Tag Archives: D+

BITTER HARVEST

Producer: Ian Ihnatowycz, Stuart Baird, George Mendeluk, Chad Barager and Jaye Gazeley
Director: George Mendeluk
Writer: Richard Bachynsky-Hoover and George Mendeluk
Stars: Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Terence Stamp, Barry Pepper, Aneurin Barnard, Tamer Hassan, Lucy Brown, Jack Hollington, Richard Brake, Ostap Stupka and Gary Oliver
Studio: Roadside Attractions

D+

Though not nearly as infamous as the Holocaust engineered by the Nazis, the Holodomor—the mass starvation of the Ukrainian populace by Stalin’s regime in 1932-33, which might have killed as many as seven million people—was one of the most tragic events of the twentieth century. It certainly deserves better dramatic treatment than this stilted historical romance, which strives for a “Doctor Zhivago” vibe but falls miles short of David Lean’s epic.

The hero of the screenplay, co-written by director George Mendeluk with Richard Bachynsky-Hoover, is
Yuri (Max Irons), an artistically-inclined young man from peasant stock, who as a child fell in love, at first sight no less, with his playmate Natalka, who has since grown up into the beautiful Samantha Barks. (The bucolic quality of the rural society in which they live is painted in very thick strokes, with colorful costumes and communal celebrations of good harvests.) Though Yuri’s friend, the more politically-minded Mykola (Aneurin Barnard), encourages him to ask for Natalka’s hand, he is initially too shy to take the advice to heart.

Being an idealistic activist, Mykola will get politically involved when the Bolsheviks kill the czar, whose rule over Ukraine has been harsh, and the Soviet system emerges, eventually becoming head of the Ukrainian Communist Party in the belief that it can serve the cause of Ukrainian nationalism. (Oddly, there is little mention of the deprivations caused by World War I in all of this, or of the Russian Civil War that followed the Bolshevik Revolution.) But Yuri will witness the cruelty of that system when a brutal commissar, Sergei (Tamer Hassan), shows up and begins expropriating farmland in the name of “the people,” forcing families onto collectives and suppressing the church. His father Yaroslav (Barry Pepper) is killed resisting the Bolsheviks, and his warrior grandfather Ivan (Terence Stamp) barely survives.

Eventually Natalka and Yuri wed, but he goes off to the art academy in Kiev, where both Mykola and he will suffer disastrous setbacks, Mykola because Stalin (Gary Oliver) will crush the independence of the Ukrainian party and Yuri because the advent of “Soviet realism” in art will make his innovative mode of painting politically unacceptable. Eventually he will be imprisoned and nearly executed, but will escape by killing his villainous jailer Medved (Richard Brake) to return to Natalka, joining Ukrainian rebels fighting the Soviets in the process. Of course, we know that the resistance is doomed to fail, and ultimately flight across the border to still-free Poland becomes the sole option. Will they—and the sweet orphan boy Lubko (Jack Hollington) Yuri has adopted along the way—make it?

“Bitter Harvest” undoubtedly has its heart in the right place, but the execution is about at the level of the telefilms Mendeluk has specialized in over the course of his career. (The attempt at narrative symmetry between young Yuri and Natalka swimming happily as children at the beginning of the film and their attempted escape on the river at the close is typical of such pedestrian fare.) The fact that much of the picture was shot in the Ukraine (with interior shooting in England) makes for some interesting widescreen visuals (the cinematography is by Douglas Milsome), but the script is clunky and obvious, with both the political and romantic plots treated without subtlety or nuance (the periodic cutaways to Moscow, where Stalin holds court like a Mafia chieftain, are particularly clumsy).

Certainly the cast is incapable of bringing the material to life. Irons has matinee-idol good looks but the stiffness that often goes along with them, and Hassan matches Oliver in cardboard villainy. Pepper has the good fortune to disappear fairly early on, but Stamp’s character survives almost to the end, leaving the actor the unenviable task of suffering stoically through indignity after indignity. Barks is attractive, but in her hands the scenes of Natalka’s reactionary schemes against Sergei don’t register at all persuasively.

It’s admirable that Mendeluk, Bachynsky-Hoover and their colleagues should wish to publicize the genocidal policies taken against the Ukrainian people by the Soviets in the thirties—particularly in view of the designs that Russia has on Ukraine now. Unfortunately, their commitment is not matched by a similar degree of cinematic aptitude; the earnest but unimaginative approach results in an old-fashioned romantic melodrama that fails to do justice to the historical horrors that serve as its backdrop. In that respect it’s inferior to Atom Egoyan’s “Ararat,” about the Armenian genocide that preceded the Holodomor by fifteen years—though that film, too, fell short of the mark.

Perhaps, like the Holocaust, events such as these are simply too awful for any film to encompass them, except in the oblique and partial fashion that “Son of Saul,” to take a recent example, employed. Compared to a lacerating work such as that, the stolid “Bitter Harvest” barely registers a glancing blow.

A DOG’S PURPOSE

Producer: Gavin Polone
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Writer: W. Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky
Stars: Josh Gad, KJ Apa, Britt Robertson, Dennis Quaid, Luke Kirby, Juliet Rylance, Bryce Gheisar, Peggy Lipton, Logan Miller, John Ortiz, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Gabrielle Rose, Michael Bofshever and Pooch Hall
Studio: Universal Pictures

D+

“Old Yeller” was a piker compared to Lasse Hallstrom’s adaptation of W. Bruce Cameron’s popular book. Instead of just one canine demise, “A Dog’s Purpose” offers no fewer than four—most as the result of old age, but one from a gunshot wound (received in heroic circumstances, of course). But not to worry: each time the dog is reincarnated as a different breed, so it never really dies. Whether that’s a comforting notion or a really creepy one is a matter of debate; but the mixture of slapstick, melodrama, and cloying sentiment is tonally jarring, making for a movie that will convince cat people how right they are.

The movie is a four-part affair. The first, and shortest, is a prologue in which a stray, nameless puppy (voiced, as are all the dogs, by Josh Gad), is quickly picked up by animal control and presumably euthanized. (The deed is not shown.) That leads to its rebirth as a Golden Retriever that, after escaping confinement at a puppy mill, is adopted by a Michigan boy named Ethan (Bruce Gheisar), who names it Bailey.

This is by far the longest, sappiest segment in the picture. Ethan has a loving mother (Juliet Rylance), but his travelling salesman father (Luke Kirby) is an unhappy alcoholic who grows increasingly abusive over the years, until after having grown into a teen heartthrob (KJ Apa)—and star quarterback at Townsville High (yes, that’s the name of the script’s Everyburg)—Ethan must protect his mother against him. By this time Ethan has also acquired a charming girlfriend named Hannah (Britt Robertson), but Bailey constantly makes the couple a trio. (She doesn’t mind.)

Unfortunately, Ethan’s life takes a sad turn. Though he has a full football scholarship to Michigan State, a jealous classmate (Logan Miller) plays a prank on Ethan that turns bad, leaving him with a broken leg. That changes his life: he severs his relationship with Hannah and goes off alone to an agricultural school to prepare him to take over his grandfather’s farm. Bailey is left behind, and shortly expires.

But not for long. Reborn again, this time as a Chicago police dog, a German Shepherd named Ellie (still voiced, oddly, by Gad, though now female), it bonds with its lonely human partner Carlos (John Ortiz) whose life it saves during their rescue of a kidnapped girl. But Ellie is shot in the process. (This action-centered segment of the picture is easily the one where Hallstrom’s touch is least secure. The river-set rescue scene is badly choreographed and shot—and ironically it was the sequence that has brought the movie much unwanted publicity in terms of a viral video showing the stunt dog resisting efforts to put it into the swirling water. Charges of animal cruelty have circulated widely.)

Yet another reincarnation follows, with the dog returning as Tino, a Corgi adopted by college student Maya (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). This sitcommy episode follows the little pooch’s experience as Maya meets her soulmate and marries, eventually building a big family before Tino grows old and…well, you know.

In the final round, Bailey has become an oversized mutt that endures years with a neglectful trailer-trash couple before being summarily abandoned. Darned if it doesn’t find its way back to Townsville—whether that’s coincidence or fate, it might make you smack your forehead and shout “Zounds!”—where, adopted anew by the middle-aged Ethan (now Dennis Quaid) and renamed Buddy, it helps arrange a reunion with Hannah (Peggy Lipton) that, of course, develops into something permanent this time. Here the sequence of reincarnations, happily, halts.

The episodic nature of the movie makes it difficult for any of the actors to impress, but Quaid does his customary gruff work and Apa manages a nice impression of the all-American boy, even if Hallstrom stages the entire mini=story blandly. The real stars, in any event, are the dogs, and they all succeed in being utterly winning. Gad’s voice work is unfailingly enthusiastic, even when he has to deliver some really wretched puns and cutesy-poo observations on human behavior. Terry Stacey’s cinematography is bright, and Michael Carlin’s production design evocative—especially in the bucolic Michigan scenes. The insistent effort to emphasize place in the Chicago sequence—with numerous shots of the old Sears Tower and the Hancock Building—is, however, a mite grating.

Even apart from that viral video showing the German Shepherd Hercules being mistreated during filming, “A Dog’s Purpose” would have been an iffy prospect to join the ranks of classic canine movies. It’s basically a cinematic mutt that, to use a well-worn expression, just won’t hunt. But things could be worse: imagine if, like a cat, this dog had nine lives instead of just four, and we’d been forced to watch all of them. There’s a horrible thought.

Extra points, though, for casting a guy named Pooch in a supporting role: he plays Al,