Show Dogs (2018)

Show Dogs is the most bizarrely problematic talking animal film I’ve seen in theaters since the Kevin Spacey talking cat pic Nine Lives two summers ago. It’s so problematic, in fact, that its own studio has since censored scenes of the film deemed dangerous for children’s well-being, something I learned was going to happen a mere hour after I left the cinema. Dangerous, censored, transgressive art is far from the first descriptor that leaps to mind when you set expectations for a children’s movie starting Ludacris as a rapping Rottweiler, but the original unedited version of Show Dogs is now effectively a renegade, outlawed production officially deemed morally unfit for public consumption. Its uncensored form, which screened in theaters nationwide only for the span of a week, has been orphaned as a lost art scene moment, a cinematic event. Banishing its real-world evil back into the pits of Hell was a necessary action Global Road Entertainment should be proud of taking, as the message its deleted footage was sending kids was genuinely risking their safety. Its deletion is also beneficial to adults looking to the ill-advised production for a stray whiff of absurdism, raising the film’s value from sub-Air Bud atrocity to a The Day the Clown Cried type Holy Grail. Show Dogs is now one of the premier cinematic events of 2018, if not only for what footage it’s lost.

The rapping Rottweiler voiced by Ludacris is an undercover cop from a confusing universe where animals can talk, but humans don’t understand them. Their flapping CGI mouths form full sentences and they hold real jobs in offices and everything, but humans just hear barks & meows and so on. At one point a dog even complains, “Why can’t people understand what dogs say?” I don’t know; you tell us. It’s your confusing universe. Anyway, the toughest cop on the force is assigned to go undercover as a show dog (Hey, that’s the name of the show) in a heist plot to rescue a stolen, abused baby panda from underground dealers of rare & exotic animals. Keeping with the tropes of every buddy cop movie ever, he’s teamed up with another hard-ass hothead (Will Arnett in full TMNT mode), a human partner who must learn to collaborate with the canine cop & trust his instincts. The reluctant partners build a heist team meant to prepare the undercover pup for passing as a primped & groomed show dog, most notably including Natasha Lyonne as a pet stylist (with an incredible sense of style of her own; she looks fantastic here) & Stanley Tucci as a former Best in Show champion chihuahua with a snotty French sensibility. The team pull through to save the day, never discovered as frauds, and return the stolen baby panda back to its family (in captivity, weirdly). They even learn a few life lessons (and scar a few thousand children who caught the film early enough in its run) along the way.

The thread that has been removed from Show Dogs is one about grooming, but not the kind you might expect given the film’s setting. One of the cop-dog’s biggest hurdles in remaining undercover as a show dog is the Judge’s Inspection segment of the competition, in which dog show panelists must physically handle the dogs’ genitals. A street-tough police dog, Ludacris’s canine lead Max struggles to endure this indignity without instinctively turning around to bite the person invading his privacy. He’s coached out of this instinct by Arnett & Tucci, who train him to “go to his happy place,” mentally dissociating while his “private parts” are being handled without his consent. The climactic triumph of the film is a sequence in which he mentally transports to a psychedelic Eden where Arnett & Lyonne tell him he’s a good boy and reenact the climax of Dirty Dancing with him against a background of kaleidoscopic fireworks . . . all while his genitals are being inspected by a stranger. Can you see why this might be a dangerous life lesson to teach impressionable children? It wasn’t lost on the concerned parents of the mommy blogosphere. One (rightfully) alarmist piece written by Terina Maldonado of East Mesa Macaroni Kid gained enough traction to have Global Road Entertainment pull the footage from the film. The “happy place” tactic is explained in that piece to be a very real method that real-life child molesters use to “groom” their young victims into unquestioning compliance, a factoid I can’t believe I typed without vomiting. Maldonado’s account of Show Dogs is extremely (and understandably) fixated on this aspect of the film’s plot, making me assume it was going to be a consistent throughline throughout the film. Instead, it is (or was) contained to a single training montage & a climactic exchange with the dog show judge. At first, the limited amount of “private parts inspection” footage made me question just how potentially impactful the film’s grooming message really was. When the judge’s inspection is met with a dead-silent horror atmosphere where the soundtrack is overwhelmed by the dog’s pounding heartbeat, however, there’s nothing you can qualify the exchange as but a rape scene. In a kids’ movie. About talking animals. Evil, but also incredible that it ever screened at all.

The dark truth about Show Dogs is that even with the genital molestation/”happy place” narrative thread removed, the film is still deeply flawed on a moral level. At its heart, this is a film about toxic masculinity (You thought it was about adorable talking animals? Fool!), but it’s also a perpetuator of toxic masculinity. Max is “a street dog with a temper” that has to learn life lessons like “Maybe it’s not the worst idea to get some help,” which is a much more adorable sentiment to convey to kids than the one that’s been censored into oblivion. What’s uncomfortable about his gradual change of heart is the way this “alpha” dog (speaking of canine terms that have evil cultural contexts elsewhere) is characterized in opposition to the implied frivolity & vanity of the show dog world, something more femme than his masc sensibilities can handle without embarrassment. It’s weird enough that other dogs allude to the size of Max’s dick, that a lady-pigeon (voiced by Kate Micucci) fawns over his gruff masculinity in lines like “He can flip this bird any day,” and that he’s taught humility in a scene where Arnette & Lyonne wax his anus (again, without consent). What’s really fucked is where he & Arnett finally bond when the owner chooses to not force him to breed against his will with an over-the-top flamboyant pup voiced by RuPaul. Now, in-film, RuPaul’s character is gendered as a female dog, but the gag plays as bizarrely homophobic anyway, as his over-the-top vocal performance (which includes a number of Drag Race catchphrases) disgusts Max in a way that reads distinctly as gay panic humor. Like with all of Show Dog’s sins against good taste & morality, its homophobia & toxic masculinity are bizarrely complex to the point of absurdity.

There are plenty of standard, cheap camp thrills to be found in Show Dogs’s minor joys as a 2010s, theatrically released talking-dog movie, a leftover relic from another time. I could try to sell this movie to you as an absurdist joy for watching Ludacris’s talking cop-dog perform impossible acrobatic maneuvers through cheap CGI or deliver hacky one-liners like “This is ludicrous!” or “I’m about to take a bite out of crime.” The truth is, though, that minor pleasures like Shaq voicing a Zen sheepdog named Doggy Lama or CGI dogs dabbing are just background noise for the film’s main draw: its propensity for real-world evil. Even with its “private parts inspection” narrative rightly removed, Show Dogs still has a genuinely menacing, toxic undertone that’s impressive in both its audacity & its cluelessness. Although its absurdist joys are minor, it’s a movie that must be seen to be believed (especially its original, intact “grooming” cut), as it’s tough to fathom how this many people, from the executives at Global Road down to the on-set catering crew, allowed it to happen. It’s more of a man-made disaster than a feature film in that way and all we can do as audiences is rubberneck at the wreckage. Don’t allow children to gaze at this atrocity, however; what they see could be scarring.

-Brandon Ledet

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Director Wes Anderson has such a meticulously curated aesthetic that his work is almost polarizing by design. As his career has developed over the decades, long outlasting the wave of “twee” media it partly inspired, he’s only more fully committed himself to the fussed-over dollhouse preciousness of his manicured visual style. That can be a huge turnoff for audiences who prefer a messier, grimier view of the world that accepts chaos & spontaneity as an essential part of filmmaking. Personally, I can’t help but be enraptured with Anderson’s films, as if my adoration of his work were a biological impulse. Like the way house cats host parasites that fool pet owners into caring for them, it’s as if Wes Anderson has nefariously wired my brain to be wholly onboard with his artistic output. It’s a gradual poisoning of my critical thinking skills that stretches back to my high school years, when his films Rushmore & The Royal Tenenbaums first established him as a (divisive) indie cinema icon. Anderson’s latest work, Isle of Dogs, only makes his supervillain-level command over my critical mind even more powerful by directly pandering directly to things I personally love. A stop-motion animated sci-fi feature about doggos who run wild on a dystopian pile of literal garbage, the basic elevator pitch for Isle of Dogs already sounds like a Mad Libs-style grab bag of the exact bullshit I love to see projected on the big screen, even without Wes Anderson’s name attached. As he already demonstrated with Fantastic Mr. Fox, the director’s twee-flavored meticulousness also has a wider appeal when seen in the context of stop-motion, which generally requires a level of whimsy, melancholy, and visual fussiness to be pulled off well. That’s why it’s so frustrating that Isle of Dogs is so flawed on such a fundamental, conceptual level and that I can’t help but thoroughly enjoy it anyway, despite my better judgment.

Set decades into the future in a dystopian Japan, Isle of Dogs details the samurai epic-style adventure of a young boy attempting to rescue his dog from an evil, corrupt government (helmed by his own uncle). All dogs in his region have been exiled to the pollution-saturated hell of Trash Island (which is exactly what it sounds like) amidst mass hysteria over a canine-specific virus, “snout fever.” The story is split between two efforts: a search & rescue mission involving the boy & a gang of talking Trash Island dogs (voiced by Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Ed Norton, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, etc.) and a much less compelling political intrigue narrative in which an American foreign exchange student (voiced by Greta Gerwig) attempts to expose the government’s villainous deeds. As an American outsider himself, Wes Anderson is at times contextually positioned in the POV of both the Trash Island Dogs and the foreign exchange student, the only consequential English-speaking characters in the film (a large portion of the dialogue is unsubtitled Japanese). In his worst impulses, Anderson is like Gerwig’s foreign exchange student– an enthusiastic appreciator of Japanese culture who awkwardly inserts themselves into conversations where they don’t belong, wrongfully feeling entitled to authority on a subject that is not theirs to claim. From a more generous perspective, Anderson is like one of the American-coded trash dogs– compelled to honor & bolster Japanese art from a place of humbled servitude, even though he doesn’t quite speak the language (either culturally or literally). By choosing to set an English language story in a fictional Japanese future, Wes Anderson has invited intense scrutiny that often overpowers Isle of Dogs’s ambitious sci-fi themes, talking-dog adorability, and visually stunning artwork. This is especially true in Gerwig’s (admittedly minor) portion of the plot, which sticks out like a sore thumb as one of the film’s more conceptually flawed impulses. For a work so visually masterful & emotionally deft, it’s frustrating that it seemingly wasn’t at all self-aware of its own cultural politics.

There are much better-equipped critics who’ve more thoughtfully & extensively tackled the nuanced ways Isle of Dogs has failed to fully justify its Japanese culture-gazing: Inkoo Kang, Justin Chang, Emily Yoshida, Alison Willmore, to name a few. As a white American, it’s not my place to declare whether this gray area issue makes the film worthy of vitriol or just cautions consideration. I could maybe push back slightly on the cultural appropriation claims that say there’s no reason the story had to be framed in Japan and that Anderson only chose that setting for its visual aesthetic. Like Kubo & The Two Strings’s philosophical relationship with the finality of death (or lack thereof), Isle of Dogs engages with themes of honor and ancestry that feel very specific to its Japanese setting (even if not at a fully satisfying depth). Truth be told, though, I likely would have enjoyed the film even without that thematic justification. Unless Isle of Dogs is your very first exposure to the director’s work, you’ve likely already formed a relationship with Wes Anderson as an artist, whether positive or negative. It’s a relationship that can only be reinforced as the director doubles down with each project, sinking even deeper into his own particular quirks. I assumed with Moonrise Kingdom that no film could have possibly gotten more Wes Andersony. Its follow-up, Grand Budapest Hotel, immediately proved that assumption wrong. While Isle of Dogs stacks up nicely to either of those films in terms of visual achievements, its own doubling-down on the Wes Anderson aesthetic is tied to the director’s long history of blissful ignorance in approaching POC cultures (most notably before in The Darjeeling Limited). It does so by submerging itself in a foreign culture entirely without fully engaging with the implications of that choice. As a longtime Anderson devotee in the face of this doubling-down, I’m going to have to reconcile my love of his films with the fact that this exact limitation has always been a part of them, that I’ve willfully overlooked it in my appreciation of what he achieves visually, emotionally, and comedically elsewhere. Isle of Dogs is a gorgeous work of visual art and a very distinct approach to dystopian sci-fi. It’s a great film, but also a culturally oblivious one. The conversation around that internal conflict is just as vital as any praise for its technical achievements.

-Brandon Ledet

Heart of a Dog (2015)

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fourhalfstar

Laurie Anderson is one of the world’s greatest living artists, full stop. I’m throwing that accolade out there not only because it’s so very true, but also to admit a bias before I review her latest work, a “documentary” that pushes the boundaries of not-for-everyone cinema to a ludicrous extreme. Those turned off by loose, experimental filmmaking will likely find Heart of a Dog‘s philosophical navel-gazing insufferable. Obsessive cinephiles might also recoil at the film’s cheap, blasé mode of rough visual collage, an aesthetic that combines 80s art school technique with the most disposable of digital photography available. Both sides of that divide might find plenty reasons to groan or roll eyes at Anderson’s verbal meditation & casual poetry. Heart of a Dog is a work that I love & appreciate deeply, but would never be shocked to hear that someone else didn’t feel the same way. It’s the same tone of affection I have for the out-there art of pro wrestlers, John Waters, Death Grips, and Xiu Xiu. You’ll never hear me incredulously ask, “You didn’t like that? Why not?!” I totally get why not. The only difference with Heart of a Dog is that it stimulates a more intellectual, philosophical area of my mind than some of those acts & the type of art I generally seek out typically do.

Heart of a Dog is being billed as a documentary & its distribution was recently picked up by the HBO Docs imprint, but I believe that genre distinction is wildly misleading. The film is more like an act of meditation or hypnosis, playing like a weird lecture from an alternate dimension, a Dianetics DVD for the terminally bizarre. Even though I’m a huge fan of Anderson’s decades of spoken word & experimental pop music work, I’ve been a little weary of watching this film since it was released, because I expected it to be a brave, emotionally bare account of her beloved rat terrier Lola’s death that served as a means to deal with the also-recent death of her husband, Lou Reed. I was selling the artist a little short there. The losses of Lola & Lou inform every frame of Heart of a Dog, but they’re part of a larger tapestry of ideas that cover everything from the modern surveillance state to living in New York during 9/11 to the tenants of Buddhism to the existence of ghosts. Lou Reed’s absence weighs heavily on the proceedings, cropping up in an occasional image or song or dedication, but speaks volumes as Laurie Anderson instead discusses the process of accepting loss in terms of her dog, her dog’s sight, the twin towers, a world before the omnipresence of modern technology, and a mother she feels she never genuinely loved. As with all of Laurie Anderson’s work, Heart of a Dog is a writer’s delight, an intense meditation on the bizarre nature of language, but this film stands as her most fiercely personal work to date. It not only covers the whirlwind of painful change & transition she’s survived in recent years; it also lays out in simple, clear terms how she sees the known world & the unknown one that follows. Nearly every word, sound, and image in the film was created by Anderson herself and by the end credits the film feels like a snapshot of her very soul.

As weighty as that description sounds, Heart of a Dog is just as playful as it is philosophical. When making a “documentary” about death, loss, and the basic structure of the known & unknown universe, it probably helps to keep the mood as light as possible, which Anderson accomplishes by centering the POV on that of a dog. When Lola was alive she was taught to paint, sculpt, and play piano, all on display for the camera. Besides exhibiting these canine works of fine art, Anderson also shifts the camera’s POV to a dog’s-eye-view, playing with shaky, blue-green messes of birds, puddles, trash, and other dogs. You know, dog stuff. There’s also a few wonderfully surreal accounts of Anderson’s dog-themed dreams that toe the line between morbidity & absurdist humor. Anderson knows exactly how ridiculous these moments are, too. As part of Heart of a Dog‘s press tour & post-release growth she’s been screening the film for canine audiences & performing concerts for dogs on talk shows & in art gallery spaces. You always get the sense that she takes the dogs & her performances for the dogs seriously, but there’s also a sly smirk to the whole endeavor that suggests the ridiculousness of the situation (and of life in general) is all part of the act.

If you’re not thrown off by Anderson’s meditative, hypnotic musings on life & the afterlife, you’re just as likely to be resistant to Heart of a Dog‘s oddly cheap & off-putting visual poetry. The film employs a kind of layered visual collage that plays like a shoddy take on the works of Dave McKean, Guy Maddin, and Don Hetrzfeldt in attempt to mimic the scattered, blurred shape of memory & personal perception. Anderson mixes stock footage, digital photography, home movies, and animation to bring her trademark spoken word work to vivid, visual life. Heart of a Dog can sometimes play like a tangled mess of power lines, pyramids, smoke, helicopters, tree branches and, duh, dogs. However, it’s a distinct, deliberate visual style that not only exists to serve Anderson’s intense soundscape & language play, but also taps into the immediacy & intimacy of a private home movie collection.

It’s difficult to say if Heart of a Dog would be a great primer for becoming a fan of Anderson’s work. I didn’t find it to be any more or less accessible than her magnum opus United States I-IV, except maybe that it demands 1/4th of that masterpiece’s run-time. As someone already won over by her particular, peculiar philosophy, language and music, however, I’ll say that I could gladly continue to watch her make these weird little meditative art films forever, though perhaps without the heartache & despair that inspired Heart of Dog in the first place. I wouldn’t want her to have to live through that pain again, but I’d gladly reap the rewards as long as they’re as winning & engaging as this wonderful film.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 11: Shiloh (1997)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Shiloh (1997) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 64 of the first edition hardback, Ebert reminisces about his childhood dog Blackie & all of the cinematic dogs he’s fallen in love with over the years. He writes, “Every time I see a dog in a movie, I think the same thing: I want that dog. I see Skip or Lucy or Shiloh and for a moment I can’t even think about the movie’s plot. I can only think about the dog. I want to hold it, pet it, take it for walks, and tell it what a good dog it is. I want to love it, and I want it to love me. I have an empty space inside myself that can only be filled by a dog.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “Adults may have the power to take away a kid’s dog and tell him a story about it, but they do not have the right. Some of those feelings came into play when I saw ‘Shiloh,’ which is a remarkably mature and complex story about a boy who loves a dog and cannot bear to see it mistreated. It isn’t some dumb kiddie picture. It’s about deep emotions, and represents the real world with all of its terrors and responsibilities.” -from his 1997 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

If My Dog Skip was proof that fluff films about dogs can easily escape criticism by relying on the cuteness of their puppy protagonists and Wendy & Lucy proved that the human-dog relationship could actually be put to a higher dramatic purpose, where does that leave Shiloh, the third film in the dog-centric trio Ebert narrowed in on as exemplifiers of canine cinema? The answer is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Much like My Dog Skip, Shiloh has a cheap, oddly nostalgic schmaltz to it that makes you wonder how it ever escaped straight-to-VHS purgatory in the first place. However, its central story carries a striking brutality that feels way out of place with its generic kids’ movie trappings, aligning it more with Wendy & Lucy‘s emotional harshness on a thematic level. Shiloh is a difficult film to pigeonhole due to the clash of its Hallmark Channel cheese with its the-hard-facts-of-life coldness and the resulting tone is deeply off-putting at times due to this internal struggle. It’s at times exactly what you’d expect from a film about a boy & his beagle and at times the darkest, furthest thing from it.

Shiloh opens with a heartless hunter beating a young beagle due to its stubborn inability to perform simple commands. He eventually kicks the poor pup so hard that it runs away & seeks a new owner in a young boy. In a simpler film the boy’s family would’ve helped him keep the dog away from the evil, abusive hunter. Shiloh surprises by instead raising moral crises about responsibility, honesty, and ownership. The boy’s father insists that he return the dog to the dark-souled hunter, as the dog is legally his property. The hunter treats the dog as a worker or an appliance, not even assigning it a name. The boy loves the animal as a pet, but that doesn’t necessarily give him the right to keep it. He spends his entire summer trying to earn the ownership, attempting to win the dog back both through above-the-board means like money earned from physical labor and through shady practices like theft & dishonesty. The drunken hunter’s villainy is just as much of a grey area as the means through which the boy tries to earn “his” dog back. His coldness is a result of a lifetime suffering through the cycles of abuse & the boy can’t quite fully bring himself to hating the brute, despite his constant threats to kill & maim the dog he loves.

I’m not entirely on board with Shiloh‘s central man-up message that values a very rigid, old-fashioned version of masculinity that honestly is losing its relevance in the modern world. There’s a small amount of criticism of this attitude in the film, like when the hunter explains “It’s just like the Bible says, animals are put here for us. They ain’t got no other purpose or feelings.” This is obviously untrue & is meant to play as a despicable attitude, but there’s still plenty of “A man is only as good as his word” & other toughen-up cliches that rub me the wrong way here. Still, I give the film a lot of credit for raising the stakes so high in its central conflict and making a very real, very terrifying threat of abuse the centerpiece of a children’s movie about a cute beagle. I can see why Ebert was so impressed with how willing the film was to grapple with hefty moral issues. It probably also struck a particular chord with the critic because his own childhood dog, Blackie, was part beagle, a bias he has no problem openly admitting at length in his review. Still, I can only see the film as a very minor work that’s a little overlong for its message & probably undeserving of its two (!!!!) sequels. Although it’s more serious-minded than the suffocating cheese of My Dog Skip I think they’re about on the same level in terms of overall quality. The only film in this makeshift doggy trilogy that deserves to be treated as a work of art is Wendy & Lucy, which is truly fantastic & touching in a way the other two films don’t even approach.

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Roger’s Rating: (3.5/4, 88%)

threehalfstar

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

three star

Next Lesson: Mean Streets (1973)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 10: Wendy and Lucy (2008)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Wendy and Lucy (2008) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 64 of the first edition hardback, Ebert reminisces about his childhood dog Blackie & all of the cinematic dogs he’s fallen in love with over the years. He writes, “Every time I see a dog in a movie, I think the same thing: I want that dog. I see Skip or Lucy or Shiloh and for a moment I can’t even think about the movie’s plot. I can only think about the dog. I want to hold it, pet it, take it for walks, and tell it what a good dog it is. I want to love it, and I want it to love me. I have an empty space inside myself that can only be filled by a dog.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “The people in [Wendy and Lucy] haven’t dropped out of life; they’ve been dropped by life. It has no real use for them, and not much interest. They’re on hold. At least searching for your lost dog is a consuming passion; it gives Wendy a purpose and the hope of joy at the end. That’s what this movie has to observe, and it’s more than enough.” -from his 2008 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“You can’t get an address without an address. You can’t get a job without a job. It’s all fixed.”

Ebert was onto something when he mentioned in his review of My Dog Skip that certain movies, particularly movies about dogs, exist outside of critical language. The pathos of a pet owner’s relationship with their dog is strong enough in its sentimentality that a movie doesn’t have to do much to get by on that emotion/nostalgia alone. My Dog Skip skated by in this way as a passably okay movie. It’s not particularly well made or interesting, but its sappy love for canines was sufficient enough on its own to escape any pointed criticism. Shooting the movie down would be like criticizing a birthday card from your grandmother for its lack of literary ambition.

Wend and Lucy has no such tendency to rely on that dog owner sentimentality for easy drama/emotional provocation. A dirt cheap drama starring Michelle Williams years before she was a recognizable name, Wendy and Lucy tells the story of a down-on-her-luck migrant worker traveling to Alaska in hopes of landing a seasonal gig at a cannery. While on her way the titular Wendy finds herself near broke, friendless, and without a vehicle in small town Oregon. Worst yet, her only companion, a dog named Lucy, goes missing. Instead of the broad, overly sentimental strokes My Dog Skip paints with, Wendy and Lucy finds tonal devastation in subtle details. The film’s tendency for narrative understatement threatens to alienate the audience from caring about or fully understanding Wendy’s plight, but the feeling of having lost your dog/your entire world is such a universally recognizable gut punch that her predicament is all too relatable from the outside looking in.

Besides employing the universality of human-dog companionship to clue the audience in on where Wendy is in life, the movie also relies on recognizable hallmarks of an economy in shambles to introduce us to her struggle. She’s plundering pocket change for dog food, sifting through highway litter for recyclable aluminum cans, shoplifting, and relying on word of mouth from train-hopping crusties (including Will Oldham among them of all people), who are dog magnets in case you were unaware, just to scrape by. Wendy is recognizable to the audience because she’s every poor soul who’s been left behind by a cutthroat economy that has no room for them. This is the kind of character for whom $50 could make or break their entire life. Wendy’s background & motivation don’t need to be any more specific for the film’s emotional stakes to land. We know who she is & we’re invested in her success.

A lesser film might’ve crafted some kind of explicit metaphor out of Wendy’s lost dog/lost place in the world, but, again, this is not the same kind of drama as the on-the-nose (er, snout?) emotional manipulation as that of My Dog Skip (or, more recently, White God). Wendy and Lucy’s overbearing sense of dread & imminent danger is more of a tone than a blatant provocation. The vulnerability of Wendy being alone in a strange place, not having a place to sleep, and resorting to the nerve-racking tactic of tying Lucy up when entering places of business (Lucy is a good girl, but that always makes me nervous) all combine to make for a terrifying atmosphere. The stakes are relatively small here compared to a summer blockbuster where a CGI threat from another dimension might crush an entire city, but that small scale specificity only helps the emotional weight feel significant. One of the saddest shots in this film is a dialogueless pan across all the jailed dogs’ cells at a local pound. One of the biggest offenses committed is a character coldly spitting, “If a person can’t afford a dog they shouldn’t have a dog.” I’ll admit that some of the drama here is dependent upon the audience’s sentimental affection for dogs in general (this particularly hit home for me when Wendy refers to Lucy as “Lou”, which was the name of my first pet, a cat), but that sentiment was a starting point, not an end goal. Wendy and Lucy moves in small, calculated stabs at heartbreaking drama that makes that jumping point necessary, but the tenderly sad payoff of the end more than justifies the means.

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Roger’s Ranking: (3.5/4, 88%)

threehalfstar

Brandon’s Ranking: (4/5, 80%)

fourstar

Next Lesson: Shiloh (1996)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 9: My Dog Skip (2000)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where My Dog Skip (2000) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 64 of the first edition hardback, Ebert reminisces about his childhood dog Blackie & all of the cinematic dogs he’s fallen in love with over the years. He writes, “Every time I see a dog in a movie, I think the same thing: I want that dog. I see Skip or Lucy or Shiloh and for a moment I can’t even think about the movie’s plot. I can only think about the dog. I want to hold it, pet it, take it for walks, and tell it what a good dog it is. I want to love it, and I want it to love me. I have an empty space inside myself that can only be filled by a dog.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “The sweet thing about ‘My Dog Skip’ is the way it understands the friendship between a kid and a dog. Dogs accomplish amazing things in the movies, but the best thing Skip does is look up at his master, eager to find out what they’re gonna do next.” -from his 2000 review for The Chicago Sun Times

I remember seeing My Dog Skip in the theaters as an angsty teen in 2000 & being insulted by the film’s relentlessly overly-sentimental melodrama. The movie downright offended me in the way it tried to illicit gooey, genuine feelings in its maudlin, Hallmarkish story about a boy & his dog. The years have softened me around the edges, though, and when revisiting the film now it’s difficult to muster up the same kind of anger I felt in the theater that day. My Dog Skip is a maudlin, half-hearted picture about the special connection an awkward child develops with his first pet, but I was totally okay with that lack of ambition or nuance this time around. This isn’t a particularly memorable or exceptional movie in any particular way, but it’s also not an especially bad one either. As far as kids’ movies about Jack Russell terriers go, it’s a much more tender, nostalgic picture than, say, the mixed-species pro wrestling action comedy Russell Madness, but that’s okay. There’s more than enough room in this world for mostly decent movies about really good dogs to justify their own existence.

In the film, a very young Frankie Muniz (at the very beginning of his career-defining run on Malcolm in the Middle) struggles with the daunting task of making friends in a town of young bullies determined to break his spirit & label him a “sissy” in World War II-era Mississippi. To help him combat this loneliness, the boy’s mother buys him a Jack Russell terrier for his 9th birthday, a dog he names Skip. His father (an overly-surly Kevin Bacon) is at first against this development, complaining that “He’s a little boy & a dog is a big responsibility” and that because dogs eventually die or run away Skip is “just a heartbreak waiting to happen.” Fair enough, but heartbreak is a part of growing up & Skip eventually proves his worth in the family by bringing his pint-sized owner out of his shell & allowing him to grow as a young man with goals, confidence, and a social life. There’s a few gags here or there about Skip playing baseball & football, driving a car, enlisting in the army, and going to the movies, but for the most part My Dog Skip is a pretty straight-forward coming of age story about how much a little boy loves his dog. It’s simple & maybe even a little bit mawkish, but it’s fairly effective stuff.

Ebert himself mentions in his own review that it’s difficult to be too hard on this film critically, given that it was seemingly made with a very young audience in mind. He writes, “A movie like this falls outside ordinary critical language. Is it good or bad? Is there too much melodrama? I don’t have any idea. It triggered too many thoughts of my own for me to have much attention left over for footnotes.” After reading Life Itself‘s depiction of Ebert’s childhood, it’s easy to see how My Dog Skip could trigger a critic-proof sense of nostalgia for Roger & the film almost takes on the function of an illustration of that phase in his life. Ebert owned a different breed of dog as a child & his home state of Illinois was a far cry from My Dog Skip‘s Mississippi setting, but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine him looking back fondly on his childhood & the “simpler times” long gone while watching the movie.

I don’t have that same connection to this version of the past as Ebert did & I found myself frustrated with the way the movie brought up hefty issues like segregation-era race relations & wartime corruption of youthful exuberance (represented here in a Luke Wilson role that feels half-baked at best) only to leave them almost wholly unaddressed. It’s difficult to watch the film without thinking of movies that have tackled this kind of coming-of-age period comedy much more sincerely: Matinee, The Sandlot, and Stand By Me all immediately come to mind. Again, all of this is rather inconsequential, though, as the film’s limited ambitions in terms of its craft & the simplicity of its target audience shield it from most critical scrutiny. If you have any affection for emotional bonds with dogs & the emotional frailty of friendless children, the film is bound to strike a chord with you that overrides almost all complaints you could muster about its lack of attention to craft. I didn’t have that sentimentality in me at 13, but I have an excess of it now that I’m nearing 30 & I ended up finding the film very sweet at a second glance despite its hokey simplicity.

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Roger’s Ranking: (3/4, 75%)

three star

Brandon’s Ranking (3/5, 60%)

three star

Next Lesson: Wendy and Lucy (2008)

-Brandon Ledet

 

White God (2015)

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fourhalfstar

White God opens with an immediate delivery of its basic hook: a canine revolution. Our young teen protagonist Lili is shown biking down empty city streets, passing the same vacant cars & eerie urban voids that begin 28 Days Later. Before you can piece together an answer to “What happened here?” Lili meets a canine flood. Hundreds of real-life pups chase her down the road, suggesting some kind of Dogpocalypse. Even in these opening minutes you’re overwhelmed with the feeling that White God is an instant classic or, at the very least, something you’re not likely to see too many times in your life. The trick is once it has you on the hook with a taste of what’s to come, it has to earn the grand scale lunacy of that moment, which the film backtracks to accomplish with an intense tale of (somewhat supernatural) revenge.

Although Lili is first shown bracing the Dogpocalypse by herself, she’s far from alone in this world. Her pet mutt Hagen is Lili’s right hand dog, forming a strong sense of solidarity with her as the pair is passed off to her meat inspector father for a three month visit. Lili’s father is not fond of the dog, to say the least, and at first it’s tough to see his tenderness for his own daughter as well. The parallels between Lili & Hagen are established as early as when they’re being passed off to the nonplussed meat inspector at his slaughterhouse workplace. As they’re walked to his car, two cows are literally marched to the slaughter, hammering home the metaphor as much as possible in visual shorthand. As Hagen is shouted at, dragged by the collar, isolated, and abused throughout the film, Lili is similarly pushed around by the cops, teachers, and parental figures of her life. Her coming of age story poses a teenage girl’s lack of autonomy to be just as miserable & vulnerable as that of an abused street dog. As Hagen hurts his paw, Lili injures her leg. As Hagen’s filmed galloping down city streets, Lili prowls the very same locations on her bicycle, etc.

As similar as their troubled paths may be, however, it’s difficult to argue that Lili’s struggles with authority figures & indifferent older crushes are nearly as devastating as the indignities Hagen suffers. A mixed-breed street dog, Hagen is cruelly treated by every human being in his life in a gradually escalating gauntlet of abuse. After the cold beratement he suffers from Lili’s father, Hagen is abandoned roadside & left to fend for himself. A large part of the movie’s narrative takes a dog’s POV in a style that’s much more akin to the harsh realities of Baxter than it is to Homeward Bound. The confusing chaos of ducking through traffic, scavenging for puddles to drink & garbage to eat, and curiously pawing at roadkill are only the start to Hagen’s perilous journey. He initially makes enemies with animal control, a villain the film holds common with Shaun the Sheep & Babe 2: Pig in the City, but then his growing list of wrongdoers escalates to include butcher shop employees, desperate & homeless fiends, and heartless animal shelter brutes. Worst of all is an organized dogfighting ring (portrayed here in disturbing detail) that systematically abuses Hagen into becoming a trained killer instead of the sappy sweetheart he was in Lili’s protection. Speaking of Lili, even she becomes culpable in Hagen’s abuse as she gets so distracted with her own life that she gives up looking for her best friend, who’d been left to survive alone.

The good news is that as much as White God tests the strength & patience of animal lovers’ hearts (that dogfighting ring sequence is particularly brutal), it also delivers the immense sweetness of abused dogs’ revenge in a way so satisfying & so calculated that it approaches the supernatural. The final half hour of the film, which features extended sequences of Dogpocalypse mayhem & very precise acts of revenge on Hagen’s list of enemies, reaches a grand scale crescendo of chaos that rivals anything you’d see in a more well-funded natural horror film, like a Godzilla or a King Kong. White God pulls a surprising amount of pathos out of a dog’s dialogue-free journey through various forms of cruel captivity, whether he’s displaying the unbridled freedom of a leashless run, assembling a gang of dogpound miscreants (in curiously butsniffing-free exchanges), or, sadly, transforming from a kind soul to a hardened killer. Dogs really do just want to please us. They want to make us proud, asking only for love & attention in return. Even if you can see where the movie is going in its final minutes as Lili answers for her own participation in Hagen’s abandonment & resulting abuse, the climax still hits hard. Both in the sheer joy of beholding seemingly all of the world’s abused dogs exact their revenge on us human scum & in the tender intimacy of watching two wounded animals, Hagen & Lili, facing off & reconciling their pasts, White God makes every ounce of suffering that came before the climax well worth it. It’s a rare, satisfying conclusion of a genuinely strange film that gratifies both in its willingness to go over the top & in its ability to touch you emotionally.

-Brandon Ledet