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Archive for the ‘Phillip Seymour Hoffman: MASTER ACTOR’ Category

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay 1

23 Nov

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay 1 – directed by Francis Lawrence. SciFi. 123 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: A young woman is unwillingly enlisted as the symbol of an underground movement to overthrow a tyrant.

~      

I have never seen such a film before. I have never been to one of these series films, partly because I am not interested in SciFi as a subject of any depth of drama or intelligence of scope and also because I am not interested in violent and mechanical action as a film style. I went to this one because it would be one of the last times to be seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman on the big screen. His appearance is rationed, he looks bad, and he does everything beautifully.

As do Joanna Moore as the president of the insurgents, Stanley Tucci as the evil interviewer, Woody Harrelson as the clever reprobate, and the always praiseworthy Jeffrey Wright. They cannot make a mistake, and they never appear to be slumming. Far from it: they seize every scene they are in with just the right grip. As does Donald Sutherland with his refulgent white hair belying his swinish interior. Only Elizabeth Banks seems out of place here: she seems to be playing a transvestite fashionista or something. Her character seems out of place, which is fine, but her performance also seems out of place, which is not fine. She doesn’t appear to be someone who should be doing this.

The main burden of the story lies with Jennifer Lawrence, who evidently has been in earlier versions of this series. She is not pleasant to look at and she is not pleasant. Moreover, her choice as an actor seems to be to play shellshock. I question it. She seems continually benumbed by something. In the past, she has had great success in playing marginal characters, but for her to play a heroine, a focal character is perhaps not her métier. But the story is hers.

And, for me, the interesting thing about it is how slowly, how leisurely it moves, how scenes are developed, how matters are discussed, how interior toward the characters the pressures of the story are aimed. I sit back in my multiplex armchair and stretch my legs into the aisle and watch in great comfort as this long, slow, story engrosses me – not just because of the satisfactions of its occasional and quite sensational blaps and gallooms but because Story in itself should sometimes invite repose, acceptance, trust, and the ease of the treat of a very expensive entertainment before one.

I took my pleasure, I may tell you. I did not feel cheated because I knew nothing and expected nothing. However, I realized as I left that what I had been watching was one of those Flash Gordon episodes I used to see back in the ‘40s, at the Saturday matinee – a cliff-hanger a week – and that I had started myself on the Perils Of Jennifer. And that I was bound to see the next one, and the one after that, praying only that Donald Sutherland will reach the end of the series before the end of his life. And mine.

 

Synechdoche, New York

21 Nov

Synecdoche, New York — directed by Charlie Kaufman. Drama. 3 hours and 23 minutes Color 2008.

★★★★★

The Story: A theatre director’s wife leaves him, and the rest of his life is lived out unmoored.

~

The director has begun his career by presenting to the world his King Lear, And why not? The boulders of that play are about us and upon us since the day Shakespeare wrote it, and any playwright must operate with it in the shadows like a gift one day to be honored. Kaufman has honored it early with a masterwork. It has been taken to be such by others, and you might number yourself among them if you take the journey into Synecdoche.

The work “New York” localizes it in a way I do not understand, except as a synonym for a terminus or graveyard. But I don’t dally with such terms, so forget I ever said it.

Other minor matters bothered me, but not at the time. I learn that the main character has married again, but I had no sense of that from the film, and when I learned it from the extra features, I thought it must be with the Samantha Morton character. I was wrong.

The other thing I did not grasp was that there was an Armory within an Armory, and that some scenes were played in the one and some in the other.

But none of this mattered to me at the time. None of it impeded my pleasure and interest.

The word “dream” is used, incorrectly it seems to me, in relation to this piece, for what I see is always grounded in realistic psychological everyday experience. The film’s story is the working out of the life of an individual who comes undone when his wife leaves him inexplicably. From then on everything you see is everything he does internally until the day he dies, which he also does, many years later. It is just like you and me.

Not to speak anything more about this momentous story, lest I defuse its excitements and turns, the wife is played beautifully by Catharine Keener who is always riveting, always fun, and we wait for her return all the way through the film.

I cannot stifle my cries of appreciation for the work of Emily Watson, who is just marvelous as an imported actress, as are Michelle Williams as a greedy, starstruck actor, Hope Davis as a bigtime human-potentialist, and Tommy Noonan as the director’s double. Samantha Morton plays her early scenes externally, but once she ages, she is great.

The leading role, and he is on camera always, is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He plays the role scene-to-scene. For there is no other way to play it. It is a story in which the arc of the character cannot be given by the actor, but only by the treatment of the material by the director — and Kaufman does not supply an arc. Unlike in King Lear, madness does not wake the Hoffman character up.  So, no arc; unless you can say Hoffman goes deeper to sleep.

Instead, the arc lies with the audience’s eventual acceptance that the external emotion and the internal emotion are all on the same visual level. Which is right: we experience, or at least I experience that they are all one thing, one collection, one synecdoche, life as a defeated bouquet.

The moral of the story? The human spirit is insufficient air for an artist’s ambition that work can be his salvation and reality.

Do see it. Hoffman is just gorgeous in it. It is his most personal performance of all.

 

A Most Wanted Man

10 Aug

A Most Wanted Man – directed by Anton Corbjin. Spy Thriller. 122 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★

The Story: Working against the clock, a team of rogue spies attempt to corner a terrorist funding operation.

~

Why do we think of Philip Seymour Hoffman as a great actor?

What is the source of our satisfaction with him?

What does he bring to us that other actors cannot or do not wish to bring? And why do we not care to ask him to bring what other actors bring?

Why do we sit back and wonder at him?

One thing he brings is extremes we would not wish to show to anyone.

By extremes I mean a extremes on either side of the human psychological and emotional range. In this case, a dull doggedness and on the other hand a scathing rage.

And another thing that he brings is a separate person up there.

For surely as I sit back and look at his customary unruly beauty, I see a German functionary working his task of high level espionage. I have seen Hoffman before looking just like that, but now and once again playing a character I recognize as never seen before.

There is an actual person up there on the screen.

There are very few actors in the world who can do that.

Certain criticisms about the story of this film have been made. Before I talk about them, let me say that it is brilliantly filmed, directed, and acted. On the one side, we have extreme actors Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright and on the other a cast of international actors of the first water. The difficulty lies in the story not making clear that Hoffman is an obsessive. Obsessives differ in that they have no outcome in mind. Obsessives just want to complete the cycle of the obsession.The one thing we know about Hitler is that he had no purpose beyond the next obsessive act. So if Hoffman’s character is an obsessive, that is to say a pure executant, we need to know it all along and every other important character needs to discover it to us in scenes. I haven’t read the John Le Carré novel; I don’t know if the scenes are there. But here, while the tension is keenly entertaining, there is a defect to us in the writing of a film otherwise superb.

In the tracts of Zeami (1363-14440), the Shakespeare of the Noh theatre, he writes, “If the actor sees old men walking hobbled by ague, with bent knees, bent back, and shrunken frames, and he simply imitates these characteristics, he may achieve an appearance of decrepitude, but it will be at the expense of the ‘flower.’ And if the ‘flower’ be lacking, there will be no beauty in the impersonation. The ‘flower’ consists in forcing upon an audience an emotion which they do not expect.”

Over and over again, Philip Seymour Hoffman has brought forth for us those ‘flowers’. Honor him.

Here he is finally, after all. This will be the last chance to see him up there before you on the big screen. It is a place where he belonged. He’s big like a Rubens is big. Witness him there. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Grand Canyon is one street over. Quit dawdling. Get off your barstool and go.

 

A Late Quartet

22 Dec

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A Late Quartet – directed by Yaron Silberman. Drama. A renowned classical string quartet disintegrates before their very own eyes. 105 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★★
Five stunning actors claim our attention as this story of a quartet unfolding unfolds. The key piece is Beethoven’s Op. 131. And the music suggests something larger is at stake than the coherence of the group or the piece. It suggests that the group is held together by stories older even than the great music they play so perfectly, and that it is the purpose of the drama and the calamity of the group’s disintegration to learn this and to bring it into their song.

The ending is a little corny, which means that the director is telling the story counting on the usual tropes rather than what lies inherent in the material behind those tropes. But this does not discount the playing of these wonderful actors.

The five actors of whom I speak are Imogene Poots, a young violinist at Julliard as the daughter of Catherine Keener and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the violist and second fiddle. Mark Ivanir plays the egomaniacally obsessed first violin, and Christopher Walken the cellist and most senior member whose illness oversets the avalanche brooding on the mountaintop.

All five actors come at their parts from separate artistic rooms. In their crafts they do not resemble one another. Ivanir comes from the gutsiest European modern tradition and offers as well his powerful figure, sexuality, and chilling decisiveness. The Daniel Craig school of acting.

Poots brings a live-in-the-moment technique which well suits her essentially adolescent twenty-year old. She charms. And she does so because her craft enables her to be thoughtless but smart. And this enables her to bring to her character a delicious insolence essential to it.

Catherine Keener brings her famous default position of withholding. This gives her the sovereignty of making important the saying of what she deliberately does not say. She makes art of her defect. She can articulate the whole truth but she never does. She’s stingy and as such quite marvelous in a great taxi ride scene with Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Hoffmann seems to have no technique. He is one of those great actors who seem to walk into the scene by accident and might leave at any time. What does he get by on? An intestinal watchfulness perhaps. The power to spring into unexpected attack is his forte.

Amid these four strange people stands the enigmatic Christopher Walken with his Queens accent and high-up-back-in-the-throat delivery. His once handsome face is now a bombsite of 69 years. He delivers each line like every other line. It is as though his inner response mechanism had no inner connection to his vocal response mechanism. A freak.

They all are. The harmony with which they play their roles with one another and the harmony with which the music is played by them are a monumental monograph of The Human Possibility.

 

The Master

25 Sep

The Master – produced and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Drama. 137 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★★
Mihai Malaimare Jr. films it as to bring a heavenly unity to a story in a realm not on earth but in the psyche itself, earthy as the mise-en-scene nonetheless is. For it is the story – and it is a great one – how the psyche embraces and then runs from what will better it, as though it will not be meddled with, even by God. In human form God is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a coming guru out to create a miracle proof of his powers, who choses as the best bet for human reclamation a mentally borderline vagrant drunk. The director, Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Hard Eight, There Will Be Blood, Punch Drunk Love) has chosen well these two to demonstrate his thesis. For what could be more stunning as a feat for a guru than to bring into health and sanity a creature who is subnormal. This subnormality needs must have as its basis a soul about which the viewer cannot care, just as in the guru we must see, not a soul at work either, but an ambition. The two men therefore absolutely adore one another. They find one another to be great fun, they sacrifice themselves for one another, they tempt one another to the greatest feat of their lives, and they speak truth to one another so ruthlessly it is almost unbearable to watch were it not for the fact that truth brings life itself to the brink of surrender. After the film is over and one writes about it, the idea of the guru being played by a man the same age as the mad derelict is discounted by the certainty that that would raise issues of homosexuality that would be irrelevant to the conflict at hand, and the idea certainly never occurs to one while watching these gladiators play it out, one of them being Philip Seymour Hoffman who brings the guru to life as a being of such humor and ease that one cannot entertain a single contradictory casting idea while watching him. It is, of course, not essentially his story. It is the story of Freddie Quell brought into being by Joaquin Phoenix. Hoffman calls Freddie a naughty boy, and, true, Freddie is a child’s name and Quell is the name, if I recall, of Kwell, a nostrum to kill nits, crabs, and body lice. Phoenix brings this low human tantrum to life by giving him a physical being that operates inside out. Like the cheesiest thug, his chest is concave, his shoulders rounded and sloping, his walk rabbit-brisk, bowed, scared. He has a nutso laugh which arises warily on the left side of his face and takes over like a death spasm. Hoffmann gets to him by seeing in him what no one else can see, including us as an audience, and tolerates him because of it, which is to say he sees the grandest opportunity in his professional life and someone in his way as wild as himself. His much younger wife, which Amy Adams plays with marvelous rigor, suspects Phoenix – but for the wrong reason. She is the holy mother of the cult and she suspects Phoenix of being flimsy in his devotion to it and uncurable by either its ministrations or any other. But Hoffman sees Phoenix as something other than a devotee. He sees him as an object of play, infantile, dangerously violent, half-mad, and therefore ideal for restoration. It would be the greatest because most obvious triumph of his mastery. It would invent his mastery. Trouble is he suffers from violent temper too, verbal in his case, and the scenes of its emergence are stunning to behold, particularly the one in which a Philadelphia society lady, in a scene played consummately by Laura Dern, asks him about a change in his methods. For Hoffman too will not be meddled with. And his wife’s opinion of Phoenix will not hold. In the end, in one of the great scenes in cinema, he sings the perfect love song to him, “I’d Like To Get You On A Slow Boat To China,” for if he could, he could bring Phoenix to a state of unenvisionable grace. But like many thugs, Phoenix is sexually hot. He can get laid or drunk on the spot. He carries the secret elixir of sex, just as he carries the secret elixir of the almost poisonous alcoholic concoctions he pours out as libational benefits everywhere. They are his sanctuaries. It is a remarkable characterization, a remarkable performance, a remarkable study in human nature. People want to improve others, but can offer it only so far as their own frailty of temperament can take them, and people want to be improved by others, but are touchy at the sticking point, after all. They will not be saved by the fallible. Their perfection is killed by perfectionism. Chilling. Great. See it.

 

The Ides Of March

13 Oct

The Ides Of March – directed and written (with others) by George Clooney. Political Thriller. 101 Minutes Color 2011.

★★★★

The Story: The office manager of a Presidential campaign learns about life from the great ones above and below him.

* * * *

I wonder if the failure of his performance will put a period to the rise of the career of a truly gifted actor. He is in the role that must carry the film. But the actor’s conception of or preparation for the role, or perhaps his being cast in it in the first place, or perhaps the director’s failure to establish the necessary grounds in the opening scenes, fails the film.

Instead the story and the dialogue have to carry this film. But they are not quite sufficient because they are just the outer story; the inner story is a change, a learning in the main character. None of the other actors can carry the film it; they are all supporting players.

The problem arises with the opening scene and continues with the scene soon after with a reporter. In the first scene he does a lighting stand-in for the presidential contestant, and recites lines of his oncoming speech. He does them listlessly, almost snidely. Then when he speaks to the reporter he avers his great and thorough belief in the candidate. She laughs at him. But he won’t have it. He elaborates his belief.

Okay, so why doesn’t it work? Because the character he plays must believe in what he says, with all his heart. However, the actor presents this character as a man whose heart is not in it. Yet the entire film depends upon his heart becoming re-educated, but since he heart is veiled to begin with, the story is devoid of human interest.

Everything else is quite interesting. All the other actors are in top form: Philip Seymour Hoffman as the campaign manager, Paul Giamatti as the opposition campaign manager, Evan Rachel Wood as a pretty intern, Maria Tomei, particularly as the reporter, Jeffrey Wright as an opportunistic senator, and George Clooney as the candidate.

Marvelously filmed by Phedon Papamichael and scored by Alexandre Desplat, one is held in bafflement as the subtleties of the main actor pass before one’s appreciative eyes. He is beautiful. He is unusual. It is a great leading role in a huge Hollywood picture. Because of him it doesn’t happen. It is a pity.

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Moneyball

23 Sep

Moneyball – Directed by Bennett Miller. Sports Biodoc. A baseball general manager battles against entrenched custom and the odds. 133 minutes Color 2011.

** * * *

The picture is not just moving at the end, but all along, as various reckless moves are reckoned out carefully and executed. This may sound cold. For the content of the movie is not emotional, and its players do not emotionalize it either. The emotion involved is the emotion in the audience which can root, not for a great person, which Billy Beane was not, but a great idea, which is what he pursued. A great idea, such as Freedom or such as Democracy or such as Justice. Beane was not a particularly attractive personality, so the film is not like a Frank Capra movie, which in every other way it resembles, because it does not have Jimmy Stewart in it. Instead it has Brad Pitt, a great actor, provided he does not have to put on a suit and tie, and one who could easily access the towering rages and sense of peril and tension which Beane emitted – but Pitt does not do this. He presents Beane as just as driven, but saner than he was, but that makes Beane a person we can watch with a certain engaged coolness. Coolness is a temperature that can induce tears of joy, and it does. The justice of Pitt’s playing allows full scope for the forces arrayed against him, first by his chief scout in a part superbly played and then by the field manager played as a taciturn dog-in-the-manger by Philip Seymour Hoffman. In a role Hoffman would have been tops in when younger, Jonah Hill is a dream. Sports people tend to be dumb, and Beane’s glomming onto this person who was not dumb makes the two of them into a sort of Abbott and Costello we can root for, two losers who might turn out to be winners. One’s attention is drawn to Hill in every scene, because he is so open, and you feel that the character always has been open and always has been dismissed as a dweeb. I hand him this year’s Oscar. The methods this character uncovers and uses were not new to baseball – if you read Ted Williams’ books on his life and on batting you can see that long ago Williams was a master statistician, that he knew everything about the ballpark, everything about the shadows on the field at a certain time of day, everything about the pitcher he was up against, and to learn more, he let the first pitch pass, no matter what – and back in the day he wasn’t the only one. But here the statistics are computerable, and the fun of the film is to see these two make hay of that fact, by hiring for the lowly Oakland A’s the refuse of the majors and turning those players into good account. The joy is not their good account but the good account of the shattering of long inopperational conventions. [ad#300×250]

 

 
 
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