Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: Nebraska

Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is coming to the end of things. He’s old and, while still tough as an old boot, starting to lose his faculties. Sometimes he seems in a daze, or unsure of his surroundings, other times he seems clear and sharp. But the downward trend is clear.

This manifests itself most obviously in his sudden fixation on a phony sweepstakes letter he receives, of the ‘You may have already won 1 000 000 000’ kind. Convinced the letter is real, or maybe just indulging the fantasy, Woody determines to make his way to the State of the movie’s title, headquarters of the sweepstakes company, to claim his prize.  When his no nonsense family refuse to take him he sets out on foot, a repeated pattern that ends each time with his aimless, well meaning son David (Will Forte) bringing him home.

But when Woody’s wanderings start to pose a danger to the old man, David decides to drive his father to Nebraska after all, to prove that the prize is fake and snap him out of his reverie. Father and son take to the highway for a gentle, wryly comic road trip featuring many familiar road trip elements; misunderstandings, arguments, laughs, tension, regrets.

En route, Woody gets drunk and takes a tumble and the trip is more fully detoured by a few days of recuperation in the small town of Billings, where Woody grew up and much of his extended family still lives. His peppery wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) come to check up on him, and a round of family gatherings ensues. The polite veneer that hangs across these lunches and dinners is soon torn down however, once word of Woody’s ‘winnings’ gets out. 

It’s only a short step for Woody’s many friends and relatives to go from congratulating him on his good fortune… to trying to claim a piece of it for themselves, which they all do with varying degrees of forcefulness. And once the lie behind the cash is revealed, it’s an even shorter step for everyone to disown him again.

Alexander Payne’s sixth feature film is another assured effort, very much in keeping with the director’s previous works. And the muted tone, observational approach and mix of comic and dramatic on display here will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the director’s career to date.

Payne has always been a good director of actors – have a look at how many Oscar nominations his films have wrought, for one example of this – and he again elicits excellent performances from a strong cast. 

As the gruff, but likable, Woody, Bruce Dern has his best role (and craziest hair) in years, and he is well paired with an equally ingratiating performance from Will Forte. Although June Squibb trumps them both, in a riotous turn that quickly accelerates from put upon housewife to savage mouthed pitbull in a few hilarious scenes. Her vigorous defence of her husband’s character, and commensurate takedown of the rest of his family’s, is the films undoubted highlight. 

Although there is much to enjoy throughout, particularly the luminous black and white cinematography of Phedon Papamichael and the rustic score of Mark Orton. Both suit the film’s restrained, deliberate pace and add atmosphere and charm. 

Watching Nebraska is a bit like paying a visit to a small town in a quiet part of the country; it's easy going, undemanding, almost soothing. Everyone is unhurried. There is space and silence between moments and people. Much seems to be left unsaid, but even this could be illusionary. Like the inscrutable expression on the main characters face, you wonder; Are these people quiet because they're thinking things over? Or not thinking at all? Do they move through their lives slowly because they know something you don't? Or do they know nothing?

And, again like spending time in a quiet, out of the way place, sometimes the film hangs a bit heavy. There may be, at least a little, too much of not very much going on. There are flatspots, and the characters (for me, always excepting June Squibb) wear out their welcome after a time. The ending too, is a bit pat which seems at odds with the messy interpersonal relationships that the film otherwise centres around.

But mostly, this is as pleasant as a cruise down a back country highway on a summers day. It's entertaining and undemanding, with just enough insight to give the hint of resonance. It doesn't hit the pointed heights of some of Payne's other films, but has a genuine warmth that is missing from them as well. 

A polished film with many fine qualities.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Review: Blue is the Warmest Colour

Rates:  *  *  *  *

Adele is a middle class teenage girl living in Lille, in Northern France. She meets a girl, falls in love the lovers swoon, move in together, fall out, split and, to varying degrees, move on.

And that, from a plot perspective, is all.

Which seems like a thin prop to base a three hour movie on. But plot, and plottiness, is not what lies at the heart of this movie. For ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ is nothing short of an ambitious attempt to capture something of the fabric of contemporary life, from a young person’s perspective.

The film's cycle begins with Adele (Adele Exarchopolous) as a callow, but typical, high school student. She hangs out with her friends, has a fling with a cute (male) classmate and gets through her schoolwork as painlessly as possible. But a sly kiss from a bi-curious (female) classmate triggers something in her, and leads her to a lesbian club and a chance encounter with Emma (Lea Seydoux) , an independent minded university student Adele had previously glimpsed on the street.

Sparks fly everywhere.

Adele and Emma shortly move from friendship to physicality, an event that both opens the younger woman’s eyes to world’s previously unseen, and causes major upheaval in her life. She gets an unexpectedly mixed response from her classmates – some  of whom harass her before school – and decides to keep the status of her relationship with Emma concealed from her parents, which leads to an unbearably awkward family dinner.

Adele doesn't so much come out as take a series of peeks.

Change comes in a wider perspective as well, as Emma exposes Adele to new horizons in art, literature, conversation and ideas. And much of the film is devoted to broad topics like these; less the stuff of film narrative, more the currency of existence itself. Philosophy and avant-garde art share screen space with the two lovers.

This allows the film to pose questions around the nature of identity and to show how different people choose to define themselves; whether it be through their sexuality, their friends, their taste in art and books, or what they like to drink and eat. While Adele grapples with these things in turn – she has barely begun to cope with her altered sexual parameters before she has to adjust to other, pronounced, changes – Emma is presented as more poised and confident, more sure of herself and less inclined to seek outside validation. It is one of the main differences between the two, and the one most likely to cause friction.

Adele moves into Emma’s flat and the two settle into a kind of comfortable domesticity, although it seems from the outset that Emma is more comfortable than her partner. Time passes. Adele finishes high school and begins training as a pre-school teacher, while Emma starts to make a name for herself as an artist. 

Faced with making their way in the world, and earning a living, the couple spend less time together, as the honeymoon phase gives way to daily routine. Adele struggles to cope with this transition, and feels alienated from her partner and jealous of the artistic colleagues she spends her workday with.
Nervous and uncertain, Adele accepts the attention of a handsome male teaching colleague. 

The affair is soon uncovered however, and Emma aggressively breaks off their relationship. She kicks Adele out onto the street in the middle of the night, in a heartbreaking scene that gives a final summation of each woman’s character; Emma, fierce, proud and confident; Adele, confused, inarticulate and rawly emotional.

A lengthy coda follows, as Adele attempts to pick up the pieces. She advances as a teacher, tries other relationships, tries to woo Emma back and finally comes to a melancholic acceptance of things, when she attends an art show of Emma’s and sees her with a new lover.  The film ends as Adele walks down the street alone in the rain, a seemingly sad finale that nevertheless indicates a growing maturity, one borne of unhappy experience.

Writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche’s epic length drama won the top prize at Cannes last year and has garnered both critical raves and a few raised eyebrows. And it’s easy to see why. This emotionally intense treatment of a young girl’s blossoming contains a potent mix of unvarnished emotion and uninhibited sex. The frankness of both of these elements is arresting… and guaranteed to ruffle a few feathers. Although you’d have to imagine that anyone likely to be shocked by the film’s graphic sex scenes may be unlikely to venture to the local arthouse cinema to seek it out.

The film’s extreme length has both positive and negative aspects. With so much running time to play with, Kechiche and his talented leads are free to tease out their character’s traits in a naturalistic, unforced fashion, an approach that lends an unmistakable air of reality to what is depicted on screen.  The downside is that the film does linger perhaps too long at times, which occasionally diminishes the impact. This is more pronounced towards the end, which contains at least one conclusion too many.

Adele Exarchopolous is on screen, and in close up, throughout the entire film and offers an amazing, one of a kind performance. You can discern as much about what is happening by charting the shifting expressions on her face as you can from anything she actually does, a film making style that you imagine must have been exhausting for the young actor (both leads subsequently complained to the press about the difficulties of the production). Her changing manner also provides a subtle portrayal of the passage of time, crucial in a film that jumps ahead months without any other obvious signposts. Seydoux is also good, in a less well developed role.

But this is Adele's story, and Exarchopolous' show (it's instructive that the film's French title was 'The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 and 2'). And this is an occasionally thrilling, nearly always absorbing and fundamentally brave thing to watch. All the creative talents attached to this film deserve plaudits for having the nerve to attempt a project like this, and for pulling it off as well as they have done. 

Sure to be one of the years most talked about films.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: Le Weekend

Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

I was in Europe last year when Le Weekend  was about to hit cinemas. The above poster was on countless Tube stations.

And, on first glance, this seems like the most straightforward of prospects; sun dappled Paris, an aging couple, a zany friend. You don't really need to see the film to know how it plays out. The aging couple have drifted apart, they decide on a final fling, they hate it, they love it, Goldblum provides the comic relief, everyone learns something, you leave the cinema and wonder what on earth made you go in there in the first place.

Well, at least I knew the answer to this one. My partner got me a free ticket.

And, sure enough, the set up was much as expected, Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) are an aging couple who have drifted apart. Two early points to me and I was feeling very smug at this point as I munched on a gourmet Connoisseur icecream (girl at the candy bar: 'Oh! I looove those.') The opening of the film finds them on a train, headed for the dreaded final fling in sun dappled Paris.

And, more surely enough, things don't go as planned at first. Nick has booked them into a hotel they spent a fondly remembered weekend at in their youth, and is dismayed to find said hotel now a mouldering dump. Meg takes one look at their cramped, poky room and marches out to hail a cab, seemingly unconcerned as to whether her husband follows her. She leads them on to a ritzy five star place, and a credit card buckling suite.

Again, much as expected. The characters seem standard movie cut outs - boring, conservative husband, free spirited, independent wife - and the scenario is one that has been played out many times throughout the history of cinema...

... only, it doesn't take long for the film to start to subvert these precepts.

The banter between the couple is considerably more pointed than you might expect. They don't so much nag and tease each other, as you expect elderly movie couples to do, as take to each other with truncheons. The casual viciousness with which they verbally thump one another is positively cold blooded.

And their mild weekend getaway is quickly derailed as well. It turns out that Meg is not only bored and frustrated with her husband, but seems to loathe the sight of him, and calmly tells him over their first night's dinner that she wants out of their relationship.

'I want... a new start,' she says firmly, putting a spoonful of something rich in her mouth.

And you can see why.

Nick and Meg seem to have nothing whatever in common. One is bold and gregarious, the other stodgy and introverted. One likes to think of the future, the other the past. One thinks that great days still lie ahead, the other seems to have dismissed this notion and, with it, given up all hope.
Nick then tells Meg that he has lost his teaching job - fired for smart mouthing a student - which further seems to underline his diminishing stature. Meg seems to be walking away from a train wreck.

But the movie turns again at this point, triggered by a small act of rebellion when Meg cajoles Nick into sneaking out of the restaurant without paying their hefty bill. With their future together seemingly gone, it's as if a weight has been lifted. They relax, they laugh, they drink and listen to music. They walk the ever luminous Paris streets. They talk, openly and directly about their feelings, their resentments, their regrets.

These moments seem truly intimate and have the ring of truth. There is little recrimination, just melancholia, over time and opportunities lost. It's the sort of conversation you can only have at certain key moments in your life, when dramatic circumstances force a stark re-evaluation.

Things come to a head at a party given by Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), an old university chum who Nick bumps into on the street. And where Nick is struggling in almost every facet of his life, Morgan is thriving; sporting an attractive trophy wife, a handsomely swish apartment and a book of collected works that has become a phenomenal best seller.

Mentally freed, or just flattered, Meg arranges to meet an attractive party goer at a nearby bar for a drink. While Nick gets stoned with Morgan's unhappy teenage son and makes an impromptu speech to the assembled throng, confessing all his recent reversals. Meg then, almost reluctantly, counters by saying that she still loves her husband after all, and they leave together.

But lest the movie veer back towards safe, wrinkly rom-com territory, it has one more final swerve up its sleeve. The couple decide not to go back to England, and end dancing in a cafe in the famous manner of the misfit trio in Jean Luc Godard's Bande a Parte (with Goldblum making up the numbers). Their future is suddenly wide open and whether they stay in Paris and stay together, or do neither of these things, for the first time in the entire film, they appear properly happy.

I mistook this earnest, thoughtful drama for a bit of fluff before I knew it was penned by Hanif Kureishi, the British author who has made his career out of documenting lower and upper middle class misery. And, by his recent standards, this almost is a bit of a romp.

Kureishi has a keen eye and a sharp ear for dialogue, which illuminates his characters and makes their troubles surprisingly affecting. He also shows skill in allowing the characters to slowly reveal themselves to us; the thumbnail stereotypes they first present as are expanded, and then destroyed, by film's end. Nick seems less a stodge then a rather patient man deeply in love with a difficult woman, and Meg shows that her bravado can both be easily punctured by the world and restored by her more down to earth partner.

These are rich characters, all the more remarkable when you consider their undoubted ordinariness, and they are well served by two veteran actors in peak form. As is Jeff Goldblum, who has found his best part in years as a vain, cerebral motor mouth.

Le Weekend is an unusual film, staking out complex turf between comedy, drama and romance. All of these elements are present, but not in their conventional form, which gives the piece a tone that is hard to categorise. Similarly, the overall message remains somewhat obscure. Are Nick and Meg breaking free? Showing that life goes on, even after retirement age? Or are they just running away, hiding from their problems, much as Morgan and Nick's deadbeat son have done?

No easy answers are provided, and the movie suggests that there are none to be found, anywhere. As you age, life doesn't get any easier, or clearer, but remains a constant problem to be grappled with. An idea that is both refreshing and depressing, all at once.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Five Things I Loved and Hated About 'House of Cards' Season 2

So there it was. Eight bucks, half an hour and I had a 'Netflix' account on my PS3.

This effort was for one thing, and one thing only. To watch the second season of the Netflix produced show 'House of Cards,' released on Friday/Saturday (depending on where you were in the world) in its entirety for a few days.

My partner and I were both up for a marathon. We came late to the first season - we didn't watch it till some months after it had aired in serial format - but we devoured it whole once we got into it. Evil congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), his alien wife Claire (Robin Wright) and a host of power crazed numbskulls, only too ready to get sucked into this alpha couple's schemes.

It could hardly be better.

We did it in two halves; six episodes on Saturday, seven on Sunday. All that's left now is the wash up... and the countdown to the next premium Netflix marathon!

Warning: Spoilers.


1. The Opening Ep.

Things had worked out pretty well for Frank by the end of the first season. His relentless scheming had landed him on the verge of the Vice Presidency, most of his enemies had been thwarted, he'd gotten away with murder and he'd even managed to lure his wife back from the right on photographer she'd run away with (briefly). But Season 2 upped the stakes immediately, pitching Frank back into conflict with the spunky journalist, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), he'd toyed with throughout Season 1. As she honed in on his lies and coverups, Frank suddenly took decisive action and bumped her off, a plot twist so outrageous I think I yelled at the screen. 'No! I can't believe that! Can you believe that? They can't do that!' But they did, and everyone who knew Zoe was smartly looking for a quiet place to hide. Advantage Frank, and the series beautifully set up.

2. Lucas Melts Down

It was unlikely that anything in the new episodes could have topped the story arc of Peter Russo, the likable and doomed pawn of Frank's play for the VP slot from Season 1. And unlikely it proved. But after Zoe's stunning exit, her half boyfriend Lucas' mental collapse gave a bit of heart and raw emotion to what is, otherwise, a pretty chilly programme. Tossing caution to the wind as he tries to find out what happened to his dearly departed, Lucas quickly finds himself caught in a downward spiral, rapidly running out of friends and credibility. Set up and jailed by the end of the first brace of episodes, Lucas tells his story to his former boss, the now retired newspaper man Tom Hammerschmidt. Bearded, red eyed and ruined, Lucas' reaction to Tom's article - 'You made me sound crazy!' - was an unforgettable moment.

3. Claire Loses Her Cool

Speaking of chilly, Frank's sepulchral wife Claire is so cold it's a wonder she isn't standing in the kitchen, humming. But this season showed that beneath her imperturbable exterior a passionate heart does beat, normally manifesting itself in some particularly vicious plan or comment. Witness the flabbergasting maneuver she pulls on a disgruntled former employee; a woman unwisely suing her for harassment, who also needs expensive pregnancy medication paid for by Claire's firm's health care plan. Not only does Claire have the woman's health coverage stopped but, when she is confronted about this, tells the pregnant woman calmly, 'I'm willing to let your baby wither and die inside you.' Suffice to say, Claire shortly gets what she wants. Another great moment arrives after Frank has been bested by his wealthy nemesis, Raymond Tusk. After Frank states that he wants revenge, Claire adds, 'And let's make him suffer,' with such intensity that if she had been staring at a piece of wood at the time, you imagine it would have caught fire. Bravura, boo-hiss villainy.

4. Freddie

Oh course, it's not all perverse fun. Sometimes things get out of hand, and there are plenty of bodies littering the roadside in both series as testament to the toxic effect the Underwood's have on most people that cross their path. And in Series 2 one person to cop a whack was Freddie, the well drawn supporting character (beautifully played by Reg E. Cathey) who runs the down at heel rib joint where Frank likes to hang out. As the media spotlight turns more heavily on Frank, a nasty secret from Freddie's past comes to light, with dire consequences both for him and his troubled son. Unlike most - all - of the other people in his life, Frank does genuinely seem to care about Freddie, so their subsequent breach carries a surprising emotional weight. And watching Freddie forced to sell his business and then walk down the street and out of the show is a rare poignant moment, amidst the shenanigans. 

5. Frank v. Tusk

Of course, Frank Underwood, FU to his friends, is the main game here and he lives up to the high expectations created by Spacey's first go round. Whether he's grinning affably while sweet talking someone he loathes, calmly lying to the President of the United States or pushing someone he used to be intimate with under a train, Spacey again seems to fully inhabit this oily skin. Throughout the Season, some of Frank's best moments come as he tangles with the wily Raymond Tusk, a super wealthy political busy body who is drawn like Warren Buffet's evil, fish head eating twin. Frank and Raymond cross paths repeatedly, and ever more aggressively, as they try and get in the way of each other's plans, with increasingly dramatic results. Frank throwing a steak offered by Tusk into a swimming pool is a comic highlight, while their final wit-matching in a service corridor before a crucial congressional hearing sums up the whole series in a few pointed sentences. With Frank installed as President by Season's end, you hope a re-match is on these cards for Season 3.


1. Wimp President

Ok, so Frank has quite a roll call of enemies; Raymond Tusk, Remy Danton, Jackie Sharp, Linda Vasquez, Janine Skorsky, Lucas Goodwin, Tom Hammerschmidt... and on, and on. And The President is written as really just one more pawn in Frank's game. The show isn't really set up to make them go head to head. But did he really have to be as dim as he is? Can't he see... anything that's going on? As soon as Frank comes in as VP his whole administration turns to shit! Doesn't he notice? One minute everything is calm, Frank comes in, everything turns bad. Surely even George W. Bush could connect those dots! Instead, this guy says, 'I'm counting on you to fix this mess Frank. I'm delegating you total authority, total independence and total everything else. You can tell everyone that whatever it is you're up to is in my name.' And then he goes off to nap. You want to give him a clip round the head and demand that he be a more formidable target. Frank rolls his eyes as the Prez leaves the room, and you don't blame him.

Don't list- Oh my god, not again?!

2. Mastermind?

On a parallel topic, some of Frank's plotting seems a little transparent this time. Part of the fun in Season 1 was trying to figure out what the end game was going to be; how would Frank's different schemes tie together into a self beneficial whole. But we know the answer from the jump in season 2. He clearly has his sights on the Presidency and there is a lack of subtlety about some of his means to this end; he champions dud strategic ideas (has any President, ever, willingly embraced a special prosecutor?), he tells obvious, disprovable lies and he engineers so many sackings and resignations from among the Presidents trusted staff that the White House starts to resemble a tomb. It gets so blatant that the President himself almost notices... and then changes his mind and puts Frank solely in charge of crucial policies x, y and z. 

3. Stamper In Circles

One of my favourite characters in HoC is Doug Stamper; Frank's quietly loyal, ruthless fixer. And, at the start of season 2, it seems that he is going to get a more central role this time around. As well as putting out fires for Frank all over the place, Stamper also becomes deeply fixated on the young call girl, Rachel, he helped conceal during Season 1. His relationship with her tantilises; does he love her? Hate her? View her as a surrogate mother? A surrogate daughter? Is it just his addictive personality? Does he want to help her, fuck her or just listen to her read Charles Dickens? This is complex, arresting stuff... which, unfortunately, doesn't really lead anywhere. Stamper goes around in a circle over this girl, alternately looking out for her and bullying her, and can never make up his mind what he wants to do with her. And still hasn't, when she finally clubs him over the head and makes a break for it. A disappointing fizzle that may re-kindle, in some fashion, next year.

4. The Gimmick

It says a lot that Frank doesn't talk direct to camera until some way into this season... and even more that you don't miss it. To me, it seems like the time on this device is up. Best play it straight in season four and restore that fourth wall. 'Nuff said.

5. Rush to the Finish Line

Maybe I was getting Netflix marathon fatigue, but it seemed like the last few episodes flashed by in a blur. So much ground was covered in the last two episodes in particular - The President goes from solid to unpopular to toxicity and impeachment in about twenty minutes - that I wondered why so much time was expended in the first half of the season on not very much. The end of the season is fun, but a whirlwind, which seems out of step with the shows calculating characters. The final ep also fell a bit flat, as things wrapped up very neatly for Frank. Surely some disgruntled loyalist of the President's could have made trouble? Most of them seemed to have some idea of what Frank was up to (always excepting the President himself, of course). Maybe they were just enjoying the ride too much, or were too busy watching their own backs. Congress men and women, even fake ones, are a busy bunch, Still, the finale played out with a disappointing lack of tension.

Despite these quibbles, the series was mostly very satisfying. I'll definitely be back for more next year... and be ruthlessly applying some of Frank's tricks on my corporate colleagues in the meantime.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Top 5: Great Philip Seymour Hoffman Performances

The news today was devastating: Philip Seymour Hoffman dead at 46. It's such a shock that it takes a while to sink in; the realisation that you will never again see a new PSH film.

What we have left are his collected works to date. His memory, and his fans, will be well served by this, as its a remarkable filmography. Everyone will have their favourites, these are 5 of mine:


Almost Famous

Playing real people is a tricky tightrope for actors. Play them too nice and they’re accused of hagiography, but push the boundaries of the characterisation and they get damned for not staying true to the real person’s spirit. And this is to say nothing of the technical aspects; mastering their accent, manner, foibles, catchphrases, tics and bad habits. This stands double for a man like the late music critic Lester Bangs, who has a legion of hardcore fans just waiting to stomp on any actor who fucks him up.  And Bangs only has a small, although crucial, part to play in this, Cameron Crowe’s ingratiating coming of age story, meaning that there’s even less scope for the performance to stray. But Hoffman nails his handful of scenes, giving us a quick blast of Bang’s talent, temper and passion. His world weary advice to the young journalist wannabe William Miller rings true, and not just for him: 


Boogie Nights

PSH wasn't a household name when this came out. Actually, almost none of the amazingly talented cast, nor the director, were when this exploded across the arthouse circuit in 1997. And Hoffman could very easily have gotten lost, given the large ensemble and the number of flashy parts that he was competing for attention with.  But for me, his Scotty J was one of the most memorable turns in the film, and a real standout in his career as a whole. Playing a scruffy, troubled, flaky misfit (the first three not traits he would revisit on screen too often) who has a closeted crush on handsome porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), Hoffman brings emotional weight to a part that may have been a footnote.  The pathetic hopefulness of his character – check the scene where he buys a flashy car like Diggler’s to try and impress him – and his dogged loyalty are still eye catching, all these years later. The old adage rings true; for a great actor, there are no small parts.


Mary and Max

One of Hoffman’s great strengths as an actor was his versatility, and this is on full display in his voice work in this wonderfully effecting, low budget animated feature. Hoffman plays Max, a New Yorker with Aspergers who somehow strikes up a pen-friendship with a young Australian girl thousands of miles away. Their letter writing – and package sending – over many years, recounted in alternating stretches of voice over, encompasses many ups and downs in the characters lives and touches on issues most animated films would hurry to avoid.  Hoffman’s voice is an unrecognisable, throaty rasp but he manages to impart a stunning range of emotions to his character’s monologues, a difficult task considering Max is mostly monotone and deadpan. The bittersweet final scenes – ‘You are my best friend… you are my only friend…’ – make me think about everything in life and movies that I love.


Synecdoche, New York

Some of PSH’s best performances came in the movies of the most cutting edge of contemporary directors, where it’s easy to imagine participants on both sides of the camera egged each other on. One of these, acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directing debut, provides him with a rich lead role and it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine any other actor pulling off so complex a part so well.  His Caden Cotard is a repressed, emotionally stunted playwright, struggling to come to grips with his latest theatrical epic and at war with all of the elements of his personal life. He writes himself into his play… and then writes himself, writing himself into his play… and so on down the rabbit hole. Meanwhile, his ex-wife may, or may not, have stolen his daughter away to Paris, the house he lives in is perpetually on fire and his depression may have killed all life on Earth. Cotard is surrounded by a huge retinue of people, but is entirely alone, and is unsure if any of the things he experiences are actually occurring. Is he crazy? Or just suffering from writer’s block? Is it all in his head?  Or just some of it? Considering how hard it is to describe this long, challenging film, imagine what it must have been like to portray this character. There are many balls to juggle here, and each one of them presents a conundrum. But Hoffman rises to the task in a million subtle ways, becoming a living embodiment of Kaufman’s endless parade of ideas in the process.


The Master

Hoffman’s fifth go round with Paul Thomas Anderson gave the writer/director a chance to create for him a really juicy part, and the results are nothing short of spectacular. Playing Lancaster Dodd, a pseudo-mystic loosely modeled on L. Ron Hubbard, PSH appears about half an hour into the movie and lights up the screen from the moment he describes himself as ‘a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but, above all… a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.’ Although this movie is not a one man show, and part of the excitement of watching Hoffman in his finest hour is witnessing his bombastic ego-maniac crash head first into the alcoholic WWII veteran played by Joaquin Phoenix (also in career best form).  Their unlikely friendship powers the movie and the screen is almost too small to contain it; sparks fly, insults and bodyblows are traded, psychological depths are plunged. Witness the amazing scene when the two meet for the first time and Dodd interrogates his new acolyte about his life, for just one example. But Hoffman has countless great moments of his own – singing to a room of naked society groupies, shooting down a critic from the press, changing his life theories on the fly – and delivers a wonderful, layered, intellectually stimulating performance that will be dissected for as long as movies are screened.  Aptly, The Master shows a true master at the top of his game, and it is for all of us a tragedy that this would prove one of the last times we would see it. You’d have to think he had many great performances left.

Goodnight sweet prince.