Background: In our modern age, a great many of us enjoy most of the creature comforts without giving them much thought but there are also hordes of people that do without or rely heavily on the government dole to sustain their lives. This is true in many parts of the world as well and the result is that governments usually end up warehousing the poor in large projects in major urban areas to most efficiently cover the basic need of shelter they have. These public housing projects are known for having very basic layouts designed for packing people in but also for being neglected by the tenants (after all, they don't own them and often feel a "right" to such housing) as well as the agencies governing them when popular opinion against public sponges arises or all too frequent budget crunches make them the most readily cut items. These depressing housing structures form the background for the events of a small movie called The Architect HD DVD which I will now give a look at, noting that the melodramatic flick is not designed to appease the masses so much as a small niche crowd.
Movie: The Architect stars Anthony LaPaglia as a moderately successful building designer named Leo Waters living in the Chicago Illinois area. He is sheltered from most troubles by his homemaker wife Julia (Isabella Rossellini) and concentrates most of his attention on his work. His son Martin is troubled by a variety of teen angst issues and drops out of college while his daughter Cristina (hotty Hayden Panettiere from Heroes) looks for love in all the wrong places, even implying she's daddy's little girl to a greater degree than society cares for. On the surface, Leo's life is pleasant though and as screwy as his family may be, he can essentially silence them as the dominant leader of the clan in ways that are all too familiar to those of you living in middle class trappings. What busts their bubble to exposure is the introduction of a black woman named Tonya Neely (Viola Davis); a woman who lives in a housing project Leo designed years before that has been allowed to run down to the point where even the freeloading residents want it torn down. Tonya is aggressively spearheading a petition drive to get the government to tear the project down in hopes that whatever goes up in its place will be better suited for quality of life issues.
Having signed up celebrities like billionaire Oprah Winfrey, she has it in her head that the most important signature left to obtain is that of Leo. As the architect of the project, his stamp of disproval would be the final nail in the coffin, so she seeks him out in lectures and at his home. Upon meeting him, she explains the many faults with the place from her first hand experience, from drainage to gang members to just about everything else about them. Leo, put on the defensive, defends his design as practical and cost efficient; finding out Tonya's primary motivation to be the suicide of her young son years back. The two seem at an impasse with one blaming the structure and the other blaming neglect with the weakly scripted story leaning in Leo's favor by default but Tonya won't give up so easily. Rather than focusing on the building(s) itself though, The Architect spends most of the short movie delving into the various issues the lead characters have with life and each other, lending themselves to comparison of the aging structure all too easily.
For me, this was the greatest weakness of the film in that the choppy manner in which the story was told was better suited for the original play it was derived from. Plays have a differently structured audience that can more readily appreciate the trappings of how they are told, and this one suffered from translational errors as well (the original setting was Glasgow and I got the feeling that writer/director Matt Tauber would have benefited greatly himself by visiting a Chicago tenement project to get input on needed dialogue and changes to the script). The dangers from the housing project were the result of human nature and no design could eradicate the issues involved, especially not on the alluded to budgets provided in the first place. Whenever you put large numbers of poor people together, you create a market for drugs and illegal services (regardless of race) that will be filled by the vipers of society and the state of mental health in such places is notorious for causing or expanding upon illnesses like the ones that caused Tonya's son to kill himself.
That said, if you are in the market for a smorgasbord of melodrama of the week type subjects (the whoring daughter, the gay son drop out, the trapped wife, and the father with tall walls built up from years of neglecting those in his care, you will find The Architect the type of movie that'll bring out the waterworks repeatedly. If, on the other hand, you want answers or a linear story told in a competent fashion, you will hate it as much as I did, giving me no alternative but to rate it as a Skip It. LaPaglia's understated performance was pretty good and Viola Davis seemed fit for the role of activist but so little of merit was done with either one of them that I scoured the director commentary trying to figure out what was going on (sadly, director Tauber seemed ill equipped to explain anything in meaningful terms, preferring instead to kissing the ass of all the actors in the flick). My colleague, David Cornelius, made some decent observations in his review months ago but as he pointed out, the movie was frustrating, dull, and sloppy with the newbie director making more than his fair share of freshman mistakes. Again, if you want a confused melodrama, you might like this one but I doubt even the most diehard of you would watch it twice; even on a bet.
Picture: The Architect HD DVD was presented in a 1080i widescreen color offering using a 1.78:1 aspect ratio as shot by director Matt Tauber using a Sony HDW-F900 camera set up in a three week shoot. I tried to get a copy of the SD version to compare it to but the two rental outlets near my place had none in stock so I apologize for those of you enthralled by the movie in need of such a viewpoint. It looked good to me with a great amount of detail and clarity, stunning compared to the extras section that was shot in the lower quality video processes most of us are used to. From the beads of sweat on LaPaglia's brow to the slight curves on Panettiere's blossoming chest, I found my HD DVD experience to look far more realistic than previous titles I had looked at in mainstream HD flicks (Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty) and given that it was a joint project with HDNet Films, I never doubted the movie would look better than average. There were few points where I would have elbowed the director over the technical matters had we watched it together, especially due to the many thematic guffaws that made me cringe.
Sound: The audio was presented with a choice of 5.1 Dolby Digital+ or Dolby True HD in English with optional subtitles in English (SDH only) or Spanish. I tried to fiddle with the settings for awhile to find an appreciable difference in the two HD tracks but gave up since even my player that decodes advanced codec's did not seem to do much differently, making my primary listening selection the DD+ choice. This being a talking heads drama for the most part, there wasn't much for the audio to exploit and the separation was basic with a limited dynamic range indicative of most made for TV or cable movies. It was relatively clean and easy to hear with all the appropriate background noises tossed in for good measure but the score sounded flat and as it done post production on a drastically limited budget (time and money), appearing to use canned music most or all of the time.
Extras: There were three extras of note here, mimicking the SD DVD release. The most noteworthy in my book was the Higher Definition: The Architect feature; a behind the scenes look at the shooting of the movie where the cast and crew got to comment on the production. Each offered up a different take of the movie and I learned more about what they were going for than I did with the director's commentary. The commentary was light on details and heavy on sounding like Tauber was trying to send thank you notes to the cast via the extra. I listened to it a second time while typing this review and it had the same effect the second time of nearly putting me to sleep. I did manage to find some matters that he claimed were unintentional in terms of metaphors or symbolism that led me to believe either his was not forthcoming or someone else on the project interjected them on purpose without his knowledge. Still, it would have been nice to have others join him for some discussion on key elements. The last extra was the handful of deleted scenes that were throwaway for the most part. I could have watched a couple of hours worth containing Hayden Panettiere in various states of undress but these were scattered bits that would have made the admittedly short feature even duller for the most part so I'm glad they weren't part of the movie (with one exception; watch them and you'll guess which one). Keep in mind that the deleted scenes looked crummy by comparison as they weren't finished up in post production and/or they were presented in 480i.
Final Thoughts: The Architect HD DVD had the kind of dynamic you expect from an arthouse film made for a limited group of elitists that adore seeing the dysfunctional rich families compared to the poor whose lives they have indirectly impacted. If you want to wallow in misery at a tear jerker, you could do worse but you could also do far better than The Architect too. Aside from a few decent actors making due with what they had to work with, there was precious little to appreciate for me. I've lived in public housing in my sorted past and I'm no stranger to melodramas but this ill conceived outing might best be an example of how not to translate a play to a film and I certainly expect better of director Matt Tauber when he tries a sophomore project, given his credentials.