Man, Willem Dafoe is really on a roll this year, not to mention the last two decades in general. No other actor out there I can think of has balanced a career between appearing in edgy, fucked up arthouse and experimental stuff and then more accessible, Hollywood and conventional fare too with as much energy, enthusiasm and variety. The only thing he hasn’t done is made the jump to television, but everyone has their reasons. With Disney’s Togo he proves for the third time this year (see Motherless Brooklyn and The Lighthouse) what a commanding, distinct presence he has in either lead or supporting roles. Here he plays Leonhard Seppela, a real life Norwegian sled dog breeder whose unshakeable bond with his lead dog Togo is the stuff of legend and countless grabs for the Kleenex box throughout the film.
Togo was the runt of the litter, as we learn through decade ago flashbacks between the beginning of their friendship and a furious race through the Alaskan wilderness to bring medicine back for children dying of an illness outbreak. If this story sounds familiar it’s because it is: Another dog named Balto was slapped with most of the credit through happenstance it seems, but this film definitely makes it apparent that Togo was the uncanny and determined hero who turned the tide amongst one of the fiercest storms in Alaskan history.
Dafoe is so versatile he can play the freakiest, most otherworldly villains or the most affable and down to earth regular dudes. He’s an initial pragmatist here whose borderline callous way of training dogs is upended by Togo’s resilience and spirit that burns like a star’s reflection in the Alaskan ice. These two beings were made for each other and in the last haul of their respective lives (Leonhard looks to be in his late sixties and Togo is over twelve) they pull off a miraculous journey of courage, defiance and heartwarming friendship. It isn’t without its dangers or peril though, there’s a sequence where they have to navigate an inlet Sound coated in ice violently shattering all around them that is so harrowing to watch you won’t breathe until the outcome. That’s the power of these animal stories though and I suppose you have to be someone who loves all these creatures or a ‘dog person’ to be affected by it, but really at its core it’s about friendship no matter the species, not giving up on one another at any stage of either party’s life and how that can carry you onward. Both Dafoe and every dog in his team sell that and make this one of the best films of the year. A special mention to Mark Isham’s beautiful score and the use of emotionally galvanizing song ‘On The Nature Of Daylight’ by Max Richter in the third act, last heard in Scorsese’s Shutter Island at an equally penultimate point in the narrative. This one alone is worth the price of Disney+.
You don’t have to be an avid dog lover to appreciate the atmospheric grandeur and rock solid yet comfortingly simple storytelling of Albert Hughes’s Alpha, but being an animal lover certainly gives you more stakes to invest in the story of humanity’s first friendship with canines, now evolved into one of the most beloved relationships in nature. Set in the shadowy primordial past, we see a rugged clan of plain dwellers hunting thundering herds of bison to survive the long winter. Young Keda (Kodi Smit McPhee) is the son of the Chief (Johannes Hauker Jóhannesson, who I’ve never heard of before but simply rocks his performance here) and an inexperienced hunter, plummeting halfway down a cliff following a standoff with several angry bison. Mourned and left for dead by his tribe, he awakens alone, injured and surrounded by danger on all sides. After narrowly escaping a hungry wolf pack and injuring one of them, he feels compassion for the animal and nurses it back to health, forming a bond with her that saves both their lives and carries him on a perilous journey back to his home. It’s so simplistic, and it’s done with earnest, tunnel vision sensibility, but so engaging is the story and so beautiful the visuals that it comes out a complete winner. His father gravely lays down thematic points in a mentor’s form, relating to him that life is rough, and survival is earned, not handed over easily. Hilarious when you look at the capable vitality of people back then and the overweight, disability pay human race of today, but I cheekily digress. It’s survival and friendship done to a T, and my favourite aspect of the film has to be atmosphere. Clearly some CGI was used as well as practical elements, but they’re blended reasonably. The gorgeous, otherworldly locations of Vancouver, Alberta and Iceland bring a sense of scope and vast, uninhabited nature to the surroundings, and the score by Joseph Debeasi and Michael Stearns is some seriously elemental, mood setting work that may be the strongest asset, especially when paired with images of the dazzling Milky Way and endless plains below. As much as they could they used a real pupper for Alpha’s scenes, a gorgeous Czechoslovakian wolfhound named Chuck who acts up a storm and wins hearts. This isn’t going to reinvent the wheel (or invent it at all, considering the time period it’s set in) and it’s certainly nothing incredibly new or unique, but if you want an invigorating, immersive time at the cinema, it works small wonders as a terrific summer movie.
On paper, or at least on poster, Fluke looks like a benign kid’s flick in the tradition of Beethoven or Babe, as a big fluffy Red Labrador gazes down adorably from the blockbuster shelf. Well, I rented this way back when I must have been like ten, and I can tell you it ain’t no children’s movie. There’s a sadness and deep thoughtfulness to the story that will sail over youngster’s heads, leaving them with just the scenes of talking dogs to keep them occupied. Based on a poignant novel by James Herbert, this is one of the oddest and most depressing family films out there, but it’s also unique and brave enough to go where it does, reaching beyond the sappy to try and become something more complex. Matthew Modine plays a successful businessman who is killed in a foolish car accident one night, leaving behind his wife (Nancy Travis) and son (Max Pomeranc). The film gets spiritual as we seen him reincarnated as that very same mutt from the DVD cover, a curious creature called Fluke. Born into frustrating circumstances, he finds himself pulled into one situation after the other, including bonding with an old woman who passes away, living in a junkyard for some time and making friends with a troupe of homeless urban canines, including tough St. Bernard Rumbo (Samuel L. Jackson), mongrel Sylvester (Ron Perlman) and wiseguy pup Boss (the late Jon Polito). Eventually though, he remembers he was once a man, and sets off to find the family he left behind, feeling alienated in his animal form. It’s a terribly sad film, one that’ll gouge your heart right out, if you can take that sort of thing. It’s also daring and complicated when it wants to be. Fluke feels all the more isolated when he does find his family, as his wife has become close with his old business buddy (Eric Stoltz), and he has nothing but his bark to communicate, a crushing interaction to see. This is one of a kind, and in no way should be in the kid’s section of any video store or iTunes manifest, it’s just too out there and thematically challenging, but that’s in a way where it’s strength as a story lies. Should be viewed as an existential, spiritually inclined drama about what it means to really live, in whatever form you’ve been given, and how someone can ruminate on the choices they’ve made through new eyes.