Tag: philip seymour hoffman

Nobody’s Fool


Nobody’s Fool (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★

Sully (Paul Newman) seems to be an adolescent stuck in an aging man’s body. Running from responsibility has become a habit so consuming that he is unable to hold onto a steady job, has not formed a family ever since he walked out on his wife and son who was barely a year old many years ago, and finds himself living with his eighth grade teacher. When his truck gets a flat tire while on the job, he decides to hitchhike to get back to town. To Sully’s surprise, the person who pulls over is Peter (Dylan Walsh), the son he barely knows but is nonetheless friendly and willing to make a connection with him.

Based on the novel by Richard Russo and screenplay by Robert Benton, “Nobody’s Fool” has a protagonist who is not at all easy to like since he is as stubborn as a mule, but we warm up to him, at least to a degree, because the execution behind the inevitable changes he undergoes offer intelligence, insight, and sensitivity to make arc worthy of our time.

One of the characters advises another at some point that there are times when less is more. That counsel should have been applied to the picture because it is riddled with too many characters who are interesting but are not given enough time to develop. Officer Raymer (Philip Seymour Hoffman), for instance, is mostly played for laughs. We see that he is overenthusiastic about his job but we are unable to ascertain why he is so angry with Sully. Surely it is not just about Sully not paying his traffic tickets. There seems to be an untouched backstory involving the two. Also, Rub (Pruitt Taylor Vince) considers himself as Sully’s son despite the fact that they are only co-workers. What justifies him to have these feelings toward Sully? The situations are there but background information is lacking.

When the focus turns on the relationship between estranged father and son, the picture comes alive. There are very strange bonding sessions, like stealing of a snow blower, but we are able to look past them because it is clear what they both want from each other. Though they may not admit it, they want to be loved a little more, especially Sully having realized that he is getting older and Peter’s marriage is going through a rough patch. Instead, the affection that Sully wishes to have had the chance to express to his son is given to his grandson (Alexander Goodwin). Their interactions command fragility. Due to Sully’s history of irresponsibility, we anticipate for him to hurt or disappoint the child.

I craved more dialogue between Sully and Mrs. Beryl (Jessica Tandy), his former middle school instructor. Since Newman and Tandy are very good at concealing and disguising emotions, it inspires us to look closer and dig deeper into what is going on between them. Also, while the performers have the ability to put emphasis on certain words without drawing our complete attention to their techniques, they also have a way of communicating using their eyes only. Because their verbal exchanges are limited, reaction shots become key in understanding the relationship.

If there is a message in “Nobody’s Fool,” directed by Robert Benton, perhaps it is this: it is rarely too late to change the course of our lives for the better. A little bit of luck helps, too. What could have been a cheesy lesson is peppered with great performances and layers among relationships worth looking into. It inspires hope from within instead of shoving it down our throats.

Owning Mahowny


Owning Mahowny (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★

Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has a gambling problem—and that is an understatement. Promoted by his superiors to assistant branch manager of the bank for excellent record and judgment, little do they know that Mahowny owes over ten thousand dollars and has been using money from clients to sustain his addiction to gambling. Meanwhile, the police begin to suspect that Mahowny, a man who earns just about twenty-two thousand Canadian dollars annually, might be involved with selling drugs. After all, where does he get all the money to frequent casinos?

Based on a true story that happened between 1980 and 1982, “Owning Mahowny,” directed by Richard Kwietniowski, takes a magnifying glass onto the life of a man who has no control over his need to gamble. Although a dramatic picture, it reaches a balance of humor and suspense, from the characters who are convinced they understand what the man is all about to the authorities about to discover that a seemingly ordinary man is committing all sorts of crimes behind their backs. Hoffman plays his character with magnetic intensity.

We feel the gravity of the scene when Mahowny is sitting at the casino table. A person may know nothing about card games and the like, but the picture remains engaging because the camera focuses on Hoffman’s determined and desperate facial expressions as well as dejected body languages—without relying on showing the cards of a given play. The scene unfolds, camera still sticking to the character, and we feel that once Mahowny starts losing thousands of dollars, there is little hope of getting them back.

Less effective are scenes between Mahowny and his girlfriend, Belinda (Minnie Driver). There are many expected scenes in the latter first not being aware of the former’s gambling addiction and then discovering it. Although Driver does the best she can with a predictable role, there is little excitement or intrigue in the relationship. One might argue that perhaps that is the point—that Mahowny is seeking thrills somewhere else. But it would have been nice to get an idea as to why Belinda, after everything she learns eventually, chooses to remain in a relationship with Mahowny.

More compelling is Victor Foss, a casino manager (John Hurt) in Atlantic City, a place that Mahowny visits quite often. Foss’ greed is highlighted by the way Hurt engineers to look at Mahowny, like a vulture setting its sight on a dying prey. Scenes that take place in the casino could have been straight forward, but there is humor because of the performances as well as the variation of characters that choose to come along with the main character—often under false pretenses.

The detective subplot goes nowhere even though it is a necessary ingredient which inevitably leads to an arrest. Ian Tracey plays Detective Lock with a level of intensity but there is very little convincing and impressive investigation. It gives the impression that things are falling into place for the cops quite randomly and I found that the subplot obstructs the pacing at times that it becomes frustrating to sit through.

Still, “Owning Mahowny,” based on a book by Gary Stephen Ross and screenplay by Maurice Chauvet, is worth seeing because although the film offers humor and suspense, there is always an underlying sadness just below the surface. Although Mahowny is a liar and thief, we feel bad for him because Hoffman successfully communicates that his character has a disease and is in need of serious help. Before getting therapy, however, he needs to get caught. It might be the only way to turn his life around.

The Ides of March


The Ides of March (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is an idealistic thirty-year-old campaign manager, working right below a powerful senior campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is hired to help Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) win the state of Ohio and secure a presidential nomination.

Recognizing Stephen’s suave confidence and talent for spinning stories, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the opposition’s senior campaign manager, gives him a call and suggests they meet in private: Tom wants to offer Stephen a job, one that he should accept because Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) is ready to give them his endorsement which means a certain victory for Senator Pullman (Michael Mantrell) and a loss for Governor Morris.

Based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, “The Ides of March” is not so much about the politics but the figureheads, seemingly impersonal and cold, that oil the machine. The center of the ruckus is Stephen and how circumstances force to open his eyes and how he learns to play dirty in order to have a career in a field that he is very passionate about.

Gosling is quite impressive in portraying Stephen, a man of ambition, drive, and a specific set of ideals. The film often reaches a creative zenith when Gosling must spar against acting titans like Giamatti and Hoffman—chameleon-like and fluid in portraying every nuance of emotion and intention. It is a tricky role because Gosling must find a way to come off as somewhat submissive due to his character’s comparable lack of experience in politics yet dangerous enough to pose as a real threat, both as an unstable ally and enemy as well as an eventual blackmailer since he has invested so much in the campaign.

Directed by George Clooney, the tension tightens when the behind-the-scenes drama is intercut with Morris’ speeches about how he intends on steering the country toward progress. While Morris’ supporters eat up his every word, there is a growing sense of unease as things start to go wrong in the campaign—slowly at first then like a landslide in strength and speed.

Although the dueling campaigns are both liberal in stance, the picture is a critique about politics as a whole. While it may seem glamorous and important, especially with all the press conferences and media coverages, the film reminds us that, at the end of the day, being a senator, a governor, a campaign manager, or an intern is still a job. And like certain jobs, the workplace can be a competitive environment where betrayal is like the common cold: it can happen to anybody and reactions to the infection tend to vary. Just because Stephen is smart, charismatic, and hardworking, it does not make him immune to the sickness.

Based on the screenplay by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon, “The Ides of March,” equipped with excellent monologues, may be interpreted as having a cynical message. Regardless, I found it fascinating—which surprised me because politics is not something that captures my interest as readily as, say, science or the movies. Experiencing the film is like closely observing a tight chess match. Some moves are easily foreseen but it has enough genuine surprises meant to inspire contemplation.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Though she has triumphed over the 74th Hunger Games, an annual ritual in which a male and a female are randomly chosen to represent their district of residence and fight against other Tributes—as well as one another—to the death, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) finds herself in a post-traumatic dirge, seeing faces and hearing voices of those who did not survive. Meanwhile, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has begun to worry about a possible uprising because Katniss has inadvertently become a symbol of hope—toxic to the totalitarian regime.

The point of the yearly custom is to instill fear among the twelve districts but since Katniss’ victory, more are willing to step forward and express their disdain for the status quo. Snow wishes to eliminate Katniss as soon as possible, but a new gamemaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) explains that if she is killed, people will surely overthrow the government. Instead, he proposes that Katniss, along with her friend and co-winner, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), be pitted against past—and deadly—winners for the 75th Hunger Games.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a strong sequel because the main goal of Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt’s screenplay is to expand its dystopian universe while the thrilling action sequences are allowed to fall into place. Upon closer inspection, this approach shares the same genome as superior second chapters, from Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” to Bryan Singer’s “X2.” Though we are familiar with the central characters, there is a freshness in what we come to experience because there is a consistent and defined point of view. Through Katniss’ anger, guilt, and fear, we learn to appreciate not only who she is as a protagonist but also the type of world she lives in. The filmmakers make an active decision not to simply rely on the good-guy-versus-bad-guy template and assume that just because someone “good” is up against a “big bad” does not mean he or she is worthy of our time. They work for it. Those in charge of the material are willing to go into specifics and so the final product is transportive.

Lawrence has so much range and she is the reason why Katniss is worth knowing—lightyears more interesting than the likes of Bella Swan or Melanie Stryder. For instance, part of the essence of the picture is the characters’ relationship with the media. Katniss and Peeta must pretend to be a couple when the districts and the all-seeing Capitol are watching. Katniss is instructed to smile, be happy, and act in love. Lawrence makes interesting choices on how to present Katniss during interviews. While we see the character following instructions she has been given, there are split-second moments—subtle body movements—when Lawrence allows Katniss to appear uncomfortable and communicate how much she hates participating in the charade. In other words, the actor is completely pulling the strings while her character attempts to put on a show. There is a difference and it is a challenge to accomplish with grace.

It is most interesting that the picture spends well over an hour to expand the circumstances and build what is at stake. When we get to the tournament—which, admittedly, I looked most forward to—it is almost less engaging compared to the machinations and politics in Panem. I found this appropriate. Because the first half gives us a chance to appreciate the film’s universe, the game itself has gone stale, almost shallow. What I wanted to see more is the growing rebellion. President Snow expresses great concern—building up to silent panic—about the government being overthrown but we are not yet provided distinct factions to allow the threat to be personified. The next chapter should prove most fruitful.

I do not mean to suggest that the challenges that the Tributes face in the strange tropical island are not exciting. On the contrary, it offers some moments of real suspense. For instance, it features the most menacing white cloud of terror since Frank Darabont’s “The Mist.” I also enjoyed being suspicious of Katniss and Peeta’s competitors. I never trusted any of them (Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin, Lynn Cohen, Alan Ritchson, Jena Malone)—even if a few have proven several times that they are allies. I caught myself looking for the smallest hints—to anticipate the acts of betrayal. A good movie dares to keep you on your toes. I knew then that I was engaged.

Based on Suzanne Collins’ novel, “Catching Fire,” directed by Francis Lawrence, is great entertainment because it cares about details not only when it comes to what is seen on screen but also what is felt by the characters and how we feel toward them. Notice the significant contrast between Katniss’ drab grayish-blue world—one that she covets nonetheless because of her family and community—and the pavonine, lush celebrations in the Capitol—a world that does not earn an iota of her respect due to what it represents.

The Master


The Master (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran, struggles to find his place after the war. Dipsomania as baggage, he is unable to keep a job: first as a portrait photographer then as a cabbage farmer. After another night of binge drinking, he ends up on a yacht rented by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of a mysterious philosophical movement called The Cause, for the duration of his daughter’s wedding. Dodd feels a deep connection with Freddie almost immediately, insisting that they had met prior but cannot remember the exact circumstances, so he invites the barely functioning alcoholic to join the group.

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Master” keeps us wondering what exactly is going on, but it is ultimately a frustrating experience to endure because its content and execution are both so oblique, they never reach the synergy that is necessary for us to have a firm grip on the characters and their own definitions of reality. What could have been an analysis of two extremes–one a slave to his affliction, the other a slave to his delusion–ends up becoming an arrhythmic dance around the fire. It showcases two fiery performances but the hullabaloos are as empty as a drum.

Phoenix and Hoffman feed off each other’s energies. What Freddie and Dodd have is explored via a master-follower relationship as well as a father-son relationship though to a lighter degree. Even fainter is a homosexual undertone. The most memorable scenes involve their characters simply sitting across from one another and ascertaining what the other can offer. Despite Freddie’s alcoholism and Dodd’s charlatanism, not once do we forget that they are intelligent men, so often lost in their own thoughts, with something big to lose and equally momentous to gain. The push and pull between them, as well as the forces around them, makes a compelling watch even though the camera at times cannot stay still when the decibels of the men’s voices reach another level of intensity.

Freddie captured my interest because he reminded me of an abused dog my family adopted when I was a kid. This dog barked and snarled every time someone was near. She would be quiet only when she saw food about to be delivered to her bowl. We had this dog for three or four years and not once did I feel comfortable approaching her or calling her name. I pet her head about twice or thrice and even then I reached out my hand with the most reluctance. Freddie is the same: he has so much anger and personal demons that it is almost impossible to like him. He is fascinating as a specimen but getting close to him is a willful act of setting one’s self up for certain disappointment. I never loved that dog. I disliked having her as a part of a family so much, I thought about maybe “accidentally” leaving the gates open so she would be tempted to run in the street and never come back.

The screenplay is not mindful of its gaps in time. Instead of being in the moment, part of our attention is dedicated to determining how much time has passed since Event C now that Event M is happening. For instance, Freddie has fallen in love with a sixteen-year-old high school student named Doris (Madisen Beaty) before he is sent to war. Some years later, he returns to a reality that we have long come to expect. This romantic strand is a would-be reminder that the protagonist, though hardened, is neither incapable of feeling nor unwilling to open up. For a film with such ambition, it comes off pedestrian. The yearning feels phony and stale. There is a glaring lack of momentum in the unspooling of the events. It is exhausting to sit through.

At least “The Master” gets into some detail about The Cause’s methods and ideologies, from the hypnotherapy sessions designed to recall one’s memories in his or her past lives to believing that the world has existed for trillions of years. Its 1950 milieu is also very convincing, its wide shots accompanied by sparse but memorable score by Jonny Greenwood. However, as hard as I tried, I could not connect with it fully. It tells us a lot but at the same time it does not. I do not like puzzles that are puzzling for the sake of puzzlement.

Moneyball


Moneyball (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the Oakland A’s general manager, was about to lose three of its most high-profile players to other teams. Instead of wallowing in pessimism, Beane decided that it was a great opportunity to reinvent the team and win games. Given that the Oakland A’s did not have the budget to pay players millions of dollars, Beane focused on statistics to form his new team. With the help of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate who majored in Economics, the duo challenged the system and figureheads set on thinking a certain way about baseball. Given that baseball is a sport that I never learned to love or be remotely interested in, I expected to be very confused when the characters in the film used baseball jargon to explain why certain decisions were practical or downright negligent. Surprisingly, I had no trouble catching on because the screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin was first and foremost a story of a man who was both passionate and tired of the sport. That contradiction in Beane was highlighted by Pitt so convincingly and so lovingly, there were times when I wanted to scream for the GM because no one seemed to understand what he was trying to achieve. With the exception of Brand, everyone was convinced that he was bitter about losing and had decided to sabotage the team. Since the material allowed us to construct an attachment to Beane, we are ineluctably reminded by our own experiences when we tried to make a difference or accomplish something unexpected, but everyone just seemed intent on getting in the way. With every losing battle against his peers (Philip Seymour Hoffman), we had a chance to see a glimpse of Beane’s younger years as a promising baseball sensation. One important conversation was when he had to choose between playing in Major Leagues versus accepting to go to school in Stanford. Obviously, he chose the former given the money involved. But it didn’t work out; he wasn’t the shining star that everyone predicted him to be. Slowly, the audience was given an increasingly complex and interesting portrait of the protagonist and why he was so driven to choose players that were considered out of their primes. Furthermore, the dialogue was easy on the ears because there was a consistent flow in the delivery of the lines. When the flow was interrupted by a silence or a character stopping mid-sentence in order to look at another character a certain way, dramatic beats were appropriately used to maintain dramatic momentum. However, there were about two or three scenes that felt out of place, notably Beane’s interactions with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey). While they shared a sweet chemistry, one was more than enough. Scenes like Beane serving ice cream to his daughter felt like an obvious montage of “Daddy Still Cares Even If He’s Busy at Work.” We knew he loved his daughter from their first scene together. We could see it in the way Beane looked at her while she played guitar in public. Directed by Bennett Miller, “Moneyball,” based on the nonfiction novel by Michael Lewis, was a well-made underdog story about the business side of baseball, yet that isn’t to suggest that it was without nifty surprises clandestine enough to appeal to our soft spots.

Mission: Impossible III


Mission: Impossible III (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), while throwing a party with Julia (Michelle Monaghan), a girl he intended on marrying, received a cryptic phone call, a signal that he was to meet with a superior to discuss a possible mission. Musgrave (Billy Crudup) informed Hunt that one of his former students (Keri Russell) in the agency had been kidnapped. Normally, a captured agent would be disavowed but the agency believed that she knew crucial information about Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an arms dealer they had been tracking for some time, so her extraction was necessary. Hunt accepted the mission and was assigned a team (Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Maggie Q) to rescue the kidnapped agent. Directed by J.J. Abrams, “Mission: Impossible III” had a wonderful mix of drama and action. Despite the cool gadgetry and intense physical stunts, it felt believable because what was at stake felt real. The theme of Hunt’s struggle to keep his personal and professional lives separate was at the forefront. It seemed like no matter what he did, there was no stopping the two spheres from colliding. That’s why the heart-pounding first scene worked. We got to observe Ethan helpless at the sight of Davian, a figure of his professional life, putting a gun to his future wife’s head, a symbol of his personal life. Even though we had no idea what the Rabbit’s Foot, an item that Davian was desperate to have, was exactly, it didn’t matter. What mattered was the spectrum of emotions Hunt experienced, which moved from confusion to anger then regret, as Davian counted from one to ten, the point when he was to put a bullet into the innocent woman’s head just because he could and he enjoyed watching people suffer. The action sequences, jumping from one continent to another, were as breathtaking and astute as ever. The warehouse scene in Germany provided the template. It was messy, bullets, glass and fire thrown everywhere, but never incomprehensible unlike most poorly edited action movies. Each team member was given something important to do. While Hunt explored the building, someone was underground, another was in the air, while the other was in charge of scanning the perimeter via body temperature. Each time the camera moved from one team member to another, it was consistently interesting. Their teamwork established a healthy synergy of tension that, when threatened, delivered nail-biting suspense. But that isn’t to say that the film was devoid of humor. The scenes with Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), a bumbling tech expert, prevented the project from being suffocatingly serious. Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), Hunt and Musgrave’s superior, had an intimidating aura but his lines had a certain snappy irony that went beyond the archetype of a tough-as-nails boss. “Mission: Impossible III,” written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and J.J. Abrams, looked and felt like it was made by people who love to make movies. It’s amazing how much clichés tinged with a microcosm of originality can feel something new.