Mini Reviews (April 2007)
In the Land of Women, Year of the Dog, Black Christmas, Crossroads: A Story of Forgiveness
In the Land of Women (April 10/07)
In the Land of Women marks the directorial debut of Jonathan Kasdan (son of Lawrence and brother of Jake), and while the movie is littered with precisely the sort of problems one generally associates with a first effort, the filmmaker does a nice job of infusing the proceedings with just enough authenticity and heart to maintain the viewer's continued interest. Adam Brody stars as Carter Webb, a struggling writer who decides to move in with his grandmother after a particularly painful break-up and consequently winds up befriending two of his neighbors (Meg Ryan's Sarah and Kristen Stewart's Lucy). It's clear that In the Land of Women works best in its first act, as Kasdan effectively places the emphasis on Carter's soul-searching endeavors - with such antics undoubtedly heightened by Brody's surprisingly layered, emotional performance. Yet there comes a point at which Kasdan starts starts to lose his focus; the inevitable inclusion of several needless elements, including some egregiously quirky supporting characters and a number of fairly pointless subplots, ultimately lends the movie a lamentably uneven vibe. Still, it's hard to fault Kasdan for his ambition and there's certainly no denying that In the Land of Women stands as an above-average debut from an exceedingly promising filmmaker.
Year of the Dog (April 21/07)
The directorial debut of noted screenwriter Mike White, Year of the Dog casts Molly Shannon as Peggy - a lonely legal secretary whose life is thrown into turmoil after the death of her beloved dog Pencil. Though she tries to cope by taking in another pooch (thanks to the help of Peter Sarsgaard's friendly animal control employee), Peggy soon finds herself spiraling into an increasingly depressed state (Laura Dern costars as Peggy's well-meaning but utterly clueless sister-in-law, while John C. Reilly plays a dimwitted neighbor). White's expectedly quirky sensibilities are on full display here, and it ultimately becomes clear that the material would've benefited from a more traditional approach - as the surprisingly dark storyline is often at odds with White's lighthearted touch (the inclusion of several overtly loopy supporting characters surely doesn't help matters). The filmmaker's unflinching modus operandi - particularly in terms of portraying Peggy's downward spiral - certainly lends the proceedings an intermittently awkward vibe, and one can't help but marvel at the depths of despair that the movie occasionally reaches. Shannon's undeniably strong performance goes a long way towards cementing this feeling, and although there's little doubt that the film will alienate as many viewers as it pleases, Year of the Dog remains an intriguing (if decidedly uneven) debut effort.
Black Christmas (April 29/07)
Shockingly awful in every way imaginable, Black Christmas - despite the talent both in front of and behind the camera - easily comes off as one of the worst horror sequels to come around in quite some time (which is certainly no small feat, really, when one considers the ineffectiveness of its predecessor). Filmmaker Glen Morgan has infused the proceedings with a vibe that's nothing short of baffling, and his decision to relentlessly emphasis style over substance proves to be a disastrous one. The plot is essentially the same as the original's - with several sorority sisters (including Mary Elizabeth Winstead's Heather and Michelle Trachtenberg's Melissa) terrorized by a Christmas-obsessed psychopath named Billy Lenz (Robert Mann) - though Morgan augments the proceedings with needless bursts of backstory for Mann's character (it's hard to imagine even the most ardent Black Christmas fan needing/wanting this much Billy Lenz info). But that's the least of the film's problems; the almost complete lack of character development among the female leads (ie these girls are all essentially interchangeable) makes it impossible to keep track of who's dead and who's still alive (it's harder still to actually care). The off-kilter, uncomfortably in-your-face visuals only cements Black Christmas' status as a thoroughly obnoxious piece of work - one that's almost entirely devoid of positive attributes (even the kills are subpar, as Lenz offs virtually all of his victims in precisely the same manner).
Crossroads: A Story of Forgiveness (April 30/07)
There's little doubt that Crossroads: A Story of Forgiveness initially fares pretty well, particularly given its movie-of-the-week, Hallmark Hall of Fame pedigree - though there's no denying that the film eventually becomes as overwrought and melodramatic as one might've expected. Dean Cain stars as a successful businessman whose wife and daughter are killed in a car crash, and - following the revelation that a street-racing teen was responsible - he hires a tenacious attorney (played by Peri Gilpin) to ensure that justice is served. Screenwriters Peter Hunziker, Cynthia Riddle, and Oliver Goldstick have infused the proceedings with a vibe of predictability that becomes more and more pronounced as the story progresses, and there are subsequently few surprises to be had in terms of the various character arcs (ie it's not terribly difficult to predict that Cain and his sullen teen will reconcile by the time the credits roll). And although Cain and Gilpin are quite good in their respective roles, young Joaquin Phoenix look-alike Shiloh Fernandez - cast as the aforementioned street-racing teen - offers up a remarkably strong and flat-out powerful performance that's ultimately much more effective than the film actually deserves. The impact of the tear-jerking finale is dulled by the film's undeniably superficial nature, and - despite the fact that the entire production is dripping with good intentions - there's just no overlooking the relentlessly cliched atmosphere and subpar supporting performances (in terms of the latter, this is particularly true of one of the actors playing Cain's character's son).