Year of the Dog

Year of the Dog

dir. Mike White

As Peggy in screenwriter Mike White's (Chuck & Buck, School of Rock) directorial debut, Year of the Dog, Molly Shannon has all the personality of a Hallmark card. Whether she's delivering freshly made cupcakes to the break room at her office, listening to the nasal whine of her boss, or wading through the condescension splashing her way from her brother and his too-perfect wife, her cheerful veneer remains unimpeachable. Inside, however, she is painfully lonely, spending most of her free time curled up in front of a DVD with her puppy and best friend, Pencil. Peggy's is a sad, stilted life—so complacent, through years of disappointment and swallowed emotions, that only a calamity can shake her loose from it.

That calamity comes courtesy of a neighbor's garage, where Pencil noses through a bag of poison, keels over, and promptly dies, leaving Peggy so shattered that she loses the ability to function. And it's here that White's little film—surprisingly timid in the early going—quickly finds its teeth. Peggy is left so adrift by the loss that she turns helplessly, if understandably, pliable, and as Year of the Dog charts her hapless journey—one that eventually includes dubious dates, asexual crushees, and more canine companionship than is psychologically advisable—your heart routinely lurches for her.

As a director, White is too reliant on quirkiness, both in camera work and set design. But strip away his first-time director impulses and you're left with a charming, emotionally smart piece of work. There is much room for mockery—with Peggy especially—among the characters in Year of the Dog, and White certainly has his fun with them. But to his credit, he never lets the mockery get out of hand. White has managed to craft a comedy built mainly upon loss. And that alone makes the movie refreshing. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Fracture

dir. Gregory Hoblit

How many hours are in a week? Okay, well that's how much Law & Order I watch. I watch so much Law & Order that I am basically a lawyer.

But you don't have to be a lawyer (like me) to recognize that the "psychological thriller" Fracture (not psychological, not thrilling) has made a mockery of the American legal system. If I may direct the attention of the jury to the following evidence.

Exhibit A: Grumbly toad Anthony Hopkins is a super-smart spaceman who loves chutes and marbles and stupid egg analogies ("You look closely enough, you'll find everything has a weak spot"). When he finds out his wife is cheating on him with a hostage negotiator, he decides to try out the Perfect Crime. Hoppy shoots his wife in the head (with the gardeners outside as witnesses), burns his clothes, wrestles with the hostage negotiator who just HAPPENS to show up on the scene (CONVENIENT!), then telepathically convinces said hostage negotiator to sit in on his confession ("It's just like I suddenly snapped and I got a gun and I shot her in the head"), which is then declared inadmissible when A-Hop tells the judge "Yeah, but that guy was fucking my wife." Acquitted!

Exhibit B: Ryan Gosling, hot and half-asleep, is Los Angeles's most tenacious and magnificent lawyer. Wait, that's ridiculous.

Exhibit C: Nonstop jokes! The screenwriters of Fracture should have spent a little more time at Lawyer University and a little less at the Clown College of Laffs 'n' Chuckles. Every scene in this rambling garbage party is jam-packed with hee-larious one-liners. Where's the murder weapon, Gosling? "I don't think that the gun grew little gun legs and ran out!" But what if I get some new evidence? "Where? The evidence store?" What am I watching here, Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties? Yeah, except for that woman who got shot in the face!

Has the jury reached a verdict? I have, your Honor. On two counts of Sucking Ass, three counts of Boring in the first degree, and one count of Anthony Hopkins Loves Piles of Money, I find this movie GUILTY. Case closed! LINDY WEST

The Cats of Mirikitani

dir. Linda Hattendorf

The Cats of Mirikitani is an intimate documentary, the kind of thing that's not permitted in conventional print journalism. It's about the artist Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani (who had a retrospective at the Wing Luke Asian Museum last summer), and near the beginning of the film, director Linda Hattendorf invites him to live with her.

Mirikitani had been living in the streets of Soho, not far from Hattendorf's apartment, spending days making art, and nights in a Korean grocery under plastic sheeting. He refuses donations and blankets, accepts payment for some paintings and oil pastels, but gives others away. Then comes 9/11. The neighborhood is threatened with a toxic cloud. Hattendorf takes him in to her cramped apartment, and there he stays. Mirikitani spends the day working at a furious pace (paintings of Tule Lake internment camp in the northern California desert, of Hattendorf's happy feline, of fat red persimmons) and watching cable (as American flags crawl into every news graphic, attacks on Arabs and Sikhs spin out of control, and people debate the merits of racial profiling in the age of Islamic terrorism). He is not a fan of the United States government, and slowly, Hattendorf finds out why.

Born in Sacramento in 1920, Mirikitani moved to Hiroshima when he was very young. His United States citizenship allowed him to return for art school instead of entering a Japanese military academy, but after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he was sent with other citizens of Japanese descent to Tule Lake internment camp. His sister was interned at Minidoka in Idaho. To add unspeakable tragedy to insult and injury, the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb on his remaining family. While he remained lucid and prodigiously productive, he was never the same. You've never heard the story of the Japanese internment told like this. ANNIE WAGNER

The TV Set

dir. Jake Kasdan

The TV Set doesn't win any points in the originality department (television executives suck, apparently), but an unusually game, most likely overqualified cast manages to give it a fair amount of bite.

Writer-director Jake (Zero Effect) Kasdan's plot follows a rumpled sitcom writer (David Duchovny) as he attempts to sell a network on his dream project, a sensitive Northern Exposure–type dramedy. Before long, he's saddled with a psycho leading man, a crane-worshipping director, a drastically revamped backstory, and fart noises edited into the quiet bits. Kasdan knows this backbiting, self-congratulatory turf well, having been involved with the late, lamented Freaks and Geeks. Still, his bitching, however justified, never really brings anything new to the table, falling back on the same tired old jokes about cell phones, bulimic actresses, and mineral water.

But, man, that cast. Duchovny, an actor who has often been guilty of appearing too smart for his roles, here falls winningly into harried, bearded schlub mode, which is complemented perfectly by Judy Greer as his overly perky manager. As the overly Method leading actor, newcomer Fran Kranz takes his vague resemblance to Edward Norton and runs with it, often switching between frat-boy pep and mumbling Brando imitation during the same line reading. The main story here, however, is Sigourney Weaver, as a blithe barracuda of a network exec riding high on the success of her current pet project, Slut Wars. Always good in villainous roles (her evil queen in the underseen Snow White: A Tale of Terror is one of cinema's great she-bitch portrayals), the actress goes wonderfully, totally over the top, with a new, unalloyed, delight in dropping the f-bomb that may even eclipse that of longtime reigning champ Judy Davis. Someone give her a Mamet film, for god's sake. ANDREW WRIGHT

After the Wedding

dir. Susanne Bier

After the Wedding is generally acknowledged as the weakling among the 2007 Oscar contenders for best foreign-language film, but I hadn't seen it, and I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Only two films directed by women have won foreign-language Oscars, after all, and a domestic melodrama can be the equal of a rigorously stylized fairy tale like Pan's Labyrinth or a sentimental political parable like The Lives of Others. Right?

Not this time. After the Wedding is mildly unpleasant to watch—the characters are obnoxious, there are too many ultra-close-ups on the eyeballs of live people and dead game—but it was only the next day that I really began to squirm. The movie's sphincter-tightening message (charity is important, but family is too) is lorded over its characters with an air of menace: money corrupts, poverty corrupts, all people are self-interested and nasty, and some are so deeply rotten that they try to manipulate lives through philanthropy.

This message takes time to develop. What you will see when the movie begins is a happy orphanage in India, and a tanned Dane named Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) tending to his flock, including a special cutie he treats as his own son. Then Jacob takes a trip to his motherland to persuade Jørgen (Rolf Lassgård), a hulking, alcoholic business magnate, to donate to the charity. Jørgen treats Jacob brusquely, putting off the decision just to fuck with him, but invites the humble supplicant to his daughter's wedding the next day. There, Jacob discovers that Jørgen's wife is Jacob's ex-lover, and Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), the daughter, is not of Jørgen's own loins. Jacob's life suddenly becomes terribly complicated. The orphans just have to wait.

People who complain about Babel being a string of crude coincidences should have their faces rubbed in After the Wedding. Of course Anna's groom turns out to be a louse. Of course. ANNIE WAGNER

In the Land of Women

dir. Jonathan Kasdan

This waste of time is called In the Land of Women. At some points it seems to be about a young writer who goes to stay with his grandmother to write something that he's been trying to write for years, and at other points it seems to be about Meg Ryan's fucked-up lips, but it's actually about how cool it is to smoke as many cigarettes as possible when you're good and young. The main character, Carter (Adam Brody), gets broken up with in the first scene, and in the second scene he walks out of the breakup wearing sunglasses and a crooked cigarette in his sad-but-still-cool mouth. Pretty soon after that, he's at his grandma's house and in the distance we see him putting out the trash, while in the foreground the neighbor girl Lucy (Kristen Stewart) is smoking a cigarette, surrounded by sexy, sexy smoke. Her parents don't know she smokes, so it becomes Lucy and Carter's secret, see? Later they smoke together on a lawn in the headlights of a car.

It's left to Lucy's mother, played by Meg Ryan, to ask her daughter to stop smoking, but only at the end of the movie, after Ryan's empty-headed, sad-sack character has distraughtly made out with Carter, lost a breast to cancer, and shaved her head (à la Britney Spears)—in short, become even more monstrous and weird than Meg Ryan is generally—so it's not as if the message really sells. This movie is all appearances. There's nothing else happening. Carter isn't even a writer. You can tell because he sits down to do his writing in front of a mirror. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE