2012: Part 9

Ethel. Directed by Rory Kennedy. This moving documentary, directed by the youngest child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, is a loving portrait of both her mother and father. Obviously it’s a very subjective and sentimental film, but it has to be that “loving portrait” because that’s how the family remembers RFK and how they sustain the memory of his good deeds in public service. All the Skakel/Kennedy home movies and recordings from TV are invaluable resources, so the film is firmly grounded in images both historical and deeply personal. There aren’t too many surprises in the film (although I must admit I didn’t know that Ethel Kennedy had been brought to trial for stealing a horse), but it’s an effective and emotional film all the same. Rory Kennedy’s status as a director is probably higher-up now since her most recent film, Last Days in Vietnam (2014), was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, so I’m eager to see what subject she tackles next.

A Late Quartet. Directed by Yaron Zilberman. As a former violinist myself (from ages five to twenty) with experience in concert performance, orchestras and duets, I always have an interest in films about classical music performers, particularly violinists. A Late Quartet focuses on four performers: a husband-and-wife second violin player and violist (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener), a cellist (Christopher Walken) and a first violin player (Mark Ivanir). The actors did their best to mimic real performance, though I could see where editing helped hide things. Walken and Hoffman are terrific in their performances, although I would not expect any less from them. Keener’s acting is good too, but it takes a while for her performance to really get going. I guess Mark Ivanir is OK, though I couldn’t quite get a handle on his character since he’s pulled in so many directions. (Hard-hearted, egotistical control freak? Reluctant romantic willing to throw everything away for a chance at love? Goofy guy climbing out of girlfriend’s window and falling down from fire escape ladder like it’s a romantic comedy? Sure, people can be all of those things, but it messes with the film’s tone.) I never quite “believed” Imogen Poots as the daughter of Hoffman and Keener, but then again, I didn’t think much of her in Jane Eyre or Fright Night either. (Maybe the biggest hurdle is Poots’ inability to mimic an American accent.) At least there are some other good supporting actors in the mix: Madhur Jaffrey as a caring doctor, Wallace Shawn as a pianist and a moving appearance by the great mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter as Walken’s wife. The cinematography by Frederick Elmes (River’s Edge, Blue Velvet, Broken Flowers, etc.) is occasionally very good, though I blame director Zilberman for not envisioning more inspired shots. Overall A Late Quartet is good, but its most obvious shortcoming is in the screenplay. There are too many cliches and some of the dialogue is just painfully obvious, sounding way too written. But if you love classical music and some of the actors involved, there are things to be gained from seeing the film. And like any film with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, watching it now is a bittersweet experience.

Passion. Directed by Brian De Palma. Passion is De Palma’s remake of Alain Corneau’s 2010 film Love Crime (which I have not yet seen) and while De Palma’s version of the story is entertaining, it does not feel like a “Brian De Palma film” with his typical sense of eroticized danger until about an hour in (if you’ve seen Passion, you’ll know what part I’m talking about). That scene, which combines sex, violence and Afternoon of a Faun, is really interesting. From that point on, the intrigue really does build and it feels like the kind of erotic thriller that I associate with the director. Occasionally De Palma includes scenes shot from canted angles, making expressive use of Venetian blind shadows on the walls, so the film is not totally devoid of flair. Looking at the performances, I guess Rachel McAdams is alright as a creepy, control-freak corporate boss and Noomi Rapace is similarly tolerable as McAdams’ put-upon assistant, each of them trying to claw their way to the top, but the performance that I was most impressed by was Karoline Herfurth as Rapace’s secretary. The camera photographs Herfurth’s eyes really well, which draws me to the character even more. Pino Donaggio’s often cheesy, 80s-sounding score doesn’t do the film any favors but Passion is still enjoyable because of the last forty minutes. It’s just a shame that the plot makes no sense and I’m not sure if any amount of explanation could make it clear – although perhaps De Palma likes the ambiguity and that was his intention.

Pitch Perfect. Directed by Jason Moore. OK, so I finally saw this super-popular movie about a cappella singing. It was fine, easy enough to digest as cinematic meals go, but it’s got the kind of slick, ready-made humor that all annoyingly mainstream teen/young adult films have. Anna Kendrick is a likeable actress (despite my long-standing contention that she looks like a tiny Adam Scott with eyeliner, which I find distracting), but I wouldn’t rush to call her one of the best actresses of her generation. She is called upon to play the stock character of Sassy-and-Smart Slacker Who Secretly Has a Heart (and the Ability to Make Commitments), a role that is badly in need of an update. Rebel Wilson is usually funny in her scenes, so at least that gives the film a bit of vitality. Any time the groups were singing (particularly Wilson’s part of the “Turn the Beat Around” stage performance and the group’s impromptu mash-up of “Just the Way You Are”/”Just a Dream” during a rehearsal), you could be certain of entertainment, but any attempt at, you know, a plot was just not done well. I guess nobody tunes into a film like this for the stunning script. In any case, now I have an excuse to see Pitch Perfect 2 since the thought of a major studio film directed by a woman (in this case Elizabeth Banks, who is also funny in her small role in Pitch Perfect) is always exciting.

Seven Psychopaths. Directed by Martin McDonagh. I’m not sure if I liked this more or less than McDonagh’s previous film, In Bruges, which I was not that crazy about. While you get a collection of very talented actors in Seven Psychopaths – a particularly good Colin Farrell (McDonagh knows how to write to Farrell’s strengths, it seems, as with In Bruges), Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, the always delightful Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, Woody Harrelson, Zeljko Ivanek, Kevin Corrigan – the story still did not make much of an impression on me. (I wish the opening scene with Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt could have lasted longer, for example.) Screenwriters and gangsters are all equally wacky in McDonagh’s world. The actresses are not given any character development; Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko and Gabourey Sidibe barely get any screen time and none of it is pleasant for them or for us thanks to McDonagh’s predilection for violence. Only Linda Bright Clay, as Christopher Walken’s terminally ill wife, gets one great scene in the film, showing a performance that may be better than anyone else’s in the film. There are bits of dialogue that are witty in McDonagh’s usual style – and hey, who doesn’t love the visual of Tom Waits toting a rabbit? – but I was generally disappointed.


Philip Seymour Hoffman: A (Cinematic) Journey That Risks the Dark

Today is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s birthday; he would have been 47 years old. In the past five months I have only been able to bring myself to see two Hoffman films that I had never seen before, the Steve Martin-starring comedy Leap of Faith (1992) and the relatively recent drama A Late Quartet (2012). In any case I would like to take a look back at some of the other performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman that I really love. I only wish I could have found a good clip from Nobody’s Fool (1994), in which the young Hoffman plays a small-town police deputy, since that was the first film performance of his that made me sit up and take notice.

“Law & Order” episode “The Violence of Summer” (1991, episode directed by Don Scardino) – Making his television debut in this February 1991 (season one) episode of the long-running series, Hoffman looks very much like the 23-year-old that he was, fresh out of college and his hair still strawberry blonde (it would eventually fade into a paler, whiter shade). “Law & Order” is a show that was famous for featuring up-and-coming actors before they hit it big and this episode is no exception; besides Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson is also featured.

Twister (1996, dir. Jan de Bont) – I recently saw this disaster flick again and it was even better than I had remembered. In this scene, the gang of tornado-hunters gathers around the dinner table and Hoffman regales the group with a wild tale about one of the film’s main characters (Bill Paxton). Hoffman’s grinning countenance and unkempt red hair make his “Dusty” a loveable character.

Flawless (1999, dir. Joel Schumacher) – There are problems (well, flaws) with this uneven dramedy. Hoffman’s performance, however, is wonderful. Rusty is not a run-of-the-mill straight-actor-in-drag routine. True, the part is campy, but there are some interesting depths to Hoffman’s portrayal. Statistically speaking, I don’t know how much of what is seen onscreen comes from Joel Schumacher’s script, but anyway it feels like Hoffman added that extra special something to make the role his own.

The Ides of March (2011, dir. George Clooney) – Based on this film alone, I have to say that I don’t think that highly of Clooney as a director or as a screenwriter, nor do I think too well of his decision to cast the markedly bland Ryan Gosling in the lead role, but it is obvious in this scene that Hoffman was operating on a much greater level, acting-wise. Gosling looks totally lost, but Hoffman adds some oomph to the proceedings. The pretty-boy star can’t deliver, but the character actor can.

A Late Quartet (2012, dir. Yaron Zilberman) – Cliched screenwriting and relationship-based melodrama threaten to overwhelm the classical music elements of the plot here, but Hoffman delivers yet another detailed characterization of another flawed man in his repertoire of flawed people. The character’s unhappiness with his string quartet partners is connected to the unhappiness in his marriage, a complicated set of issues made watchable due to the actor’s conviction in his scenes.

The Master (2012, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson) – (SPOILERS: this scene is from the end of the film.) A little over a year after seeing The Master on the big screen, I still say that it is not a particularly good movie, but I can’t really deny how great Hoffman was in the title role. To quote his Lancaster Dodd character from another scene, “We are not helpless. And we are on a journey that risks the dark.” That second line could be used to sum up Hoffman’s career.