Philip Seymour Hoffman
I returned home from the village shop this evening to be confronted by Mrs Evangelist. For some reason, I’ve not been seeing my texts recently when they come in, so I’ve missed a request for shopping or to pay the window cleaner. Got back to the house just over an hour ago, to discover she’d been frantically trying to text me again. “Did you get my texts? Have you heard? Philip Seymour Hoffman’s dead.”
This isn’t an attempt to be facetious, or to diminish the memory of possibly the finest actor of our generation, but when my wife couldn’t wait the ten minutes needed for me to get home it shows both how shocking it is to have an actor of such talents cruelly taken away from us at the age of just 46, and that even my wife and her more general knowledge of film is aware of what a rich talent Hoffman represented and means to the likes of film fans like myself.
I’ve been writing this blog for three and a half years now, and in that time this is only the second time that I’ve been moved to write a tribute to an actor who’s just died, the other being Leslie Nielsen. While most losses of actors are deeply saddening, and it feels no time at all since Paul Walker was also killed at a young age – heck, it feels no time since we lost Heath Ledger well before his time – Philip Seymour Hoffman was something else, one of the most versatile talents of our generation and the pain feels so much greater for the knowledge of all of those film opportunities now lost to us forever.
Part of the reason I write tributes so sparingly is the feeling that so many others, often those who knew him personally and had worked with him, have the opportunity to express their feelings through news media and the internet in ways more meaningful and often more profound than I can manage. But just occasionally, someone who’s had such a dramatic effect on my own consumption of film needs to be celebrated.
He won an Oscar for Capote, of course, but he elevated pretty much every film he was ever in. I first came to know him as Twister’s Dusty and Boogie Nights’ Scotty, and he was at home in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson – including Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love and his imperious performance in The Master – as he was in blockbuster like Mission: Impossible 3 and the Hunger Games series. He’s been at the core of some of my favourite films of the past few years, from Mary And Max to Synecdoche, New York and he was always a standout in solid movies such as Doubt and Charlie Wilson’s War. As I’ve started to catch up on films I’ve missed over the years, it’s always a delight when he turns up, and his career spans Almost Famous to The Big Lebowski and Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead to Moneyball. I could carry on listing films for two or three more paragraphs and there isn’t a duff note among any of the performances.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, thank you. You will be greatly missed.
The Review: “After establishing a career as a writer, becoming best known for his science fiction and fantasy stories, he developed a self-help system called Dianetics which was first published in May 1950.”
If you look up the definition of a cult, it refers to the repetition of religious practice and the sense of care owed to the gods or shrine. In terms of those elements of the definition, the works of Paul Thomas Anderson could well be seen to fit that description, with a new work from PTA not only required viewing for his followers, but also following increasing trends and patterns. The course of his career has seen a number of unconventional character studies, ranging from the sprawling ensemble of Magnolia to the tightly wound intensity of There Will Be Blood, but always one pair of characters stands out from the others in terms of that study, to the point where TWBB was practically a two hander. So it will come as little surprise that The Master again is a study in character, and takes that trend further forward to the point where the character study is the plot, or at least what could best be regarded as one.
“The Church of Scientology describes Hubbard in hagiographic terms, and he portrayed himself as a pioneering explorer, world traveler (sic), and nuclear physicist with expertise in a wide range of disciplines, including photography, art, poetry, and philosophy.”
So The Master is what’s become known as Anderson’s Scientology film, but anyone expecting a rigorous analysis or critique of the most infamous cult religion of the 20th century should turn back now. The Master is layered with such detail or comments from the life of Scientology’s founding father, L. Ron Hubbard, but instead built largely into the life of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). What Anderson is looking to understand is the persuasive power of leadership, and Dodd’s ability or otherwise to exert that power on his followers; in the case of the film, one Freddie Quell (Joaquim Phoenix). Where TWBB saw the relationship dynamic between Paul Dano’s immovable object and Daniel Day Lewis’s irresistible force, here Dodd and Quell are both more dynamic, occasionally two forces directed explosively together but as often two objects thrown apart.
“He served briefly in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and was an officer in the United States Navy during World War II, briefly commanding two ships, the USS YP-422 and USS PC-815. He was removed both times when his superiors found him incapable of command.”
Dodd doesn’t actually appear on screen in the first half hour, the film preoccupied with Quell’s initial journey into the company of The Cause (the film’s on-screen name for its own cult). Anderson is keen to explore the how as well as the why, but the what forms components of story rather than a structured framework. What has divided audiences is that lack of structure, so it’s left to the performances to draw you in. Phoenix especially is mesmerising, never likeable or especially sympathetic but showing enough volatility to keep him interesting. Hoffman’s performance might be more understated, but carries credibility in terms of his ability to both motivate and occasionally infuriate. (It’s also worth noting that both Dodd and Quell seem to have been influenced by Hubbard’s real life back story, further playing up the duality of their relationship.) Although there’s a wide supporting cast, few others outside these two make any kind of impact.
“He has been quoted as telling a science fiction convention in 1948: ‘Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.'”
If you wanted to guarantee success in film, you’d probably be out making a series of films about teenage vampires battling alien wizards from the future, as the more unlikely it is, the more commercial it will be. But quality can also bring success, and The Master has quality running through every one of its production values, especially in Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s sumptuous cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s dangerous, provocative music. The overall effect creates a mood that will totally consume many viewers but may further alienate those looking for something definitive to latch on to. But for those willing to give themselves totally over to Anderson’s vision, there’s much to dissect and plenty to take, even if Anderson does give himself over to an occasional indulgence (and yes, I’m looking at you, naked party scene).
“At the start of March 1966, Hubbard created the Guardian’s Office (GO), a new agency within the Church of Scientology that was headed by his wife Mary Sue.”
Appearances can be deceptive, and just as there’s more going on with most cults than you’d see on the surface, there’s more to The Master than the central relationship. Key to the new dynamic here is Lancaster’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams), who flits around on the periphery but seemingly has influence over Lancaster at key moments. Phoenix’s performance may be the most showy but Adams to elevate The Master that level further, performing that classic trick of women’s roles of doing a lot when not much is given (or, at least, initially appears to be). It’s these character moments that will likely dictate your level of appreciation for The Master; if the tangential exploration of cults in general and Scientology specifically, welded to the stunning character work and wrapped in some of the finest cinematic trappings available, is enough then you, like me, could probably watch this on a loop. If, however, the lack of narrative momentum and sympathetic characters are likely to bother you, then The Master is unlikely to recruit you to the cult of Anderson.
“He was a member of the all-male literary banqueting club the Trap Door Spiders, which served as the basis of Isaac Asimov’s fictional group of mystery solvers the Black Widowers.”
Why see it at the cinema: It’s impressively filmed and performed, looks and sounds incredible even in the digital version (although I do hope to revisit it in 70mm early next year), and is absolutely one of those films you need an opinion on if you have a love of film for that debate in the bar afterwards.
The Score: 10/10
The Review: Somewhere along the line, George Clooney became an American institution, but I’m still struggling to pinpoint the exact moment that it happened. It must have been after he was in ER (the second one; he was actually in two different series called ER, fact fans, one of which was a comedy), and definitely after he was in that Batman film. Admittedly he probably got into that because everyone was convinced he was a movie star; somewhere between Out Of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven it actually came true, but actually his screen career’s been patchy at best. His directorial efforts haven’t really been any different, and from the highs of Good Night, And Good Luck to The Leatherheads sinking without trace, a Clooney film is far from a sure thing. So it’s a great relief to report that The Ides Of March is actually a cracking thriller, but one of a very particular type.
But just as Clooney’s character seems practically perfect in every possible way, much of the success of Ides isn’t just Clooney’s skill in front of and behind the camera, it’s actually his leading man. For Clooney is almost a support player in his own movie, but his leading man seems physically incapable of appearing in a bad film these days, on a hot streak this year including Blue Valentine, Drive and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Ryan Gosling is rapidly turning into the George Clooney of his generation, the next matinee idol and on a similar trajectory. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the film follows similar threads, Gosling’s idealistic campaigner working keenly in the shadow of Clooney’s virtuous liberal Senator. When Gosling gets a call from a rival campaigner (Paul Giamatti), curiosity gets the better of him and it sets in motion a chain of events that threaten to not only upturn his life, but also that of the fresh-faced intern (Evan Rachel Wood) who’s keen to get in his, erm, briefs.
That last reference would have worked better if Ides were a courtroom or legal thriller, but tonally it actually has a lot in common with some of the better examples of that genre from recent years, such as A Few Good Men or The Firm. (This might also suggest Gosling could be the next Tom Cruise rather than George Clooney, which should certainly be within his reach if he wants it.) It’s also a sign that The Ides Of March isn’t actually as deep as it thinks it is; it’s not quite paddling pool shallow, but the politics itself is an extreme form of liberal idealism that wouldn’t hold water in the real world, and the actual debate never really gets a look in, as it’s all about the Clooney campaign. But Clooney the director makes the greater contribution of the two Clooneys here, with heavy use of close-ups getting heavily into the drama and the pacing kept just right for the material.
It’s not to diminish Clooney the actor’s contribution; whenever he or Gosling is on screen, the effect is magnetic, and when the two are together the screen positively burns with charisma. It’s very much an actor’s movie, and there’s sterling support from the likes of Giamatti, Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei. Those expecting an intricate political dissection of the current state of the Union will be disappointed; an early reference to Neville Chamberlain gives a feel of the more timeless themes of personal integrity and power that Clooney the writer and his partner Grant Heslov are keen to explore. A slightly muted reception in the US might be down to the two party system, and the fact that The Ides Of March wears its Democrat badge with pride (even if it does evoke some of the most well known Democrats of recent years for many of the wrong reasons), but if you’re looking for entertainment then there’s no need to beware this Ides Of March.
Why see it at the cinema: Flirting in tight close up, when the camera is fully in the faces of Ryan Gosling and Evan Rachel Wood, there’s something for everyone.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: For years, Disney was the world leader in hand-drawn animation to the extent where it’s hard to think of anything coming close to their consistent level of ouput, but many have tried; similarly, in the new frontier of CGI animation, Pixar have established a benchmark that others have only aspired to for the large part. Such is the popularity of Aardman’s animations, especially the seemingly ubiquitous Wallace and Gromit, that it would be easy to feel nothing else could be achieved with that particular medium. However, if Pixar have proved anything it’s that there are no boundaries to the achievements possible if your storytelling is up to the task, and so it proves with this clay animation from Australian director Adam Elliot.
Mary and Max is the story of two distant characters who become acquainted by a random act, when Mary writes to America to get answers to some of her most burning childhood questions. Mary (voiced first by Bethany Whitmore, then later by Toni Collette) is eight, out of touch with her parents and with a typical thirst for knowledge; her random selection for a recipient for her letter is Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 44 year old man from New York who writes back almost out of confusion, but of an equal curiosity about the world around him. Although they exchange letters, the effects are often profound and rarely inconsequential, and their friendship is repeatedly examined through the sometimes volatile nature of their correspondence.
Max’s difficulty is driven by a condition he shares with Mary, that of Asperger syndrome, an autistic disorder which causes him to have great difficulty in interacting with others and to be compelled to repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. To explore such a condition without trivialising it in live action would be hard enough; to use a method of film-making normally reserved for children’s stories feels at first risky, but proves to be strangely liberating. Despite the repeated misfortunes of its protagonists, there’s a remarkable vein of humour running right through Mary and Max, although it’s incidental to the fortunes of the characters and so thankfully the jokes are not at their expense.
The film uses Max’s condition and Mary’s responses to explore a wide variety of themes, including their mutual anxieties and loneliness, and as the story progresses Mary’s actions lead her on a downward spiral into depression, and the exploration of her condition is as no holds barred as it was of Max’s. It’s then that you realise how much the earlier humour has brought you to invest in the fates of these characters, and how the quality of the voice actors (also including Eric Bana and the narrator Barry Humphries) has helped to fully and believably immerse you in their world.
In the end, Mary and Max is life-affirming, poignant, uplifting and almost tragic, and has a grip on the emotions that won’t let go. It’s an absolute triumph which proves that animation can be used to tackle sensitive issues in valid and engaging ways, and despite the occasional contrivance or coincidence of the story (or maybe because of them, so immaculately implemented are they in the service of the story), it has every right to be listed in the same breath as any of the classics that I listed at the start of this review. It’s truly something special, and if you have to cross continents to see it, then be reassured that what awaits you is worth the journey.
Why see it at the cinema: To not only admire the quirky details of the wonderfully stylised animated characters in all of their glory, but to be able to check if your neighbour is shedding the same tear as you are by the end. A film to be experienced, discussed and embraced.
The Score: 10/10