A Horrible Way to Die trailer (tbd 2011 release)

Boy meets girl.  Boy and girl fall in love.  Boy gets caught and goes to prison for being a serial killer.  Girl struggles to put her life back together and to restore some faith in herself after being able to fall for someone so reprehensible and not being able to see through his lies or see him for who he truly is.  Girl meets new boy.  Ex-boyfriend escapes from prison.  Ex-boyfriend really wants his girlfriend back.

So, this looks pretty insanely dark and gritty and relatively naturalistic in ways that big Hollywood films can never achieve while pandering to the mainstream.  It also stars AJ Bowen from The Signal and The House of the Devil, who is an extremely talented actor who’s been making a name for himself in low-budget micro-indies and horror, often films that are both.  Several of these films have been far beneath him, and it’s striking to see how good he remains in those movies.  Some day not too far away this guy is going to be a huge star, or at least get a series regular role in a Law & Order or CSI, where he’ll probably wake the rest of the cast up from their peaceful slumbers.  A Horrible Way to Die co-stars Joe Swanberg, who pretty much originated the whole mumblecore genre, and Amy Seimetz, who’s been in her share of micro-indies.  Anchor Bay releases this some time next year, and it looks like it has a lot of potential to go for the proverbial jugular.

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Published in: on October 26, 2010 at 2:55 am  Leave a Comment  

Catfish, Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman (2010)

Catfish appeared in theaters more than a month ago now, sporting the tagline “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is,” and riding a wave of Sundance hype that had audiences guessing at the very nature of the film.  Was it the newest entry in the faux-documentary “found footage” thriller genre, following in the footsteps of The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield?  Or was it something even darker; a real documentary that takes some unnerving twists?

The trailer effectively sets up the story’s central conceit: New Yorker and dance photographer Nev Schulman develops a friendship, including a budding relationship, with several members of a Michigan-based family after meeting them over the internet.  And how timely that this movie saw its theatrical release as anticipation was building for that other social network themed film.  Both films do address something that has been in the headlines more than ever over the past few months: the way these social networking sites betray our privacy, especially in light of the way many users have been so trusting with their personal information and the details of their personal lives.  Almost everyone I know has had their lives affected in some way because of information that gets publicly posted on these sites; I’ve seen relationships crumble apart as a result.  On its lowest level, it’s a breeding ground for the types of personalities that are still stuck in junior high school drama-queen mode, forever trying to stir the pot of controversy with friends of friends and very loose acquaintances, while able to hide behind a computer screen in varying degrees of anonymity, often not having to take much responsibility for their actions.  And more recently, these social networking sites have come under attack for the ways that they themselves are trafficking in personal information or allowing third-party apps to cull and distribute data from behind the curtain of online gaming programs.  As a result of all of this, we’re starting to see the public’s perception of the internet begin to shift slightly.

Yet, often times people have it in their natures to be trusting and idealistic.  It was well over 5 years ago when recent college graduates were finding pictures and contents of their MySpace profiles being referenced as part of the research and profiling for job interviews, and there were several stories about naive young adults not being hired for jobs, or even being fired by current employers, because of inappropriate behavior they were foolishly and brazenly sharing with the world.  And yet not much changed as a result.  In a world of ever-growing reality television and YouTube, today’s teenagers and 20-somethings seem to lack any kind of fourth wall.  It’s like playing peek-a-boo with a baby; they think if they can’t see you then you can’t see them, while also being unrealistically overconfident that nothing can or will be used against them in a court of the workaday world.

It’s really no surprise then, that the trailers for Catfish struck such a chord with audiences.  Because in this day and age, where there is so little privacy and therefore such a reduction in the genuinely personal, horror has lost its footing.  No one’s scared of anything anymore because we’ve now seen it all before.   And after the rash of torture porn over the last several years, audiences have become numbed and thickened to in-your-face violence.  There’s no envelope there to push anymore, no way to pick at the boundaries of a society that is used to having cameras film them constantly, who in fact court the experience and the celebrity that comes along with it, even with that celebrity is for being a dysfunctional, addictive, and having the brain capacity of a chunk of wood.  We’re now rewarding people for their laziness, lack of ambition and effort, and their overall void of intelligence.  Classlessness is the new calling card of the power elite.  And the internet… that’s the one thing people still put their implicit trust in; it’s a warm safety blanket, a slice of pizza, a bowl of ice cream, and a side of mac & cheese all rolled into one.  Just as smokers disregard the surgeon general’s warning on every pack of cigarettes, users of social networking sites put so much blind trust in the positives of how it brings people together and facilitates communication that they’re forever blinding themselves to the darker possibilities.  All of which is to say that the trailer for Catfish really plugs into the still-untapped possibilities of what remains the greatest source of horror material in this current age; it captures the imagination and where those possibilities might lead, and does so quite brilliantly.

First let me say that the way the film itself employs the internet is brilliant as well, although it may be somewhat unintended and the result of no-budget documentary filmmaking.  Not only do we see Facebook, IM’s, and the proliferation of texting, but Joost and Schulman use things like Google maps and 3D web cameras to set geography, locations, and travel patterns.  It’s likely simply done out of ease and need, but it’s also very much in keeping with the way so much of our world is now defined and determined by the internet.  We’re increasingly crossing that line where real life seems to be a function of the mind’s eye via computer and technology instead of the other way around.

And what makes the film so effective is Catfish‘s everyman protagonist Nev Schulman, completely at ease, trusting, and confident in technology and in people’s assumed best intentions.  And of course, without giving anything away, once Nev and company descend on the Michigan addresses of their internet friends in a surprise visit, they’re in for a very rude awakening.  All of this makes the film a must-see; it’s one of the most socially relevant films to hit theatres this year, and the commitment displayed to following through on the telling of this evolving story makes for fly-on-the-wall fascinating drama.  I do have a few more things to say about the film that are spoiler-laden, so I’m going to get to that after the rating.  If you think you want to see the film and haven’t seen it yet, then stop reading and just go and see it.  For those who have seen it or don’t care about being spoiled, continue reading after the rating.

9/10

SPOILERS: I’m going to be as obtuse as I can here and not give everything away, but I can’t really includes this in a normal review, because there’s no way to give the film and the filmmakers’ their due without talking about why and how it succeeds in some way.  First of all, this is not The Blair Witch Project.  This is a genuine documentary.  And because you’re able to see photos and clips on the internet of the filmmakers promoting their movie, you know that no one dies and this doesn’t turn into a gothic slasher film or something along those lines.  Once Nev, Henry, and Ariel meet the family they’ve been communicating with, they find a reality stranger than fiction.  And that’s where the film takes its biggest turn, about half-way through.  It stops being a film about the mystery of who these people might or might not be, and starts being a documentary about who these people really are.  In fact, that’s where the title of the film comes from, in a clever flourish.

Now, despite everything, the filmmakers have still been attacked by audiences for making a faux-documentary.  Even Morgan Spurlock, director and star of Super Size Me and executive producer and star of the show 30 Days, congratulated the directors for making what he considered to be “the best fake documentary of all time.”  But if you watch the film with a slightly less cynical eye, it’s quite obvious that the family in Michigan are not actors playing parts.  And while their willingness to continue with the filming once they’ve been exposed may seem disingenuous to some; I would argue that the stark reality is the polar opposite, and that is what makes Catfish so brilliant.  At this point, the film becomes an exploration of personality types in this technology-heavy world that we live in, and the odd way that something seemingly employed for its anonymity may actually be the safety blanket that allows a voice to begin to try to express itself.  But like any therapy, if this is a voice that ultimately needs to speak, it’s not necessarily going to turn the cameras away when they show up, even when that means suffering the shame and humiliation of being caught in the act.  And there are other evidences that abound, how certain people react in genuine confusion in a way that can not really be acted.  To try to write or act the confusion we see on camera from one person in particular would have resulted in something more streamlined and on the nose.  But the confusion is itself confusing is such a way that you really have to take a close look to peer through it for comprehension; the hidden truth behind it makes sense in a way that only half-understood reality can.  And yet another person, the one who provides the film’s title, seems to have knowledge of what’s been going on far beyond what anyone assumes; seems, in fact, to have a perfectly clear understanding and acceptance of everything.  There’s both a sadness to it and a painful resolve that belies it, evidence of a real love that is quite touching and beautiful.

And in the end, Nev remains a trusting, open, and friendly person.  Some jaded audience members may scoff at this as being unrealistic and use it to claim fiction.  But again, truth is often stranger than fiction.  What we’re seeing are personality types and ideologies at work.  A person who sees the world in a certain way, who is determined to always see the best in people, is usually going to try to maintain that point-of-view.  For an idealist, that may mean maintaining an idealistic frame of mind even when it requires a reinterpretation of the world to include new realities; even if such mental cartwheels goes counter to the cold logic a pessimist would employ.   And again, that’s part of what makes Catfish such a beautiful humanizing story.  It’s finally about the human spirit overcoming technology, and the willingness of one person to be there for someone else, even through difficulty and discomfort.  And isn’t that what we all strive for in the end?  To be appreciated and to know that we’re not alone in the world?  The internet, for all of its usefulness in bringing people together, on a certain level remains a divisive tool that ultimately keeps people apart.  Catfish is what happens when you put the notebook down and venture out past the safety of your screen saver, and venture forth to take the risk of reconnecting with the uncertainties of human reality.  If we don’t do it sooner, we’ll end up doing it later when we’re all just a bunch of screaming, lonely voices starving for real connection and interaction.

Published in: on October 26, 2010 at 2:13 am  Leave a Comment  

Devil, John Erick Dowdle (2010)

The Dowdles (that would be director John Erick and producing brother Drew, who seemingly wear differently credited hats yet share much of the day-to-day work like the Coens), are a couple of filmmakers who are really due some major success. Their first feature, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, received a fair amount of critical acclaim, but its distributor made the inane mistake of insisting on selling it as a legitimate documentary.  Initial audiences, in a post Blair Witch Project world, became furious and three years later it continues to sit on a shelf while execs bide their time trying to figure out the obvious, to give it a release as a normal narrative film.  Their follow-up, Quarantine, was a remarkably well-made re-telling of Spanish horror film [Rec], but wasn’t hugely successful partly because of its genre, partly because of loyalists’ ire, and partly as a result of a lack of star power.  And now here they are saddled with the already-ridiculed M. Night Shyamalan-produced Devil.

First things first; the film is far better than you’d think from trailers and previews.  The whole idea seems a bit ludicrous; five people trapped in an elevator, and as the body count starts to rise, it’s revealed that one of them is the devil.  Considering that the devil is also stuck in the elevator and has nowhere to run, the whole concept looks like a bad Saturday Night Live sketch.  But there’s a lot more going on in the script than just that; it treads the kind of thematic ground of The Twilight Zone, and it’s finally a morality play at heart that achieves much of its success from the ways it asks its questions and builds its arguments.

But M. Night Shyamalan isn’t doing himself any favors by calling this film the first in a thematic series under the moniker of “The Night Chronicles.”  At first glance it might seem an apt name for a horror/suspense series, but then you realize that the “Night” of “The Night Chronicles” has less to do with being a spooky nomenclature and more to do with trumpeting Shyamalan’s ego by wearing his name.  Can you imagine any other filmmaker doing this?  Would Scorsese release a string of executive produced films called “The Marty Chronicles?”  M. Night’s ego is further on display in the film as he provides a Serling-esque voiceover.  First of all, he doesn’t have the voice for it, and it doesn’t create a mood the way Serling’s voice did; it just feels like another ego-driven fingerprint.  Secondly, the content of the dialogue itself borders on the hokey, and actually undermines the suspense that the rest of the film is creating.  All of this is certainly ammunition for the Shyamalan haters who loathed the scene in Lady in the Water where the critic was eaten, and pointed to it as evidence of an out-of-control, self-congratulatory, and self-aggrandizing personality.  The final Shyamalan element that serves to undermine the script is the inclusion of a conservatively religious Latino security guard character who spouts off periodically about superstitions and myths.  Just like Stephen King tends to rely on an elderly, magical black man when he has nowhere else to go, Shyamalan keeps creating these conservative religious characters that function as a mouthpiece for himself, informing the audience that we’ve become apathetic in our lifestyle and that we shouldn’t ignore the mythologies, folklore and superstitions that are becoming our unspoken heritage.  It’s not that Shyamalan is wrong, or that this thematic element can’t be powerful; but the way Shyamalan relies on it so heavily and includes it so overtly undermines the narrative and transforms it into self-parody.

All of which is to say, that Devil would have been even better off with far less of Shyamalan’s involvement.  But apart from Shyamalan’s obvious influence, Brian Nelson has crafted a highly-functioning script that bounces along hitting all the right notes, create tension while building story, employing quite a bit of viewer shorthand along the way in a credit to the audience, and organically exploring human behavior and character motivation with the kinds of nuances that has always been the stock-in-trade of the likes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.  The cast, headed by Chris Messina as a police detective brought in to lead the investigation once one of the women is mysteriously slashed inside the stuck elevator, is a solid cast of working actors who may not be household names, but who have the acting chops to pull off the material and shepherd it along.

Between their adept direction of the actors, managing of M. Night’s involvement, and capably keeping a somewhat limited story functional and even, at times, compelling; the Dowdles have added another success to their scorecard.  Here’s hoping they’re soon able to find a future project free of third-party elements working against them; they deserve it and they’ve sure as hell earned it by now.

7/10

Published in: on October 7, 2010 at 11:10 am  Leave a Comment  

Lovely, Still, Nicholas Fackler (2010)

It’s unfortunate that Lovely, Still has two amazing talents in Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, yet can’t manage to break past an overly simplistic, trite script and amateurish directing.  On the surface, it appears to tell the very simple tale of a man finding love late in life.  Landau’s Robert Malone lives a rather meager retirement working as a supermarket stocker and drawing pictures during his lunch breaks.  Yet, he seems happy enough passing the days and finding a simple happiness in his routine.

But from the get-go, director Fackler doesn’t trust his story.  He shoots everything in medium to close-up, a means of overly controlling the audience’s perspective that telegraphs his lack of confidence.  This is particularly unnecessary when working with actors of the caliber of Landau and Burstyn, and top supporting talent like Adam Scott and Elizabeth Banks, who play Malone’s boss at the supermarket and Burstyn’s daughter, respectively.  Fackler would have served his story so much more by allowing for longer shots that show Landau in his environment and achieve a more naturalistic feel.  Not only that, but the script is underwritten and unsure of itself.  The opening scenes developing Landau’s character quickly jump into a meeting with his boss where Adam Scott’s Mike attempts to sell Malone on a pyramid type-scheme for holiday cookbooks.  Scott puts all of his considerable charms into the scene, but not even he can save the poor material, and the scene still comes off feeling like what it is: a script that’s unsure of itself treading water as the writer tries to figure out where to go with it all.  Even once Burstyn enters the picture as the neighbor across the street who’s taking an interest in Malone and inserts herself into his life, the actors can’t surpass the script.  Landau and Burstyn have so much likeability, so much craft, and so much talent at their disposal, but it’s all wasted on a script that’s unable to capture the honesty or nuances of love, or the wisdom and experiences these characters should have at their age.  What’s left is mundane dialogue written by someone without any of the life experience or understanding of human nature to tell this story.

The rest of the film progresses similarly, with the acting talent trying to elevate material not worthy of them, but doing so with an effortlessness that occasionally works during some of the script’s stronger moments.  It doesn’t help that the poor production values are yet another amateurish element dragging the overall quality down.  The whole thing comes off feeling like mediocre community theatre, and frankly, you feel a little uncomfortable and embarrassed for all of the acting talent involved.  To make matters worse, there’s a sort of twist ending that seems to exist mainly for Fackler to be able to point at how clever he is and use this film as a calling card in a world of M. Night Shyamalans and Christopher Nolans.  But in light of the twist, much of what has come before falls apart.  It’s not the kind of movie like The Sixth Sense where you can go back and earlier scenes are illuminated; with this new information, previous dialogue becomes non-sensical and untrue, and entire scenes are rendered pointless and false.

One could certainly attempt to make the argument that the story structure and the narrative twist are an attempt to be true to one of the film’s characters.  Perhaps in a better film with a different script this argument would be valid.  But for this material and this film, it simply feels like a self-aggrandizing flourish overlaid on something that was floundering to begin with, like a gymnast attempting a complicated finish after a by-the-books routine that she was barely able to struggle through.  There’s a reason this film sat on a shelf for two years and then only received the extremely limited distribution it’s gotten.  And it’s not that the world doesn’t want to see smaller films, or that Landau or Burstyn aren’t box office draws.  It’s simply the result of a weak effort poorly executed, despite the involvement of some major acting talent.

3/10

Published in: on October 5, 2010 at 10:45 am  Leave a Comment  

The Town, Ben Affleck (2010)

With The Town, Ben Affleck restates what was so evident from his Gone, Baby Gone debut, that he’s a hell of a director.  He has an inherent understanding of genre writing, and a facility for making smart, strong choices that strengthens the material.  Not only is he a gifted director, but he has a deep understanding of acting and actors that’s never really shone through in his own acting work.  The performances he elicits from all of his actors across the board are so honest, true, deep, and textured that the influence and support of the director is quite obvious.

It certainly doesn’t hurt matters that in both cases Affleck has started with contemporary crime fiction of the highest caliber.  First with Dennis LeHane on Baby, and this time with Chuck Hogan’s critically-lauded Prince of Thieves.  I suppose the reason for the name change going from book to film had to do with avoiding the inevitable mental connection to the troubled Kevin Costner Robin Hood movie.  That has nothing to do with The Town, which is about a suburb of Boston named Charlestown (hence the shortening to “the ‘town”) that happens to have been the largest producer of bank robbers for generations, most of whom continue to remain local.  Affleck has managed to score Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite for small roles as the father of his character and Jeremy Renner’s, neither of which amounts to much more than a cameo, but these are such strong actors that their performances are noteworthy support posts.  Affleck himself plays the lead role, and the leader of a group of young, local bank robbers; and Renner has the showy, key part of the emotionally unhinged member of the group.  Although Renner’s star is on the rise of late, he’s been a fantastic working for years and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing more with the part.  Rebecca Hall, previously seen in Starter for 10 and Vicki Christina Barcelona, is similarly a star-on-the-rise and an actor of remarkable substance.  She plays a bank teller during the robbery in the opening sequence that Renner unwisely decides to take along for a ride during their escape out of some sense of distrust and a misguided notion to control her by scaring her.  This creates a need for the crew to keep an eye on her, since her having been taken as a hostage means she’s the FBI’s key witness.  And since Renner is such a knee-jerk reactionary, the responsibility of keeping tabs on her falls to Affleck, which isn’t the best thing since we already know he’s romantically interested in her.

The lead FBI investigator is played by Jon Hamm, who’s at the top of his game here.  His performance as an impassioned do-gooder is a real argument for his casting as Superman in the upcoming Christopher Nolan-produced reboot.  He may be a bit long in the tooth depending on how they’re going with the Superman franchise, but damn if he doesn’t have all of the essential qualities of the caped crusader.  Even Affleck’s performance is strong, and his acting seems to have strongly benefited from his directing experience.  Surrounding himself with such strong talent has certainly upped his game, but likely a good portion of the improvement is also due to his immersion in the overall filmmaking process.  If anything, Affleck seems like an actor who may out-think himself too much, and is better off having to give more of an intuitive performance on the fly while his brain is still locked up pondering all of the director’s questions, rather than having the time and luxury to undercut himself.  He even manages to get an emotionally compelling and authentically seedy performance from teen-television favorite Blake Lively as a young, trashy Boston single mother.

Between Affleck, Hamm, Renner and Hall, a modest crime thriller that doesn’t really break any new ground is never less than compelling.  And even with all of these strong performances, the glue that holds it all together, and probably the greatest strength of the film, is Affleck’s assured directing.  He’s already working at a level that most A-list directors struggle to hit, and he’s consistent with two for two right out of the gate.  The Town may not win any Oscars, but that’s more of a result of a too-familiar story, and it gives Affleck something to shoot for in the future.  He’s ready to take the next step forward and graduate from solid genre material to something truly thought-provoking.  Either way, The Town is one of a handful of films that’s been released in the last six months that genuinely merits your time, and one of the  few mainstream releases in that group that you can count on one hand.

During the closing credits, Affleck notes that while the film has focused on portraying a certain noteworthy element of Charlestown, they aren’t representative of most of the suburb’s residents, who the film is dedicated to.  Some may interpret this as some small amount of pandering in a bid for good will, but it’s this kind of thoughtfulness and class that really marks Affleck as a director.  Well, that and his ability to make smart choices and genuinely deliver the goods, which sets him well ahead of such A-list hack darlings as Ron Howard.

8/10

Published in: on October 2, 2010 at 9:41 am  Leave a Comment  

Resident Evil: Afterlife, Paul W.S. Anderson (2010)

The new Resident Evil movie has one good thing going for it, and that’s the fact that it’s the first movie shot in 3D (not done in post as a transfer) since Avatar.  And it shows.  The 3D is pretty great, and makes the movie marginally worth watching, that is if you’re the kind of person who’s willing to sit through a mediocre Resident Evil movie.  The opening credits are done with the camera pointed down below from a high overhead as rain falls slowly down all around, and although it’s simple, it looks gorgeous.  The movie stars Milla Jovavich and Ali Larter, who are both very attractive and likeable leads, and able to pull off this kind of schlock, though Larter’s not helped with the fact that her character is saddled with amnesia for about half of the running time.  The film also stars Boris Kodjoe, who’s one of the two leads in the recently launched series Undercovers, and he demonstrates a lot of likeability and charisma.

But other than some willing and game actors and an upgrade to 3D, it’s more of the same from the Resident Evil factory, which means a story narrative that feels like pure exposition.  Anderson is a slightly better director than he’s given credit for.  He does create coherent scenes, and he’s able to tell a story, but for some reason his films always feel like he’s catching up on backstory to get to the important part of the plot, which never happens.  It’s all simply a fast run through that tiresome exposition.  And though he can handle actors on the most superficial of levels, beyond that he’s likely lost, which may be why you’re never likely to see any kind of a scene in an Anderson film that’s challenging for the actors or rewarding to the audience.  What a far cry a W.S. is from a T.

The plot picks up from the last movie, with Alice going up to Alaska to reconnect with the survivor group led by Claire Redfield (Larter).  This is after an opening sequence where she invades an Umbrella base operated by Wesker.  The casting of Wesker is unfortunate.  He’s always been a sleazy, forbidding character in the video games, but the actor playing him here feels more like a vapid Hollywood twentysomething than the kind of spooky, charismatic leader with uncertain allegiances who keeps you guessing, and lacks the villainous weight Wesker requires.  Any kind of performance is simply a steal from Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith from the Matrix films, which echoes the fact that Afterlife steals a lot of its fight choreography and look from those films, but can’t even come close to matching them.  Alice invades the base with a horde of clones, but Wesker is able to get close enough to the real Alice to shoot her with a syringe that disempowers her.  It’s a cheap way of resetting the ludicrous extra-sensory powers she acquired in the third film, but seems to be the only thing Anderson could come up with to make the character something less than invincible.

Her trip to Alaska yields an amnesiac Claire, and then she’s flying down the coast in a two-seater trying to relocate the signal for the supposed safe haven of Arcadia.  She spots a group of survivors and manages to land the plane on a rooftop, and the rest of the movie is spent fighting alongside the survivors holed up there.  Chris Redfield, played by Wentworth Miller, is among the group.  Miller is not unimpressive in the role, with an intuitive understanding of how not to overplay the character, and simply let a relaxed confidence and grace create a strong, heroic persona, rather than working too hard or putting too much effort into it.  Brendan Fraser could certainly learn a few lessons from this performance, as working too hard to appear strong seems to be his Achilles’ heel.

The rest of the film is rife with continuity errors, fight choreography that contradicts itself, and nicely-sized gaps in plot logic.  By the time Alice and the survivors discover what Arcadia is and make it there, and Alice has her inevitable rematch with Wesker, everything’s running on autopilot.  As far as how it compares to the other Resident Evil films, it’s better than the second one, which was by far the turd of the group.  Other than that, take your pick.  They’re all equally competent yet inane, and if you like this kind of stuff, they’re the cinematic equivalent of a bag of potato chips, and it’s possible to enjoy it in the most marginal of ways.  Some of the 3D is worth a look, but keep in mind that means sitting through the movie.  And yet, as terrible action movies go, it’s still a step up from the embarrassingly bad Expendables.

4/10

Published in: on October 2, 2010 at 7:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Jack Goes Boating, Philip Seymour Hoffman (2010)

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s directorial debut, an adaptation of a stage play he starred on Off-Broadway, is a remarkable and dexterous handling of the material for a first film.  There’s nothing about the film that seems in the least amateurish.  That’s probably not surprising as far as the acting goes, but it’s also true of the visual style of the film.  Though Hoffman has gone on record to say that he wishes he’d spent more time considering the visuals, the film is still very visual and there’s nothing about the cinematography that seems without purpose.  In fact, the cinematography is one of the surprises of the film, and really speaks to Hoffman’s future as a film director should he choose to pursue it.  That’s not to say the look of the film takes precedence over the performances, which might have happened had he spent the amount of time on it he claims he wished he had.  After all, this still has its roots as a dialogue-heavy play, and Hoffman strikes a fairly perfect balance.

The story is a simple one; limo driver Jack, played by Hoffman, is set up on a blind date with Connie, who works with his best friend’s wife.  Jack and Connie struggle to overcome their personal insecurities to forge a relationship together. Jack places a very intense focus on self-betterment.  Whether he’s trying to learn to swim so he can take Connie boating come summer, or learning to cook because no one’s ever cooked for her before and he’s promised to make her a meal at a dinner party, the effort he puts into them is remarkable and really makes you root for him.  This is the type of man willing to push a very heavy Sisyphusian rock uphill every step of the way, no matter how hard it looks or how long it takes.  But within that sort of work ethic and the growth it leads to, he finds a very beautiful sort of spirituality.  Since he can’t always be at the pool or practicing making the dishes he’s selected in his friends’ kitchen, he’s constantly visualizing the learning processes as he walks around town, and the visual overlap Hoffman uses to portray Jack’s concentration and focus is touching and evocative.

Although Jack and Connie are both essentially wounded wallflowers, they each have a strong and winning desire to break out of their ruts and find something more in life.  One can only assume Connie has had some sort of sexual abuse in her past the way she continues to attract unwanted advances and assaults.  But Jack is never less than exceedingly kind and and tentatively tender with her.  The counterpoint of this developing romance are the marital problems we slowly find his friends Clyde and Lucy are enduring.  Much like Jack, who keeps his fears at bay with a constant soundtrack of positive reggae on his walkman, Clyde is the eternal optimist, always encouraging sad sack Jack with unwavering friendship and love.  At least on the surface.  Underneath it, Clyde is as lonely and hurt as Jack, trying to make sense of his wife’s marital infidelities.  But much as we are slowly won over by Jack and Connie the longer we watch them, until we’re actively rooting for them, we start to slowly dread where Clyde and Lucy are heading.

Part of the reason is their completely unconscious behavior towards each other, part of it is their increasing inability to functionally communicate, and part of it are their growing dependencies on liquor, pot, and in a very uncomfortable sequence, the coke that Clyde buys on a whim right before the climactic dinner party.  Watching Clyde and Lucy unravel is truly painful to watch, and provides a counterpoint to the hard-fought relationship slowly evolving between Jack and Connie.  One relationship illustrates the effort and perseverance it takes to truly build something, the willingness to walk through a forest of uncertainty and sit with uncomfortable discoveries; the other details how turning a blind eye to each other or being unwilling to face the truth, which can seem innocent enough as a temporary means of avoiding making something worse, is the beginning of the end and leads down a road to complete toxicity and destruction.

The story here is a minor one.  Jack Goes Boating isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before, and the characters of Jack and Connie are unassuming enough that they’re likely not going to ignite passionate fires in viewers.  But one of the thing the film gets so right is its natural realism.  We’re privy to what good hearts these people have; most of them are truly selfless people who are willing to go the distance for a friend, which is partly what makes Clyde and Lucy’s deteriorating relationship all the more painful.  Clyde has obviously made some bad, self-destructive choices, but he’s not a bad person, and he’d give anything to find some way to save his relationship.  All of the characters are also somewhat unattractive in a way that’s true to reality; not to the extreme that they seemed to have stepped out of a Todd Solondz film but simply as any normal, average, workaday person struggles with mediocrity and has to fight small, personal battles and they may seem ready-made as the star of a cinema marquee.  This isn’t a slick Hollywood film with archetypes of perfection, but the kind of people who might ring you up at the drugstore checkout when you buy toothpaste, someone who is simply trying to carve out a small amount of happiness for himself in the world.  This not only carries through in the performances, but is a part of the script.  Often times a scene begins at the tail end.  Writer Bob Glaudini doesn’t feel the need to justify how or why a scene began; he simply wants to pick up the scene once all of the dramatic elements are already present and everything is firing on all cylinders.  Audiences may find this a bit disconcerting at first, constantly feeling like they missed something and walked in during the middle of a scene, but it’s refreshingly natural and allows us to experience a much more personal side to the characters.

In that sense, Hoffman has pulled off quite a balancing act.  While part of the film is difficult to watch, it also has a rare and genuine beauty to it.  And while it may not be creating characters or revealing an emotional struggle that’s something we’ve never seen before, the attention to detail and the personal realism has a rare honesty to it.  Glaudini and Hoffman never plumb the depths of the characters to such a degree as to exploit them or their problems, so the film is kept from being a deep probe into their inner psyches.  Instead we’re left to watch all of their faults play out across their surfaces, and the very real-feeling damages they can inflict on each other, or conversely, the hope they might be able to inspire in each other.  This is no easy feat, and the skill with which it’s achieved across every level of the production is impressive.

8/10

Published in: on October 1, 2010 at 6:58 am  Leave a Comment  
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