Pick of the Litter
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Unrated: but family friendly.
Doggie cuteness and the inherent emotional pull of canine-human companionship is at the heart of this documentary about puppies being trained to be guide dogs for the blind.
Sure, there's a modicum of drama — not all dogs make it through the rigorous training. But happy endings, it's not a spoiler to say, are in plentiful supply.
Filmmakers Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman follow five pups — this is the "P" litter, Primrose, Patriot, Poppet, Potomac and Phil — from birth through a couple of years of training.
At first, the exceptionally handsome Labrador retriever pups aren't always able to be told apart unless their name flashes on screen. (Not to worry, their name always flashes on screen.)
There are the briefest of introductions to the people working with the dogs, but mostly we get dogs engaged in their process.
If they can be taught to do things such as ignore a command that might endanger their handler — for instance, refusing to cross a street if it appears too perilous — someday down the road one of these dogs might literally save their human's life.
As the training winds up, a low level of suspense builds: Will the dogs make the grade? We learn that Patriot might prove to be too intense for the job, that Poppet's lack of focus might make her more suitable as a breeder and that everybody's favorite, Phil, might get all the way to the finish line and still choke on those crucial final tests.
But this is not a spinoff of a TV reality show elimination. Just because a pooch doesn't become a guide dog doesn't mean it can't serve as a service animal in a different capacity.
Eventually we end up in a place where no dog is a failure, loneliness and human need are presumed vanquished and each puppy, now a gorgeous adult, finds a purpose and a place to call home.
Dave White, the Wrap
Unbroken: Path to Redemption
⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: PG-13, thematic content and related disturbing images.
Is it even possible to have a sequel to a biopic? Faith-based film production company PureFlix thinks so.
This drama serves as a bit of a coda to Angelina Jolie's 2014 film "Unbroken," about the amazing World War II survival story of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini.
Both films take Laura Hillenbrand's biography as inspiration, with this installment picking up where Jolie's film faded into text.
Most of the best-known dramatic events from Zamperini's life — running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, surviving a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean during World War II and taking refuge on a raft for 47 days, enduring a Japanese prisoner of war camp and being declared dead — are shoehorned into an opening credit sequence.
Then "Path to Redemption" zeros in on Zamperini's struggles to adapt to normal life. It's an endless cycle of nightmares, drinking and career failures until Louis (Samuel Hunt) inches closer to rock bottom.
It's not until his wife persuades him to attend a tent revival hosted by Billy Graham (played by Graham's grandson, preacher Will Graham) that Zamperini sees another way out.
The journey from hitting rock bottom to seeing the light is one we've seen before, and this doesn't break the mold, relying on melodrama and stereotypes to get us where we're going.
While the film provides some of the best production values for a PureFlix film to date, its focus on one moment in a life of incredible moments makes it feel unnecessarily prolonged, and a fussy addendum to a film about Zamperini that already exists.
Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service
½ out of four stars
Rated: R for profanity
Theater: Willow Creek
Here's an early candidate for the worst movie about the 2016 election. There's nothing here we haven't heard countless times before, stretched out to an unnecessary 90 minutes in what amounts to an utterly inessential exercise.
The film is little more than a series of interviews with prospective Donald Trump voters, filmed during the buildup to the election. Among those interviewed are Republican fundraisers in Florida, unemployed miners in West Virginia and ranchers who live along the Mexican border. Director James D. Stern, who appears on screen conducting the interviews and contributes off-the-cuff commentary, clearly is in the anti-Trump camp but, at the same time, never directly challenges what he's being told. The entirety of the political analysis consists of shots of Stern looking increasingly exasperated.
Stern is primarily a producer with a diverse résumé that includes "Looper" and "I'm Not There." With "American Chaos," he demonstrates no qualifications as a documentarian beyond the fact that he can afford to hire a camera crew.
The movie might have been better had the filmmaker revisited his interview subjects now that we are deep into Trump's presidency. But that would have required additional work. If the film is a testament to anything, it's Stern's laziness.
Who's the audience for this film? Certainly not Trump voters, who will smell its liberal bias a mile away. As for the president's critics, they are likely to gnash their teeth as they're forced to relive an unpleasant election.
Alan Zilberman, Washington Post