The Oath


The most awkward Thanksgiving dinner EVER!

(2018) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Billy Magnussen, John Cho, Nora Dunn, Max Greenfield, Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner, Jay Duplass, Carrie Brownstein, Chris Ellis, John Ducey, Jon Lovett, Priah Ferguson, Henry Kaufman, Brian Guest, Matt Conboy, Ithamar Enriquez, Brett Lapeyrouse, Molly Erdman. Directed by Ike Barinholtz

 

We live in an extraordinary time, and not in a good way. Our country is divided as it hasn’t been since the War Between the States. Politics have become a blood feud with two intractable sides refusing to listen to each other or admit that the tactics of their side could be anything but above reproach. Politics are dividing friends and family like never before.

Chris (I. Barinholtz) is one of those progressive sorts who watches cable news like a hawk and this, predictably, keeps him in a constant state of anger. He doesn’t have discussions so much as he has apocalyptic rants, quite sure that the latest thing the left is doing signals the end of life as we know it. However, this time he has good reason: the President (never identified in the film but c’mon – it’s meant to be Trump) has ordered that all Americans sign an oath of loyalty. Not to the country, but to the President.

Of course, Chris loses his mind and swears he’d sooner gouge out his eye with a spoon than sign this thing. His savvy and level-headed wife Kai (Haddish) agrees with him but in a less strident tone and at a less ear-splitting volume. The deadline for signing is Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving. It so happens that Chris and Kai are having Thanksgiving dinner this year at their home with Chris’ somewhat clueless parents (Ellis, Dunn), his conservative-leaning brother Pat (J. Barinholtz), Pat’s similarly right wing girlfriend Abby (Hagner) whose name Chris defiantly refuses to say correctly, and his sister Alice (Brownstein) who tends to side with Chris.

The dinner predictably escalates into armed warfare between Chris and his brother’s girlfriend as the news shows images of protesters getting shot and left-leaning websites report that a government agency called the  Citizen’s Protection Unit (CPU) has been taking protesters away, never to be seen again. Chris’ paranoia reaches redline fever when two CPU agents, Mason (Magnussen) and Peter (Cho) show up at his door. Then things go from bad to worse.

I don’t think I’ve seen a movie yet that captures the ongoing political division of this country as this one does. Barinholtz, a first-time filmmaker, wrote and directed this and while you can see some of the rookie mistakes – the tonal shift between the first half which is more comedic and the second half, which is more of a thriller along the lines of The Purge. The dichotomy between the two is a little bit jarring to say the least. In many ways the second half is a bit surreal, going in a completely unexpected direction and detracting from the power of the first half..

Barinholtz though coaxes a magnificent performance from Haddish, in my opinion her best to date. She’s caught in the middle between her hair-trigger husband and her equally passionate brother-in-law’s girlfriend. Chris doesn’t act civilly all that often; you either agree with him or you’re a fascist and Chris is one of those liberals who thinks they know what’s right better than anyone. Kai is the mitigating factor that keeps Chris from getting too toxic, although it’s obvious that the job of being his buffer is wearing on her.

While it is clear that the filmmakers’ sympathies lie with the left, they at least have a clear enough head to recognize that the progressive side has its own share of hostility. Much of what we see onscreen are things I’ve witnessed first-hand among liberal as well as conservative friends. While the ending is a bit far-fetched, at least it leaves us with the hope that we’ll be able to learn to talk to each other again someday. Hope is a precious commodity these days and this movie at least has that, although it is cynical in places to the point of head-exploding madness. Hope is something to be cultivated and yes, discovered in movies as well. As for me, I hope Barinholtz continues to make movies; he shows he has a real talent and talent like his should be encouraged.

REASONS TO GO: This is possibly the finest performance ever by Tiffany Haddish.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie goes off the rails in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some of it graphic. There is also brief violence, nudity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Barinholtz was once a member of the MadTV troupe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Idiocracy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Stella’s Last Weekend

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Bikini Moon


The frank stare of madness is unblinking.

(2017) Mockumentary (Flix Premiere) Condola Rashad, Sarah Goldberg, Will Janowitz, Sathya Sridharan, Mykal-Michelle Harris, Chukwudi Iwuji, Scott Martin, Irungu Mutu, Lauren Lim Jackson, Alyssa Cheatham, Irma Estella La Guerre, Jeremy Rafal, Brian Sills, Roland Sands Cliff Moylan, Lisa Lakatos, Gemma Forbes, Jeannine Kaspar, Danielle Kelsey. Directed by Milcho Manchevski

 

Mockumetaries – fake documentaries which are actually scripted films – are one of those genres that are truly hit or miss. Sometimes they’re played for comedy, as in This is Spinal Tap while other times they’re played straight as in…well, most found footage films like the Paranormal Activity series. This movie is one of the latter.

A documentary crew led by ambitious but obsessive Trevor (Janowitz) and his mousy girlfriend Kate (Goldberg) are filming at a New York City housing office when they are struck by Bikini (Rashad), an Iraqi war veteran who clearly has some emotional and mental problems and decide to focus on her instead. Unable to secure government housing, the couple spends the night trying to find her an apartment that will get her off the streets. The landlord who agrees over the phone to take her in suddenly changes his mind when he sees the film crew but Bikini gives him oral sex and that seems to satisfy things…but as will become her modus operandi she will mess things up for herself when she stops taking her medication. You can usually tell shes having issues when she starts blathering on about the wonderful creatures that are the praying mantis. That figures into things fairly heavily late in the game.

With their subject back on the street, the couple brings Bikini into their own home that Kate inherited from her mom. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that things will end in tears and they literally do. In fact, pretty much everything does, from Bikini’s attempts to regain custody of her daughter Ashley (Harris) to her friendship with Kate and Trevor. And when the rest of the crew tries to finish the film in order to at least recoup some sort of payment for all their time and effort, things take a turn that nobody will see coming.

The first half of the film is enthralling, largely due to the efforts of Rashad who is absolutely brilliant. She has been seen in such things as the Showtime series Billions but she is clearly ready to take on major roles in important films. She never overplays the crazy until she needs to but her performance is raw and believable. The first half of the film is riveting and unforgettable.

Then comes the second half which not only goes off the rails, it proposes that there were never any rails to begin with. The more Bikini does to sabotage her situation, the more unbelievable everyone around her acts. Kate is the poster child for white guilt and Trevor is an absolute douchebag as we eventually discover but at some point someone would say “I’m not dealing with this crap anymore” and walk away.

One of the things the movie does successfully is look at the artificiality of some documentaries where scenes are staged and rehearsed rather than capturing the reality of the situation. We also see how the presence of a film crew can change the situation. It’s a bit of a Catch 22 – damned if you do, damned if you don’t – and while it’s not directly addressed Manchevski gives you the situation and lets you go from there. That shows a great deal of respect for his audience and had he continued down this route this could have been an absolutely amazing film.

Sadly, he chooses to go down the path of weirdness and as things spiral into an ending that the rest of the movie doesn’t hint at and to be frank doesn’t earn, the viewer will not only be taken straight out of the film which appeared to have something to say at first and likely, as I did, get incredibly angry at the filmmaker who went to the trouble of sending a message and then spoiling whatever good will he had developed with an absolute train wreck of an ending.

Basically there are two films here; one very good, the other a waste of time. I would recommend that you watch the first half and after Trevor and Kate go their separate ways just turn off the movie or walk out of the theater. Of course, the curious will want to see this all the way to the end but I’m here to tell you it’s not worth it. See the first half, skip the second. You’ve been warned.

REASONS TO GO: Rashad is a real talent with a bright future.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a little at the end with an out-of-left-field ending that it hasn’t earned.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some violence, nudity, sexual content and disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Condola Rashad is the daughter of Phylicia and Ahmad Rashad.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lobster
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Oath

Free Solo


Why ask why?

(2018) Documentary (National Geographic) Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin, Sanni McCandless, Peter Croft, Deidre Wolownick. Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

 

It is in man’s nature to push the boundaries; if there’s a goal to be achieved, it is human nature to want to top it. This goes through all endeavors of life – physical, artistic and financial. Being the best at something gives us a sort of patina of immortality. Still, there are some goals so dangerous, so daunting that there can be no topping it. In fact, there are goals that some would call insane.

Alex Honnold has one of those and it involves Yosemite’s infamous El Capitan. El Cap, as climbers call it, is the Mecca of rock climbing. 3,000 feet of nearly sheer granite, it is one of the most difficult climbs in the world. Rock climbers from all over creation flock to Yosemite Valley to try their hand at it and a good many do succeed. However, all of those who have done so have used ropes and safety equipment to make their way up the rock. Honnold wants to be the first to free solo El Cap – that is, climb without any safety equipment or ropes altogether, relying only on his body and a bag of chalk dust to keep his grip from getting slippery.

Climbing El Capitan in the best of circumstances requires rigid focus; one mistake can result in a fall. Even with safety equipment, people die climbing El Capitan. It is seriously no laughing matter and to do so without harnesses and pitons and ropes makes most sensible climbers’ blood run cold. Hell, I know nothing about rock climbing and the thought of it makes my genitalia shrivel. One mistake for a free soloist on El Capitan and the unfortunate will end up a puddle of gore on the valley floor. Pro climber Tommy Caldwell, who made his own history in conquering the previously thought unclimbable Dawn Wall, recalls that most of the people he knew who made Free Soloing an essential part of their lives are dead.

The film mainly focuses on the preparation for the historic climb. The husband and wife directing team of Chin (a climber in his own right and a friend of Honnold) and documentary filmmaker Vasarhelyi painstakingly set up their camera positions, wanting to keep close enough to get great shots of Alex but also far enough away so that their presence doesn’t interfere with the climb. Chin muses at one point about how ethical his participation is, when at any moment he could see his friend plummeting through the frame to his death.

The question is why do it and that’s never really satisfactorily answered. Honnold has a girlfriend (McCandless) who is steadfast and ends up moving in with him; previous to that Honnold was living out of his van. Not because he didn’t have money – his books and sponsorship deals have been lucrative – but because he preferred not to have any commitments. McCandless is well aware that when it comes to scaling mountains, she will finish second every single time. When it’s time for Honnold to make his ascent, she is sent away and the worry is absolutely heartbreaking.

There is an extreme amount of selfishness that has to do with any sort of obsession and we see it here. The worry of those who love him may register somewhat with Honnold but at the end of the day their excruciating emotional turmoil doesn’t matter enough for him to call off his climb. To be fair this tends to be the truth for those who achieve things that are extraordinarily difficult – I’m sure Neil Armstrong’s wife wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of his going to the moon – but we are left to look at Honnold and other achievers of that nature to be, well, jerks. Honnold seems nice enough and he’s certainly charismatic but the filmmakers are only looking at one aspect of him because that’s what the movie is all about. Consequently he comes off seeming pretty one-dimensional.

It also must be said that the 20 minute sequence of Alex’s historic climb are some of the most tense and nerve-wracking moments in any movie this year. The climb, which lasted just under four hours, is captured with vertigo-inducing shots of the drop below Honnold’s feet and set to the sound of his breathing. It is inspiring in some ways, but also terrifying.

This is a powerful chronicle of the power of achievement and the obsession that fuels it. My issue is that some kid somewhere is likely to be inspired to follow Honnold into free soloing and end up dying because of it. For that reason, I really hesitate giving this the kind of acclaim the film probably deserves.

REASONS TO GO: The final climbing sequence is edge-of-the-seat kind of stuff and is the best sequence in the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers really focus in on Alex’s obsession to the exclusion of everything else pretty much, making him a very limited personality.
FAMILY VALUES: There is much peril and some profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Honnold and Caldwell recently became the first climbers to scale the Nose on El Capitan in under two hours.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dawn Wall
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Randy’s Canvas

The Samuel Project


here’s still a little bit of Barney Miller in Hal linden.

(2018) Family Drama (In8 Releasing) Hal Linden, Ryan Ochoa, Michael B. Silver, Mateo Arias, Ken Davitian, Phillippe Bowgen, Catherine Siggins, Pia Thrasher, Callie Gilbert, Malina Moye, Lilinda Camaisa, Robert Ochoa, Casey Nicholas Price, Anahid Avanesian, Ken Venzke, Lauro Rocha, Filippo Duelk, Patee Spurlock, Liza Lapira. Directed by Marc Fusco

Back in my day, they called it the “generation gap” – the increasingly difficulty between older generations and younger generations to communicate with each other and understand one another. These days that gap appears to be wider than ever with folks from my generation having a hard time with Millennials and Post-Millennials. I can only imagine that to my parent’s generation Millennials might as well be from Mars.

Eli (Ryan Ochoa) is a teen who is nearing graduation from his suburban San Diego high school. His passion is not girls nor sports but art. He loves to draw, particularly fantasy scenes not unlike heavy metal album covers. He wants to go to art school to his father’s (Silver) chagrin; basically art school is completely out of reach financially. In any case, there’s no money in it; Eli would be better served going to a community college, taking some business courses and with his Associate Degree in hand get himself some paper-pushing job that pays real money.

Eli is also tasked with visiting his grandfather who is essentially estranged from his son, Eli’s father. Grandpa Samuel (Linden) owns a neighborhood dry cleaning business and is more or less content with his life. He is friendly and outgoing but only with his customers; with his own family he tends to be close-mouthed about his past.

When his close friend Uma (Thrasher) arrives in town, very ill, he is thrilled to go see her and takes Eli along because he needs someone to drive him. Shortly after the visit, word reaches Samuel that Uma has passed away. When Eli asks about Uma, Samuel becomes very terse and refuses to talk about her.

At about that time Eli’s media teacher (Bowgen) assigns the class a project to do a multi-media presentation based on something in history that affects them directly. Eli realizes that his grandfather’s story would be perfect. The pot is sweetened that the best entries would be presented at a local competition where they would be seen by those in the business and in education. Eli’s future is suddenly riding on this project, but can he get his reluctant grandfather to talk?

This has a very family-friendly vibe and is meant to be something of a parable about the inability of various generations to connect and see each other as individuals. That’s not a message that has gone unsent by Hollywood films previously, but this one shows a good deal of charm in sending it.

The chief reason why that is so is the presence of Hal Linden. Best known for the cop sitcom Barney Miller, Linden has always been a gifted actor with seven Primetime Emmy nominations and Four Golden Globe nominations to prove it. He shows here that he still has it at 87 years of age; there is that eye twinkle that made Barney such a revered character. Linden’s charm and his ability to communicate so much with small gestures makes this performance well worth seeing for those of my generation and those who just like seeing a master at work.

His chemistry with Disney Kid Ochoa is rocky in places but it’s still there. Ochoa does better with Linden than he does with Arias who plays Kasim, Eli’s metalhead friend from school. Unfortunately, Kasim’s role is completely superfluous and his monosyllabic dialogue does nothing for the movie. The film would have been better off concentrating more on Eli’s relationship with Samuel – or perhaps with a prospective girlfriend, although the filmmakers didn’t choose to go that way.

The ending is definitely a heartstring-tugger even though you can see it coming a mile away. In fact the story is fairly rote throughout with plenty of family film clichés to spare but the cast is charming enough that one can overlook it – although not enough to prevent me from giving it only a mild recommendation. While it’s worth seeing because of Linden, the story around which Linden is given to perform isn’t sadly on par with his talents.

REASONS TO GO: Hal Linden is still a very good actor who has decent chemistry with Ochoa.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a fairly rote generation gap-type of film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some teen smoking and a few adult themes about the brutality of the Holocaust.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 87-year-old Linden recently won the lifetime achievement award at the Heartland Film Festival where this film was shown.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Akeelah and the Bee
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Free Solo

The Church (2018)


Not every church is a sanctuary.

(2018) Horror (Hard Floor) Bill Moseley, Matthew Nadu, Daniel Wyland, Ashley C Williams, Clint Howard, Kenneth McGregor, Keith Stallworth, Lisa Wilcox, Deltra Leak, Holly Zuelle, Meghan Strange, Shaun Paul Costello, Michelle Romano, Vito LoGrasso, Victoria Gates, Scott Lehman, Jack Hoffman, Michael Connolly, Marcia C. Myers, Marie A. Garton, Belinda M. Wlson. Directed by Dom Frank

 

We tend to have a bit of a fixation on religion and the paranormal. From The Exorcist on down, we stand in awe of cathedrals and the rites of the church. Some churches though are less holy places than others.

The First Corinthians Baptist Church in downtown Philadelphia was once a magnificent edifice, a tribute to the glory of God. Of late it has fallen on hard times however. The membership has dwindled as the neighborhood has become less affluent and nearby mega-churches has enticed others away. Pastor James (Moseley) whose family has been at the church for generations is at a crossroads; gentrification is beginning to creep into the neighborhood and developers want the valuable property to tear down the aging and decrepit church and put in a new multi-use facility; they’re even willing to build a brand spanking new mega-church for the pastor to preach in, much to the delight of his ambitious wife Loretta (Romano).

The pastor is reluctant to give up on the building that is in many ways his family’s legacy but the developer in the person of Ronald Lawson (Nadu) is persuasive and at last the pastor gives in. However the subject has to be approved by the church’s various boards and with Loretta working diligently behind the scenes, the measure squeaks by.

When Lawson comes to the church several nights later for the signing of the papers that will mean the end of the grand old lady, he brings with him the secretary he’s having an affair with (Williams), the Romanian financier that is his partner (Wyland), a local community leader who has also partnered with him (Stallworth) and his bodyguard (LoGrasso). Pastor James has with him his wife, the head of the board of Deacons (McGregor), the church secretary (Wilcox) and a board member (Zuelle). It’s literally a dark and stormy night but all who are in the church don’t realize that the building is not at all happy at the prospect of being torn down and isn’t going to let them go to carry out the deed.

First of all, the First Corinthians Baptist Church is a real one and it is absolutely a beautiful building. It is the perfect location for this kind of a movie; nearly 200 years old and full of the kind of architectural detail that modern churches last. It feels like a place of worship which makes the haunted goings-on therein all the more shocking. Kudos to Frank for taking full advantage of his location filming.

There aren’t a lot of digital effects here and the production could have sorely used them but one can’t get picky when you’re on a budget. The big problem is the script is a bit inconsistent; various characters are “taken” by the church to be pulled into a purgatory-like dimension in a puff of black smoke. Some of them seem to burn (at least there are flames superimposed on the actors) while others don’t. We don’t get enough backstory to the various characters to understand why some get the flames and others don’t. As to why this is happening, there really isn’t much of an explanation; the Romanian mutters about old Romanian myths about holy places that sit in judgment of those who are evil but again, everybody seems to be victimized without a lot of rhyme or reason other than maybe being part of the plan to knock down the building.

The acting is a bit on the wooden side for the most part and the presence of horror cult favorite Moseley excepted, the biggest name actor (Howard) is essentially unrecognizable as a bearded monk who appears as an apparition in a couple of scenes and has no lines. That seems a bit of a waste to me.

This has been described as a faith-based horror film and in my notes I wrote down that it gets a little preachy at times but for the life of me I can’t remember any such occasions. I do remember the ending which is abrupt, unsatisfying and seems to exist to set up a sequel which the filmmaker has already stated is going to happen. All in all, Frank got the atmosphere right but needed to flesh out his script with a bit more information about the various characters and the history of the church – we see a brief headline from an old newspaper about a wicked family being punished by the church but it’s so quick we never get any details.

With so many new movies to choose from for your Halloween horror movie fix this year it’s hard to recommend this one but there are definitely some plusses to consider. The scares are a bit weak but given that Frank didn’t have a whole lot of cash to work with I think he did the best he could. Hopefully for the sequel he’ll give us a more fleshed out story and maybe a bit more of a budget to work with.

REASONS TO GO: The filming location is awesome.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit abrupt and disappointing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, profanity, spooky images and light sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in downtown Philadelphia’s First Corinthian Baptist Church which Frank’s family has been attending for decades.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Borderlands
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Samuel Project

All About Nina


The comedian is hard to spot.

(2018) Dramedy (The Orchard) Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Common, Chace Crawford, Camryn Manheim, Jay Mohr, Mindy Sterling, Angelique Cabral, Clea DuVall, Kate del Castillo, Beau Bridges, Nicole Byer, Todd Louiso, Victor Rasuk, Pam Murphy, Sonoya Mizuno, Melonie Diaz, Elizabeth Masucci, Cate Freedman, Grace Shen. Directed by Eva Vives

 

Some movies are pretty much what you expect them to be. They chug along, doing what you imagined they’d do, making the plot points you expected from them, following a tried and true formula. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’ve seen plenty of really entertaining movies that were also formulaic. Then again, there are movies like All About Nina that are motoring along at a brisk pace, fulfilling every one of your expectations to the point where you think you’re going to give a mediocre review. Then one scene comes along, elevates the movie into something special and blows all your preconceptions out of the water, leaving you breathless.

Nina Geld (Winstead) is a stand-up comedian who has been banging her head against the wall of male hegemony in the stand-up business. Her act has a lot of anger in it as she reaches across taboo lines like diarrhea and menstruation and keeps on going until she can find another line to cross. She is involved in a relationship with a married cop (Crawford) who beats her up from time to time. Her life is, in a nutshell, going nowhere.

She decides to shake things up a bit and heads out to Los Angeles to try and get a special on the Comedy Prime network. Supported by her very pregnant agent (Cabral), Nina moves in with a sweet New Age sort (del Castillo) and soon begins to make some noise in the L.A. comedy clubs. Her self-destructive impulses however have followed her from New York; too much drinking, too much sex with the wrong guys…that kind of thing. Then she meets Nate (Common), a contractor who takes an interest in her as she does in him. Suddenly there are possibilities. The network is interested in her as well but it all comes crashing down, leading her to a confessional standup session where everything comes out.

That confessional standup sequence is alone worth seeing. It is one of the most mind-blowing, heart-rending sequences I’ve seen in a film this year. Winstead is not a stand-up comic but she does a credible job with her delivery here. She also brings an animal intensity to the role that gives Nina the kind of edge that we rarely see in movies since the ‘70s. She’s been on a roll of late and hopefully we will start to see her in the kind of prestige roles she is well-suited for.

Common also excels here. He’s a bit on the Zen side in terms of being calm, cool and collected in the face of Hurricane Nina but he’s such a good boyfriend type that one wonders why he hasn’t gotten more romantic lead roles before now. Hopefully this will lead to a good many more of that sort of parts and I’m sure there are plenty of ladies who’d agree with me on that point.

The movie can be difficult to watch; Nina has a self-destructive streak a mile wide and can be unpleasant to be around. She is bitchy at times and a rage bomb at others. Her stand-up routine is not for the faint of heart or of stomach and those who are offended by profanity might as well give it up – there are sailors who would blanch at the filth that comes out of Nina’s mouth both on and off stage. However, if you have the stomach for it and the patience for it, this is a movie that has been slowly rolling out around the country that deserves a look if it’s playing anywhere near you.

REASONS TO GO: One scene elevates this movie into something special. Winstead and Common deliver solid performances.
REASONS TO STAY: A good deal of L.A. stereotypes infests the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some of it graphic. There is also brief violence, nudity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Vives’ feature film debut. She is known previously for writing the story for Raising Victor Vargas.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Roosevelt
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Church

Pick of the Litter


This film is truly about man’s best friend.

(2018) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Phil, Poppet, Primrose, Patriot, Potomac. Directed by Don Hardy, Jr. and Dana Nachman

 

All right, in the interest of full disclosure I will make my confession now: I am a dog nut. Not a dog lover – that implies some sort of sanity. I’m absolutely crazy about dogs. There was a meme going around Facebook not long ago about the seven signs your spouse is a dog nut – I fit all seven of them. It drives my poor wife to distraction sometimes. Naturally, when I found out about this documentary about puppies going through the rigorous training of becoming a guide dog I was all in.

Guide Dogs for the Blind is a Northern California-based organization that as their name implies provides guide dogs for those who are sight-impaired. The standards are high and the training rigorous. Many of the puppies that are enrolled in their training program are born right there at GDB and in this particular case we follow the five Labrador puppies from a single litter. Their names are Patriot, Potomac, Primrose, Poppet and, incongruously, Phil.

Each of these puppies will be weaned from their mother in the San Rafael kennel, then placed at five months with “puppy raiser” families which include “empty nest” couples, a high school student and his mom, a PTSD-suffering man who uses the dogs as a distraction from his own issues, and families who simply want to help out. Each of the pups will have one of three outcomes. If they are unable to handle the standards of training, they will be “career changed” i.e. washed out of the program and placed with other charities or, occasionally, placed with families permanently. The second outcome is that females may be kept at the San Rafael facility to be bred. Finally the outcome everyone wants, to pass all the rigorous tests and be placed with a blind person to be their best friend and protector.

The puppy raisers go into this with the understanding that they will get the dogs for no more than a year and in some cases, much less. They are fully aware that they are training their charges for someone else’s benefit, not their own. Throughout the process, the dogs will be tested every three months for certain sorts of behaviors that might disqualify them; an inability to follow commands, a tendency to be easily distracted – that sort of thing. Some dogs may be taken out of the program before their time with the puppy trainers is done.

When their time with the raisers is done, the puppies are brought back to the GDP facility for more intensive work with trainers who will give them particular skills, such as dealing with traffic, with train platforms, walking on streets without sidewalks, the kinds of things that the sighted take for granted but can be deadly if not navigated correctly. The dogs go through a series of exams that test them on particular skills. If they don’t pass, they are given one more chance. If they pass, they advance. If not, they are career changed.

While this is like a lot of child competition documentaries that have proliferated like Starbucks franchises lately, there is a distinct difference in that while there is rooting interest in all the pups, there are no real losers here. None of these dogs have any awareness of the stakes involved; they are all going to wind up somewhere in caring environments.

We don’t see a whole lot of the training the pups go through with their puppy raisers, although the primary responsibility of the raisers is to bring the candidates into the world, learning to interact with their surroundings so that they are better able to do their jobs. The puppy raiser parents are trying to give their charges the best possible chance at acquiring the skills they will learn in the more intensive training phase in San Rafael.

The dogs have plenty of personality; Potomac is “mouthy” and loves to nip his handlers. Phil is endearing and has a bit of a hound dog appeal. Patriot has a ton of energy which sometimes makes it difficult for him to focus. Primrose is affectionate almost to a fault and Poppet is cool, calm and collected (for the most part).

This is as much about the trainers and the raisers as it is about the dogs themselves and I’m sorry that I didn’t get their names written down but I’d forgotten my notebook when I attended my screening. However, I was completely enchanted (dog nut) and was grinning ear to ear throughout the film (dog nut). I was rooting for all the dogs to succeed (dog nut) but I did have one particular favorite (dog nut). In these times of divisiveness and stress, dogs are a natural tonic (dog nut) and this movie may even convince a few non-dog nuts. However if you’re anything like me (and more power to you if you are) you’ll want to see this one every time you’re feeling blue. Expect that this one will be a permanent part of my video collection once it’s available for sale.

REASONS TO GO: Dog lovers, this is your jam. The stories of the trainers and foster families are pretty compelling. Gives you a sense of what the training the dogs go through. I was grinning ear to ear from beginning to end and never lost interest.
REASONS TO STAY: Cat people may take umbrage.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is perfectly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Guide Dogs for the Blind was founded in San Rafael, California in 1942 to aid blinded soldiers returning home from the Second World War.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heart of a Dog
FINAL RATING: 10/10
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All About Nina