As the summer blockbuster season revs up, it's time for a Big Movie/Little Movie Ticket Stub:

* Year of the Dog -- A perfect small movie: well-drawn characters, straightforward premise, and a thoughtful afterglow. Writer-director Mike White is, as far as I'm concerned, the man to save American independent cinema from its post-Grindhouse hangover, the culmination of a decade of indulgence and exploitation by the major studios. He's as incisive as Stephen Soderbergh, but takes himself much less seriously than his characters, so his stories fly on their own, undimmed by the shadow of his ego (do I even need to explain how this cripples every Tarantino flick?). Anyway, YOTD is a simple tale of grief and growth in the life of single gal Peggy, a tentatively perfect Molly Shannon. She works as a secretary for, lends a friendly ear to, and is the long-suffering auntie to, a bunch of average selfish jerks. Only her beagle Pencil loves her unconditionally, and then, well, he dies. Peggy is devastated, but nobody really cares -- except maybe Newt, the asexual ASPCA guy (Peter Sarsgaard) who reaches out and turns her on to veganism and animal rights. Peggy's path veers through all the stages of grief, including larceny and vandalism (of her snooty sister-in-law's fur collection!), before her life changes for the better. Extra points for a vibrant supporting cast (Regina King, Laura Dern, John C. Reilly), down to the dogs. (A)

* Spiderman 3 -- A pretty good big movie: our friendly neighborhood Spiderman & friends return, with one too many villains in the mix, but flawless fx and some nice goofy Sam Raimi touches. The reviews are mixed overall, but I'm not sure why -- it's a frickin' Spiderman movie, what is the big deal? It made X-Men 3 look like a SciFi Channel in-house creature feature, and that's enough for me. Tobey Maguire gets to walk on the wild side a bit here, after a meteorite filled with goo turns Spidey into an emo jackass with long dark bangs, alienating the affections of the lovely Mary Jane. Dunst is once again a hundred times better than the movie deserves, though pitifully underutilized in the awesome fight sequences. James Franco acquits himself well after a bump on the head erases Harry's misguided hatred for his best friend, which of course sentences him to a heroic martyr's demise. And the villains just keep on coming, which is entertaining enough. The be-goo'ed Spidey winds up giving into the dark side just enough to make it interesting. Moreover, I love how these movies are so NYC-centric -- the cops all look like real cops, just like on Law & Order; Peter's apartment remains realistically sub-standard; and Mary Jane seems to actually live and work somewhere in the grubby wilds of Ninth Avenue. I like this New York story better than the gadgetry and inner turmoil...who wouldn't? Oh, fanboys. Major points off for the unresolved smack-up of MJ, and that ludicrous Particulator Vortex underground command center somewhere in the marshes of...Queens? (B+)

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