girl’s best friend: Shannon and pooch in Year of the Dog.
of the Dog
by Mike White
If you have seen photographs of writer-director Mike White
you may have thought—as I do—that he looks a bit like that
cigar-smoking baby from the old Looney Tunes cartoons: He’s
fair complected, and tufted with wispy light-colored hair.
His face has few hard angles and he’s often shot sporting
a heavy-lidded gaze and broad grin. He looks like he’s just
woken from dreams of a stuffed-animal parade—guileless and
somehow infantile. This is unnerving in a man of 37. Of course,
his physical appearance should be irrelevant to his filmmaking;
I mention it only because, while it should be irrelevant,
it isn’t. Mike White is an evil cherub.
White first came to public attention as the writer of Chuck
& Buck, a very darkly funny movie about a man’s sexual
preoccupation with a childhood playmate. He went on to pen
a number of other offbeat comedies, notably The Good Girl,
School of Rock and, with cowriters, Nacho Libre.
Though these movies were of varied emotional tone and of even
more varied quality, the films shared what might be regarded
as White’s “thing.” In their attempts to solve their existential
crises—and they’re all in some form of existential crisis—White’s
characters resort to, or give in to, obssesiveness. If they
themselves are not obsessed, they involve themselves with
those who are—usually with semi- disastrous results. Passion,
in White’s view, is a liberating but destructive force.
In Year of the Dog, the surprisingly effective Molly
Shannon plays Peggy, a secretary in little danger of a consuming
passion. She is polite, generous and blandly sweet. Her quirkier,
edgier, less likeable coworkers, relatives and neighbors bicker,
complain, pursue minor grudges, attempt clumsy seductions
and, generally, engage in the annoying trivia of life. Peggy
nods, coos, sympathizes, bakes cupcakes, and cuddles with
her dog. If empty of authentic human connection, Peggy’s life
is pleasantly undramatic and untroubled. But when the dog
dies, the vacuum created in Peggy’s life demands to be filled
and, in true White form, in rushes obssesiveness.
The trailers for Year of the Dog suggest that the film
will be a wry romp through a roster of eccentrics a la Wes
Anderson. But, though there is an emotional distance to White’s
direction, there’s little irony, per se. Laura Dern, Regina
King, John C. Reilly, Peter Saarsgaard and Josh Pais all are
excellent and funny as Peggy’s emotional network of wackos;
but Shannon’s performance, which is far more nuanced than
expected, grounds those others. She runs a gamut from tidy
and gently prim to full-on bag-lady crazy and beyond, without
ever losing continuity of character. Give White credit for
the best use of an SNL alum since Paul Thomas Anderson
tapped Adam Sandler for Punch-Drunk Love.
Give White credit, too, for knowing how to write an ending.
Year of the Dog could easily have erred either on the
side of schmaltzy redemption or of hip bleakness, but White
gracefully avoids that trap by writing an ending, not for
the audience, but for the character. Passion must run its
course. White knows and honors this—like the demonic little
Cupid that he is.
by Sam Raimi
In Spider-Man 3, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is beset by
an alien black substance that looks like sliced ticker-tape
coated in tar, and that creeps around as unobtrusively as,
well, a spider. It sneaks up on Peter just as he’s enjoying
his new status as the hero of Manhattan (thanks to Spidey,
not Giuliani, crime stats are way down), turning his superhero
suit a silvery shade of gray and ramping his id to an aggressive
Director and co-scriptwriter Sam Raimi apparently got some
of this black gunk on himself during pre-production, since
the latest Spider-Man falls into the sequel-making
trap that Spider-Man 2 so nimbly avoided: It’s bigger,
slicker, and much longer than it needs to be. In fact, 3
is so overstuffed with characters, scientific mishaps, and
pathos that it nearly sinks like The Hulk. Aren’t comic-book
movies—as opposed to, say, literary adaptations—supposed to
be fast and flashy?
Though Raimi’s third turn at the Spidey oeuvre has flash (and
bashing) to burn, there’s too much going on for the film to
achieve the edge-of-your-seat duality of effects and humanity
that distinguished 2. Nor does it have a villain with
the depth and breadth of Alfred Molina’s genius Doc Octopus.
What it does have is three villains and two love interests.
And Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and the unsolved murder of
Peter’s uncle. And Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) and her failing
career as a Broadway songbird. And just about every other
character from the first two movies with or without a reason
for their appearance, an indulgence that pads the running
time to a length (139 minutes) that could comfortably accommodate
As one fanboy put it, it’s like watching an expanded director’s
cut DVD in a theater. Not that he was complaining, and for
fans of the genre, the bonuses to the multi-part plot are
obviously sweeping away any quibbles. And yeah, the CGI wizardry
is eye-popping (though not unprecedented), beginning with
an aerial battle between Spidey and his nemesis, the new Goblin,
Harry Osborn (James Franco, who is finally getting the hang
of being an Actor instead of a Face). Goblin Jr. pursues Spidey
through the skyscraper caverns of the city on the crotch-rocket
version of a skateboard in a dazzling display of spatial verisimilitude.
Harry’s resulting amnesia effectively prolongs his friendship
with Peter long enough for Peter to get into serious trouble
with the creeping black gunk—although his new suit has performance-enhancing
attributes, it also hip-swivels his puffed-up ego, and, inexplicably,
gives him coal-rimmed eyes and rakish bangs a la Simon Le
Bon. Which provides the film with an amusing but extraneous
running joke (he’s three dorks in one!) that climaxes with
Peter’s dancing ego-trip in a jazz club with his fame-chasing
date (a vivacious Bryce Dallas Howard).
Meanwhile, the Sandman takes gargantuan shape during a fateful
rendezvous with particle physics that transforms a tortured
convict (played with emotive blunt force by Thomas Haden Church)
into a shape-shifting colossus. Though Sandman’s destructive
benders are impressive—he demolishes huge chunks of infrastructure
with a single pound of his fist—his sad backstory adds one
too many notes of dejection, especially with M.J. sulking
behind Peter’s back with Harry. And every time Venom (Topher
Grace), Spidey’s “symbiotic” rival, gets a piece of the psychological
action, Sandman shows up to sandbag the nuances. This back-and-forth
competition for the audience’s attention dilutes that all-important
There’s lots to like and ooh-and-aah over in Spider-Man 3,
even without a working knowledge of the comics—including some
poster-ready still shots that pay homage to Stan Lee’s original
artistry. But the believably touching character interaction
of the first two installments has been sabotaged by Raimi’s
ambition to make the be-all and end-all of comic-book movies.
Not surprisingly, 3’s whopper of a conclusion contains
just enough sequel-ready loopholes to undermine that effort.
This is the Life
by Charles Burnett
Completed in 1977 but only re leased commercially this year,
Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep almost hits you hardest
by making you contemplate its absence from our collective
cinematic consciousness. Almost, because this stark, modest
film has tremendous power and pathos.
Watching it today is like discovering an alternate history
of American film and American life. Killer of Sheep
is a poetic, bluntly independent, straightforwardly Afrocentric
cinematic ode to life as it was lived among the working poor
in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood 30 years ago. As ruggedly individualist
as the experimental works of John Cassavettes, it’s actually
more effective because, with its numerous nonactors, Killer
never gets bogged down in thespian self-indulgence and excess.
This is a world in which everything is worn down or broken.
Kids play in ash heaps and rail yards, by throwing rocks at
each other and leaping from roof to roof; even though they’re
basically sweet, it’s still sobering. Streets are cracked,
alleys are overgrown with weeds, and houses are unpainted.
The newest-looking space in the neighborhood is the inside
of the slaughterhouse where Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) leads
sheep to their deaths all week.
The strain of this hardscrabble life is getting to Stan. He
can’t sleep. He can’t make love to his caring wife (Kaycee
Moore). He can’t relate to his teenage son. Only his daughter
can make him smile.
The film is episodic. Scenes of Stan’s life alternate with
tableaux of children playing and the grim mechanisms of the
slaughterhouse. (Cagily, Burnett saves the grisliest scenes
for the end.)
The use of music in the film is masterful; since the high
cost of clearing the rights to these recordings was one of
the factors in the film’s three-decades delayed release, I
kinda figured it would be. Burnett didn’t shy away from the
classics, either: Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” with
its jaw-dropping intro and golden reputation as one of the
greatest recordings in the history of the universe, is prominently
featured. Sometimes the music is bitterly ironic (and hilarious),
as when Paul Robeson’s “Going Home” underscores sheep headed
to the slaughter; sometimes, as when Stan’s daughter dresses
to Gershwin’s achingly beautiful “Lullaby,” it signifies a
state of grace. And when the shell-shocked Stan and his emotionally
desperate wife dance to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,”
The title is a parody of the American propensity to label
an individual by the job they have. Stan is much more than
a slaughterhouse worker; his (and his wife’s, and his friends’)
struggles against everything that’s against them are epic
and profoundly moving.