'Year of the Dog': Man’s only friend? 

Renauds' film opens.

PUPPY LOVE: Molly Shannon is the lonely Peggy.
  • PUPPY LOVE: Molly Shannon is the lonely Peggy.

While the last big relationship I had with a dog ended about the time I got out of the Cub Scouts, I can completely respect those who take the ol’ “Man’s Best Friend” thing literally. When you get right down to it, the qualities of a good canine friend are pretty much the qualities of a good human friend: loyalty, honesty, the ability to withhold judgment about what you eat, wear or watch on television. All that, and a dog can keep you warm in a blizzard to boot? Give me four legs over two anytime.

The bond shared between dogs and their masters — and, through that, the bonds that make up any friendship — are explored in the new film “Year of the Dog.” Funny at times, tragic in others, it’s a film that you don’t have to be a dog owner to enjoy.

Molly Shannon (of “Saturday Night Live” fame) stars as Peggy, a 40-something secretary whose life consists of lending a shoulder to cry on for her newly engaged and needy best friend, being a convenient babysitter for her yuppie brother’s fast-growing family, and running interference for her milquetoast boss. At night, her quiet life — like her bed — is shared only by Pencil, her faithful beagle. Her simple private life is upended, however, when Pencil strays into the garage of Peggy’s gun-nut neighbor Al (John C. Reilly) and winds up poisoned. Though she rushes the dog to the veterinarian, Pencil dies.

While that might be the end of your average dog picture, here, it’s just the beginning. Peggy rebounds from Pencil’s death by getting a new dog that turns out to be somewhat vicious. That leads her to seek the services of Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), a dog trainer whose dog-centric life is seemingly as empty as her own. From there, through a quirky series of meetings and misadventures, Peggy begins a slow spiral down into something like love and madness — a path that eventually leads to theft, dismissal from her job, attempted murder, fur drowning and the adoption of five times as many dogs as she is legally allowed to have in her house.

Though there were times when I thought “Year of the Dog” flirted a little too hard with the dreaded “message movie” genre, just as often I found myself wondering if it even had a message to sell. In the end, it all came out about even, neither cheerleading nor nay-saying about the increasingly devout belief in animal rights that slowly overtakes Peggy as the film progresses.

Mostly, it’s best to just forget what brand of spinach “Year of the Dog” is trying to feed you and just take it as it is: a heartfelt and moving film about love — love of family, love of animals, love of friends. Though it can get uncomfortable at times, especially for those of us who have raw memories of losing a pet (and who doesn’t?), “Year of the Dog” handily balances out any sadness with generous helpings of grace. It’s well worth the price of a ticket.

— David Koon

Mr. Smith doesn’t always go to Washington

In 2006, 56 U.S. military veterans ran for Congress as Democrats. These “Fighting Dems” brought what would seem unimpeachable backgrounds to the campaign’s central issue, the colossal blunders in Iraq. Many could speak to the reality of the front lines and few, if any, harbored any kind of political aspirations before the Iraq war. They were poised to represent one of the most significant populist movements in modern day. But as “Taking the Hill,” the new documentary from Little Rock natives Craig and Brent Renaud (“Off to War” and “Dope Sick Love”), demonstrates, Average Joes—even if they’re G.I.s — don’t stand a chance in today’s politics.

The film follows four candidates. Two are veterans of Iraq, one of whom lost both her legs in combat. Another, a burly bear of a man from Texas named Rick Bolanos, served in Vietnam with his three brothers (their family was the only one in the country to have four brothers serve in the war at the same time, he says), and yet another is a middle-aged Navy veteran. All speak with obvious passion, if little polish, towards Bush’s colossal ineptitude, but all struggle to get their campaign on even footing.

Bolanos, the Texan, who runs far and away the most grassroots campaign, struggles to pay his bills. Patrick Murphy, a young former member of the 82nd Airborne, gets Swift Boated by a former fellow soldier. Tammy Duckworth, the double-amputee, gets branded a puppet for the Democratic ticket.

It’s a fairly devastating behind-the-scene look at politics, particularly when the participants so obviously want to effect a change. By and by, they all seem to get sucked into the typical, vacuous political dialogue and few seem hesitant to wield a prop (former senator and triple-amputee Max Cleland must get rolled out a dozen times). In the end, though, at the risk of spoiling the suspense, only one of the four featured win their campaigns and only four among the 56 win. Largely, the Renauds’ film seems to suggest, money separates the Fighting Dems from the winners. A disconcerting epilogue: The 2007 Congress has the lowest percentage of veterans since before World War I. Note: The film is now available on DVD.

— Lindsey Millar



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