REVIEW: The Secret Life of Pets

11 07 2016

Universal Pictures’ Illumination Entertainment has been collecting plenty of money in the 2010s thanks to films like the “Despicable Me” series, but what is their identity? Prior to “The Secret Life of Pets,” the answer was unclear. Now, they might have found their answer.

Each prominent animation division has its strengths – Pixar’s is packaging adult themes into child-friendly tales; Disney Animation’s, charming with old-school fairy tale morality; DreamWorks’, creating parallel humor tracks for children and parents. Illumination feels well-positioned to capture a middle ground between all three, should they follow in the example of “The Secret Life of Pets.” And they definitely should.

The film feels like their “Toy Story” in many ways, and not just because the premise, story and characters feel so obviously indebted to Pixar’s debut feature. What that 1995 film did for toys in the chest, Illumination does for pets in the crate. Coming over twenty years later, their work might not feel nearly as ingenious, but it is still quite imaginative nonetheless.

Much like Woody was threatened by Andy bringing home Buzz, comfortable house dog Max (voice of Louis C.K.) feels endangered when his big-hearted owner rescues the lumbering stray Duke (voice of Eric Stonestreet) from the pound. Rather than finding a way to coexist, the two wind up lost and endangered. Only for these conflict-riddled canines, the environment they must navigate is not a nondescript suburban neighborhood. It’s the sprawling metropolis of New York City.

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REVIEW: Trumbo

30 11 2015

TrumboThe potential criminalization of thought. The stoking of Americans’ fear of immigrants. The incessant blabbering that the media is infecting the world with its supposed invective.

No, that’s not the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s the late 1940s and early 1950s as depicted by Jay Roach in his new film “Trumbo.” But certain similarities inevitably come to light, of course. Fortunately for the team behind this project (but unfortunately for the world), the aftermath of the Paris attacks that occurred just a week after its theatrical release have only made this history lesson all the more pressing to revisit.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Communists were merely self-respecting left-wingers just slightly more extreme than the average Democrat. But once the Cold War began and the Soviet Union was no longer an ally, Communism was the primary menace to the security of the United States. A number of activists, such as Bryan Cranston’s screenwriting whiz Dalton Trumbo, were left to answer for a militaristic ideology they never intend to espouse.

The film shows, in heartbreaking detail, just how quickly the red panic overtook the country and instituted a reign of terror headed by Congress’ HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee). Worse of all, Hollywood became complacent in imprisoning and exiling talents like Trumbo. These self-fashioned patriotic moralists, led by John Wayne (David James Elliott) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), drove the industry to create its notorious “blacklist” of known communists that could never be hired again.

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REVIEW: Blue Jasmine

12 08 2013

Woody Allen’s latest feature shows our most prolific filmmaker access a side of his writing seldom seen: dark and unsparingly grim tragedy.  I’ve seen all of his 48 films, and perhaps not since 1992’s “Husbands and Wives” has he taken such a bleak and hard-hitting look at the demons we battle and the struggles we face.  His “Blue Jasmine” is a modern “A Streetcar Named Desire” mixed in a cocktail with the Bernie Madoff scandal and washed down with a toxic mixture of alcohol and antidepressants.

It’s no stone-faced drama like “Match Point,” though.  There are still plenty of laughs to be had here, although they definitely don’t resemble the kind of humor you’d find in Allen’s early farces like “Bananas.”  Nor do they even take the shape of the clever wit of “Annie Hall” or even “Midnight in Paris.”  In “Blue Jasmine,” we chuckle as we cringe.  Almost all of our laughs are muffled as they come while we grit our teeth.

That’s because his protagonist, Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine (formerly Jeanette, but that name wasn’t exciting enough), is slowly charting her own way to another complete mental breakdown.  She suffered her first one after her husband’s vast fraudulent financial empire collapses, leaving her penniless to fend for herself in the world.  Lost and not placated by her Xanax, she journeys cross-country to San Francisco to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in the hopes of getting back on her feet.

But Jasmine quickly finds that she’s woefully underprepared to enter the workforce since she has no degree, dropping out of Boston University with a year left to marry Hal (Alec Baldwin).  Despite offers from Ginger’s circle of friends to help her find secretarial or wage labor, Jasmine remains defiant, unable to accept the reality that she is no longer among the privileged Park Avenue lot.  Her half-hearted effort to come to terms with her new social standing leads to clashes with her eventual employer, Michael Stuhlbarg’s genial dentist Dr. Flicker, and Ginger’s boyfriend, Bobby Cannavale’s unabashedly honest Chili.

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