Life is all about making a scene.
One of the best films you have never seen, How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog is a glorious mix of biting comedy and heart-tugging sadness in the quiet periphery of Los Angeles. Throw in a top-class Shakespearean actor and a serene leading lady, and even a bare-bones release can't spoil the moment.
Facts of the Case
(from the back-of-the-case blurb)
In the midst of writing a new play, Peter McGowen's world is one crazy scene after another. He has a wife who desperately wants to start a family, a stalker who is assuming his identity and a crisis which is a scribe's worst nightmare: writer's block. To top it all off, he's pushed to the edge by the barking dog next door. Peter only has time for his writing until a special new neighbor teaches the cynical playwright that life is a work in progress.
As the backbone of every successful movie, a good script is essential. After all, if the foundation is fatally flawed, then not even the most exceptional director and cast can build an entertaining movie upon it. However, with rare exception, every script is not without its flaws. Once such a script gets the nod from the powers-that-be, then the nascent film encounters the make-or-break stage of its development—casting. The wrong lead actors and cast can amplify the flaws exponentially until the unending avalanche of atrocities terminates our patience and compels us to throw heavy objects at the television. Now, if the right lead actors and cast are chosen, well then, that's quite a different story! Flaws may recede into insignificance, or merit our outright forgiveness, if the actors can transcend the limitations of the script and pull us into their world on their terms.
How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog owes its excellence to Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Dead Again, The Gingerbread Man), and whoever maneuvered him into the part of the curmudgeonly playwright. Peter McGowen is introduced to us as a borderline misanthropic, whose caustic witticisms hardly endear the audience to his plight(s). To make that role even more prominent, the loose plot has very little to gain our attention or move us forward beyond a slice of his life. An actor who phones in this role or who lacks an inherent likeability will provide the spark to ignite a conflagration until the movie crashes to earth in flaming Hindenburg horror. As you might suspect, in How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog Branagh reminds us that beyond his Shakespearean niche, he is a damn fine actor (particularly when he does not try to adopt a wholly American persona, as in Dead Again.)
In Branagh's hands, Peter McGowan tosses off his barbs with acid wit and deadly precise timing. His voice, use of props, facial expression and overall body language harmonize so well that while we may not wish to be his constant companion, McGowan is a delicious bon vivant for the time we are with him. No doubt the play within a play structure and the role of a playwright fit so well into Branagh's extensive theatrical resume that inhabiting the skin of Peter McGowan seems so natural, much to our benefit.
Complimenting Branagh is the surprising Robin Wright Penn (Forrest Gump, Hurlyburly, The Pledge) whose auspicious appearance in The Princess Bride never quite blossomed as we might have expected. Perhaps intentionally, her looks are toned down so that the beauty of Melanie McGowan glows from within. Her gentle humanity takes the sting out of Peter's acid edge and helps create the evident chemistry between Robin Wright Penn and Kenneth Branagh. As critical to the success of How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog is Suzi Hofrichter. Choosing a child actor can be a difficult task, particularly when the role is highly visible in a film, and thankfully this confident young lady is up to the demands of her role.
Adding to the gold-medal casting are a delightedly bemused Peter Reigert (Animal House, Crossing Delancey, Infinity) as a long-suffering producer, David Krumholtz (Addams Family Values, 10 Things I Hate About You) as a funny, over-the-top gay director, and Johnathan Schaech (That Thing You Do!) as an oblivious, ego-inflated soap star turned stage actor. Though not credited, Daniel Stern shows up as a drunken party guest whose one-off Hollywood rant on behalf of suffering writers is one of the best moments of How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog.
Having thrown a few barbs at the writing of Michael Kalesniko, who also directed, let me offer him kudos for the unalloyed successes of his script. In sketching out the life of a once-successful playwright, reaching for the success which has since eluded him, Kalesniko has created a cast of real characters and natural situations in a plausibly wacky suburbia. Furthermore, he successfully treads a delicate line between the humorous moments, the dramatic turning points, and the heart-tugging tragedy without throwing the film out of balance. Not bad for a man who wrote the Howard Stern vehicle Private Parts, huh?
The front-soundstage audio track is appropriate to the film, devoted as it is to dialogue and a dash of supporting music. I am not sure that the rear surrounds or the subwoofer are used at all, but that is about what I expected. My only (mild) criticism is that unless you are listening to How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog in an extremely quiet environment, you may miss some of the quietly spoken dialogue in the center channel. I found that I needed to boost that channel in order to catch all the words, particularly since Artisan chose not to include English subtitles. Boo, hiss!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Would someone like to tell me why in God's good name Artisan released How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog in a "full screen" format when, as the opening credits demonstrate, the film was filmed in widescreen? If you can stand this cinematic butchery, the video transfer is excellent. Aside from momentary digital artifacting, the picture is a wonder to behold, crisp and clean with rich colors, accurate flesh tones and solid blacks.
These days it does not seem to matter whether a film is an Oscar-winning blockbuster or the smallest independent film, all manner of films are blessed with extra content when they come to DVD. That being so, I doubt whether the independent, film-festival origins of How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog really prevented Artisan from including something (anything!) beyond the ubiquitous theatrical trailer. Skip the possibly higher priced talent, how about an interview with or commentary track by first-time director Michael Kalesniko? Surely he must have SOMETHING to say…
On the casting, let me offer a comment that is not quite a criticism, but more like a lament. When you cast a talent like Lynn Redgrave (Gods And Monsters), surely you can give her a role where she gets to do something? She is mostly wasted here, with little to do but putter around and slowly decline. A pity.
Though I am loath to recommend a bare-bones, hack & slash release priced as it is ($25 retail), I must recommend the film How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog solely on its own merits. Any film that can surprise me with humor and get the eyes a tad misty should at a minimum earn a place on your list of rentals, though whether it merits a purchase, I leave that to your own sensibilities.
The film is acquitted, but Artisan is guilty of neglect of proper standards for DVD presentation.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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