Friday, May 17, 2019

Fine hockey doc will light some lamps; 'Dog's Journey' may warm hearts

Don't talk to any Detroit Red Wings fan about Russian collusion. Chances are they won't believe it, anyway. To understand why, visit the Regal Middleburg Town Square Stadium 16, the rather unwieldy tag for the only local opportunity to watch "The Russian Five," a stirring sports documentary that delivers on and off the ice.

"The Russian Five" was assembled to bring a Stanley Cup or two to Detroit.
Hockey enthusiasts certainly will recognize the name, but the silly notion of actually inviting Soviet players to join a National Hockey League team was just about unthinkable back in the early '80s. That's when Little Caesar's pizza impresario Mike Ilitch bought the Red Wings, a struggling team without a Stanley Cup crown for almost 30 years, and brought in his smart, non-conforming general manager, Jimmy Devellano, to help turn it all around.

The personable GM, freely shown spouting his entertaining memories and philosophies during director Joshua Riehl's fast-moving film, resurrected the former "Dead Wings" and led them back into the playoffs almost immediately. It took seven years, however, for his boldest move, what some called "wasting" a few lower-round draft choices on a pair of Russian stars, quick young center Sergei Fedorov and sturdy defenseman Vladimir Konstaninov.

The rest, as they say, became NHL history, and Michigan native Riehl shoots and often humorously scores with this true tale of espionage, as told by an assortment of talking heads. Actor and lifelong Red Wings fanatic Jeff Daniels is one of the most knowledgeable in offering insights on both blue-collar Detroit and the importance of sports there. Meanwhile, comments from an assortment of Red Wings players, front office personnel and a few members of the not-so-loyal opposition, including legendary Canadian broadcaster Don Cherry with his downright Russophobic remarks, might also ruffle a feather or three.

Anecdotes, personal struggles and interviews with the rowdy Russians -- who became a quintet with another Jimmy D draft pick and a couple of  his shrewd, if controversial trades -- obviously mix in well. So do the big action moments, bigger brawls, huge celebrations and, surprisingly, a few meaningful tears.

Unrated, but with its fair share of sporting language and even some blood; 1:38; $ $ $ $ out of $5


Unless you either hate animals or own the proverbial heart of stone, watery eyes definitely become the order of the day a few times in "A Dog's Journey," the calculating little family film designed to work the ways it does as a sequel to 2017's "A Dog's Purpose."

I did not venture out to see the latter, but it doesn't take a genius to conclude that "Purpose" likely ended with Dennis Quaid owning the same big "Boss Dog" he runs around with during the first reel of "Journey."

That means he's back in good ol' boy mode, after his recent creepy work in "The Intruder," returning again as Ethan, now grandfatherly and living with wife Hannah (Marg Helgenberger) on a huge farm in Michigan. It's also a good  fit for his similarly aging canine, named "Bailey," finding plenty of pasture to exhibit the gentle spirit that thinks aloud (because Josh Gad provides the comic voice), loves kids, and can't understand how some people can become such total emotional wrecks.

Cases in point on both ends of that spectrum are Ethan's little grandgirl CJ (played by Emma Volk as an outrageously adorable toddler), and his widowed-too-young daughter-in-law (Betty Gilpin from "GLOW" on Netflix).

The grief-stricken mom is already essentially in victim mode from the moment we meet her and carries her burdens well into the life of CJ, who manages to grow admirably into adulthood despite it all. A convincing turn from British actress Kathryn Prescott helps a bunch.

Of course, Bailey still gets the top treats by way of funniest lines (from author-turned screenwriter W. Bruce Cameron) and most affecting scenes (as orchestrated by Emmy-winning sitcom director Gail Mancuso). The dog also proudly displays his own acting chops as at least three other memorable mutts named Molly, Big Dog and Max. You'll get it if and when you see it, but let's just add that reincarnation plays a key role throughout, too.

In that regard, it's probably worth a somewhat ironic mention that Peggy Lipton, who passed away six days ago, portrayed Hannah in the aforementioned "A Dog's Purpose." It was her last big-screen appearance.

Rated "PG": thematic content, some peril and rude humor; 1:48; $ $ $ out of $5

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