Sicilian Catfish Never Sleeps (Weekly Links)

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. “Like listening to a slightly crazy person tell you about five different subjects.”

Catfish. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Here we go again: a couple of weeks after the Joaquin Phoenix documentary “I’m Still Here” opens (followed shortly by an admission that yeah, it’s not a documentary, they made it all up), along comes another entry in this annoying trend.

“Catfish,” a film generating strong buzz as a documentary thriller, purports to be completely authentic account of what happens when a hip young New York photographer, Nev Schulman, begins an Internet friendship with a young woman living in Michigan. Nev’s brother Ariel just happens to be a filmmaker. He and partner Henry Joost decide to begin shooting Nev’s online encounter, which quickly becomes a romance.

Since this film is being sold as a big mystery, I suppose “spoiler alerts” are here required. So consider yourself alerted, even if I won’t say much about what happens. But anybody watching the first ten minutes of the movie will have a fairly good idea that Nev’s long-distance girlfriend will turn out a little different from what he imagines.

If the filmmakers made it clear that this is a faux-documentary, “Catfish” would be a lot easier to review (and their clever sleight-of-hand easier to appreciate). But they keep insisting it’s all true.

It doesn’t pass the smell test for me, at least not until the final 20 minutes, when a new group of characters enters the scene. But most of what we see looks trumped up and suspect.

Credibility keeps getting tested: what would be the point of playing out one sequence in the middle of the night at an isolated homestead, except to ratchet up the “Texas Chainsaw” vibe? How could Web-savvy hipsters like these guys not have Googled the Michigan family at an early stage?

That’s another thing that falls flat: the movie’s sober warnings about the dangers of the online world, indicated by ominous close-ups of Facebook screens and YouTube videos. Wow, quite a revelation—you mean you should be careful about whom you believe? That you should verify information? Somehow I think that was true even before the Internet came along.

If “Catfish” is a hoax, then I guess the filmmakers will have proved their point: people are too easily taken in by what they see.

I assume that some of the stuff here is real, and some not. Unfortunately, this question is distracting enough so that I didn’t particularly enjoy the movie, and found some of it exploitative.

But I can’t be sure, of course, because I don’t know what this movie is. And why we should have to guess about that is a mystery to me.

Jack Goes Boating. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s directing debut, “Jack Goes Boating,” is based on a stage play, a very small-scaled, actor-oriented piece.

In other words, just the kind of thing an actor might want to direct. Intimate, not plot driven, and a showcase for a quartet of performers.

Not surprisingly, Hoffman plays the central (and title) role, as he did on stage. Jack is a chubby, awkward limo driver, a man so socially uncomfortable that his best friends must sit him down at the dinner table with an available woman, thus forcing him to possibly ask her on a date.

The woman is Connie (Amy Ryan, Oscar nominee from “Gone Baby Gone”), herself a rather odd duck. The movie’s mostly charming idea is that the prospect of dating Connie will lead Jack to two diverting projects he wouldn’t otherwise have tried. She allows as how she’d like to go boating when the weather gets better, which means Jack must take swimming lessons. Also, he impulsively promises to fix her dinner—so Jack takes instruction from a chef and attempts to turn himself into a cook.

Another couple also figure in the drama. Clyde (John Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) are married, but with problems—and by coincidence, Jack’s cooking lessons stir up some simmering issues between them.

Robert Glaudini’s script is thoughtful and full of tiny character observations. Its modestly-scaled ambitions probably played well in an off-Broadway setting. Hoffman’s direction, however, doesn’t do the material a favor. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating the art of the pause or the drawn-out sentence, but Hoffman doesn’t seem to have adjusted the metronome from stage to screen. Some scenes come to a slow, quiet halt before your eyes. Later, when the action amps up, the timing feels just as off.

Hoffman’s mouth-breathing performance isn’t bad, but the other performers actually come across better. Amy Ryan doesn’t hit a false note, and Ortiz and Rubin-Vega (she was one of the original stars of the musical “Rent”) create unusual characters.

It doesn’t quite come off, but it has around the same interest as an offbeat night of live theater in a small space. Offbeat and upbeat: “Jack” delves into some unhappiness, but emerges with a sense of people moving along and trying to get better, as best they can.

Heartbreaker. “Works a cheat on the audience.”

The Sicilian Girl. “Crude can be effective.”

Bran Nue Dae. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Peering into the Australian hit “Bran Nue Dae,” it is possible to understand why this musical touched a nerve Down Under, both as a stage hit 20 years ago and as a recent film release.

You can understand it more than participate in it, probably. Broad and silly and painted in eye-blinding colors, “Bran Nue Dae” seems to have a uniquely Aussie flavor—and in its own campy way, it addresses a sore point of Australian culture.

Most of the cast is comprised of Aboriginal people, whose ancestors were the indigenous population of Australia, and whose existence was completely marginalized by the white folks who came to settle there. It’s typical of the movie’s approach that the lyrics “There’s nothing I would rather be/Than to be an Aborigine/And watch you take my precious land away” are delivered as cheery, ironic pop music, not a bitter lament.

There’s a thin storyline: plucky hero Willie (Rocky McKenzie) can no longer remain in his Catholic boarding school, and runs away to return to his hometown of Broome. The goofy headmaster (Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush) won’t let this stand, and goes in pursuit. As Willie finds a traveling companion in a singing hobo (Ernie Dingo), he longs for a reunion with his dream girl (Jessica Mauboy, a winner on Australia’s version of “American Idol,” which I suppose is called “Australian Idol”).

The road trip is destined to tie every plot strand together in ways that stagger belief, but believability is not really the point. Having a good time is.

The songs, by Jimmy Chi and others, have apparently become anthems in the Aboriginal community since the original stage show. You can see why: in their exuberance, they seize a certain optimistic tone for indigenous people—a celebratory attitude that serves as a rallying cry, not a death knell.

I wish the movie around this spirit was grounded in—well, anything. Director Rachel Perkins keeps everything so lighter-than-air that the film begins to resemble a batch of brightly-colored helium balloons. Well, why not? In Australia, the movie has turned into one of that country’s biggest financial successes. More power to it, even if American audiences are less likely to feel the love.

And on KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about whether satire ever changes the world, looking ahead to the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally. Listen here; the movie bit kicks in at 16 minutes in.

And a quick appearance on the Seattle Channel’s “Art Zone in Studio” with Nancy Guppy. That’s tonight at 8.

Movie Diary 9/14/2010

They’re here already

Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010). Official: after Fired Up! and this, Will Gluck is an auteur. Seriously, the guy’s got it, and this is another funny wisecracky movie with a great cast and a sprung rhythm. (full review 9/17)

Heartbreaker (Pascal Chaumeil, 2010). A dumb movie that will be popular. At least you get to look at Romain Duris and Vanessa Paradis (although Chaumeil doesn’t really know how to photograph them). (full review 9/24)

The Town (Ben Affleck, 2010). Boston crime saga, with a big impressive cast and not much time to go deeper than the surface excitement – but the surface is pretty exciting. Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, and Jon Hamm make the most of their chances. (full review 9/17)

Hell Is for Heroes (Don Siegel, 1962). Lean and serious war movie, with McQueen feeling his oats, plus a touch of the gimmick casting that crept into some movies of this era (namely Bobby Darin and Bob Newhart in key roles). The final couple of minutes absolutely kill.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956). Watched this Sunday night and wondered how old Kevin McCarthy must be these days; turns out he was already dead, as of 24 hours earlier or so. Classy performance, such a smart movie, and Siegel provides strong (but not rushed) forward motion in the storytelling – as well as suggesting the quiet “difference” in people and places that the invasion has already touched. And of course every year it seems to get relevant. Watching it again for a talk I plan to deliver a few times in the coming year (see Upcoming Events tab, above).