[box cover]

Winter Solstice

There is something immensely watchable about Allison Janney, although it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is. She's beautiful, but not in the standard-issue Hollywood glamour-bunny way — lanky, almost gawky, she's tall and oddly graceful in the way of a great blue heron, and one simply can't help but admire her elegance. Her talent is formidable, and throughout the range of characters she's played — be it moms, socialites, bitches, trailer-trash, or the President's press secretary — she's always dead-on and utterly believable. In Winter Solstice (2004), Janney plays a very nice woman who moves in down the block from a widowed landscaper, Jim Rivers (Anthony LaPaglia) and his two sons (Aaron Stanford and Mark Webber), the three of whom have frozen into chilly non-communication following the death of Rivers' wife. Until Janney shows up to offer warmth and hope for redemption, the film is all about sadness and desperation — so much so that one begins to lose patience with all three of these self-involved blockheads and with first-time writer/director Josh Sternfeld, who portrays all this gloom with far too many long, awkward silences and grumpy glares across the dinner table. After Janney's arrival, we're grateful for the relief from the gloom — some of which is also alleviated by co-star Ron Livingston (Office Space) as a hip young teacher who seems to have wandered in from a WB sitcom — but everyone still speaks in a terse, barely communicative shorthand that's frustrating in the extreme. The characters all interact with difficulty — one son has a mishandled, whisper-thin subplot relationship with a girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan) that feels like little more than filler — and Sternfeld trowels on the melancholy with a thick hand. It's the sort of first effort that boasts excellent performances and competent writing, but it's so self-consciously concerned with being a Serious Exploration of Human Emotion that the whole thing is just wearying to watch, particularly since Sternfeld gives us no real reason to care about Jim or his family's problems. Another entry in the overrated American Beauty/Garden State/The Ice Storm genre of films about angsty suburbanites, Winter Solstice, despite Janney's excellent work, is merely a pallid retread of territory that's already grown far too thin. Paramount's bare-bones DVD release offers a very good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with lovely rich colors and good contrast. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio tracks are both more than adequate for this very low-key, talky film. No extras except for trailers for other Paramount releases. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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