Lina Lamont

"What do you think I am, dumb or something?"

Archive for the tag “Philip Seymour Hoffman”

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 22nd November 2015

The first Hunger Games was terrific: fresh and exciting, the unsavoury tale of children being coerced into killing children paved the way for how Young Adult dystopia should look, and then spawned too many similarly-themed franchises. The second instalment had its charms (mainly in the wardrobe department) but when Hollywood hit upon dividing the third and final book into two drawn-out movies, it hit a bump in the road.

Mockingjay – Part 2 picks up where its predecessor left off, with our heroes living in District 13 as they form a plan to storm the Capitol. Meanwhile, Katniss is determined to fulfil her own mission by killing the now ailing President Snow (a benign-looking Donald Sutherland who just isn’t evil enough to warrant taking revenge on).

But for a finale, it’s just a bit boring. Apart from watching the team weave its way through the booby-trapped city (these set-pieces provide the only jolts of excitement in the whole film but are indeed nicely executed), the viewer’s biggest stimulus will be matching up what they see on screen with every dystopian trope they’ve seen in the last three years. It’s hard to remember what Katniss and Crew have been up to when they all dress like Abnegants in Divergent. The battle-torn city has echoes of Inception, while the creatures they flee from evoke the Cranks who terrorise those other persecuted teens in The Scorch Trials. The screen lights up only when Jena Malone spits out some delicious bitterness – otherwise, the film’s sole aspect of human interest is the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale, which isn’t getting any less equilateral.

Granted, your heart thuds a little to see Philip Seymour Hoffman gracing the screen for one last time (his death during filming meant that a pivotal emotional moment had to be delivered by another character), and Julianne Moore is her usually reliable self, albeit in a one-dimensional part – but Mockingjay 2 is disappointingly low-key considering its importance to this extremely successful trilogy. As my companion said, as the credits rolled: “Well, that didn’t really sing, did it?”

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 23rd November 2014

It’s not that this is a bad movie, but it’s simply not as good as it should be.

The minute the “Hunger Games” books hit the bedside tables of young adults everywhere, a movie franchise was a given. The page-turning, dystopian treatise about young people fighting one another to the death in a gladiatorial contest constructed by an evil Big Brother is now into its third of four cinematic parts.

The first movie set the scene nicely, catapulting a starlet named Jennifer Lawrence into the big-time (and rapidly her first Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook once Hollywood realised she could turn her hand to any role). Unusually, the second film Catching Fire was widely regarded a knock-out, mixing dynamic exposition with another bout in the arena of certain death. It left us on a worthy cliffhanger and with a whole year to anticipate Katniss Everdeen’s fate.

Having directed the second installment, Francis Lawrence (no relation, one is obliged to point out) has slackened the reins on this drawn out and somewhat ponderous sequel which seems designed merely to fill in narrative time before the grand finale of next year’s Mockingjay Part 2.

The performances are solid (bolstered without doubt by the presence of heavyweights Julianne Moore and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the darker, distinctly pessimistic tone may inveigle viewers whose threshold for interminable teen love triangles is set low. Stylistically, this episode evokes Ender’s Game and aspects of Edge of Tomorrow, with Katniss recast as the saviour of the rebellion (complete with stirring promo videos and an Angel of Death costume).

However, the earnestly slow pace undermines some key turning points which deliver neither the pathos nor the character shifts they ought to. Although we are spared yet another rendition of arena combat (they couldn’t trot that out for a third go), it’s at the expense of any drama, intrigue or excitement.

Of course, those who have read the books or seen the previous films should see this one – but be warned: Mockingjay Part 1 is not going to set the world on fire.

Performance

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 7th April 2013

This film was released in the US as A Late Quartet but not only is this a rather opaque title, it has been renamed for wider release, principally to prevent its being confused with the recent grey dollar movie Quartet (forgive the term, older viewers, but the film industry is now unashamedly making movies with your pocket in mind). Happily, although the name “Performance” risks evoking the iconic Mick Jagger movie (with which it bears no resemblance), this one is superior to both previous films with its exemplary casting, dialled-down acting and beautiful rendition of the most classic of classical music.

Those who haven’t been involved in one may be surprised to discover the intense, long-term relationship that grows within a string quartet, particularly one whose world-class success sees it go on for decades. When daily life revolves around rehearsing and performing, making committee decisions about when to tour and managing one another’s sensitivities about the role each plays in the foursome, emotions are bound to occasionally run high.

The four top-class actors who personify the intricacy of human nature are perfectly cast: Christopher Walken as the avuncular, aging cellist; Catherine Keener’s gentle viola player, married to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ambitious second violin; and the arrogant virtuoso first violin played by Mark Ivanir (the only one whose face may be familiar but whose name will not). As ill-health threatens one of their clan, mutual concern about the future gives way to itchy feet and impulsive decisions. The strength of the writing is that even far-fetched situations are responded to with utter sincerity, lifting the story out of farce and into pathos.

Despite excellent support from a subtly starry cast (including the “Julia Child of Indian Cookery”, Madhur Jaffrey, and real-life opera singer Anne Sofie Von Otter), this is essentially a chamber piece, written and directed by relative newcomer Yaron Zilberman who is following up his award-winning first film, the documentary Watermarks. Zilberman exhibits a preternatural lightness of touch, taking a simple premise – the probable demise of this tightly-bound musical family on the eve of its 25th anniversary season – and subtly dissecting the passion, conflicts and heartache inherent in the quartet’s long history.

On top of the universally superb performances, the music is sublime. Inspired by and subsequently written around Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, the actors’ string and bow work looks faultless to the untrained eye (I’m confident even the trained viewer should be satisfied).

Providing laughter and tears, Performance is in no way as “hilarious” nor thankfully as saccharine as Quartet, but I draw the comparison only to warn those expecting a simple OAP comedy that this foursome delivers something considerably more substantial.

The Master

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 13th January 2013

The Master is a Great Film, but in the way that dictators, geniuses and misanthropic artists are often described as “great” – that is to say, they may achieve remarkable aims but you wouldn’t necessarily want to spend time with them.

In this vein, Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest progeny (only his sixth feature film in an extremely illustrious career) is very hard to recommend. The PTA aficionados will see it without a second thought, and rightly so, and it has already topped various critics’ polls around the world.

It boasts typically powerhouse performances (as did There Will Be Blood), focuses on intense, dysfunctional relationships (see Boogie Nights) and a wily, weaving storyline (Anderson’s forte in Magnolia), though it leaves more questions than answers in its wake. Yet for all its cleverness, the sumptuous production design, incredible photography, deeply realised characterisation and the underlying backstory of a cult based not-that-loosely on Scientology, The Master can be a disturbing watch, a sprawling mess at times, both utterly enthralling and unsettling.

Immediately assaulting us with a dissonant, ill-tempo soundtrack, the story begins with Joaquin Phoenix’s alcoholic marine, Freddie Quell. Recently freed from military “service” in the South Pacific, we long to wash this man out of our hair as we watch him stumble from one ghastly situation to the next, in search of either rehabilitation or oblivion. Phoenix hasn’t played a likeable role since . . . well, ever, but damn he’s good, his concave physicality and unpredictable outbursts brilliantly belying Freddie’s awkwardness and inability to interact appropriately.

After yet another fuel-induced bender, Freddie stows away on a boat and chances on the opportunity for a whole new life, clutched under the avuncular armpit of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Master. Freddie is such a mess we feel palpable relief as soon as we see Hoffman is in charge (a PTA regular and one of the finest actors around).

Leader of a shady but ostensibly benevolent community called The Cause, Freddie becomes his perfect foil, concocting batches of moonshine while Master invites him to have some “informal processing” to soothe away the mental and emotional blemishes on Freddie’s personal record.

With terrific support from Amy Adams as the Master’s Lady Macbeth of a wife, and a cast of proper old-time faces, there are moments when you know you are watching pure film-making genius, and others when you wonder what it is all about. Overall, the effect is like that of a Bacon painting: a cacophony of horribleness, artfully done.

The Ides of March

This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 19th February 2012

Fresh from goofing about in the tear-jerking The Defendants, George Clooney is back, this time directing, co-writing and starring in a political thriller that has you wound as tightly as its characters right until the end.

Clooney plays Democratic Governor Mike Morris, presidential hopeful in the primary stages of his race to the White House.  It’s a two-horse race, and interestingly we don’t see the other horse except in sound-bites on television – because this is Morris’s contest.  We see his campaign office, peopled by bright-eyed young interns, and watch two cynically experienced campaign managers (the typically excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti) play everyone like the strategists they are.

Wisely, however, Clooney doesn’t make it all about his character.  For the centre-piece in this particular battle of chess is the young, smart and idealistic Stephen (Ryan Gosling), Morris’s brilliant communications manager.  Ethically clear-cut – he will only “do anything and say anything” for that which he believes in – Stephen is suddenly embroiled in a series of events that see him questioning his loyalty and priorities.

Clooney loves a political movie, having scored high with Good Night, and Good Luck his black and white, Oscar-nominated 1950s retelling of the McCarthy era.  This story leaps forward sixty years, into a contemporary American tale which has some resonances with politicians we’ve seen come and go in recent years.  But the story is almost arbitrarily “political” – Stephen’s choices, his treatment at the hands of merciless friends and colleagues, and his ensuing predicament could all have happened in any boardroom, TV studio or trading floor.

As with Clooney’s other thoughtful works, The Ides of March isn’t full of rousing action set-pieces, but burns slowly at first, establishing its characters’ motivations and then, one by one, tipping them upside down.  With uniformly superb performances (Evan Rachel Wood’s feisty young intern is a pleasant surprise), perhaps the greatest bittersweet pleasure is in watching Gosling’s Stephen lose his idealistic sheen as the conflict intensifies.  His subsequent trajectory from bishop, to pawn, to rook is gripping.

Coming in at a modest one hour forty, the sudden, seemingly premature ending leaves you wishing (for once) that we could follow Gosling’s journey even further into the depths of what must surely be Stephen’s own personal hell.  Meanwhile, Clooney asserts himself a serious contender for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar next week.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again

Synecdoche, New York

(Small spoiler alert)

The truest line in the film goes something like “The world is not full of six billion extras – but six billion people who are the leading characters in their own lives”.

I’m paraphrasing, of course, and the very fact that I can’t be bothered to look up the script online and quote it verbatim shows an atypical lack of pedantry on this protagonist’s part – which in itself speaks volumes about how small an impact the overall film had on me.

The above paraphrase, however, does encapsulate what is clever about the film.  While at first glance it might just appear to be self-indulgent and pointless, the film is in fact an appropriately self-referential almost-parody of the theatrical world and its creative angst, which is (or can be considered) often self-indulgent and pointless.   Who doesn’t feel as though they are the lead role in the dramatisation of their own life?  Who hasn’t decided who would play them in a movie of their life? (For me, Cameron Diaz.  The “rules” of the game allow for “upselling” when casting.)

So to that end, the notion of casting actors to play oneself is nicely handled.  That is, until it gets rather convoluted and altogether too Lynchian, for my tastes at least.  While Kaufman doesn’t go as far as to make it nonsensical (in the way that Lynch often does with no qualms whatsoever), neither does he make it easy for us.  Frankly I found the “Ellen” character a stretch too far, and one of the less compelling components of the plot.  By comparison, Emily Watson’s rendition of Samantha Morton’s Hazel was a delight in every scene – even when playing her normal, English self.  So Kaufman is certainly clever, and consistently so.

Perhaps the film’s flaw (apart from the ultimately despondent tone and resulting lack of enjoyment in watching it) is that Kaufman writes brilliant, imaginative stories – but he shouldn’t direct.  His previous work was ably handled by Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, two visionary film-makers who brought extremely creative tales to life in beautiful, thought-provoking films.  Synecdoche lacks any visual flair – it’s as if Philip Seymour Hoffman’s dismal life is manifested in the world he inhabits; the world we must watch for two hours.  By the time death finally claims him in the closing scene,
the audience’s relief is palpable.

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