BENJI: OFF THE LEASH! (PG, 97 minutes)
There's a mystery in "Benji: Off the Leash!" and I'm not entirely sure it's intentional. It is this: Which of the two starring balls of adorable tan fluff is the primo poochy? The closing scene literally spells it out, but the film could really be called "Benjis: Off Their Leashes," since the two leads pack equal canine charisma -- one scrappy, one soulful.
The plot is a violent one, and though violence is rarely shown, it is suffused throughout the movie with convincing menace in the person of Terrence Hatchett (Chris Kendrick), a mean, mean, mean man running a Mississippi puppy mill. His sensitive son, Colby (Nick Whitaker), rescues a pup that Hatchett kicks and declares worthless, concealing the orphan in an elaborate hidden fort. Colby brings the pup's mother, painfully over-bred by the cruel Hatchett, to the fort so Puppy can nurse. Heavy scenes of implied domestic and animal abuse are jarringly intercut with the lighthearted shtick of two Keystone Kops-like animal control agents dogged by a frisky stray they call Lizard Tongue since he's always panting. When Puppy ventures out of the fort, he meets up with Lizard Tongue, and the two become a force to be reckoned with in sleepy Cuddaho County, barking truth to power and plotting to rescue Puppy's sick mother, who remains in the clutches of the evil Hatchett. The overall unevenness of tone is the movie's biggest flaw, but the slo-mo scenes of doggie derring-do are quite funny, and the message about how to treat both humans and animals evergreen. Contains violence, mostly implied but some onscreen; theme of domestic abuse. Area theaters.
-- Donna Peremes
EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING (R, 120 minutes)
Stellan Skarsgard plays a priest who rediscovers his faith after an encounter with a demon in East Africa in this prequel, set several years before the action of the original 1973 horror film. Warner Bros. did not screen this film in time for review. Area theaters.
UNCOVERED: THE WAR ON IRAQ (Unrated, 83 minutes)
Is there such a thing as Left Wing Fatigue? If so, I may be suffering from it. The symptoms -- which include allergic reactions to the phrase "yellowcake uranium," George W. Bush's mispronunciation of the word nuclear as "new-cue-lar" and any appearance by anyone identified as a former weapons inspector -- kicked in during a screening of filmmaker Robert Greenwald's "Uncovered: The War on Iraq," only the latest in the long line of lefty documentaries that have been tromping through theaters lately. (And if you think the death march is going to be over anytime soon, brace yourself for "Bush's Brain," a documentary on White House adviser Karl Rove scheduled to hit town next month.) Greenwald, who also made the recent "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," expanded the original, much shorter version of "Uncovered" that had been available on DVD to make this theatrically released feature, which, truth be told, presents a convincing case for the assertion that the country and Congress were -- at best -- misled by the Bush White House's arguments for invading Iraq. The problem is that, like "Outfoxed," "Fahrenheit 9/11," "The Corporation," "The Hunting of the President" and their ilk, "Uncovered" preaches most effectively to the converted, those who already agree with its positions. And after listening to this steady anti-Bush drumbeat for the past several months, even the most devout progressives (among whom I place myself) may start to feel as if they've heard much of this sermon a hundred times before. Where are Saddam's weapons of mass destruction? All right already. We were lied to and manipulated by government scare tactics. You keep picking at that scab and it'll never get well. In fact, it can start to get a little annoying. Obviously, with the U.S. presidential election just around the corner, this is one sore spot that Greenwald and his brethren don't want to leave alone. Contains political deception. At the Avalon and Landmark's E Street Cinema.
-- Michael O'Sullivan
WITHOUT A PADDLE (PG-13, 99 minutes)
There's apparently not enough room in the deep woods for both crazy antics and epiphanies. "Without a Paddle" tries very hard to be a sincere, pseudo coming-of-age story about 30-year-old men finally discovering who they are and what they want out of life. But because of over-the-top plot elements, mediocre acting and lack of chemistry between the three main actors, it fails in the attempt. Where it succeeds, however, is in outrageously stupid, silly and sometimes crude moments that color the narrative about three childhood friends lost in the Oregon woods. Luckily, good chemistry is not needed to pull off scenes in which a bear mistakes the runt of the trio, Dan (Seth Green), for a bear cub and refuses to leave until he gnaws on a furry animal carcass she brought him. Nor is strong acting really necessary when the three men, stripped to their underwear and rain-soaked, decide they should spoon for warmth. It's not the conflicted macho-man routine that makes this scenario surprisingly funny and inoffensive, but rather the fact that R. Kelly's "Bump n' Grind" plays in the background, with lyrics "My mind's telling me no, but my body's telling me yes." And that is how much of the movie goes. Your mind tells you not to find an iota of amusement in the extremely inane skits, but some other part of you tells you to keep watching. As Dan, Tom (Dax Shepard) and Jerry (Matthew Lillard) adventure through the woods on a treasure hunt they spent much of their youth planning with a friend who has just died, they run into the inevitable problems of city kids lost in fictitious woods: the requisite gun-toting, backwoods hillbillies, a corrupt sheriff, dangerous river rapids, an eccentric mountain man played by Burt Reynolds and hot, tree-hugging, au naturel hippie girls. Given this setting, the cheesy, unconvincing moments centered on the characters' serious discussions of life and friendship really seem unnatural and ruin the flow of the physical comedy. Contains sexual material, some profanity, some violence, crude humor and drug references. Area theaters.
-- Sara Gebhardt