The Secret Life of Pets, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Under the Sun, Blood Simple (reissue), Director’s Cut

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 3CR-Steve at the Movies-newPeople are being a little hard on this harmless little film about beloved and discarded house pets. Of course it’s derivative but a great deal of non-Pixar movies are. The idea of talking animals—wild or domesticated—isn’t exactly a new one, but this peek into the lives of pets and what they do when owners aren’t around is fairly entertaining, even if the life lessons are a little blurry. The film is aided greatly by the presence of three of its main actors: Louis C.K. plays Max, a dog belonging to Katie (Ellie Kemper), who spends a great deal of his day missing his owner while she’s at work and waiting patiently by the door for her to return. Jenny Slate (fresh from her turn in Zootopia) plays Gidget, a neighbor cat who has a crush on Max. Finally we have Kevin Hart, who may have found his calling as a voice actor, playing Snowball, a fluffy rabbit and leader of a band of abandoned pets, living in the sewer and plotting their revenge against humans. The drama in The Secret Lives of Pets begins when Katie gets a new dog, the giant, Chewbacca-like Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who threatens the owner-pet balance in the household, and Max is having none of it. The two are always trying to one-up each other in Katie’s eyes, and on more than one occasion, Max even goes so far as to try to arrange for Duke to go missing or simply leave the apartment on his own. In the process, the two end up getting caught by Animal Control and begin a journey to try and get home with the help of a whole lot of other animals. Borrowing heavily from the Toy Story films in particular—from the simple idea of owners remembering the value of a good pet to the more complex themes brought up during what is essentially an Island of Misfit Pets sequence in the sewers—Max and Duke are assaulted by a group of alley cats led by Ozone (Steve Coogan), aided by a hobbled older dog named Pops (Dana Carvey). They even get assistance via a critter-craving hawk, Tiberius (Albert Brooks, pulling double duty this month with his voice work in Finding Dory), who is recruited by Gidget in search of her lost love with the help of a few other animals, voiced by Hannibal Buress, Lake Bell and Bobby Moynihan. Co-directed by Chris Renaud (the Despicable Me films, The Lorax) and Yarrow Cheney (helming his first feature after being production designer on the Despicable Me movies), The Secret Lives of Pets turns a simple but interesting concept into just another crazed action film with a host of insane cast-off pets (including the near-feral Snowball, an alligator, snakes, a pig used by tattoo students, piranhas and dozens more) chasing the dogs across the boroughs of New York City. As mentioned before, one of the true highlights of the film is Hart’s manic and militant fluffy bunny. Animation suits Hart’s rapid-fire delivery and also edits his commentary down to just the funny stuff, rather than letting him ramble for minutes on end. And there is something so endearing about hearing Louis C.K. as the voice of a classic brand of man’s best friend. Max is a bit odd, as befits C.K.’s on-stage persona, but he’s charming and lovable as an animal, and he’s clearly thought about the slightly dopey mindset of a dog waiting for its owner. But the downside of his characterization is that it’s safe, as is most of The Secret Life of Pets. It’s also sometimes quite funny, which is a strong combination for a family-friendly movie, but a bit disappointing in an animation field that is thriving on daring ideas, both in terms of story and visual execution. There’s nothing especially striking about the animation itself, so it’s up to writers Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch to come up with big laughs that just aren’t quite there. I certainly thought there were a handful of smart and funny ideas floating around the film, but nothing that quite brought it all together. Even the way the “villain” of the piece is dealt with is a bit of a cop-out. Most everything in The Secret Life of Pets works to varying degrees; the problem is that very little of it excels beyond the expected. It’s clear a great deal of work went into producing what amounts to an above-average movie. I’m guessing devoted pet owners and youngsters will enjoy the film a great deal, and the rest of us, as in life, have to endure them. HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE As with his previous films, What We Do in the Shadows, writer-director Taika Waititi’s latest, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is about folks who live on the outskirts of life. Sometimes these people are just strange or quirky and have trouble seeing eye to eye with the mainstream; sometimes they’re vampires. But there is a unifying quality to Waititi’s works (which also include Eagle vs. Shark and the magnificent Boy, and will soon include Thor: Ragnarok) that helps those of us who grew up feeling different find kindred spirits on the screen. Although no less heartfelt, Wilderpeople is slightly different, since it features characters who desperately want to remain on the outside, off the radar, away from the prying eyes of the government, the internet, or any authority figure. Set in Waititi’s native New Zealand, the film begins with a child services worker dropping off young Ricky (Julian Dennison), who has yet to fit in with any other foster family, making this his last stop before he lands up in juvenile detention. Ricky is a sullen, rotund little lad with a stone face and healthy disrespect for everyone. His foster mother Bella (Rima Te Wiata, a famous Kiwi actress, who radiates unconditional kindness) embraces his arrival, while her husband Hec (Sam Neill, returning to his New Zealand roots) clearly doesn’t want the boy around at all in his isolated cabin in the mountains. But with Bella’s encouragement, even he finds qualities in the boy to appreciate, especially as Ricky allows Bella’s affection to win him over, and his tough exterior softens considerably. But tragedy strikes the somewhat off-the-grid household on the edge of the bush, putting this new family in a position where Ricky must return into the cold grasp of the child welfare system, something neither he nor Hec want, and as the government comes to take the boy away, Hec and Ricky head into the dense bush to hide, live in the wild, and become the fugitives they have been forced to become. This wonderfully lively work moves from a character study of these unconventional loners to a full-bore action movie, as the authorities call out the big guns, hunting parties, helicopters, freelance mercenaries—everything that the spirit of overreacting can rally. Based on the popular young adult Kiwi classic “Wild Pork and Watercress” by Barry Crump, Wilderpeople has added elements not in the source material—namely humor and action. These are gloriously brought in by Waititi, who weaves a subversive streak throughout the film. There’s a recurring gag that some of the bounty hunters assume Hec is a child molester, which explains why he’s kidnapped Ricky; oh, how you’ll laugh. But most of the pursuers are simply uncomfortable with anyone who isn’t fully on the grid. Anyone who wishes to remain isolated from the world can’t be trusted, in their eyes. For aficionados of classic New Zealand cinema, the director also drops a few clever nods to Smash Palace and Goodbye Pork Pie in the mix, making his celebration of all things Kiwi quite touching. Taking full advantage of some of the country’s stunning landscapes (yes, there are still a few that Peter Jackson didn’t include in his Lord of the Rings or Hobbit movies—although there is a great aerial shot that is clearly a LOTR reference), Waititi gives this fairly small-scale story an epic feel beyond the excessive action sequences. Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s primary concern is well-earned laughs (a very different sort than Waititi provided in What We Do in the Shadows, but nearly as funny) and a surprisingly moving tale of a makeshift family. Neill is extraordinary as the gruff, abrasive Hec who will grow on you like the thick beard he’s sporting. And I need to see young Dennison in more movies immediately; he’s not quite like any young actor I’ve seen before. The film is certainly more family friendly than some of the director’s other films, but fans of his freaky nature will still love this audacious gem of an adventure. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. UNDER THE SUN In one of the most fascinating and almost impossible to grasp experiences I’ve had watching a film in ages, the film Under the Sun is a real documentary about the making of a fake documentary for the government of North Korea. What’s even more difficult to wrap the brain around is that this work began as something sanctioned by the government of North Korea, which worked with Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky on what was meant to be a propaganda film about an adorable and party-loyal little girl named Lee Zin-mi and her perfect Communist parents (her father is actually a journalist, but for the purposes of this fictional storyline, he was turned into an engineer in charge of a garment factory). In title cards throughout the film, Mansky explains how the script for the film was provided by the North Koreans, who also supervised every aspect of shooting, from directing the non-actors to “smile,” “be more patriotic,” and generally be more joyful in their pretending. Although Mansky says the authorities looked at his footage and deleted what they didn’t like, it’s clear that he filmed around the action, capturing what was going on around the production, whether that meant capturing starving children rummaging through garbage cans between takes, propaganda ministers losing their patience with performers who couldn’t remember their lines or stage directions, or even seeing lead “actress” Zin-mi break down in tears as a dance instructor is berating her for not being perfect in preparation for a big celebration in honor of the late Kim Jong-il's birthday. It’s my understanding that Mansky was able to take and assemble his footage back in Russia, which is probably a decision the North Koreans regret deeply, but the resulting film is a staggering peek behind a curtain of lies. The shots taken by both Zin-mi’s elementary school teacher and a Korean War veteran against the United States are the least troubling things about what is revealed in Under the Sun. The effort put into staging the perfect classroom, factory, apartment (the family’s dwelling does not actually belong to them), hospital, recital or entire street scene is remarkable, and you can’t help but wonder if the North Koreans spent as much time building these things for real, they might not have to go to such lengths and pain to try to convince their own people the country is in good shape. Mansky has wisely kept the sanitized elements of the propaganda film within his movie, making it all the more easy to compare the facade to reality. You can almost feel the camera stray from the approved shot to the grim truth existing at the edges of the frame. A little girl struggling to stay awake during a lecture, the faces of supposedly happy factory workers in between takes with their smiles dropped, adding 15-20 years to their faces. Shot around Pyongyang, Under the Sun is not a glimpse of the real North Korea. For all his stolen shots, Mansky was not allowed to roam the country unescorted and shoot whatever he wanted. Instead what we are privy to is a look at how a country manufactures its own image. Each character and location in this film is hand selected to represent an ideal. The storyline about Zin-mi being the best student and a proud member of the Children’s Union is fiction. And the messages about the triumphs of previous North Korean leaders, the immense productivity of the nation’s factories, and the state of its supposed military superiority are jaw-droppingly warped. In the end, Under the Sun becomes a love letter to a misled people. It’s not difficult to understand wanting to be proud of your country, but to do so in the face of such blatant attempts to manipulate the truth ends up feeling sad and confusing. The face of North Korea slowly transforms from a bouncy, smiling little girl to the tear-stained face of an exhausted puppet, and it’s not an easy thing to watch. But it’s impossible to stop watching the resulting film, and you should seek this one out immediately. The film opens today at Facets Cinémathèque. BLOOD SIMPLE (reissue) If you haven’t seen Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film Blood Simple and I still need to convince you to see it, then you might be a lost cause. It was one of the films that kickstarted a modern era in film noir (which I trace back to 1981’s Body Heat), traces of which can still be spotted today. It’s a classic example of a suspense film in which the audience are the only “characters” who know everything that’s going on, making us feel smarter in the process and the other characters seem just a little bit dim, which is a part of the Coens’ great sense of pitch-black humor. Every frame of the film feels dusty and sweaty and dirty. The blood is just as often caked on as it is actively dripping. And every decision and move toward self-preservation is the wrong move and leads to more trouble. Blood Simple not only introduced us to the Coen brothers, but it birthed the career of Frances McDormand as the untrustworthy Abby, unhappily married to bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya, the great character actor, elevated to slimy villain) but sleeping with Ray (John Getz), with dreams of running away together from their end-of-the-road Texas life. Julian has hired a private detective (M. Emmet Walsh), who isn’t above being paid to murder someone, to spy on his wife and confirm the affair. And within a matter of hours, these four lives are ruined and/or ended forever. Director of photography Barry Sonnenfeld (lensing his first feature) adds to the underlying humor of the film with camera work that brings a strangely fluid look to the film. There’s a sinister score by Carter Burwell and a sparing but smart use of songs, especially a particular one by The Four Tops, that all adds up to one of the most assured debuts in recent memory, certainly of that era. In advance of a home video release in September courtesy Criterion Collection, Blood Simple is being presented in a stunning 4K digital restoration, which almost makes it look too clean. I have a vivid memory of seeing this when it was released in 1985, and the scratched-up film stock only added to the worn-in look of the entire piece. Still, any chance to see this one (or any Coen brothers film shot on film) on the big screen should not be passed up, and this remains one of their finest and most precisely realized works. The film opens today for select showings at the Music Box Theatre. To celebrate the new 4K digital restoration of Blood Simple, the Music Box is presenting a sampling of films from the directors’ idiosyncratic filmography throughout the week. In addition to Blood Simple, additional Coen Brothers screenings will include Barton Fink, Fargo (in 35mm), Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Man Who Wasn’t There. The screening schedule for the retrospective can be found at the Music Box Theatre site. DIRECTOR'S CUT I genuinely have no idea what to make of this one. One the one hand, Director’s Cut is a great idea, and exactly the kind of cinematic misdirection you’d expect from writer Penn Jillette, who also produces and stars in the film (his magic show partner Teller also has a truly disturbing cameo). What we are watching is tough to explain, but fairly easy to follow. What we’re supposedly watching is a movie called Knocked Off, a run-of-the-mill suspense story starring Missi Pyle, Hayes MacArthur, and Harry Hamlin as an FBI agent and two cops investigation a serial killer who copies famous murders of the past. Sounds simple enough, except that we’re actually watching the DVD of Knocked Off as re-edited by an obsessed movie lover and Missi Pyle stalker named Herbert Blount (Jillette), who is also doing the director’s commentary track, since he now insists that the film we’re about to watch was pieced together by him with additional footage he shot. The actual “director” of the fake, crowd-funded Knocked Off is also the director of the real film, Director’s Cut, Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City, Look), and he’s seen in the movie inside a movie working with actors and warding off Blount, who donated a ton of money to be on set and even gets a line in the film. Part of Blount’s fulfillment is that he’s allowed to film behind the scenes, which gives him access to Pyle, and he uses a great deal of these stolen moments as scenes for his version of Knocked Off (which we’re watching), which he clearly thinks is a lame, unrealistic film that demands he go in and insert himself as Pyle’s love interest and co-investigator. At its core, Director’s Cut is a horror film and Blount is clearly a threatening, if not quite outright dangerous, presence. He resents that Pyle’s character starts to fall in love with Hamlin’s silver-fox Godfrey Winters, and ends up kidnapping her during filming to shoot new scenes with her until extreme duress. I won’t lie, it feels strange laughing at this scenario, but it’s not really any stranger to watch a film in which the lead character thinks that Missi Pyle is the greatest actress on the face of the earth. To her credit, she seems willing to endure every indignity that is thrown at her in both versions of this movie. Director’s Cut’s biggest flaw is Jillette’s portrayal of Blount, whom he plays as a long-haired, curly-headed clown in shiny, colorful suits and a big goofy grin. I’m assuming at some point during the unfolding of this story that we’re supposed to go from finding Herbert amusing and goofy to discovering that he’s a genuine threat, but Jillette is trying so hard to make the character weird that the transition never quite happens, and he just becomes annoying rather than dangerous. Ironically, there’s a cameo by Teller as a possible suspect in the Knocked Off killings that would have been far more effective as Blount, but maybe the point is Blount seems like the least likely dangerous fan. The way Director’s Cut folds over and around itself is mildly amusing and fun, and as a statement is astute about fan culture and the way fans feel they now have a say in film or television content. But turning the story into a full-on comedy (disturbing as it may be) underscores just how dull Jillette and Rifkin’s knives are. Going for the jugular would have been a far sharper approach. The film opens today for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Director Adam Rifkin will be present today for the 8:15pm screening for an audience Q&A.
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.