Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Dog's Purpose

I am aware of the controversy that has cropped up leading to the release of this film and I will have a few comments at the end of the post. We are going to start with what made it to the screen first. There is an immediate way to recognize how the story  in the movie and the marketing of the film rely on the audience who loves dogs to simply show up. The name of the Director is never mentioned on the teaser poster, in the trailer, nor any material I'd seen leading up to the events this week. In fact, in most of the writing about the behind the scenes video clips that have leaked, they never said the name of the film's director, it's Lasse Hallström. This is a two time Academy Award nominated director, who has a string of well regarded movies on his resume, and there is not one "From the Director of..." tag lines to be seen in the studio material. It was not until the credits that I saw his name. This guy made "My Life as a Dog", "The Cider House Rules", "Chocolat" and a movie that I admired very much from just a couple of years ago, "The Hundred Foot Journey". I can see why he was chosen to direct, and my guess is that his name will not put as many butts in the seats as a good picture of a dog.

People who love and own dogs will be able to identify with this film immediately. I think all of us have voiced our own dogs thoughts at least in our heads, but many, including me, have done it out loud with regularity. We anthropomorphize our animals all the time. With the right story line and voice casting, this movie should be catnip [yeah I know] to all the dog lovers out there. Who can resist the notion that our animals think about us and the things we do just they way we think about them. Comedic actor Josh Gad, who has several successful voice performances under his belt, manages to get the wistful, empathetic tone of a dog just right. "Bailey", the lead character in our story, is just that kind of dog. The screenplay then provides several lives for "Baily" to lead, while clearly indicating which story is the main spine of this work.

Frankly, this movie could be just a kids film, but it is really much more. Let's admit up front that it is an infernal machine. This device is designed to drain us of all moisture residing anywhere in our heads. Since the dog has several incarnations in the film, it is no spoiler to say that we get several on screen and off screen deaths of our hero. There are at least four times that a dog steps off the stage and it is likely to be accompanied by your tears. The dog is also a hero in the lives of most of his owners. He literally saves lives a couple of times, and also saves the heart of the people who's lives he has entered. There are moments of dog/people love that will force your eyes to well up again. In his soft and warm voice, Gad provides "Bailey" with humor, pathos and an opportunity to consider the foibles of human existence.

The director manages to make all of this happen in an atmosphere that is usually great to look at, even when the environment is not very appealing. "Bailey's" life as a German Shepard K-9 officer is not particularly warm except for two or three minutes. The warmth of the apartment and life he shares as a corgi is easier to relate to and see beauty in. It is however in the two most extended sequences, that pretty much bookend the story, that we can see Hallström do the thing that he is best at. He makes the countryside look like the farm life that city dwellers dream of and farm hands and rural types want their lives to be. Canada stands in for Michigan and the suburban scenes set in the sixties look like a fond memory of a mostly idyllic childhood. Ethan, the kid who loves and grows up with "Bailey" is played by three different actors. Both of the younger performers are engaging, but there are some story elements that are a bit much and they still seemed natural. The one place it fell down a bit was near the end of the first long segment. Ethan changes for various reasons but the performance does not quite get us there. It doesn't matter too much because we are crying our eyes out at the dog's story at that moment. This is a good piece of misdirection by the director from a plot point that feels a little artificial. In the last segment, things don't start out so well for our canine hero, and this is another time when the director manages to let a few well placed shots and a montage of time convey the events in the story. We are spared an even uglier look at human behavior than we might have had otherwise.

Denis Quaid is Ethan all grown up. His story gets a bit short shrift. Ultimately we see that much like the other lives "Bailey" has come into, Ethan is lonely and in need. I was pleased to see Peggy Lipton in the film. I am currently re-watching "Twin Peaks" in preparation for it's return this Spring, and Lipton as Norma is great. Her adult version of Hannah does not have a lot to do but it does work well with Mr. Quaid and it finishes off the movie in a way that should make audiences satisfied. My daughter read the book that the film is based on just last night. She told us after the movie about the ending of the book, and I'm glad that the film spared us another parting. There are just so many tears I can afford to surrender without having to give up my man card.


Now as for the controversy. The clips of the German Shepard in the water that have shown up on line are about the mildest form of "abuse" you can imagine. My dogs are more reluctant to get in the water at bath time and they are in greater danger than the canine star was. So either that makes me a heartlessly indifferent dog hater, or the world has gone mad with overly sensitized social media consumers. PETA, who is behind the boycott movement against this film, is an extremist organization that objects to animals being used for any entertainment purpose (or any other reason for that matter). It is in their interest to move mainstream thought on issues like this in their direction. Whales and Elephants are bigger targets (literally) but they have been more successful there. Pet ownership is something they also see as problematic. In a nation of pet owners, it's hard to find a wedge issue to gain entry with. This is their opportunity to push the outside of the envelope. Ultimately I hope they fail because this movie is more likely to inspire responsible pet ownership and thus better treatment for dogs. The twisted logic of this "Animal Rights" organization deems anything which makes dog ownership seem appropriate, is undesirable.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Lamb Devours the Oscars: Hell or High Water

Click above to read my contribution to this years Lamb Series on the Oscars.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Visiting the Forgotten Filmcast: Greased Lightning

I had a great visit with Todd at the Forgotten Filmcast, where we talked about this Richard Pryor Vehicle. [Yes that is a Pun].  Click on the image to visit the site and listen in.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Blazing Saddles and a Conversation with Mel Brooks

Last night we spent the evening with one of the funniest men on the planet. Although there was a host who supposedly was conducting the interview, I'd b surprised if he asked a dozen questions in the nearly hour and a half presentation. Brooks at age ninety, roamed the stage, rarely sat and frequently belted out songs from his films or in one case an American Standard that was the crux of a great joke.

There were probably more than 4,000 people at the show last night. The Mircrosoft theater is the former Nokia Theater where we had gone two years ago for The Godfather Live. I think it changed sponsors just after we were last there. The room is spacious and the sound quality was excellent. Just after 8 pm, a title card came up on the screen which had been playing a series of trivia questions about Brooks and the film. The card announced that the Governor would be joining us in 93 minutes, harumph. 

We got a Digital screening of one of the classic comedies of all time. Complete with every politically incorrect joke that was in the film when it originally played in 1974. Just a few months back we had gone to a screening of Blazing Saddles along with Willy Wonka, in tribute to the late Gene Wilder. I don't think there is much more to add about the film, so I will simply refer you to that post if you want to knoe my view of the movie. ( Blazing Saddles).

When Mel came out after a joyously laughed at 93 minutes of lunacy, he received a deserving standing ovation which he quickly dismissed. He had fish to fry and he dove right in. The interviewer (I think it was Steve Halberman, but I could have that wrong) asked one question and fifteen hysterical minutes later we got to a follow-up question. Brooks makes the whole evening seem like an intimate experience with friends. Many of the stories he has told before, but they all sound fresh and unrehearsed and there are enough bits of improvised shtick to make you feel like this was all for the first time.

One interesting moment was when a question was read by the host from an audience member, who turned out to be Dom Deluise's nephew. Mel could not say enough nice things about Dom and of course he had a great story. The whole evening was filled with anecdotes about Harvey Korman, Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Pryor, Carl Reiner, Sid Cesar, and a dozen more. Mel told jokes, exaggerated a little and sang his heart out a couple of times without any accompaniment. It was a bravura performance by a man who is rightfully a National Treasure, and as sharp as a tack in his tenth decade of life. 

I'd be happy to go to a screening of "Young Frankenstein" and repeat the whole process over again tonight. This series of shows is billed as the Back in the Saddle Tour, if it comes to your town, be sure to splurge on some tickets and see the man live.

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Monster Calls

It's January, so I'm ready for my annual dose of Liam Neeson kicking someone's ass. So today we saw this and he did it, the only problem is that it was my ass he kicked. This is a sad story about the worst thing that can happen to a kid. As it builds up to the climax, I became more and more effected by it. At first I thought I was withstanding the story pretty well but then I turn around and there is Mr. Neeson's voice, ready to help knock me down and remind me that I am a human being who is a big cupcake.

This is a story that seems like it should be familiar but it is told in a very unique way. As I mentioned, the arc of the narrative concerns the loss of a loved one and the young man that has to face this truth is struggling with a way to confront it. The Monster that comes is not friendly but in a strange way is very supportive. The story is direct but there are three specific moments when the monster tells a tale to young Conor. Much like A Christmas Carol, Conor is visited on separate occasions and each time he a story is shared with him. Buried inside of each tale is a lesson, but it is never a clear lesson and Conor finds the stories increasingly confounding to the task he has of finding a cure for his mother.

A third of the way into the film, Conor's Grandmother appears. She is played by Sigourney Weaver, using the slight British accent that she probably picked up in "The Year of Living Dangerously" or "Half Moon Street". The Grandmother is stern and foreboding in young Conors life. He sees the future that he despairs of in her and does not sense the warmth that he and his own mother have. Part of the story will have to manage that relationship more delicately. His father is an expatriate living in Los Angeles. He does not appear to be a practical lifeline even though he wants what is best for his son. Mom is played by Felicity Jones  and she is suitably beautiful and haggard as the path of her disease progresses. Louis MacDougal plays Connor and his most affecting scenes are with his Father, the bully who abuses him, and ultimately the two women who have and will dominate his life.

The real story here is a child trying desperately to reconcile himself with the loss of the most important person in his life. The Monster represents the turmoil and the tragedy that he is facing, but it never acts exactly the way you expect the story to go. Ultimately there is a turning point, and we can see that coming, but the path there is torturous and may leave some audience members a bit slack jawed. One of my favorite things about the film is that it contains some beautifully animated sequences that illustrate the tales being told. I suspect the water color paintings are based on the illustrations used in the book from which this film derives. Although containing some fairy tale elements, they are not really Disney friendly. Conor has to try to make sense of them and it is a final turn in the story that helps bring it all together.

Neeson is the voice of the Monster but his image does appear in a photograph that suggests Conor's Mother in her childhood with her own father. Neeson has done voice work before. As Aslan (or God if you like) in the Chronicles of Narnia he was suitably ponderous. His two faced cop in the Lego Movie was just the right touch of sardonic indifference. In this film his voice is ferocious and soothing and sometimes harsh. In the end it is a comforting voice, maybe like all of our fathers, a bit scary at times but also a voice that we feel we can trust. Grief and guilt need to be met with a purposeful and supportive figure. Until Conor can find that in the adults around him, he has a Monster to call upon. This is a sad story that may be tough for children to endure as well as soft hearted adults. It is however a worthy drama and ultimately redemptive, but in a painful way.

Singin' in the Rain: Fathom/TCM 52 Essentials

This event was scheduled prior to the death of Debbie Reynolds. The host Ben Mankiewicz, did not mention her passing in the intro or the conclusion of the presentation, so that material was already in the queue, but there was a dedication card before the movie began. It is certainly a deserving tribute because you can clearly see in every scene she appears in, Debbie Reynolds was special. It's interesting that at one point in the story, R.F. the studio head takes notice of Reynold's Kathy Seldon. He calls her out of the chorus line for having that something special and unique. That is exactly what you can see in Reynolds. Her smile is effervescent, her face just glows, even when buried in a crowd of other actresses, and her line delivery is spunky and confident.

This movie does not need any defending. Mankiewicz suggested it might be one of the greatest musicals of all time, he qualifies that by pointing out that many would say it is "The" greatest musical of all time, present company believes that to be the case. For almost two hours I sat with a smile on my face, a laugh in my heat or a tear in my eye. Evey time you turn around there is another great number. As far as I can tell, other than the compilation film "That's Entertainment", this is the only movie where Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly worked together. That is almost incredible to believe when you watch the "Fit as a Fiddle" or "Moses Supposes" sequences in this film. They perform with such synchronicity, you would believe they'd been working together for years.

Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont is a hoot and a half. The opening segment where Kelly as Don Lockwood tells the background of their Hollywood "Romance" is so great because they hold her voice until the perfect moment. She still plays a bitchy star with her silent performance up to that part, but once she starts speaking, the laughs become bigger. Last year the whole scene with Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich in Hail, Casar! was cribbed from Lina's diction lesson. Hell it was funny sixty-four years earlier, it should be funny again. Both films are tributes to old Hollywood and they make us aware of some of the foibles that the star system presented to the studios.

There were more than a hundred and fifty people at the afternoon screening today and I am happy to say they were not all of retirement age. I saw a Mom with her two little girls, maybe six and eight. There were four kids who came in together in their late teens, an couples of every age throughout the theater. "Singin' in the Rain" is a national treasure to be taken out and shared on a regular basis. In fact the last time I saw it on the big screen was a Fathom Screening from five years ago for the 60th Anniversary. 

My Daughter and I are working up a project for this year where we will be posting on the 52 films from the TCM Essential Book we purchased last year. Instead of working through the films in order of the year they came out like the book did, we are going to try to do screenings of the movies as much as possible and let that dictate some of the order. "Singin' in the Rain" was  up this weekend, an we just thought of doing this project last week, so this is a natural to start. I Think most of our posts will be Vlogs on Youtube, but I will link them here and put up a page to list all of the links as well. The loss of Debbie Reynolds is a sad way to begin the project, but the joyous film she starred in will live forever and she and it should be celebrated.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Hidden Figures

I am a sucker for movies based on historical events. I don't mean those that are just inspired by true events, I mean stories about history. All narratives are subjective so I recognize that the emphasis of some stories is going to change from one story teller to another, but the key events , they stay the same. A battle is won, a President is Elected or killed, or a human achievement is accomplished. You don't have to make those things up. It is one of the reasons that I look forward to "Dunkirk" next summer. It is a key incident in the outcome of WWII, and even though the story may be dramatized, the events are real. "Hidden Figures" is exactly that type of movie.

For kids of my generation, the American Astronauts were the biggest heroes we could imagine. As a child, I never much paid attention to the technicians I'd see on television,  at their stations, monitoring all that could go wrong. I did however come to recognize them from mission to mission. This movie tells the story behind the scenes of the behind the scenes of the early space missions. The fact that it is an empowering women's film and an important achievement in civil rights is what helps make it so much more interesting and worth telling. A movie about people sitting at desks doing math, sounds almost like the equivalent of watching paint dry. It may be important but it is only going to be of interest to someone who knows the numbers. The people who put those numbers together here are what the story is all about.

Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae are three bright math whizzes, working at doing computations for NASA, and facing two strikes. In 1961, women were largely excluded from the military and science community at NASA and these women happen to be black. They are not however, shrinking violets, they are empowered by their talents and more importantly their mission. Although there is a civil rights story here, it is largely powered by the exigencies of trying to build the math and engineering required for Americans to gain a foothold in the space race. There are a few of the traditional symbols of the movement, MLK speaking on television, violence in the south, and protests about segregation. The two obvious illustrations in this story are not however overtly about a struggle to achieve equal rights but to build an effective team. Henson's character Katherine, has difficulty doing her job because of the bathroom situation. She is excluded in an overtly racist manner by a coffee pot. When Kevin Costner's program director confronts these injustices, it is for building meritocracy, not to correct a social injustice. All of the women characters certainly want social justice, but first they want to be allowed to do their jobs and do them to the best of their ability. That is the most ennobling part of the story that I saw.

This is a film that could easily be a prism viewpoint of the space race as told in "The Right Stuff". Many of the events and characters repeat in the time periods covered. Just as the movie focusing on the Mercury astronauts rightly pointed out, this film amplifies why the recently deceased John Glenn was a national hero. As the three women represent the hidden struggles of the space program and America's self defeating institutional racism, Glenn represents the best in all of us. We want the talented and professionals to do their jobs so everyone else ca. These women showed that there were barriers preventing that from happening, and those barriers shackled our potential. We may not be completely out of the woods on these problems, but thank goodness we don't have the same attitudes with the same prevalence today.

The film manages to be highly entertaining and accessible to all groups. There may be a few small children who would not enjoy it much but everyone else should be happy to see this. There is humor, tension, and heroic drama throughout the film. The few characters that might be seen as villains of the piece are mostly just trapped in the mindset of the time and need some opportunities to grow, just as the oppressed women did. Americans of all races should be proud of the accomplishments of the space program in the sixties. It should be a unifying experience to take the steps to the stars, and this movie reminds us that it would not have been possible if we did not all move forward together.

Sunday, January 1, 2017


This is a tale of two tales. The first half of this movie is compelling and emotionally engaging. It has a fantastic child performance and it says so many things about what is wrong with some aspects of the world that you will want to act after seeing some of it. The second half is anti-climactic for the most part. The extended story of our hero does not play out completely and it raises different issues that seem to be only tangentially related to what we started with. There is another solid performance as well, but it is overshadowed by the legacy of the younger version of our lead character. 

Young Sunny Pawar plays the hero of the story, a kid named Saroo, who gets separated from his family in one of the biggest and most populated countries in the world. The circumstances of his "disappearance" are accidental, but much of the trauma that follows is deliberate and frightening. He is a child of maybe five, several hundred miles from home, in which direction he has no idea, and the only name he knows his Mother by is Mum. The family was scratching out a living doing manual labor and pilfering small amounts of commodities that are unwatched. He ends up in Calcutta, a city teeming with people, many of whom are looking to exploit a child.

We want authority figures and government agencies to be reliable, but as they appear here, it seems they are as much a part of the problem as some of the criminal element. There are some competent people who do finally end up helping Saroo connect with a different family in a country even further away. When Sunny Pawar is playing the character of Saroo, everything seems real and the stakes are so high as to keep us enthralled. When a twenty year period goes by with a single title card, and Saroo is played by Dev Patel, the stakes seem so much lower and the emotions feel like they are straining for significance. Saroo's identity crisis might have been a solid film if the movie had worked backwards. Instead it plays out like some psychological drama that would make an interesting hour on TV.

The complicated relationship the adult Saroo has with his adopted family is told in the most bare bones way possible. There are cryptic references to his adopted brother's drug use and emotional damage. Nicole Kidman as his adopted mother spends a lot of her time weeping for the problems of Mantosh, her second adopted child but Saroo never reaches out to either his mother or father for help in his crisis. They are the two most supportive parents you can imagine, and he is so wound up about his memories of his real brother and mother, that he can't bother to ask for help. This section of the movie is so frustrating because we can't figure out why he feels that way. Even when he has a supportive girlfriend to exchange exposition with.

I know this is based on a true story. When the film ends and we get some clips and a scroll of the truth, it is very compelling. If the film had been a documentary, or the story structure were different, I think I'd have been really more impressed. As it is, I liked the movie a lot, but it depended on the resolution of the search to redeem a dull passage that takes up a big chunk of the film. I've heard award talk about Patel and Kidman, but if anyone in this movie deserves to be honored for their performance, it is a little boy from India who made us care in the first place.