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Max (Blu-ray combo)

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MaxcoverGrade: B/B-
Entire family: No
2015, 111 min., Color
Rated PG for action violence, peril, brief language and some thematic elements
Warner Bros./MGM
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Included: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Max, released in 2015 and distributed by Warner Bros./MGM, is a family film that my family refused to watch. Why? Because they’d seen the trailer and had no interest in a movie about a U.S. soldier killed in action whose dog mourns him and has a hard time adjusting to life afterwards. They wouldn’t watch Marley & Me either, and as for Old Yeller? Forget it! No sad movies involving dogs!

So I watched it alone, thinking that for families that aren’t resistant to tearjerkers, Max is a good choice for movie night. Though it’s a little heavy-handed at times and sprinkled with occasional cheesy lines, it’s an engaging patriotic film, it’s an incredible journey for one dog, it’s a thriller involving piracy and gun-running, and it’s a coming-of-age story about a young boy who doesn’t care about anything besides his video games, when we first meet him.

Maxscreen1Newcomer Josh Wiggins stars as low-end teen Justin Wincott, who learns in short order that his older brother serving in Afghanistan was killed. But viewers already know that, because the first act acquaints us with Kyle (Robbie Amell) and his relatively unusual assignment. He’s a dog handler, and this film is dedicated to the 26 dogs and 25 handlers who died in battle. Viewers see how dogs are used to walk ahead of troops to make sure it’s safe and also to sniff out weapons caches—though to give the screenplay a little Hollywood twist, Kyle’s best friend, Tyler (Luke Kleintank), is mixed up with a gun-smuggling operation.

But Max is the focus, and the scene my family saw on the trailer is one that will jerk plenty of tears out of you, as this Belgian Malinois (think German Shepherd) is brought to the funeral and lunges at the casket, putting it’s front paws on it, then slumps to the ground. After that, it’s a story about how Max gets over his post-traumatic stress syndrome and loss of owner through Justin, whom he senses is a blood relative to his beloved Kyle. As happens with the dog in Air Bud, Max is also the agent by which his new young and reluctant handler comes out of his shell and, in this case, straightens out.

Maxscreen2Mia Xitlali appears as Carmen, the somewhat clichéd feisty Latina who just happens to be visiting her cousin Chuy (Dejon LaQuake), Justin’s best friend. Not only do you get attitude with this girl, you get a potential first-love interest and a dog whisperer who helps Justin learn how to click with Max. But a story that’s essentially about a dog and teens needs a few adults to anchor it, and Thomas Haden Church (Sideways, Broken Trail) and Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) fill the bill. There are some surprises and there are some familiar plot devices, which collectively make Max a B-range movie because it ultimately succeeds at what it attempts. The acting is decent, the production values are decent, and the script is decent enough. If you ignore those occasional clunker lines and familiar turns, Max is an exciting, feel-bad feel-good film.

Language: One or two mild expletives, tops
Sex: n/a
Violence: Brief battle action
Adult situations: Some smoking and drinking
Takeaway: Family movies can be corny and predictable, but this one actually has some surprises, and there are enough exciting moments to balance the cheesy ones.

GOLDEN SHOES (DVD)

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GoldenShoescoverGrade: C-/C
Entire family: Yes
2015, 89 min., Color
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Rated PG for language
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

Golden Shoes is a Dove-approved film in the “family” category, and you know what that means: go for the heart, or head for the pulpit. Films in this genre are usually heavy handed and don’t trust the audience to get the message, so subtlety isn’t a hallmark. Plotting is usually as the crow flies, as direct (and often contrived) as can be. Characters are either good or bad, because the modern-day family movie is an update of the old medieval morality plays. And since the object of a feel-good movie is to make you feel good, there’s more than a little melodrama and emotion for emotion’s sake. Contrivance? No matter, as long as it offers a plotting shortcut or makes you feel something.

Golden Shoes has all of the shortcomings of the genre. It also, surprisingly, has a few recognizable name actors to help shoulder the burden. John Rhys-Davies—who narrates Once Upon a Time and appeared in dozens of big films, including The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Bond film The Living Daylights, and Raiders of the Lost Ark—turns up as a mentor-of-sorts to young Christian (Christian Koza), who dreams of becoming a soccer star but only sits on the bench of his youth-league team. Dom DeLuise’s son, David, is a coach that seems too nice, even for a youth league. Montel Williams has a bit part, as does Vivica A. Fox, and Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight) gets the most air time as the boy’s next-door neighbor, who is by turns lecherous, helpful, crusty, self-absorbed, and just plain contemptuous.

GoldenShoesscreen1Roberts comes on to Christian’s mother, and yet he’s listed on the contact list at school so when Mom gets in an accident, he’s the responsible adult who’s called to take Christian to the hospital to see his mother and then take him in while she’s recuperating. Here’s where this Cinderella story takes a Cinderella turn. Frank has no wife that we can see, but two sons who aren’t very good soccer players but whom Dad pushes the coach to play more. Christian gets to bunk in the basement, and is locked in that basement when a big game comes up, with Frank no doubt trying to increase the odds of his boys getting more playing time at the “big dance.” Instead of glass slippers, it’s golden shoes that Frank buys him, thinking they’re the cheapest reject shoes he can get his new “stepson.”

Like many family films, this one is a low-budget indie. But I have no quarrel with the production values. Many a decent indie film has limped along with low-budget audio and video and still finished strong. The biggest problem viewers will have with Golden Shoes is the plausibility, especially if they’re into youth soccer. First of all, it’s not likely at all for a single player to sit on the bench game after game. More than one? Sure. But any coach worth his whistle would have found a way to rotate in that last player without inflicting too much damage on the final score . . . or the kid’s psyche. And if you knew this kid’s dad was serving in Afghanistan and MIA, wouldn’t you try extra hard to give him some playing time? And no matter how rotten a neighbor you were, wouldn’t you take the kid in your custody to see his mom in the hospital more than once?

Even more far-fetched is that these games, which appear to be played, like so many across America, on a small field with just a few parents watching, suddenly start to snowball to where, after Christian is inserted and becomes a star, they’re competing in a play-off game in a big stadium and the President of the United States is learning about this kid and orchestrating a rescue mission to bring his father home in time to see him play his big game. I’ve coached youth soccer and I’ve seen a lot of terrific players, but I’ve never seen a youth soccer player make newspaper headlines and TV newscasts, as happens here. And the whole idea of a big-venue game, ala Hoosiers, is just absurd.

GoldenShoesscreen2It’s fair to say that writer-director Lance Kawas got a little carried away. I would have been happier had he stayed with a smaller story, because while the acting isn’t going to win any awards, 12-year-old Koza is likable enough as Christian, and despite the fact that Roberts is all over the map as Frank, he’s still as mesmerizing as a train wreck in slow motion. This movie isn’t perfect, but I remember it weeks after seeing it, which isn’t always the case.

I had the chance to do a phone interveiw with Christian Koza, who got into the business after three months of lessons, and he said that he has played soccer since he was three years old, and that he was as much of a goal-scorer as his character. “Some of it I could curve the balls. Maybe half, but some of it was CGI,” he said, adding that most of the kids who played soccer on camera were extras in a real league.

Koza said it was fascinating watching Eric Roberts get into character, adding that the only time he actually saw him in a good mood (i.e., not in character) was with his dad on set. What drew Christian to the story was the fact that his character was bullied, and when I asked him whether he’d want a girlfriend in the sequel that’s in pre-production he said, simply, “No.” As in real life, he said he’d rather just concentrate on school and soccer. On the set, he said that he bonded with the young actor who played the goalie and that the two of them would always talk and eat and play X-Box. His favorite X-Box games? “All the sports games . . . . I don’t like the violent games,” he said.

Now that’s the kind of honesty I’d prefer in the sequel, rather than a trumped-up world-stage scenario. Keep it simple. Focus on the kids and kid problems. It is, after all, a family movie.

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