Sunday, December 21, 2008

White Dog (1982)



It begins with a black screen and the sound of a dog yelping in pain--a noise sure to set any animal lover’s teeth on edge. As the screen comes to life, we see Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) on a dark and empty road. She’s just struck a white german shepherd, who lies motionless on the highway. Soon that very dog is a major part of her life. When a man breaks into her house and attempts to rape Julie, the dog defends her, refusing to let the attacker go until the police arrive. Julie’s told that she’s lucky to have such a guardian.

Unfortunately for Julie, it turns out that this particular dog is a “white dog,” an attack dog raised and trained by a racist to viciously assault and even kill people with black skin. Julie, understandably, is reluctant to put down the dog that saved her. Her only hope is a black animal trainer named Keys (Paul Winfield), a man driven to deprogram the white dog in what he sees is a direct conflict with white racism. But can anyone undo the damage that’s been done to the poor dog’s mind? And how many have to be put at risk before the white dog should be put down?



Samuel Fuller’s White Dog kind of looks like a TV movie, and is more-or-less acted like one. Still, it’s not without its charms. While the main focus of the film is certainly racism, another, just as important theme is man’s cruelty towards animals. The white dog is an innocent, in a sense; we learn that, since it was a puppy, it has been programmed to attack black men, and the process was probably something like this: a black bum or junkie, having been paid by the dog’s owner, repeatedly beats the animal, until it learns to fear and hate black men on sight. As Keys explained, to the white dog, black men are only that--men with black skin. It’s merely a colour that the dog recognizes and attacks, without all the ideology of human racism. No matter how evil the dog may seem, it is only acting out human evil. One can’t help but sympathize with the dog.

But the violence against animals doesn’t end with the dog. Keys works with a man named Carruthers, and together they operate a business that trains wild animals for use in show business. The film doesn’t pussyfoot around exactly what this entails; the violence that is required to turn wild animals into trained, docile beings is displayed in full. Deprogramming the white dog (which never receives a name, oddly enough) is a violent affair as well, though in this instance it’s mostly a case of the dog attacking Keys until exhaustion again and again.


Certainly there are no A-list actors in the cast, but at least the principle actors acquit themselves well--most of the time. Paul Winfield (best known to fans of The Simpsons as the voice of Luscious Sweet) plays Keys (an otherwise underdeveloped character) as a man single-mindedly driven to “save” the white dog. To put the dog down, he believes, is to let the racists win, to let them destroy something else. Certainly it stretches believability when he is willing to circumvent the law in serious (and questionable) ways to give himself more time with the dog, but he’s convincing enough in his determination that we can almost buy it. Kristy McNichol, at least, plays a dog-lover well.

The real star, though, is the white dog itself, played by five different stunt dogs. They are really beautiful dogs, and even when the white dog is charging someone, intent on ripping that person’s throat out, you can’t help but notice what a stunning animal it is. It’s easy to empathize with a dog, too--a racist human, of course, would be far less sympathetic.


The Criterion Collection DVD of White Dog is everything you’d expect for a lower-tier release from the company. The presentation is good, and the extras are certainly suitable. A featurette that contains interviews with (among others) co-writer Curtis Hanson (writer/director of L.A. Confidential) offers some illuminating information on both Fuller and his film, as well as the trials behind making the movie, while another feature advertised as an “interview with dog trainer Karl Lewis-Miller” turns out to be excerpts from the man’s book. Also, I quite like the cover.

White Dog
is a flawed film, troubled by some pretty blasé acting and some rather uninspired cinematography. It is, however, quite an interesting film, and if you can take the idea of a racist dog seriously after seeing the “Sheriff” episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I’d highly recommend it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

First Blood (1982), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) & Rambo III (1988)


First Blood (1982) - Taut and well constructed actioner, making great use of it's mountainous British Columbia location. Vietnam vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is hounded by a redneck Sheriff (Brian Dennehy) when he drifts through his town, until he's pushed too far and goes BER-ZERK. Holds up much better than others of it's ilk, and Stallone's final speech is effective and well delivered. Hardly the explosion-fest that the series became, it's excellently paced and exciting, and features a great performance from Dennehy. Richard Crenna's performance as Col. Trautman sometimes crosses into cartoonish territory, and the ending may seem rather downbeat, but this is the best in the series by a considerable amount.


Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) - And, then things took a strange turn. Working from a script by James Cameron (and Stallone), this time Rambo is offered the opportunity to photograph missing POWs in Vietnam. As expected, he's better at mowing down waves of baddies and blowing up their villages than he is at taking pictures, and Murdock (who is running the mission) pulls out and leaves him stranded. Big mistake. He decides to take his revenge by killing everyone he sees, except for some POWs and the beautiful Vietnamese freedom fighter Co Bao (Julia Nickson, whose stilted speech patterns are embarrassing), and taking his revenge on Murdock (the awesomely slimy Charles Napier).

In First Blood, John Rambo was a damaged veteran suffering from internal demons and post traumatic stress. In the oddly titled Rambo: First Blood Part II, he's a one man army who kills literally hundreds of people in an attempt to win the Vietnam War single-handedly. I like to think of this film as a ridiculously patriotic fever dream had by the character in the first film, as it seems almost totally at odds with the tone and content of the original. That said, it's still entertaining as a Reagan-era action cartoon, and it's hardly surprising that it eventually became just that. Things blow up real good, and if that's what you're in for, it's hard not to enjoy it.


Rambo III (1988) - Somewhere the titling of these films went wrong. So, you thought that Rambo demolishing the Vietcong and winning the war dated the second film somewhat? Well, in this one Rambo is pushed to help Afghanistan freedom fighters take on Russian invaders after his friend Col. Trautman (Crenna) is captured by the Commies. Filmed at the end of the Cold War, and obviously well before the current conflict in Afghanistan, the film is at times ideologically ambitious but sabotages any sort of interesting political statement with massive amounts of killing and stereotypical Russian stooges. The action is often exciting, but things get muddled in the second half and the film never quite recovers. Badly timed on release, coming as it did as the USSR began to collapse, it remains a dated curosity with moments of solid action post 9/11.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cobra (1986) & Frost/Nixon (2008)

I'm on vacation throughout December, but i'm still committed to writing up a few thoughts on the film's i've seen. I'll be posting some abbreviated thoughts on the films I encounter.

Cobra (1986) - Incredibly ridiculous Dirty Harry rip-off, even going as far to borrow Reni Santoni and Andrew Robinson from the 1971 film. Action packed, though reeking of conservative 80s values, and featuring some god-awful music. Sylvester Stallone stars as Marion Cobretti, a cop with an attitude who plays by his own rules. When a cult starts targeting a "beautiful" model (reality star Brigitte Nielsen), Cobra's unique method of police work (and his near-invincible 1950 Mercury vehicle) is brought in to protect her. Over the top set pieces, as can be expected from the director of Rambo: First Blood Part 2, but montage scenes come off like bad 80s music videos. Fans of 80s mindless action flicks will love it, but this is the sort of film that revels in its own cliches.

Watch out for plenty of recognizable faces, including David Rasche (Sledgehammer!) and infomercial pitchman Joe Fowler as a reporter.


Frost/Nixon (2008) - Dramatization of the famous interviews and the circumstances surrounding them, based on the Peter Morgan play and featuring some amazing performances from Michael Sheen and (particularly) Frank Langella as Nixon. Ron Howard is appropriately hands off, but the film never seems unnatural or staged and the appropriate tension is masterfully wrung out of the men's final confrontation. Impressive supporting turns by Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon and Sam Rockwell, but this is the Sheen/Langella show and both men obviously relish the opportunity to show off the chops they honed onstage.

Paced very well, and riveting to the end.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

JT's Christmas Classics Corner: The Year Without A Santa Claus (1974)

When I was a kid, I was quite a conniseur of holiday classics, and naturally the holiday I looked forward to the most was Christmas. Christmas wasn't the holiday that the kid year revolved around merely because of the toys.

It was also about the animated specials!

It was like Saturday morning every night for a week until the blessed day arrived. Although A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) is probably my single favorite yuletide masterpiece ever, I readily acknowledge that Rankin-Bass's stop-motion specials were the backbone of Christmas animated television programming.

And few were better than The Year Without A Santa Claus.

You could definitely argue that Rankin-Bass is the company that contributed heavily to the commercialization of Christmas that Charlie Brown so significantly despised in his own holiday special.

Starting with Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1962), the company slowly churned out animated specials that still celbrated the humanistic qualities that make Christmas time so special but they definitley pulled away from the religious trappings of the holiday.

It wasn't until 1968 later that RB produced its first religiously relevant Chrismtas special, The Little Drummer Boy.

As with all RB animated specials, the plotline is pretty simple to follow.

An overworked Santa Claus (Mickey Rooney) finds himself depressed by the growing lack of cheer and Christmas spirit in the humanity he's served faithfully for countless generations and as a result, Santa decides to take a day off.

Yep.. Santa cancels Christmas.

Luckily enough, we idiotic humans have a plucky and wonderful heroine in our corner and her name is Mrs. Claus (Shirley Booth).

In an effort to both redeem humankind in the eyes of Santa and help her husband bolster his wavering faith, Mrs. Claus sends two elves and one of the flying reindeer to Southtown USA to find evidence to dispel Santa's misgivings.

However, the only thing that the hapless elves, Jingle and Jangle, find is misfortune as their flying reindeer is nabbed by Southtown's rather mean-spirited dogcatcher.

Mrs. Claus goes down to Southtown herself in order to obtain the reindeer's release but the Mayor of the eternally warm hamlet tells Mrs. Claus that he'll only agree to the release the reindeer under one condition.

It has to snow for the first time ever in Southtown.

Unless you've lived under a rock, or were born sometime after 2002, I shouldn't have to tell you about the solution to the problem that involves two gentlemen by the name of Heat Miser and Cold Miser.

In typical Yuletide tradition, the resolution of the various subplots gives way to the universal message of the season (or at least the non-religious version): Santa is a living symbol of goodwill and charity and embodies the qualities that all humans should strive to emulate all year long and especially on Christmas.

Even as a slightly jaded forty year-old guy, I still find The Year Without A Santa Claus to be a heartwarming morality tale for kids and kids at hart. If this doesn't get you into the holiday spirit, you're probably dead.

Also, if you think this production has lost punch over time then try listening to these tunes without tapping your toes.