‘Pets’ Sequel a Slam Dunk; ‘All Is True’ a Fine Indie by Branagh; ‘Dark Phoenix’ a Solid Addition to the X-Men Corpus

By BILL GEIGER | Jun 26, 2019

Happy summer! The solstice occurred last Friday, the 21st, so it’s finally, officially, the summer of 2019. By June 21 I’ve screened slightly more than a whole month of “summer” films.

Anyway, we have three films this week to discuss, two of the “seasonal” variety and one indie, which as you know I try to pepper throughout the season to leaven the hardcore action/adventure films. “Dark Phoenix” and “The Secret Life of Pets 2” are the hardcore ones, and “All Is True” is the indie.

As a feel-good film, “The Secret Life of Pets 2” gets two dewclaws up! There’s action, there’s friendship, there’s “luuvvve,” and best of all, there are very cute pets, all thrown together to give moviegoers a very good time. And they deliver. For action, there are actually three plots, which intertwine nicely as the film reaches its third reel.

For friendship, main dog Max (voiced by Patton Oswalt) and his friend Duke (Eric Stonestreet) share a home with their owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper), who, to the surprise of both dogs, finds love and marriage with Chuck (Pete Holmes). This throws off the human-to-dog ratio for a while, but even more so when Katie and Chuck have a baby, little Liam (Henry Lynch).

Through the eyes of Max, this new wrinkle in the family dynamic presents some serious problems. The affection of Katie and Chuck now focuses on Liam, and the dogs feel excluded, especially Max, who was the first dog Katie had. Max and Duke were distant with Liam until the little guy started showing affection toward them, and they melted and welcomed Liam into their canine circle.

So all is well, and the new family, three people and two dogs, decide to go on a vacation to a farm in the country. This is the first plot. Plot 2 involves Gidget (Jenny Slate), to whom Max has entrusted his favorite toy, Busy Bee, for Gidget to guard 24/7. Gidget secretly loves Max (that’s the aforementioned “luuvvve”) and has a comical fantasy about marrying him. However, she has something of a problem she needs to settle before she sees the love of her life again.

No sooner does she get Busy Bee from Max than she loses it, watching it bounce down the fire escape of the apartment she shares with her human and into the open window of the Crazy Cat Lady. This lady has on the order of about 100 cats living in her apartment, and, like a group of humans, for example, there are smart cats and dumb cats, tall cats and short cats, nervous cats and steady cats, inquisitive cats and indifferent ones. And all of them like Busy Bee.

So Gidget goes to the local cat expert Chloe (Lake Bell), who condescends enough to teach Gidget how to be a cat so she can raid the Crazy Cat Lady’s apartment and get back Busy Bee. Mel the pug (Bobby Moynihan) and Buddy the dachshund (Hannibal Buress) also put on cat costumes, but this ploy is unmistakably Gidget’s. Still, it’s good to see Mel and Buddy in the film, even if they don’t have much to do. Mel’s main action is to rummage through a litterbox and produce some treats that he eats. Everyone in the room looks on in abject horror.

Back to the first plot ­– when the new family and the two canines travel upstate to the farm to see Uncle Jeff and spend some time in the wide-open spaces. Not accustomed to farm life, Duke and Max have to sleep outside. Before they do, they run into Rooster (Harrison Ford), the farm dog, who sees Max wearing a cone to help alleviate his nervous scratching, and immediately pulls it off him. “There, you’re cured,” he tells Max. Max accidentally opens the sheep pen, one baby sheep runs off, and Max must summon all his courage to retrieve the little sheep. He does so, and earns Rooster’s admiration.

Good thing, too, since Max has to come to the rescue of Snowball (Kevin Hart) et al. in plot 3.

In this plot, sinister circus manager Sergei (Nick Kroll) has acquired a rare white tiger cub for his circus and is using abusive tactics to train him. Daisy and Snowball find the circus, but have to elude Sergei’s four attack wolves, which they do, and eventually free the white tiger, Hu. But the evil Sergei is not far off, forcing Snowball and Daisy to transfer Hu to various places, eventually landing in Max’s apartment. This is how Max gets involved with rescuing Hu, and the film begins to tie all things together.

While not an intellectual dynamo, many of the funny bits in “Pets 2” are for older viewers. Parents who go with their kids, especially if they have dogs or cats, will like this film. Director Chris Renaud, with co-director Jonathan del Val, pace the animation well, and the visual jokes are often as funny as the spoken ones, especially in the Crazy Cat Lady’s apartment. And Harrison Ford is a gas as Rooster.

I’m wondering, if one of the Cat Lady’s cats decides she likes Hu, will she plan at some point to woo Hu?

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Kenneth Branagh does a remarkable job tracing the final three years of Shakespeare’s life in “All Is True,” a small film written, directed by and starring Branagh as William Shakespeare. Truth be told, I didn’t know it was Branagh playing the Bard. I waited till after the film when I could see the cast list scroll up the screen.

He’s that good, Branagh is. The film begins with the great fire in the Globe Theater in 1613, when a cannon misfired during a production of “Henry V.” This fire burnt the Globe to the ground, and sends the Bard home to his wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), and his daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder), in Stratford. Home is a place Will Shakespeare knew very little of, choosing to spend most of his time in London, where he wrote his plays.

Several years before this, his young son Hamnet (Sam Ellis) had died. Anne claimed it was the plague that killed him, but Will never had much chance to mourn his loss. He plans to plant a garden in Hamnet’s memory, but first he must clear away many of the weeds. The plot of ground he chooses is loaded with weeds.

If that sounds like a metaphor, it is, and the film is full of them. Will made many mistakes in his private life, and he hopes in the time he has left to rectify some of them. He hopes to help daughter Judith marry and privately hopes his other daughter Susanna (Lydia Wilson) can extricate herself from a loveless marriage.

Branagh frames his film with many wonderful shots of the beautiful countryside surrounding his home. In fact, the film is replete with nature’s bounty. Even the interior shots are painstakingly composed, where candles are the only source of light, and the characters have very little to do after they eat, for example, so they sit around looking at each other. This is not all the time, mind you, but it happens frequently enough that Branagh wants us to know how the people lived in England in the early 17th century.

All the players are skilled and do an excellent job. Of particular note are Branagh, Dench, Ian McKellen as Henry Wriothesley, an earl who pays Will a visit, and Gerard Horan, who plays Ben Jonson, a playwright plying his craft contemporaneous with Shakespeare. This is a fine indie film, and tells the last few years of probably the most important writer in the English language.

And more important, as we hear many times in the film, “All Is True.”

*   *   *

A fitting possible finish to the X-Men franchise, “Dark Phoenix,” tells the tale of Jean Gray, previously the only mutant to have just a regular name, and not a mutant moniker like Beast, or Cyclops, or Storm. She gets one in “Dark Phoenix,” however, and those who remember Greek mythology know the Phoenix burns up when consumed by fire, but then rises from the ashes.

So Jean Gray is now Phoenix, but she strays from the X-Men tenets because she is more powerful than any of them. With her new status and the danger she poses, she’s now the Dark Phoenix, ostracized from the other mutants.

Her particular story begins when the mutants are called upon by the U.S. government to rescue a crew of space shuttle astronauts who were stranded when a rogue energy wave disrupted their work and left them floating and stranded in space.

Those who believe we are not alone in the universe will buy into this story: a group of aliens, largely malevolent, are tracking this energy wave and looking for ways to assume its power. The mutants arrive just as the aliens are about to move in and rescue the stranded astronauts from the broken shuttle, but Jean is still in the shuttle when the wave washes over the craft, and she absorbs massive amounts of solar radiation.

She seems OK at first, but a few of the mutants, Hank (Nicholas Hoult), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Scott (Ty Sheridan) are the closest to Jean, and they watch as she begins to show signs of transformation.

Add to this the fact that those aliens from the energy wave in space are looking for Jean on Earth and have taken over the body of a suburban homemaker (Jessica Chastain) who now goes by the name of Vuk. They had seen what happened to Jean when the wave washed over her and felt that she could give them access to unlimited power by using the energy within her body.

Jean has mixed feelings, and her newfound power is likewise messing her up, but it is sharpening her memory because she sees things in her “energized” state. This activity puts her at odds with Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), the head of the Mutant Academy, who took her in when she was a little girl because her father was unable to handle her after she caused a serious car accident that killed her mother.

Her father lived, but Charles told Jean he died, as per his wishes, and when she finds this out, she is very angry. She goes to visit him, but the meeting does not go well, and when the X-Men come to find her, they begin to see the extent and destructiveness of her power.

The government sees this, too, and where before the relationship of the mutants and their academy and the feds was cordial, that changes in a hurry. Charles, now the pariah among the mutants for the lie he told Jean, tries to patch things up, to no avail. Even Erik (Michael Fassbender), a.k.a. Magneto, realizes things are changing and is willing to help the mutants fight the aliens.

The final third of the film features the mutants fighting the authorities in New York. The authorities want to shut the mutant academy down and remove all the mutants while the aliens are looking to convert Jean into an energy machine for their purposes. The film’s excitement level is high, and director Simon Kinberg keeps the moviegoer guessing as to who will prevail. After all, the aliens are pretty formidable, too.

“Dark Phoenix,” as the title suggests, is not the end of the X-Men saga, but a film that explores an individual mutant’s reaction to deceit, trickery and newfound powers. It’s a solid addition to the X-Men corpus, and should give moviegoers and even fan boys a good run for their money. It looks like Jean Gray has indeed risen from the ashes.



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