Posted on June 25, 2015 at 5:51 pm

Copyright 2015 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2015 Warner Brothers

“Max” is a good, old-fashioned story of a boy and a dog who mend each other’s broken hearts.  It is heartwarming without getting treacly, and frank without getting too disturbing.  And it has adventure, romance, loss, and something to say about what we should ask of ourselves and each other.  It is one of the best live action family films of the year.

Justin Wincott (a terrific Josh Wiggins) is an unhappy teenager who lives in Texas with his parents (Thomas Haden Church as Ray and Lauren Graham as Pamela).  His older brother Kyle (Robbie Amell of “The DUFF”) is a Marine in Afghanistan, working with a dog named Max, who protects the troops and sniffs out danger, locating hidden bombs and caches of weapons.  Justin won’t even stop playing a video game when Kyle is Skyping with his parents.  Kyle gently teases him for not coming to the computer screen to say hello.  “I’m just over here dealing with a minor insurgency.  He’s trying to save the whole universe.”

But Kyle is killed, and Max is severely traumatized.  The Wincotts are devastated, though proud of Kyle’s service for his country.  Ray, himself a wounded veteran, is stoic and firm in his beliefs about patriotism and manhood. Justin is angry, bitter, and hurt.  He is not interested in helping a damaged dog.  He does not know yet that the best way for him to heal his spirit is to find a way to help someone else.  He and Max share a great loss and need to learn how to process what they have experienced.

Kyle’s best friend, who served with him, was released early and goes to work for Ray.  And Justin has a best friend, Chuy (Dejon LaQuake), who has a spirited, brave cousin who loves dogs named Carmen (Mia Xitlali).  With Carmen’s help, Justin helps Max feel at home.  But as a Marine tells him, “These dogs were born to work. Take away that sense of purpose and they’re lost.”

Justin needed a sense of purpose, too.  He finds it when it turns out their town has some bad guys with guns and rottweilers.  Justin and his friends find out that Max’s sense of purpose means he will do anything to keep them safe.  Yakin keeps a lot of moving parts moving smoothly.  Justin’s relationship with his dad, with Max, with Carmen, and with the bad guys all come together as a part of his growing understanding of his own sense of purpose.

Parents should know that this film includes wartime violence, a sad death, dog fights, adults and children in peril, weapons dealers, brief strong language, and a teen kiss.

Family discussion: Why was it hard for Justin and his father to get along?  Why did Justin’s father wait to tell him the story of his wound?

If you like this, try: the “Lassie” movies and “Remember the Titans”

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Drama Family Issues Stories about Teens War

Interview: Boaz Yakin and Josh Wiggins of “Max”

Posted on June 24, 2015 at 3:11 pm

Copyright Nell Minow 2015
Copyright Nell Minow 2015

Boz Yakin wrote and directed “Max,” the story of a weapons-sniffing military dog whose human partner is killed. So traumatized he can no longer work, he goes to live with the grieving family and is cared for by their younger son, played by Josh Wiggins. I spoke to Yakin and Wiggins about the film and got to see Jagger, one of the five dogs who play the title character, too.

“I felt like it had been a while since someone made a movie about the human/animal dog human bond in particular,” sais Yakin. “A story that was was exciting and adventurous and harkened back to some of the things that excited me when I was younger. I wanted to make a family movie but not just for kids. I approached my friend Sheldon (co-writer Sheldon Lettich), who was a Marine and a Vietnam vet. He brought the idea of making it about a MWD, a military working dog. Once that came in the family that Josh is apart of and all that just kind of started to create themselves and it all started rolling from there.”

Josh Wiggins is also experienced with dogs and has three dogs himself, a Rottweiler, a Lab and a little Chihuahua Wiener dog mix, “every level, small, medium, and large.” His father is a K-9 dog handler, who trains dogs to locate bombs. “Before I left to go shoot for the video I ran the dogs and it helped a lot. You learn how to hold the dog and how to compose yourself and stuff like that.” Then he spent some time with the dogs in the movie so they would be comfortable with each other. “Before we started shooting I went to this facility where they were training. We would run around on bikes and get into cages with them, run around trees back and forth. I love dogs, so I was very comfortable bonding with them. It’s just like with a person. When you spend months and months with someone you get pretty close to them.”

Copyright 2015 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2015 Warner Brothers

Yakin said the dog trainers were as much a part of the making of the movie as the cinematographer and stunt coordinator. “They train a lot of the animals you might see in a lot of movies. And they’re just so specific and so well organized and it really makes your life easy. The dogs respond to that kind of environment so well. It really was remarkable for both of us to see what they were able to make them do.” The two main dogs were named Jagger and Carlos, but each of the five dogs used to play the role of Max had special skills. They had to use a female dog to play Max in the fight scenes because males are not permitted to fight each other. Carlos was unpredictable but uncannily was the best “actor.” In one scene, he had to convey a new sense of respect for one of the characters and he added tip of the head that was all his own. And “there was a moment at the beginning of the movie where in order to show that he’s found the weapons, he is supposed to just sit where they are. So Carlos comes and sits and does this with his head and I was almost tempted not to yell. Like people are going to think it’s like cute dog added right you know. But in fact Carlos was just his jittery self got on the thing and went here ok and sat down on it and I went man this dog is unbelievable. He kept doing stuff like that throughout the film. So a lot of what gives Max his personality is Carlos’ personality.”

Wiggins is terrific as Justin, an unhappy kid who resents his father (Thomas Haden Church) because he is demanding and undemonstrative. And because Justin blames his father for sending his older brother, Kyle, to war. “He’s definitely overshadowed by his brother but I think there is definitely some jealousy, whether he would accept it or not, because his brother is kind of his dad’s perfect image of what a son should have been and Justin is not like that. So I think there is definitely some jealousy. I think Kyle fits in much better with his family than he does. But that doesn’t mean there is resentment towards him. It’s jealousy you know, not resentment. He has to find himself.” There are a lot of stunts in the film, as Justin and Max get involved with illegal weapons dealers. There were stunt doubles, but Wiggins said, “I did a good amount of the bike riding. All the jumps and stuff were my stunt double, Keith Schmidt, Jr., and did an awesome job with it. Of course I’m a teenager, I’ve ridden a bike before but nothing to that extent , with rocks and tree branches and all that. It was really cool to be able to go outside of my comfort zone a little bit which is the cool thing about acting. You do a lot of stuff you really wouldn’t do otherwise.”

Television veterans Church and Lauren Graham (“Gilmore Girls”) play Justin’s parents. Yakin talked about working with them. “Thomas is so close to this character. He comes from Texas and his father who is a “Great Santini”-like a military man. So in some ways the challenge for Thomas was to make something imaginative for himself in that space. For Lauren coming from where she does feeling like a part of this family was a little bit more challenging. She felt a little bit more like an outsider. It was a little bit less clear to her how to get into it. I think she marvelously managed to work her way into this situation.” But, “the whole movie hinges upon Josh,” he added. “With a movie like this it’s easy for it to slip into sentimentality in the wrong situation. You know you want it to be emotional but not sentimental and when we saw Josh’s work one of the things that really stuck me about it was that it’s perfectly appropriate for the scene, it’s honest and it has emotion in it but it never tries to hand it to an audience and it’s never sentimental. Once we know that we had that core we can cast the other kids around him.”

The movie raises some important issues about families and about the military. Yakin wanted the movie to be more than just a boy and his dog. “For me the exciting part and the challenging part is making a family movie that provokes and challenges kids to think about and feel things that they aren’t necessarily asked to think about and feel and that allows adults to enjoy it even though it’s a movie that a young person can see. It allows adults to enjoy it for what it is without just feeling like they have to be there for their kids. So we’re trying to make a movie that can provoke and challenge while entertaining because it’s an adventure movie. And this country has been at war for how many years since 1991, and it’s a pressure that’s laying over everything that we do and feel about all the time. It’s always there and while trying to make a movie that’s entertaining and fun to a degree you know this war and the pressure of what it means to be a man, an American man in an environment where your manhood and masculinity are defined by how you react by this particular stress is always on you. That to me was interesting. Making the movie, it’s a family movie and I’m not trying to lay it on too thick but being an American man in the age of constant war. What the choices are in within the Justin character. That’s what the movie is about.”

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Actors Directors Interview Stories about Teens

Opening This Month: June 2015

Posted on June 1, 2015 at 3:59 pm

Summer movies are here! Raunchy comedies, blockbuster sequels, and even some documentaries and indie gems.

Here’s what’s ahead this month.

June 3

Entourage: Vince and his pals are back as the hit HBO series about a Hollywood star and his friends, and of course about their volcanically profane agent, Ari, played by multiple award winner Jeremy Piven.

June 5

Spy: Melissa McCarthy teams up with action star Jason Statham in this R-rated comedy directed by “Bridesmaids'” Paul Feig.
Love & Mercy: Paul Dano and John Cusack play the brilliant but troubled Brian Wilson in this biopic about the genius behind the Beach Boys, co-starring Paul Giamatti as his controversial therapist and Elizabeth Banks as the woman who loves him.

June 12

Jurassic World: Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard star in this reboot of the series based on the book by Michael Crichton and the movie directed by Steven Spielberg.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: This sweet indie is funny, smart, surprising, and touching.

The Wolfpack: A group of sheltered, homeschooled boys in New York City learn about the world through the movies they watch and re-create — and this is a documentary.

The Yes Men Are Revolting: In their third film, the Yes Men continue to combine protest, theater, and comedy to bring attention to environmental dangers and corporate misdeeds.

June 19

Inside Out: Pixar’s new film is about the emotions within a middle school girl, featuring the voices of Lewis Black, Amy Poehler, and Mindy Kaling.
Infinitely Polar Bear: Mark Ruffalo and Zoë Saldana star in this fact-based story of a brilliant but bi-polar man who does the best he can to care for his two daughters.

June 26

Max: A dog that worked with US Marines in Afghanistan returns to the U.S. and is adopted by the younger brother of the Marine handler who was killed in action.

Ted 2: The talking bear with the potty mouth returns.
Batkid Begins: The Make-A-Wish story about the kid who wanted to be Batman captured the hearts of the world.  This is what happened.

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Opening This Month
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