Category Archives: Now Showing

THE SOUVENIR

Producer: Luke Schiller and Joanna Hogg
Director: Joanna Hogg
Writer: Joanna Hogg
Stars: Honor Swinton-Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton, Richard Ayoade, Jack McMullen, Frankie Wilson, Ariane Labed, Jaygann Ayeh, Janet Etuk, Hannah Ashby Ward, Chyna Terrelonge-Vaughan and Jack W. Gregory
Studio: A24 Films

B+

How many times have you thought, when hearing about a woman whose boyfriend had harmed her (or her children): Whatever did she see in him? That’s the question you might be asking as you watch “The Souvenir,” Joanna Hogg’s film about Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne), a film student in eighties England who takes up with Anthony (Tom Burke), a smug know-it-all who’s obviously a phony, and remains devoted to him despite behavior that’s increasingly erratic and dangerous.

Hogg doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer to the question, but the picture is nonetheless fascinating simply because it is so rigorously autobiographical. (Rebecca Mead’s recent New Yorker profile of the writer-director shows that in remarkable detail.) The grounding in fact, or at least in Hogg’s perspective on her own past and almost oppressive need to examine and share it, gives the film a peculiar but compelling subtext. Of course, it helps that “The Souvenir” is not just an engrossing memory-play, but a powerful drama about a modern Svengali.

Julie is introduced as a well-to-do film student who proposes for her graduation project a painfully earnest drama set in the crumbling working-class city of Sunderland. Her teachers—who seem to have doubts about her as well as the idea—are fairly dismissive, but allow that as she seems to have the necessary resources, she might as well proceed.

So she does, but not before meeting Anthony at a party. Presenting himself as a Foreign Office officer, he appears impressive in his fitted suit with a cigarette held casually in his fingers as he opines disdainfully on all sorts of issues. Suddenly, inevitably, they are a couple, and he has moved into her nicely-appointed flat. And despite the fact that she is apparently paying for everything—including the meals we see them share in posh restaurants—her parents are accepting of him.

For the most part her friends are as well, though one of them (Richard Ayoade) is blunt enough to express bewilderment about their relationship over dinner one night.

Yet they remain together, despite the fact that it becomes obvious that Anthony isn’t merely a parasite, but an addict who will resort to stealing from Julie to meet his needs. Even after he stages a burglary of the apartment, she goes off with him on a vacation to Venice. And she remains committed even when he falls completely apart and her mother (Tilda Swinton) must comfort her as they await word of what’s happened to him.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Hogg makes us understand the need that Anthony fulfills for Julie; it would be more correct to say that in making the film, she is grappling with her own past, and inviting us along to observe her struggle. What’s clear is that she has been successful in persuading her colleagues to join her search. She uses Swinton-Byrne’s natural unsteadiness to mirror her own youthful vulnerability, and elicits a performance from Burke that is a model of smarmy duplicity masked by utter self-confidence. Swinton seconds her own daughter beautifully, eschewing the artificiality that makes so many of her turns so engagingly odd to capture the sense of clueless support that characterizes the buttoned-up, dithering Rosalind. The supporting cast members show themselves committed to Hogg’s vision as well.

So do the craft contributors, from production designer Stephane Collonge and costumer Grace Snell, who worked to recreate not merely a convincing 1980s look but the particulars of Hogg’s environment, to cinematographer David Raedeker, whose visuals cunningly mix clarity with the haziness of recollection. One must also note the cunning selection of background songs, each of which is chosen to comment on the action quite directly,

The title of Hogg’s film comes from Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting, to which Anthony introduces Julie. It encapsulates the themes of skewered mentorship and painful memory that the writer-director is attempting to convey, and largely succeeds in doing.

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2

Producer: Chris Meledandri and Janet Healy
Director: Chris Renaud and Jonathan Del Val
Writer: Brian Lynch
Stars: Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Tiffany Haddish, Lake Bell, Nick Kroll, Ellie Kemper, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Dana Carvey, Chris Renaud and Harrison Ford
Studio: Universal Pictures

C+

The first “Secret Life of Pets” was so successful—and, frankly, amusing—that a sequel was inevitable, and here it is. And as usual, it’s not nearly as good.

One can applaud scripter Brian Lynch’s decision to return to what was really the theme of the first picture—the need to adapt to new circumstances—an idea that kids can learn from. Back in 2016, it was the difficulty that Jack Russell terrier Max (then voiced by the now-disgraced Louis C.K.) had in coping with the arrival of a second dog, big, slobbering Duke (Eric Stonestreet), in the household. Now they’re pals, but are confronted with an even bigger challenge—coming to terms with the presence of their owner’s first child, who becomes the center of the family universe.

It doesn’t take long for Max (now voiced by Patton Oswald) to fall in love with little Liam and grow so protective of the tyke that he becomes obsessive to the point of scratching himself to a frenzy. That’s resolved when he and the family take a trip to a relative’s farm, where a gruff old Welsh Sheepdog named Rooster (Harrison Ford, who easily steals the show) teaches him to overcome his fears and face them with the courage of which he’s capable. Lesson learned, by Max and, perhaps, his young audience.

This thread of “Pets 2” has quite a few laughs, courtesy not only of Max and Duke but Rooster and a gaggle of other animals Max encounters there—a goofy cow, a stalker turkey, a naïve lamb called Cotton.

Unhappy, Lynch apparently concluded that there wasn’t enough material in it to serve as the basis for an entire feature—or opportunities for the other characters from the first movie, particularly Kevin Hart’s hyper rabbit Snowball, to get in on the action. So he has turned his screenplay into a sort of animated triptych, with two other story threads added to the mix.

One centers on Snowball, of course, who’s now a happy pet, but still with delusions of grandeur. He dresses up as a superhero and looks for animals to save. Enter Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a garrulous Shih Tzu. She enlists his help in rescuing a tiger cub called Hu from the cage he’s kept in by vicious circus owner Sergei (Nick Kroll), who wants the beast to perform dangerous tricks. The new duo’s efforts put them in the sights of Sergei’s nasty wolves and sinister monkey, but also draw disabled old basset hound Pops (Dana Carvey) and his brood of pups into the action.

While the frenetic Snowball-Daisy arc rushes on, a third periodically intervenes. It centers on perky Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate), whom Max entrusts with his favorite toy—a squeeze ball called Busy Bee, when he leaves for the farm. Naturally she loses it, and tracks it to the apartment of the local cat lady. In order to infiltrate the place and retrieve it, she has to ask oversized, happily inactive feline Chloe (Lake Bell) to instruct her how to be catlike. Other friends, like pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan), dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Buress) and guinea pig Norman (Chris Renaud) are called on to help, too.

Throughout, the Illumination Studio animation is fine, and the voice work is uniformly excellent (although Hart, as usual, goes way big; by contrast Haddish is more restrained than she is in many of her live-action performances—though to be sure that’s a backhanded compliment). The incessantly busy, jazzy background score by Alexandre Desplat is a positive element as well, adding plenty of aural dash to the visuals.

But the movie suffers from its scattershot approach, jumping from one of the three story threads to another without ever managing to integrate them satisfactorily, though it tries to do so in the end and each has its moments—the Max section the best (a sequence set in the office of a therapist-vet is a gem), with the cat-centered elements of the Gidget segment coming in second and the rambunctious Snowball part bringing up the rear, though it could very well be the one that kids react to most enthusiastically. The closing-credits sequence, which turns to live-action footage reminiscent of “Craziest Pet” TV shows, has the misfortune of ripping one out of the world the movie’s created too abruptly.

“The Secret Lives of Pets 2” isn’t a terrible sequel, but it comes across as one cobbled together from disparate elements rather than a smoothly-fashioned whole. It will probably amuse most people even though it’s a disappointment overall.