My Dog Skip

Anyone familiar with movie release patterns know that the end of summer is called the dog days of summer. It is here where studios dump their leftover wares, hoping they will come and go fast enough as not to become an embarrassment. The reasoning is rational.


With families either busy preparing for the start of school or trying to get in a last minute vacation, audiences tend to dwindle in late August and early September.

Another cinematic wasteland has become late winter. It’s here where the big exclusive run Christmas movies start opening wide, so studios are shy about releasing new, expensive product into the marketplace. Instead, most event movies are held back until Spring, when target audiences are on Spring break and available to see more than one film.

Most of the films released after Christmas have already come and gone, but there are two that have shown strong legs. “My Dog Skip” and “Pitch Black” prove that there are always exceptions to the rule. Both films are benefitting from generous word of mouth, and rightfully so.

“My Dog Skip” is a swell movie, a winning tale of a boy and his dog. Based on Willie Morris’ fond recollection of his childhood, “My Dog Skip” is rich in nostalgia and feel good moments. The irrepressible Frankie Muniz (“Malcolm In The Middle”) stars as Willie, who leads a seemingly Norman Rockwell existence in a small Mississippi town.

Muniz perfectly conveys both the innocence and trust of a young boy looking for meaning in his life. As an only child completely devoid of any school age friends, Willie needs a best friend more than anything else. He finds one when his mother buys him a dog for his birthday, much to the dismay of his father. Diane Lane is very sensible as Willie’s mother, while Kevin Bacon shows great strength as a man who doesn’t want to set his son up for heartbreak.

The film is set in 1942, and World War II is just taking its toll on the small town. The screenplay by Gail Gilchriest covers a lot of territory and time, but its best moments deal with the relationship between Willie and his next door neighbor Dink (Luke Wilson), the local football hero who goes off to war and comes back a changed man. Wilson plays these scenes with honesty, showing us a fragile human being.

Director Jay Russell does an admirable job of making all of this matter. There’s a playfulness in the lighter scenes, while the dramatic scenes hit with such an emotional intensity you feel like putty in the director’s hands.

Like all the wonderful shaggy dog stories that came before it, “My Dog Skip” finds its strength in its heart. Done right, how can you resist a tale of a boy and his dog? “My Dog Skip” is hard to resist.

“Pitch Black,” the latest science-fiction adventure from director David Twohy (“The Arrival”) isn’t exceptional, but it is very serviceable. From the chaotic opening to a breathtaking finale, “Pitch Black” succeeds in drawing the audience into its creepy little world of carnivorous creatures and the poor astronauts they prey upon.

Even though it cost one-fourth the budget of “Mission To Mars,” “Pitch Black” feels richer. The performances are strong, while the direction and script are smart. The screenplay by Jim and Ken Wheat and Twohy is extremely economical. They know the drill, and get us in, thrill us, and get us out before their welcome wears out.

While the plot and characters are nothing more than cliches of all that came before, the writers and director tweak the formula enough to make the terrain all their own. Even though they’re playing nothing more than types, the cast is sturdy. Their conviction helps us invest ourselves in their predicament.

When their spaceship is disabled by a meteor storm and crash lands on a hostile planet, the survivors try to make the best of a bad situation. When their strength is siphoned off by the extreme heat, the survivors pray for night. They get their wish, and a lot more when they learn that the night brings out large, carnivorous bat-like creatures. They’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t. The only thing that drives them away is the light, and their batteries are getting low.

The premise is so simple, and yet with the help of some nifty computer generated creatures and eerie landscapes, the filmmakers make it much more than it is. There is a constant sense of dread and suspense, and even though the characters are paper thin, you actually warm up to most of them.

While it lacks epic scale, “Pitch Black” packs quite a punch, and is much more exciting and interesting than “Mission To Mars.”

THESE UNDERDOGS BARK UP RIGHT TREE

MY DOG SKIP

Frankie Muniz, Kevin Bacon, Diane Lane, Luke Wilson in a film directed by Jay Russell. Rated PG. 95 Minutes.

PITCH BLACK

Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Keith David, Rhianna Griffith, Lewis Fitz-Gerald in a film directed by David Twohy. Rated R. 107 Minutes.

LARSEN RATING: $5



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