Movie Review: ‘A Dog’s Journey’ is Overflowing with Human Melodrama

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CREDIT: Joe Lederer/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

Starring: Josh Gad, Kathryn Prescott, Dennis Quaid, Marg Helgenberger, Betty Gilpin, Henry Lau, Abby Ryder Fortson, Ian Chen

Director: Gail Mancuso

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG for Emotional Neglect and a Car Crash

Release Date: May 17, 2019

Movies centered around dogs sound all well and good, but what we perhaps are not always as cognizant of as we should be is that these flicks often need human stories happening around the pooches. It might be natural to ask, “If I love dogs, will I love A Dog’s Journey?” Well, it turns out that is not the most relevant question, because what really matters here is your taste for melodrama.

A sequel to A Dog’s Purpose, A Dog’s Journey is an extension of the narrative but also a re-do, running through the exact formula set by the original: a soul with the inner voice of Josh Gad lives a full dog life, dies, and then gets reincarnated as a new breed with a new name, but with the memories of the past lives intact. “Purpose” has been dropped from the title, because this time the pooch (who consistently knows him/herself as “Bailey” despite all the new monikers) learns his mission right from the start. His original owner Ethan (Dennis Quaid) informs Bailey that he must stay by the side of his step-granddaughter CJ (Ant-Man‘s Abby Ryder Fortson as a youngster and Kathryn Prescott as a young adult) as she navigates a rough and painful life.

And oh boy, does CJ have a tough upbringing, often comically so. Her mother Gloria (GLOW‘s Betty Gilpin) is chronically absent and frequently antagonistic to her family members. At one point, CJ comes right out and tells her, “You are literally the worst mother in the world.” Gilpin is impressively committed, but Gloria comes off as little more than a caricature. While there may be bad parents just like her in the real world, her behavior is so bizarrely motivated that it always feels like she and CJ are acting like they’re in a soap opera when everything else around them suggests verisimilitude. The ostensible appeal of a canine-based movie like A Dog’s Journey is the dog’s askew interpretations of human behavior. Those zingers are present and occasionally worth a chuckle, but the majority of the plot is overwrought human tragedy. That’s generally exhausting, though occasionally it thankfully enters the territory of self-parody.

A Dog’s Journey is Recommended If You Like: A Dog’s Purpose, Unabashed melodrama, Believing that your loved ones can be reincarnated

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Boss Dogs

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ Keeps It Cool for the Summer

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2018.

Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Abby Ryder Fortson, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Hannah John-Kamen, Laurence Fishburne, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Michelle Pfeiffer, Randall Park

Director: Peyton Reed

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Large-Scale and Small-Scale Action Movie Destruction

Release Date: July 6, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp has left me feeling a lot more peaceful than other recent Marvel movies. I would it put about on the same quality level as Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, but those blockbusters left me with nagging bits of emptiness, whereas Paul Rudd and company just give off good vibes. That is partly a function of my own expectations, but it is also a matter of how this franchise and its sub-franchises are promoted. The excursions to Wakanda and the garbage planet promised that they would be unprecedented game-changers. Whether or not they lived up to that hype, it is hard to match the buoyancy of their ad campaigns, and it takes effort for audiences to avoid every commercial. But with the original Ant-Man and now with The Wasp, you can just come in, be chill, and not have to worry about it being the best movie ever.

Director Peyton Reed and his team of five credited screenwriters (including Rudd) maintain those good vibes by allowing for some conflict, but avoiding true evil, and establishing that those who are at odds are ultimately really on the same team as each other. The main story thrust is the recovery of Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the “Quantum Realm,” a subatomic space where the normal laws of space and time do not apply. Her husband Hank (Michael Douglas) and daughter Janet, aka the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), have the science skills to track her down, but they need the help of Ant-Man Scott Lang, as his previous venture into and escape from the Quantum Realm has allowed Janet to establish him as a point of contact. Standing in their way is a black market dealer (Walton Goggins), who sniffs out a big potential profit, but he does not have the killer instinct to tear them down. More serious are those who represent the skeletons in Hank’s closet, but their threat is neutralized by the ultimate realization that they can solve each other’s problems together.

A-M and the W has genuine, successful humor to match its laid-back style. The comedy in Marvel movies often has the cadence of a joke without actually being funny, but here there is a cast that is trained to find the laughter. Rudd obviously has more of a comedy background than any other Marvel headliner. Michael Peña delivers another round of his motor-mouthed, very detail-oriented storytelling. And the most delightful subplot features Fresh Off the Boat‘s Randall Park as a fastidious FBI agent hounding Scott while he remains under house arrest. If their jobs did not require them to be enemies, they would be friends for the ages.

It is certainly odd that Ant-Man and the Wasp arrives in the apocalyptic wake of Infinity War, but die-hard MCU fans will be happy to discover that the connective tissue is clear and satisfying. And those who are tired of every superhero movie being about the end of the world will be happy that that connectivity does not get in the way of everyone just having a good time.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is Recommended If You Like: The Marvel Cinematic Universe but with lower stakes

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Quantum Realms

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Forever My Girl’ Could Be Charming If It Weren’t So Careless with Its Emotional Beats

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CREDIT: Jacob Yakob/Roadside Attractions/LD Entertainment

This post was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Alex Roe, Jessica Rothe, John Benjamin Hickey, Abby Ryder Fortson, Tyler Riggs, Peter Cambor, Gillian Vigman

Director: Bethany Ashton Wolf

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Rating: PG for Keeping Deep-Seated Anger and Frustration Mostly Polite

Release Date: January 19, 2018

In gooey romances like Forever My Girl, we always find our way back to the ones who we truly love and who truly love us. But I wonder how someone like country music superstar Liam Page (Alex Roe) ever could have lost himself in the first place. Because when the facts are laid out, he just does not seem like the type of guy who would ever want to leave his lovely fiancée Josie (Jessica Rothe) at the altar. And when I ponder what it means that he in fact does do that, the implications are quite troubling, and I wish writer/director Bethany Ashton Wolf (adapting the book of the same name by Heidi McLaughlin) had shown more care in reckoning with all that.

Eight years have passed since Liam has bailed on marriage, cutting off all contact with Josie, his dad (John Benjamin Hickey), his friends, and everyone else in his hometown of Saint Augustine, Louisiana (referred to as just “Saint” by the locals) in the process. Now he is selling out stadiums, thanks to the success of his banal party-bro country songs with lyrics like “don’t water down my whiskey.” But he has always held on to a sort of talisman from his past life: his old flip phone from high school, as a voicemail saved there contains his last communication from Josie, sent to him just a few days after he jilted her. When he hears that one of his friends has died in an accident, he abandons the last stop of his tour to return home, and I get the sense that he’s been wanting to escape the big time for a while (more on that later).

As these stories tend to go, it turns out that Josie has a 7-year-old daughter, Billy (a poised Abby Ryder Fortson), and of course Liam is the dad, but because of his town-wide ghosting, he never knew about her until now. It wouldn’t be the best idea for Liam to suddenly become a major part of Billy’s life, considering how disruptive that can be for a young child, not to mention Liam is a not-very-independent adult who can barely take care of himself. But of course, you can see where this is going: Liam learns how to be a good dad, he and Billy bond over music, and he and Josie fall back in love, because they never really fell out of love in the first place.

While none of this reinvents the wheel (in fact, it rolls right along with it), it is not necessarily a problem. What is a problem, though, is the mishap that threatens to upend this new stability for such a silly, unnecessary reason. And compounding that are all the emotional beats to get Liam and Josie to their final resolution. Alex Roe and Jessica Rothe are perfectly lovely and winning. We can be happy to see them end up together, but it’s hard not to feel cheated to see some crappy behavior go unrectified.

Ultimately I am left puzzling over why in the first place Liam left the things that seem to make him happiest. His inner conflict is never presented as a fight between the glories of fame versus the comfort and responsibility of family. Nor is it even a matter of professional ambition versus personal happiness. Just about everyone in his life is totally supportive of him. Even his publicity team and handlers are good friends for the most part, advising him to take all the time he needs to mourn, despite being on the hook for lost tour revenue. So why then does he struggle to commit to Josie when it is clear she makes him fulfilled? The best guess I can come up with is that he must be suffering from anxiety, or some pathological fear or distrust of happiness, or some other mental condition. If only the film had realized what a broken soul were at its center, then it could have been genuinely touching.

Forever My Girl is Recommended If You Like: The Nicholas Sparks Brand of Romance, Cloying country music

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Hasty Reunions