his presence felt in New York City: the perfect spot for a monster attack in the United States. So let me rephrase the question: is a Godzilla film, set in New York, and entrusted to none other than Roland Emmerich enough to qualify said film to be a part of the official Godzilla library? The answer, my dear readers, is a big fat no.
The 1998 Godzilla was the first of an originally planned American Godzilla trilogy; Toho was in the middle of their second Godzilla hibernation period, not intending to bring back the character until the start of the new millennium (I think it was around 2004 when Toho had planned on rebooting the series). Toho granted permission for an American Godzilla film to producer and distributor Henry G. Saperstein, and after jumps through many hoops, a Godzilla film produced by TriStar Studios, written by screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, and utilizing the talents of director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin was in the works, at least until Emmerich decided to throw out Elliott and Rossio's script and, with Devlin's assistance, create a new one from scratch. Emmerich made it very clear that, if he agreed to do the film, he would be granted total creative freedom with no worries about studio interference. Right then and there, Godzilla was doomed to fail, because if there's one thing we've learned about Roland Emmerich over the years, it's that the man is a savant when it comes to style-over-substance.
I was only knee high when Godzilla first hit theaters back in 1998, so I have utterly no memories of the film's rampant advertising campaign. You maybe have seen pictures or short video clips of it: buses, billboards, and other large structures with a poster for the film that read: his ____ is bigger than this ____. TriStar had no confidence the film would do well, evident in their refusal to give test screenings and set aside time to fix any flaws. Thus, their only hope was to market the crap out of the film and try turning Godzilla into the film that everyone was talking about, increasing the likelihood that people would go see the film just because they saw posters for it on every street corner, not because they thought it would be a great time at the theaters. Either way, it's a ticket someone pays for, and that's all that matters at the end of the day. When all was said and done, Godzilla walked away to the tune of $379 million, but given the fever pitch of the marketing campaign, this was nothing short of a disappointment. The planned sequels were cancelled, and Toho immediately began production on a new Godzilla film, leaving this Godzilla to be nothing more than an ugly scar on the franchise.
So let's take a bite right in: the film opens with sepia-tone footage of French nuclear tests, coupled with shots of iguanas crawling around on a beach. The first sentence of the Wikipedia plot summary contains the following: "an iguana nest is exposed to the fallout of a military nuclear test." The movie hasn't even started yet and we're already at strike one: the confirmation that this Godzilla is an iguana, and not the kind of T-Rex, stegosaurus hybrid we've known Godzilla to be. Roland Emmerich has stated that he wanted this Godzilla to represent a giant animal and not a giant monster, which sort of defeats the purpose of the whole thing, but I digress. We then move on to a giant sea creature attacking and destroying a Japanese fishing vessel, about the closest this film ever comes to honoring the original 1954 Godzilla. It's perhaps the only time you can watch the film and be optimistic that things won't turn out so bad, but no, it's all downhill from here. The film introduces us to Dr Nick Tatopolous (Broderick), a scientist who is out in Chernobyl, studying the effects of radiation on worms. He is greeted by the U.S. State Department and is taken to Panama and Jamaica to help study giant footprints and the remains of the fishing vessel. Nick deduces that the footprints and the shipwreck are not from a dinosaur, but from some giant creature that was subjected to nuclear testing. That very giant creature soon surfaces in a rainy New York, and needless to say, he's quite the unwelcome visitor.
- Godzilla clocks in at a whopping (and inexplicable) 139 minutes, but I credit Roland Emmerich for this: he does find a way to inject some kind of entertainment value into the film and keep it from feeling as long as the run tie suggests. Now, don't get me wrong: this is not a type of entertainment that will slap a silly smile on your face and make you want to watch the film over and over again. The best way to describe how Godzilla is entertaining is rooted in morbid curiosity: this is a film that believes it's something awe-inspiring, something that will have people talking for years. The most famous giant monster of them all is coming to America, and he's stomping around none other than the Big Apple, truly a must-see. For at least the first 10-15 minutes, you buy into the notion that this Godzilla will be somewhat awe-inspiring, an honorable addition to the Godzilla library, and that it was not a mistake for Toho to entrust their beloved kaiju with a Hollywood studio. Then you see Matthew Broderick driving and singing to the tune of Singin' in the Rain, then you begin to notice the questionable acting and the lame dialogue. Finally, you see the hideous CGI creation that is Godzilla. By this point, you have already given up hope that Godzilla will be decent, but you can't shake the notion that you want to keep watching, not because you're amused by what you're seeing on screen, but because you're fascinated watching Godzilla continue to go through its delusion of grandeur with shameless, childlike zeal. It's a movie so infatuated by being the first American film titled Godzilla, that it doesn't care one iota how many technical blunders it suffers along the way. It's about cranking out some kind of an audio-visual product, all for the honor of slapping the title Godzilla on the poster when all is said and done. It's like the filmmakers knew deep down this was a bad movie, but instead of hanging their heads and feeling sorry for themselves, they were going to embrace this misfire like a badge of honor. Yeah, this movie is a piece of shit, but it's OUR piece of shit!
A quick sidenote: Something else that helps is that Godzilla never takes itself too seriously: a barrage of one-liners and goofy character interactions is evidence that the movie is at least having fun with itself. Certainly, the movie is in the spirit of what Emmerich likes to do with all his blockbuster sci-fi films: have fun with little to no regard towards facts and logic.
- It seems unfathomable to believe that this Godzilla could be any worse than the likes of Toho's worst, such as Godzilla's Revenge or Godzilla vs. Megalon. From a pure film-making standpoint, this Godzilla is, in all seriousness, above and beyond what those films had the audacity to churn out. That's still not saying much though, because Godzilla's special effects, specifically its CGI, is simply unacceptable. Godzilla himself is as shoddy as can be, especially during the early scenes that take place during the day. It's no wonder that Godzilla ends up appearing mostly at night, that way Emmerich and crew can better conceal their hideous CGI. As an added bonus, Godzilla runs away nearly every time he appears, like he's the world's shyest giant monster. There was no faith in the creation of this Godzilla, nor was there faith in the equally shoddy baby Godzillas that make up the film's third act. The entire sequence in Madison Square Garden is a complete ripoff of the velociraptors chasing the children scene(s) from Jurassic Park, and it all adds up as just a way for Emmerich to pad the run-time. Good special effects is the one thing you'd think this movie would get right, but no, Emmerich can't even provide that to us. Would you believe Terminator 2 came out almost ten years earlier?
- So the misrepresentation of Godzilla as an iguana is strike one. The awful special effects was actually strike three. Strike two against the film is its pitiful lineup of characters and the equally pitiful acting performances to go with them. I commend Matthew Broderick and find the guy to be a perfectly fine actor. I have no clue though what kind of preparation he did for this role. Broderick, while able to convey Tatopolous's charming nerdiness, is incapable of showing anything resembling fear, as if Tatopolous is experiencing fear for the first time in his life and doesn't know what short of facial expressions and tone of voice are supposed to go with fear. Jean Reno isn't even trying to hide how much he is not taking the movie seriously, while poor Maria Pitillo looks like she has little confidence in her performance and is getting by on the bare minimum. It's unfortunate Pitillo's career never amounted to anything more prominent than this movie. I think the right director and the right script would have given the chance to deliver a performance to prove she did have some talent. But anyway, there's nothing really to like about any of these characters. Emmerich even goes as far as to put in Mayor Ebert and Assistant Gene: obvious parodies of film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. I get that Emmerich was salty about the negative reviews Ebert and Siskel gave to some of his earlier films, but what I don't get is Emmerich not having the guts to have Godzilla squish these two like bugs. Emmerich was probably so despondent by the end of principal photography, that he no longer had the energy to do so. What a shame.
Kenpachiro Satsuma, the actor who played Godzilla during the Heisei series, walked out of a fan convention and gave a quote that I think perfectly summarizes the 1998 Godzilla and everything that's wrong with it: "It's not Godzilla. It doesn't have his spirit." This is not Godzilla we're watching; this is some giant, cowardly iguana creature that is so far off from everything Godzilla represents, it's best to think of this monster as one of he various names that fans have critics have dubbed the monster over the years: GINO, which stands for Godzilla In Name Only, or what Toho started to trademark the monster as: Zilla. I personally prefer Zilla, because I see it as a monster that thinks it's Godzilla but is unworthy of having "God" in its name.
All the signs were there from the start: the quick shooting schedule, the lack of test-screenings, and the reluctance of its director, co-writer Roland Emmerich. Was anyone that surprised that Godzilla was the disappointment it ended up being? While the entertainment value is there, Godzilla is heavily lacking in everything else: compelling characters, convincing special effects, and the spirit of the kaiju it's based on. It's a soulless film that believes it's something more special than it actually is, which is why you can at least watch it with morbid fascination. In the years since, Emmerich has stated he regrets taking the directorial role, and Dean Devlin admitted to he and Emmerich's script being the source for the film's failure. Failure is the only way this Godzilla will be remembered: a failure to bring Godzilla to American studios (until 2014 at least), a failure to honor what Toho spent the better part of 40 years on, and a failure to represent who Godzilla is and what he stands for. I will never consider it to be a part of the official Godzilla library, and based on the reactions of Emmerich, Devlin, and several of the actors over the years, they probably don't want to either. Godzilla In Name Only or Zilla, indeed.
Recommend? No. The only thing I can possibly recommend is if you're in the mood to watch a movie you can watch and make fun of for 2+ hours.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: