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I knew this guy in college who thought the world was running down and could only be saved through art. I remember one time he showed me ten or fifteen pages of a manuscript he was working on. This work-in-progress chronicled the life and times of a disillusioned, disaffected musician who was getting ready to turn his back on fame and fortune and instead focus on making the world a better place. His first act was to give several thousand dollars to a homeless man who was sleeping under a pile of newspapers outside a recording studio, after which he wandered off into the night. Why am I bringing this up? Because The Architect exhibits the same sort of pretentious, facile qualities. It deals with complex issues in a pedantic manner, then presents naïve solutions to these issues.
Tonya Neely (Viola Davis), a resident of a Chicago housing project, has started a campaign to have the project demolished. Tonya is frustrated by the cycle of poverty and crime in her community, and she sees the destruction of the project as a first step in turning around the lives of its tenants. She approaches Leo Waters (Anthony LaPaglia), the architect who designed the project, and asks him to sign her petition. Leo, who views the buildings themselves as perfectly functional, sees no reason to lend his support. Besides, he has more important things to worry about. His wife, Julia (Isabella Rossellini), is struggling with OCD and hinting that she wants a divorce. His son, Martin (Sebastian Stan), has just dropped out of college and is trying to come to grips with his sexuality. His fifteen-year-old daughter, Christina (Hayden Panetierre), has suddenly taken an interest in the opposite sex, with a particular bent toward men who are much older.
Adapted by debuting director Matt Tauber from a play by Scottish playwright David Grieg, The Architect is another meaningless exercise in human misery. This isn't a movie--it's a political/social agenda disguised as a movie. The entire message of this story can be summed up in six words: the whole world is screwed up. That's it. It offers absolutely no further insight into the human condition. And to make matters worse, after bashing us over the head with this idea for roughly seventy-five minutes, it then tries to convince us that all we need us love. Wow, man, that's deep.
This movie isn't populated by characters, but rather by symbols that exist for no other reason than to spout endless exposition regarding how dysfunctional the world is. It's like American Beauty without the redeeming craft, or a Rick Moody novel without the beautiful prose. Or to put it another way, it's like someone took sixteen of Esther Rolle's episode-ending speeches from Good Times and strung them together. That's an awful lot of speechifying to swallow in one sitting, especially if you don't have Jimmie Walker's mugging to break up the monotony. Everything has to be spelled out for us in the dialogue. We see Rossellini furiously cleaning her refrigerator, after which Panetierre points out that this is unusual behavior, after which Stan asks her why it has taken so long for her to notice that Rossellini's nuts. Most of the people in the housing project don't seem to give a damn about Tonya's plan. Guess what? Tonya's younger daughter delivers a third act speech about how no one gives a damn about her mother's plan. Talk about a heavy-handed approach.
Take away all of the spell-it-all-out dialogue and the movie would still be a mess, as Tauber's plotting is extremely muddled. It's hinted that Leo and Christina's relationship is an incestuous one, but this is left dangling. There's also an indication that Christina and Martin have engaged in some sexual activities, but this is also left unresolved. Julia's psychological problems are forgotten about during the last half hour (come to think of it, Julia herself simply seems to drop out of the movie). Why do we learn nothing about the young man Martin befriends at the housing project? And where the hell is the ending? I wasn't expecting everything to be wrapped up in a nice package, but it's obvious that the final scene wasn't originally intended to be the final scene.
The movie's only redeeming quality is the acting. The entire cast is solid, and they do their best to sell and elevate the material, but they're fighting a losing battle. And speaking of the cast, it was nice to see Julius Tennon again. You might remember Tennon as the 'Nam-obsessed junior high teacher in Dazed and Confused. I was very happy to see him, but more than a little miffed that he's only onscreen for roughly the same amount of time it will take you to finish reading this sentence.
The Architect was filmed on the cheap using HD video, and the 1.78:1 transfer exhibits a few of the problems you'd expect from such circumstances. The picture quality varies greatly according to the lighting conditions of any given scene; brightly lit interiors and exteriors feature strong colors and details, while nighttime shots and dimly lit interiors suffer from a lack of depth and murky blacks. There's also a hint of softness in a few scenes.
The audio options here are Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS-HD (not lossless Master Audio) tracks. Given that the movie is driven by dialogue, both are understandably front-heavy. The surrounds get minimal use, channeling the occasional ambient effect. Dialogue is always clear, but some of the Foley work is noticeably weak. Spanish and English subtitles are included.
Director Matt Tauber contributes a commentary track. There's not much to it, as Tauber spends more time back-slapping and fawning over his cast and crew than he does discussing the movie itself.
Eight deleted scenes (9 minutes total) are also included. Tauber supplies optional commentary for these scenes.
Higher Definition: The Architect (28 minutes) offers interviews with LaPaglia, Davis, and Tauber (who pretty much comes out and says that he was more interested in getting across his agenda than in telling a story). This was originally broadcast on HDNET, which had a part in financing the movie.
You also get trailers for District B13 and The Lost City.
The actors give it their all, but in the end their efforts are all for naught. You have seen it all before, and you have certainly seen it done better. Skip this one.