PICK OF THE LITTER – movie review


KTF Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Don Hardy, Dana Nachman
Screenwriter:  Dana Nachman
Cast:  Ron, Janet: Patriot, Phil, Potomac, Poppet, Primrose
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/16/18
Opens: June 12, 2018 at Slamdance

The United States gets along with many countries, though admittedly fewer now than before January 2017.  But if there’s one aspect of American culture that puts us squarely against most nations of the Middle East and a few in the Far East, it’s our love of dogs.  Some societies use them for food, and others think simply that they’re dirty.  But with in estimated 40% of American homes where dogs have become parts of families, the U.S. may be statistically ahead of all others.  America first!

It’s not enough that dogs fill the hearts of the good people who share their homes with them.  They are called upon by police to search for drugs and weapons.   Perhaps most of all they serve a purpose above and beyond eliciting the love of people, and that’s to guide the blind.

Don Hardy and Dana Nachman,who spent over two years directing “Pick of the Litter,” succeed beautifully in capturing key moments; those times when Labrador Retrievers are officially handed over to people who are either totally without sight or without peripheral vision.  At the same time that these fantastic animals change hands, there is heartbreak in the homes of people who have raised them since puppyhood, understanding that they must fulfill their part of the bargain in losing them.  At the same time they feel gratification that largely as a result of the training they give to the seeing-eye dogs, the animals are going to be indispensable to up to 1100 sight-disabled people who apply annually to the organization for them.

This is not a simple procedure.  There’s a reason that the movie is called “Pick of the Litter,” because these dogs have to pass a battery of tests in order to participate in graduation ceremonies, where the humans who need them give speeches and the Retrievers, who may not know what applause is for, will content themselves with treats.

Hardy, who co-wrote the script with Dana Nachman, serves also as the film’s editor and director of photography.  His skill in choosing the right scenes to photograph and in putting the show together in an understandable order is without question superb.  Some of the shots that will evoke the “aw” factor from viewers include the only moving photo I’ve seen of a dog actually giving birth.  When the human being in charge of helping a Retriever shed, in this case, five puppies, you may get the impression that the dog is laying an egg.  That’s how small the newborns are, and their miniature size explain just how a mature dog is able to keep the litter within until the time comes to relieve herself of them.  A pup can fit in the palm of the hand.

After several months when the Retrievers are kept behind gates in spotlessly clean surroundings, they are handed out to volunteers who raise them—the folks who give of their time partly because they have a good heart  to helping the blind, and partly because they love the animals they raise and train.  Before a dog is ready for a final test, the volunteer raisers answer questions, such as whether they spotted too much lunging, whether they show fear of shyness, and whether they can heel, sit, stay, lie down.  A veterinarian will inspect the ears, eyes, and take imaging, but simply passing the physical test is a piece of dog treat compared to the obedience demands later.

Dogs must prove especially that they can ignore orders from the blind human beings when the order runs counter to the safety of the pair, such as when a car may be leaving the driveway or when there are no sidewalks in the neighborhood.

Unhappily, many dogs fail, even after retests; I believe out of the stars focused on here—Primrose, Poppet, Potomac, Phil and Patriot, only one or two make the cut.  Phil is judged to be perfect.  Those who fail are either returned to the raisers or serve in another capacity such as animals for diabetics of veterans with PTSD.

It’s a pleasure to witness ecstasy when a dog is handed over to a blind person.  Ron, for example, a man who lost sight in both his eyes from a genetic disease that skips some generations, reports having butterflies, as nervous as he would be when meeting a blind date.

I would like to know what happens to dogs when because of age, they are no longer able to service their people.  Is there a sanctuary available?  Do they go back to the building that houses them?  All in all, America’s Best Friend is given the equivalent of a 21-gun salute by this well-crafted documentary.

Unrated.  81 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall –  A-

DEALT – movie review


    IFC Films
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
    Grade: B+
    Director:  Luke Korem,
    Written by: Bradley Jackson, Luke Korem
    Cast:  Richard Turner, Kim Turner, Asa Spades Turner
    Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/17/17
    Opens: October 20, 2017
    Dealt Movie Poster
    You probably won’t be terribly surprised to hear that some people look at their iPhones while making love.  You can’t blame them; after all, it’s more exciting to communicate with dozens of people than with just one.  But do you know anyone who shuffles card when having sex?  That appears uniquely a trait of Richard Turner, who makes his living with the decks, has thousands of card packs in his home, and shows us in the movie audience some of his best work.  For example, he can tell the people at his table in a blackjack game what cards they have when still face down, which is even more remarkable when you know that he totally blind.  This is a guy who would be an awesome prestidigitator even with 20/20 vision.

    In directing the film, Luke Korem, whose only other feature, a biopic of the controversial aristocrat Lord Montagu, sticks to the biographical genre by capturing perhaps the world’s greatest card mechanic (as he prefers to be called, rather than “magician” since “Magicians can’t do what I can do”).  He performs in the midst of large, rapt theater audiences.  The Austin-based director and co-writer Bradley Jackson’s  major aim, though, is to show not what Turner can do despite his handicap, but the master’s stubbornness in refusing to acknowledge his weakness.  He refuses to use a cane, lean on a dog, or learn Braille. The filmmakers treat that as a weakness, not a strength.  When his son Asa Spades Turner (get it?) went to college at age 18 and Turner could no longer count on him as traveling companion, he finally learned how to use a computer and seemed not entirely opposed to using a seeing-eye dog as does his blind sister.

    The commentary from various people in the family and industry does not take the form of deadening interviews which destroys many biopics.  Instead the subjects extol their fascination with the man. Some who watch the movie will be encouraged to learn more about card tricks, but remember that Turner has been practicing his skill 16 hours a day (and as noted, even when he is making love).  It might take anyone else years of practice simply to shuffle the deck in the eye-catching way that Turner can, easily creating domino-like bridges and sliding his hand across to watch the entire deck collapse, one card by one.

    At one point he gets over his empty-net depression by teaching grade-school kids of the need for self-acceptance.  The sixty-three year old Turner is watched over by his wife Kim who married him before he lost all of his sight.  People who have watched his live theater performances do not cough or pull out their iPhones, thus confirming the man’s charisma. Turner had been selected among five nominees to win the award for best card sharp by Magic Castle.  The movie won the SXSW Film Festival’s documentary audience award.

    Unrated.  85 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
    Comments, readers?  Agree? Disagree? Why?

    Grade – B+