Love on a Leash (2011)

2020 #173
Fen Tian | 86 mins | digital (SD) | 16:9 | USA / English

Love on a Leash

Love on a Leash first gained a degree of notoriety when some YouTuber happened upon it on Amazon Prime and made a video about it, in which he instructed his followers to rate it 10-out-of-10 on IMDb. Enough of them did that it apparently resulted in his account being banned. (At time of writing, it has a score of 9.2 from almost 6,500 ratings.) I came across it more recently on Letterboxd, where it was featured on a list of divisive films. You only have to look at its ratings spread to see why:

Love on a Leash Letterboxd ratings

Are the 1,504 people who’ve rated it 5 stars in on the same joke as those YouTuber’s fans who rated it 10 on IMDb? Or is there in fact something to this movie that makes some people think “this is worth full marks”? You might be surprised to learn that, actually, I think it’s the latter.

The film tells the story of Prince, a golden retriever who is actually a man turned into a dog (and whose human name may have been Alvin Flang. Or maybe not — I feel like the dog is an unreliable narrator). How has this happened? Why? Who knows? Who cares? (The film has a lot of random shots of ducks for no obvious reason (it’s almost Lynchian), so my guess is they did it to him. Still don’t know why, though.) Prince learns (from a magic rock-pool) that he can only return to human form by finding the true love of a woman. Enter unlucky-in-love shopgirl Lisa (Jana Camp), who meets Prince in a park and eventually takes him home. What unfolds is not as straightforward as the Beauty and the Beast narrative you might imagine, but to describe any more of the craziness would be to ruin half the fun. The plot’s constant twists and developments beggar belief — it’s genuinely imaginative, in its own way. By which I mean I don’t think you’ll have ever see anything else quite like this.

Pizza-faced cinder block and Alvin Flang

I give full credit to Love on a Leash for just going for it. It’s hard to pigeonhole what genre it was even aiming for. The poster and basic concept suggest a cheesy kids’ film or Hallmark movie; the way it initially plays, you kinda assume it wants to be a romcom; but then it gets so fucking dark (suicide attempt! abusive coworkers! dead dog!), and there’s so much fantastical strange stuff… it’s so much weirder, wilder, and more unique than you can imagine. That’s without even mentioning the bizarre production quirks, like the fact Lisa only wears green clothes and lives in a green house with a green phone and green mugs and green plates… Or that it’s shot with a kind of documentary realism… um, maybe; or maybe it was just done quickly on digital video. There’s definitely no music, though. Like, at all. Even though there’s a composer credited.

Well, except for a couple of songs the dog sings. Prince is constantly chatting away to himself in voiceover, and sometimes sings little childish ditties too (I suspect they weren’t actually composed by anyone). He can be a right snarky little bugger (he describes the love of his life as a “pizza-faced cinder block”), to the point that I suspect it may all have been improvised by the voice actor in post-production — he seems to be taking the piss out of what’s going on as often as we are.

Love on a Leash was written and directed by Fen Tian, a 64-year-old Chinese woman who came to America in her 40s “with fifty dollars in her pocket, and not one word of English in her possession,” according to her production bio. It asserts that the screenplay won an award and funding from the Taiwan government, and at one point she took an American cast and crew to China to shoot it but funding fell through. After decades of trying, the film was eventually produced “with barely enough money to cover craft services”, and during post-production she “slept on the couches of her editors, dragging around her blanket, toothbrush, pillow and thirty-nine DV cam reels” and “spoiled” her team by “cooking up huge feasts of homemade Chinese food, and fixing her crew’s love lives with a motherly heart and some Chinese wisdom.” I feel like this deserves a Disaster Artist-type biopic…

What people get up to in the privacy of their own homes...

So, we come to the issue I touched on at the start: how do you rate a film like this? As an exercise in moviemaking, it’s a 1. The storyline is borderline nonsensical; it’s shot like an amateur using a camcorder for the first time; the sound mix is so unfinished I’m not sure it was ever started… And yet it’s constantly enjoyable, partly through a “so bad it’s good” hilarity (see the aforementioned terrible filmmaking), but also for the barminess with which it conducts itself, the relentless forward momentum of the storyline leading us in unpredictable narrative directions. Like famous cult favourite The Room, it transcends its amateur awfulness to be an artistic experience all of its own. In fact, it achieves a higher level of genuine artistry than The Room for me, because Wisseau’s film sometimes mires itself in wannabe-seriousness and runs out of stuff to laugh at, whereas Love on a Leash is restless in its creativity and consequently almost non-stop entertaining. It transcends its obvious awfulness through a kind of perverse innovation; a commitment to not hewing to any recognisable conventions. And it’s really funny — sometimes deliberately, often not.

With reservations duly noted, then, I honestly and unequivocally give Love on a Leash full marks.

5 out of 5

Game Night (2018)

2018 #111
John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein | 100 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Game Night

Despite what the poster suggests, the cute dog is not in fact one of the three leads.

1 out of 5

Okay, okay — let’s put the Westie-based bait-and-switch advertising aside and give the film a fair hearing, because it’s actually surprisingly brilliant.

The other poster stars, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, play hyper-competitive couple Max and Annie, who love nothing more than the weekly game night they host with their best friends, from which they exclude their odd next-door neighbour, Westie-loving cop Gary (Jesse Plemons). One week, Max’s super-successful older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) unexpectedly shows up and gatecrashes game night, then offers to host an even better one. For that he arranges a real-life mystery game, where he gets kidnapped and the others have to track him down… except then he gets kidnapped for real, and they only have the rest of the night to rescue him.

If you’ve ever wondered “what if someone reimagined David Fincher’s The Game as a comedy?”, Game Night is probably the answer. Personally, I’ve never wondered that, but I’m up for it. That said, I was all prepared to let it wait until it popped up on Netflix or something, until the film’s home release in the US a couple of months back prompted a wave of praise from critics I follow on Twitter. Now I’m adding my small voice to those urging you to check this movie out.

Wanna play a game?

It’s the kind of film where I don’t want to say much more than I already have, because obviously the joy lies in the jokes (and jokes are a lot less funny if you spoil them) and the plot developments. At the risk of just reeling off a list of superlatives, I’ll say that what unfolds is fast, inventive, clever (after you’ve seen the film, check out this spoilersome bit of trivia. I mean, that’s superb!), and, above all, hilariously funny. There are more laughs in its opening montage than many modern comedies manage in a whole film. Jesse Plemons transcends the “budget Matt Damon” jibes (but, c’mon, he really looks like an own-brand Matt Damon) to all but steal the film with his hysterical straight-faced supporting role. I only say “all but” because everyone else is firing on all cylinders too: it’s a cast full of likeable, well-performed characters, not least Max and Annie. McAdams, in particular, gets to give a line delivery that’s an all-timer. If there’s a criticism in this regard it’s that, with so many characters competing for screen time, I’m not sure how well their individual arcs really work, but that’s a minor distraction.

One other thing I will criticise — which is nothing to do with the quality of the film itself, but bugged me enough that here’s a whole paragraph about it — is the scarcity of extras on the Blu-ray, which total just ten minutes. Seriously? Put some effort in! All the praise from American Twitter led me to acquire the film via Alternative Means, but, being the good honest film consumer I am, I was going to rent it when it came out here as retrospective payment. But then I loved it so much I thought I’d just go ahead and buy the disc. But a full-price new release of a film I’ve already seen with a grand total of ten minutes of special features? You’re having a laugh. Were there no deleted scenes? Could they not stump up for a commentary? Surely they filmed longer interviews than that just for the EPK? But no, all we get is a 6½-minute gag reel and a 3½-minute “featurette” (I’m being kind — at that length it can’t be much more than a trailer). I’m going to buy it eventually, in a sale, because I enjoyed the film enough to add it to my collection, but you cost yourself a day-one purchase there, Warners. I don’t know how much the general film-viewing populace still care about special features, but us aficionados do, and I know I’m not alone in feeling this way about this particular title. Anyway, rant over.

Who's stealing the film now, eh?

For pure enjoyment, I came very close to giving Game Night the full five stars — when it works, it absolutely sings — but there are just a few bits, here and there, that fell a little short. Nonetheless, it’s certainly the kind of film I loved in spite of its flaws. If only the adorable dog had been in it more, maybe this’d be a five anyway…

4 out of 5

Game Night is available to own digitally in the UK from today, and on that disappointing DVD & Blu-ray from next week.

It placed 15th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Benji (2018)

2018 #53
Brandon Camp | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | PG

Benji

Aww, look at the cute lickle doggie! And all the cute tricks and stuff he can do!

“5

Okay, more seriously…

One of Netflix’s latest original movies (they’re releasing 700 this year, so there’ve probably been another 154 since this came out a couple of weeks ago), Benji is a reboot of the ’70s/’80s dog movie franchise, arguably best remembered because its 1987 instalment, Benji the Hunted, earnt a “thumbs up” rating from Roger Ebert the same week he gave Full Metal Jacket a “thumbs down”. I don’t know if I’m going to be giving any classic movies a poor rating this week, but I’m definitely giving the new Benji a big thumbs up.

The film begins as it means to go on: with misery. (Seriously, this is quite a gloomy, peril-filled film alongside all the cute canine antics.) On a dark and stormy night, a dog warden snatches a mother and her three young pups, accidentally leaving one behind. He tries to give chase, but can only look on forlornly as his whole family is carted away. Aww! He sets off along the road, growing up on his travels, and eventually finds himself in New Orleans. There he stumbles into the lives and hearts of two kids, Carter (Gabriel Bateman) and Frankie (Darby Camp), who decide to name him Benji. They live with their mom (Kiele Sanchez), who’s struggling to make ends meet and keep her kids happy since the death of their father (see, more misery). Anyway, the kids get kidnapped and Benji’s the only witness to where they’ve gone, but the silly humans can’t follow his hints properly, so Benji sets off to rescue his newfound family by himself.

Benji's on the case

Benji isn’t half bad for a kids’ movie. And while it is undoubtedly a kids’ movie, it can get quite dark and serious at times — well, quite a lot of the time (it’s a PG for a reason) — but there’s a good storyline and some strong themes. It’s not super realistic (I mean, you read my plot description, right?), but it mixes in just enough real-life hardship to sell itself. There are decent performances too, including from the two kids, who I’ve seen other reviews criticise. I mean, they’re not going to be troubling next year’s Oscars, but they’re not bad. Certainly, I’ve seen poorer turns from child actors in proper adult movies, and definitely ones that have been more irritatingly objectionable. The choice to set the film in New Orleans is a nice one as well, offering a different and distinctive flavour to the usual stomping grounds of New York or L.A.

But that’s all gravy to the real reason we’re here: the dogs. My introductory joke was, actually, kinda serious: Benji himself is a clear 5-out-of-5, both super cute and super smart. Yes, I know the film’s edited to make him preternaturally clever (there’s an awesomely daft sequence where he thinks back over everything he’s seen and comes up with a plan), but the tricks he performs without the aid of editing show that he’s a damn well trained doggy. Variety’s review writes about the Kuleshov effect, which is “the basic principle of film editing, established by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov nearly a century ago, that audiences attribute emotion to a blank face according to the shot immediately before or after”, and how Benji uses that to make the dog give a ‘performance’. Director Brandon Camp applies that technique more than once, I’m sure, but Benji’s got enough tricks at his disposal that such artifice isn’t always necessary to build character. Also, blimey can that dog run!

Run, Benji, run!

Okay, if dogs don’t tickle your fancy in any way then there’s nothing for you here; but as a lover of dogs — and particularly little scruffy ones like Benji — this film was a near-constant delight. It’s pretty great entertainment for kids too, though don’t stick it on unless you’re prepared for them to want a Benji of their own afterwards.

4 out of 5

Benji is available on Netflix now and forever.

Coincidentally, Full Metal Jacket will be reviewed later this year as one of my “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” films.

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

2017 #20
Ti West | 104 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

In a Valley of Violence

The spirit of the Spaghetti Western is alive and well in writer-director Ti West’s shoot ’em up; though where they once took inspiration from samurai movies, now Mr West has his sights set on modern-day gun-fu movies — specifically, here he retrofits John Wick into a familiar Old West narrative.

On his way to Mexico with just his horse and dog Abby for company, drifter Paul (Ethan Hawke) passes through an almost-deserted town, where he ends up in a fight with wannabe-tough-guy Gilly (James Ransone). It turns out Gilly is the son of the local Marshal (John Travolta), but he considers the matter settled and lets Paul move on, ordering his son to leave it be. A shamed Gilly has a different opinion, however, leading his gang of friends to assault Paul in the dead of night. But as is the way with halfwit villains, they leave our hero alive, ready for him to ride back into town and exact his vengeance.

If you come to movies looking for an original storyline, you’ll be disappointed here — as I say, it’s basically John Wick in the West (if you’ve seen that Keanu Reeves actioner, you’ll already know the outcome of Gilly’s revenge on Paul). The devil is in the details, however, and in that respect In a Valley of Violence is rather enjoyable. Perhaps the biggest mark in its favour is its sense of humour. It’s not a comedy by any means, but Gilly’s gang are borderline incompetent in a way that’s increasingly laughable.

Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in the West?

Travolta gets in on the act as a man who seems very much in control of his own little kingdom, but when things truly kick off he’s somewhat caught in the middle. Thankfully he’s not just the bullying villainous type, instead getting a nicely balanced reaction to events: he knows Gilly’s done wrong, but stands by him because he’s his son; but when Paul’s pushing comes to shoving… well, familial loyalty only gets you so far.

As Paul, Hawke finds some degree of complexity in the (anti-)hero, but this isn’t exactly a movie built for psychological complexity. Taissa Farmiga is positioned as the love interest, but thankfully isn’t entirely reduced to such a thankless role. As her sister, Karen Gillan reminds us that, while she may be best known for brightly-coloured sci-fi on screens both big and small, her roots are in comedy. But the biggest star is, of course, the dog. You can’t help getting attached, even when you know you’re watching John Wick of the West.

The dog's the star

The film offers many stylistic nods to remind us of its Spaghetti inspiration, like the starkly animated title sequence, or Jeff Grace’s Morricone-riffing score, which some criticise for its obviousness but I thought was fun. It even comes through in the film’s structure, with a slow-burn first half that reminded me of Leone’s attitude to action. Some complain of the pace there, or lack of it, but I rather liked that. It partly functions as a deliberate delaying of gratification: the main reason we’re here is for the bloody vengeance we know will eventually be coming, but West carefully sets the scene and gradually puts characters in place early on so that the second half can more fully concentrate on the violence. The wit is kept alive even then, with more than one of the deaths provoking at least some laughter.

The more I write about it, the more I wonder if this film is something of an acquired taste. It’s not out-and-out comical enough to be classed as a comedy, but action die-hards may feel the lighter elements undermine the violent thrills they seek. I thought it worked, but experience has taught me that I’m more accepting than most of such tonal mash-ups.

Cool cowboy

Despite the plot similarities, In a Valley of Violence isn’t going to challenge John Wick for ultra-choreographed action satisfaction, but it has many aspects to recommend it for those who like a chuckle alongside their bloodshed.

4 out of 5

In a Valley of Violence is released direct to DVD & Blu-ray in the UK on 6th March.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is in UK cinemas from today.

The Present (2014)

2016 #114
Jacob Frey | 4 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Germany / English

The PresentA short film about a boy and his dog, The Present was a graduation short for the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Postproduction at the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg in Ludwigsburg, Germany (yeah, I copy & pasted that), which has since won more than 50 awards after playing at film festivals around the world. Reportedly it also single-handedly landed its animator/director a job at Disney — he went on to work on Zootopiatropolis.

The simple story sees a videogame-obsessed boy given a mysterious box by his mother. Distracted long enough to open it, inside he finds a puppy, and… well, the film’s only four minutes long — you’re better off watching it than having me describe the story.

Regular readers will know I’m a bit of a sucker for cute dogs nowadays, be they real or animated — I gave Disney short Feast a full five stars last year. If you enjoyed that, then I’m certain you’ll like The Present too. There are other similarities: it’s about a guy bonding with his dog; it’s told in near-silence, with the big emotional reveals left for you to pick up through the pictures rather than explanatory dialogue; and it certainly tugs on the heartstrings to a similar degree.

In fact, I don’t think it’s going too far to say The Present may even be the better of the two — though it’s a close call.

5 out of 5

You can watch The Present free on Vimeo.

P.S. A dog is for life, not just for Christmas.

White God (2014)

aka Fehér Isten

2016 #11
Kornél Mundruczó | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Hungary, Germany & Sweden / Hungarian | 15 / R

Thirteen-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her dog Hagen are forced to temporarily live with her father, Dániel (Sándor Zsótér), because her mother is going on holiday with her new partner. Dániel doesn’t like Hagen anyway, but when the dog’s behaviour causes problems for him, he sets Hagen loose on the streets. Already angry with her father and his attitude, a devastated Lili sets out to find her beloved dog, who is busy discovering the darker side of mankind and our treatment of animals.

If White God sounds a bit bleak then, well, it can be. It’s a European arthouse drama, really, and so you get the attendant choices with pacing and storytelling style, as well as a commitment to realism — until the third act, at least, which I’ll come to in a moment. Hagen ends up in some very dark places, and co-writer/director Kornél Mundruczó doesn’t shy away from showing their brutality. Conversely, real dogs were used throughout filming, and the film doesn’t have a Hollywood budget for prosthetics or CGI, so we’re spared some of the imagery a less fiscally inhibited director might’ve forced upon us. Mundruczó insisted that all the dogs in the film were real animals trained to perform (and none were harmed, of course), which must’ve been limiting at times, but makes everything we see that much more effective.

For all the toughness of the journey, where it leads is triumphant; not entirely so, I must add, but enough. The film’s third act can pithily be described as Rise of the Planet of the Dogs: having seen the abuses of humans, an impounded Hagen leads a canine uprising that seeks to… well, they don’t speak (they’re dogs, remember, and this isn’t Disney), so who knows what their precise aims are? “Revenge” would be too cruel, but they definitely seeking some retribution. The film’s sadness doesn’t disappear (hence why not entirely triumphant), but some wrongs are righted.

The comparison to certain films about apes goes further than just the theme of an animal revolution, however: just like the last two Apes movies, White God drags a little when it leaves the animals for the humans. I’d love to see an edit which just followed Hagen’s story — you’d certainly keep all the film’s interesting and memorable bits, and lose very little. Not that the human bits are bad, per se, but they don’t go anywhere particularly new. Ooh, a teenager striking out, going to clubs (gasp!), and then realising that her parent isn’t such a monster after all (twist!) The performances are good — young Psotta is very naturalistic, and Zsótér makes you understand the humanity of someone who could’ve been a straightforward villain — but the dogs are where the real interest is at.

Some will find the middle of the film a slog, I suspect, both emotionally and with its occasionally lagging pace. However, the bookends seek to justify it. There’s catharsis in the finale, as described, but even better is the film’s opening. It has to be seen to be properly understood, but it’s operatically scored, shot, and edited, and involves hundreds (literally) of trained dogs en masse. It’s spectacular, unforgettable moviemaking; perhaps even one of the best openings to a film ever. And I don’t say that just as a “dog person”.

White God could benefit from tightening in some places, and less focus on the by-the-motions human subplots wouldn’t be a bad thing, but as a kind of magical realist drama, almost an arthouse take on certain Hollywood blockbuster narratives, it’s a compelling and sometimes awe-inspiring movie.

4 out of 5