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What to watch? Films of the week

Guest writer and expert film critic Damon Smith gives his verdicts on the biggest film releases this week.

The Secret Life of Pets

(U, 91 mins) Animation/Comedy/Drama/Action/Romance. Featuring the voices of Louis CK, Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Albert Brooks, Steve Coogan. Directors: Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney.The Secret Life of Pets

Creatures great and small wreak havoc on the streets of New York City in Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney’s colourful computer-animated romp.

Employing a similar framework to Toy Story, The Secret Life Of Pets imagines what our four-legged, feathered and finned friends get up to when our backs are turned, suggesting that the fun begins when we go to work or school.

A Jack Russell terrier and an affection starved mongrel replace Woody and Buzz Lightyear as the feuding central characters, whose rivalry mellows into mutual affection when they are separated from their owner.

Screenwriters Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch and Cinco Paul have great fun in early scenes, revealing how a dachshund uses his owner’s food mixer as a back massager or one tiny dog performs acrobatic leaps to water a hanging basket with a cock of its leg.

The central concept isn’t original but there’s an infectious charm to every shiny frame of Renaud and Cheney’s well-groomed picture, which mercilessly exploits our affection for the critters that share our homes.

Katie (voiced by Ellie Kemper) lives in her Manhattan apartment with a mischievous terrier named Max (Louis CK).

“Our love is stronger than words or shoes,” explains Max, referring to his penchant for chewing his owner’s footwear when he was a puppy in training.

He is good friends with other domesticated animals and birds including a pampered Eskimo dog named Gidget (Jenny Slate), who is head over fluffy tail in love with Max, and a sardonic house cat named Chloe (Lake Bell), who nurtures a healthy disdain for anything that doesn’t enrich her selfish existence.

“Dog people do weird, inexplicable things,” she purrs, “like they get dogs instead of cats.”

Max’s bond with Katie is threatened when his owner brings home a lolloping mongrel named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who she has saved from the pound.

Intense rivalry spills out onto the city streets where Max and Duke fall foul of a sphynx cat called Ozone (Steve Coogan) and are mistaken for strays by animal control officers.

The snarling enemies are rescued by a maniacal white rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart), who pressgangs them into service in his army of unwanted animals, who live in the sewers.

The Secret Life Of Pets is the brainchild of the makers of Despicable Me and Minions, and retains a similar visual style and family-friendly sense of humour.

Behavioural tics of each breed are mercilessly exploited for slapstick laughs and co-directors Renaud and Cheney maintain a brisk trot to ensure young audiences don’t go for walkies in the middle of the film.

The main feature is accompanied by a cute animated short entitled Mower Minions in which the gibberish-spouting sidekicks tend the lawn of elderly neighbours.

Independence Day: Resurgence

(12A, 120 mins) Action/Sci-Fi/Romance. Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Liam Hemsworth, Jessie Usher, Maika Monroe, Travis Tope, Angelababy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Deobia Oparei, Brent Spiner, Judd Hirsch, Sela Ward. Director: Roland Emmerich.Independence Day

During the calm before the digital effects storm in Independence Day: Resurgence, Jeff Goldblum’s quixotic scientist stares slack-jawed at an approaching alien mothership and gasps, “That’s definitely bigger than the last one”.

Those words encapsulate the bombastic sequel to Roland Emmerich’s 1996 sci-fi blockbuster, which famously blew up The White House as a symbol of extra-terrestrial hostility.

Second time around, the German director isn’t content with razing iconic buildings in Washington D.C.

He deposits the whole of Dubai including the spearlike Burj Khalifa skyscraper on top of London, flattening landmarks with whooping abandon, then proceeds to pulverise America’s eastern coast.

Restraint isn’t in the film’s limited vocabulary and repeatedly, Emmerich and his army of special effects wizards conjure wanton destruction on a grand scale.

With the benefit of this state-of-the-art trickery, eye-popping 3D and immersive sound, Independence Day: Resurgence should be a pulse-quickening thrill ride.

So it comes as a crushing disappointment that the second film lacks the roughly hewn excitement and charm of its predecessor.

Critically, the five scriptwriters have neglected to provide us with characters to care about before they unleash otherworldly hell upon the third rock from the sun.

It has been 20 years since US President Thomas J Whitmore (Bill Pullman) issued his rallying cry to the entrenched human race.

In the aftermath, survivors salvaged the remains of fallen alien technology to create hybrid weapons systems.

We also initiated the Earth Space Defense (ESD) under the direction of David Levinson (Goldblum) as an early warning system against future incursions by hostile extra-terrestrials.

On the eve of the July 4 celebrations, a hulking otherworldly destroyer enters our atmosphere in response to a distress call from the fallen fleet.

Current US President Elizabeth Lanford (Sela Ward) commands elite pilots to take to the skies, including Dylan Hiller (Jessie Usher), orphaned pals Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) and Charlie Miller (Travis Tope), whose parents perished during the failed first invasion and Chinese golden girl Rain (Angelababy).

“It’s the fourth of July,” bellows Dylan as he spearheads the rebellion, “so show ’em some fireworks!”

On the ground, Levinson searches for a scientific miracle aided by Whitmore’s plucky daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe), French psychiatrist Dr Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg), African warlord Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) and Area 51 boffin Dr Brakish Okun (Brent Spiner), who suffers from the human-alien residual psychic condition.

Independence Day: Resurgence lazily embraces disaster movie cliches including one mawkish subplot involving Levinson’s father (Judd Hirsch), a school bus of stricken children and a dog.

Performances struggle to make an impact above the din of pyrotechnics and a rumbustious orchestral score.

Pivotal characters, who are clearly marked for death, serve their perfunctory purpose, blatantly teeing up a third instalment that will hopefully take another 20 years before it sees the flickering light of a cinema screen.

Elvis & Nixon

(15, 86 mins) Drama/Comedy. Michael Shannon, Kevin Spacey, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Sky Ferreira, Tracy Letts, Tate Donovan, Ashley Benson. Director: Liza Johnson.
Elvis & Nixon

On December 21, 1970, chart-topping singer Elvis Presley arrived unannounced at the gates of the White House in full regalia with a rambling correspondence for US President Richard Nixon.

In the hand-written letter, the singer requested that he be granted the special status of Federal Agent At Large for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in order to use his influence to dissuade America’s youth from experimenting with illegal substances and engaging in other counterculture behaviour.

There was no such position within the administration, but Nixon agreed to an audience with the musical superstar.

This meeting of suspicious minds remained secret for over a year and the US National Archive now receives more requests for copies of the black and white photograph of Nixon and Presley standing side-by-side in the Oval Office than the Constitution of the United States or the Bill of Rights.

There are no audio records of the men’s conversation.

Director Liza Johnson elicits compelling performances from Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey for her amusing and outlandish dramatisation of this head-on collision of pop royalty and political hubris.

Elvis & Nixon evokes the period with bling-laden style and scriptwriters Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal and Cary Elwes revel in the preposterousness of the brief encounter.

The film opens in the plush confines of Graceland where Elvis (Shannon) is horrified by the anarchy he sees unfolding on his television screen.

Determined to halt his country’s descent into depravity, Elvis compels his good friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) to join him on a madcap odyssey to Washington D.C.

Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville), another trusted member of the entourage, joins the party and the trio are granted admission to the White House by Chief of Staff Harry Robbins Haldeman (Tate Donovan).

Special advisor Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and the President’s Deputy Assistant, Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters), carefully stage-manage proceedings with Nixon (Spacey).

The President’s initial disdain for the singer’s letter is evident.

“I wrote it on the plane,” confesses Elvis.

“I could tell,” retorts Nixon dryly.

This frostiness gradually melts as the President discovers that his jumpsuit-clad visitor empathises about the insidious influence of the media and shares his withering opinion of The Beatles.

Elvis & Nixon provides the lead duo with plentiful opportunities for scenery-chewing, not least when the singer first enters the Oval Office and ransacks the President’s private supply of soft drinks and candy.

Verbal references to events that reverberate today jar, as if they have been shoehorned into dialogue at the last minute, like when Nixon casually remarks, “This whole thing with the Iraqis and the Syrians will go away in a couple of weeks.”

Shannon and Spacey relish their on-screen verbal duels and they add lustre to a film that might otherwise have been consigned straight to home formats.

The Meddler

(12A, 103 mins)

Sixtysomething widow Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon) is a well-meaning New Yorker, who drives her screenwriter daughter Lori (Rose Byrne) to distraction with frequent telephone calls. The matriarch misses her late husband Joe and invests her time and energy into Lori as her connection to the past. When Lori breaks up with her boyfriend Jacob (Jason Ritter), Marnie transplants her life to Los Angeles to offer emotional support to her child. Unfortunately, Lori feels like she is being smothered, so Marnie bathes new acquaintances and neighbours with her maternal warmth, including a young mother called Jillian (Cecily Strong), whose dreams of a fairy tale wedding have been scuppered by her precarious financial circumstances. As Marnie rebuilds bridges to her daughter, she also enjoys romantic dalliances with two divorced suitors, Zipper (JK Simmons) and Mark (Michael McKean), who have very different outlooks on life in a bittersweet comedy drama written and directed by Lorene Scafaria.


(15, 103 mins)

Berlin-based contemporary video artist Omer Fast makes a stylish feature film debut with this mind-bending psychological thriller filmed on location in London. Adapted from Tom McCarthy’s debut novel, Remainder centres on a young man called Tom (Tom Sturridge), who is struck by falling debris from a building. A lawyer negotiates a sizeable settlement of almost 10 million US dollars with the understanding that Tom will forget about the accident and never mention it again. He agrees – the trauma of the accident has almost completely wiped clean his memory, so he is a blank slate. However, Tom does experience fragmented flashbacks, so he decides to use the compensation payout to rebuild his old life. Aided by a fixer called Naz (Arsher Ali), Tom buys a building that he believes was his old home and hires actors to play neighbours, who must perform specified actions and lines of dialogue on cue. As Tom’s artificially fashioned reality expands, he calls on old friends Catherine (Cush Jumbo) and Greg (Ed Speleers) to help him make sense of his memories and piece his life back together.


(18, 135 mins)

Based on the novel by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo, Suburra is a gritty Italian crime drama about a politician who becomes ensnared in a web of violence and blackmail. Senator Filippo Malgradi (Pierfrancesco Favino) projects the public image of a devoted family man and servant of the people, who is determined to stamp out the corruption that has blighted his country’s upper echelons of power. Behind closed doors, he fraternises with Mafia kingpin The Samurai (Claudio Amendola) and indulges in self-destructive behaviour that would shock the voters. When these two worlds collide head-on, Filippo faces the battle of his life to remain in public office and protect the people he loves, other than himself.

Globe on screen: Richard II

(PG, 151 mins)

Simon Godwin’s critically acclaimed production of Shakespeare’s brutal account of politics, power, lust and betrayal was filmed live at the historic Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London in 2015. Charles Edwards stars in the demanding title role of Richard II, son of the Black Prince, who believes he has the divine right to rule England. However, once he ascends to the throne, Richard’s abilities are called into question and he is shown to be a weak and ineffective monarch. The king’s exiled cousin Henry Bolingbroke (David Sturzaker) uses a rebellion in Ireland to distract Richard so he can usurp the monarch and claim the throne as his own, initiating a tragic power struggle between the two men for the right to govern.

Ma Ma

(12A, 111 mins)

Writer-director Julio Medem contemplates the impact of a cancer diagnosis on a doting mother in this heartstring-tugging drama anchored by a luminous central performance from Penelope Cruz. Shortly after her academic husband Raul (Alex Brendemuhl) leaves the family home because of an affair with a student, Magda (Cruz) learns from her gynaecologist Julian (Asier Etxeandia) that a lump in her breast is cancerous and she will need a mastectomy as well as a course of aggressive chemotherapy. Magda keeps secret this shocking news from her young son Dani (Teo Planell), a talented football player who has caught the eye of a talent scout called Arturo (Luis Tosar). In order to protect Dani from the battle ahead, Magda encourages her son to spend the summer holidays with relatives by the sea so she can concentrate on her health and the chemotherapy. Meanwhile, Arturo is devastated when his wife is left in a coma from a car accident and Magda becomes his emotional support system as he prepares for the possibility that his wife may never regain consciousness.

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Adult Life Skills

(15, 94 mins)

Writer-director Rachel Tunnard explores bereavement through the eyes of a directionless twentysomething woman in this gently paced comedy drama. Anna (Jodie Whittaker) has never fully recovered from the death of her twin brother and she lives in the shed of her mother’s garden, making DIY movies using her thumbs as the lead actors. She refuses to engage with life until her mother, Marion (Lorraine Ashbourne), delivers an ultimatum: Anna must move out of the shed and take control of her ambling existence before her impending 30th birthday. In the midst of this emotional turmoil, Anna becomes an unlikely and reluctant carer for troubled eight-year-old neighbour Clint (Ozzy Myers), whose mother has been rushed into hospital. Together, Anna and Clint face their demons and discover that the world isn’t as scary as they thought. This touching friendship also provides Anna with a fresh outlook on the awkward romantic overtures of her admirer, Brendan (Brett Goldstein).


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