THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN – movie review

THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN
20th Century Fox
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Simon Curtis
Screenwriter: Mark Bomback, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Garth Stein
Cast: Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried, Gary Cole, Kathy Baker, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Martin Donovan, voice of Kevin Costner
Screened at: Lincoln Square, NYC, 8/1/19
Opens: August 9, 2019

[ ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN POSTER ]

The novel’s first line is “I knew I was different from other dogs,” which may be true but I doubt it. Enzo, a Labrador retriever picked up by race car driver Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), is smart but not necessarily brainier than other dogs. We simply do not know how our best friend thinks, what any pup knows, what he is capable to learn about life. We do know, however, that we learn a lot from our dogs, perhaps justifying the bumper sticker I saw once on a humble Kia “The more I know people, the more I love dogs.”

One of Denny’s friends wonders how he can be there for the dog when he’s out of the house zooming down the track at Daytona or some of the lesser locales, a point which comes up painfully past the half point of this film when he stands to lose custody of his daughter, but we’ll get to that. Following the best-selling novel by Garth Stein, Simon Curtis, who directs this adaptation, is in his métier, his last movie being “Goodbye, Christopher Robin,” which deals not with a writer’s inspiration to create a dog movie but close: the writer’s relationship with his son evokes the creation of an anthropomorphic teddy bear, Winnie the Pooh.

As with the novel, Denny picks up this dog, names him Enzo after Enzo Ferrari, Italian motor racing driver and entrepreneur, the founder of the Scuderia Ferrari Grand Prix motor racing team, and later of the marque Ferrari. Enzo (the dog) knows that life is not simply one day after another like Groundhog day but something that moves forward like a racing car and eventually sputters out. To this dog, death is not a problem since he is believes in the Mongolian legend that a dog who is “prepared” will be reincarnated in his next life as a human. (One wonders what a really really good dog can become instead.) Enzo is committed to his human since he is not often left alone in Denny’s modest quarters but is taken with him in the racing car, looking out the window, and loving everything about life.

His days as an “only son” are limited as Denny meets, courts, and marries Eve (Amanda Seyfried), they have a beautiful daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), though Denny is considered a poor match by Eve’s parents, Trish Swift (Kathy Baker) and especially her dad Maxwell Swift (Martin Donovan). Maxwell believes that race car driving is dangerous, that his son-in-law could be injured or killed on the track, all of which makes it ironic that Eve is the one who develops a serious illness (the word “cancer” is never mentioned), looks really bad after chemo treatments (if you believe that Amanda Seyfried could ever look bad), and will die.

After Eve’s death, a lawsuit is pursued by Zoe’s grandfather asking custody of the girl since he is rich and could give the girl the kind of life she presumably deserves. Though Denny’s lawyer suggests that his client compromise and accept part custody, Denny has learned a lesson that he picked up through his racing career. Don’t panic. Never Quit. Life has its ups and downs just as drivers can win some and lose some. By the time that Enzo is fifteen years old, the dog has learned more about the human condition from observing his human beings who love him that most people ever do.

The result is a comedy drama which may or may not be suitable for children. It has a PG rating, presumably because there’s no sex or violence, but you can judge whether your small fry is up to seeing a mighty pale Amanda Seyfried and observe an old dog just lying around, ball-chasing days over, close to death. The tale is based on the true experiences of Garth Stein, who was inspired to write after watching the 1998 Mongolian documentary “State of Dogs,” then hearing poet Billy Collins give a reading of “The Revenant” told from a dog’s point of view. Stein was himself a race car driver who left the field after crashing while racing in the rain, and director Simon Curtis, using a script by Mark Bomback that pays due respect to the best-seller, turns out a sentimental, two-hanky movie with several comic turns, but one which might tempt the child who accompanies you to the multiplex to cry until you get him a dog.

The narration throughout by Kevin Costner emphasizes dog as philosopher in a film that does not condescend but rather one that has ample entertainments even for arrogant humans who think they are smarter than Enzo.

109 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B

THE DOG DOC – movie review

THE DOG DOC
Cedar Creek Productions
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Cindy Meehl
Screenwriter: Cindy Meehl
Cast: Dr. Martin Goldstein, Waffles, Scooby, Mulligan
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/22/19
Opens: May 3, 2019

If you don’t believe that Dr. Marty Goldstein should be Time magazine person of the year, maybe you just don’t like dogs. Dr. Marty presides over dogs and their human companions in Westchester County, New York, in the Hamlet of North Salem, with a population of under 10,000 people and maybe one thousand dogs or more. (Fifty percent of homes in the U.S. have at least one dog.) The town is populated by well-heeled folks with a median household income of $154,000, so these are not the kinds of people who would euthanize their dogs and cats if their pets needed veterinary care beyond the usual check-ups. Here in New York City, dog lovers flock to the Animal Medical Center on the Upper East Side, a wonderful facility with a staff able to treat every kind of illness, but it’s a large place, confusing to people entering the first time with a sick animal. On the other hand, Dr. Marty’s facility looks from the outside like a large ranch house, but inside, the place is teeming with dogs and cats and their humans, and with a considerable staff of licensed veterinary technicians.

Dr. Marty does not dress in the traditional white coat that has been known to raise dogs’ blood pressure, but come across as somewhat hippie-ish with colorful garb, an adult version of his student days at Cornell, with a class picture showing him as one of the few classmates with a thick hair and lush beard.

So what’s the deal with this animal doctor that makes him not exactly sui generis, but at least among a minority of people in the profession who believe in alternative medicine as adjunctive to conventional treatments? He takes blood, and based on each dog’s size and weight and age, he recommends treatments, whether the animals are afflicted with jaw bone cancer, arthritis, or a terrible response to a vaccination. If you read about his veterinary clinic, your first thought would be that the doc could be a quack. He is suspicious of vaccines but is not against the procedure unless the dog stepping up for the needle is already afflicted with disease. Why give unhealthy dogs more bacteria?

In short, he believes in letting the dogs’ immune systems help them naturally, and to boost the immune system, he may prescribe nutritional supplements, acupuncture, and homeopathic injections. If a dog has bone cancer, like Petey, he demonstrates liquid nitrogen to freeze the cancerous tissue, thereby saving Petey’s natural jaw formation. If a dog has blastomycosis like Waffles, a white dog of mixed breed whose energy is close to zero, you emphathize with his human mom, who saved him when he was dumped on the road. She is determined to do everything she can. “I don’t want to lose him,” she says, with tears in her eyes. Count her as a huge supporter of Dr. Marty and Dr. Ruskin, who administered Vitamin C to support Waffles’ immune system.

He does not promise miracles for dogs who have metastatic cancer, but he can help by extending their lives. In one case a dog given five months to live is still around three years later thanks to alternative treatments.

Like some of the celebrated nutritionists advising people on how to boost their immune systems with vitamins and minerals, he thinks little of the corporate-sponsored dog foods, whose products, loaded with chemicals, may lead off with corn and wheat. He counters with “Since when do dogs go to bakeries for their food?”

Dr. Marty is a personable fellow, the kind you would want to trust immediately. He listens. He asks about each patient’s history. In a lecture at Cornell, he holds a class of veterinary students in his alma mater in the palm of his hand, pushing his philosophy of using alternative medicine in addition to conventional treatments, and sometimes abandoning traditional medicine altogether depending on the patient.

The best dog movies are sentimental dramas, with “Lassie Come Home” as my personal favorite. But in this case, Marty shows that a documentary can be as charming, enlightening, even sentimental, as the best of the narratives. Director Cindy Meehl, who founded Cedar Creek Productions, is in her métier, having directed an earlier film “Buck,” about Buck Brannaman, who suffered abuse as a child and went on to become a famous horse whisperer.

101 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

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

THE SAINT BERNARD SYNDICATE – movie review

THE SAINT BERNARD SYNDICATE
Uncork’d Entertainment
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net by Harvey Karten
Director: Mads Brügger
Screenwriter: Lærke Sanderhoff
Cast: Frederik Cilius Jørgensen, Rasmus Bruun, Odessa, Flemming Sørensen, Vibeke Manniche, Mohamed Ali Osman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/18/19
Opens: February 1, 2019

The Saint Bernard Syndicate Movie

You’ve probably heard of American business tycoons who have gone to China to take advantage of cheaper labor but who have returned to the U.S. frustrated by the different cultural aspects of Chinese business as well as the difficulty of managing an operation from thousands of miles away. Mads Brügger, in directing “The Saint Bernard Syndicate,” knows what cultural dissonance is all about. This time he focuses on the difficulties of negotiating with people from a foreign culture. This is his first fiction film, having previous contributed documentaries “The Ambassador, wherein he goes to uncover the blood diamond trade in Africa, and served as co-writer of “The Great European Cigarette Mystery,” dealing with a European politician involved in being in the pocket of the tobacco companies.

With “The Saint Bernard Syndicate,” he serves up his celluloid with a lighter touch, though the absurdist comedy at times comes across as zany to the point of embarrassment. As with his tobacco doc, he takes pot shots at business again, but this time zeroes in on a couple of dorks who consider themselves entrepreneurs and who seem destined to suffer the fate of many another enterprising person with no aptitude for business despite a plan that looks like a slam dunk.

Brügger chose his actors well. As Frederik (Frederik Cilius Jørgensen and Rasmus (Rasmus Bruun) are known in their native Denmark for comedy, they are ideal in situations that apparently call for some major improvisation. At the same time he takes his chances with some Chinese subjects who are non-professional actor. “The Saint Bernard Syndicate” is unlike any American sitcom as it’s not the kind of story that requires an audience laugh every twenty seconds. It embraces a serious overlay in that Rasmus has just been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, so with imminent paralysis and death looming, he figures, what the hell, might as well go with his chum Frederick despite having been bulled by him in an elite private school.

This is the kind of story that may make you think more than once about investing with start-up companies involving foreign countries. As written by Lærke Sanderhoff, the two go to Chongqing, a major business center in China and so polluted you’d not expect many tourists to visit. They set up embarrassing interviews for a staff of bilingual secretaries. After failing with an expensive party complete with confetti, bands and dancers, they manage to bait a wealthy investor, not realizing that he is a scammer with possible ties to organized crime. He is the only Chinese investor that allegedly believes that the rich countrymen will buy Saint Bernard dogs to add to their prestige, and therefore is willing to risk a large sum to set up a center that will breed the dogs, allow buyers to buy food from that center, and go with the veterinary care that it would provide.

Odessa the dog improvises as the big, lovable St. Bernard, while Rasmus Bruun was named best actor at the recent Tribeca Film Festival. Now and then Frederik Cilius Jørgensen playing CEO of the Saint Bernard Syndicate insists on pulling rank on his buddy, but both are klutzes—something like Danish Laurels and Hardys. Since every dog has its day, we are pulling for the two businessmen because deep down many of us realize that whatever talent we have, it’s not for business. “The Saint Bernard Syndicate” is a Monty-Pythonesque tale of missed connections, as embarrassing as it’s funny, and with a serious streak involving the horror of taking a final, big chance when your weeks are numbered.

In Danish, Mandarin and English with English subtitles.

100 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

A DOG’S PURPOSE – movie review

  • A DOG’S PURPOSE
    Universal Pictures
    Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Filme
    Grade: B+
    Director: Lasse Hallström

    Written by: Cathryn Michon from W. Bruce Cameron’s novel

    Cast: Britt Robertson, Josh Gad, Dennis Quaid, K.J. Apa, Peggy Lipton, Logan Miller, Bryce Gheisar

    Screened at: Regal E-Walk, NYC, 1/23/17

    Opens: January 27, 2017

    A Dog's Purpose Movie Poster

    Not only does the movie “A Dog’s Purpose” answer that very question: Lasse Hallström, who directed, is wrestling with another, one that must have been puzzling Hindus and Buddhists for centuries. That is: when a dog dies, a good dog mind you, into what living thing is it reincarnated?  To find the answer to the first question, you have to see the picture. The intriguing, albeit not original, answer is revealed near the conclusion. As for the second, the Golden Retriever named Bailey is so good, so really good, that he returns to earth after his demise as…you guessed it. A dog! Remember what “dog” spelled backwards is, and you’ll realize that the highest form of life for a dog that has (temporarily) gone to his Great Reward, is to come back as another, but always a different breed. 

    The novel of the same name by Bruce Cameron was on the New York Times best-seller list for forty-nine weeks, the novelist presumably happy that this film is directed by Hallström, who has good credentials. He was at the helm for “Hachi,” the heartbreaking, sentimental tale based on a real life of a stray Japanese dog taken in by a college professor who bonded so exquisitely that the dog met his human companion after work daily at a train station and stayed with the man many years after the professor died. “A Dog’s Purpose” is more like a two-hanky fable than “Hachi”’s four-hanky but it sits well on the shelf of pup films at least since my favorite “Lassie Come Home.” (One may wonder whether Hallström was named for the collie.)

    The tale of reincarnation focuses on four principal dogs; Bailey, Buddy, Tino and Ellie. After each one dies (the demise occurs offstage), the new incarnations are fully aware of their previous lives despite being of different breeds. The most lovable, Bailey, a golden retriever, is taken in by young Ethan (Bryce Gheisar) who implores his dad to adopt him. Since they live in a rural area,that should have been a no-brainer, though dad’s good will is to be tested later when he becomes a drunk and fights with his wife. Ethan throws the football; Bailey retrieves. Ethan meets cute Hannah (Britt Robertson) at a festival site. They like each other, the dog interferes with their kissing, Ethan gets a full football scholarship to a college in Michigan, but tragedy strikes. When Bailey becomes too old to play and ultimately dies, he is reincarnated into a Pembroke Welsh Corgi, who is later reborn, and then again and again: déjà vu. 

    Considering that a large dog has a life span of at least eight years and a small dog can have up to fifteen, you would think that forty or more years would have passed from the film’s introduction to the conclusion. As a German Shepherd, Ellie is in the K-9 corps, monitored and trained by Carlos (Juan Ortiz), in one incident doing his duty in chasing down a kidnapper.  In any case Bailey, who decades later returns as Buddy and is coincidentally adopted by Ethan (Dennis Quaid), tries mightily to convince his new owner that he still responds to the name Bailey. Happy ending.

    Why do people have dogs? Kevin Kline’s character Otto in the 1988 film “A Fish Called Wanda” wondered about dog ownership: “I don’t get it!” The answer could be human loneliness as Carlos, the policeman in the K-9 corps is a widower dining at home alone, the middle-aged Ethan (Dennis Quaid) had split with his girlfriend, and is also alone, while young Ethan is at a loss when his parents continually fight and his drunken father embarrasses him in front of his friends.

    All is told from a dog’s point of view, as we watch the human beings from the ground up in many cases. With the help of Josh Gad, who takes on the voices of all the dogs, we are made privy to each dog’s psyche. Each wonders at first what’s going on, though never challenging the fact of reincarnation. Each likes food, which means that in a children’s movie inevitably tables are turned over, adults are tripped, cheeks are licked. This is a delightful interpretation of the novel, perhaps too long for a children’s dramedy, so maybe one of the dogs should have been left on the cutting room floor. One scene that I thought was omitted was the video that went viral of the attempt by the crew to drop a dog into the rapids. Though the German Shepherd did well at rehearsals, we watch as the crew people tried to force the reluctant dog into the water while the American Humane Association monitor must have been asleep. (He was suspended.) The premiere had to be canceled, but in the current incarnation we do see the Shepherd jump merrily into the rapids to save a drowning woman. 

    The movie was filmed in Winnipeg, Manitoba to evoke the rural scenery.
    Rated PG. 100 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

    Comments?  Do you agree or not with this review?

THE STRAY – movie review

THE STRAY

Purdie Distribution
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Grade: B
Director:  Mitch Davis
Written by: Mitch Davis, Parker Davis
Cast:  Michael Cassidy, Sarah Lancaster, Connor Corum, Scott Christopher, Eliza de Azevedo Brown, Shiloh
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/28/17
Opens: October 6, 2017
click for larger (if applicable)
America is dog country.  Forty-four percent of our households have dogs: seventy-eight million canines find themselves as U.S. residents, making the four-legged pooches our best friends.  In fact if a suburban, or rural home, especially those with kids, were dog-free, that should make us suspicious.  It’s surprising, then, that the Davis family, settling into the near wilderness of Colorado, would be hesitant about acquiring one, considering the three kids would probably love nothing better.

Mitch Davis is best known by “The Other Side of Heaven,” about an Idaho Falls resident in the 1950’s who goes to the Tongan Islands for missionary work.  This time, his movie deals with the wariness of dog ownership faced by a character with his name, Mitch Davis (Michael Cassidy) and his wife Michelle (Sarah Lancaster).  They agree to give a dog a roof over its head but only if the dog, a stray, would come to them.  They have domestic problems, the kind that most of us wish they had.  Mitch is a movie studio executive in L.A. who is obliged to read so many screenplays that he hasn’t time to teach his oldest boy, nine-year-old Christian (Connor Corum), how to pitch a baseball.  He puts more hours into the job than a lawyer with a white-shoe law firm, but his wife Michelle, instead of being happy that her man can support five people, urges him to quit and to move the family out of the city and into rural Colorado where instead of dealing with other people’s screenplays, he can write his own.

Since young Christian has no friends and is annoyed to get so little attention from his dad, Mitch agrees to go camping with his son and two other nine-year-olds from his neighbor’s household. With the formerly stray dog Pluto’s (Shiloh) agreeing to the trip as well, they are off for a planned three-night venture, while Mitch motivates the trio to stuff their backpacks with the promise “You’ll be able to poop outside.”

Tragedy strikes when lightning hits the tent, with dire results for both Pluto and dad in a film whose ideal audience  is about the age of the three boys, would be too uncool for the junior-high crowd, but would be of considerable interest to adults who are tired of the soulless blockbusters and the movie vulgarities that are de rigueur nowadays.  Yet one might wonder about a story line that finds a dog and a dad struck by lightning, the young father depending on the three lads he’s hosting to bring back feelings in his legs and his arms.

Michael Cassidy and Sarah Lancaster perform as expected, on the surface the ideal 1950’s Leave It to Beaver types with the exception that Michelle is putting pressure on her husband which in her way is as demanding as the poor guy’s boss.  There is no vulgar language, the most serious exception being one’s kid’s expression “my butt,” and at ninety-two minutes “The Stray” does not overstay its welcome.  I wish, though, that the dog played by Shiloh would have a larger role, since his script calls for nothing more demanding than barking and running for the ball.  T.C. Christensen’s lensing makes Colorado look like Paradise.