Saturday, March 1, 2014

February 2014

      There’s a heartbreaking moment in “Synecdoche, New York,” this offbeat, criminally underappreciated 2008 Charlie Kaufman masterpiece, when Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing Caden Cotard, a perpetually distressed theatrical director about to embark on a never-ending production based on his life, tells his actors: “I’ve been thinking a lot about dying lately…..We’re all hurling toward death, yet here we are for this moment alive, each of us knowing that we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.”
      The tragedy of this superb actor’s death has been thoroughly reviewed; all we can do when any great artist dies is to appreciate what they’ve left us with, assess and marvel at their contributions. “What ifs” are pointless; as I’ve written too many times in this post, some actors never do anything of worth after their mid-40s—Hoffman’s life ended at 46. And while it seems unthinkable that more great performances weren’t in the offing, it’s impossible to know. What I do know is that in 20 years, Hoffman created an astonishing number of great performances.
      First and foremost in Hoffman’s extensive career is “Capote,” his 2005 Oscar-winning portrayal of the quirky writer-provocateur during the years he worked on his groundbreaking “In Cold Blood.” While capturing the fey writer’s vocal mannerisms, the actor never allows the performance to become an imitation as so many do when portraying the famous. This film and Hoffman’s performance dig into the psyche of a man who was both brilliant and manipulative, an elitist uptown partier who found a way to ingratiate himself with the country folks of Kansas.
       In the 1990s, Hoffman put together a string of impressive supporting performances in some of the best films of the era, including as Scotty, the repulsive sycophant to porn start Dirk Diggler in “Boogie Nights” (1997); as the arrogant assistant to the “other” Lebowski in “The Big Lebowski” (1998);  as Rusty, the drag queen who helps Robert De Niro’s cop recover from a stroke in “Flawless” (1999); again for P.T. Anderson in the baffling “Magnolia” (1999) as the caring nurse who reunites a son with his dying father; and as a high-living playboy in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999).
      My favorite supporting performance of Hoffman’s career was his Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous” (2000), the story of a young Cameron Crowe (the film’s director) who became a music journalist while still in high school. Bangs was the 1970’s poet laureate of rock writers, a vitriolic, self-styled intellectual who eviscerated some of the most acclaimed acts of the time. Hoffman, studying both this little-known character’s voice patterns and writings, is perfect for the disheveled loner, bringing an authenticity desperately needed to an otherwise timid film.
      While giving late night advice to the confused teen, Bangs waxes on the fate of critics: “You made friend with them [the rock band]. See, friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong….They made you feel cool. And, hey, I met you. You are not cool.” And then reassures the youngster that he’s joined the right club. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”
       After taking home his best actor statuette, Hoffman found great roles but mostly in small, little-seen pictures. He was a star, but wasn’t too concerned about cashing in, instead offering scene-stealing performances in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007)—ironically, playing a heroin addict—“Doubt” (2008), “Charlie Wilson’s War,” (2008), Pirate Radio,” (2009), “The Ides of March” (2011) and “Moneyball” (2011).  His acclaimed performance in “The Master” (2012) left me cold, a rare misfire for this fine actor.
       If you haven’t seen them, seek out “The Savages” (2007) and “A Late Quartet” (2012), two brilliantly acted examinations of middle-age angst, with Hoffman playing thoughtful, determined men who just missed greatness, stuck in deep, untenable ruts.
    That same archetype is the basis for his frustrated theatrical director in “Synecdoche,” whose careening ambition makes success impossible. Caden Cotard stands as his bravest, most uncompromising character, a hopeless romantic suffering from a multitude of unnamed illnesses, always on the verge of death, who finds a way to construct an entire theatrical world that mirrors his real life. Writer Kaufman and actor Hoffman form a perfect match, digging deeper than most of us are willing to go into unanswerable questions about life, art, self-worth, relationships and ultimately, why we go through this parade of heartbreaking disappointments in which the ending is already written.
      Hoffman’s exploration of the dark side of humanity extended to the stage. On Broadway, he earned acclaim in two of the most dispiriting roles of the American theater: the cruel, alcoholic Jamie Tyron in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” revived in 2002, and the hopelessly delusional Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” produced in 2012.
    The dark, unsettled side of man was the canvas where Hoffman’s art reached its zenith. I think, too often, we as audiences fail to appreciate what it takes for actors to find and communicate those deeply hidden truths; it’s much more than remembering lines from a script. For some, it has a price.
RUSH  (2013)
      As someone with zero interest in cars or any type of car racing, I'm not exactly the target audience for Ron Howard's latest film. Yet by focusing on a Formula One rivalry between drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda that was the talk of the sport in the 1970s, Howard turns what is, on the surface, an insider’s look at racing into a fascinating examination of two very different individuals with the same obsession.
      Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, aka “Thor”) is a hedonistic Brit who, at first, seems to be more interested in girls and partying than winning a race. But Formula One success brings more money and women, which, for Hunt, is motivation enough.  He takes an instant dislike to the blunt-speaking, arrogant Austrian Lauda (Daniel Brühl).
     Tossed out of his aristocratic family because he wanted to pursue such a foolish profession as auto racing, Lauda seems to have a permanent chip on his shoulder, treating nearly everyone as mere instruments, or impediments, to his race to be the best.
      Though I didn't understand much of it, I liked that Howard and screenwriter extraordinaire Peter Morgan (“Frost/Nixon” and “The Queen”) didn't try to dumb down the technical aspects of the sport; when there are discussions about cars and motors, I felt like I was listening in on professionals, not watching a movie.
     Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Oscar winner for "Slumdog Millionarie") gives the film a hot, glistening look, making everything, especially when they are out on the track, seem to move at an accelerated rate. To say the racing scenes (combining archival footage with newly shot recreations) are impressive is an understatement. Most importantly, the sequences explain the danger involved and the lightning-quick reflexes needed for success. This is one of Howard's best directing efforts and clearly a passion—his first directorial effort, 36 years ago, was "Grand Theft Auto."
    Both actors are perfect for their roles; the portrayed hatred for one another feels just as real as the grudging respect they eventually earn for one another. I've never considered race car drivers as athletes, but I will say this: There’s no one else involved in anything called a sport who is willing to die in pursuit of a trophy. These guys do it week after week.
     Hemsworth shows himself to be more than just a hunky action figure, believably portraying both sides of Hunt: the carefree playboy and the intense driver. Spanish actor Brühl scored a Golden Globe supporting actor nomination for his Lauda and might have been in the Oscar race if this year’s competition wasn’t so strong,
     Also excellent are the women in their lives, who, though clearly secondary to these competitors’ obsession on winning, show some of the rising influence of the era’s women’s liberation movement. Alexandra Maria Lara, also memorable in Francis Coppola’s “Youth Without Youth,” plays Lauda incredibly supportive wife, while Olivia Wilde plays Hunt’s less forgiving wife, who eventually leaves him for someone even more famous. The women and their fashions also help establish the '70s setting.
     Appropriately, Howard lingers over the cars, their sleek, molded perfection and all their expertly calibrated moving parts, as if they were beautiful women; that’s how these drivers see them and, by extension, the cars become important characters in the story.
      While “Rush” didn’t turn me into a racing enthusiast, it certainly increased my appreciation for what these drivers do, the fortitude it takes to get behind the wheel week after week.
SHORT TERM 12  (2013)
    Few settings offer more possibilities for intense, fascinating plots than a foster care facility. Not only do you have the children, often troubled and dealing with extremely difficult circumstances, but there is also the interaction with the workers, who are both resented and loved, gatekeepers and confidants.
     Though its heart is clearly in the right place, this low-budget, documentary-like film fails to find the right stories to tell, at least not enough of them to add up to a compelling movie.
    Utilizing an easy literary device, it opens with the introduction of a new worker, allowing viewers to learn about the other workers and their young wards along with the newcomer. Wide-eyed Nate (Rami Malek) joins Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) as a counselor, looking very uncomfortable as he is forced to endure a long, rather pointless story about Mason chasing down a runaway patient. 
    Writer-director Destin Cretton, who made a short film under the same title but with a different cast, has decided to focus mostly on the caretakers and a single patient (the angry, troubled Jayden)—unlike more successful films on care facilities, such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Girl, Interrupted,” which allow audiences to get to know a group of patients. For me, there was way too much screen time spent on the relationship between Grace and Mason. And the time the film spent inside the facility felt removed and distant, leaving me as an outside observer rather than involved.
     Typical of the genre, the workers become way too entwined in their patients’ plights and violate every rule in the book. But we are supposed to love them for it. I wanted to like this film, but its stories never grabbed me; in most cases, real documentaries are a much better vehicle to explore this topic.
     The unlikely combination of Judi Dench and Steven Coogan, under the steady hand of one of Britain finest filmmakers, Steven Frears, keeps what could have been an over-the-top tear-fest into a thoughtful and provocative journey for long-sought truths.
     Philomena Lee (Dench) is a humble, uncomplicated woman in her 70s who, out of the blue one day, reveals to her daughter that she was forced to give up a son she had out of wedlock as a teen.
    Though she had been trying to find out what happened to the boy off and on for years, she had never revealed this dark secret to her family. The daughter ends up soliciting the help of a disgraced ex-journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), who has just lost his government job in a scandal. After his initial reluctance—he gives cynicism a bad name—he becomes as determine as Philomena, if not more so, to find out what happened to the child.
     The story, based on a real life incident and hewing closely to the facts, focuses on the inhuman treatment by Catholic nuns when Philomena, and other unmarried Irish girls in the 1950s, were sent to convents after became pregnant. The convent not only sold these babies to wealthy American for a tidy profile, but received free labor from the girls for three years.
      Even worse, this convent and others like it across Ireland, refused to help either the adopted children or the mothers, reconnect even decades later.
     For Philomena and Martin, the search sends them to Washington D.C., where they find a trail of clues that lead to her son. But that’s really only half the story.
     Wry British TV comedian Coogan is very believable as the rather uninterested party who is slowly drawn into this mystery, even to the point where he had to convince Philomena to push forward.
        Dench and screenwriters Coogan and Phil Pope (working from Sixsmith’s book) were smart to turn Philomena, whether or not it’s true, into a woman who had no interested in upsetting anyone or being a crusader even as she slowly discovers that her inability to find her son was not happenstance.
      What makes “Philomena” more than a TV movie is these characters’ slowly evolving relationship, beautifully performed by Dench and Coogan. These are two very different types of people who find a way to work together to bring light to what had been a very dark chapter in Irish history.
      Coming from director Frears, it’s no surprise; he’s been responsible for some of the most interesting and well-crafted pictures of the past 25 years, from “Prick Up Your Ears” (1987) and “The Grifters” (1990) to “High Fidelity” (2000) and “The Queen” (2006). While his latest is more conventional than those cutting-edge films, “Philomena” reflects the filmmaker’s uncanny ability to bring out the basic humanity in the characters he brings to the screen. 
     This B-movie scenario about an abduction of two young children and the ensuing conflict between the parents and the police investigator actually has some interesting things to say about assumptions, vengeance and the thin line between good and evil.
     What makes the film an entertaining two-and-a-half hours is the superb collection of actors who have stripped their performances down to raw, visceral emotions while maintain a sense of reality—a very urgent reality.
      It's during a Thanksgiving dinner with good friends, the Dovers and the Birches, when someone notices that the young daughters of each family have wandered off. Just hours after the frantic search begins, a police detective (a gloomy, Columbo-like Jake Gyllenhaal) notices the RV that had been spotted in the area near the disappearance. A mentally unstable young man, Alex Jones (Paul Dano, always good as the disturbed outsider), is dragged from the vehicle and arrested. Yet the girls’ whereabouts remain a mystery.
      After intense interrogation and without any physical evidence, the police release Jones, but the father (Hugh Jackman, as intense his Valjean) of one of the girls isn't satisfied. After attacking the man in front of police, he later abducts him, keeping him prisoner in an old house he owns.
      Determined to elicit a confession from this traumatized young man, Dover tortures him for days, eventually encasing him in the wall of a room. Despite pleas from the other parents (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) and news that the investigation is pointing in other directions, Dover won’t relent in his vigilance.
    The story seems to be sympathetic to Dover at first, while painting the detective and other police as inept and heartless. But Aaron Guzikowski’s script reverses course, as it makes it points about how tempting, and wrong, it is to take the law into your own hands. The screenplay, well directed by French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, cleverly makes the audience keep re-evaluating the characters’—and its own--moral compass as it navigates through this densely drawn community.
      Along with fine work by Jackson, Gyllenhaal and Dano, exceptional performances are delivered by Howard and Davis as parents who struggle with both their daughter’s disappearance and their friend’s actions; Maria Bello as Dover’s distraught wife; and Melissa Leo as the steely mother of Dano’s Alex.
       One of the film’s most cogent points is how society quickly judges anyone who acts differently than “we” do; how those who, for one reason or another, can’t fit into the world are always seen as dangerous, criminal, someone to fear. More often than not, they are more victim than enemy.
      While I don't think it was the intention of this film to portray Walt Disney and his Happiest-Place-in-the-World empire as numbingly childish and nauseatingly upbeat, it was what saved the movie for me.
     P.L. Travers' stories about a magical nanny named Mary Poppins became an obsession of Disney after his daughters fell in love with the books in the 1940s. His dogged attempts to convince Travers to sign over the movie rights to the character were ignored by the British writer until financial troubles forced her to reconsider in 1961. 
      "Saving Mr. Banks" (which refers to the father figure in the stories and movie) focuses on the short time Travers (hilariously portrayed with the didactic, scolding manners of unhappy teacher by Emma Thompson) spends at the Disney studios working with the movie's songwriters. "Working with" actually indicates collaboration and that's not one of Travers strengths. She corrects and insults, finding the entire enterprise a sham and a blight on her beloved characters.
     Thompson, one of the shining lights of the 1990s, who previously had found few post-45 roles worthy of her talent, is simply perfect as this pent up, psychologically damaged woman whose entire life of guilt and disappointment comes out in her blunt, insulting commentary on Disney and his creative team. Of course, the film, directed by John Lee Hancock (”The Blind Side”), presents Travers as the curmudgeon who is eventually won over by the boundless enthusiasm of the Disney team. To me, she was injecting a bit of adult reality into their candy-coated world.
     When Walt tries to lure her to Disneyland, she responds: “I cannot tell you how uninterested—no, positively sickened I am at the thought of going to see your dollar-printing machine.”
      And, my favorite, when she told by the songwriters that they hope to have Dick Van Dyke, “one of the greats,” star in the film, Travers fires back: “Robert, my dear, Olivier is one of the greats. Burton, Guinness, greats without question. I can assure you Dick Van Dyke is not.”  
     “The great” Tom Hanks (sorry, couldn’t resist) gives a good performance as Walt, which isn't easy to do considering the man's many contradictions and his fame. At least for my generation, the man's face and voice are so embedded in our collective consciousness that it took awhile to accept the equally familiar Hanks as him. At his best, he's the butt of Travers insults, astonished that anyone could resist the chance to bring joy to the world's children and bask in the optimistic glean of Disney.
      Taking it on the chin are Richard and Robert Sherman, Disney's legendary songwriting team (amusingly played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) who must convince Travers that her beloved characters fit nicely into a musical.
      To make the film work, a large chunk of screen time consists of flashbacks to her Australian childhood and the experiences that both inspired her “Mary Poppins” stories and left her psychologically scarred. Unfortunately, these scenes are dull and littered with clichés. But when the picture returns to Hollywood and Ms. Travers, “Saving Mr. Banks” is surprisingly entertaining. 
PASSION  (2013) 
     Though Brian De Palma’s strength was never his consistency, the daring, often controversial director made some of the most intense and memorable films in the 1970s and ‘80s.
     Starting with the anarchist-themed, proudly low-budget “Greetings” (1968) and “Hi, Mom!” (1970), both starring his young discovery Robert De Niro, De Palma quickly moved into the mainstream, scoring commercial hits with “Carrie” (1976) and “Dressed to Kill” (1980), and his crime epics “Scarface” (1983), “The Untouchables” (1987) and “Mission: Impossible” (1996). While proving himself as an expert at updating classic Hollywood genre pictures, he also delivered two of the 1980s best films, “Blow Out” (1981) and “Casualties of War” (1989).
     De Palma, 73, has not been so successful in this new century, directing high-profile duds “Mission to Mars” (2000) and “The Black Dahlia” (2006). His latest, released earlier this year, may be a new low: an overheated attempt to mix his uncomfortably voyeuristic view of female sexuality (one of his trademarks) with a rather dull plot about corporate malfeasance. De Palma should be embarrassed by the results: “Passion” most closely resembles a low-budget soft-porn film, without, alas, the sex.
     While the details are vague—a failed attempt to make the story seem as if it is an insider’s view of corporate politics—the plot revolves around a heartless head of an advertising firm (Rachel McAdams going blonde, an obsession the director copped from Hitchcock) who takes credit for an idea hatched by Isabelle, her assistant (Swedish actress Noomi Rapace).
         McAdams’ Christine seems willing to do almost anything to get ahead, even making sexual advances on Isabelle and looking the other way, or maybe encouraging, an affair between her boyfriend and Isabelle.
      Shot in flat lighting and acted as if the actors were handed the script minutes before the camera rolled, the film would never have been released if these two high profile actresses weren’t the stars. But selling it as a sexy thriller is a tease—it is all posing and talking and rarely gets down to business.
     McAdams looks completed out of her element as this manipulative, cold woman and never convinced me she was capable of her venality. Rapace, who became an international star as Lisbeth in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” comes off better as the naïve employee who learns the amoral tricks of the trade from her boss. While both actresses did better work in other 2013 films (McAdams in “To the Wonder” and Rapace in “Dead Man Down”) and this disaster will be quickly forgotten by them, for De Palma it might be harder to overcome.
      He’s recovered from such dogs as “Wise Guys” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities” in the past, but in today’s Hollywood, when you’re over 70, five forgettable films in a row isn’t a good career move.

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