I mention this, not simply because I'm a jerk, but because Dog Days was constantly on my mind while viewing Writer/ Director/ Producer Dan Margules' Begleiter. Begleiter is a smart and artistic tale told primarily from the point of view of its main character, the titular canine. Margules does an impressive job of handling this perspective and somehow humanizes and brilliantly endears its subject to the audience. However, this is hardly a rip off or remake of The Dog Days of Arthur Cane. In fact, Begleiter owes much more of a debt to Wenders' Angel Films than any Snoopy short. (You know I felt all self-satisfied about figuring that out all by my gosh darned self... then I realized that the inspiration was written right there on the back of the DVD cover. Hey, I never claimed to be all that smart... I had Mrs. Lummus for a teacher.) Begleiter is a smart short film that manages to be touching and funny. It's sort of a cross between Wings of Desire, The Truth about Cats and Dogs and those charming "Beggin' Strips brand Dog Snacks from Purina" commercials. (Ach! That's awful! Thanks a lot Mrs. Lummus!)
Things aren't going well for Happy the Dog. His master went to sleep and never woke up. Happy's hungry, thirsty and has to use the Little Boy's Hydrant. As played by Spencer (a Championship Rhodesian Ridgeback), Happy is a pensively introspective and thoughtful character who sees the world through the eyes and the ears of a doggy. Margules is smart in his approach to this challenging motif. While not afraid to be humorous, Margules doesn't seem to be mocking the world of dogs. Instead, he throws in a lot of sound, black and white imagery and, most ingenious of all, talking smells (as if translated for we, the silly human no-noses). Naturally this does put us in a situation to get remarkably close to dog asses and tennis balls, but hey, it's a Dog's Life.
Through this cool and unique method, Margules brings us to the next chapters in Happy's life. Soon the day comes when Happy meets a sad German girl named Marion (Aleisha Russell). She needs someone, he needs someone, and they become fast friends. A carelessly dropped Bagel leads Happy into a bookstore where he meets Ken Osmond (Eddie Haskell from the Leave it to Beaver shows), playing himself... sort of. After a strange, poetic and philosophical moment with Osmond (the philosophy of "Eddie Haskell" shouldn't be this great, should it?), Marion renames Happy to "Begleiter" (or, as Osmond appropriately pronounces it: "Bagel Eater"). Yep, the two are inseparable.
About halfway through the 27 minute runtime of Begleiter something weird happens. Very weird. From this point on Begleiter takes a vastly different (yet remarkably rewarding) turn. Instead of following Spencer around, Margules' camera eye lights on actor John Henry Litten, who seems to be on a strange self discovery of his own. Litton's tale is a wonderful compliment to our films' first half as the journey comes almost full circle. What's in store for Happy, or Begleiter the Bagel Eater? You'll have as much fun finding out as he does.
Margules' influences shine through here, but never make his film feel derivative. It's true that in many ways this movie has been done before... but never like this! There's little doubt of where Margules has gained his inspiration(s) from (Wenders actually gets a "Special Thanks" credit), but the cohesion of the "Angel" themes, as well as the varied other puzzle pieces, fits this engrossing tale perfectly. What's more, Margules seems to know exactly the time it takes to tell his version of the story. Begleiter never comes off as too long or too short. Bravo!
Unlike many indies, Margules (along with cinematographer Joel Deutsch) has an excellent eye for light and shadow, never allowing the twain to crash together and ruin a single frame. Further, Dan Margules' use of color is fantastic. He knows just when to go for the dark and drab look at the world and when to go almost full-on impressionistic painting on our unsuspecting eyeballs. Even if the story and acting weren't very good (and they are), Begleiter could still be considered "beautiful" for this reason alone.
I would like to give a special mention to the acting here. Spencer has plenty of experience playing a Dog, but his sad puppy-dog-eyed expressions are utilized to their finest by Dan Margules. They make a great team! Russell's performance is very fine (for a human being that is) and she has a way of making her character seem fleshed out and fully formed... unique considering the length of this film. Osmond's cameo similarly works very well here in his self-named role as (what I would call) the "Peter Falk character". Sure it's hard not to think of him as his most famous role, but somehow that, and the comical inversion of same, makes for a fun and surreal character. I would say that Spencer steals the show here, but when we're introduced to John Henry Litton, the fun really begins. Litton is entrancing in his facial expressions and innocent (even when completely naked) take on the world around him. There is a moment or two in which Litton (and, by extension, Margules) comes off as a little too silly, or possibly, to clever for his own good... but by the time any of this takes place, Begleiter has either won the hearts of the audience or it hasn't. I'm in the first camp, having had my heart won in about the first three seconds, and I was smiling as big as Litton in the final act.
Yeah, okay, I admit it, I love this movie. Begleiter won my heart... and I don't care who knows! Will this work for everyone? Maybe not, but I would submit that it takes brains and an open mind and a bit of sensitivity to truly appreciate what Begleiter has to offer. I am completely objective, however, when I give Begleiter Four Stars out of Five! It's striking for a first film (even a short subject film) to be this well done. Dan Margules does a great job here, and I'm excited to check out what he's got to offer next. Well, kids, it's time to take a jog and potty break... then some chow... or at least some kibbles and bits. What I can't understand is why I keep getting arrested whenever I take these beach jaunts... I just want my book back, man!
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