7/10/12: Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog, The Flowers of War, American Reunion, Being Flynn, Black Limousine, Margaret

Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog (NR, 2012, Music Box Films)
Highly trained and working on cue though they may be, there’s only so much dogs can do for the camera that isn’t 100 percent honest. That wonderful truth is relentlessly apparent in pretty much every scene in “Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog,” which dramatizes the true story of a golden labrador retriever named Quill (played at different ages by four different dogs) and the stubborn blind man (Kaoru Kobayashi as Mitsuru Watanabe) who eventually entrusts him as his guide dog. As a look inside the life of a guide dog, “Quill” is fascinating — as much, unfortunately, for its depiction of the hardships involved in that life as for its look at the process of weeding out and training the dogs deemed fit for the job. Similarly engaging is the story of Watanabe, who endures some rigorous training of his own to understand, communicate with and gradually trust Quill’s methods. But these story points alone don’t account for the hundreds of times Quill’s tail wags a mile a minute whenever someone gives his head a friendly rub. Nor can there possibly be a cue to manufacture the “are you kidding me?” face he makes when Watanabe’s son puts a bald cap on his head. And the scene where roughly two dozen caffeinated labradors mob their trainer with face licks while gleefully pouncing one another? Good luck choreographing that. Presumably, whether in the script or not, some of the faces Quill’s handlers, family and acquaintances make are unscripted reactions in return. “Quill” may be a magnificent illustration of what’s possible when humans and dogs talk to and understand each other, but it’s the continuous stream of those little things you can’t manufacture that make it magical. In Japanese with English subtitles. No extras.

The Flowers of War (R, 2011, Lions Gate)
Father John Miller (Christian Bale) isn’t a priest, and the besieged cathedral wherein he seeks shelter during the height of the 1937 Nanking Massacre certainly isn’t his church. But the robes fit, the wine tastes delicious, and when the Japanese Army storms the church and attacks the bizarre assemblage of schoolgirls and prostitutes who have taken shelter inside its walls, playing pretend as a priest is the only play Miller has. The show he puts on might be comedic if the circumstances encircling it weren’t so horrifying. There is no sheepish way to take on a piece of history as heated as the Rape of Nanking, and merely casting Chinese and Japanese actors to coexist and graphically dramatize an event some refuse to forgive and others refuse to acknowledge is no feat for the meek. Never mind the issues some inevitably will have with an American taking the reins as the star and arguable hero. Past the historical baggage, though, there’s something wondrous about “The Flowers of War.” The shared fascination with Miller’s incidental, accidental leadership gives life to an clumsy but loving bond with the girls, a fleeting seepage of humanity shared with soldiers, a glint of humor, and wonderful acts of heroism from sources even less likely than the drunk guy wearing somebody else’s robes. “War” doesn’t run from the horrors of the massacre — it is, while beautifully shot, spotted with some unflinchingly vicious scenes — nor is it equipped to challenge the stances and perceptions that existed prior to its arrival. Arguably, it isn’t designed to. And if the notion that some strain of humanity persevered in Nanking during its darkest hour is worth something, perhaps that’s contribution enough.
Extras: Five behind-the-scenes features.

American Reunion (R/NR, 2012, Universal)
“American Pie” was a crass movie, but it was a crass movie with heart. The sequels increasingly lost sight of that, and when most of the cast bailed and the sequels gave way to a rash of straight-to-video spinoffs, it was enough to fully crater whatever fond memories one might have of that first movie. “American Reunion’s” title, as such, may be the first double entendre the series has reached without realizing it was heading there. It’s a movie about the original gang’s 12-year (don’t ask) high school reunion, and it’s a reunion everybody — the main cast, the supporting cast, bit players and those who previously existed only as legends — attends. But the most important returning guest is that rare sweetness (now combined with nostalgia) that finds a way to coexist peacefully with a new round of dependably crass humor. As a bonus, the new running gag — about how this group is way too old to be in this kind of movie — not only doesn’t wear out its welcome, but is actually responsible for many of “Reunion’s” funniest moments. Swap out the familiar faces with a bunch of new characters and maybe it exposes the formula and falls flat. But packaged as two hours of fan service featuring a likable group and numerous reminders of why we like them, “Reunion” is a treat — and, given the awful road down which the “American” name has gone, a wholly surprising one at that. Jason Biggs, Alyson Hannigan, Seann William Scott, Eugene Levy, Chris Klein and Jennifer Coolidge, among many others, star.
Extras: Unrated cut (adds a whole extra minute!), interactive series yearbook, writers/directors commentary, “out of control” video track with cast, deleted/extended scenes, alternate takes, blooper reels/compilations, seven behind-the-scenes features.

Being Flynn (R, 2012, Focus/Universal)
Being Flynn is a tough racket, which is why “Being Flynn” is two autobiographical stories instead of simply one. Half the story belongs to the elder Jonathan Flynn (Robert De Niro), who describes himself as the third great American writer and allegedly has the manuscript to prove it. Then there’s his son Nick (Paul Dano), whose relationship with his deadbeat, bigoted, formerly imprisoned father is nonexistent despite having a shared gift for writing and a similar desire to eventually share that gift with an adoring public. As has to happen for this movie to go somewhere, a turn of events — Nick taking a job at a homeless shelter, Jonathan stumbling into a residency there between living situations — brings the Flynns face to face. And as tends to happen when two writers with two separate lifetimes’ worth of angst collide, the results don’t necessarily jibe with the situation. And thank goodness. “Flynn” has all the pieces it needs to be the mopiest, most angst-ridden 102 minutes of emptied baggage ever dumped on a poor viewing audience, but it doesn’t bite. Instead, it does what writers do: It gets clever, it gets mean, and it turns pain into humor or excuses to behave terribly. “Flynn” still explores the dark side of being a Flynn, and its penchant for dark humor in no way positions it as a comedy. But the angst goes down a whole lot easier — and immeasurably more enjoyably — when it’s filtered through a script that lets it’s two stars utilize rather than dampen their talents. Julianne Moore and Olivia Thirlby also star.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.

Black Limousine (R, 2010, Anchor Bay)
It may or may not even be any good. But for those who like a movie that gives them something to talk about afterward, the story of fallen composer-turned-Hollywood limo driver Jack (David Arquette) is probably a must-see anyway. In terms of the basics, that pretty much covers it: Jack is somewhat known by name for his contribution to a movie soundtrack or two, but a cocktail of professional setbacks, divorce, alcoholism and tragedy have relegated him to driving celebrities around to make ends meet. So what’s that tragedy? And what’s with the limo’s own backstory? “Black Limousine” peels back on both, but it does so via a maelstrom of incidental happenings that absolutely, may and/or may not exist entirely in Jack’s mind. “Limousine” never quite sorts out what’s what, with even its closing scene leaving just enough askew to make one wonder what just happened. Is that kind of aggravating? Yeah, maybe. Does it ruin what otherwise is a pretty beautiful film with some strong characters and writing? Possibly. Is “Limousine’s” writing even that strong after all, if it’s possibly just a bunch of pretentious babble about some Hollywood washout? Sure, that too. “Limousine” is positively mobbed with potential takeaways, and that’s true of its quality as well as what happens within. You may love it, watch it three times and arrive at three conclusions, or you may hate it too much to even finish it once. Either way, though, there’s plenty to discuss once “Limousine’s” work is finished (or, you might argue, unfinished). Bijou Phillips, Vivica A. Fox and Nicholas Bishop also star. No extras.

Margaret (R, 2011, Fox)
There’s a scene wedged deep into “Margaret” during which a high school English teacher and a classmate of our main protagonist (Anna Paquin as Lisa) discuss how Shakespeare’s characters may speak for themselves and not necessarily on behalf of him. Superficially, and like most of “Margaret,” it’s needless. Ostensibly, it’s part of a larger point about how one’s notion of importance is dwarfed by the larger world view. Perhaps, though, it’s simply our screenwriter’s way of stating that the increasingly grating words Lisa uses are hers and not his. “Margaret” centers around a bus accident that kills a woman and is partially the fault of Lisa, whose interference caused the driver to run a red light. Both Lisa and the driver insist the light was green, and what follows in the two-plus hours that remain is the most rambling movie about trauma, guilt and artistic self-indulgence you may ever see. Shot in 2005, “Margaret” has since plumbed the depths of post-production limbo, and when every scene that feeds the story is followed by two that step out on dead-end tangents or engage in shameless smartest-person-in-the-room monologues for the sake of doing so, it’s easy to understand why. Deciphering all that subtext might be fun if “Margaret” gave us someone likable to do it with, but with every hypocritical and self-important rant she makes, Lisa becomes harder to bear. Her supporting cast is rarely better and frequently — especially when everyone screams over everyone else — worse. Somewhere inside this mess lies a respectable movie. But “Margaret’s” most lasting statement may be that while all movies need editors, some need them more than others. Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo also star. No extras.