Animal Kingdoms

Red Dog ****1/2


There are different ways a film can be A Classic. It can be perfectly crafted (“The Godfather”, “Citizen Kane”); it can be of the zeitgeist (“Easy Rider”, “Modern Times”) or it can demand a hugely emotional response (“ET”, “Breaking Away”.) “Red Dog” is an undeniable new Classic because, like those last two movies, it would be practically impossible – you may need to be a psychopath – to not be – very significantly – emotionally rewarded by it. It is warm, engaging, heartfelt, funny… but more than anything else it is incredibly moving. It is the best depiction of the astute relationship between humans and canines in a long while, and it immediately joins the cannon of great Dog Movies.


The fact that it’s essentially true – there’s some license there, but Red Dog existed and the film is faithful to his amazing life – only adds to the film’s wonder. Red Dog entered the lives of a disparate bunch of vagabonds and fortune hunters throughout the 1970s in the Pilberra region of West Australia, and, by all accounts, he touched these lonely men in a massive way. It’s a story of great importance to those of that region, and it’s an extremely Australian story: the combination of outback red dust, Aussie working-man mateship, and a dog that was at least half a very Aussie breed make this untranslatable to any other locale (which was mooted by some American financiers – to Texas! – to no avail thanks to the film’s producer, who might have been hung if he’d allowed Red Dog to go American).


It’s an unusual “family” film, in that drinking and drunkenness, pub brawling and the like are featured prominently – but that adds to the film’s authenticity, and, frankly, you couldn’t shoot this story without that element. When these guys weren’t working, they drank. Indeed, it’s really refreshing to see a family-friendly film that doesn’t pander to the concept of being completely vanilla (though I can’t recall a single “swear” word – and boy, the script that would have been if the film had gone down the “totally authentic language” route!)


Kriv Stenders, always a fascinating director, tells his story in an idiosyncratic fashion while simultaneously adhering to all the important tropes of a Classic Dog Movie. It’s a modern movie, with “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”-style on-screen written identifications of the myriad characters, a small amount of (completely justified and very well used ) CGI, and full of offbeat, intimate moments that add to the overall texture. Suffice to say, the locations make for a visually stunning film (cinematography by Geoffrey Hall) and the soundtrack is full of period song richness supplemented by an excellent score by Cezary Skubiszewski. The cast play to the landscape’s largeness appropriately, with John Batchelor leading the huge and funny Aussie contingent, Arthur Angel beautifully playing the main narrator of the story (a money-chaser from Abruzzi), and Josh Lucas bringing a lovely and warm demeanor as John, a US adventurer who becomes Red Dog’s ultimate and only Master. To cement the film’s status as a new Aussie Classic, the late, great Bill Hunter makes sure to pop up for a single scene, which feels beautifully inevitable.


The film is not without a few flaws. Some of the dialogue verges on cliché, the two human “bad guys” are way over the top, and Rachel Taylor (already a Great Screen Beauty) seems to find it impossible to bring any authenticity to her – perhaps overly-contrived – role as, well, a Great Beauty who arrives in the Pilberra (essentially providing a love interest for John). But these are no match for the film’s absolutely massive heart. I was immensely moved by “Red Dog”, and I can’t picture a movie-goer who won’t be. It’s wonderful.


Rise of the Planet of The Apes ****


An animal movie as distant from “Red Dog” as an animal movie can be, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, a prequel to the 1968 “Planet of the Apes” (forty-three years later!), is an exciting, fun ride that also contains plenty of heart. With a lead motion-captured performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar, the scientific-experimentation ape who, aided by human-inflicted greater intelligence, leads an ape revolution, and excellent back-up from James Franco, John Lithgow and Tyler Labine (“Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil”), this very fast-paced and surprisingly adult film has a fresh, unexpected and exciting tone that perhaps reveals director Rupert Wyatt’s status as brand new to Hollywood (his only other directing credit of note – a good one – being the 2008 British film “The Escapist”). Serkis’ Caesar is yet another Great Leap Forward in the short history of motion-captured performances; this film actually was able to shoot the motion-capture performances on location with the other actors, so, for example, Serkis was actually on the same location with Franco at the same time, performing face-to-face. The story is a little predictable but it doesn’t matter, as it’s told so well. There are many, many scenes of absolutely stunning visual virtuosity (cinematography by the great Andrew Lesnie) and the apes are great. Like “Red Dog”, the film suffers from extremely one-dimensional villains (particularly Tom Felton, who flounders badly with an extremely stock “nasty young man”) and, annoyingly, it occasionally seriously undermines the interior logic it has taken such great pains to establish. It also (unlike “Red Dog”) seems obsessed with being accessible: there’s no true violence or bloodshed here: it has very obviously been constructed to achieve a “PG-13” rating in the United States, and I’m afraid this is to its detriment. But it’s really very, very watchable from start to finish; you care about Caesar and the apes as much as you’ve ever cared about motion-captured characters (Serkis as King Kong!); and the ending is an absolute cracker. If the concept of the film doesn’t interest you, I reckon you should take a punt: you’ll be very nicely surprised at just how good it is.

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