CinemAN Film Reviews Week 3: Philip Seymour Hoffman Week

Capote, Happiness, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Savages, Almost Famous, The Master.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone.

It will take us a while to grasp on the scale of this tragedy. Not only because the great actor’s kryptonite was a destructive poisonous drug; not only because he was only 46 and left behind three young children; but also because from now on every time there is a brilliant film with an intriguing character, we will wonder, even for a second, if he would have done it better. Chances are, he would, and he would do it in a way that is impossible to forget.

The first time I saw his film was with my father about a decade ago. It was Flawless (1999) by Joel Schumacher. Since in my family people do not talk during films, we sat in silence. We did not feel like talking anyway, we were both fascinated by the actor, whose name we did not know. We waited for the credits and checked his name, because, as my father said, he would one day become very big.

He did. He went above and beyond that, raising his bar higher and higher, almost never stopping for a break. A transformation genius, he was pretty much the male equivalent of Meryl Streep – just give him a role, step back and watch. He did not just play, he created characters and learned to talk, walk and breathe like them. Whether it was the brilliant portrayal of beloved writer in Capote, or several short appearances on Almost Famous as legendary Lester Bangs, he made sure his characters mattered.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone and it is heartbreaking.

I wish he lived longer to be appreciated to the full extend of his talent, to play, to teach, to receive awards, or even to retire early. Because even by the age 46 his footprint was more significant than most of his peers. It was unforgettable.



– United States, 2005

Director: Bennett Miller

Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Clifton Collins Jr., Catherine Keener and others.

Reading a morning newspaper Truman Capote (Hoffman) stumbles upon an article about a murdered Kansas family. He decides to make it the topic for his next book and heads to Kansas with close friend Harper Lee (Keener) to conduct research. At first planning to focus on the community, he interviews the neighbors and makes friends with the investigators. When the murderers are caught he manages to spend time with them. Soon, he forms a close friendship bond with one of them, Perry Smith (Collins Jr.).

When making a biopic, directors are often faced with one question – which period of the character’s life to show. In this case the choice is perfect. Based on the book by Gerald Clarke, the story concentrates on the defining moment of Capote as a person, when he wrote the book that made him famous and became his last.

It is easy to be compassionate to people, who in our eyes deserve it, but developing feelings towards a murderer takes a whole other set of qualities. One of them is the ability to connect on a very human level. “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front,” Capote explains Harper Lee, meaning the similar childhood he shared with Smith.

The complexity of Capote’s personality is the center of the film. He loves and hates Smith, his book, people he loves and himself. He suffers from the desire to know the answer to one question – what exactly happened that night. As soon as he learns, he can never forget it, because he can recall 94 percent of his conversations. He checked it.

Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote, which brought him his only Academy Award is marvelous. His speaking manner, his gestures and attitude, his imperfections and ability to transform from a patron of New York’s elite clubs, the center of everyone’s attention to a sensitive, far from perfect human are as impressive as it gets.

Watch it for your taste’s sake


Watch it / At your own risk / Do not watch it

When in need of Hoffman’s talent.


– United States, 1998

Director, writer: Todd Solondz

Stars: Jane Adams, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cynthia Stevenson and others.

Joy (Adams) is unlucky in romance. Her last boyfriend committed suicide after she broke up with him. The one after him is a trouble. He tries to find her happiness in giving back, teaching, and even that goes wrong.

Her sister Helen (Flynn Boyle) is the opposite. She changes men like gloves, finding happiness in short flings.

Trish (Stevenson) is the most accomplished of three sisters – she has a suburban home, where she lives with husband, Bill (Baker), and son, Timmy. She says she has “it all.”

Working as a therapist, Bill sees one himself. He keeps seeing the same disturbing nightmare, where gunned with an automatic weapon, he opens shooting on people at a park. Also, he is a pedophile, but he doesn’t share that part.

Timmy, who is behind on reaching puberty is under a lot of stress, and finds relief in confiding in his father.

And then there is Allen (Hoffman), Helen’s neighbor, who lusts after her and any random female who would arouse him enough for a good masturbation.

What makes you happy? What if it is the worst possible thing?

Solondz wants you to imagine it by creating one of the most controversial films there are. He raises taboo topics in excruciating detail, so you stop running and face them.

Happiness is about our darkest secrets and desires, the ones we’re ashamed of the most. It is about the desperation of a lonesome masturbator, blindness of a housewife, misfortunes of good people and so much more. It will make you cringe, laugh and cry, and Timmy’s conversation with his father will break your heart and heal it at the same time.

This film requires an open mind. A very open mind, stretchable even. It will rub you the wrong way, testing your strength, just to see if you can take more. At some point it will drive you to the edge of your tolerance and wonder if you still refuse to judge. Be strong. Don’t judge. Because only then you will be able to experience a whole new set of emotions you never knew you had.

Watch it for your taste’s sake /

 Watch it

 / At your own risk / Do not watch it

When in a good mental state.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

– United States, 2007

Director: Sidney Lumet

Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney and others.

Two brothers, Hank (Hoffman) and Andy (Hawke) are having financial troubles. Hank has issues at work and Andy has alimony and a naggy ex-wife. They decide to take a shortcut and rob a jewelry store that is very familiar to them. They know the safe codes, operation hours and every corner of the store. It could have been the perfect non-violent crime, if their accomplice did not screw it up. The crime triggers a series of events that directly affect them and their families in the worst ways imaginable.

This is one of those movies, when saying too much might spoil the big impression, so I won’t. Any additional detail on the plot that I will give will reveal too much. But trust my word, you should watch it.

The plot is as disturbing as it sounds, and it gets worse. Every action brings more complications than solutions, and every attempt to fix it turns out even more destructive. Hank and Andy reach new levels of desperation, but deal with them differently. Andy, who has made his peace with being a loser a long time ago, goes into self-loathing and self-pitying. Hank, who doesn’t like to fail keeps trying to solve the situation.

Directing is incredible. Lumet doesn’t only show all possible aspects of the story, he shows them in different angles, literally. Every flashback of the same events is shot from a different angle, which actually gives you a different perspective. He raises tension with every scene, not releasing it for a second. Even long static scenes are in harmony with the general pace of the story. He gives you the details of the story bit by bit, like a puzzle for you to assemble.

Hoffman creates a great multi-dimensional character. He showed it all: a hurt child, a burdened man, a cold-hearted criminal and many more angles of a complex personality.

Watch it for your taste’s sake /

 Watch it

 / At your own risk / Do not watch it

When not having financial problems.

Charlie Wilson’s War

– United States, Germany, 2007

Director: Mike Nichols

Stars: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman and others.

Congressman from Texas Charlie Wilson (Hanks) is through with meaningless existence – beautiful women, alcohol and drugs just don’t do it for him anymore. Luckily, it is early 1980s and the Soviet army is fighting Afghanistan. Influenced by his supporter Joanne Herring he decides to do something about it. Together with CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Hoffman) and Herring he comes up with a scheme to support mujahideen with weapons in order to defeat the Soviets.

This film is controversial. If you check, its ratings are drastically different in Russian and American charts. Russians, were naturally very upset with it, to the point when the film was banned in the country. No wonder, for anyone who is not familiar with internal issues of the U.S. politics, this film can seem like an anti-Soviet propaganda. And for anyone not familiar with the Soviet Union and fed by Reaganist ideas, it might seem like the Union was indeed collapsed by the States.

There is more to the history of the collapse of the Soviets than it is portrayed in the film. But there is more to the film that we give it credit. Yes, there are elements of propaganda, where Soviets are portrayed as absolute evil and Charlie Wilson as a humanitarian, who drank unable to cope with the thought of dying children. That is what we see on the surface. However, there is more underneath. Strangely enough it is Gust, who tells us exactly what it is, and whose words are largely ignored.

The film was made in 2007, in the heat of two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which happened because Charlie Wilson happened. The film implies it in the words of Gust, who tells Wilson the story of a young boy who falls off a horse and breaks his leg. He warns of the implications – if you end up using Afghanis without giving back, it will blow in your face.

He also warns of one of the biggest internal political problem of the U.S. – money in politics, when speaking to Herring: “I like you just fine, Mrs. Herring, it’s just been my experience that when people with money and too much free time get involved in politics, pretty soon, I forget who it is I’m supposed to be shooting at.”

Or about media: “As long as the press sees sex and drugs behind the left hand, you can park a battle carrier behind the right hand and no one’s gonna fucking notice.”

My favorite is his description of Wilson’s pre-Afghanistan career, which might as well describe many politicians today: “Your greatest legislative achievement in six terms is being re-elected five times.”

When it comes to technical aspects, I highly disagree with the choice of Julia Roberts for this role. Being one of my favorite actresses, she is far from the image of a miniature Southern beauty queen-turned-influential socialite. Tom Hanks was a bit of a stretch too. His kind and friendly face just doesn’t say a mastermind-behind-a-war, however good is his acting. Was it done on purpose to portray Wilson as positive as possible? Perhaps, but it only made it worse.

Watch it for your taste’s sake /

Watch it

 / At your own risk / Do not watch it

When in the mood for dirty politics.

The Savages

– United States, 2007

Director: Tamara Jenkins

Stars: Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco and others.

Raised by an abusive father, Jon (Hoffman) and Wendy (Linney) Savages took off as soon as they had a chance and never looked back. With no mother on the picture estrangement was an easy task.

They both moved to the East Coast: Wendy lives in New York City, trying to make it as a playwright. She is having an affair with a married man, who lives in her building and has a cat. Jon is in Buffalo, NY teaching drama and trying to finish his book with a boring topic. He has a girlfriend he loves, but he is not ready to commit fully.

They both haven’t seen their father Lenny (Bosco) in 10 years. One day Wendy receives a call – Lenny’s girlfriend of 20 years died and he is suffering from dementia. The siblings fly to Sun City, AZ to show support, but end up with more on their hands. Their father has nowhere to live now, and they have to take care of it. They decide to move him to a nursing home.

The Savages is painfully real. It is real in a way that a lot of people can relate. It tells us loud and clear in Hoffman’s voice that all of this, the false idea that the quality of nursing homes matters is just a way to hide the painful reality that people die and it is going to be painful. “…you are the consumer they want to target. You are the guilty demographic,” Jon yells in his argument with Wendy.

The amount of small details that paint the picture only partially, is Jenkins’ biggest accomplishment. Like the scene during the film screening at the nursing home, when demented Lenny thinks the man slapping a child in the movie is his own father and yells at him. It is the only detail we get of Lenny’s past, but it speaks for itself. Just like it is in real life, we will never know the full story.

Hoffman and Linney are the foundation of the film. There is more unspoken and hidden to their characters than what is on the surface. The mixed feelings they have to their father are seen, not spoken. They were able to show lack, even inability of affection of people, who were brought up in a tough environment. They probably wanted to be closer and more loving, but they never knew how, and until that life-changing point when they had to face their demon, they represented their past even to each other. But ironically, it was their demon that brought them back together.

The Savages doesn’t just show harsh reality and tragedy of life. It shows the solution – get up and get over it for your own sake. Just like that dog in the last shot.

Watch it for your taste’s sake

/ Watch it / At your own risk / Do not watch it

When not afraid to face demons of your own.

Almost Famous

– United States, 2000

Director, writer: Cameron Crowe

Stars: Billy Crudup, Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson

William Miller (Fugit) is two years younger than his classmates and is raised by a controlling but good-hearted mother. Unable to cope with their mother his older sister Anita leaves home to be a stewardess. She leaves her rock’n’roll records collection to her brother.

By the age 15 he knows everything there is about music. He wants to write about it, while his mother wants him to be a lawyer. He makes friends with the legendary music critic Lester Bangs, who mentors him in writing. One day he receives a call – Rolling Stone editor read his story and unaware of his age, they want him on board. His first assignment is a profile of a young band Stillwater. Will takes several days off school to write the story, but soon finds himself of a tour bus with band. He builds a friendship with the band’s bass player Russell Hammond (Crudup) and falls in love with a groupie (Band Aid) Penny Lane (Hudson)

Cameron Crowe, the director of our last week’s movie Say Anything… (1989) based the character of William on his own experience, As a teenage writer for Rolling Stone, he saw it all and he put it all on paper. He even almost got in a plane crash travelling with The Who. Almost Famous is a sketch of his experiences and one of his greatest works.

Oh don’t I love the age of Rock’n’Roll. The defining era of when rebellious Baby Boomers reached their 20s and started leaving their nests to feed their wanderlust. It is the era that changed the society and paved the way that we, millenials proudly walk now.

William Miller is one of them. Being significantly younger than his peers, he is the metaphor of social adolescence. He refused to be shielded. Raised on his sister’s records, which as she predicted, set him free, he took the opportunity of a lifetime and followed his dream.

As any dream, his proved to be imperfect. Following the young band on their tour he saw more than he ever wanted: jealousy, competition and desperation. Stillwater is his real life – cruel and meaningless, and yet, with a glimpse of hope. Their fans idolize them, having no idea what they are like in reality. And just like Penny Lane, their biggest fan, those who manage to come close get the harsh reality check.

“Just make us look cool,” Russel (Crudup) asks Will when he first tries to interview him, but Will has a mentor, Lester Bangs, who wants him to tell the truth. Rock’n’roll is dying, he says, coolness is imaginary and superficial, sincerity is eternal. He teaches him to doubt, to think critically, not buy the conventional mantras and to opt for substance. He gives him the greatest advice anyone can ever give to a journalist, a friend, or a citizen: “I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful.”

Watch it for your taste’s sake

 / Watch it / At your own risk / Do not watch it

When ready to be uncool.

The Master

– United States, 2012

Director, writer: Paul Thomas Anderson

Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and others.

After World War II discharged Navy veteran with a drinking problem and psychological issues Freddie Quell (Phoenix) returns from his service. Civilian life doesn’t prove to be an easy task – he bounces from one job to another failing to fit in and being self-destructive.

After losing yet another job he walks into a party ferry, where he meets charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), whose character was vaguely based on the persona of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. Dodd describes himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher.” He runs a cult, whose philosophy is based on his studies, and, pretty much on his personality.

Dodd invests his time to heal Freddie’s soul and make him believe. In return, Freddie becomes his loyal soldier and friend.

Frankly the film left me with mixed feelings. There were parts that I absolutely loved. Phoenix, for example. He was amazing! It was the good old Phoenix, who created a rich character with specific manners, and even posture. He transformed and it was very believable. Hoffman did the usual – became someone unrecognizable. The down-to-earth actor turned into a man of confidence and vanity, without any visual transformation. The camerawork is beautiful, the era is shown in great detail: fashion, make up, landscapes.

However, I am not sure what Anderson tried to say. He built the suspense – a destructive veteran, who resents authority finds a savior, but refuses to embrace the faith completely. Just like any authority he disregarded before, this one is having a hard time sticking, too. Meeting Dodd is supposedly life-changing and eye-opening, and we patiently wait for the main conflict. The scene where Dodd explains his philosophy to a room full of people, and one of the guests starts an argument with him, seemed like a pivotal moment – there it is, a phony philosophy is finally challenged by common sense. But right after that moment the story starts mumbling and throwing unfinished thoughts our way, leaving the story unfinished and us confused and unsatisfied.

Too many details were missing. Anderson, a great author of cult movies such as There Will Be Blood (2007), Magnolia (1999) and Boogie Nights (1997) might have dropped the ball on The Master. Even remarkable acting cannot save inconsistent and incomplete narrative. Without one, a film is just a vague sketch.

Watch it for your taste’s sake / Watch it /

At your own risk

/ Do not watch it

When ready to settle for incredible acting only.

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