Lulu and Channing Tatum in Dog


If you've seen the trailers for Dog – which, alas, isn't the continuation of a trilogy that began with last year's Pig and Lamb – you probably know what to expect: a friendly, sentimental comedy in which Channing Tatum takes a road trip with a canine. What it actually is, though, is a friendly, sentimental dramedy in which Channing Tatum takes a road trip with a canine. The movie really only falters when it tries to be anything else.

A co-directorial debut for Tatum and the film's screenwriter Reid Carolin, Dog casts its two-legged star as U.S. Army Ranger Jackson Briggs, whose brain injuries sustained in Afghanistan and Iraq have forced him into unwanted and indefinitely prolonged retirement. Desperate to rejoin his troops overseas, Jackson pleads with his commanding officer to reinstate him, which the man will only do under one condition: Jackson must escort his recently deceased pal's beloved Belgian Shepherd Lulu from Oregon to Arizona, by car, in time for her handler's funeral. It's not clear why Jackson's ability to drive a dog – even an admittedly volatile one – 1,500 miles instantly qualifies him for a return to combat. Nor is it clear why that commanding officer would entrust such a sensitive mission to a former soldier with medically diagnosed brain issues and potential (and, to our eyes, evident) PTSD. But unless we go with this questionable premise, we'll be denied the fun of Dog's leads enacting their own personal Turner & Hooch, so … . Hit that open road, Lulu and Chan! Bring on the gentle laughs and discreetly wiped tears! And so long as no other humans are involved, those laughs and tears are pretty much what we get – though other humans, unfortunately, tend to be involved a lot.

Whenever Dog focuses its attentions solely on Jackson and Lulu during their southbound and eastward trek, the movie is an utter delight, even if nothing that happens is remotely unanticipated. Naturally, Lulu – a skittish, years-in-the-field combat canine suffering from PTSD of her own – is initially a holy terror who wreaks havoc on her cage, Jackson's vehicle, and the dude's chances of getting laid. (It doesn't take long for Lulu's chaperone to begin stuffing her snacks with sedatives.) Naturally, Jackson finds himself falling for the pup anyway, entertaining her with rambling monologues on the road and enjoying sunset vistas with the pooch on the hood of his Ford Bronco. And because we're told from the start that, because of her seemingly incurable hostility, Lulu is going to be put down the day after her handler's funeral, every amusing, stressful, or touching moment between man and beast has an extra layer of poignancy – or maybe just successful manipulation – inherently baked in. It won't surprise you when, toward the end of their journey, Lulu comforts her new friend while he's enduring an unconscious, nightmare-induced panic attack. Good luck staying dry-eyed, however, when she does so by tenderly pressing her neck against his.

Channing Tatum and Lulu in Dog

Dog's dog is played by three exceptionally well-trained Belgian Shepherds who should collectively be in the running for next year's Best Supporting Actress Oscar. But offhand, I can't think of a single male star who could've pulled off the role of Jackson with more humor and heart, or with a more significant lack of vanity, than Channing Tatum. Hard as it is to believe, it's been five years since the actor (in Steven Soderbergh's Logan Lucky) last headlined a movie, and while that Free Guy cameo was a treat, his latest is an excellent reminder of what we've been missing in the interval. I'll never be able to thank 2012's 21 Jump Street reboot enough for allowing Tatum, and us, to discover his funny bone, and he's expectedly marvelous here during his charmingly self-deprecating, frequently crabby one-sided conversations. Yet he also delineates Jackson's internal pain and sadness with stunning economy. That Lulu lost her handler, a dear friend of Jackson's, to suicide is understood but barely acknowledged by the man, and even moments that could have been excuses to overact are handled with devastating subtlety. In one scene, one of the movie's co-stars is on all fours panting and drooling … and it ain't Lulu. Yet by that point, Tatum's portrayal has enabled us to understand Jackson so fully that we spend no time thinking, “He's more dog than the dog!” He is, instead, a very specific veteran going through very specific anguish (even if that anguish is never completely specified), and Tatum and his co-director are to be commended for turning a potentially laughable image into one that sticks to your gut.

If only Tatum and his canine were all there was to it! Strangely, though, nearly every single encounter the pair has with those outside their Ford Bronco alters the film's tone in unsatisfying, oftentimes uncomfortable ways. After an early montage of Jackson attempting pick-up lines on what seems like half the eccentrics of Portlandia, he's taken to the home of a pair of Tantric-sex practitioners (Nicole LaLiberte and Emmy Raver-Lampman) for an aborted rendezvous that hits all kinds of off, unfunny notes. An unconvincing sequence involving a couple of hippie weed farmers (Jane Adams and Kevin Nash) begins with direct references to Pulp Fiction's bits with the Gimp, starting with – I kid you not – Jackson scoping out increasingly nasty murder weapons like Bruce Willis stalling before finally saving Ving Rhames. The slapstick of Jackson pretending to be blind, and Lulu disguised as his guide dog, in order to secure a free hotel room leads to an ugly lobby attack on a guest – which, in turn, leads to even more ugliness, yet even more slapstick, following Jackson's arrest. (I will hand it to Dog for teaching me that, apparently, foot soldiers and military police really, really don't care for one another.)

Over and over, characters who are superfluous at best and detrimental at worst keep interrupting the proceedings, and I haven't even mentioned that of course Jackson has an ex and an estranged daughter whose house in California just happens to be on the way to Arizona. It's as if screenwriter Carolin got to page 10 of his script's first draft and went, “Uh oh … they've hit the road and I've got 80 more minutes of movie to fill … . Better flood this thing with characters!” But it turns out that we didn't need 'em, because Tatum and his co-star(s) provide so much enjoyment of types both goofy and melancholy that even Dog's irritating distractions can't fully sully your good time. Happily, with the forthcoming comedy The Lost City, we'll have Tatum in another screen lead in about a month's time. Hopefully, we won't have to wait long to see one of the Lulus again, either.

Boyd Holbrook in The Cursed


To cut to the chase, writer/director Sean Ellis' horror film The Cursed is a werewolf picture, and to its immense credit, the most frightening sequence in the movie has nothing to do with werewolves. Relatively early on in this topnotch genre work set in 19th-century France, it's made clear that the curse of the title has been placed by Italian immigrants upon the aristocrats who stole their land and murdered their community. But then, in one unbroken take photographed from a discrete distance, we actually watch the massacre take place – a view suggesting hilltop commanders surveying their troops' warfare and choosing to stay politely out of the way. Yet there's nothing polite about this savagery. Dozens of innocents are brutally killed, homesteads and wagons are set ablaze, the screams of women and children are heard in faraway wails, and for more than two full minutes, Ellis' set piece is so revolting yet so exquisitely rendered that you're torn between aching to look away and constantly wanting, needing, to see more. It's a masterfully crafted stomach-churner, and if nothing else in The Cursed quite matches it, Ellis' fog-shrouded creep-out at least gets points for trying.

With the local citizenry undone by identical nightmares, missing residents, and grisly murders that appear caused by some roving wild animal, pathologist John McBride is recruited to investigate – and as the role is played by Boyd Holbrook, it's to both the town's and the audience's good fortune that he is. A scene-stealing utility player in movies ranging from Gone Girl to Logan, the disarmingly handsome, charismatic Holbrook is ideal for his duties here, his soulful focus the rare beacon of light in Emmis' dimly illuminated French province. Yet his is just one of numerous outstanding performances among a cast that includes Kelly Reilly, Alistair Petrie, and Roxane Duran, and while the writer/director's narrative may be a tad too busy, he delivers a bunch of sensational scares that either revel in shocking viscera or avoid it completely. (One image of an unseen creature scooting through the tall grass wouldn't be out of place in Jurassic Park.) And while I don't hesitate to label The Cursed a werewolf movie, I would think twice before definitively classifying its monsters as werewolves, given that fangs are very much in evidence but body hair is not; if anything, what the supernatural marauders most resemble are carnivorous Gollums after a few too many protein shakes. Ellis' film isn't much more than a very well-executed fright-flick throwaway. Still, it's constantly gripping, and more than occasionally startling, and a solid reminder that even the hoariest of horror tropes can still deliver welcome bite.

Mark Wahlberg and Tom Holland in Uncharted


A comedic action adventure in the vein of Nicolas Cage's National Treasure movies, and one whose occasional references to Raiders of the Lost Ark don't mask its higher aspirations, the video-game adaptation Uncharted is exactly what you presume it'll be. I mean, exactly. Yes, the presumably flesh-and-blood Ruben Fleischer directed this thing, and the quintet of screenwriters and/or “story by” contributors are likely fellow earthlings, and despite occasional evidence to the contrary, I'll go ahead and buy that Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg are real people and not computer-generated avatars. But even amongst the predictable blandness of Hollywood blockbusters designed to appeal to a global audience, rarely have I viewed an entertainment that seemed more wholly lab-generated than this Sony release inevitably co-presented by PlayStation Productions. Unsparingly eventful, relentlessly cheerful, and generically watchable, Fleischer's film doesn't appear to have a thought in its empty head, and that seemed to suit the audibly contented patrons at my screening just fine. Yet there's so little actual imagination on display, to say nothing of basic humanity, that even when I was moderately enjoying myself, I left the auditorium depressed. While Uncharted isn't art, and certainly isn't pretending it is, I think we all deserve better than the paint-by-numbers we're given here.

Because we're currently living in hit-deprived times at the cineplex, it's hard to bemoan the fact that some $50 million worth of ticket buyers left their homes this President's Day Weekend to watch Holland's novice adventurer Nathan Drake and Wahlberg's mentor Victor “Sully” Sullivan search for Magellan's hidden stash of gold. I desperately want crowds to return to the movies, and if a big-budget trifle that regurgitates 80 years of cinematic clichés is what it takes to get them there, so be it. Still, it would've been nice if even one of Holland's and Wahlberg's sarcastically snippy exchanges sounded as though the words were being said for the first time, or if the verbal callbacks and turncoat reversals weren't quite so heavily telegraphed, or if Antonio Banderas weren't playing his umpteenth suave sociopath with impeccable taste and a mellifluous purr. And while the laws of gravity and physics are inevitably, rather ridiculously quashed, it would've been cool if it felt like something, anything, was at stake amidst all the green-screened hyperactivity that causes Holland to pop his eyes more fervently than usual and Wahlberg to act, yet again, like the most bored jock at senior prom.

Despite the tenor of this review, I truly didn't hate Uncharted. The token female bad-asses, Sophia Ali and Tati Gabrielle, are engaging company, and I give Holland plenty of props for his convincing acrobatics – he's Peter Parkour! – as well as the performer's smooth handling of liquor bottles when Nathan is moonlighting as a bartender. (If this leads to a remake of Tom Cruise's Cocktail, however, I may have to find someone to sue.) It's all easy enough to sit through. Yet any two hours spent with the Uncharted video games has to be preferable to the weak laugh lines, schmaltzy sentiment, and dully competent “thrills” of Fleischer's offering, which slavishly follows a Hollywood blueprint that's actually been charted many, many, many times before.

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