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A girl’s best friend: Shannon and pooch in Year of the Dog.

Crazy Love

By John Rodat

Year of the Dog

Directed 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.

Empty Suit

Spider-Man 3

Directed 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 level.

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 Tolstoy.

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 villainy momentum.

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.

—Ann Morrow

This is the Life

Killer of Sheep

Directed 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,” it’s heartbreaking.

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.

—Shawn Stone

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