March 6, 2009

Beautiful Ohio, and Choke: A terrific "unknown" and a "known" that doesn't quite deliver

James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5):

Beautiful Ohio: ***½
Choke: **½

Actor Chad Lowe's first full length film as a director (from a screenplay by Ethan Canin, adapting one of his own short stories) is almost shockingly good: a quiet, acutely-observed family drama that is so specific and true that it builds into a grand picture of a time (the 1970s), place (suburban Ohio) and people  (an unusual family trying, against all odds, to be "functional.")  That it never saw a theatrical release remains the shame of its distributor.

This story of a family that must deal with having a special person in its midst --  special in that he is a math genius -- follows day-to-day activities rather than big events and consequently may seem slow-moving to some.  But when "slow" is filled with such exquisitely drawn characterizations and such truthful ensemble acting, why complain?  The cast is a mix of well-knowns -- William Hurt, Rita Wilson, Michelle Trachtenberg, and little-knowns -- David Call and Brett Davern.  They play so well together that each moment rings true. Beautiful Ohio is not for all tastes or short-attention spans, but for those who can appreciate a family drama drawn with enormous subtlety, it doesn't get much better than this.

 rachel Choke, on the other hand offers a film based on a novel by a well-known author (Chuck Palahniuk) with a cast that includes indie darling Sam Rockwell, Angelica Huston and Kelly Macdonald, all of whom are quite good here.  But the story -- of a sex addict (Rockwell), his therapy group, his crazy mom and the "nurse" who befriends him -- never quite finds the right tone.

Directed and adapted by actor Clark Gregg, the movie is entertaining enough scene to scene but is finally neither fish nor fowl.  Never plain bad, and with a number of nice moments along the way, the movie remains not sharp enough for satire, funny enough for comedy, truthful enough for drama, or real enough to be accepted at face value. The film skims along pleasantly without ever reaching the heights or depths one might hope. There just does not seem to be all that much at risk here.  There is a lot of sex tossed into the mix, however, so this may help keep audiences focused...

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Posted by cphillips at March 6, 2009 10:41 AM
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