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How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog

This little indie fave/festival hit is what, in book-jacket copy, might be called a "minor motion picture" — but that's not a bad thing. Aside from its mouthful of a title and Robin Wright Penn's monumentally bad haircut, How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog actually has a lot going for it. It's sweet without being treacly, edgy without being overly ironic, and quirky without being artificially odd. Unfortunately, it's also a little bit scattered and, at times, too self-aware for its own good. Most of the latter is personified in Kenneth Branagh's character, Peter McGowen, a pithy, curmudgeonly L.A. playwright who's struggling with two major issues: writer's block and a wife (Wright Penn) who wants a baby. Peter — a chain-smoking insomniac who focuses much of his ire on his neighbor's barky pooch — tosses off witty one-liners with an ease only found on the big screen (often in David Mamet movies); his polished, better-than-real-life banter sometimes makes it difficult to suspend disbelief and sink into the world of the film. Just like his character, Branagh seems a bit more relaxed and natural when he's interacting with child actor Suzi Hofrichter, who plays the McGowens' nine-year-old next-door neighbor, Amy. The anti-kid Peter, who is desperate to make a young character in his latest play sound more authentic, at first spends time with Amy in a sort of scientific experiment: He has a professional interest in finding out what a real child acts and sounds like. Naturally, he quickly becomes attached to her, only to find their friendship threatened by Amy's overprotective mother. The plot isn't hard to predict, but Branagh (despite his too-perfect dialogue) ultimately makes Peter's reluctantly begun journey toward fatherhood seem fresh and significant. Less effective is Wright Penn, who plays Melanie McGowen like a saint who's one brick short of a load — no one, not even a sunny dance teacher, would be that nice to a rude, antisocial husband all the time. Jared Harris does well with the unusual role of Peter's stalker/sounding board, and Jonathon Schaech has some funny moments as a vapid, egotistical actor. Frasier's Peri Gilpin, on the other hand, is wasted as a morning-show host who interviews Peter in a series of unnecessary interludes, and aside from one good speech, it's hard to see what made Lynn Redgrave take the role of Melanie's ailing mother, Edna. Never released widely in theaters, How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog plays well on DVD. The open-matte transfer (1.33:1) on this Artisan release is fine, and the English 2.0 audio is clear. Spanish subtitles, trailer. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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