Dogs are the best. Everyone knows this. From their natural playfulness to their ferocious loyalty to their advanced napping skills, dogs are a model of how to live life properly. The Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope thought so, too:

Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog.

So reads one of the introductory title cards to director Elizabeth Lo’s masterful new documentary, Stray, which tracks a trio of wild street dogs through the streets of Istanbul over the course of several months. Istanbul is unique among major world cities in that dogs are allowed to run wild throughout the metropolis. In fact, it’s illegal to euthanize or confine strays anywhere in Turkey.

Using a low-to-the-ground, dog’s-eye-view camera, Lo follows these dogs as they go about their day, scavenging food from street vendors, dodging traffic, and stoically accepting the occasional ear scritch from passersby. Lo’s style is strictly old-school and observational. Nothing is framed for drama or cutesiness. Instead, we’re invited to marvel at the calm self-reliance and amazing resourcefulness of the pups.

The star of this remarkable film is Zeytin, a tawny-colored mutt with dark and expressive eyes. The camera often lingers in extreme close-up on Zeytin as she surveys her surroundings, and the effect is startling. You can see thoughts and feelings moving across her face and body as the city bustles all around.

Packs of dogs form and disband throughout the day and the cameras occasionally split off to track Zeytin’s supporting cast—the affectionate doggo, Nazar, and shy puppy, Kartal. The dogs seem to have been named by their regular neighbors, the vendors and workers who treat the roaming packs as just another fact of urban life.

Quite deliberately, the film regularly cuts to another trio: three teenage Syrian refugees who are also living on the streets of Istanbul. The boys and the dogs team up some nights, sharing makeshift beds in abandoned construction sites. By paralleling these two groups of survivors, the film offers a kind of oblique commentary on Turkish society at street level. Mirrored sequences show how the city dwellers treat the dogs, and how they treat the refugees.

The film passes no judgment on what it observes, and there are no cheap tableaus of manufactured outrage. This is just how it is. Actually, both the boys and the dogs are often treated with similar kindness, which is a complicated moral observation in itself. One powerful scene shows the boys racing off to queue up for free food handed out by a social service provider. The kids take the plates back to their sidewalk campsite and immediately scrape off half for the dogs.

 lovers may be scared off by the premise of this documentary, or worry that it’s some grim portrait of suffering. There’s nothing to fear, though. No animals are hurt or even particularly distressed over the course of the film. Well, a couple dogs get into a halfhearted fight over food at one point, and a cat gets chased up a tree. But the filmmakers are chasing a different kind of vibe, one in which we’re invited to admire the ragged nobility of these beautiful city animals.

Stray is a positively uplifting film, in the end—a celebration of the canine spirit, you might say. (And, at only 72 minutes, it’s oddly short for a feature doc.) Be sure to stay for the end credits—the filmmakers saved their best shot for last.

Read more film reviews at Indy Week.

September 28, 2020

Hi, I’m a freelance writer and journalist in Chapel Hill, NC, and this is my stubbornly old-school blog. If you’d like to get in touch I’m at glennmcdonald1@gmail.com. I write about …

Science & Technology

From diamonds to rockets, mourning the dead has gotten high-tech (National Geographic)

Flying cars: Should we believe the hype? (NPR)

We are not living in a simulation. Probably. (Fast Company)

Arts & Culture 

An interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates (Goodreads)

Cornhole (yes, cornhole) is going pro (Experience magazine)

David Sedaris brings his act home (Raleigh News & Observer)

Movies & Television

“Marriage Story” is one of the year’s best films (Indy Week)

In “Blade Runner 2049” the question is the answer (Thrillist)

Halloween on DVD: The Year’s Best Horror (NPR)

from Indy Week 

Artful, twisted, and scary as hell, the indie horror film Hereditary is designed to mess you up. You won’t find the pleasant chills of the ghost story or the cathartic thrills of the slasher. Instead, the film trades in real human anxieties, hideously disturbing images, and the occasional headless cultist. It’s a lot of fun.

Toni Collette plays Annie Graham, an emotionally fragile gallery artist who specializes in meticulously assembled miniatures. Annie’s cruel, creepy mother has just died from dementia, and her little girl, Charlie, has started to make miniatures of her own—with dead animal parts. Meanwhile, Annie’s relationship with her teenage son Peter is a bit strained ever since that night when she kinda-sorta tried to kill him.

Yes, the Grahams are a troubled lot. The sinister strategy of Hereditaryis to dig deep into the festering wounds of one family’s dysfunction—grief, guilt, resentment, and neglect—and then turn the emotional violence into both physical and metaphysical trauma.

Director Ari Aster conjures echoes of classic familial horror films of the past, such as The ShiningRosemary’s Baby, and Carrie. But then he confounds expectations with a series of bold narratives swerves concerning the Graham family ancestry.

Collette is simply brilliant in the lead. She really should be officially funded, like a national monument. And Broadway child actor Milly Shapiro does new things with the standard Spooky Little Girl role. But the real star is Aster, who has delivered an extremely disturbing yet carefully controlled art-house horror show.

Despite some unfortunate choices in the closing scenes, Hereditary largely transcends its disreputable genre. In fact, it fits better into the older literary tradition known as weird fiction, which often uses supernatural elements to explore all-too-real human themes and fears. This is the best horror film of the year so far.

 

Solo: Han Shot First

May 31, 2018

Like 2016’s Rogue One, the new franchise installment, an origin story for beloved space smuggler Han Solo, is a spinoff from the main series of films, ostensibly designed to be one-off endeavor. If Rogue One was basically a war picture set in the Star Wars universe, then Solo is a space Western—and a pretty good one, too.

Blockbuster rookie Alden Ehrenreich takes over for Harrison Ford, and he’s perfectly adequate when channeling the character’s outlaw charm. Ehrenreich lacks Ford’s inherent forcefulness, though, and as a result, the entire movie has a lightweight quality that sometimes undercuts the thrills. There’s no menace, phantom or otherwise. Fans of the late, great sci-fi franchise Firefly will recognize the vibe; the movie is remarkably similar in its pulpy comic tone.

Director Ron Howard ably stages a series of action-packed set pieces, including an urban landspeeder chase, several gunslinger showdowns, and the infamous hyperspace heist known as the Kessel Run. The script’s best invention, though, is the suffragette droid L3-37, who doubles as a love interest for dedicated space pansexual Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). Weird, funny, and unexpected, the droid-love subplot is the movie’s second-best surprise. First place goes to a last-minute character reveal that sets things up for a potentially intriguing sequel.

In the spirit of internet-age rankings, I’d sequence the new movies thusly: Rogue One > The Force Awakens > Solo > The Last Jedi. Feel free to disagree. That’s half the fun.

 

deadpool

from Indy Week 

Asequel to the surprise 2016 blockbuster, Deadpool 2 is one of those rare follow-ups that improves upon the original, expanding its ideas instead of repeating them. If the first movie was a halfhearted R-rated Spider-Man (it was), then the new one is a controlled detonation of the superhero-movie template: filthy, funny, and cheerfully ultraviolent.

The Deadpool series stars Ryan Reynolds as a suicidal wiseass mercenary whose superpower is that he can’t be killed. He can be shot, stabbed, lacerated, suffocated, decapitated, eviscerated, mutilated, and incinerated, but he can’t actually die. Deadpool is also aware that he’s in a movie, which opens up another layer of meta comedy as he delivers a steady patter of fanboy in-jokes. (“You’re so dark,” he says to one villain. “Are you sure you’re not from the DC Universe?”)

Plot-wise, Deadpool 2 is ostensibly about the formation of the super group X-Force and its battle against the time-traveling cyborg Cable (Josh Bolin). But this movie isn’t about what it’s about. The talky script (cowritten by Reynolds) deploys plot elements only to serve the film’s more noble purpose of making us laugh.

Hundreds upon hundreds of gags crash down in a delirious cascade of dirty jokes and disposable pop culture. Jokes about LinkedIn and body cavities and Arby’s. Jokes about melanoma and strap-ons and dubstep. Jokes about Basic Instinct and Flashdance and Yentl. Jokes about Dave Matthews and Pat Benatar and Enya. At times, the script achieves the giddy density of peak TV comedies like 30 Rock; you’re afraid to laugh because three more punch lines will slip past.

Not all the jokes land, and the movie sometimes tries too hard to offend. For instance, I counted at least three jokes about pedophilia and sexual violence against kids. Really? We’re doing that now? For laughs? These aren’t throwaway lines, either; they’re graphic and directed specifically at a fourteen-year-old character played by a sixteen-year-old performer. Call me old-fashioned, but that’s fucked up.

On balance, though, Deadpool 2 is a seriously funny comedy and a genuinely good time at the movies. It’s fearless in a way that the first film only pretended to be. I laughed more at this superhero story than at any other multiplex comedy in recent memory. Avoid spoilers, watch for some great cameos, and hang around for the post-credits scenes.