THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2: 2 ½ STARS
You get three stories for the price of one in the 100 per cent Louis C.K.-free "The Secret Life of Pets 2." The episodic sequel to the 2016 animated hit frontloads a lot of plot into its snappy 87 minutes but doesn't forget to blend in life messages for kids on finding inner courage. "The first step in not being afraid," says wily old sheepdog Rooster (Harrison Ford), "is acting like you are not afraid."
Jack Russell Terrier Max, previously voiced by CK, now sounds like Patton Oswalt. He and his odd couple pal, the shaggy Newfoundland mix Duke (Eric Stonestreet), now must share their Brooklyn home with a new roommate, their owner's (Ellie Kemper) new baby Liam. The toddler's presence raises Max's anxiety level— "He is perfect," Max says fretfully, "and I will keep him safe."—until the family takes a trip to the country and he meets Rooster, a Yoda-like character who teaches him to be himself and not be an overprotective helicopter parent for Liam.
Meanwhile Max's girlfriend, a vivacious Pomeranian named Gidget (Jenny Slate), must take lessons in how to act like a tabby from her catnip-loving feline friend Chloe (Lake Bell) to rescue Max's favorite squeaky toy from an apartment overrun by cats.
Then, when Molly (Kiely Renaud) starts dressing bunny and former flushed pet Snowball (Kevin Hart) in cute superhero pajamas he believes the hype and behaves like a movie crime fighter. His skills are tested when a brave Shih Tzu named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) asks him to assist on a dangerous mission. "I don't mean to sound dramatic," she says, "but a poor defenseless animal needs saving."
Themes of inner courage and facing fears are woven through each story and come together the last 20 minutes or so as the pets all join forces.
The Gidget and Snowball storylines have the kind of playfulness you expect from Illumination, the company that gave us the anarchic jellybean-shaped Minions. Max's life-altering adventures on the farm, which take up a great deal of the scant running time, feels borrowed from other, better kid-friendly fare like the "Toy Story" franchise.
The voice work is a mixed bag. Ford is a howl as the gruff old timer who imparts life-changing advice. If they do another of these "Pets" movies he should graduate to main character status. Slate is a hyperactive bundle of energy and Hart and Haddish are a fun duo that add much spark to their segment. Oswalt, so distinctive in "Ratatouille," doesn't teach Max any new tricks.
"The Secret Life of Pets 2" feels like three episodes of a "Pets" television show banged together to (almost) feature length. Pet lovers may recognize and enjoy some of the behavior—a cat coughing up a hairball on her sleeping owner and the protective nature of Max and Rooster—but it won't beat spending the day with your real-life, cuddly pet.
X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX: 2 STARS
The X-Men have a rich and textured history but almost none is more complicated than Jean Grey, the mutant played by "Game of Thrones" star Sophie Turner in this weekend's "Dark Phoenix."
A human with the superpower of telepathy, she's an empath and, for good and for evil, is also the physical manifestation of the cosmic Phoenix Force, "the spark that gave life to the Universe, the flame that will ultimately consume it." Over the years she has been included on Top 100 Comic Book Heroes and Comic Book Villains lists and been killed off several times.
The action in "Dark Phoenix" begins with the X-Men team heralded as heroes by the public who once feared them. Professor X (James McAvoy) is a celebrity, featured on magazines, getting medals from the president. He sees their do-good work as a way to keep them safe. "It's a means to an," he says, "We are just one bad day away from them starting to see us as the enemy again."
When a group of astronauts find themselves in trouble Prof. X sends Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Grey and others to space on a daring rescue mission. During the operation Grey is hit by "pure and unimaginably powerful cosmic waves" that will eventually transmute her into the Dark Phoenix, a malevolent force with the potential to tear the world apart. The core of good inside Grey battles for supremacy until repressed pain and anger push her to the dark side. "You're special, Jean," says shapeshifting energy sponge Smith (Jessica Chastain), "and if you stop fighting that force inside you, if you embrace it, you will possess the very power of a god."
The X-Men crew have always been concerned with the greater good, doing what is best for the masses, but what happens when one of their own turns bad and needs to be stopped? That's the question at the heart of "Dark Phoenix." "When I lose control," Grey says, "bad things happen to the people I love."
At their best the "X-Men" movies are an ode to outsiders. Ripe with metaphor and nuance, they look at how society treats marginalized people. They also find the humanity in their outsider characters. Whether they have blue fur or can bend metal with their mind, their greatest superpowers are always qualities like forgiveness and loyalty.
Progressive ideas about acceptance are still at the heart of "Dark Phoenix" but all the nuance is consumed in a cosmic bonfire of CGI flames and the messaging is delivered with a mallet. "They can never understand you! What they can't understand they fear and what they fear they seek to destroy!"
The film's biggest (and only intentional laugh) comes with a good and timely line courtesy of Jennifer Lawrence. "The women are always saving the men around here," says a huffy Mystique to Professor X. "You might want to think about changing the name to X-Women."
Despite the pyro on display "Dark Phoenix" doesn't catch fire. The tone is flat, passionless even as a hectic CGI-A-Thon of eye blistering action eats up much of the last reel. (MILD SPOILER AHEAD) Long-time fans may get a lump in their throats as one classic character makes their farewell but as Grey says, "emotions don't make you weak, they make you strong." Whether you'll feel stronger or not after the end credits roll will depend on how much attached you are to the X-Men characters. If you're not already a fan this lackluster movie is unlikely to convert you.
MOUTHPIECE: 4 STARS
A meta study of grief and self-expression, "Mouthpiece" takes a novel approach to one woman, played by two actresses, Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava, and her reaction to the death of her mother Elaine (Maev Beaty). "Grief can manifest itself in unexpected ways," says a mortician, a line that is as good a tag line as any for this engaging film.
Adapted from Nostbakken and Sadava's play of the same name, the film essays the 48-hour period in which Cassandra takes care of the business of death, choosing flowers, picking out her mother's dress for burial and informing friends and family while dealing with the sting of loss. Despite her family's objections she wants to do the eulogy but struggles to come to grips with her mother's legacy. Was she a "rock star; a woman who didn't need a man to get through life" or "a doormat who laid out for people to walk all over?" Did Elaine sacrifice a promising career as a writer in favour of her family, the patriarchy or did she just give up?
Cassandra's journey includes musical numbers, flashbacks, dark comedy and despite the experimental framing device—two people simultaneously playing one character—a very grounded feeling of connectedness between the Casandri. Nostbakken and Sadava do not play twins, imaginary friends or flip sides of the same coin; they are Casandra's internal and external psychological conflicts made physical. It creates a tension that constantly questions the complexities of the situations and the attendant emotions.
Director Patricia Rozema opens up the play, allowing the characters to roam the streets of Toronto and perform production numbers without losing the intimate power of the story. Interesting visual style from cinematographer Catherine Lutes cleverly emphasizes the connected quality of the characters.
"Mouthpiece" is unconventional but does something important. From the a cappella score by the two leads to the sparkling dialogue, it gives voice to its female creators, presenting the story from a contemporary point of view while ignoring stereotypes. It's a personal film that embraces all aspects of its humanity, from vulnerability and strength and everything in between.
ECHO IN THE CANYON: 3 ½ STARS
Laurel Canyon, a nexus of 60s counterculture located in the Hollywood Hills, was home to a generation of singer-songwriters who shaped the music that dominated the baby boomer heyday of commercial radio. "It was the one place you could live that was the antithesis of the plastic straight world you saw on television," says longtime resident Jackson Browne. "It was always a hangout for bohemians," says Mamas and Papas singer Michele Phillips and now it is the subject of an entertaining documentary, "Echo in the Canyon."
The movie's framework comes from a 2015 tribute concert featuring songs made famous by Laurel Canyon acts like Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas and the Beach Boys. "The music that came out of the Laurel Canyon scene in the 60's was not only inspiring to other bands at that time," says Jakob Dylan, "but also became inspiring to my generation. Tonight is an opportunity, like folk music, to pass it on to a new generation and keep the echoes of that music going."
Between live performances from artists like Beck, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor and Norah Jones, Dylan interviews a who's who of California Sound-era superstars like David Crosby and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield's Stephen Stills, Michelle Phillips, producer Lou Adler and Brian Wilson, about whom Tom Petty, in his last filmed interview, says, "I don't see anything in Mozart that is better than Brian Wilson." Other accounts of those times come from John Sebastian and Eric Clapton.
They often say if you can remember the 60s you weren't really there, but the talking heads here seem to have no trouble recalling the details of the Canyon's early days. Adler remembers exactly where the musicians sat during the Mamas and the Papas's first recording session and Ringo Starr says the Byrds turned the Beatles on to a "hallucinogenic situation" when they first met. A mix of contemporary sounds and nostalgia, it paints an apolitical (you would never know that Vietnam was raging during the time documented) picture of a creative collaboration that saw artists competing with one another to expand the limits of what rock music could be. "You can listen to the records," says Stephen Stills, "and you can hear the cross-pollination."
Ultimately this isn't a history of a generation but an enjoyable look at a brief period that still echoes in the imaginations and ears of many fans. "These records came like an avalanche," Beck says of LPs like "Pet Sounds," "and there was nothing like them before."
FRAMING JOHN DELOREAN: 3 ½ STARS
"Framing John DeLorean," the new hybrid documentary of the business life on the "Back to the Future" car creator, is a strange movie. Part traditional doc, complete with talking heads, archival photographs and even some FBI sting footage, it is also part docu-drama, featuring recreations with actor Alec Baldwin as DeLorean. Weirder still, Baldwin, all busy eyebrows and grey hair, offers up backstage observations on playing DeLorean. The carman was a bold character and portraying him on screen requires taking chances; most surprising of all is that it all works rather seamlessly.
It's an interesting, ambiguously meta take on a man who was a bit of a hybrid himself. Part genius, part criminal, he was a person whose vision for reinvention extended from the futuristic car he designed to enhancing his own chin with plastic surgery to present the image he had of himself to the world, face first.
Directors and co-writers Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce provide the necessary background; how, at General Motors he spearheaded the creation of the GTO, Firebird, and Grand Prix, how he was a devoted father and how, as CEO of the DeLorean Motor Company, he revolutionized the car industry with his stainless steel sports cars and gave a massive shot in the arm to Northern Ireland's economy during the Troubles. They also detail the sordid side, the FBI videotaped sting and arrest for trafficking cocaine, Phil Donahue's public excoriation of the man and his business practices, a divorce and marriage to a much younger woman and bankruptcy.
The resulting portrait is layered look at an unknowable man. Archival footage reveals a person with plenty of bluster and hubris, someone whose grandiose ideas required extraordinary measures to come to fruition. Baldwin, under an inch of exaggerated prosthetic make-up, tries to contextualize DeLorean's thought processes by applying an actor's process to his subject's thinking, but it is conjecture, not fact. Interesting conjecture, but conjecture all the same and not exactly the stuff of true documentary. More compelling are DeLorean's daughter Kathryn and son Zach who lend open a honest analysis of their father. Zach even colourfully describes his father's life as a Hollywood movie. "It's got cocaine," he says. "It's got ‘bleeping' hot chicks. It's got sports cars, ‘bleeping' Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The war on drugs. You got FBI agents and you got ‘bleeping' hardcore drug dealers."
"Framing John DeLorean" is a compellingly told story of a complex man, an Icarus, that asks but never answers the question at the core of DeLorean's myth: Was he a cutthroat criminal or innovative genius or both? Instead it provides fodder for further exploration on the man and his methods.