Week of the Dog

Biding time till the summer bonanza.... Year of the Dog offers offbeat comedy (meaning that the audience is not orchestrated into fortissimo laughter, but left, as it were, to play by ear) revolving around a fortyish dog-loving spinster who loses a dog, acquires and loses another one, acquires and loses fifteen more, and finally finds a new self. Part of that new self is vegan ("It's nice to have a word that can describe you. I've never had that before"), and most of it is animal-rightist, and none of it is bound up in identification with, or dependence on, or relation to, another person. Individuality incarnate. The path to get there encroaches uncomfortably at times on the personal space and rights of others, and even edges dangerously close to madness, and yet it's generally amusing to follow and in the end quite affecting. Defying expectations every step of the way, the film does a number of things well. Grief over a pet, for starters, gets its full due, with only microscopic traces of irony. Canine cuteness, meantime, is kept on a prudently tight leash, and slobbiness given ample room to roam. The secondary characters equally and democratically pull their weight: the adenoidal nose-to-the-grindstone boss (Josh Pais), the monomaniacally marriage-minded black co-worker (Regina King), the knife collector and Not So Great White Hunter right next door (John C. Reilly), the asexual animal-shelter dog trainer (Peter Sarsgaard), the Ken and Barbie brother and sister-in-law (Thomas McCarthy and Laura Dern) and their stiflingly sheltered offspring. And the lead performance of Molly Shannon, one of the less illustrious Saturday Night Live alumni, could well form the foundation of a legacy. (While I used to enjoy her armpit-sniffing Catholic schoolgirl on SNL, I could not bestir myself to see the feature-length elaboration, Superstar, the one previous time on the big screen that Shannon got to be the bride instead of bridesmaid.) She shows herself here to be a very good listener, a polite, selfless, sympathetic, empathic, active, demonstrative listener, and the sketch-artistry of her TV work overall has blossomed into thoroughgoing meticulous draftsmanship. Nothing of the cheap comic abides in her characterization. One might only wish that the distinct sensibility of writer and first-time director Mike White (author or co-author of Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl, School of Rock, Nacho Libre), who wrote the script specially for Shannon, had stretched a bit further into the visual side of things. The mug-shot frontalism and flat symmetries of his compositions tend toward the clunky, and the diluted color seems to encase the images in frosty plastic, like the family photos in your wallet.

Fracture is a legal thriller -- not taken from a John Grisham novel or else it would have had a definite article at the head of its title -- about a case of attempted murder in which the arrogant attempted murderer acts as his own attorney and the overconfident public prosecutor acts as a cat's-paw. There can be no doubt in our minds that the accused is guilty; we saw him with our own eyes put a bullet in his wife's head. But the shadow of doubt over the courtroom, even before the evidence begins to be dismissed on technicalities, is that the gun recovered from the scene of the crime has proven forensically to be not the gun that fired a few stray bullets collected at the scene. (The bullet in the head cannot be removed while the victim lies on life-support.) And since the police surrounded the house within minutes after the shooting, the gun can't have been disposed of elsewhere. So, where did it go? Problems with the case, which is not to say problems with the prosecution of it but problems with the plotting of it, accumulate weightily as it rolls forward. How could the shooter have counted on his wife's policeman-lover to catch the call to respond to the shooting? How could he have counted on the lover not to know the last name of the woman with whom he had been carrying on a lengthy affair? How could he have counted on this policeman, upon learning the identity of the victim, punching the perpetrator gratuitously in the face and then remaining improperly in attendance at his interrogation and confession? In spite of our gloomy concerns over such questions, we still want to find out the answer to the central question of where the gun went. This answer, how and when we get it, seems pretty clever until we have a moment or two to think about it.

Slickly, almost slimily directed by Gregory Hoblit (Fallen and Frequency, demonstrating a penchant for one-word "F" titles), the movie serves as a mainstream launchpad for the recent Oscar nominee, Ryan Gosling, who allegedly is hot. Not so much in the sense of radiating sex appeal as in the sense of generating buzz. (Hot buzz?) The heat, coupled with the Oscar nomination, is to me more of a mystery than any mystery in the movie, inasmuch as I myself have been of the opinion that he was running neck-and-neck with Giovanni Ribisi in the race for recognition as the head-and-shoulders worst actor of his generation. His nominated performance in Half Nelson was perhaps not so bad, and for certain the role of a drug-addicted teacher and girls' basketball coach at an inner-city middle school was sufficiently within his range to hide some of his deficiencies. A fast-rising Assistant D.A., on the other hand, with a ninety-seven-percent conviction rate and a cushy new job lined up in the private sector at an elite corporate law firm, resides in another range altogether. In a role that demands self-confidence, he can supply only self-consciousness. Ultra-casual, fidgety, mumbly, smart-alecky, he behaves like nothing so much as a college freshman intent on developing his own individual style after all the good styles have already been taken. He crinkles his brow, he bobs his head, he cocks an ear, he pulls his nose, he rubs his eyes, he squints, he snorts, he hunches his shoulders, he rocks on his heels, he chomps on a wad of gum -- he always has to be doing something, if simply to keep himself busy and get himself noticed. And any presiding judge or empanelled jury, witness to these antics, would be compelled to wonder privately, Who let Junior fly solo? Even at barely half-power, Anthony Hopkins, more or less playing Hannibal Lecter without the appetite, appears seriously undermatched against him.

Vacancy is an eighty-minute minimal thriller about a divorcing couple (Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson) brought close again by "one last great adventure together." Returning from the anniversary celebration of one pair of parents, they stray from the interstate, experience car trouble in the middle of nowhere and dead of night, and bed down at a godforsaken fleabag that turns out to be a literal death trap: a hidden-camera set for snuff films. As with a Roach Motel, the guests check in, but they don't check out. Nimrod Antal, American-born director of the absurdist-existentialist Kontroll, came back from Hungary to give this some class and presumably to raise his economic standing if not his artistic. Mission accomplished. Stupidity with style.

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