Dogs in the Movies

Uggie the Jack Russell with co-star Bérénice Bejou in The Artist

 

 

 

 

Dogs. Yes, that’s right, dogs. I’ve probably already doubled the amount of traffic to this site just by writing the word “dogs” three times. Four times if you count that mention. Because people just love dogs (five). They can’t help themselves. It’s down to their dependability. A human being might let you down, but a four legged friend probably won’t eat you until you’ve been dead at least four days. A cat would probably tuck in while you were still warm. Trenchant insight aside, a dog’s loyalty and trainability make it a natural for the movies. A dog can be encouraged to do stuff that’s cute. Or, with a sign from off-camera, it will start barking in a menacing manner – though the wagging tail is a hell of a giveaway that the baying animal isn’t really a Nazi hellhound. The baying hellhound/wagging tail problem aside, a dog in a movie is almost always a good thing. Unless the dog’s name is in the title, then it’s often not a very good thing at all (I’m talking to you, Beethoven, K9, Marmaduke and Turner. Or was it Hooch?)

 

So here they are, the best films I can think of with dogs in them. Feel free to disagree.

 

 

 

The Artist (2011, dir: Michel Hazanavicius)

First, silent films are not a genre so The Artist cannot fit into the “genre” of silent films. Second, The Artist is not actually a silent film – it comes with a soundtrack, people. Third, throat cleared, it has a dog in it, a very cute Jack Russell terrier called Uggie, who has a Wikipedia page, and a rake of awards for his work, including the Palm Dog for The Artist, in which he plays Jack, the dog belonging to silent star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Tricks include walking on back legs and then, bang!, dropping dead. Apart from that Uggie mostly just does cute, bright, head-cocked, lots of running, the odd bit of tugging of trouser leg (“Don’t kill yourself, George Valentin”) and behaving like a Jack Russell, which comes naturally.

The Artist – at Amazon

 

Beginners (2010, dir: Mike Mills)

Uggie is not to be confused with Cosmo, who plays Christopher Plummer’s dog, Arthur, in Beginners. Plummer plays the old guy who, at 75, decides to come out as gay, now his wife is dead, much to the consternation of his son (Ewan McGregor). If Plummer’s performance is the best thing in Beginners, Arthur is actually the key to the movie, which is about commitment – Arthur being total commitment on four legs. Cosmo’s big trick in Beginners is just staring very intently, as if peering into the soul of the human sitting in front of him. And director Mike Mills uses this cannily, flashing up subtitles indicating what the dog is thinking. It’s a novel aid to storytelling, and very cute, obviously.

Beginners – at Amazon

 

Lassie (2005, dir: Charles Sturridge)

So ingrained is Lassie in the cultural fabric that the old “what’s that you’re saying Lassie; the kids are trapped in the old well?” line continues to be used as a shorthand for cheesy storytelling. The 2005 Lassie is interesting for a variety of reasons. It seemed to come from nowhere – there was no clamour for a Lassie film from any quarter. It did not feature a descendant of Pal (the original Lassie, whose bloodline had supplied Lassies to the motion picture biz from 1942 to 1999). And it was really surprisingly good, director Charles Sturridge crafting a story entirely without irony, utterly old-fashioned, the sort of adventure young children would lap up. And the cast was not what you’d expect either – Kelly Macdonald, Peter O’Toole, Samantha Morton. It’s heritage film-making, for sure, but undeniably a work of quality.

Lassie – at Amazon

 

The Man from Hell’s River (1922, dir: Irving Cummings)

This forgotten film from 1922 provided the first outing for Rin Tin Tin, a German shepherd who had been rescued from a First World War battlefield (War Horse, eat your heart out) and whisked back to Hollywood, where his on-screen exploits in 27 films made the breed globally popular. It is rumoured that Rin Tin Tin actually won the most votes for Best Actor in the first Academy Awards (the award eventually went to Emil Jannings). Whether that is true or not, what is without doubt is that Rin Tin Tin made a fortune for Warner Bros, turning the studio into a success. So, at some level, Rin Tin Tin gave us James Cagney, Bugs Bunny and Bette Davis, Casablanca, Goodfellas and the Harry Potter movies.

The Man from Hell’s River – not available at Amazon

 

Old Yeller (1957, dir: Robert Stevenson)

How many films have a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes? Old Yeller does. The story of a boy and his dog in mid-19th century rural America is one of the occasions when Disney got it right. And it’s the tragic ending that has seared it onto the memory of anyone who has watched it, along with the direction by Robert Stevenson, an expert Disney hand who would go on to direct Mary Poppins eight years later. Old Yeller himself was a blackmouth cur, a clever, good-natured, tough and robust breed initially used as a hunting and cattle dog. The sort of dog you’d want out with you if you were a young kid learning about life. And the film itself is like the breed – loveable and useful but tough when it matters.

Old Yeller – at Amazon

 

Bombón el Perro (2004, dir: Carlos Sorin)

From Patagonia, a miraculously sweet drama about an unemployed mechanic who is given a lumbering patrician example of the Dogo Argentino breed, a dog, he is assured, that will make him a fortune in stud fees. Except the dog isn’t that interested in the lady dogs. The dog is called Gregorio and at least 50 per cent of the film’s success is down to the way the big white beast sits in the passenger seat as Juan (first-time actor Juan Villegas) drives him about. The other 50 per cent is down to the way this beautifully crafted film presents a portrait of macho men (a little past their macho peak), friendship and dignity, and its use of wide, sun-baked Argentina vistas.

Bombón El Perro – at Amazon

 

The Wizard of Oz (1939, dir: Victor Fleming)

There’s not much to say about the Wizard of Oz that hasn’t already been said. But has anyone ever noted before that Toto (real name, disappointingly, is Terry) is the only creature, apart from Dorothy, who is consistent throughout? There are characters who only appear in Kansas (Uncle Henry), characters who only appear in Oz (Glinda), and characters who do double duty (Professor Marvel/The Wizard, Hunk/Scarecrow). Then there’s Dorothy and Toto. And Dorothy never lent her name to a 1980s rock outfit (or so the entirely untrue rumour goes).

The Wizard of Oz – at Amazon

 

Men in Black (1997, dir: Barry Sonnenfeld)

Exposition is the bane of so many films but in Men in Black, when Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent Jay (Will Smith) need a gigantic injection of plot information, Ed Solomon’s clever screenplay sends them off to meet Frank the Pug, a wisetalking canine version of Edward G Robinson who tells them who has done what with the Galaxy (the real galaxy, somehow shrunk to marble size) and how to get it back, more or less. In fact the film’s plot was changed halfway through shooting, but because Frank’s lines were all dubbed (dogs can’t really talk, apparently), it was possible to insert entirely different expository dialogue with no need to reshoot. And doesn’t it really help that while Frank is feeding plot info into the film, Tommy Lee Jones is trying to shake the life out of him? Pure exposition is rarely this much fun.

Men in Black – at Amazon

 

Frankenweenie (2012, dir: Tim Burton)

Tim Burton’s best film in years is a beautifully animated piece of kiddie gothic that reaches right back to a short he made in 1984, about a little boy who brings his dog back to life, Frankenstein style, by harnessing lightning. The little boy, obsessed with movies, something of a loner, is probably modelled on Burton himself, but the film is otherwise pumped full of references to the gorehounds of yore – such as Vincent Price and Peter Lorre – as well as the Universal monster movies of the 1930s. And, like Old Yeller, Frankenweenie presents a very gentle introduction to the concept of death for the very wee. The dog is called Sparky, of course.

Frankenweenie – at Amazon

 

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009, dir: Lasse Hallström)

Syrup is the director Lasse Hallström’s forte (he made an abortionist cute in The Cider House Rules, for example) and in this totally soppy story of a man and his faithful dog, he’s ladling it on. It’s a remake of a Japanese film called Hachiko Monogatari and stars Richard Gere as guy who persuades his wife (Joan Allen) to bend the “no more dogs” rule. Divided between Gere (the first half) and the Akita-breed dog (the second), it’s the sort of film that features an encounter with a skunk (with predictable results) and, though you’d never believe it, Gere looks like he’s having a good time. Honest to goodness stuff with a teary, lip-quivering third act.

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale – at Amazon

 

My Dog Tulip (2009, dir: Paul Fierlinger, Sandra Fierlinger)

Christopher Plummer again, absolutely perfect doing the narration for this film adaptation of the JR Ackerley’s autobiographical best-seller telling how, as an ageing, lonely gent, he is emotionally rescued by his relationship with a German shepherd. What marks out My Dog Tulip, apart from the delightful water-colourist style of animation, is its quirky matter-of-factness. It mentions all sorts of unmentionables that dog owners deal with every day – I’ve never seen a dog take a dump in an animated movie before. And as for the sections where Plummer discusses his dog’s anal glands or overtight foreskin, they’re something of a first too. And all done entirely without prurience, believe it or not, thanks to Plummer’s dry, droll, delivery.

My Dog Tulip – at Amazon

 

Red Dog (2011, dir: Kriv Stenders)

Like the best Australian films, there’s a bullshit-free quality to Red Dog which makes it highly watchable. Telling the story of a legendary kelpie cross, it’s also the story of early 1970s Aussie manhood, the fighting, the boozing, the plain-speaking, though done in a way that won’t frighten the children or their over-sensitive parents. Quietly making a case for gritty, stubbly old-fashioned masculinity – the virtuous side of it at any rate – it details how a mixed breed connected up a group of otherwise isolated itinerant workers out in frontier Australia, and how the dog formed a deep bond with one of them (played here by Josh Lucas). It’s a true story, too, and if you go to Dampier, Western Australia, you can see the statue to “the Pilbara wanderer”.

Red Dog – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

 

 

 

25 February 2013-02-25

Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund in On the Road

DVD/Blu-rays out in the UK this week

 

 

 

On the Road (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation urtext about real gone cats discovering sex, drugs and fun in 1940s USA looks never less than sensational in director Walter Salles’s translation to the screen. Riffing experimentally like the jazz on the soundtrack, it’s Grapes of Wrath-y in tone, nostalgic, perfectly capturing its protagonists’ assessment of themselves (like, way cool). In doing so it holds a mirror up to our own miserable times, mourning the loss of the energy that such self-centred optimism unleashes. Kristen Stewart, though a long way from the lead character, makes more of an impression than either Sam Riley (Kerouac) or Garrett Hedlund (as Neil Moriarty) in a film of surprising nuance and depth.

On the Road – at Amazon

 

 

Rust and Bone (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A whale trainer takes up with a shady bouncer after a life-changing accident at the aquarium. The bare plot description for this French drama really doesn’t do it justice. Watch the first 20 minutes and marvel at how much ground director/co-writer Jacques Audiard covers in a potentially super-melodramatic tearjerker/life-affirmer that never goes for easy emotion. Instead we get depth, subtlety and even a bit of class politics in the shape of the “it’s always the little guy that gets hurt” story arc. The performances, by Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard are similarly economical and as spot-on as the writing and direction.

Rust and Bone – at Amazon

 

 

Premium Rush (Sony, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is chased all over New York by snarling super bad guy Michael Shannon. Why? It doesn’t matter. All that does matter is the JG-L is playing a cycle courier riding a fixie, whereas Shannon is a cop in a car, and that there’s enough stuntorama, cool slo-mo camera trickery and chronological back-and-forth to make this something like a latterday Run Lola Run on a Bike. Enjoyable and exciting if not quite the groundbreaker it possibly thinks it is.

Premium Rush – at Amazon

 

 

Killing Them Softly (EV, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Like his good lady wife, Brad Pitt has developed a terrible habit of just standing around in films while the director of the week polishes his ego. Here he’s a supercool Mr Fixit, a relation of Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction maybe, sent in to sort out the mess a couple of bozos have made while turning over a local gambling operation run by Ray Liotta. Waving a hand vaguely towards the current financial crisis – the gaming tables are like the financial markets and need to stay in motion, we’re told a couple of times – the screenplay makes the comparison only to immediately drop it. It’s symptomatic of a film that’s all pose and little punch, though fans of Pitt will adore the way he’s endlessly fetishised, leaving the decent acting to others – Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Richard Jenkins and a standout small role for James Gandolfini, effortlessly great as a sweaty lush.

Killing Them Softly – at Amazon

 

 

Frankenweenie (Disney, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Tim Burton’s best film since Edward Scissorhands is a beautifully animated gothic (surprise surprise) remake of a short he made in 1984 and is about a boy bringing his dead pet dog back to life. It’s in black and white and is full of cinematic homage to 1930s monster movies – angry mobs, windmills, lightning storms – though it works well even if you have no idea who Peter Lorre or Boris Karloff are. It’s for kids, really – perhaps all Burton’s films are and he has yet to realise it – fast-paced, fun and yet thoughtful enough to gently introduce the notion of death to the young mind. I did say it was gothic.

Frankenweenie – at Amazon

 

 

McCullin (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

This is a great documentary about the London lad who became the best war photographer, a term he hates, of his era. McCullin’s hard-hitting, beautifully shot, high-contrast stills are used as punctuation to archive news footage from the 1960s and 1970s – much of it too shocking to be shown back then. Then there’s Don McCullin himself, eloquent, self-aware, analytical, self-critical and to some extent tortured both by what he’s seen and by how it changed him into “a war junkie”.

McCullin – at Amazon

 

 

Babette’s Feast (Artificial Eye, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD)

The Blu-ray debut of the 1987 drama – hands down the best film about food ever made – an almost erotic slow-tease about a Frenchwoman in puritanical Denmark who wins a small 19th century lottery and sets about converting the locals to her way of thinking via an extravagantly sumptuous banquet.

Babette’s Feast – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013