With her elderly relationship drama Away from Her, Sarah Polley proved she was just as good a director as she is an actor. (Her direction, in fact, reminds me of her acting—there's a simmering passion, a sense that everything could fall apart at any moment underneath the naturalistic subtlety.) Polley's new relationship drama Take This Waltz pushes her work into new territory; she's a terrific actor, but she's an even better director. The best thing about Take This Waltz (which Polley also wrote) is the way it moves through time. A lot of directors get caught up when moving the narrative forward by a matter of weeks or even days. ("Quick—get me a montage of the actors looking depressed, set to a mopey pop song!") In film, it's almost easier, for some strange reason, to move forward by a decade or a century than it is a few seasons. But Take This Waltz spans a year or so in the relationship of a happy young married couple named Lou and Margot (Seth Rogen is the affable, cookbook-writing husband, Michelle Williams is the sensitive, freelance-writing wife) as Margot develops a crush on the artist (Luke Kirby) who lives across the street, and the passage of time in Polley's hands is an effortless thing.
This is a film that challenges its viewers, at times by testing their patience as viewers. Polley employs tweeness as a tool; in the beginning of the movie, Williams and Rogen are the kind of young, hip couple that make imaginative jokes out of everything, like an improv class starring precocious children. Their home decor—junky thrift finds and kitschy magnets all over the refrigerator—feels more precious than functional. And when Margot meets Kirby's unambitious artist, she tells him she hates airports because she's—gag—"afraid of connections." But after you settle into Take This Waltz you realize that Polley isn't herself a twee or precious director; she just happens to be making a film about people who occasionally behave in twee and precious ways.
There's some excellent acting all the way through: Williams is far more believable as a whole person here than in the overly mopey Blue Valentine, which looks fairly unambitious in comparison to this film. Seth Rogen, without any set piece-style jokes to hang his schtick on, simply plays a lovable schlub. And Sarah Silverman's few scenes hammer home the moral center of the film, but her character is so ethically cracked that she can't serve as an effective moral compass to anyone but the most damaged people. The marriage is realistic and unforced; Margot can't point to a single fault or mistake of Lou's as a reason to pursue her new flame. Instead, she has to accrue a number of tiny slights from the day-to-day of their relationship in order to feel like she has the right to see the new man who's captured her interest.
Take This Waltz is loaded with fine, touching moments. The most raw discussion about relationships happens in the shower of a women's locker room, where naked women of all shapes and sizes talk about commitment and age and pragmatism. The depiction of family—nagging, supportive, full of capricious children who don't fully appreciate the attention lavished on them—feels true. And when things get too interior or whiny, someone always comes along to remind you that this isn't some insipid Hollywood product. One of Rogen's best moments comes when Margot is complaining about how Lou doesn't honor the "courage" it takes for a wife to seduce her husband. He lets loose with an exasperated cry—from always-gentle Rogen, it sounds like a bellow—of "what are you talking about?" It's a reminder that when we're starting relationships, everything is amplified, and to unwitting bystanders that introspection and amplification feels self-indulgent and stupid. There's a million miles of difference between a crush and real life, and Polley spans that difference in a single, brisk, funny, sad movie.
(Take This Waltz is all done at SIFF, but it opens on June 29th. You should go see it.)
John Dies at the End is a terrible mess of a movie. It's about a pair of friends who take a drug that invites them into the world of the supernatural, but everything about the movie—chronology, characterization, plot twists—conspires to sap your interest. Director Don Coscarelli now has a schtick going of making pre-fab midnight movies. His Bubba Ho-Tep felt like about 65% of a good B-movie, but it was too impressed with its own pop-cultural inventiveness to go that extra distance into sheer pulpy abandon. John Dies at the End is a bunch of B-movie scenes smashed into one big incoherent reel. A few scenes (especially a grisly moustache attack) feel like part of something better, but the poor quality of the acting and scripting drag the whole thing down. Maybe someone who was stoned out of their gourd could appreciate this movie—I fully expect it to hit big with the kind of people who think Boondock Saints is in the top five best movies ever—but you've seen way better stuff that holds up in the sober light of day.
(John Dies at the End is all done at SIFF and has not secured distribution yet. I'm sure you'll see it on some cable channel or as a direct-to-DVD release sometime soon.)