Set sail for lots of talk

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Jack Goes Boating
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Jack Goes Boating

RENOWNED for scene-stealing performances as a supporting actor in other people’s movies, Philip Seymour Hoffman is the main man in Jack Goes Boating (Cert 15) which marks his film directing debut.

It is based on a play produced by New York’s LAByrinth theatre company when Hoffman was co-artistic director and its stage origins are all too plain to see. Despite attempts to open it out, it’s basically four characters talking.

Hoffman is the eponymous Jack, a curiously fragile fellow, whose best friends, Clyde (John Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), attempt a bit of matchmaking with their nervous friend Connie (Amy Ryan).

As Jack and Connie slowly (extremely slowly) attempt to get it on, the seemingly happy long-standing relationship of the others begins to develop cracks.

Finely acted and unobtrusively directed by Hoffman, it’s a touching story but one you have seen a hundred times in American indie movies.

Gerard Butler is Sam Childers, the real-life Machine Gun Preacher (Cert 15), an American who found God and went off to Africa to rescue child soldiers.

It’s hard to know the moral judgement we are expected to take from what is undoubtedly an extraordinary story. Is it a simple Christian message that even a violent ex-jailbird trailer trash smackhead can be saved by the Good Lord and taught to do good?

Or is it an example of the American Dream? Even quicker than his religious conversion, Sam goes from jobless desperation – reduced to selling blood for cash – to the owner of a flourishing construction business (thanks to hurricane damage).

Suddenly he is sufficiently rich to go to Africa and build an orphanage in southern Sudan and then turn into Rambo at the head of a squad of local soldiers to protect scores of children from the LRA rebel army.

Little attempt is made to explain the complexities of the civil war beyond a conflict between good (children and a handful of loyal freedom fighters) and bad (the LRA conducting a reign of terror, heartless rich Americans). Childers has to kill to protect his charges. You wonder what this is achieving in the long run.

Butler does his crazed good guy 300 number to decent effect but Michelle Monaghan doesn’t get much of a look-in as his loyal neglected wife, an ex-junkie stripper who found God first. In fact Childers’ family show remarkable restraint, although daughter Paige (Madeline Carroll) at one point snaps: “You love them black babies more than you love me!”

Directed by Marc Foster, Machine Gun Preacher falls between the two stools of gung-ho action movie and heartfelt social issue film.

Rarely have the machinations of gay courtship (if that’s what it can be called) been laid quite so bare (occasionally literally) with so much intensity than in Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (Cert 18).

One Friday night in an unspecified city (many will recognise it as Nottingham) Russell rounds off an evening with straight friends by heading to a gay club on the pull and ends up going home with a guy called Glen. What both of them expected to be just a one-night stand becomes much more.

The men are very different. Lifeguard Russell (Tom Cullen) is easy-going and uncomplicated while artist Glen (Chris New) is sharp-tongued, self-contained and uncompromising. Over the weekend, amid lots of sex, drug-taking, booze and chat, the two men get to understand each other and themselves a lot more.

It’s a brave film, harsh at times but with moments of humour. Although it’s clear the notion of the irrationality of choices in love is part of what’s being explored here, for this viewer one of the characters is so unappealing that it is impossible to want the relationship to succeed.

Intimate female relationships – though of a non-sexual nature – are on the agenda of Snowflake and the Secret Fan (Cert 12A). It is based on a best-selling novel by Lisa See which explores the Chinese custom of laotong, an officially registered relationship between two women, in which they often communicate with their own secret language known as nushu.

Director Wayne Wang has chosen to construct a contemporary parallel story alongside the book’s 19th-century saga of two girls who underwent the custom of having their feet bound to enhance their marriage prospects.

The same actresses (Li Bingbing and Gianna Jun) play the friends in both time frames and Hugh Jackman makes an unexpected entrance in contemporary Shanghai.

It’s a mildly diverting portrait of the ties that bind as well the feet that were bound in a shocking crippling custom, but you can’t help feeling this is probably a case where the story works best in book form.