Black Christmas (December 11/06)
Though infused with a whole host of dated elements, Black Christmas remains a sporadically effective slasher that's buoyed by the use of several genre-specific devices that are still in use today (ie an opening point-of-view shot that undoubtedly inspired John Carpenter's Halloween). Set over several days during the Christmas season, the film follows an unknown assailant as he makes his way into a sorority house and begins terrorizing the residents (including Olivia Hussey's Jessica, Margot Kidder's Barbie, and Andrea Martin's Phyllis). Black Christmas' dearth of plot lends the proceedings a distinctly uneven sort of vibe, and while the film does possess a number of genuinely suspenseful moments (ie "the calls are coming from inside the house!"), one can't help but lament the inclusion of several needless subplots (ie a goofy cop that's the brunt of his co-workers' scorn). Hussey's exceedingly broad performance probably doesn't help matters, although - to be fair - she is trapped within the confines of a stereotypically idiotic character who makes all the wrong decisions (ie why is she going up the stairs?)
Snow Cake (December 12/06)
Low-key yet thoroughly engaging, Snow Cake revolves around the unlikely bond that forms between a high-functioning autistic woman (Sigourney Weaver) and the British man (Alan Rickman) indirectly responsible for her daughter's death. Director Marc Evans - working from Angela Pell's screenplay - emphasizes their relationship over conspicuous instances of plot to mostly positive effect, with the uniformly stellar acting a key element in the film's success. While it's clear that Weaver is destined to receive the lion's share of kudos (and deservedly so), Rickman delivers a compelling, subtle performance that unquestionably ranks among his very best work as an actor. Pell's reluctance to fall back on certain cliches goes a long way towards creating a vibe of authenticity, and there's consequently no denying that the film can be genuinely moving at times (ie the reveal of the title's meaning).
The Pursuit of Happyness (December 13/06)
Featuring the best performance of Will Smith's career (which isn't saying much, admittedly), The Pursuit of Happyness is an overlong yet sporadically compelling drama concerning the exploits of Chris Gardner (Smith) - a struggling salesman who decides to turn around his lackluster life by signing up for a non-paying training program at a prestigious brokerage house. Essentially destitute, Chris - along with his boy, Christopher (Jaden Smith) - is forced to reside in a homeless shelter for the duration of his internship. Screenwriter Steve Conrad's decision to emphasize Chris' day-to-day struggles leaves The Pursuit of Happyness with a distinctly uneven feel, as the relentlessly downbeat atmosphere becomes repetitive and - ultimately - tedious. And while there are a number of poignant moments spread throughout the proceedings - including a heartbreaking sequence in which Chris and Christopher are forced to spend the night in a bus-station bathroom - the film's overall impact is dulled by the egregiously rambling tone and protracted running time. Still, there's no denying the effectiveness of both Smith's Oscar-worthy performance and the expectedly upbeat conclusion - with the latter particularly gratifying (ie Chris is that rare protagonist that's genuinely earned his happy ending).
Open Water 2 (December 16/06)
A sequel in name only, Open Water 2 follows six friends as they inadvertently find themselves stranded in the deep blue sea after jumping from their yacht without lowering its ladder. Director Hans Horn does an effective job of infusing the film with random bursts of style, although the filmmaker occasionally gets a little carried away in the use of certain tricks (ie slow-motion cinematography). The relentlessly downbeat vibe is reflected in Adam Kreutner and David Mitchell's screenplay, which generally avoids the sort of overblown histrionics one generally associates with films of this ilk. The inclusion of several genuinely tense moments - ie an attempt to build a rope out of bathing suits - makes it easy enough to overlook the sporadic idiocy of the characters, although the semi-ambiguous conclusion does leave the film with a sour aftertaste.
Tsunami: The Aftermath (December 19/06)
Though undeniable overlong and saddled with far more subplots than necessary, Tsunami: The Aftermath is nevertheless an entertaining, sporadically powerful look at the 2004 natural disaster that left over 200,000 people dead. Writer Abi Morgan places the emphasis on a cross-section of survivors, including a British couple (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sophie Okonedo) searching for their daughter, a grizzled reporter (Tim Roth) on the hunt for an angle, and a woman (Gina McKee) trying desperately to get her injured son out of the country. There's a lot going on within Tsunami: The Aftermath's three-hour running time, and one can't help but wish Morgan had excised some of the more melodramatic elements in her script (ie anything involving the overwrought efforts of Okonedo's character to co-opt another little girl as her own). But as becomes clear almost immediately, the film benefits substantially from its stellar cast - with Ejiofor particularly effective here (the actor delivers a performance that's simply heartbreaking).