A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man

Here’s one of the many reasons why the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman will be so sorely missed:  his mere presence prompted other actors/actresses to up their game.  Case in point here in A Most Wanted Man:  the couldn’t be lovelier but normally vapid Rachel McAdams, shaky German accent and all, manages to actually make you feel for her troubled lawyer accused of being a social worker for terrorists.  What’s even more amazing is that in an adaptation of John Le Carre novel you actually feel anything for anyone!  With the emotional powder keg of The Constant Gardner being the exception to the rule, Le Carre’s spy procedurals are normally colder than an interrogation room metal tabletop.  Yet Anton Corbijn wisely allows his A-list cast tap into the quiet, bubbling under the surface, heartbreak of this post 9/11 spy-eat-spy world.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is Gunther Backmann, a world-weary German intelligence station chief in Hamburg who was burned by the CIA at his last post in Beirut where assets were betrayed and lives lost.  He’s quietly been toiling away, utilizing McAdam’s liberal lawyer to reel in his minnow, a Chechen Muslim who entered Germany under cloak and dagger, that he hopes to dangle in front his barracuda, a renowned Islamic political activist and spiritual leader thought to be secretly funding a shipping company with terrorist ties.  He tries to keep the CIA, represented by a professionally flirtatious Robin Wright, at bay, while aided by his right-hand woman played with subtle skill by the fantastic Nina Hoss.  Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, plays a banker used as a pawn to channel the alleged funds that were left behind in secret by the Chechen’s recently deceased Russian crime lord father. Continue reading

Why The Hunger Games are Important

Just try to put out this fire.

Just try to put out this fire.

The young-adult fantasy series translation from page to silver screen movement has become one of the most profitable propositions in pop culture over the past decade.  What started with the kid-friendly Harry Potter (whose films contained an admirable Disney-dark magic to them that began to wear off and bore me by the fourth entry) and crested into communal madness with Stephanie Meyer’s malarial Twilight series has become a go-to cash cow for Hollywood.  When I first heard about The Hunger Games, I thought, “Oh, here we go again.”  But then I read up on what they were about – a kind of Atwood-lite dystopian future, pop-Vonnegut if you will, spiced with The Running Man with a dash of Battle Royale.  Finally, a young adult fantasy series with very little fantasy, a dash of satire, and magic replaced by futurist woe and real violence.  And cast in the lead role was Jennifer Lawrence, the most talented young actress of her generation.  And whaddya know, the first film was typically mega-blockbuster flawed but pretty good.  And it was J-Law as Katniss Everdeen who changed the game.

Boys’ fantasies and hero-worship have been catered to forever.  In this day and age they have Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Ender’s Game, as well as the typical swarm of comic book films and sci-fi flicks featuring superheroes and manly men saving the world and getting the girls.  What have girls and young women had to dream about in similar fashion?  The occasional animated Pixar heroine?  The toxicity of Twilight, which when you strip away the sparkly emo-boyband vampires, teaches teenage girls to stay in abusive relationships?  “Yes, my dear, if you love him hard enough, maybe YOU can change him. You gotta stick by your man no matter how freakish and horrible he is, stick by him even if he kills you.”  Beautiful message, isn’t it?

Well, thank the pop culture gods, because into the modern mythos has stepped Katniss Everdeen.  Continue reading

The Cause of Love and War in The Master

A man adrift.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is an infinitely sad tale of doomed love and repeated miseries.

(READ CAREFULLY – SPOILERS AHEAD)

Poor Freddie Quell (a resurrected from the ashes Joaquin Phoenix) – the guy was doomed from the start.  From infancy, the people he loved the most were destined to ruin him – his father a drunk and his mother insane.  Adrift at sea in war-time, a lovely girl named Doris (Madisen Beaty) starts writing him letters.  When he returns home to court her, he realizes she is too young, only sixteen, and uncomfortably dedicated to the idea of their love.  Freddie has no choice but to go away.

Years pass and his troubles brew, soothed only by his homebrewed hooch and pleasures of the flesh.  Finally, he stumbles drunk onto a party boat lit up like a Christmas tree, afloat on a San Franciscan dock and temporarily home to The Cause.  There love finds him again, in the form of a charismatic cult leader named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman – exceeding even his own increasingly high standards of acting) who introduces himself to a nervous Freddie as “just a man.”  But their love, too, is doomed.

Of course none of this is presented so cleanly.  The calculated precision of Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction, clean lines of Mihai Malaimare Jr’s photography, and the impeccable production design of Jack Fisk create a strange dichotomy to the chaos living within the characters being studied.  Continue reading

Trailer Park Art in The Master

We’re all drowning in mediocrity, the new poster for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master seems to be telling us.  The announcement of “This Fall – 2012″ appears as a wine vintage or wedding announcement.

But PTA doesn’t play those “glass half full – glass half empty” games with his audience.  His cup always runneth over…be it with oil as in There Will Be Blood or with…well…other fluids…as in Boogie Nights.  Sometimes he rains frogs on us like he did in Magnolia.

Whatever he does, he wants to overwhelm.  His movies are not to be watched but to be experienced.  Love them or hate them…they are always “something” – or better yet, when compared to other films…”something else.” 

Yes – some people make films for the masses…others are masters of their art and make films like The Master.  I don’t pretend to prejudge the finished product…but you can tell a lot from a well crafted trailer…and if nothing else, PTA’s latest promises to be “something to talk about.” 

On the heels of two cold, clinical character-study teasers, we get the first full-blow trailer for The Master below.  Much ballyhooed as a thinly veiled critique on Scientology, this trailer proves that while some highlights of L. Ron Hubbard’s life may have provided inspiration or jumping-off points, The Master is purely in PTA’s wheelhouse exploring the stress of makeshift/non-traditional families and the deep troubling waters of bonds between delusional father-figures and tortured sons.  Continue reading

A Review of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt”

Meryl Streep and Amy Adams in Doubt

CAPTION:  Meryl Steep and Amy Adams have some bad habits to break in Doubt.

Perhaps We’re not Meant to Sleep so Well…, 21 December 2008
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

It seemed rather fitting that I saw Doubt on the first day of winter, the sun making its shortest visit of the year, the advancing cold indicative of the looming incertitude of the characters in the film. This is the second film in a row after Frost/Nixon that has been adapted from an award-winning play. Unlike that film, Doubt is directed by the playwright, John Patrick Shanley. Wisely he employs the best in the bizz, cinematographer Roger Deakins, to translate his theatrics into film language. The crooked camera angles, the overt symbolism of storms approaching, windows blowing open, snow covering the ground, crows squawking, and lights blowing out, all smack the viewer in the face. There’s no denying what lies at the heart of Doubt.

Set in New York in 1964, the film tells the story of Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep acting in her wheelhouse), the principal of Saint Nicholas’ School, who begins to suspect the new priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman, insidiously innocuous) is developing an inappropriate relationship with one of the altar boys, who also happens to be the school’s first African-American student. The naive Sister James (a perfectly cast Amy Adams) is at first pulled into Sister Aloysius’ plot to uncover the truth, but soon falls under the priest’s spell and is convinced of his innocence. But things aren’t so cut and dry, and soon both women are riddled with doubt after being so certain they were on the side of the just.

Some have claimed Streep’s performance verges on camp and that the film relies too much on Gothic overtones. However, anyone who was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school knew a nun just like her (mine was Sister Laboure), and her portrayal of a domineering principal who still defers to a higher power is nothing short of brilliant. Also, the Gothic nature of the film falls right in line with the traditions of Catholicism as it subtly hints at other crimes and sins in its sly treatment of secondary characters and plotlines that stir the audience’s imaginations not unlike Henry James worked readers into a tizzy with The Turn of the Screw over one hundred years earlier. Yes, there are moments where the film plays like a psychological thriller, and that’s part of its brilliance, for in no other way can we come to accept the sins but in the guise of horror.

Like Notes on a Scandal the film uses a salacious topic as a vehicle for an acting showcase. The fireworks amongst the three leads are worth the price of admission alone. In its treatment of the Catholic child abuse scandal, the film accurately portrays how insular the Church was (and still is) from the rest of the world and how easy it was for the accusations to be never voiced properly, or if they were, swept under the rug. In its closing scene of Streep and Adams finding solace in each other’s doubts on a bench in the dead of winter, Shanley seems to beg the audience for a little bit of sympathy on behalf of the Church. However, it left me thinking of an earlier scene where Hoffman’s priest asked Streep’s nun, “Where is your compassion?” To which Streep replied, “Nowhere you can get at it.” Perhaps any sympathy should be showered on the victims…for I feel nothing for the Church.  Doubt will leave you chilled, and like the Sisters, perhaps we’re not meant to sleep so well as long as the crimes continue.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0918927/usercomments-18

Doubt and Revolution Plague The Duchess

SPOILER ALERT:  Her hair does catch on fire!

With the debates and baseball playoffs still holding most of my attention, films have had to take a backseat.  So I’m eschewing my traditional review format here for the moderately successful The Duchess.  Saul Dibb’s “inspired by a true story” costume drama about the Duchess of Devonshire is a fairly entertaining run-of-the-mill feminist bodice-ripper.  It’s one of those movies impeccably shot, full of costumes and pageantry, and featuring A-class acting that is hard to dislike, but just doesn’t have that special “it” due to our familiarity with this stereotypical story of a woman of immense wealth and power who is forced to chose between her true feelings and what society demands of her.  In the titular role, Keira Knightley acts the hell out of her part, and for the first time, seems to fully inhabit that old-school “Movie Star” mold.  Ralph Fiennes, as the Duke, delivers a master-class in the portrayal of an elitist creep.  It’s another classic turn from the chameleon-like British thespian who really should have had an Oscar on the mantle a long time ago.  Featuring hearty doses of smarmy satire and stuffy 18th-century social mores, The Duchess is no Barry Lyndon, but it fits the bill as an HBO-style production of Masterpiece Theater.

However, I couldn’t help but think the best things about this recent trip to the cinema were the trailers, and thoughts of the film teasers oddly plagued my devouring of the main course.  Yes, there was the preview for Oliver Stone’s inexplicable W (opening next week) which looks funnier and funnier with each new TV spot.  But there were also two subtly thrilling trailers for some prime-time Oscar bait:  In one corner, we have what looks to be a stunning film adaptation of a controversial stage-play that touches on the Catholic abuse scandals among other heady topics starring a habited Meryl Streep, a frocked Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a perfectly cast Amy Adams as a naive nun.  I have faith no art-house film buff will want to miss Doubt.  In the other corner is Sam Mendes seemingly stirring and evocative adaptation of Richard Yate’s novel, Revolutionary Road, staring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as a young couple on the brink of emotional ruin in a 1950’s suburban purgatory.  The cinematography and the acting in this, as in Doubt, looks to be amazing.  While a perfectly adequate The Duchess will quickly fade from memory, these two films, based on their trailers and pedigree, look to be the type that viewers and critics will write home about at the end of the year.  I can’t wait.

To watch the trailers, visit:

W:  http://www.wthefilm.com/

Doubt:  http://www.apple.com/trailers/miramax/doubt/

Revolutionary Road:  http://www.revolutionaryroadmovie.com/

CAPTION:  Thank god we’re off that sinking ship!

A Review of Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”

Do you Mind if I Call you Chico?, 5 November 2007
10/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Two dysfunctional brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) get tired of competing for who is the bigger f***-up and who Daddy (Albert Finney) loves more, so they hatch a hair-brained scheme to rob Mommy and Daddy’s jewelry store so that they can clear their debts and start fresh. Sounds like a great plan except that this is a suspenseful 1970’s style melodrama about a heist gone wrong, and boy, do things really go wrong here for our hapless duo and everyone involved. Lasciviously concocted by screenwriter Kelly Masterson and classically executed by director Sidney Lumet, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” uses the heist as its McGuffin to delve deep into family drama.

Contrary to popular belief, Sidney Lumet is not dead. At age 83, he has apparently made a deal with the Devil to deliver one last great film. Lumet was at his zenith in the 1970’s with films like “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico,” and one of my favorite films of all time, “Network”.  He has somehow managed to make a film that bears all the hallmarks of his classics while intertwining some more modern elements (graphic sexuality, violence, and playing with time-frames and POV’s) into a crackling, vibrant, lean, mean, and provocative melodrama. One can only hope that some of the modern greats (like Scorsese or Spielberg) who emerged during the same decade Lumet was at the top of his game will have this much chutzpah left when they reach that age.

Lumet is a master at directing people walking through spaces to create tension and develop characters. As the cast waltzes through finely appointed Manhattan offices and apartments his slowly moving camera creates a palpable sense of anxiety as we never know who might be around the next corner or what this person might do in the next room. Also amazing is how Lumet utilizes the multiple POV and shifting time-frame approach. The coherent and classical presentation he uses makes the similarly structured films of wunderkinds Christopher Nolan and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu seem like amateur hour.

Of course, what Lumet is best at is directing amazing ensemble casts and tricking them into acting within an inch of their lives. Philip Seymour Hoffman has never been, and most likely never will be, better than he is here. Albert Finney’s quietly searing portrayal of a father betrayed and at the end of his rope is a masterpiece to watch unfold. Ethan Hawke, normally a nondescript pretty boy, is perfect as the emotionally crippled younger brother who has skated by far too long on his charms and looks. The coup-de-grace, however, is the series of scenes between Hoffman and Marisa Tomei, eerily on point as his flighty trophy wife. Lumet runs them through the gamut of emotions that culminate in a scene that is the best of its kind since William Holden taunted Beatrice Straight right into a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in “Network.”

The Devil of any great film is in the details, from Albert Finney’s tap of his car’s trunk that won’t close due to a fender bender, to the look Amy Ryan (fresh off her amazing turn in “Gone Baby Gone”) gives her ex-husband Ethan Hawke at his mawkish promise to his little girl all three of them knows he won’t keep, to the systematic unraveling of a family on the skids, to the dialog begging for cultists to quote it (my favorite line being the hilariously threatening “Do you mind if I call you Chico?”) to the excellent Carter Burwell score. “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is the film of the year. If something emerges to best it, then we know a few other deals must’ve been brokered with Old Scratch.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0292963/usercomments-12