Is My Dog Tulip the best film ever about a dog? Is it Citizen Canine? My answer, yes. Paul and Sandra Fierlinger’s joyously funny and characterful animated comedy about a man and his best friend, based on British writer J.R. Ackerley’s dog-loving memoirs, combines the charm of Sylvain The Illusionist Chomet with the misanthropic wit of Ronald Searle. All the more astonishing that the Fierlingers are Americans making their feature debut.
A casual snooper peering into the theatre would see weird mirror imagery: an audience open-jawed with delight staring for 82 minutes at an Alsatian bitch (Ackerley’s adored Tulip) open-jawed with drool, yap and animal expressiveness.
The human hero is drawn like a tall, frumpy Monsieur Hulot. He is impeccably overvoiced by Christopher Plummer, though “overvoice” doesn’t catch the character’s surreal habit of speaking his narration, as some scenes unfold, straight at the camera. The spiky-outlined watercolourish artwork (all done digitally) is irresistibly faux naïf and protean. Sometimes a full-colour sequence switches to a series of animated pencil sketches on exercise-book paper. At others an image is yanked into the fantastical, as when Ackerley, embarrassed by Tulip’s latest excremental transgression, manhandles a host’s motorbike into the form of a medieval stocks where he – Ackerley – hangs for fanciful seconds in lugubrious disgrace.
Like any canine romance this is a tale of faecal attraction, unashamedly scatological. To the English Hymnal-style strains of a choral signature song (“You smell my arse, I’ll smell yours”) Tulip sniffs her way to bliss, after a few quarrelsome courting failures, and by the close is more amorously fulfilled than her master. Ackerley, it is clear, has given up human love for the platonic trans-species version. This explains his innocent fixations and our willingness to go along with them. This lovably disgruntled bachelor – a combination of Alan Bennett and an ageing Sherlock Holmes (in pet detective vein) – has our hearts as surely as does his dog. The Fierlingers make them both richly, touchingly, comically multi-dimensional.
Early on, the subtitles in the Japanese historical action drama 13 Assassins make it seem like a Carry On film. “I’m sorry for always borrowing your dojo without permission.” (Imaginary Kenneth Williams: “Ooh, cheeky… ”). But never were smiles so swiftly wiped from faces. Director Takashi Miike has been a violent, slightly madcap talent before: a Nipponese cross between Ken Russell and Sam Peckinpah. Now comes this Kurosawa-worthy battle movie set in an 1840s Japan bidding farewell to feudalism.
For seven samurai read 13 guerrillas, laying ambush to a 200-strong nobleman’s army. After a chess-like first hour of intrigue and manoeuvre the second half is almost all pitched warfare: visceral in its violence, classical in its mise-en-scène. Miike is remaking a minor classic, a same-title 1963 movie by Kudo Eiichi. But memories of that will be obliterated by this. Miike’s brand of Cruelty Cinema, often ill-aimed, suddenly burns our flesh, mind and feelings. There are shocking early scenes of power-abusing sadism (bound humans used for archery practice, a forced hara-kiri), followed by the ambush and battle that rage – in every sense – like some furious, elemental catharsis.
Nearly every image is memorable: it is hard to pick out the most mind-blowing. The blazing cattle used in a decoy charge. The giant street-closing “trap” made of tree branches (a visual coup to rank with the barricades in Les Mis). The mad pomp of the army’s bobbing shiny helmets, like regimented beetles marching to destruction. A little earlier there are jungle-march scenes worthy of Aguirre: mist-wreathed cliffs, surreal moments of survival instinct (man eats stick insect). A little later, as action reaches its rallentando, there are lines of dialogue that strike the perfect, poignant, epochal note. “Hanbei, you think the age of war was like this…?” says the nobleman to his adjutant, in a last glow of nostalgia before the future hacks down the past.
So to Hollywood, and bread, circuses, show animals. This week’s tusk force – in Water for Elephants – arrives in a big-top show run by sadistic, pachyderm-abusing Christoph Waltz (reprising his mad Teuton from Inglourious Basterds). A Robert Pattinson who has lost all charisma on escape from vampireland – he should quickly re-deploy the white make-up, crimson lipstick and russet quiff – dolefully romances Reese Witherspoon as Waltz’s horse-riding, animal-loving wife. The supporting characters swarm towards the revenge-and-redemption climax like elephants to a salt lick. Here, though, it’s a schmaltz lick. Get your tongues down for the taste of hokum, sentimental, corny and contrived.
The French filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb, who made the controversy-stirring Days of Glory, knows a hot topic. Outside the Law, an Algerian war epic, suggests he doesn’t always know how to keep it hot from kitchen to plate. Three brothers from the same family (Glory stars Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila) find different destinies as anti-colonial flames devour the land from 1925 to 1955. It’s a strong subject, but peroration keeps winning out over particularity. That every political issue is covered from race to poverty to French oppression only makes the dish, like a pizza with an overcrowded topping, harder to keep piping hot. Stay at home instead and order in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966): still the real, revelatory deal on this conflict.
Hanna is the last cuckoo of spring or the first dog of the dog days: pick your emblematic creature. A feral hit-girl (Saoirse Ronan) trained in a Finnish forest by Eric Bana is sent to chase down villain Cate Blanchett in a Grimm Brothers theme park in Berlin. A surreal thriller needs a thrillmaker with a gift for the surreal, not the pedestrian talent (here) of Joe Atonement Wright.