A Dog’s Way Home


Happiness is the love of a good dog.

 (2019) Family (ColumbiaAshley Judd, Edward James Olmos, Wes Studi, Bryce Dallas Howard (voice), Alexandra Shipp, Barry Watson, Chris Bauer, Tammy Gillis, Jonah Hauer-King, Farrah Aviva, Patrick Gallagher, Lucia Walters, Lane Edwards, John Cassini, Darcy Laurie, Benjamin Ratner, Motell Foster, Brian Markinson, Patrick Gallagher, Broadus Mattison, Christine Willes. Directed by Charles Martin Smith

 

Another in a recent spate of movies told from a canine point of view, this is also based on a novel by W. Bruce Cameron, who also wrote A Dog’s Purpose which, perhaps not coincidentally, got the sequel treatment in 2019 as well.

Here, kind-hearted med student Lucas (Hauer-King) finds and rescues a pit bull puppy living in a condemned property that an unscrupulous developer (Markinson) is trying to tear down. He and fellow VA intern Olivia (Shipp) who would look favorably on Lucas as boyfriend material, decide to keep the pup over the objections of Lucas’ PTSD-afflicted veteran mom (Judd) who gradually warms to the dog, whom they name Bella (Howard) whose thoughts we get to hear.

Lucas’ efforts to keep the developer from…umm, developing leads to him calling a favor from an equally unscrupulous animal control officer (Cassini) who is enforcing a Denver law banning pit bulls. Knowing that if Bella is captured by animal control she’ll be put to sleep, Lucas reluctantly arranges to give his dog to a family in New Mexico to care for, only to see Bella run home to her one true master. Along the way she meets people (good and bad), critters (good and bad) and tugs at the heartstrings at just about every available opportunity.

Being a dog nut myself, I tend to be overly lenient to such films and will be the first to admit that the ending had tears streaming down my jaded critical face. There are even moments for cat lovers – baby Bella is raised by Mother Cat, and along the road back home Bella meets a cougar kitten whom she dubs “Big Kitten,” turning into a not-so-good CGI apparition.

This is more-or-less harmless family viewing material with a nice sucker punch for dog lovers like me. It doesn’t really push any boundaries nor is it essential viewing even for kids, but it does make a nice hour and a half babysitter for parents and children alike during these stay-at-home days.

REASONS TO SEE: Ends up being heartwarming, but you would expect that..
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really Jack London, is it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some dog peril and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dog that plays the adult Bella, Shelby the Dog, was a rescue dog found liiving in a Tennessee junkyard.

BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic:  50100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Call of the Wild
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Grey Fox

Until the Birds Return (En attendant les hirondelles)


The sad face of a man facing a transition in life.

(2017) Drama (Kimstim/1091) Mohamed Djouhri, Hania Amar, Hassan Kachach, Mehdi Ramdami, Sonia Mekkiou, Chawki Amari, Lamri Kaouane, Aure Atika, Zineddine Hamdouche, Saadia Gacem, Hamid Ben Si Amor, Sensabyi Beghdadi, Imene Amani, Nawel Zeddam, Abdelaziz Zeghbib, Samir El Hakim, Aziz Boukerouni, Nadia Kaci. Directed by Karim Moussaoui

 

A writing professor in college once said that life isn’t like a story; it has no beginning or end; it’s just one long middle that we’re all dropped into and thus we try to muddle our way through as best we can. Maybe it’s for that reason that we like our stories to have beginnings and endings.

This Algerian film is an anthology with a bit of Robert Altman to it; each story is the life of a character that we get to walk in the shoes of for a short time. Mourad (Djouhri) is a developer in Algiers who is in a morass. His ex-wife Nacim (Hamdouche) has summoned him, ostensibly to talk to his indolent son who is about to withdraw from medical school to essentially hang out with his friends, His current wife Rasha (Atika) is dissatisfied with life in Algeria and wishes to move back to Paris; Mourad is disinclined to do so, so Rasha is pushing for a divorce. At the same time, the deal to build a hospital that he and his partner are working on is beginning to look more problematic by the hour. But on his way home from his ex’s house, Mourad’s car breaks down and he ends up witnessing a brutal beating. Terrified, he remains hidden and when the chance to get away comes, he gets is butt home and doesn’t think to call the police. His ineffectiveness haunts him.

His driver Djalil (Ramdami) asks for time off to drive Aicha (Amar) to her wedding in a small village in the desert. On the way there, her father gets food poisoning and must be taken to the hospital; Djalil ends up spending time with Aicha, who it turns out is no stranger to Djalil. They have been lovers for some time, but this arranged marriage to an older man is advantageous.

On the way to the wedding ceremony, Aicha’s father stops to help a man stranded at the side of the road. This turns out to be neurosurgeon Dahman (Kachach) who is facing a pending life change of his own. Awaiting a promotion, he circles around waiting for something to happen rather than demanding that he get the promotion he deserves. Word gets to him that a woman living in a hovel in a poor neighborhood nearby has accused him of something horrible. He is advised to confront the woman, which he does. As it turns out, while he didn’t directly participate in the gang rape that the woman accuses him of, he did nothing to prevent it. A son with emotional and physical issues resulted from the rape and what the woman wants is for the son to be given a name. She asks the doctor for his, but he is not in a position to do so. He is getting married himself in a matter of days. However, he begins to feel guilt towards the woman’s plight.

None of these stories have a resolution; we follow one storyline for a while, then a character from the next storyline has a brief interaction with someone from the first and off we go on the next tangent. There is even an unexpected music video about an hour in, with a kind of Arabic ska song complete with dancing and singing. It is a bit of welcome daffiness in a movie that for the most part is pretty serious.

The movie doesn’t reveal it’s plot so much as let it unfold. We do get brief glimpses of various strata of Algerian society, which gives us a more complete introduction to the country than we might get ordinarily. The women here are for the most part standing up for themselves, something we don’t associate with North African culture. The men tend to be weak and indecisive so from a feminist point of view it’s somewhat refreshing.

I actually ended up liking this movie a lot mainly because we get so thoroughly immersed in the lives of these characters but not all of you might; you are left to draw your own conclusions about the stories and the characters, and you may end up wondering what the point of all of this is. Like life itself, there isn’t always one single point; sometimes we just have to struggle to interpret things as best we can and keep on moving so as to dodge the spears and arrows being lobbed in our general direction. At a time when life is at a standstill, it is comforting to see life as it is, or was, and may well be again, unfolding as it may.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating. The relationships are complex and believable. Unfolds rather than reveals.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving and slow-developing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (mostly offscreen), some profanity and a description of a gang rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the feature film debut of Moussaoui.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Kanopy, Microsoft, Realeyz
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews, Metacritic: 57/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coffee and Cigarettes
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Mortal Engines

Wanderlust


Wanderlust

Alan Alda is smug because he gets to hit all his marks in a scooter.

(2012) Comedy (Universal) Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Malin Akerman, Kathryn Hahn, Lauren Ambrose, Ken Marino, Joe Lo Truglio, Alan Alda, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Michaela Watkins, Jordan Peele, Linda Lavin, Jessica St. Clair, Todd Barry. Directed by David Wain

 

Sometimes our life changes because we decide to change things. Other times it’s due to forces beyond our control. The latter often prompts us to do the former, truth be told – and occasionally that sends us in unintended directions.

George (Rudd) and Linda (Aniston) are a pair of yuppies living the dream in Manhattan. They’ve just bought what is called a micro-loft (but what George correctly identifies as being really a studio apartment) in the pricey West Village (more than six figures and just shy of seven) and they can barely afford it. George is understandably nervous but his enthusiastic wife and snooty realtor (Lavin) combine to get him to give it a good ol’ what-the-hell.

Then those forces beyond their control kick in. George’s company comes under a federal indictment and is shut down. Linda’s documentary on penguins with testicular cancer is rejected by HBO. With no income at all, they can no longer afford the apartment and have to put it up for sale at a tremendous loss, even though they’ve only owned it for a couple of weeks. With their tails between their legs, they go limping to Atlanta to live with George’s brother who has offered George a job.

They drive to Atlanta but have to stop for the night. They decide to try the Elysium Bed and Breakfast but are frightened by the sight of a naked man (they don’t get out much in New York City apparently) and manage to flip their car. It turns out that Wayne (Lo Truglio), the naked man, is harmless and he escorts them back to the B&B.

As it turns out the inn is more of a commune (although they prefer the term “evolved community”) who make them feel right at home and completely free. After a night of skinny dipping, guitar playing, pot smoking and general merriment led by the commune’s de facto leader Seth (Theroux), the friendly albeit somewhat eccentric commune members help turn over their car and send them on their merry way with the invite to join their community if they so choose.

Rick (Marino) is a complete charmless boor whose wife Marissa (Watkins) self-medicates with booze and seems oblivious to his many infidelities. Rick drives George and Linda crazy within a few days and George hits upon the idea to going back to the commune. It would be shelter and food, and they had been happier there than they’d been in a long while. Linda is skeptical but agrees to give the idea a couple of weeks.

Once there the adjustment period seems to take George a little bit by surprise. The food is uniformly bad and macrobiotic, there are no doors and no privacy, Eva (Akerman) has made it clear she’d like to make love with George and Seth makes it clear he’d like to do a lot more than that to Linda. There’s also a subplot going on with a casino being built on their land and Carvin (Alda) the somewhat addled founder of Elysium has misplaced the deed.

This is a Judd Apatow movie and for once Apatow’s involvement isn’t trumpeted to the heavens; while his signature is felt on the comedic aspects in many ways this is less overtly his work than usual. That is a pretty good thing even though I generally like his work, he’s been getting some overexposure from all the films he’s not only directing but also producing.

Rudd excels at these kinds of characters – neurotic yuppies going through transitional phases. He is immensely likable, as is Aniston who also does the high-strung career woman as well as anybody. They’re both charismatic but for some reason together (although they both spent time on the “Friends” sitcom in which Aniston starred) they just don’t have much spark.

The rest of the cast is nice, particularly Hahn as a bitchy commune member, Theroux as the full-of-himself leader, Marino, Watkins and Alda. There are some genuine funny moments that made me bust out laughing and a good deal of sexuality and nudity. There are also some long dead spaces where the jokes fall flat. For sure there is an uneven quality here that keeps this comedy from really hitting it out of the park.

Even though dramas get the lion’s share of attention once awards season starts, I maintain it’s far more difficult to pull off a good comedy than it is a good drama. Human nature being what it is, it’s far easier to make someone cry than it is to make them laugh. There are enough good moments to recommend the movie, but not much more than that. It is the best comedy out there at the moment, so take that for whatever it’s worth.

REASONS TO GO: When it’s funny, it’s incredibly funny.  Women seem to find it more relatable than men.

REASONS TO STAY: Lots of dead space. Rudd and Aniston don’t generate a tremendous amount of chemistry.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual content including plenty of graphic nudity both male and female. There’s also some drug use and a heaping helping of swear words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aniston, Alda and Rudd all co-starred in The Object of My Affection (1998).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100. The reviews blow hot and cold.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: For Richer or For Poorer

THE STATE LOVERS: Five of the acclaimed comedy troupe’s members are reunited here.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Babies

You Don’t Mess With the Zohan


You Don't Mess With the Zohan

Adam Sandler: Deadly but cute!

(2008) Comedy (Columbia) Adam Sandler, John Turturro, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Nick Swardson, Rob Schneider, Kevin Nealon, Lainie Kazan, Ido Mosseri, Dave Matthews, Michael Buffer, Charlotte Rae, Chris Rock, Shelley Berman, George Takei, Bruce Villanch, Mariah Carey. Directed by Dennis Dugan

 

There are those who are of the persuasion that silliness is next to godliness, and Adam Sandler is I do believe one of those sorts. If it’s funny, it’s money and Sandler is a very rich man. When he releases a new movie, people take notice and so it was when this was released in theaters. Was it worth the notice though?

Zohan (Sandler) is the finest counter-terrorist agent in Israel. He is handsome, brave, an amazing fighter and completely impervious to pain (he drops piranhas down his bathing trunks to prove this point). He is beloved in his home country, particularly by the ladies. He is respected by his leaders. He is feared by the enemies of his country. He has it all.

Except what he really wants – to be a hairdresser. Tired of the fights with his nemesis the Phantom (Turturro), he stages his own death and arranges to ship himself to New York City in a container of dogs. He finds a place to stay and gets himself a job as a stylist in the salon of Dalia (Chriqui) which he brings much success to due to his practice of having sex with the older clients who tell their friends and so on and so on.

However a greedy developer (Buffer) wants to mow down the shops on the street – both Arab and Jewish – to put up a mall. Holy Hummus Batman – can the traditional enemies work together to stop this nefarious plot and return to hating each other in harmony?

This was Sandler’s 2008 summer comedy and as you can see by the box office numbers below that it did pretty well, but still this movie isn’t considered one of his classics. For one thing, it’s pretty scattered in terms of plot – the movie kinda meanders along and some of the plot points seem forced to me.

The physical comedy works pretty nicely, although there are some CGI bits (like the piranha in the pants gag) that are appalling. When the Zohan and the Phantom fight, they are almost super-powered which as action movie spoof might work well (think the Scary Movie films) but in a non-spoof comedy look kind of dumb. To be fair, some of those fight scenes are clever.

Sandler is one of the most likable comedy stars in Hollywood, right up there with Tim Allen and Kevin James. He has to be at his most charming in order to hold the movie together, particularly since he is purported to be catnip to women of every age and gender. Sandler has always been easy on the eyes (or so I’m told by those who have a better appreciation of male beauty than I do) and so that at least isn’t much of a stretch.

Turturro was terrific with Sandler in Deeds and so he is again here. The Phantom is a somewhat distorted but ultimately recognizable reflection of Zohan if you don’t mind crazy funhouse mirrors. Turturro is an able comic who sometimes doesn’t get his due in the business; I thought he was one of the bright spots in a movie that needed them.

There are those who will grouse that the Arab-Israeli conflict is nothing to make jokes about; for my money, the more that we joke about something, the more human it becomes and the more human something becomes, the better equipped we are to deal with it. I liked the concept of the film enough, although the execution left something to be desired. Had Sandler and co-writers Judd Apatow and Robert Smigel elected to make something that relied less on being outrageous and more on being funny, they really would have been on to something.

WHY RENT THIS: Sandler is as charming as ever and Turturro makes a fine foil.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is a bit unfocused and too many bits don’t work. May go a little bit over-the-top for some in terms of crudity.

FAMILY VALUES:  The humor can be crude and a lot of it is sexually-oriented. There’s also quite a bit of foul language involved and yes, nudity in an Adam Sandler film.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie had actually been written back in 2000 but pre-production was halted after 9-11due to the terrorist in New York theme for seven years.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Surprisingly, the Blu-Ray is feature-packed. There are featurettes on Sandler’s stunt doubles, on the Arab-Israeli conflict , on singer Dave Matthews (who has a small part in the film) and on the celebrity cameo appearances. There’s a pop-up translator that takes some of Zohan’s dialogue and translates it as well as a montage of girls in bikinis who appeared in the film for those inclined to perve on such things.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $199.9M on an $90M production budget; the movie made money during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Devil Inside