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
NEXT:
All About Nina

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The Boss Baby


Alec Baldwin’s agent gets an earful from his client.

(2017) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, Tobey Maguire, Miles Bakshi, James McGrath, Conrad Vernon, ViviAnn Yee, Eric Bell Jr., David Soren, Edie Mirman, James Ryan, Walt Dohrn, Jules Winter, Nina Bakshi, Tom McGrath, Brian Hopkins, Glenn Harmon, Joseph Izzo, Chris Miller, Andrea Knoll. Directed by Tom McGrath

 

Any new parent will tell you that they are no longer in charge of their households once they bring the newborn bundle of joy home – the baby is always the boss. Every schedule is run according to the needs of the baby and sleep? HA!! Here is an animated feature that takes that idea a bit more literally than you and I might imagine.

Tim Templeton (M. Bakshi) has an ideal relationship with his parents. Both employed by PuppyCo and it’s somewhat neurotic CEO Francis Frances (Buscemi), Dad (Kimmel) plays with his boy while Mom (Kudrow) beams beatifically. They are the perfect family unit. Until, that is, the parents bring a new addition to the family – a brand new baby (Baldwin).

But this is no ordinary newborn. For one thing, he carries a briefcase and wears a business suit onesie. Tim finds that a little weird but his parents think it’s adorable. And this is a baby with an agenda; it turns out he is a representative from Babycorp who is out to put the kibosh on a new puppy product his parents’ firm is putting out that is threatening to turn all attention away from babies. “This is war,” the boss baby informs a meeting of the local diaper-wearing set, “And the puppies are winning.” Oh if only it were true. A sibling rivalry ensues but is put aside for the brothers to work together to carry out the Babycorp directive which will get the boss baby sent back up to a corner office in corporate and give Tim his family back.

This is based on a 32-page illustrated book by Marla Frazee which basically focuses on how the baby changes the dynamic of a marriage; the character of Tim isn’t even in it. Critics have most often compared the movie to Storks, the 2016 animated feature which had similar elements but in all honesty I thought it more like the two Cats and Dogs movies which turned into a gadget-oriented superspy kidflick which in many ways is superior to this one.

In fact, I thought The Boss Baby was at its best when it concentrated on family dynamics, the original theme of the book. It goes off the rails in the third act when it goes all James Bond on us. Still, Alec Baldwin is perfectly cast here recalling characters from 30 Rock and Glengarry Glen Ross which is even slyly referenced in a “cookies are for closers” line. This is very definitely Baldwin’s movie and he does a fine job as a corporate shill – nobody is better in that sort of role.

I generally have a fairly high tolerance for toilet humor but the movie goes overboard with it. That will certainly delight kids barely out of diapers themselves but older kids and parents will certainly begin to cringe after the fifth or sixth potty joke. There are some pretty decent moments and some cleverness is exhibited but the movie feels padded out with unnecessary plot contrivances. This is an animated feature fit only for the very non-discerning.

REASONS TO GO: There are some clever bits of business. Nobody does smarmy corporate types better than Baldwin.
REASONS TO STAY: The potty humor quotient is on the uncomfortably high side. The movie is on the gimmicky side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some humor that is mildly rude but otherwise suitable for general family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tim has a Gandalf-themed alarm clock; in reality, Ralph Bakshi – Miles’ grandfather – directed the first The Lord of the Rings animated feature back in 1978.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cats and Dogs
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
War for the Planet of the Apes