All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

A DOG’S JOURNEY

Producer: Gavin Polone
Director: Gail Mancuso
Writer: W. Bruce Cameron, Maya Forbes, Cathryn Michon and Wallace Wolodarksy
Stars: Josh Gad, Kathryn Prescott, Dennis Quaid, Marg Helgenberger, Betty Gilpin, Abby Ryder Fortson, Henry Lau, Ian Chen, Conrad Coats, Jake Manley, Daniela Barbosa and Kevin Clayton
Studio: Universal Pictures

D+

Cats are said to have nine lives, but W. Bruce Campbell’s weird tale of doggie reincarnation suggests that canines run them a close second. The story of Bailey, begun a couple of years back with “A Dog’s Purpose,” continues in this sappy sequel, and by the end he has completed eight. Viewers who embraced the first movie might find “A Dog’s Journey” just as lovable; others may find it an equally strange mixture of juvenile humor, mawkish melodrama and insufferable cuteness. It’s like an overeager puppy constantly demanding attention however he can get it.

In the first installment (which was directed by Lasse Hallström, here taking an executive producer credit), you may remember, Josh Gad voiced Bailey, who became the beloved pet of a young Michigan farm boy named Ethan, played by KJ Apa. The dog died after the kid went off to agricultural school, and proceeded through a series of lives as other breeds before making it back, as a big mutt, to his first master, now in the person of Dennis Quaid. Both were overjoyed to have found one another again.

“Journey” (directed blandly by Gail Mancuso) begins a few years later, after Ethan and his new wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger, replacing Peggy Lipton) have taken in Gloria (Betty Gilpin), her son’s widow, and Gloria’s toddler daughter CJ (Emma Volk). Gloria is an unhappy young woman (and a dog-hater to boot), who stalks off with the kid in a huff, cutting off Ethan and Hannah altogether. When Bailey dies, Ethan asks his departing soul to look after CJ. It turns out to be a tough assignment, since Gloria proves a totally irresponsible mom, desperate to find a man and prone to drink too much.

No wonder the now-adolescent CJ (Abby Ryder Fortson) decides to adopt a beagle called Molly, actually the reincarnated Bailey, when her best friend Trent (Ian Chen) chooses Molly’s brother. She hides the pooch from her mother, who reluctantly allows the kid to keep her when she finds out (and CJ threatens to turn her in to CPS).

Skip ahead a few years, and CJ (now Kathryn Prescott) gets into trouble with a slimy boyfriend named Shane (Jake Manley), who literally drives her off the road after she’s broken up with him and had a final fight with Gloria. In the ensuing car crash. Molly emerges unhurt and begins a trek to points unknown as—you guessed it—an aspiring singer/songwriter. But Molly dies in the accident.

Not to worry. Bailey’s reborn again, this time as a huge mongrel that becomes the pet of Pennsylvania gas station owner Joe (Conrad Coates). Who should stop by the place one day on her way to New York but CJ, who drives off before Big Dog, as he’s now called, can catch up to her; but again he dies, and is immediately reincarnated as Yorkshire terrier Max, who somehow winds up at a NYC shelter where, inevitably, CJ adopts him.

She has a boyfriend in the city, but who should show up unexpectedly but Trent (now played by Henry Lau), who has a girlfriend on his arm but not for long. At this point “Journey” ventures into “Fault in Our Stars” territory as Max, remembering his training from CJ’s stint in community service way back when, sniffs out Trent’s cancer just in time to get him to a doctor so he can undergo life-saving chemotherapy. After he’s recovered (in a montage that makes the whole episode seem like little more than a bad cold), he decides to drive CJ back to reunite with her grandparents, and bent-over Ethan recognizes Max as his Bailey once more. By the time the movie ends, everyone is happy—even Gloria has reformed and returned to the family fold—though, of course, Max’s time with them all is limited. His work is done.

As can be discerned from this précis, “A Dog’s Journey” is as awash in coincidences as it is in jokes about gobbling up bacon from the floor and gags involving doggie-doo. Of course, perhaps some higher power is assumed to be directing the persistently reborn Bailey into running just as persistently into CJ, but that’s never made explicit. (It’s probably better that way, even if God is Dog spelled backwards.)

The humans in the cast play second fiddle to the canines, all of whom seem well-trained, but Prescott (who resembles a young Jodie Foster) is engaging, and though Quaid’s old-age version of Ethan is about as convincing as the late Tim Conway’s little old man, he brings the requisite gravity to the part. Gilpin comes on awfully strong as the mean-as-nails Gloria, but Lau is likable as the older Trent. As for Gad, he’s as ebullient in a gee-whiz way as he was the first time around, which one will find either charming or irritating, depending on your point of view. The picture has the glossy look of Disney live-action movies from the fifties, courtesy of Rogier Stoffers’ lensing, and Mark Isham’s score oozes sentiment.

One thing virtually everyone should be able to agree on is that after all his frantic lives, Bailey deserves a good, long rest. In other words, no third installment, please; this dog has had its day, and then some.

MEETING GORBACHEV

Producer: Lucki Stipetic and Svetlana Palmer
Director: Werner Herzog and Andre Singer
Writer: Werner Herzog and Andre Singer
Stars: Mikhail Gorbachev, Werner Herzog, Miklos Nemeth, George Shultz, James Baker III, Lech Walesa and Horst Teltschik
Studio: 1091 Films

B

Wim Wenders interviewed an idol of his, Pope Francis, for a feature-length documentary, and now the equally idiosyncratic Werner Herzog does the same for one of his, Mikhail Gorbachev. The result borders on hagiography, but it does offer a decent if one-dimensional biographical sketch of a man who firmly believed in communism, yet inadvertently helped bring about the downfall of the Soviet Union.

Herzog mentions that he and the eighty-seven-year old Gorbachev met three times for interviews over the course of six months, and he splices bits and pieces of those conversations into what is basically a conventional sketch of the ex-Soviet leader’s life, from his childhood through his education and rise in party circles to his assumption of the leadership of the USSR in 1985 after the death of his mentor Yuri Andropov and his short-lived successor Chernenko, the last of the old guard.

Herzog himself narrates the biographical material against a backdrop of archival footage and stills, with Gorbachev occasionally interjecting recollections in response to questions. Gorbachev’s comments become somewhat longer as he discusses his tenure through the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991—an event he still remembers ruefully, thinking that giving greater autonomy to the member republics could have saved the confederation, along with its communist foundation.

But what Herzog really lauds Gorbachev for is his embrace of reform—of perestroika and glasnost, which led him to admit publicly the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986—and his refusal to use force to prop up the communist regimes in eastern Europe that collapsed in the last years of the decade. Poland’s Lech Walesa is shown in an interview dismissing Gorbachev’s view that the communist system could be reformed rather than simply abandoned, but other ex-officials, like former Hungarian minister Miklós Németh, praise his allowing the democratic uprisings to succeed, even withdrawing Soviet troops in response to them. Herzog and German interviewees like Horst Teltschik, who served under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, are especially eloquent in lauding not only Gorbachev’s hands-off policy in East Germany, but his willingness not to object to German reunification, which was accomplished remarkably swiftly and peacefully.

The other aspect of Gorbachev’s international policy that Herzog emphasizes is his effort to reduce, and eventually eliminate, nuclear weapons. As the film notes, he found an unlikely ally in that project in President Ronald Reagan, and clips from interviews with such American officials as George Shultz and James Baker support Gorbachev’s own recollections. (By contrast, Margaret Thatcher, with whom he otherwise enjoyed a cordial relationship, is shown expressing the view that getting rid of nuclear weapons would instigate conventional wars.) The present-day interview segments demonstrate that Gorbachev still holds strong views about eliminating nuclear weapons, observing sadly that his own country has undertaken to modernize its nuclear arsenal rather than destroying it.

The portrait of the elderly Gorbachev that Herzog draws at the close is of a lonely man whose loss of his wife Raisa affected him deeply; his own countrymen, moreover, now show as little respect for him as did the Kremlin enemies who tried to depose him in 1991 in the coup that the intervention of Boris Yeltsin, an erstwhile ally turned rival, reversed. But it was Yeltsin who then demanded the dismantling of the USSR and the end of the communist party, and the pained expression on Gorbachev’s face in official footage as government underlings tried to memorialize his humiliation in signing the documents of dissolution on film is read by the almost fawning Herzog as a final refusal to surrender his dignity even under duress.

Herzog occasionally interjects some mordant humor into the film, as in a montage of the end of the dinosaurs who headed the Politburo before Gorbachev’s ascent in 1985—from the last years of the feeble, forgetful Brezhnev through Andropov and Chernenko, whose almost constant hospitalization was camouflaged by staged “working sessions” with his staff. More characteristic, however, is the sequence in which Herzog presents his subject with a gift—a box of specially-made sugar-free chocolates that the diabetic Gorbachev will be able to eat. It proves a fitting culmination to a gentle, respectful tribute to a man whom Herzog obviously considers among the wisest, most consequential world leaders of the late twentieth century, and one who does not receive the acclaim he deserves.

Whether you agree with that assessment or not, “Meeting Gorbachev” offers the opportunity to see the man explaining himself before the bar of history within the context of an able, if selective, portrait of his career.