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James Dittiger/Columbia Pictures/Sony via AP

Jonah Hauer-King with “Bella”
James Dittiger/Columbia Pictures/Sony via AP


Dog in the wild 

A Dog’s Way Home is a cute tale encumbered by secular values

A Dog’s Way Home is a mostly family-friendly film about man’s best friend. But liberal dogmas drag down this otherwise sweet story.

If Bella the pit bull (voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard) is captured a second time on the streets of Denver, city ordinances dictate that she be euthanized. A dogged animal control officer (John Cassini) is obsessed with making that happen. So, Bella’s owner—sorry, Bella’s human—Lucas (Jonah Hauer-King), sends his beloved pet to stay with relatives of his girlfriend Olivia (Alexandra Shipp) in northern New Mexico until he can relocate outside of city limits.

Needless to say, Bella escapes and begins the 400-mile journey home. Along the way, she makes friends and faces obstacles. (Young children may find a few scenes a bit intense.) Bella evades a wolf pack, teams up with a (computer-animated) cougar, and is nearly buried in an avalanche. She crosses a busy highway, gets temporarily adopted by a gay couple, and winds up chained to a homeless veteran named Axel (Edward James Olmos). Positive interactions with American war veterans make up a significant portion of the film. When Axel dies, Bella declares that “he is no longer sad.” I knew dogs possessed a keen sense of hearing, but of the hereafter, too? Wow!

A Dog’s Way Home (rated PG for some peril and mild language) is full of beautiful scenery. Colorado’s rugged mountains, rushing streams, and rich forests make the state a great place to shoot a movie about an outdoor trek in Colorado, right? Colorado towns are even identified along the way: Durango, Gunnison, etc. But the entire film was shot in Canada.

Another curiosity: Megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes is listed as one of the film’s executive producers. Sure, the movie is mostly about cute (and remarkably well-trained) animals doing cute things: dogs rassling blankets, nuzzling cats, and “hunting” for food in trash cans. But a secular worldview becomes evident in the second half of the film. Parents, take note: Young viewers will see the gay domestic arrangement and unmarried Lucas and Olivia lying in bed together.

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Warner Bros. Pictures

Clint Eastwood
Warner Bros. Pictures


A mule’s errand

In The Mule, a foolish protagonist shortchanges an otherwise thought-provoking film

Clint Eastwood’s characters play by their own rules. Take, for instance, his unconventional gunslingers—vengeful police detective Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry) and fatherly hit man William Munny (Unforgiven). In the new film The Mule, Earl Stone (Eastwood), too, is just doing his job—although the job involves transporting illegal drugs across the country. He’s a “mule” for a Mexican drug cartel. Eastwood is at his best when his protagonists have a sense of their fallenness. Stone, though, seems oblivious to his sins.

The Mule changes names and some details, but was inspired by a true story reported in The New York Times Magazine in 2014. Stone is a 90-year-old horticulturalist who specializes in growing day lilies and destroying relationships. He puts work first, estranging his wife (Dianne Wiest) and daughter (Eastwood’s own daughter, Alison Eastwood). Only a granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga) welcomes Stone at the few family functions he doesn’t skip.

Happenstance leads Stone into a casual encounter with a member of the drug cartel, who is impressed with Stone’s ticket-free driving record. Stone agrees to carry a small load of drugs in the bed of his pickup from a location in the Southwest back to Chicago.

The wrinkled, wiry driver becomes the cartel’s top mule, hauling hundreds of kilos of cocaine per trip, for which he’s paid in big envelopes bursting with bundles of $100 bills. Stone’s success is due in part to his self-centeredness. He begins to take liberties with his cartel handlers’ instructions, going off route on personal errands and setting his own timetable. His unpredictability frustrates his handlers but also wiretapping Drug Enforcement Administration agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper), who’s tasked with arresting “Tata”—as Stone’s handlers affectionately call him. Will the joyride last?

Apart from its problematic material (R-rated language—mucho of it en español—along with brief nudity and some nearly nude dancers), The Mule is an entertaining story. But the film doesn’t measure up to 1992’s Unforgiven (for which Eastwood won Oscars for best picture and best director and a nomination for best actor). That’s because, in my view, Stone’s amorality dehumanizes him.

Perhaps the 88-year-old Eastwood is simply saying that a man’s gotta work. In The Plague (1947), Albert Camus claimed, “The truth is that everyone is bored and devotes himself to cultivating habits.” The “authentic man” must choose a duty—any duty—and stick to it. But while the (French) existentialist worldview may seem noble, few people are comfortable ceding autonomy to others.

Or is Eastwood suggesting that poverty justifies lawlessness, an increasingly popular notion? The internet has ruined his flower business, Stone gripes, so he turns to crime. And he does largely invest his ill-gotten gains in benevolent projects: his granddaughter’s wedding and repairs to a fire-damaged community building. Still, stealing a loaf of bread when you’re hungry is one thing, but feeding a city’s drug habit is another altogether.

Callahan and Munny are affected by their choices: Dirty Harry throws his badge into a lake, and Munny descends into madness. The mule’s end may be touching, but it’s not thoughtful, for Stone’s no different a man than he ever was.

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A society’s secrets

Netflix film offers drama, humor, and familiar faces

The Nazi occupation of British territory during World War II might seem an unlikely setting for a feel-good, heartwarming story. But The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Netflix) is a delightful two-hour escape, with drama, humor, and a cast that will be familiar to many.

The movie is based on a 2008 book written by Mary Ann Shaffer after a brief visit to Guernsey, an English Channel island near the French mainland. The author was intrigued to learn about the island’s occupation from 1940 to 1945. Despite the chance to evacuate, Guernsey’s residents largely stayed put, with the exception of most of the children, who were shipped off to England. The Germans fortified the island with stout defenses, bringing in slave labor from Poland and Russia to build watchtowers along the shoreline.

The opening scene is set in London in 1946. Juliet Ashton (played by Lily James) seems to have it all. Her career as an author is beginning to take off. Life in England after the Allied victory is full of joy, and her rich, handsome American boyfriend has just proposed, with the promise of a fabulous future life together in New York City. In the midst of all this, a letter arrives from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), a pig farmer living on Guernsey.

Dawsey had found Juliet’s address in a copy of a book by Charles Lamb that was a comfort to him during the occupation. In these pre-Amazon, pre-internet days, he asks if Juliet can help him to find more books by the same author, to be shared with the members of the intriguingly named Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Juliet is happy to help, and in a series of letters, learns enough about the society to tantalize her: She must visit Guernsey and find out more about how this book club came to be, and how its members used literature and the bonds of friendship to help get them through dark and difficult days. Juliet decides that this would make the perfect subject for a London Times article.

The first meeting of the literary society that Juliet attends makes clear that she will need to earn the trust of the members before she can learn more. What secrets are they hiding, and why can’t they talk about them now that the war is over? Why won’t they allow her to write about them for the newspaper? Gradually, the Society members open up to Juliet, and she learns about one of their founders, Elizabeth, an inspirational figure and an outspoken friend to the downtrodden.

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