(Video on Demand, January 2015) Even almost a year after his death, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s presence is still deeply felt, and each posthumous film seems to remind everyone of what an interesting screen presence he could have. In God’s Pocket, he’s about as far from glamour as he could be, playing a down-on-his-luck blue-collar worker you gets entangled in a growing pit of lack luck and even worse circumstances. It’s far from being a cheerful story, and Hoffman’s hanging-dog charm fits perfectly with the poor-neighborhood setting. Unfortunately, he’s stuck in a script that doesn’t quite know how to balance the sad drama with the black comedy – at times, God’s Pocket goes from naturalistic social study to jet-black absurdist comedy without graceful transition, or even unity in its presentation. The very dark ending doesn’t help anything. Still, John Slattery’s direction isn’t too bad, and Richard Jenkins gets some attention as a journalist who’s ultimately too smart for his own good. In the end, we just want to get away from the place as quickly as we can.
(On Cable TV, March 2014) I’m not necessarily adverse to slow-moving character-based dramas in isolated locations featuring a handful of actors, but I like it a bit better when the characters are sympathetic and when there’s at least a bit of a dramatic arc to the bickering. In Our Nature has the benefit of a neat self-constrained premise, as an estranged father and son accidentally end up with their girlfriends at the family’s nature retreat due to a scheduling mishap. Forced to spend some time together, they all end up arguing, making up, saying terrible things to each other, experiencing nature and maybe (just maybe) gain some understanding of each other. This kind of thing is a natural actor’s showcase, and so it is a treat to see John Slattery, Gabrielle Union, Jena Malone and Zach Gilford get to exert some thespian muscles. Slattery doesn’t get very far from his Mad Men character and Zach Gilford labour under the constraints of a spoiled, unlikable character, so it’s up to Union and Malone to deliver the most interesting performances despite smaller roles. The film has a slow and somewhat amiable pacing: despite the remarkable location, there isn’t much to be done here than take advantage of the setting and let the characters talk. A few good ideas about estrangement and life are to be found in the mix, and for moviegoers who usually specialize in genre fiction, there’s something refreshing about a film that takes place in (often awkward) conversations, where the big action highlights are falling from a kayak and seeing a cub bear rummage through a kitchen. But there’s a limit to how much plotlessness even indie dramas can sustain, and once In Our Nature is over, it’s hard to avoid thinking that the film has plenty of loose ends, ideas left unexplored and the changes in the relationships by the end of the film are so subtle as to be insignificant. Is it a change of pace from Hollywood’s usual spectacle of overblown emotions? Of course. Is it satisfying from a moviegoer’s perspective? Not entirely.