Sundance Review: ?Black Snake Moan? Is Red Hot; ?Year of the Dog? Is Quirky And WarmBlack Snake Moan," starring Christina Ricci, Samuel L. Jackson, and Justin Timberlake, is a powerful tale of sin, redemption, and the blues, and "Year of the Dog," starring Molly Shannon, is a quirky ode to dog lovers.
Like a good blues song, "Black Snake Moan" is a movie filled with love, sin, redemption, and conflict. And like any blues singer worth his or her salt, it has a showman's wink and nod. "Black Snake Moan" tells the story of Rae (Christina Ricci), a feral young woman with "the itch" (i.e. insatiable promiscuity) whose boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) has just left for boot camp. After a night of drinking and drugging, she is beaten and left by the side of the road, where Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) rescues her. He has demons of his own; his wife has left him for his brother, he's got a violent temper, and the solace he once found in the blues is gone, as he rarely picks up his guitar. Lazarus chains Rae to the radiator in his house in order to cure her of her "sickness," but it's clear Lazarus is trying to find salvation of his own. "Black Snake Moan" is admittedly lurid material, sometimes bordering on the absurd, but there's a sly undercurrent of perverse wit throughout. As he did in "Hustle and Flow," director Craig Brewer takes age-old archetypes (the conflicted bluesman, the town hussy) and turns them into living, breathing people; Ricci and Jackson are a joy to watch together, sharing an edgy, desperate energy. And Jackson plays a pretty mean blues, looking like R.L. Burnside and singing in a low register reminiscent of John Lee Hooker's. Above all, "Black Snake Moan" is visceral and entertaining, a movie about being knee-deep in the blues.
"I've always been disappointed by people," says Peggy (Molly Shannon) in "Year of the Dog." "I've only ever been able to count on my pets." Peggy loves her dog Pencil, but after his unfortunate demise, her life veers off in a new direction. At the behest of Newt (Peter Sarsgaard) Peggy adopts an abused dog from the animal shelter; Newt and Peggy discover they have a lot in common, not least that neither are any good with people. Peggy decides to be a vegan and a committed animal rights activist, but her behavior becomes increasingly strange, from adopting all the dogs to be euthanized from the city pound to forging company checks for various charities. "Year of the Dog" is likely to strike a particular chord with pet lovers (some of whom may not find Peggy's actions beyond the realm of believability). What's nice about the film is that Shannon plays a character that could have been a gross caricature as someone with offbeat integrity; Peggy may be eccentric, but the filmmakers don't condescend to her. And "Dog" is rounded out with nuanced supporting performances, especially from Regina King as Peggy's marriage-obsessed co-worker, John C. Reilly as her sportsman neighbor, and Sarsgaard as a man that shares Peggy's dog obsession, but only up to a point. It's a warm and quirky movie, one you don't have to be a pet lover to enjoy.
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