In Theaters Today: “Jack Goes Boating” / “Howl” / “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger” / “Waiting For ‘Superman'” / “Let Me In”

by Jason LeRoy on October 1, 2010

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz star in Overture Film's LET ME IN.

Look after the jump for reviews of five new films playing in the Bay Area this weekend.

Jack Goes Boating

starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Ryan, John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega

directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman

rated R

This one technically opened in Bay Area theaters last Friday, when I was out of the office. But hey, it’s still playing, so let’s talk about it! Adapted by Robert Glaudini from his stage play (which featured much of this cast), Jack Goes Boating is the story of two couples at opposite ends of the relationship spectrum.

On the one hand, we have Jack (Hoffman) and Connie (Ryan). As the film begins, Jack and Connie have been introduced by their mutual friends, Clyde and Lucy. Jack is a doughy, soft-spoken limo driver with the beginnings of dreadlocks in his stringy blonde hair. His constant companion is the sunny, mellow reggae coming from his Walkman. He reminds me of this overweight retarded man who’d stand on street corners in my tiny hometown clutching his Walkman and not moving. I’d see him from the school bus window in the morning, and then again on the same street corner on the way back home. Yes. Jack reminds me of him.

As for Connie, she seems equally hapless. In addition to struggling meekly with a new job at a funeral home, she is a frequent target of public victimization and shares Jack’s general lack of self-confidence. Both of them behave like timid, awkward children transported unhappily into the adult bodies of working class New Yorkers. It’s like Big crossed with Marty.

The other couple, Clyde (Ortiz) and Lucy (Rubin-Vega), are a feisty and charismatic pair that have been together for many years, although their relationship has been strained by infidelity and substance abuse. Each of them takes a somewhat teacher-like interest in helping Jack and Connie develop into more fully-realized adults; however, it gradually becomes clear that their own apparent stability is actually a constant high-wire act of denial, resentment, and inertia.

Like most films based on plays, Jack Goes Boating doesn’t exactly hide its source material. It consists of one lengthy dialogue scene after another, culminating in a fiery and explosive party scene at which all four principal characters are present. And, like a play, this one’s all about the actors. Hoffman, making his directorial debut, could play this part in his sleep (at times literally, given Jack’s sluggish lethargy), but gives his character enough of that “He’s gonna explode one of these days” energy to keep the audience engaged.

Amy Ryan, rapidly emerging as one of the finest actresses of her generation, is poignant and transcendent in her performance as Connie. John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega expertly match each other in sexiness, humor, and ferocity. The film is further enhanced by W. Mott Hupfel III’s gorgeous cinematography, which does the heavy lifting in elevating the film beyond its stage origins, and a trendy indie soundtrack featuring original music by Grizzly Bear.

RIYL: realist character studies about working class people in big cities trying to find love (ex: Two Lovers), movies where Philip Seymour Hoffman plays quiet lumpy guys (Happiness, Magnolia).

Howl

starring James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn, Mary-Louise Parker, Aaron Tveit, Jeff Daniels, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams

directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

no MPAA rating

Howl beautifully and provocatively captures an essential zeitgeist in the history of San Francisco and American culture at large. Unconventional in structure, the film weaves together several  threads into an evocative portrait of a moment of seismic cultural change. And never before has a film been so thoroughly about a poem.

Allen Ginsberg’s immortal epic is examined and presented from many angles: we see Ginsberg (brilliantly embodied by James Franco in arguably his finest performance so far, although he reportedly dazzles in the forthcoming 127 Hours) on the journey of awakening that led to writing the poem; we see him reading it in its entirety for the first time at San Francisco’s Six Gallery, accompanied by a mind-blowing animated interpretation of the poem; we see the cultural battles at the obscenity trial it provoked; and we see Ginsberg being “interviewed” several years after the poem, reflecting on the significance of the experience.

Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Epstein and Friedman (click here for our Spinning Platters interview with them) expertly incorporate elements of documentary into this, their first scripted narrative film. Franco is indisputably the star of the show, but the film features fine supporting performances from the rest of its distinguished cast, many of whom are only onscreen for a single scene. Hamm is especially notable as the defense attorney in the obscenity trial, managing to play yet another commanding mid-century figure without necessarily evoking Don Draper. Between this and The Town, I don’t think he’ll have to worry about being pigeonholed much longer.

RIYL: films set in San Francisco where James Franco plays gay (Milk); the Beats; films about obscenity trials (The People Vs. Larry Flynt); films about writers.

You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger

starring Josh Brolin, Naomi Watts, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Freida Pinto, Antonio Banderas, Lucy Punch, Pauline Collins

directed by Woody Allen

rated R

Ugh. This is yet another of Woody Allen’s thinly veiled philosophical parables about the utter pointlessness and lack of meaning in life. While it is guided by Allen’s new go-to narrator, Zak Orth, it should really be the Woodman himself doing the narrating at this point. Everything about the film is just so unmistakably Woody. The chances of it actually being funny would have improved significantly if Allen’s voice were the one describing the events for us. Instead, with Orth’s irritating voiceover and the ensemble of thinly sketched characters all working as pawns in Allen’s dry little play, it’s nearly unwatchable.

It’s not that Woody Allen has become incapable of making good films. However, based on the ten films he’s made in the last ten years, his ratio of good films to, shall we say, “minor” ones, is 1:4. For every one Vicky Cristina Barcelona or Match Point, there are four films like Whatever Works or Anything Else or Melinda and Melinda or Hollywood Ending, and so on.

And, just like in those minor films, Allen has once again assembled a magnificent cast and wasted them on an utterly throwaway script. Brolin, Watts, Banderas, Hopkins — all are wasted in one-note parts. Only the hilarious Lucy Punch, as an outrageously tacky escort (a part Allen historically writes quite well), and the brilliant Gemma Jones (Bridget’s mother in Bridget Jones’ Diary) as a recently divorced older woman obnoxiously clinging to a psychic to restore meaning to her life, escape with any credit whatsoever.

Had the film itself been better, Jones would likely have found herself benefiting from Allen’s excellent track record of directing Best Supporting Actress performances. But sadly, this film will be soon forgotten, its few redeeming qualities notwithstanding.

RIYL: minor Woody Allen films from the last decade; profoundly fatalistic cynicism.

Waiting For ‘Superman’

featuring Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, Randi Weingarten

directed by Davis Guggenheim

rated PG

I should say first of all that I am not especially invested in the subject of America’s public schools. While I did attend one (which seems a hell of a lot nicer now that I’ve seen this film), I am not really the target audience: I am not a parent or guardian, nor do I plan on becoming one anytime soon; furthermore, I’ve never found “Think of the children!” to be an especially compelling argument. So, as a fairly apathetic observer, I still found this film to be intriguing, involving, and occasionally infuriating.

Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) has strayed a bit closer to Michael Moore’s methods this time around, narrating the film himself and framing it in a very personal way (he guiltily enrolled his own children in private school after a crisis of compromised idealism when faced with the prospect of entrusting them to “dropout factory” public schools). He also makes use of a few other Moore hallmarks, such as ironic retro archival footage and a well-timed clip of George W. Bush embarrassing himself (“Childrens do learn,” he enthuses at a No Child Left Behind rally).

But unlike Moore, Guggenheim knows how to draw the line between commentary and overkill. He is also far more genuine, as opposed to Moore’s mawkish aw-shucks everyman routine. In addition to his damning overview of the many failings of America’s public school system, Guggenheim also tells the heartbreaking personal stories of five young pupils from different cities — Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily (who lives in Redwood City) — who want to break out of the public school rut and enroll at charter schools or other alternatives that will guarantee them a better education and a better life.

This is definitely a film that will make some people angry. Um, especially public school teachers and their unions. While Guggenheim acknowledges that the problem of America’s education crisis is a complex one, he still spends the majority of the film portraying teacher’s unions as the problem. And while he also blames the general idea of “bureaucracy,” that’s pretty safe (not to mention oblique) territory. I mean, who would ever stand up for bureaucracy? “Excuse me, but as a proud bureaucrat, I resent your tone!” I don’t think the National Council for Bureaucracy will be taking out any full-page ads condemning this film.

But as Newsweek commentator Jonathan Alter says in the film, the key to this debate is holding two seemingly contrary ideas in your head: (1) teachers are heroes and utterly invaluable in our children’s lives; and (2) teacher’s unions are a menace and generally an impediment to reform. To me, this is somewhat reminiscent of the “love the troops but hate the war” idea that became so popular among liberals after Fahrenheit 9/11. And while this film fell short of compelling me into action (which it really, really, really tries to do), I still think it has some important work to do. Regardless of your position on this subject (or even if you’re like me and don’t really have one), Waiting For ‘Superman’ will give you some vital food for thought.

RIYL: your children’s futures.

Let Me In

starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Richard Jenkins, Elias Koteas

directed by Matt Reeves

rated R

So this one was controversial right from the get-go. The announcement of an American remake of the cherished and brilliant 2008 Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In provoked all kinds of consternation in the blogosphere (but what the hell doesn’t?). Admittedly, I was skeptical as well. The original film really conjured a special and rare kind of magic, a spellbinding combination of tender fragility and stunning brutality. And when foreign art-house horror films are remade by Hollywood, the results tend to be like the original crassly pumped up on steroids (The Ring, for instance).

But as a fan of Let the Right One In, I have to say: Let Me In is really, really, really good. It takes the basic story of the original — a brutally bullied young boy gradually befriends an eternally 12-year-old girl vampire who’s moved into the next-door apartment with her “father” — and makes it its own. The story follows the same basic plot, but with enough small variations that it doesn’t feel like a shot-by-shot remake. Specifically, this film adds a bit more sentiment into the relationship between Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), but not in a cloying way. I wouldn’t call the changes “improvements,” but they certainly don’t detract from the film either.

And for those of you who think Let Me In is just another vampire movie trying to cash in on Twilight, let me assure you: nothing could be further from the truth. This film is as artful, frightening, and moving as Twilight is cheap, obvious, and dumb. Also, the word “vampire” is never really uttered, except when Owen asks Abby if she is one. “I need blood to live,” she responds, in a resigned and haunted voice. And that’s that.

I simply cannot say enough about the two young actors who give life to this film. Smit-McPhee and Moretz — who are only 14 and 13 fucking years old, respectively — are jaw-droppingly good. They’ve each previously garnered attention for playing other disturbing roles in grown-up films, Smit-McPhee as the Boy in The Road and Moretz as Hit-Girl in Kick Ass, but nothing could have prepared me for the emotional and psychological depth each brings to their role here. Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) also delivers a suitably ravaged and pained performance as The Father.

Let Me In is genuinely one of the greatest horror films in years. Do yourself a favor and give it a chance.

RIYL: Let the Right One In and other artful horror films.

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