Well I’m happy to say I had a nice pleasant surprise at the theater this weekend. Not with the movies I happened to watch though.

Last Saturday morning, right as I was getting out of my car at the Moore Warren Theater, I bumped into two very familiar faces. The Register’s own Jack and Lane Montgomery, accompanied by their babysitters for the day Lily and Trevor Richardson.

What’s more incredible though is we both happened to book tickets to the same movie, “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” at the exact same showing.  

Of course Jack and Lane being the cordial types, insisted I sit with them. And after a few taps on my phone I had an assigned seat alongside the four of them.

I have to say, as someone who generally just goes to the movies by themselves, there is something more entertaining about being seated next to an energetic 8-year-old who’s enjoying the heck out of whatever cartoon action is currently on screen.

Sitting beside the two of them definitely made my experience of watching “The Secret Life of Pets 2” more fun.

But I didn’t just watch the latest animated adventure from Illumination at the theater this week.

I also had the chance to see the next, and seemingly last, film in Fox’s X-Men saga titled “Dark Phoenix.”

So, with no further delay, let’s get to the reviews.

***

The Secret Life of Pets 2

First up is “The Secret Life of Pets 2.”

This film continues the story of Max (Patton Oswalt) and his pet friends, following their secret lives after their owners leave them for work or school each day.

Once again, Max is forced to adapt to major life changes when his owner Katie gets married and has a child. Meanwhile, Max’s Pomeranian friend Gidget (Jenny Slate) attempts to save Max’s favorite toy from a cat-packed apartment. At the same time, the rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart), convinced he’s a superhero, is recruited by a Shih Tzu named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) on a mission to free a white tiger from a circus.

Here we go, the next animated adventure from Illumination.

I’ve said so in the past, but I’m generally not a fan of movies from this studio, which is most famous for bringing the Minions to life.

Granted, their films are generally competent and clearly have a lot of appeal to people of all ages. But they all just feel so generic to me.

Illumination is like the cheap processed meat of animation. Sure, they do quite well on surprisingly low budgets, but regardless of their fine-tuned production line, and their ability to crank out goods which are easily digestible, at the end of the day they’re still selling Spam.

That said, even though this movie is still metaphorically filled to the brim with bland pork product, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy at least parts of it.

In fact, I think I may have even liked this more than the original 2016 film.

The setting for the first one always felt more like a thin backdrop to have an animal filled buddy adventure, as dogs Max and Duke are forced to learn to get along and share the affections of a single owner.

Basically “Toy Story,” but with dogs.

But this movie feels a lot truer to its title. “The Secret Life of Pets 2” is actually a story, well really three stories, about the secret life of pets.

The narrative structure is kind of strange here though.

Typically a movie with multiple characters, each with their own stories, will have one main plot, and a couple other side stories related to the main one interwoven throughout to keep things interesting.

Then, towards the end, all the characters meet up and you have a big grand finale with everyone involved.

In this movie there is no main plot. You’d think Max learning to live with a kid would be the focus here, but he really isn’t. The other two stories have just as much screen time, if not more.

Plus, these tales are hardly related to each other. It feels more like three separate short films stuck together, instead of a single winding narrative.

The only reason these stories make any kind of sense existing together is that they all star characters from the last movie.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just different. The whole thing ended up feeling like three different episodes of a TV show slapped together. At least up until the very end where we do get our grand finale with everyone.

On the whole, I enjoyed each mini story just fine. Out of the three, my favorite was probably Gidget’s and all the cats, even though the set up for her troubles was by far the weakest of the trio.

Her part of the movie had by far the most ‘cute pets doing cute things,’ and honestly that’s all you can expect from a film titled “The Secret Life of Pets.”

There isn’t any real substance to the stories, and the personalities of our characters don’t even offer the semblance of depth, unlike something from Disney or Pixar.

That said, the movie’s never really boring. It’s not particularly funny either, but I’d never call it dull.

At all times this movie is mildly entertaining. Nothing more, and nothing less.

If all you and your kids want is competent animation, cute looking characters, and well known celebrity voice actors, this is the movie for you.

On the other hand, if you prefer your animated films to have a bit more substance, you might want to look elsewhere.

“The Secret Life of Pets 2” is rated PG.

***

Dark Phoenix

The other film this week is “Dark Phoenix.”

The X-Men are forced to face their most formidable and powerful foe. One of their own. During a rescue mission in space, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is nearly killed when she is hit by a mysterious cosmic force. Once she returns home, this force not only makes her infinitely more powerful, but far more unstable.

Wrestling with this entity inside her, Jean unleashes her powers in ways she can neither comprehend nor contain. With Jean spiraling out of control, and hurting the ones she loves most, she begins to unravel the very fabric that holds the X-Men together.

Before this movie was released, I spent the better part of a week watching every X-Men movie I could. Not because I’d never watched them, but just because it had been so long since I had.

The X-Men, the movie franchise under 20th Century Fox, has been around for nearly 20 years now.

Through the years, the series has definitely had its ups and downs.

Though the X-Men have spawned truly horrible films like “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” it’s also responsible for some of the most compelling superhero movies ever made like “X2,” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” hilarious R-rated spin offs with “Deadpool 1 & 2,” not to mention one of the best comic book stories ever put to film, “Logan.”

Now, with Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, it seems this chapter of the X-Men has come to a close, with “Dark Phoenix” being the final tale with Fox’s version of the well known characters.

Yes, I know “The New Mutants,” set to release in 2020, also falls under the Fox umbrella. But that movie is marketed as a horror flick and it’s completely unrelated to our main mutants as far as I can tell.

For all narrative purposes, “Dark Phoenix” is the final film in the X-Men series. And boy does this story go out in a whimper.

I just couldn’t bring myself to care about anything happening in this film.

I’ve never read any X-Men comics myself, but I know The Dark Phoenix Saga is a pretty beloved chapter in the X-Men story for many comic book fans.

Obviously it’s so compelling that the people behind these movies have tried to adapt it twice.

If you’ve seen “X-Men: The Last Stand,” you have a general idea on where this movie’s going. It’s the same basic premise. Jean Grey becomes ridiculously powerful to the point she can’t control it, betraying her friends and making them fear her in the process.

Coincidentally, both “Dark Phoenix” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” suffered from messy productions and studio meddling.

Both of them are rare movies where the behind the scenes issues are much more interesting than the films themselves.

In the case of “X-Men: The Last Stand,” the filmmakers, director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriters Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg, were forced to combine two X-Men storylines into one film, featuring both the Phoenix storyline and one about a “cure” for mutants because the studio heads thought Phoenix was too dark for mainstream audiences.

This of course lead to an inflated $210 million budget, the highest ever at the time. It also led to the film’s director Matthew Vaughn leaving the project, only to be replaced by famous Hollywood hack, Brett Ratner. The rest is horrible comic book movie history.

“Dark Phoenix” has a slightly different story.

While the budget was also inflated, this time to the tune of a slightly less enormous $200 million, it also suffered from studio meddling just like its Phoenix predecessor. 

Apparently at one point “Dark Phoenix” was set to be a two part movie. But during late pre-production, the studio changed gears and dictated it was to be a single film.

Then later on, the movie’s ending was completely revamped. Word is, the film’s original finale had too many similarities to another superhero movie which was recently released. According to the film’s director, that movie was “Captain America: Civil War.”

It’s easy to lay all the blame “Dark Phoenix’s” writer/director Simon Kinberg for this film’s failings, especially considering he was also a screenwriter for “X-Men: The Last Stand,” but I don’t think that’s quite fair.

Granted, he’s certainly responsible for some of this movie’s missteps, but to me it seems clear that studio interference was also a huge factor in “Dark Phoenix” failings. There’s only so much you can do as a filmmaker when you’re constantly forced to make changes like these.

Another huge problem with “Dark Phoenix” though, one that truly prevents this film from gaining any emotional resonance, is Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey.

That’s not to say I thought Sophie herself gave a bad performance. As far as I could tell, she put her all into the role.

But unfortunately we, as an audience, just don’t know this version of Jean Grey all that well.

She had all of 15 minutes of screen time in “X-Men: Apocalypse,” with barely any of that dedicated to her personality or relationships with others. Just a couple scenes of very mild flirting between her and Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), and a line about others being scared of her abilities.

“Dark Phoenix” attempts to rectify this lack of familiarity by throwing Jean’s tragic backstory at the very beginning of the film, right before she’s possessed by this cosmic force.

But that just showed who Jean was as a little girl, not who she is now, and certainly not how she fits within the X-Men dynamic.

From my understanding, the emotional core of the Dark Phoenix Saga is seeing this character we know and love turn into an unstoppable force of destruction, betraying her friends and everyone she loves in the process.

A story like this needs time. Time to build relationships. Time to fall in love with Jean as a person.

We just don’t get that here.

It doesn’t matter how good the acting is. In fact James McAvoy as Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto were as good as ever here.

All performances are in vain in this story where nothing feels like it matters, to a main character I just don’t care about.

“Dark Phoenix” is rated PG-13.

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