‘Dog’ Movie and Blu-ray Review

The following review was written by Ultimate Rabbit correspondent, Tony Farinella.

There is nothing about “Dog” that will offend your cinematic senses, nor is there anything in the film which will reinvent the wheel.  This is a simple movie with a simple concept.  For a lot of filmgoers, they probably love the idea of a dog movie starring Channing Tatum, who also co-directed the film with its screenwriter, Reid Carolin.  For some people, they are fine with a film that just leaves them feeling happy and does not require a lot of thought behind it.  They simply kick back their feet and enjoy themselves.  At times, I believe film can be a great form of escapism when done right.  In the case of “Dog,” there are individual moments that worked in the film, but as a whole, it’s missing a lot of key ingredients.

“Dog” follows Jackson Briggs (Channing Tatum), a former U.S. Army Ranger, who is having a tough time adjusting to regular life.  He has brain injuries and PTSD.  When the film opens, he’s making sandwiches at a sandwich shop, which is clearly not the best use of his skills.  Because of this, he’s eager to do something that will challenge and excite him. He wants to be put on the rotation for Pakistan, but there are major concerns about his health and if he will be able to handle it. He assures them he is fine, but it is clear he’s struggling.

This image released by MGM shows Channing Tatum in a scene from “Dog.” (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures via AP)

When one of his former squad members is killed in a car accident, he is given the task of driving Lulu, a Belgian Malinois military dog, to Arizona for the funeral.  If he does this successfully, they will put in a good word for Briggs for a future tour. After the funeral, Lulu, because of its violent nature, will have to be put down. From here, the film turns into a road trip movie with Briggs and Lulu.  The dog causes a lot of headaches for him, especially when he’s trying to have sex. There is also a comical run-in with a psychic and her paranoid husband, played by former professional wrestler Kevin Nash.  It was great to see Nash on the big screen once again.  There is also a cameo by comedian Bill Burr.

There are other encounters along the way for both Briggs and Lulu. Some of them are successful and some of them are unsuccessful.  Some of them are funny, and some of them are what you would expect in a road trip movie featuring Tatum and a dog.  I imagine that was a big selling point for the film.  Considering the low budget for the film and its final box office numbers, it was a low-risk, high reward project for the studio.  From an artistic standpoint, the film has real issues with its pacing.  It’s very slow-moving and tedious to sit through at times, even though it’s 101 minutes. Tatum is a fine actor, but he’s not the kind of actor who is going to keep my interest for an entire film as the lead.  Even though I love animals, the same is true of the dog.

This is a feel-good flick with a lackluster story.  It’s not a bad movie.  It’s average, run-of-the-mill, and forgettable.  After it was over with, there wasn’t anything from the film that really stayed with me.  Considering its subject material (the impact and healing powers of animals and the real struggles the military deals with from a mental health perspective), they could have done a lot more here.  Instead, they played it safe and easy with a formulaic film that needed a little more bite to it, no pun intended. There are some laughs to be had here, especially with some of the cast members I mentioned, but they are few and far between.  I’m sure a lot of families and Tatum fans will enjoy this film. It didn’t do it for me, however.

* * out of * * * *

Blu-ray Info: “Dog” is released on a two-disc Blu-ray and DVD Combo Pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment, which also comes with a digital copy of the film. It is rated PG-13 for language, thematic elements, drug content, and some suggestive material.  It has a running time of 101 minutes.

Video/Audio Info:  The film comes on 1080p High Definition with two audio tracks: DTS-HD MA: English 5.1 and Dolby Digital: English Descriptive Audio. Subtitles are in English and Spanish.

Special Features:

“Dog” Trailer

Should You Buy It?

I can’t think of any reason to buy this film unless you are part of the Channing Tatum fan club.  The film has its heart in the right place, so I can’t fault it for that.  It just doesn’t want to try to break out of its formula.  The film follows all of the familiar beats one would expect in a film like this, and it ends exactly how you would expect it to end.  It follows the formula from A to Z.  It does not take any chances or have any surprises, whatsoever.  I don’t even think it’s worth a Redbox rental.  It’s a film you can completely pass on, and you will be just fine. The Blu-ray does not come with any special features, which is a bummer.  It would have been nice to see how Tatum worked with the dog and some of the challenges it presented for the actor. I feel like the Grinch giving this film a bad review, but its screenplay is just lazy and the pacing is really rough.  I’d pass on this one altogether.

**Disclaimer** I received a Blu-ray copy of this film from Warner Brothers to review for free.  The opinions and statements in the review are mine and mine alone.

‘Away We Go’ – Sam Mendes At His Most Laid Back

In 2008, director Sam Mendes gave us the marriage from hell with one of the year’s best movies, “Revolutionary Road.” We saw those two “Titanic” stars go at it like they were reincarnations of the characters from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and the movie proved to be a horror show more than anything else as we saw this doomed couple descend into the hell which is marriage in dull suburbia. Then in 2009, Mendes gave us a movie which is more or less its polar opposite, “Away We Go.” It’s a sweet if flawed comedy-drama that focuses on a couple who manage to stick it out together as they travel from one city to another in an effort to find a place they can call home. You could almost say this is Mendes’ apology for the horrifying experience which was “Revolutionary Road,” but that movie was so damn good, why should he have to apologize for it? At least with this one, he observes a loving couple who are not out to scream at one another.

“Away We Go” stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as Burt and Verona, a couple who suddenly find themselves expecting their first child (the moment Burt finds out is classic). They share their great news with Burt’s parents, Jerry and Gloria Farlander (the always fantastic Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara), whom they see as their chief support system through the pregnancy. However, Jerry and Gloria end up laying a bombshell on the expecting couple by announcing they will be moving to Belgium for two years, and they will be leaving before their grandchild comes into the world. The only reason they have stayed in their present location was to be close to Burt’s parents (Verona’s are both dead), and so they both decide to go on a vacation to find a new home with people they know who they can form a strong family unit with.

With “Away We Go,” Mendes gives us a road movie with two characters traveling from Arizona to Montreal to find a home they can call their own. Signs keep popping up like “AWAY TO TUSCON” or “AWAY TO MIAMI” as Burt and Verona continue their travels, hoping to find the support system they need. Things get off to a shaky start when they first go to Phoenix and meet up with Verona’s old boss, Lily (Allison Janney), and her alienated family. This moment plays more like a sitcom and features situations I have seen many times before, and it made me feel like the rest of the movie would be even worse. Janney is a hoot, but she plays the scene too broadly and it never feels real enough. Jim Gaffigan, on the other hand, who plays Lily’s emotionally repressed husband Lowell, fares better as he doesn’t overplay his hand. There is one moment where he goes over all the bad things which could be happening to him, and he keeps talking long after everyone wants him to shut up. It is a darkly hilarious moment.

Things, however do improve from there. The setup is familiar, but Mendes and his actors give this endeavor a lot of heart which really won me over. Rudolph has a wonderful moment where she meets up with her sister Grace, (Carmen Ejogo) and they are hanging out in a bath tub and talking about the past neither of them feels ready to revisit because it’s too painful. Their dialogue is really good, but it is their faces which do most of the acting as their eyes serve as windows to their mournful souls.

Maggie Gyllenhaal also makes an appearance here as LN, a cousin of sorts to Burt. Along with her husband Roderick (Josh Hamilton), they live an insanely subdued life of peace and tranquility which is really more of a hilariously terrifying example of repression. Krasinski steals a scene as he rebels against LN’s way of living by giving her son the one pleasure no child should ever be denied – a ride in a stroller. Gyllenhaal is a kick to watch here as she gives this movie one of its most memorable moments.

The people Verona and Burt meet from there vary in degrees of happiness and sadness, and it wreaks havoc on them as it would any expectant parent. Like many, they are presented with scary examples of what could end up happening to them. Some of the couples seem very happy at first, but it serves to mask a deep hurt they are trying to keep under wraps. I think this will be a good movie for expectant parents and/or young couples to check out as they will probably relate very easily to what these two end up enduring in their travels.

The screenplay by the husband and wife team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida does not travel into original territory. There are several clichés to be found as we travel with this loving and petrified couple from place to place. Their dialogue, however, does manage to lift the movie above the routine, and it delves deeply to give us characters with many different dimensions, and this includes the ones with the shortest screen time. They even manage to surprise us with revelations I did not see coming even if I sensed trouble was just around the corner. Some of the speeches do have an original feel to them, and they are delivered by a well-chosen cast who are fearless in digging to the root of the movie’s most emotional moments.

Krasinski is perfectly cast here, and he is almost completely unrecognizable with all that darn facial hair. As Burt, he gives us a character so lovably goofy, and he also shows a vulnerable side as many of the things scaring him about becoming a parent comes right up to the surface. Burt could have easily been turned into a stereotypical in another film, but Krasinski turns him into a well-rounded individual from start to finish.

But the real revelation of “Away We Go” is Maya Rudolph. She is one of my all-time favorite “Saturday Night Live” performers, and she showed quite a range from playing characters like Megan (the future Mrs. Randy Goldman as she called herself) to her hilarious impersonations of Donatella Versace and Beyoncé Knowles. With this movie, she reminds us of how she is also a very accomplished actress in case we foolishly did not realize this previously. Even when she is not talking, a movement of her face communicates how she feels, and it speaks volumes of what Verona has been through, and of the family she lost and still misses.

Mendes’ career as a filmmaker from “American Beauty” to “1917” shows a brilliant artist who is super focused on every element involved in creating a movie. It is not just about the acting or the screenplay, but he pays just as much attention to the set design, the cinematography, and the film score to create motion pictures which stand above so many others. With “Away We Go,” he seems to have changed his pattern of directing here, and it looks like it has freed him up to make a fly-by-the-pants movie where he does not have to focus on each element as he had before. As a result, this is probably his weakest film to date as there were certain elements which could have been improved on. Regardless, he has not lost an inch of his talent, and even with the least of his movies he gives us memorable characters and settings which stay with you long after the picture fades to black.

“Away We Go” plays better on the small screen due to its rather intimate nature, but if you are looking for a nice romantic movie, this is certainly one to check out. It starts off imperfectly, but it gets better and better as it goes on.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul’ is Too Long Even at 90 Minutes

Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Long Haul poster

With “Diary of a Wimpy Kind: The Long Haul,” I enter this long-running movie franchise a fresh newbie. I have not seen the previous entries, and this will save me the trouble of comparing this one to what came before. This one also has an entirely new cast of actors as the previous cast had other things to do or simply got too old to play the roles they made famous. But if this sequel truly equals its predecessors in terms of quality, I have all the reason in the world to avoid them at all costs.

As you may be able to discern from its title, “The Long Haul” is a road movie as we watch the Heffley family travel in a minivan to visit their grandmother for her 90th birthday. However, young Greg Heffley (Jason Drucker), the hero of this series, has other plans as he and his brother Rodrick (Charlie Wright, who looks a lot like Ezra Miller here) intend to escape their parents’ loving clutches and go to a video game convention where they can redeem their meager social status and become mega-popular in the eyes of their schoolmates.

At this point in my life, I feel like I have seen every road movie ever made, and this made watching “The Long Haul” especially cloying and painfully irritating. This one has shamelessly stolen from all the classics like “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Midnight Run,” “Lost in America” and “Tommy Boy” among others to where this feels like a greatest hits collection performed by a cover band that cannot come close to equaling what the original artists pulled off. The filmmakers could have taken this material and made it all their own, but perhaps the studio executives were more interested in making this movie seem as bland and generic as humanly possible.

Seriously, every single cliché from road movies is on display in “The Long Haul.” You have the family staying at a motel which should be condemned and has a pool the kids are excited about swimming in until they discover it is either empty or grossly polluted. There’s also plenty of flatulence jokes, family members getting mud all over them while trying to move their car, parents singing songs their kids can’t stand, a kid vomiting while on an amusement park ride, and there’s a spoof of the “Psycho” shower scene, a classic scene which has been spoofed to death. The only thing missing is Christie Brinkley driving along in her red Ferrari which, while this is a PG-rated movie, would have been a welcome sight.

Over the years, I have come to resent movies about young kids as they fail to represent them realistically and instead present them as types of characters designed to appeal to a certain demographic. At least Greg Heffley, the main character of this series, resembles someone we can relate to as his anxieties remind us of how horrifying it was to be socially ostracized at school. But everyone else here is designed to fill a certain niche, and the actors, as a result, can only do so much with the shallow material they have been given.

If there is one thing I liked about “The Long Haul,” it was Alicia Silverstone who plays the matriarch of the Heffley family, Susan. It’s been a long time since she stole our hearts in “Clueless” and all those Aerosmith music videos, and she remains as appealing as ever even as the screenplay fails her constantly. Ever since her big breakthrough, she hasn’t been seen as much and has been largely relegated to projects which, more often than not, fly under the radar. But seeing her here reminded me of what a wonderful presence she can be in any movie, and that’s even though this one is largely undeserving of her talents.

Directing “The Long Haul” is David Bowers who was a storyboard artist on “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and directed the vastly underrated animated film “Flushed Away.” Rumor has it Bowers wanted to make this “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” sequel into an animated film, and I truly believe it would have been a far more interesting cinematic experience if he had done that instead. The books themselves have a unique cartoon style which I think would lend itself well to a feature film, but as this series has been a live action one for three movies, I imagine studio executives were not about to change anything up.

When all is said and done, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” is an endlessly irritating exercise in futility, and I’m not even sure fans of this franchise will find much to enjoy here. I snickered through most of it, and I don’t recall laughing once. Instead, I found myself wondering why the characters’ cell phones never seemed to run out of energy. I mean, there should have at least been one scene where they plugged them into a power source as I find myself recharging mine every other half hour. Also, that slide the kids travel down at the movie’s start is red and, when they come out at the end, suddenly turns blue. Glaring errors like these became far more interesting to me than anything else in this sequel’s 90-minute running time.

Seriously, save your money and binge watch “Freaks & Geeks” instead as it represents a far more entertaining example of growing up a kid. It was a brilliant show, and like all brilliant shows which aired on network television, it lasted only one season.

* out of * * * *

Jonathan Demme’s ‘Something Wild’ Takes Us on an Irresistible Journey

Something Wild movie poster

I got to revisit “Something Wild” recently at New Beverly Cinema, and it quickly reminded me of what a unique filmmaker Jonathan Demme was back in the 1980’s. He had a wonderfully offbeat approach to making movies few others did at the time, and they functioned as parties he gleefully invited us to time and time again. This style of filmmaking disappeared in the 1990’s when he made “The Silence of the Lambs,” and while it is one of the best movies ever made, it marked the beginning of his work having a darker and less playful look to them. This is not to take away from his resume since as it includes such great movies as “Philadelphia,” “Rachel Getting Married” and a number of Neil Young documentaries, but watching “Something Wild” made me realize how much I miss Demme’s earlier style of filmmaking as it was more joyous and anarchic than much of what he has made since.

Jeff Daniels stars as Charles Driggs, a conservative looking banker whose wife and kids have since left him. We catch up with him while he is eating at a diner in the urban part of New York, and he suddenly decides to leave without paying his check. However, he is caught in the act by Lulu (Melanie Griffith) who confronts him about his felonious act and sees a rebellious side in him she is eager to exploit. From there, she offers to drive him back to his office and ends up kidnapping him on an adventure which flies in the face of everything considered conformity.

When Lulu gets a hold of Charles’ pager (yes, this movie was made a long time ago) and throws it out her car window to his utter shock, we are along for the ride as she brings out a side of him he has not exercised for quite some time. What I love about “Something Wild” is that, while Lulu essentially kidnaps Charles against his will, it tapped into something deep within me to where I would be open to her taking advantage of me. What Lulu does is force Charles to abandon his normal lifestyle and engage in something adventurous, and there’s a point in all our lives where we want to break out of a lifestyle which eventually becomes much too stifling for our own good. Granted, common sense usually kicks in as we can’t afford to get into the kind of trouble they get into in this day and age, but this is why we go to the movies: to experience things we have the knowledge to avoid in real life.

We are with Charles as Lulu takes him on an adventure no one could easily prepare for, and it makes what we watch in “Something Wild” all the more exciting. The movie digs into our deepest desires as these two engage in an unexpected road trip which has the two of them falling in love. Things, however, take a sharp turn when Lulu’s husband, Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta), comes back into the picture and threatens to destroy their newfound coupling with his Svengali and violent ways.

It’s fun to watch Daniels in this role as he makes the squarest of human beings appear more charismatic than what was on the written page. This could have been a thankless role in the hands of another actor, but Daniels makes Charles’ transition from a conventional banker to a love-struck man determined to save the woman he has fallen in love with very believable to where we are with him every step of the way. Daniels’ career had nowhere to go but up from there as he went on to deliver brilliant performances in “The Squid and the Whale,” “Steve Jobs” and “Dumb and Dumber.”

Griffith’s career was at its height in the 80’s as her performances in “Working Girl,” “Body Double” and “Stormy Monday” showed us she was an actress who did not back down from a challenge. Her performance as Lulu, who is later revealed to be Audrey Hankel, is one of her best as she fearlessly portrays a character who is as free-spirited as she is reckless in her law-breaking ways which allow her to live life on the edge. At the same time, Griffith gives Lulu/Audrey a vulnerability which makes her performance all the more fantastic as even she comes to see her fling with Charles has become much more than that.

But then along comes Ray Liotta as Audrey’s violent ex-husband, Ray Sinclair, who steals the show. The audience at New Beverly Cinema applauded loudly when the actor made his first appearance in “Something Wild,” and it’s not hard to understand why. From the moment he arrives onscreen, Liotta gives us an infinitely charismatic villain we can’t take our eyes off of. We know he’s dangerous, but like Daniels’ character we can’t help but go along with him on a ride. You know he’s bad for you, but Liotta’s unpredictability keeps us pinned to our seats. He is mesmerizing as he fights to get Audrey back into his life even as she struggles to break free of him once and for all, and he makes it easy to see why it is not at all easy to get rid of him.

Demme pulls off the impossible here as the screenplay written by E. Max Frye starts off as a road movie and then turns into a domestic thriller. Such a shift can be jarring in a movie, but Demme keeps everything running smoothly even as the story heads into darker territory. By the time we are introduced to the devious Ray Sinclair, we have come too far with Charles and Audrey to just give up on them.

The director also works with a colorful palette which keeps things feeling light even as we head towards a violent conclusion. He also provides us with a terrific soundtrack with choice tunes from Fine Young Cannibals, New Order, Oingo Boingo and David Byrne. This is not to mention Demme’s usual cast of actors he has worked with constantly like Charles Napier, Tracey Walter, Sister Carol and Gary Goetzman who bring their unique energies to the roles they are given, and they make us remember their characters long after we have left the theater. There are also some inspired cameos from filmmakers John Sayles and John Waters, and Waters’ cameo is as priceless as the expression on his face when Audrey offers him a bribe.

Looking back at “Something Wild” makes me realize what a uniquely talented filmmaker is as he cheerfully invites us on a ride which goes against what’s normal and becomes all the more exhilarating as a result. Some filmmakers try to keep you at a distance from their characters’ exploits, but Demme instead offers you a front seat to the action, and it results in a truly irresistible time at the movies. In addition, his casting choices here are perfect, and you can tell the actors are having a blast with the material they have been given.

I find it good to see a movie like this every once in a while as it makes me question whether I have become too complacent in my life. Granted, I wouldn’t be that quick to jump into a car with a complete stranger behind the wheel unless it was a Lyft ride I requested, but to be taken on a ride which allowed me to break out of the routine of life feels absolutely necessary as time continues to speed up as we get older. Demme understands this, and he makes “Something Wild” into an invitation we movie buffs would be foolish to turn down. It remains as entertaining today as it did back in 1986.

* * * * out of * * * *