Documentary Double Bill

15 Aug

The advent of cheap, lightweight technology has been a boon to the documentary; in the last ten years the medium has undergone a renaissance both commercially and creatively, in stark contrast to narrative cinema. Spearheaded by innovators like Nick Broomfield and Errol Morris, and thanks in large part to the success of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, the possibility of reaching a mass audience with a subject that resonates has increased exponentially; the designation is no longer an impediment.

Inevitably, this has led to some ‘creative’ uses of the format; ‘documentaries’ like ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ (2010), ‘I’m Still Here’ (2010) and ‘Catfish’ (2010) stretching the definition to breaking point. Whether staged or genuine, the new school of documentaries frequently take as their subject people who would struggle to be taken seriously if they were presented as fictional characters, such is their compelling strangeness. Though wildly different, the following films typify this approach.

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2010)

Heralding from the deceptively bucolic town of Boone County, The Whites have a fearsome reputation in the community. A prologue details their convoluted family tree; from the disciplinarian head of the clan, D. Ray, a well-known exponent of ‘mountain dancing’ who was killed in a shootout; to his grandson, Brandon, who when the film begins is awaiting trial for the attempted murder of his mother’s boyfriend. D. Ray’s oldest daughter, the redoubtable Mamie, reels off a litany of tragedy and violence as she introduces us to the rest of the family; focusing on her ailing mother, Bernie May, the ‘miracle woman’ who raised twenty-four children; her brother, Jesco, who inherited his father’s dancing shoes at a heavy price, local fame bringing with it a crippling addiction to ‘gas huffing’ that has left him with severe brain damage; and Kirk, a single mother who tries to get clean in an attempt to regain custody of her newborn. Intersecting these central story strands is an array of other family members with an equal disregard for themselves and others.

On learning that Johnny Knoxville and other members of the ‘Jackass’ crew acted as executive producers, one would expect ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia’ to be a tawdry exercise in schadenfreude; but the film actually strives to place the Whites in the pantheon of Southern rebels, outlaws pursuing a form of freedom particular to the region’s isolationist principles and traditions; with Hank Williams III as their primary cheerleader. In actuality, there is nothing remotely heroic about the Whites and their ilk, and however genuine the veneration of them may be, the Whites have embraced their standing as ‘white trash’ with commendable self-awareness, in a way that nullifies any attempt to humiliate them. Of all the family, only Kirk and Poney – the one White who got away from Boone – seem to have any inkling as to where their dissolution is leading.

Director Julien Nitzberg makes an attempt to place their fatalism into some kind of socio-economic context, briefly outlining how West Virginia has been treated like a colony, its resources drained and its workforce exploited; but this takes a backseat to bolstering the White’s hell-raising mythology. The Whites pursue a strange type of entrepreneurialism, from D. Ray’s mastery of the social security system to his progeny’s subsistence on ‘hustling, rustling and bustling’, flourishing in the shadow economy of the perennially dispossessed. In detailing the Whites’ excesses, Nitzberg has stumbled upon a family who pose some pertinent questions illustrate some striking points; asking whether the behaviour of the Whites is genetically pre-determined or a product of  their environment, and outlining that ‘urban problems’ exist wherever there is extreme poverty.

One public official points out that a local boy was recently admitted to MIT; asking, ‘why isn’t anyone following him around?’ It is one of the film’s most important questions, as we now live in the ‘Jersey Shore’ paradigm, where the least deserving members of a community are lionized for cheap laughs. ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia’ presents a milieu where ersatz piety, endemic drug abuse, petty vengeance and easy access to firearms conspire to create an atmosphere of simplistic distinctions and circumscribed identities. Though it seeks to strike a light-hearted note, portraying the Whites as lovable eccentrics, ‘The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia’ makes for grim, if compelling, viewing. These ‘drug-addled, gun-toting, redneck hillbillies’ are not ‘Appalachian royalty’ or counterculture icons, they are people who have been ground down by generations of poverty and left behind by society, and the film is frequently guilty of trivialising that fact in its attempt to further the White folklore.

Marwencol (2010)

Mark Hogancamp was put in a coma for nine days after being brutally attacked outside a bar by five people: his face had to be rebuilt, his memory was completely wiped and he had to learn everything from scratch, looking at his old life through a stranger’s eyes. When his health insurance expired, Hogancamp’s physical and speech therapy was cut off and he was left to seek his own treatment. Losing his gift for drawing in the attack, this took the form of a miniature village constructed in his garden called Marwencol populated by warring World War II-era armies of action figures and dolls bought from a local hobby store; many of them representing his friends, acquaintances, family members, and even his attackers. Hogancamp’s painterly photographs of the ongoing 1/6-scale saga come to the attention of photographer David Naugle, and his coping mechanism is brought to the attention of the art world.

‘Marwencol’ is a poignant, understated meditation on loss and obsession, devoid of the flashy visual ticks that often plague modern documentaries. Some artfully constructed tableaux aside, ‘Marwencol’ is a joyfully shabby experience; handwritten title cards are conspicuously placed in the hands of the dolls, the lighting is often uneven and the shots have a hurried, spontaneous feel – the story is very much the focus here, capturing Mark’s actions and observations without overemphasis on technical concerns. ‘Marwencol’ is everything an effective documentary should be, placing the audience firmly in the protagonist’s life and doing nothing to detract from its authenticity.

The dolls articulate Mark’s inner combat zone, waging war with the Nazis that lurk in his subconscious; the narrative he spins an attempt to impose order on and make sense of a cruel, chaotic world, placing him as the heroic figure at its centre. In Marwencol, everyone adheres to Mark’s inunctions and behaves predictably, villains are punished and fortitude is rewarded. Mark’s compulsion  has intriguing parallels with the mood that permeates the online domain; an environment where everyone can be whoever they want to be, a godlike figure who can bend their idealized proxy world to their will, the distinction becoming increasingly blurred and the disparity more painful.

The temptation must have been there to focus on some of the more salacious aspects of Mark’s life, but director Jeff Malmberg pulls back and treats him with laudable sensitivity and discretion, keeping this as a genuine celebration of outsider art as opposed to a snide, reductive exploitation of abnormality – much like Mark’s work, ‘Marwencol’ was made for the purest of reasons. But as inspiring and affecting as the film is, it leaves one feeling a little wistful. As Mark’s work reaches a wider audience, it simply serves to accentuate his crippling loneliness and alienation, a fact reflected in the darkening tone of events in his stunningly detailed and realised empire. The film ends on a tentative note, hinting that it may have been better for Mark if his work had never been discovered and he had been left to play out the story to its conclusion in peace.

Jesco White: The Dancing Outlaw

Advertisements

Priest (2011)

31 Jul

Once again, 3-D is a panacea for a floundering industry rapidly running out of ideas. Though the technology had existed in various forms since the 1890s, 3-D was rolled out by Hollywood in the post-war doldrums, when the flight to the suburbs and the growing popularity of TV dealt business a double blow. As with its initial commercial incarnation, 3-D in 2011 is adhering to the law of diminishing returns; the spectacle on which the early films coasted rapidly palling. Running parallel to this is the primacy of the Nerd Paradigm: what was once a risible fringe has become the dominant pop cultural discourse. There is, of course, a societal dimension to this; as people withdraw from the world and retreat from reality, they seek solace in uncomplicated, morally unambiguous fantasy worlds populated by mythical figures and heroic protectors. ‘Priest’ is a product of both these phenomena: a long-delayed 3-D spectacular based on – what else – a little-known comic book depicting – what else- a post-apocalyptic world where humans and vampires do battle; it reunites director Scott Charles Stewart with leading man Paul Bettany, who collaborated on the equally underwhelming ‘Legion’ (2009).

‘Priest has the feel of a project that was overseen by a focus group of ‘typical cinemagoers’ – i.e. teenage boys. It is a disjointed mess of second and third-hand visual and conceptual tropes – an Orwellian dystopia that is pure ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), a lawless wilderness that is firmly in ‘Mad Max’ territory overrun by faceless creatures borrowed from both the ‘Alien’ and ‘Resident Evil’ franchises, Matrix-lite fight sequences and quasi-Western window dressing that is more Marilyn Manson than Sergio Leone. If you see the film, I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with your own list of influences; it is one of the few joys to be had from the film. ‘Priest’ is Tarantino’s magpie sensibility taken to its high-concept extreme; shorn of wit, irony and humour.

Despite being considered one of the most exciting actors currently working, Bettany’s filmography is littered with clunkers like ‘Wimbledon’ (2004), ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (2006) and ‘The Tourist’ (2010). His portrayal of the heretical killing machine here will do little to enhance his standing; but given the trite material with which he had to work, it is hardly surprising that his performance has all the emotional depth and intensity of a video game cut scene, growling hackneyed lines and seething beneath his cassock. Brad Dourif and Christopher Plummer are wasted in peripheral roles, Maggie Q is here merely to advance the clunky romantic subplot, clean-cut pretty boy Cam Gigandet seems to have been airlifted in from a daytime soap to play the dutiful sidekick and Karl Urban is more Giorgio Armani then Lee Van Cleef as a high-camp vampire desperado hilariously named ‘Black Hat’.

Cory Goodman’s script is one of the most ineptly written in recent memory – at least ‘Drive Angry’ (2011) didn’t take itself too seriously. A kernel of a good story resides within ‘Priest’; but it presents ideas without seeing them through, resulting in a cliché-ridden mish-mash. All the high-octane violence that action fans hunger after is here, but it is forced into an ill-fitting allegorical,  cod theological straitjacket. The characters are so poorly defined that their fate is a matter of supreme indifference; delivering painfully contrived dialogue that has no emotional hook and is merely there to advance the plot, such as it is.

‘Priest’ is indicative of the creative entropy that has gripped mainstream cinema, highlighting the stultifying effects of the corporate mindset; a brash, brainless, cut-and-paste exercise that takes the surface elements of superior works and revels in its palpable lack of originality. Its financial failure will thankfully spare us a slew of sequels, but as Hollywood continues to operate like a high stakes casino, be prepared for more of the same.

Black Hat: Pure Evil!

Submarine (2010)

19 Jul

Anyone familiar with cult British comedy will be aware of Richard Ayoade; he has made his name as a player in such shows as ‘The Mighty Boosh’, ‘Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace’, ‘Man to Man with Dean Learner’ and ‘The I.T. Crowd’, bringing his gawky charm and E.L. Wisty-esque otherworldliness to a succession of oddballs and outsiders. But TV comedy stars must always enter into the film world with great trepidation, as what makes them so effective in the thirty-minute format often doesn’t translate to the big screen – as Mitchell and Webb’s ‘Magicians’ (2007) is a disappointing testament to. Ayoade wisely opted to stay behind the camera for ‘Submarine’, amassing an impressive cast for this adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s coming-of-age novel.

Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is a bright but gauche teen living in Swansea in the 1980s. Struggling to fit in at school, he bullies his fellow students in an attempt to impress Jordana (Yasmin Paige), a callous, manipulative classmate who takes pleasure in toying with his emotions, but with whom he is determined to lose his virginity. Oliver’s home life is disrupted when Glen (Paddy Considine), the first love of his mother, Jill (Sally Hawkins), moves in next door, throwing the failings of her marriage into sharp relief. Oliver does his best to rouse his depressive intellectual father, Lloyd (Noah Taylor), and sabotage Glen’s attempts to woo Jill, becoming a go-between for his emotionally stunted parents.

‘Submarine’ makes for frustrating viewing, with Ayoade falling prey to First-Time Director’s Syndrome. The film is burdened by its influences – chiefly Wes Anderson – and struggles to strike the delicate balance of laughs and narrative progression that is crucial to any film comedy’s success. There is a sense that Ayoade is trying way too hard to prove his directorial chops, throwing into the mix every technique at his disposal – slow motion, multiple angles, numerous cuts, freeze frames, split screens, Scorsese-esque ‘Super 8’ segments and a constantly moving camera. It all becomes wearing and has the effect of detracting from the story. Alex Turner throws out a few subpar Arctic Monkeys offcuts, his star cache no doubt helping to market the film in the US.

On the plus side, ‘Submarine’s’ humour is more bittersweet then laugh-out-loud, its sophisticated tone a welcome departure from the crass ‘sex wager’ formula that proliferates the teen comedy genre. The script succeeds in depicting the causal cruelty and mob mentality of the playground; one of its most striking themes is how intellectual curiosity can bring with it a profound sense of insignificance, detailing the travails of the smart. There is a grim authenticity to the depiction of Oliver’s home life: a passive-aggressive minefield where his ultra-vigilant mother and over-analytical father quietly rue their failures and pile their neuroses onto his shoulders. All of which is helped in no small part by Erik Wilson’s downbeat photography, its washed-out palette conveying a wintery chill, and Roberts’ wry narration, which perfectly replicates the inner monologue of a teenage aesthete struggling to come to terms with sexual awakening and domestic upheaval.

A great ensemble cast strives manfully to overcome the glib, comic cadence of the dialogue: Taylor and Hawkins play the saturnine marine biologist and frustrated actress with typical élan, Roberts and Paige have genuine chemistry, Considine provides an injection of broad humour as a leather-clad ‘mystic’ sporting a luxurious mullet, and executive producer Ben Stiller makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance. But, alas, their efforts are undermined by Ayoade’s desire to ape the hyper-stylized, self-aware idioms of US indie cinema. One cannot escape the feeling that, in striving to deliver the desired look, the film loses some of its heart, the end result feeling like a hipster reimagining of ‘Gregory’s Girl’ (1981). All of which is a tremendous shame, as Ayoade clearly has talent as a director; if he can calm down and rein in some of his stylistic excesses, his next project could be something special.

That luxurious mullet.

Barney’s Version (2010)

10 Jun

Paul Giamatti’s gradual ascension to the upper echelon of indie stardom is due in no small part to his ability to convincingly portray those at the lowest ebb:  from the hubristic filmmaker in ‘Storytelling’ (2001) to the failed writer in ‘Sideways’ (2004), Giamatti has turned in a litany of performances that run the gamut of failure, alienation and regret. Aided in no small part by a physiognomy that was made for tragedy, Giamatti’s normality has ironically become an asset in a business which places a premium on youth, beauty and exoticism.

Prior to embarking on this adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s novel director Richard J. Lewis and writer Michael Konyves had a less than stellar track record. Lewis has worked on TV since the late ‘80s, directing shows as diverse as ‘Superboy’ and ‘CSI’, while Konyves has a handful of TV movies to his credit. So the fact that they came together to produce a work of such distinction makes ‘Barney’s Version’ an even more tremendous achievement.

As its title implies, ‘Barney’s Version’ is an account of the life of Barney Panofsky (Giamatti), told entirely from his perspective. Barney is a sixty-five-year-old producer of ‘totally unnecessary’ TV who becomes the subject of a book by a police detective (Mark Addy), which accuses him of murdering his best friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman). The film flits between time frames, recounting Barney’s three marriages and shedding light on the circumstances surrounding Boogie’s death.

Much like ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’ (2002), ‘Barney’s Version’ is a prime example of the unreliable storyteller at work, outlining the inherently subjective nature of biography. One can never be entirely sure if what we are witnessing is the mendacious testimony of a guilty man or an honest appraisal of events; whether these are the people as they really were or how Barney would prefer they are remembered. The memories occur at random, Proustian rushes stirred by external stimuli, using Barney recollecting them as a handy bridging device.

Lewis draws on a number of influences: the freeze frames, musical interludes, photo montages and slow motion bring Scorsese to mind, the kinetic camerawork is reminiscent of Lumet at his dynamic best, and the conversational scenes using New York as a backdrop are straight out of classic Allen. But this is not the kind of directorial karaoke from which certain ‘auteurs’ of renown have made their fortunes. Lewis doesn’t use these stylistic flourishes as crutches, but implements them at appropriate moments. Guy Dufaux’s cinematography creates a distinct ambiance for each temporal shift, Claude Pare’s production design authentically replicates each period depicted, and Konyves’ screenplay is brimming with ribald humour and caustic bòn móts – ‘She subscribes to the Economist but buys Vogue off the stand’ being one of the most memorable.

Giamatti delivers a barnstorming turn as the querulous, vindictive soul who seems out of place in the modern world. He does an outstanding job of lending pathos to this most ambiguous of protagonists; a philanderer and possibly a murderer, mining the insecurities of the autodidact, his hunched, lumbering gait and pinched diction articulating Barney’s woes. Dustin Hoffman is in rare form as Barney’s father, a charming, roguish ex-cop with a darkness and hurt lurking beneath the gregarious surface: it is Hoffman’s best performance since he stole the show in ‘Wag the Dog’ (1997). Giamatti and Hoffman are a joy to watch together; neither trying to upstage the other, both secure and generous enough to accurately chart the father/son dynamic. Barney’s wives are played to perfection by Rochelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike; as his foul-mouthed, free-spirited first wife, garrulous, ambitious second wife and radiant, indulgent third wife respectively.

It would be a mistake to dismiss ‘Barney’s Version’ as a ‘Jewish film’, just as it would be to write off Spike Lee as a maker of ‘black films’: it may take place within a specific milieu, but it deals with a range of concerns that transcend cultural boundaries. ‘Barney’s Version’ is as much about platonic male love as Barney’s romantic travails: his relationship with Boogie is the most lasting and meaningful of his life, and he constantly searches for a woman who understands him on the same level. The film illustrates the futility of revenge, the most heinous form of mutually assured emotional destruction. The twelve years it took to bring ‘Barney’s Version’ to the screen were not wasted: this is a work whose quality will endure, and whose influence will only appreciate over time.

Giamatti, with the Golden Globe he won for his portrayal of Barney.

The Arbor (2010)

25 May

Described by Shelagh Delaney as ‘a genius straight from the slums’, Andrea Dunbar is best known for Alan Clarke’s adaptation of her play, ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’ (1987) – which has been dismissed in many quarters as a bawdy romp, but is actually a daring piece of social realism with shades of Nouvelle Vague playfulness. Like Delaney, Dunbar was a teenager when she began documenting the social deprivation she saw around her, detailing lives blighted by poverty and despair with unprecedented frankness. But Clio Barnard’s film is not simply a biopic; it also sheds some light on those affected by Dunbar’s life, and in doing so tells a story as dark and compelling as one of her plays.

Barnard opted for a distinctive technique to tell the body of the story, having actors lip-synch the voices of significant figures from Dunbar’s life. This is interspersed with open-air performances of scenes from Dunbar’s plays, with the denizens of the Bradford housing estate where she grew up watching on, and recreations of the events recounted. Dunbar is shown in clips from TV documentaries, a spectre hovering over events, but the film centres on her youngest daughter, Lorraine.

The most startling thing about ‘The Arbor’ is its depiction of Dunbar. This is not a hagiography which sets out to mythologize her life, sanitize her actions and cement her position in the pantheon of literary greats – with a family estate overseeing its passage. Dunbar’s relationship with her children is depicted exactly as it was: distant, neglectful and violent. Her alcoholism is not used as an excuse to mitigate her behaviour; the film explores the worst and best facets of her personality with equal candour, depicting her as both victim and villain. By learning how she impacted those closest to her, we get a picture of who she was and what inspired her work that a sober appraisal of her oeuvre could never achieve.

‘The Arbor’ is a stylistic triumph; its technical elements combining to create an all-pervading mood of sadness, remorse, anger and hopelessness. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s photography is integral to the establishment of the despondent tone which looms over the housing estates where Dunbar’s creative energies were sparked, capturing the brutal utilitarianism of the backdrop; with Harry Escott and Molly Nyman’s ambient score striking a downcast note throughout.

Casting the actors to mouth the words was essential to the film’s success, and those chosen excel in doing so, replicating the cadences of their subjects to the point of total immersion. Majinder Virk is excellent as Lorraine, Dunbar’s mixed race child. In a heartbreaking synthesis of craft and content, Virk articulates the pain of Lorraine’s abandonment and descent into drugs and prostitution with control and conviction. Elsewhere, Natalie Gavin and Jimi Mistry shine in the performance segments, while Christine Bottomley, George Costigan and Neil Dudgeon bring their gift for depicting the everyday to bear on their roles.

‘The Arbor’ has a scope which belies its relatively slender premise, addressing social issues as well as analysing the place of theatre in society. The film posits that the work of writers like Dunbar takes on the status of a dispatch for an upscale audience, providing an insight into places and lives from which they have insulated themselves; the creator indulged like a noble savage by the cognoscenti.

Barnard, a contemporary of Dunbar’s, cleverly merges Dunbar’s thematic concerns into her own, exploring the inarticulate rage that fuels racism and the plight of communities buffeted by the effects of Thatcherism. ‘The Arbor’ not only provides an overview of Dunbar’s life and work but puts it into historical context; the urge to dramatise her life presaging the public confessional that is a central component of the blogosphere.

You might want to look behind you.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ (2010)

6 May

‘An Inconvenient Truth’ director Davis Guggenheim and ‘Simpsons’ writer Billy Kimball collaborate for this investigation of America’s troubled education system. In 1999, Guggenheim made ‘The First Year’, a documentary about five young teachers struggling to adjust to life in an inner city public school. Ten years later, he is a father who drives past three public schools on his way to the private school where he has chosen to place his kids. This served as the impetus for Guggenheim and Kimball to explore the lives behind the statistics, interviewing notable figures and following children from across the economic spectrum to get some sense of the tangled, imbalanced nature of the situation.

Despite years of ‘lip service and political bickering’, the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act of 2001 was intended to curb the gradual decline of America’s public schools, which had been amongst the best in the world until the ‘70s. Of the top thirty developed countries, America is 25th in maths and 21st in science. Eight years later, and the achievement gap continues to widen; the rate of child literacy and numeracy in certain parts of the country is as low as 12%. Certain inner city schools have been branded ‘dropout factories’ with a consequent rise in the prison population, costing the state $33,000 per year, per inmate – enough to pay for private schooling, with $24,000 left over for college.

Like ‘Sicko’, ‘Waiting for Superman’ addresses a domestic issue with global implications; the American model, for better or worse, is still looked upon by certain ideologues as an ideal to which they must strive – when America sneezes the world invariably catches a cold. For international viewers, the film is a chilling window into a world where opportunity goes hand in hand with inequality. Education is indicative of a wider trend where a child’s prospects are largely determined by the economic stability of their upbringing, the drivers of social mobility cease to function and the cycle of deprivation is reinforced. It is a tragedy to see the plight of children like Daisy, a precocious girl who wants to be a vet, and Bianca, who can’t graduate because her mother has fallen behind on the tuition fees.

Bill Gates sounds a note of caution on behalf of the business community, outlining that high-tech industries require a highly-skilled, well-educated workforce, and that demand is rapidly outstripping supply in this regard. But the picture is not entirely grim; there are those who are trying to prevent schools from failing the communities they serve. Geoffrey Canada’s story is an inspiring one; an educator with a vision for ‘education in the nation’, he established the Success Academy in Harlem, an area with twice the unemployment rate of the rest of New York. Canada is an expansive, charismatic figure who refuses to give up on kids who have been given ‘the short end of the stick’ by a ‘cold, heartless world’, and the results he has garnered for his pupils speak for themselves.

Michelle Rhee, on the other hand, is a somewhat more divisive figure. The chancellor of DC public schools – an area that provides a microcosm for the system as a whole – Rhee admits that the majority of kids in her district are getting a ‘crappy education’. However, her reform plans – firing thirty principles, cutting four-hundred jobs, closing twenty-three schools – are met with suspicion by the public and anger by the unions. One of the film’s major failings is its refusal to take Rhee to task on how her closure plans would affect the already poor communities in which these failing schools are located, and to simply paint her as a victim whose bold vision is crushed by a pact between organized labour and the political elite.

Unfortunately, the minuses outweigh the pluses, both stylistically and ideologically. ‘Waiting for Superman’ belabours its often obvious points; documentaries work best when they are succinct, and losing ten minutes from the running time would have helped – clips from ‘School of Rock’ and ‘the Simpsons’ only serve to trivialize its argument. There are some conspicuously staged moments, dramatic inserts and overly composed tracking shots that remove one from the reality of what is being depicted, while the animation used to present statistics has an air of condescension about it, as if the viewer cannot be trusted to assimilate the information without a jaunty graphic.

‘Waiting for Superman’s’ broad, glossy emotive sweep fails to take into account a number of pertinent issues, such as the rise of corporate sponsorship in public schools and the role of faith schools. Whether or not these omissions are part of a concerted pattern of obfuscation is unclear, but any authoritative study of the issue cannot fail to take these factors into account. The film presents a jaundiced view of unions, suggesting that their campaign contributions are aberrant, rather than standard practice for any corporation or organization, and implies that teaches are ‘disincentivized’ by job security and need inducements in order to perform better. The assertion that funding is not a problem is one of the film’s most ludicrous contentions, given the dire conditions captured in the ‘academic sinkholes’ they visit. Its intentions may be honourable, but for whatever reason, ‘Waiting for Superman’ shies away from some of the more contentious root causes and incipient problems of this increasingly unfair, arbitrary state of affairs.

Guggenheim and Gates on 'Oprah'.

Jack Goes Boating (2010)

25 Apr

Philip Seymour Hoffman has largely been able to resist the lure of the money that is thrown at Oscar winners in the wake of attaining the industry’s highest accolade. While most other recipients pick up lucrative endorsements and take substandard roles that trade on their status, Hoffman has continued to make interesting theatrical and cinematic work since ‘Capote’ (2005) turned him into the most unlikely, and one suspects reluctant, of A-listers. Sure, he appeared in ‘Mission: Impossible III’ (2006) and ‘The Boat That Rocked’ (2009), but thankfully those have been anomalies in a post-Oscar run that has earned him two further nods from the Academy.

Based on Robert Glaudini’s play, Hoffman stars and directs in this tale of Jack (Hoffman), a solitary reggae enthusiast who works as a limo driver for his uncle, Frank (Richard Petrocelli). Feeling sorry for his plight, Jack’s friend and work colleague, Clyde (John Ortiz), sets him up with Connie (Amy Ryan), an equally ill-at-ease work colleague of Clyde’s wife, Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega). While Jack and Connie struggle to overcome their social awkwardness, Clyde and Lucy’s marriage is beginning to crumble, with Jack caught in the middle. In an attempt to impress Connie, Jack takes cookery lessons and learns to swim in order to take Connie boating in the summer.

Hoffman clearly paid close attention and learned some valuable lessons while working with some of modern cinema’s visionaries, as his directorial debuts exhibits the same keen eye for pace and framing as the Coens, Sidney Lumet and Paul Thomas Anderson. The camerawork is dynamic without sliding into ostentation, while music both diegetic and non-diegetic is used to heighten the emotional impact of several key scenes. The film’s gentle, reflective progression mirrors the tentative development of Jack and Connie’s relationship; Mott Hupfel’s cinematography adding warmth and texture to the wintery setting in much the same way it did in ‘The Savages’ (2007).

Like ‘The Savages’, ‘Jack Goes Boating’ is steered by two captivating lead performances. Hoffman portrays a monosyllabic character that would have blended into the scenery in lesser hands, using an array of physical pointers – from his persistent nervous cough to his half-hearted adoption of a ‘Rasta’ look – to elucidate Jack’s nature. Jack is the latest in a long line of psychologically complex roles that have earned Hoffman the title of ‘Greatest Actor of his Generation’. Connie is an inherently eccentric character that Ryan’s charm prevents from being ‘kooky’: a designation which demands that actresses who fail to conform to accepted standards of beauty revert to ditzy theatrics. Ortiz and Vega reprise their roles in the play, portraying Jack and Connie’s support system with an aplomb borne of an exhaustive familiarity with and deep fondness for the characters. Ortiz and Hoffman’s interplay provides a refreshing change from the dynamic of most onscreen male friendships, openly expressing their feelings and providing emotional support for each other through their hardships.

‘Jacks Goes Boating’ is a romantic comedy with a grip on reality; a touching study of people struggling to find a place where they fit; a beautiful paean to shyness, and a moving essay on maladjustment. It features moments of Solondz-esque humour that elicit uneasy laughs, as well as showing the heart-warming landmarks of Jack and Connie’s budding love. The film dispenses with moralizing and pseudo-inspirational schmaltz to deliver its message: in a cutthroat world where sensitivity is an impediment, we must overcome the tiny obstacles that seem insurmountable in our heads and prevent us all from achieving so much, as these everyday triumphs are what define us in the end.

The much-vaunted nudity proved to be a letdown.