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.

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2012: Part 7

This may be my last post for a while as I am about to go on vacation for two weeks and will have limited computer access. I’ll still watch movies, though, so I may do one big post on those experiences when I return.

Dark Shadows. Directed by Tim Burton. I think there is a common assumption that Burton’s movies always look and feel the same – especially if they feature Johnny Depp and/or Helena Bonham Carter – but Dark Shadows caught more flak than it should have. Even though I am not familiar with the original “Dark Shadows” TV show on which the film is based, the movie is fun. Befitting of a vampire narrative, however, the movie does feel like it takes an eternity to tell its tale. At least the excellent soundtrack, including gems by the Moody Blues, Donovan and Barry White, helps. The acting is pretty good too, though I think we would all agree that Bonham Carter’s character was unnecessary (though “Julia Hoffman” existed in the TV series) and is simply an example of nepotism. I particularly liked Johnny Depp and Eva Green, both of whom certainly sink their teeth into their roles. Pun intended.

Magic Mike. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. While the film is a fun watch, one thing in particular irked me: you never really get to know any of the dancers in the film besides the characters played by Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer. While you get hints of regional flavor courtesy of Matthew McConaughey, you learn almost nothing about the guys played by Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez and Kevin Nash. The film is a glib exercise in style over substance, although Tatum is quite good as the title character. He has proved himself to be a genial leading man with a sense of humor as well as the much-discussed dance moves. Ultimately the film is more about a humdrum romance happening between Tatum and Cody Horn, as well as Tatum’s efforts to get a hand-crafted furniture business started, than it is about being a male stripper. While the dancers’ acts are glamorized, their personal lives are turbulent and thanks to a ridiculous drug-dealing subplot involving Pettyfer, Tatum’s dreams of carving coffee tables for a living are sidelined. Still, love wins the day just as you expect it to. For a movie touted as a wild and crazy ride, in the end it’s as predictable as any rom-com. At least Soderbergh gets points for the capturing the sun-kissed Floridian atmosphere (Soderbergh is the cinematographer and editor as well as the director of the film) and the soundtrack including Foreigner, KISS, Ringside and the original songs “Ladies of Tampa” and “Ladies of Miami,” though.

The Master. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Simply put: it’s vastly overrated. I have no intention of seeing this film ever again… or if I do, I hope it’s not for many, many years. I have a difficult time even admitting that the actors give good performances. Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams all received Oscar nominations for their work, but did they deserve it? It’s hard to say. The characters do whatever they want in an annoying combination of self-aggrandizement, self-loathing and lemming mentalities, while their actions are generally so thoroughly repugnant things that the whole film is simply… ugly. The cinematography by Mihai Malaimare, Jr. tries to be beautiful to make up for the script but it falls flat too, painting its landscapes with shades of brown; it’s like Malick’s aesthetic gone wrong. Some parts of the film are probably expected to be considered “disturbing,” but more than anything else I was left feeling bothered by the film’s total lack of emotional engagement. Obviously PTA was sufficiently inspired by Scientology to envision this nutty film, but that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy the result. Oh, for the days of There Will Be Blood.

Searching for Sugar Man. Directed by Malik Bendjelloul. As enjoyable as this Oscar-winning documentary is, the director left out some key points of the enigmatic singer Sixto Rodriguez’s story. The film focuses on the huge difference between Rodriguez’s obscurity in America and his idol status in South Africa (“bigger than Elvis,” it’s claimed), but Bendjelloul does not mention Rodriguez’s popularity in Australia, which, like South Africa, was in the 1970s and early 80s, leading to a tour of the country as the opening act for Midnight Oil. The film also has a bit of a discrepancy, at least to my mind: one of Rodriguez’s daughters says that the family lived in 26 different homes when they were growing up, but according to the end credits, Rodriguez has supposedly been living in the same dilapidated house for 40 years. Has he had that property for that long in addition to wherever his family and wife/significant other lived? In any case, the film is a great place to start if you want to become interested in this mysterious figure’s career (or lack thereof). After seeing the movie I have become a fan of his music; I also found out that his tour, which is a result of the movie’s success, will be making stops in Manhattan and Brooklyn this coming October. I really wish I could go because it would be an amazing experience.

Trouble with the Curve. Directed by Robert Lorenz. I have not seen nearly enough Clint Eastwood films to call myself a fan; besides Trouble with the Curve, the only other Eastwood titles I have seen are Two Mules for Sister Sara, Dirty Harry and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. While the best of the bunch is Dirty Harry, Eastwood’s finest acting is in Trouble with the Curve. The film is designed to appeal to baseball fans and frequenters of chick flicks and anyone who appreciates a good family-oriented drama, since the film balances Eastwood’s career as a baseball talent scout with his poor relationship with his daughter (Amy Adams, with more natural acting ability here than in The Master) and also focusing on Adams’ burgeoning romance with another scout played by Justin Timberlake (better than he was in Friends with Benefits but less memorable than The Social Network). There are fine, nuanced supporting performances by John Goodman, Matthew Lillard, Robert Patrick, Ed Lauter, Joe Massingill, Tom Dreesen and Peter Hermann. A lot of people probably stayed away from the film in the wake of Eastwood’s Republication National Convention appearance, but the film is definitely worth a look.