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I don’t think that’s Flipper: (l-r) Ryan and Travis in Open Water.

In the Tank
By Ann Morrow

Open Water
Directed by Chris Kentis

Based on a true story—that of an American couple who were left behind by their charter boat off the coast of Australia—Open Water is basically a stunt movie: Two actors in reinforced wet suits are menaced by real live sharks over the course of 120 hours of filming. So no wonder their exhaustion and terror seem so real. Written, directed, and edited by Chris Kentis for nickels and dimes ($130,000), and photographed by Kentis with a hand-held digital camera, Open Water is amateurish in every way. The tropical location looks as banal as a New Jersey waterfront, the dialogue is cheesy, the film quality poorer than a home video, and the pacing is obvious and dragged-out. Even still, the film is a shocker, containing interludes of sheer primal fear and chilling psychological underpinnings.

Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis play Susan and Daniel, a stressed-out couple who take a quickie vacation in the Caribbean. On a scuba-diving expedition, they stay underwater for too long and their boat departs without them. Since the dive operator overlooked the couple while doing a head count, their absence goes unnoticed. Stranded in shark-infested waters, they are at first merely bewildered by their predicament, unsure if they should swim toward the other boats cruising nearby. Even after the first jolting sight of a dorsal fin, the couple remain unfazed; after all, the dive instructor told them the local sharks don’t bother with humans. And they don’t, at first. Yet the audience knows what the couple does not: Below the surface of the dark blue water, sharks are curiously circling just inches away.

The writing is somewhat ingenious in escalating the danger quotient: Susan is bitten by something, maybe a barracuda, and leaves a faint plume of blood as they are buffeted further out to sea by the current. As the hours go by and the couple realize the extent of their peril, their mutual comforting turns to bickering, and each blames the other for not planning their vacation more carefully. Much of this argument is grimly amusing, since no one could’ve anticipated such a freak mistake. As the sharks become more agitated and more noticeable, Daniel tries to stave off panic by utilizing what little knowledge he has from Shark Week, but as it gradually becomes apparent, real life is not like TV, and a last-minute rescue looks to be a very remote possibility.

Meanwhile, Kentis commits some serious distractions from the mounting terror, among them the klutzy soundtrack, which broadcasts calypso and reggae music out of nowhere. During a horrific nighttime attack, the blackouts between lightening flashes are overly long—the film’s total lack of special effects is not augmented by clever camera work. And the disturbing denouement is underdramatized. Yet none of these flaws diminish the film’s dread-inducing message: Even during our most relaxed and happy times, we never know what cruel twist of fate might be lurking on the horizon.

Look at Me

Garden State
Directed by Zach Braff

It’s unfair to call a movie with so much going for it a vanity project, but writer-director-star Zach Braff’s Garden State invites that very slam. It’s not that the lead character’s problem isn’t interesting, it’s that Braff’s performance in that role isn’t very interesting—and he’s on screen in every damn scene in the picture.

Andrew Largeman (Braff) is a successful TV actor called home from Hollywood to New Jersey for his mom’s funeral. It will be his first visit in nine years; he’s about as estranged from his family as one could be. His psychiatrist dad (Ian Holm) doesn’t know how to talk with him, so Largeman spends most of his visit either getting drunk with his high-school pal Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) or romancing Sam (Natalie Portman), the cute epileptic he meets at the neurologist’s office.

Turns out that Largeman has been zonked on lithium since he was 10 years old, and he’s just gone off it, cold turkey. This isn’t convincing for one minute. To be perfectly blunt, Braff can’t play this part. While he can muster the affability of a sitcom guy like Ray Romano, he fails to embody the physical and psychological manifestations of a person going from drugged to sober. And we have plenty of opportunities to contemplate his thespian inadequacies, as Braff has given himself endless close-ups.

This is a shame, because there’s some excellent acting in Garden State, primarily from always-reliable Sarsgaard as his low-expectations pal, Holm as his passive-aggressive dad and Jean Smart as Mark’s stoner mom. Even Portman, who seems to have been ruined by her work with George Lucas, is perkily interesting.

Braff’s screenplay has the feel of a vanity production, too: It’s Braff showing off how clever he is. It’s a quirky story, and Braff can’t resist cramming quirk down our throats at every opportunity. Gravediggers rob the dead. A Jersey girl has an African brother, adopted through the good offices of Sally Struthers. A hamster gets an elaborate funeral. Braff thinks he’s Wes Anderson—and he isn’t, yet.

There is a good movie in this material; the basic storyline is inventive and appealing. And Braff is undeniably talented. He just needs stop showing off and tell a story.

—Shawn Stone

Three’s Complicated

A Home at the End of the World
Directed by Michael Mayer

The end of the world, in this sincere but tepid adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel A Home at the End of the World, apparently is nothing more allegorical than Woodstock, N.Y. The title may also refer to events that feel like the end of the world, such as the death of a loved one, but under Michael Mayer’s superficial direction, whatever subtler meaning the author may have intended doesn’t come through—even though Cunningham (who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Hours) wrote the screenplay. Basically a melodrama about three mildly lost souls who love one another, the screen version lacks the mournful introspection and ephemeral streams of consciousness associated with the author, qualities that were artfully captured by Stephen Daldry’s screen direction of The Hours.

A Home at the End of the World opens in Cleveland in 1967, with a prelude about 9-year-old Bobby and his adored older brother, who dies in a drug-related accident These early scenes of Bobby’s hippie upbringing are lyrical and absorbing, and that momentum carries over the six-year skip to Bobby as a groovy, pothead teenager. In high school, he befriends nerdy, lonely Jonathan, who is bowled over by the attentions of his tuned-in friend. The two develop a close relationship that includes boyish sexual experimentation: Jonathan, it will turn out, is gay; Bobby, not so gay. Unguardedly loving, Bobby looks upon Jonathan’s kindly mother, Alice (a delicately comic Sissy Spacek), as his own, and his appreciation for her gives meaning to Alice’s domestic routine. She teaches Bobby to bake a pie, imparting the words he will live by: “Sometimes it’s good to do a simple, useful thing.” (If Jonathan’s mother were Clarissa Dalloway, Bobby might’ve received the same advice about arranging flowers.)

Fast-forward another six years. Bobby (Colin Farrell) and Jonathan (Dallas Roberts) reconnect in the East Village, where Jonathan shares an apartment with Clare (Robin Wright Penn), an older woman with a small inheritance and great flamboyance. Jonathan and Clare love each other, but Jonathan’s sexuality is proving to be a stumbling block to Clare’s desire to have a baby. Shortly after meeting Bobby, Clare falls in love with him, and he with her. Both of them still adore Jonathan, and so an unconventional—and ambiguously unhappy—three-way domestic arrangement is arrived at. Hence, the idyllic house in Woodstock. As is to be expected whenever a gay man, a baker, and a designer go into business together, a café is opened.

Bobby thinks their life together is perfect, but Jonathan and Clare have issues—namely, their feelings for each other. It’s hard to feel involved with their conundrum, because Jonathan is a just a composite of gay sensibilities, and arty Clare comes off as shrill rather than interestingly neurotic (Wright Penn is uncharacteristically disappointing). Instead of delving into the personalities of the three leads, Mayer presents them as icons of the 1980s, with Bobby serving as the steadfast hippie holdover. Nostalgia, rather than displacement, is the dominant motif.

Only Farrell, surprisingly convincing as a nurturing slacker, manages to add nuance to his character: Due to the tragedies of his younger life, Bobby forms an indissoluble bond with those he cares about. His instinctive preference for putting his attachments above other considerations is the only truly moving element in a film that tries—and fails—to be moving in its every camera angle and line of dialogue.

—Ann Morrow

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