Posts Tagged ‘Philip Seymour Hoffman’


‘Not with a bang but a whimper’.

The words of Dolly Parton, or perhaps TS Eliot, I can’t remember which, come to mind when we watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final screen performance. A Most Wanted Man is by no means a bad film, in fact there is much to recommend it, yet Hoffman’s career is littered with so many jewels that you can’t help but compare. He was a great actor who saw a great screenplay lurking in the corner of a crowded room and went about seducing it until it was his. Hoffman had the ability to morph from weak and pathetic characters to ones full of an almost sociopathic confidence, domineering and charismatic.  He was willing to debase himself in order to portray the uglier side of life, all the while humanising characters that often might repulse you.

A Most Wanted Man follows hot on the heels of the last big John Le Carre adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. While that film delved into the murky waters of the Cold War era, this adaptation is a contemporary post 9/11 spy thriller. A young Chechen immigrant named Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg and seeks help from a local human rights lawyer, Annabel (Rachel McAdams) to avoid the authorities. The secretive German intelligence unit, led by Gunther (Hoffman) gets wind of Issa’s arrival and suspect he is trying to broker a deal with bank owner Brue (Willem Dafoe) in order to fund a terrorist group. In order to ascertain Issa’s intentions, Gunther’s band of spies must keep the elusive subject under constant surveillance.

The film is a slow-burner, steadily pulling the audience in. In fact, there is not one single shot fired in the film. Anton Corbijn, who directed the Ian Curtis biopic Control and the George Clooney vehicle The American, keeps his camera at a distance. There are some cute shots betraying Corbijn’s previous career as a photographer; an angular tower block lit only by a single light where a moody spy awaits. The edting by Claire Simpson is snappy and concise, and the film moves at a fair pace. The performances are all pretty solid; Hoffman is fine but unstretched by the grumpy, jaded Gunther, while Dafoe and McAdams are fairly convincing.

One thing that took me by surprise, though, was that Hoffman, Dafoe and McAdams are all actually German. Yes, they spoke a weird, broken language of Germanican. Who would have known! Seriously though, there is a question of why we still need to see these weird hybrids on screen. Sure, Hoffman and co. bring in the commercial clout, but as a piece of serious, ‘authentic’ film making, it looks and sounds ridiculous. It would have been nice to have seen the film performed in German, but then we would have to use subtitles, and who the fuck reads anything now anyway? While we are the on the subject of authenticity, the film also fell down in a few plot holes that for a John Le Carre adaptation felt strangely simplistic.

To reiterate, A Most Wanted Man is not a bad film, just a slightly disappointing one, and an unremarkable end to a remarkable career. The film ticks all the requisite boxes for a spy thriller: there is a hefty amount of atmosphere and suspense, and the audience is never left bored, yet there is something missing. For a director who has made his name for visuals rather than anything else, the film is oddly bland. There is no edge to the colour schemes. The story is intriguing rather than punchy, and you get the feeling that Le Carre has written better work. Finally, while the characters were solid and served the plot sufficiently, there was not enough invention or nuance to make them more than just cut out cliches.

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Never let it be said that Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t give us something to think about. With his latest film The Master, Anderson has tackled a subject arguably more challenging and confounding than his previous offering There Will Be Blood, which looked to the American oil business and its relationship with Christianity for sensational dramatic material.

With The Master Anderson has stepped into the world of quasi-religions. Herein we discover a fictitious group called The Cause, based in no small part on Scientology and the legacy of the group’s founder L. Ron Hubbard. An alluring Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd (based on Hubbard), an outrageously charismatic charlatan who describes himself thus: “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all I am a man.”

It is when Dodd meets Freddie Quell (a frightening Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran of World War II suffering from a severe case of Post-traumatic stress disorder that he is fuelled into action and feels compelled to help the man. Dodd takes Quell under his wing and offers him therapy, support and above all seemingly genuine friendship, in exchange for Quell’s expertise in brewing a dangerous substitute for alcohol; a drink largely comprised of paint stripper.

Initially Dodd’s friendship with Quell seems genuinely beneficial and Dodd’s therapeutic techniques have a short term impact on Quell’s sense of catharsis, but Quell’s troubles are deep seated and Dodd’s faux expertise begin to seem doubtful. Despite being a damaged soul, Quell is still a fiery individual by nature and soon conflict arises between Dodd and he. In one extraordinary scene the men are imprisoned together, leading Quell to smash a cellblock toilet in misdirected anger.

In spite of Dodd’s declaration that “man is not an animal” (a theory that seems to be the basis of The Cause) the relationship between Dodd and Quell has a very animalistic quality. Anderson shows this with particular clarity when the men wrestle on the grass outside of Dodd’s house. The portmanteau ‘bromanace’ has never seemed more pertinent.

The expertise with which Paul Thomas Anderson carries off the continually fascinating (and consistently entertaining) relationship between Dodd and Quell is without question. His command of the cinematic language is so competent (with his stunning use of 70mm film) that it makes us wonder to what extent the title of the film can be considered a pun. Yet, in spite of its mastery, a question remains: what exactly does Anderson want to say?

Like There Will Be Blood the meaning of The Master is illusive. Anderson leaves us with numerous disparate thoughts and feelings, but no closure. Like Quell’s battered seaman we are adrift in search of meaning, left only with Frank Loesser’s song (I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat To China, abysslike shots of the ocean and naked women (sculpted out of sand, if all else fails).

Perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson wants to tell us that, instead of seeking a higher meaning and instead of following the theories of others, we can only rely on our basic animalistic urges. Perhaps when Dirk Diggler fixated on the content of his pants back in Anderson’s second film Boogie Nights, the director had said everything he had to say. As for The Master only time and repeat viewings will tell.

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In the UK 2011 has been quite a year for Ryan Gosling. Blue Valentine was released on the 14th of January, and then in September we saw the release of Drive and Crazy, Stupid, Love. By late October The Ides of March hit the cinema screens, making it pretty hard to deny that 2011 is the Year of Ryan Gosling. Not only has Gosling dominated our screens by number of releases, but it is the quality of the films he has been involved in that really makes the difference. Drive was a directorial tour-de-force by Nicholas Winding Refn, which brought out the badass in Gosling. Blue Valentine was a raw and honest portrayal of the fate of a romance without the necessary maintenance. Crazy, Stupid, Love portrayed another failed relationship; this time Gosling took on the role of ladies man/dating coach, to hilarious effect.

This brings us to The Ides of March, a classy political thriller and George Clooney’s fourth feature as director. Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, an idealistic Junior Campaign Manager for the Democrat’s presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney). Meyers is convinced that Morris is the one man in America who can make a difference to the lives of ordinary people, stating “I’ll do or say anything if I believe in it, but I have to believe in the cause.” And he does believe in the cause, until he meets a young intern called Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) and discovers something equivalent to his worst nightmares. From here all hell breaks loose, both within the campaign and within Meyers’ own system of values.

It is here that Ryan Gosling shows us the kind of rounded performance he is capable of. Having convinced us of Meyers’ integrity and idealism, Gosling soon makes the transition to a revenge driven individualist. Unlike Drive where Gosling internalised nearly every emotion, The Ides of March shows him reaching for more raw emotions; in this sense the film has more in common with Blue Valentine. The Ides of March sees Gosling playing wildly divergent character traits within the same character, to utterly convincing effect. With this film Ryan Gosling seems to have skilfully established himself as an actor of some authority, not just ‘one to watch’.

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