It’s a dog’s life, on re­peat

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

wo markedly dif­fer­ent breeds of film this week, as their clas­si­fi­ca­tions sug­gest. Yet there’s a sim­i­lar­ity, too: each starts out oddly, but the longer I watched the more I liked. A Dog’s Pur­pose comes from Swedish di­rec­tor Lasse Hall­strom, who made the semi-mas­ter­piece My Life as A Dog in 1985. That mov­ing film is not about dogs. It’s about a grief-stricken boy who at times acts like a dog. He does have a dog, and his love for it leads to more sad­ness.

Af­ter Mitt Liv Som Hund Hall­strom went on to di­rect English-lan­guage films such as What’s Eat­ing Gilbert Grape (1993), The Cider House Rules (1999) and the Bri­tish-Amer­i­can ver­sion of Cho­co­lat (2000).

His new movie is in English, too, even when it comes to the ca­nine nar­ra­tors. It’s based on the best­selling 2020 novel of the same name by W. Bruce Cameron, who is one of five cred­ited scriptwrit­ers, and has Steven Spiel­berg’s Am­blin En­ter­tain­ment on the pro­duc­tion side.

And this time it’s all about dogs. It’s a fan­tasy-com­edy-drama in which we fol­low the lives of five dogs. The fan­tasy el­e­ment is that each of the dogs is the same one rein­car­nated, as a dif­fer­ent breed, some­times as the opposite sex. They are all voiced by Amer­i­can actor Josh Gad. WC Fields might have warned ac­tors about work­ing with an­i­mals, but he didn’t say any­thing about act­ing as an­i­mals, did he? Last year Gad was Chuck in The An­gry Birds Movie.

“What’s the mean­ing of life? Are we here for a rea­son?’’ is the open­ing nar­ra­tion from the first dog, just a puppy. “Is there a point to any of this?” With lines such as that, his fi­nal ques­tion bounced in my head. This can be a prob­lem when there are mul­ti­ple scriptwrit­ers, es­pe­cially when one of them wrote the orig­i­nal book. But the script im­proves, helped by the solid work of ac­tors such as John Or­tiz and Den­nis Quaid.

The sec­ond dog we meet — it’s the 1960s, the Bay of Pigs is in the news — is the cen­tral char­ac­ter (an odd de­scrip­tion, I know, if all the dogs are rein­car­nated). He’s a golden re­triever named Bai­ley. His eight-year-old owner is Ethan Mont­gomery (Bryce Gheisar). They have a happy life on the sur­face, but shad­ows loom. Ethan’s mum (Juliet Ry­lance) is lov­ing and car­ing but his dad (Luke Kirby) is a dis­sat­is­fied trav­el­ling sales­man who turns to the bot­tle.

When it comes to an­i­mals, we have come far since Rene Descartes’s view of them as un­think­ing, un­feel­ing au­toma­tons. Mea­sur­ing an­i­mal in­tel­li­gence is a le­git­i­mate field of sci­en­tific study, one that has con­trib­uted to some ab­sorb­ing books in re­cent years, such as Frans De Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart An­i­mals Are?

There’s a sub­tle point in such books: in an un­sci­en­tific sense, we con­sider an­i­mals smart if they will do what we ask. Dogs fit this as­sump­tion well. A dog who sits when you tell it to is in­tel­li­gent; a dog who ig­nores you is dumb. Maybe not. Hall­strom and his cast have fun with this in ways any dog owner will un­der­stand.

“I de­cided right there and then,” Bai­ley says on first meet­ing Ethan, “I am def­i­nitely keep­ing this boy.” Soon af­ter, he tells us his name is “Bai­ley, Bai­ley, Bai­ley, Bai­ley, Bai­ley, Bai­ley”. When he sees the now-teenage Ethan (New Zealand actor KJ Apa) kiss­ing a girl (Britt Robert­son), he feels sorry for his mas­ter. “No mat­ter how much he looked for food in there he never found any … and he looked a lot.”

The high­light, for me, due to sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence, comes when Bai­ley eats a rare coin Ethan’s fa­ther wants to show off to im­press his boss. A pan­icked Ethan urges Bai­ley to, well, re­lieve him­self. “I re­ally wish I knew what he was say­ing,” Bai­ley laments.

It’s a scene that re­called another ter­rific book, The Philoso­pher and the Wolf (2008), by Mi­ami-based Welsh philoso­pher Mark Row­lands. Bai­ley’s coin con­sump­tion is small change com­pared with what Rowland’s wolf cub does when he’s left alone in the flat. A hint: what is the source of the leather on couches?

As time goes on, “Bai­ley” be­comes El­lie, a fe­male Ger­man shep­herd po­lice dog in vi­o­lent 70s Chicago, with Or­tiz as her han­dler; Tino, a Pem­broke Welsh corgi in the 80s who helps a young wo­man (Kirby How­ell-Bap­tiste) find love (her boyfriend is played, no kid­ding, by actor Pooch Hall); and fi­nally as a Ber­nese moun­tain dog named Buddy. Quaid comes in at this point, as the adult Ethan.

There was some con­tro­versy over a scene in which El­lie does a river res­cue. An­i­mal wel­fare ac­tivists re­leased a video sug­gest­ing the Ger­man shep­herd was forced to do the stunt. Later there were claims the video had been doc­tored. Hall­strom said he would never hurt an an­i­mal.

This film has drama, hu­mour and pathos. A dog’s life is short and while they don’t know that, we do. By the end, I found A Dog’s Pur­pose dif­fer­ent in a good way, which is also how I think about the three dogs in my house­hold. OK, there is another sim­i­lar­ity be­tween A Dog’s Pur­pose and the un­con­ven­tional Bri­tish crime drama Free Fire. Dogs, reser­voir ones specifi- cally. Ben Wheat­ley, a tal­ented and in­no­va­tive di­rec­tor, nods to Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 clas­sic, in­clud­ing by turn­ing an aban­doned ware­house into a very bad place to be.

The open­ing is slow and un­dra­matic. A cou­ple of Ir­ish men are in a car, head­ing to a meet­ing of some sorts. Stevo (Sam Ri­ley) tells Bernie (Enzo Ci­lenti) about an in­ci­dent the night be­fore, some­thing that will be­come im­por­tant.

They meet two other Ir­ish men, Chris (Cil­lian Mur­phy of Peaky Blin­ders fame) and Frank (Michael Smi­ley). They gather in the dark out­side a ware­house. It’s Bos­ton, 1978. They are met by a wo­man, Jus­tine (Os­car-win­ner Brie Lar­son), and taken in­side.

There they meet a group of Amer­i­can men. Ord (Ar­mie Ham­mer) is the hand­some, so­phis­ti­cated one. Noah Tay­lor is in their group, too, na­tion­al­ity un­cer­tain. None of them are dap­per, of course, as it’s wide-lapel late 70s.

Then a for­eigner ar­rives and he takes over the meet­ing. His name is Ver­non (South African actor Sharlto Co­p­ley). “What the f..k is that ac­cent?’’ one of the Ir­ish won­ders. “Swiss or some­thing?” And so the sub­plot is re­vealed. The Ir­ish men are with the IRA and the have crossed the pond to buy guns from the Amer­i­cans and the semi-mad Rhode­sian. Vern, we hear, was “mis­di­ag­nosed as a child ge­nius and never got over it’’.

I say sub­plot be­cause what soon hap­pens is the real point of the film: a gun­bat­tle that goes for about 90 min­utes. It starts be­cause Stevo is recog­nised by one of the Amer­i­cans, re­gard­ing that un­pleas­ant in­ci­dent the night be­fore.

But this is not Reser­voir Dogs. Nor is it Rambo or Die Hard. I doubt I’ve seen a film in which more shots were fired, but most of them miss. “I’ve clipped his wings!’’ Vern yells at one point, when the 100th bul­let he’s shot grazes some­one’s arm. This is one as­pect of the film that grew on me. There are lots of bad guys (and one girl who may be bad), lots of guns, lots of bul­lets, but by and large the marks­man­ship is a lot closer to re­al­ity than it is when the firearm is held by Sly Stallone or Bruce Wil­lis.

The di­a­logue is also dryly funny. The script is by Wheat­ley and his long-term writ­ing part­ner (and wife) Amy Jump. The IRA sol­diers and the Amer­i­can gang­sters are not stereo­typ­i­cal. When one of the Yanks no­tices Frank’s dan­druff, the re­sult is sub­tle and hu­mor­ous. So is the use of John Den­ver songs on the sound­track, es­pe­cially An­nie’s Song to­wards the end.

It’s in­ter­est­ing to see Mur­phy away from Peaky Blin­ders, but this role doesn’t give him a lot of room to do some­thing dif­fer­ent. Ditto for Tay­lor, who is also so good in that TV se­ries.

It’s a chal­lenge to make a movie out of a long gun­fight in a Bos­ton ware­house but Wheat­ley more or less pulls it off. His pre­vi­ous film was also in­ter­ested in a con­fined space, al­beit a more lux­u­ri­ous one: High-Rise, based on the JG Bal­lard novel. That starred Tom Hid­dle­ston and Jeremy Irons, and Wheat­ley does come across as film­maker’s film­maker. Free Fire of­fers up a lot to talk about in terms of film­mak­ing ideas and tech­niques, but whether it’s an en­joy­able movie in its own right is open to de­bate.

Den­nis Quaid with one of the five pooches in A Dog’s Pur­pose; Brie Lar­son takes aim in Free Fire

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