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RED DOG (2011)
Kriv Stenders’ “Red Dog” is supposedly based on a true story, but rather you believe it or not, I don’t suppose it matters. The film itself is good enough on its own that I didn’t bother to doubt the story’s authenticity. What matters is that “Red Dog” is one heck of a loveable tale about a stray dog in 1970s Australia, that somehow ends up the communal pet for a disparate group of miners working at some faraway, isolated town that can’t even be called a proper town. The film features an ensemble cast, but if you were to demand I pinpoint a star, I’d say it’s American Josh Lucas (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) as a world traveler who becomes Red Dog’s master. Though for my money, it’s John Batchelor as the burly on the outside but secretly soft on the inside Peeto that steals the show. He and Arthur Angel (as an ex-pat Italian) carry a lot of the movie’s comedy, while Lucas, with his Hollywood movie star good looks, gets the cushy gig of leading man (not to mention gets the girl).
“Red Dog” is one of those films that you get sucked into before you even know it. It opens with a stranger stumbling across a group of locals in the midst of putting down Red Dog, who is on his last legs, and from there, the story of the dog and his master is told to the stranger by various people. Rachael Taylor (“Transformers”) plays Nancy, a local girl who falls for Lucas’ bus driver. Their whirlwind romance figures prominently into Red Dog’s story, and the two have very good chemistry. The fact that “Red Dog” ends the way it does leads me to believe that it is indeed based on a true story, because why else would Stenders and his writers choose this particular ending? Of course Hollywood would have never gone in this direction, true story be damned, so it’s a good thing “Red Dog” is a Down Under production.
“Red Dog” is one of those rare family movies that I’m not so sure you should let your kids watch. Without giving too much away, the ending is a tad of a downer, and in fact there’s about a 20 minute stretch towards the end where it’s just one heart-wrenching moment after another. Seriously, I’m as manly as the next manly man, but even I got weepy a few times. To be fair, it does make a big effort to end on a high note, so it’s not all doom and gloom. Just be forewarned if you’re thinking about tossing this into the DVD for your kids and leaving the room: you might have a lot of questions to answer afterwards.
YOUNG ADULT (2011)
Is it wrong that I root for Mavis, Charlize Theron’s completely despicable character in Jason Reitman’s dramedy “Young Adult”? Besides the fact that she’s played by Theron (who is, you know, kinda really awfully hot), Mavis is a thoroughly unlikeable person who spends half the movie planted face-first in bed from the previous night’s bout of boozing. She lives a mostly miserable existence, her sole companion a dog that Mavis carries around in a bag. A big-city author of a popular young adult book series, Mavis wakes up one day realizing that she’s unfulfilled. Salvation arrives by way of a baby picture landing in her email account from her high school ex-boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson), prompting Mavis to launch her master plan: she will return to their small town, where Buddy still lives with his perfect wife (“Twilight’s” Elizabeth Reaser) and steal him back and live happily ever after.
Or at least, that’s the plan. Returning home, Mavis discovers that taking Buddy is harder than previously thought. She also strikes up a new frenemy in Matt (Patton Oswalt, continuing to show he’s more than a comedian and all-purpose geek fanboy), who spends just as much time consoling her on her failures as he does trying to talk her out of breaking up Buddy’s happy marriage. Re-teaming screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, the duo having previously worked together on “Juno”, “Young Adult” is, as expected, quirky. More than that, it’s unexpected. Not only is Mavis the villain in most romcoms you’ve seen over the last 20 years, but she’s kinda a bitch. Telling a story from her point of view is a very risky move, and obviously moviegoers weaned on predictable from A-to-B Kate Hudson and Katherine Heigl romcoms just didn’t know how to respond. The film tanked.
In a lot of ways, “Young Adult” is the antithesis of a Hollywood romcom, so it was always going to be a hard sell to the general public. I found it pleasantly entertaining and brave, but then again, I’ve been known to root for the wrong characters in movies. Still, double kudos to Cody and Reitman for not chickening out with the ending, though I wouldn’t necessarily have minded if they had. Hey, I may root for the wrong person at times, but I’m still a softy at heart. Having said that, I happen to like how “Young Adult” ended even more, but that’s just me. Your mileage may vary.
American-born/Hong Kong-famous Daniel Wu stars in the Mainland China-set “Inseparable”, a comedy/drama/romance about Li (Wu), a down-on-his-luck yuppie with lots of serious issues. His parents have just died, his marriage to Pang (Beibi Gong) is on the rocks, and his eccentric new Western neighbor Chuck (Kevin Spacey) keeps encouraging him to do really wacky things. Eventually, Li dresses up as a superhero (a homemade costume, natch) and goes out to fight crime with Chuck. Quickly, though, we realize that not everything is what they seem. Hell, if you pay attention even a little bit, the film’s twist should be readily obvious, and thankfully writer/director Dayyan Eng dispenses with it pretty early on in the film. (Or does he?)
No, “Inseparable” is not a comic book superhero movie. Li has no superpowers, so the film is more along the lines of James Gunn’s “Super” and Peter Stebbings’ “Defendor”, about emotionally (and mentally) compromised protagonists slipping on a homemade costume in order to make sense of the chaotic world around them. Eng doesn’t really get this point across all that well, since Li’s problems are all too Li-based — his job, his marriage, his past. As a comedy, “Inseparable” has a couple of chuckles, but it’s also pretty heavy on drama, too. Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey makes his Chinese debut, and brings plenty of prestige to a role that otherwise might have been filled by some expatriate in China hired simply because, well, he’s American. (I can count on one hand the number of Western actors I’ve seen in Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese productions that can actually act, but were cast in big productions anyway purely because they had the racial make-up the film needed.) So yes, it’s a bit startling, but very welcome, to see someone of Spacey’s caliber in a film like this.
“Inseparable” eventually ends up becoming more of a drama in its second half, with Li’s problems becoming increasingly worst the more he hangs around Chuck. These are moments were Spacey’s ability to shift from nice guy to menacing villain really shines. Daniel Wu is good in the lead, though he doesn’t quite have the dramatic heft for some of the film’s more heavy themes. (Wu was also born in the States, which accounts for his flawless English. Because Chuck’s Chinese is conveniently terrible, his many scenes with Li are in English.) Beibi Gong is of course gorgeous, but she doesn’t really have too much to do, coming and going as befitting a woman whose marriage is falling apart, forcing her to bury herself in work in order to cope. I’m still not entirely sure what the film’s parting shot means, though I have my guesses.